Savanna Walker

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All Patience Jordan, heroine of Vanessa Riley’s new historical romance, A Duke, the Lady, and a Baby, wants is to recover her child, Lionel, and escape back to the West Indies. After her English husband died, his uncle had Patience thrown into Bedlam in an attempt to gain custody of Lionel and control over the family fortune. But when Lionel’s actual guardian, the powerful duke and dashing soldier Busick Strathmore appears on the scene, Patience’s plans are thrown into chaos. We talked to Riley about what inspired the unusual shifts in perspective in this story, Patience’s signature dish and what she wishes she could see more of in historical romance.

Were there any real-life inspirations for Patience or Busick?
Patience is modeled after young women, Black or biracial young heiresses whose plantation or wealthy merchant fathers sent them to Europe for education and marriage. Jane Austen memorializes these women in the character of Miss Lambe in Sanditon.

Busick is modeled after the Marquess of Anglesey, whose leg was amputated in battle. He went on to live a robust, full life, not letting his injury stop him. The improved mechanical limb is named after him.

You shift between first-person perspective for Patience and third-person for Busick. Why did you decide to structure the book this way, and how did you decide which perspective worked best for which character?
I’ve been reading a lot more historical fiction, so I might be influenced by that, but Patience’s world is one that is seldom written about and, I believe, easily misunderstood. Putting the reader in her skin centers the reader not purely on the struggle but her celebration of survival. I want you to understand at your core the consequences of her going against patriarchal society, to feel her fears and how she learns to be her most authentic self.

Busick’s perspective is one most Regency readers understand. He’s rich, commanding and influential. Yet, I write him in close-third person so that the reader can feel his struggles with his war injuries, maintaining his dignity in a world that had little room for amputees and the difficulty of reinventing his life when all he knew was combat.

“Only happy women bake. Pick up your cannonballs.”

There’s a very sweet thread throughout this story of Patience’s coconut bread and how much Busick and his men enjoy it. I was delighted to find that you included the recipe at the end of the book! Where did you find the recipe, and how did you decide that this would be Patience’s signature dish?
The coconut bread is an adaptation of a fire- or hearth-roasted bread that my grandmother might have cooked early in the morning in Port of Spain, Trinidad. When she has an army living in her house, men who’ve been deprived hearty meals on the battlefield, I can see Patience wanting to give them a piece of her island home to make them feel welcome in her British home. It also becomes a quiet way to get them to respect her boundaries. Only happy women bake. Pick up your cannonballs.

What aspect of Regency life do you wish historical romance explored more?
I would love to see more stories on how the middle class lived. This was a thriving sector of the British economy filled with tradesmen and artisans. These men and women lived with the subtle tension of who gets to succeed and move up the social ladder. So many interesting tales are not being told because of our intense focus on the most privileged in society.

If Patience and Busick were alive in 2020, what jobs do you think they would have? Would Busick still be a soldier?
Patience would either own a chain of bakeries or be a recruiter for the FBI. Busick would be a military man, a chief of staff or heading the Veteran’s Administration.

I was fascinated by your depiction of Busick’s experience of being an amputee during this period of time. What was most helpful for you in researching this, and did you find anything that surprised you?
Reading about the life of Marquess of Anglesey and how he survived a battlefield amputation and how he worked with inventor James Potts to improve artificial limbs is mind-blowing. You often wonder how, in a time when some in medicine believed in bloodletting or that one could have too much blood, advances such as artificial limbs were made.

What was the hardest part of this book to get right? What part came the easiest?
The hardest part is making sure to deliver all of the emotions and angst that the characters are enduring and also keeping the book balanced with humor and fun. These are two people that are broken and that’s not humorous, but they are both wonderfully human. I hope that I can sensitively portray their complexities. We are not one thing but a mix of emotion and humor and love.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of A Duke, the Lady, and a Baby.


What books have you been reading and loving lately?
I’ve been getting in my fill of rom-coms with Farrah Rochon’s The Boyfriend Project and Kwana Jackson’s Real Men Knit. I have loved Kristan Higgins’ Always the Last to Know, and Beatriz Williams’ Along the Infinite Sea. Complete spectrums of emotions from these wonderful authors.

What’s next for you?
I’m working on the second book in the Rogues and Remarkable Women series, Jemina’s book, An Earl, The Girl, and a Toddler. I always wanted to do an amnesia story, though I might be forgetting something else about this like, say, a Blackamoor barrister turned earl who’s a single dad.

I’m also working on a historical fiction about the life of Dorothy Kirwan Thomas, Island Queen (May 2021). This is a woman who rose from enslavement to become one of the wealthiest women in the world. It should blow the minds of everyone who only see 19th century Black people in the role of slaves. It should add another chapter to the complex story of what is known of Black women in history. We were more than victims and more complicated than the superwoman, superhuman tropes. Dorothy was beautiful, Black, strong and flawed, yet she found the faith and courage to win.

