U MAG COVER: Romance author Leisa Rayven (real name Leisa Barry-Smith). Shot at El'Rosais. Photo Mark Cranitch.
U MAG COVER: Romance author Leisa Rayven (real name Leisa Barry-Smith). Shot at El'Rosais. Photo Mark Cranitch.

The mum behind the best-selling romance novels

Since releasing her debut novel five years ago, Brisbane author Leisa Barry-Smith (pen name Leisa Rayven) has made the transition from struggling theatre performer to global phenomenon

The Brisbane author, who writes under the pen name Leisa Rayven, is one of 300 authors sitting in alphabetical order at tables spread across a ballroom the size of two football fields.

At her table is a neat stack of her novels piled up behind her. She's nervously spinning a pen between her fingers hoping someone, anyone, will want her to sign one of those books.

It's May 2015 and Barry-Smith is in Dallas, in the US, at her first book signing. She's a long way from the steamy cane fields of Bundaberg where she grew up, but her agent wanted her to see it for herself. And when she did, she couldn't believe her eyes.

"I sat there thinking, 'I hope someone comes'," says Barry-Smith, 48, smiling, when U on Sunday visits her home in Brisbane's northern suburbs.

Leisa Barry-Smith with fans in Rio
Leisa Barry-Smith with fans in Rio

"I was just hoping I wasn't going to sit there all day and nobody would show up to get their book signed. Then the doors opened."

Her face lights up. She's describing the moment she realised she had become a worldwide phenomenon.

"Thousands of people started coming in and almost immediately I had people coming over to my table … and then more people, then some more, then they started lining up and then the line went down the aisle and around the corner.

"I saw hundreds of people (that day), a girl had come from France to see me, another from Colombia and a girl from Mexico … that is when I went, 'OK, this is awesome'."

Years on, Barry-Smith still can't believe how she, a once perpetually broke freelance theatre performer, secured a six-figure book deal with a global publishing company to become a best-selling author who has sold almost a million books worldwide.

"Every day something happens that makes me go, 'that's amazing' … it blows my mind regularly."

It was Barry-Smith's debut romance novel, Bad Romeo, released in December 2014, followed months later by its sequel, Broken Juliet, in April 2015, which shot her to fame.

The new adult novels were picked up and published by global giants, Macmillan, and went on to form a trilogy, known as the Starcrossed Series and include Wicked Heart (May 2016).

leisa rayven books for feature
leisa rayven books for feature

They've since been published in multiple languages, including Polish, Hebrew and German, released in 15 countries with talks of movie deals.

She's since independently released a second series: Mister Romance, Professor Feelgood and her latest book, Doctor Love, is set for release at the end of this year.

While she keeps a relatively low profile in Australia, Barry-Smith has become wildly popular overseas, with huge followings in the US, Poland, Germany, Italy and Hungary, even picking up nominations in German and Polish book awards.

But it's in Brazil where she has an entirely new level of fame after being listed in the top 15 best-selling authors in 2016.

In Brazil, she makes news headlines, requires security escorts and has fans screaming her name. After a visit there, she left with a suitcase full of gifts from fans. They sit proudly in a glass cabinet in her home.

"These are candles someone made for me, they made the scents especially to match the leading characters of the book," she smiles, quickly picking up the next item. "This is a Christmas decoration made out of little pieces of my book," she says, holding a bauble.

There's more: miniature book covers made into jewellery, wall hangings, coasters, mugs with her face on the side - and she says there are even more gifts in boxes in storage.

"It's insane," she laughs. "I can't believe people would go to all that trouble."

It's an unexpected level of fandom for a woman who lives a relatively quiet life in a modest home in the 'burbs with husband, Jason Barry-Smith, 49, and their sons Xander, 15, and Kyan, 14.

Leisa Barry-Smith with her husband Jason and sons Xander and Kyan
Leisa Barry-Smith with her husband Jason and sons Xander and Kyan

And nobody is more shocked than her at how she came to be a worldwide phenomenon with a universal appeal, from writing a juicy love story at home in pyjamas.

