Van Nuys was born Joan Carol Atkinson in Tarentum, Pennsylvania on April 13, 1929. Her father, an itinerant salesman and alcoholic, was convinced that music was the key to getting his family out from under the weight of poverty. Her older sister, Betty, was already considered a violin prodigy when Joan started learning the violin at age six. Although not a prodigy like her sister, she continued her studies and became an accomplished classical violinist.
She married Robert van Nuys in 1950. They settled in western Pennsylvania and had three daughters. In the 1960s and 1970s, she performed with the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra.
Joan began writing late in life after her daughter Carol moved to Norway in 1973; she compiled Carol’s many adventures into short story form. Although not a fan of the romance genre (she never read a romance novel before deciding to write one), she thought it might be an easy way to begin a writing career. In the early-1980s, she wrote a traditional romance featuring a Norwegian hero that got her an agent; however, the story was rejected by major publishers. She persisted and wrote two more romances under the pseudonym “Marianna Essex” that were published by Signet Books. Joan found the format for the boilerplate romance novels to be too restrictive so she turned to writing the more challenging historical romances. Over a period of seven years, she wrote seven critically successful and popular historical romance novels published by Leisure Romance and Avon Books. Some of these books were translated into other languages, and she attained a worldwide following. She died on May 20, 2000, after a brief battle with colon cancer. Her novels are still widely available on the Internet.