Vanessa Riley discusses the unusual perspective shifts in her new historical romance, A Duke, the Lady, and a Baby, and opens up about what she wishes she could see more of in the genre.
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In her Union of the Rakes series, romance author Eva Leigh glories in traditional rom-com tropes while also using them to tell stories about less well-known aspects of Regency England, much in the way her London Underground series delved into the darker corners of the period to explore the lives of criminals, sex workers and smugglers. Last year’s My Fake Rake dived into the burgeoning world of naturalism and anthropology with a delicious friends-to-lovers-via-makeover romance.

In her latest release, Would I Lie to the Duke, Leigh takes readers to the exciting arena of Regency commerce and industry with the love story of Noel, Duke of Rotherby, and ambitious Jessica McGale, who masquerades as a lady to try and save her family’s soap business. We talked to Leigh about the tricky dynamics of having one half of a couple lie to the other and which ’80s movies inspired her latest romance.

You’ve said that this series, the Union of the Rakes, was inspired by ’80s movies. Which specific movies or tropes from that era inspired Would I Lie to the Duke?
The whole Union of the Rakes series was inspired by The Breakfast Club, and I’ve taken a little creative license with having my five boys meet at Eton for punishment in the library. That wasn’t a typical form of punishment for students at the time, but I figured perhaps the headmaster might make an exception for these guys. We’ve got the brain (whom we met in My Fake Rake), the weird one, the criminal, the jock (his book is the third in the series) and the popular one, who is the titular duke in Would I Lie to the Duke.

For Would I Lie To the Duke, I was mostly inspired by the 1988 film Working Girl, starring Melanie Griffith, Harrison Ford and Sigourney Weaver. I also took some inspiration from the 1987 Michael J. Fox movie, The Secret of My Success. Both films have a talented, intelligent outsider creating a fictitious identity to break into the world of high-powered business, and, yep, shenanigans soon follow! I suggest playing Yello’s “Oh Yea” on repeat throughout your reading of the book.

“The tolerances for heroines’ behavior are often much slimmer than for heroes.”

In the acknowledgements at the beginning of this book, you thank your editor Nicole Fischer for helping you write “a romance, and not a thinly-veiled critique of capitalism.” What moments or plotlines did she help you steer away from, and how did you eventually strike the right balance?
Ha! It’s true—I spent a lot of page space talking about the repercussions of capitalist business, including the origins of wealth and power, and the people who are often exploited (and enslaved) in order to create a titled, leisured class. Which may be relevant and important, but going on for chapters about it can take the focus off what this book is supposed to be—a romance. So I scaled back these scenes, but I do hope that what I have included still makes us think about who and what we lionize, and what the human cost is in the making of wealth.

You’ve announced McCameron’s book already, but will Rowe and Curtis, the other two members of the Union of the Rakes, get a love story of their own?
You will be seeing quite a lot of Rowe and Curtis in McCameron’s book! I ultimately opted to include their story as a secondary plot rather than give them their whole book because I myself do not identify as LGBTQIA+ and felt that it would not be appropriate for me to write a POV character from a viewpoint that belongs to someone else, someone whose voice we need more of in historical romance. There are some amazing historical authors writing LGTBQIA+ books, including Cat Sebastian, Olivia Waite and K.J. Charles, to name a few. I hope we get to see more ownvoices historical romance.



Having one half of the main couple lie to the other can be a very tricky thing to pull off in a romance. When it came to Jess’ masquerade as a noblewoman, were there any actions you knew you could never have her take? How did that aspect of the book complicate her and Noel’s romance?
I knew that Jess could never specifically set out to seduce Noel in order to achieve her aim, yet at the same time, the attraction between them had to be irresistible, so walking that line between “I have to keep lying to you” and “I really, really want you” was definitely on my mind throughout. I also knew that the tolerances for heroines’ behavior are often much slimmer than for heroes, and there might be a quick condemnation of her and her actions, so I had to ground her decision to lie in desperation. She has to keep lying to Noel to save her family, and her family’s business, and the fact that she has to be deceitful is agonizing to her.

Noel is fairly rare among romance heroes in that he enjoys being submissive to Jess in bed, not just on occasion, but for a majority of their sexual encounters. What interested you about writing this aspect of their relationship? Was there anything about Noel and Jess in particular that led you to flip the stereotype of the domineering duke on its head?
I really do enjoy inversion, especially the exploration of gender power dynamics. For many readers of historical romance, dukes have become the byword for desirable heroes, and I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting if we took a man who had nearly unlimited privilege and power, and explored what it means to invert that? And wouldn’t it be interesting if the person who had power over him was a woman who was also a commoner? It’s a mutually agreed upon relationship, and evolves as they come to know and trust each other. Everything has to be consensual, too. That’s something I feel strongly about—enthusiastic consent.

Please tell me everything about the moment where a man basically pitches a Regency version of Twitter. How did it come about? Did you ever think it wasn’t going to work?
The funny thing was that, because the book is inspired by ’80s films, I worried that throwing in Regency Twitter was going to confuse things, but in the end, I thought it was just so silly and funny, I couldn’t resist.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Would I Lie to the Duke.

What job do you think Noel would have enjoyed if he hadn’t been born a duke? Would he have been a business owner like Jess?
Noel is pretty but clever, and I think he would have been a pretty awesome event planner, or maybe a theatrical director, at the center of the action, calling the shots, with a bit of showmanship thrown in.