As she stands in the kitchen making a cup of tea, dimly lit fairly lights are strewn over a nearby book shelf. It would be fair to assume a string of lights twinkling in the middle of the day would contribute the most X-factor to any home.

But not this one. Not the home of two prominent Queensland performers, with Jason a talented opera singer and big player in Australia's performing arts scene and Barry-Smith, who as well as being an author, is a singer, dancer and musical theatre performer. It makes sense this particular home is full of theatre right from Jason's colourful welcome as he throws open the door to me, to the sparkling decor where sequined ornaments sit on tables and cupboard doors are lined in glitter panels.

"I can't get enough glitter," she beams, showing off shoes bedazzled with jewels.

So, as she steps out for U on Sunday's photo shoot in a sequined burgundy gown, statement jewels and glittering nails, surrounded by the pink floral walls at El' Rosa cafe in James St, Fortitude Valley, Barry-Smith looks right at home.

Leisa Barry-Smith at El'Rosa. Picture: Mark Cranitch
Leisa Barry-Smith at El'Rosa. Picture: Mark Cranitch

How she came to be here starts way before the glamour and fame she has now, as she comfortably poses in front of the cameras. It begins from a humble childhood in Bundaberg where she grew up alongside her two older brothers, Chris, 52, and John, 50, on her family's cane farm near Mon Repos Beach with their parents Valerie, 83, and Bernard, 84.

It's a story that also begins with a young girl who spent her primary school days going to class with no shoes and exploring the open landscapes that surrounded her. "I think that's where I got my imagination from, I didn't have that many people to talk to out there back then so I made up stories in my mind," she muses.

Despite spending her teenage years at Kepnock State High School in Bundaberg without a drama department, she secured a spot to study acting and directing at Queensland University of Technology. She also joined the Queensland Youth Choir, where she met Jason in 1990, the man she'd later marry in 1995 (but we'll get to their love story later).

With scarce acting jobs around, she took a job as a tour guide at Movie World before five years as a morning show producer on channels 9 and 7. But the stage was where she wanted to be, so eventually she quit work and became a full-time performer.

"I toured around the place doing musicals … Jason was also touring so we hardly got to see each other." In 2002, her world started to change.

Jason had won Opera Foundation Australia's Italian Opera Award, and he was given a five-month residency in Rome at the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma. They packed up their lives in Brisbane and moved to Italy for six months. Between wandering the streets of Rome and filling her free time reading books, Barry-Smith was inspired to write.

"Jason was working a lot and I was alone so I was getting a bit bored, there's only so many times you can see the Trevi Fountain and the Colosseum," she laughs.

She found a little English book store near the Trevi and couldn't get enough books. The more she read, the more it fuelled her desire to write.

Leisa Barry-Smith signing her books
Leisa Barry-Smith signing her books

"I think I was reading a Stephen King book - I love Stephen King - and I got this idea in my head for a story, a paranormal horror story," she says.

"I'd write all over the place, I'd go out for the day to the local park and write a story about the kids on the carousel, or I'd write in coffee shops."

After six months, she had piles of handwritten notebooks full of various musings, from short stories and poems to the beginnings of novels.

"That's where it started and I felt I had to write every day," says Barry-Smith, who, in the early days, was writing horror and thriller stories. "I wrote rubbish just for my own enjoyment."

But a couple of years later, after watching Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet at home one night, that "rubbish" turned into the beginnings of her debut novel.

"I'd studied Romeo and Juliet in high school and again in acting school, I'd performed scenes from it and I'd always hated Romeo," she laughs. "I thought 'what a dick', he's a whiny baby who really annoyed me, so I thought, what would happen if you wrote him differently?" So she did.

Barry-Smith uploaded chapters of the story - then titled The Diva Diaries - on to fan fiction websites. Her story was set on Broadway in New York (despite Barry-Smith never having been there at that stage) and followed fictional young American celebrity actors and lovers, Ethan Holt and Cassie Taylor. Fans were hanging on every word, waiting for her next instalment.

"It just blew up and got lots of readers, people started saying I should publish it and I was always like, should I though?" she says with a shrug.

A selection of books by Leisa Barry-Smith
A selection of books by Leisa Barry-Smith

"I was happy doing it for myself. I wasn't ever thinking about making a career out of it."

Whether it was intentional or not, Barry-Smith had tapped into the exploding world of romance literature and was riding on the coat-tails of the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon. If she didn't realise she was on to something, her friends did, and one - fellow romance author Alice Clayton - handed Barry-Smith's manuscript to an agent in New York.

"I didn't know my friend had given my manuscript to this agent until I got a call at 11pm one night, I had no idea what time it was in the States," she says.

"She told me she was talking to my friend at the party and she was halfway through my manuscript and wanted to let me know she really loved it and wanted to talk to me further about it."

That agent was Christina Hogrebe from Jane Rotrosen Agency in New York, who went on to represent Barry-Smith (and still does) and secure her a book deal with Macmillan Publishers in the US.

"I told my parents (an agent was representing me) and they immediately thought I was being scammed, they thought it was the Nigerian prince scam," she laughs. Barry-Smith tells the story with the flair of the performer she is. She switches into an American accent, mimicking Hogrebe during the negotiations, and re-enacts her reaction when she was offered a $450,000 three-book deal as a debut author.

"Jason fell off the bed. I fell off the bed. And we were like 'OH MY GOD!' " she says, flailing her hands near her head. "I screamed so loudly that the neighbours came over to see if I was OK."

Her debut books - Bad Romeo and B roken Juliet - received a worldwide release in multiple languages and took her around the world. As much as she was just a school mum who'd written romance novels from her Brisbane home, she'd also reached a new level of celebrity.

Romance author Leisa Barry-Smith.
Romance author Leisa Barry-Smith.

She recounts the time she realised that fame at Brazil's popular International Book Biennial in Rio in 2016. "I was sitting around in the hotel room watching telly and I came on the news, 'And here is Leisa Rayven who has come to the country for the Biennial'," she says, mimicking the voice of a newsreader. "When I got to the fair, I was walking around this place and it is packed … I walk in and they say, 'Here's your security guards and your golf cart' … I was thinking, this is really not necessary, everyone calm down.

"Then suddenly this scream happened and I turned around and there's this group of girls waving and I'm like, 'for me?', and they nodded and screamed again. Everyone brought me a gift of some sort, whether it was something they'd made or they'd cooked."

She admits 50 Shades "absolutely" had an impact on her success. "It brought women back to reading in droves, in absolute droves," she says.

"I think if 50 Shades hadn't happened, I don't think I would have a publishing contract."

And it appears she has a huge fan in 50 Shades author E.L. James herself. To her 1.25 million or so followers, she tweeted: "Loved. Loved. Loved #BadRomeo & #BrokenJuliet. I now have a serious book hangover @LesiaRayven. Thank you for all the feels. <3"

 

A tweet sent by E.L James.
A tweet sent by E.L James.

Even though Barry-Smith says her books aren't erotica, but romance ("with only a couple of love scenes"), she says their emotionally charged storylines keep her fans, particularly women, wanting more.

It could be said her passion comes from her own devoted relationship with Jason, who is indubitably his wife's biggest fan. He jokes his first read of Barry-Smith's foray into romance writing was "very stimulating" but says, unlike old-fashioned romance novels, hers were filled with as much humour as they were passion.

"I'm a big fan of her writing … it's not just pure entertainment, although they are hugely entertaining, particularly because her voice as a writer is so similar to her voice as a human being, which is already naturally amusing and quick-witted," he says.

Theirs is a love that's endured personal challenges during their 24-year marriage, including fertility issues and Barry-Smith's struggle with severe endometriosis. But as they sit arm-in-arm on the couch, they're still those young teens in love.

"I was a loud obnoxious drama student," she says, bluntly looking at Jason, about the time they met. He continues: "And I was an uptight, very posh person who could speak other languages and was one of those annoying people who pronounces words in other languages the way they should be."

Barry-Smith adds: "Nobody thought we'd last."

Just as their love story defied the odds, so has Barry-Smith's career as an author.

So for now, as she watches the story unfold, she's ready to write the next chapter.



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