Did you always know that Lady Ferris would be your next heroine? Was she as fun to write as she is to read on the page?
Yes! Lady Farris was always going to be the heroine of the third Union of the Rakes book, which has Major Duncan McCameron as the hero, who is 12 years her junior. The clue to the inspiration for their book is found in their names . . . I did really enjoy writing her, because she’s in her forties, like me, and has given her last fuck, which is an attitude I truly respect.

What’s next for you?
McCameron’s book, Waiting for a Scot Like You, comes out February 23, 2021. There will also be a Union of the Rakes novella that follows a character we meet in Waiting for a Scot Like You, which is inspired by an iconic ’80s film—which I won’t reveal here! Also, I have some other projects in the works, but I can’t say too much about them . . . yet! So long as there’s always more chocolate and coffee, I’ll have more stories.

In her Union of the Rakes series, romance author Eva Leigh glories in traditional rom-com tropes while also using them to tell stories about less well-known aspects of Regency England, much in the way her London Underground series delved into the darker corners of the period to explore the lives of criminals, sex workers and […]
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Lexi Blake’s work runs the gamut of contemporary romance, from paranormal and suspense to more gently paced small-town stories. Her latest book, Bayou Baby, may be set in the small town of Papillon, Louisiana, but its family secrets, surprise inheritances and forbidden love make it just as thrilling as her previous works. We talked to Blake about her inspirations for Papillon, whose side she would pick in her main couple’s biggest disagreement and the surprising third POV character who unlocked the story for her.

Your work spans a lot of different romance subgenres. What do you like most about writing a small-town romance? Do you find that your writing changes at all when you’re working in this subgenre?
I think small-town romance fits me really well because the strongest theme in my work is about found family, and that’s super easy to do with a small town. I love the idea that the town becomes a character itself. I think I use softer language when writing a small town. Those books have a dreamier quality to them.

"I think every family has an Aunt Irene who just tells it like it is and takes no gruff from anyone."

Most romances tend to stick to the two leads’ perspectives, but Bayou Baby gives us scenes from the perspective of Celeste, Harrison’s aunt. Did you always know that you would tell part of this story from Celeste's point of view? What did that choice open up for you as a writer?
I started writing it without Celeste’s POV. She was a straight-on villain. That’s when I got stuck. When I get blocked, I’ve learned it’s almost always because I’ve skipped a step. In this case that step was Celeste having her say. I think if you don’t get in her head, it’s hard to believe that she could change. Oddly enough, Celeste was the character I felt most while writing the book. She’s gone through a lot and she’s in a fight with her past and her own grief. I think the book is richer for having Celeste’s POV.

Did you come up with more backstory for Seraphina’s great-aunt Irene than readers eventually get in the book? Were there any other hilarious bits about her that didn’t make it into the final edit?
Great Aunt Irene is the old woman I think a lot of us want to become. Maybe with fewer cats. She had a lot of cats, but she lived life on her own terms. I think every family has an Aunt Irene who just tells it like it is and takes no gruff from anyone. I think a lot of her backstory is in the letter that accompanies her will. But I certainly could see Aunt Irene wrestling a couple of gators in her younger days.

Wes Beaumont, Seraphina’s childhood best friend and Harrison’s cousin, is a complicated figure in the book. How do you personally feel about Wes—do you think you would like him if you met him in real life?
I think Wes is perfectly charming and likely a good friend, but like some men, he views Seraphina as something he can earn. When she turns him down, he has a bad reaction. Wes is that guy who says he’s a friend, but he’s secretly in love, and when the romantic link is rejected, the friendship is over. If he’d stayed in town, I do believe he would have used the pregnancy to coerce a marriage. However, he learns something before he dies. He grows while he’s gone, and that’s important, too. People can change and though Wes dies tragically, his turnaround has a deep and lasting impact on his family.

Seraphina and Harrison have a major disagreement over whether Seraphina should disclose the identity of her son Luc’s father. When you began drafting this moment, did you find yourself more on one character’s side than the other?
Yes, and some of my beta readers totally argued with me about it. I’m 100% Team Sera on this one. It’s her story to tell and no one else’s. She’s the one with the most to lose, and honestly, that family has been hard for her to deal with for years. She’s got legitimate fears. In this case Harry’s need to be the “good guy” leads to trouble. He wants everyone to get along and the world to be this perfect place, but Sera knows better.


Did you base Papillon, Louisiana, on any real-life small towns? Did it have any fictional inspirations?
It’s not based on any particular town, but it was inspired by my best friend’s childhood. She grew up in southeastern Texas, very close to Louisiana, and has such a love for that area. On the fictional front I think Stars Hollow, Connecticut, is always an inspiration. That’s the setting of “Gilmore Girls” for the uninitiated. It’s one of those places you just wish existed. I would absolutely live there.

What books, movies or TV shows have been getting you through the pandemic?
I’ve definitely gone to my favorite authors for comfort. I recently read Rebecca Zanetti’s Disorderly Conduct and loved it. It’s another small-town book. And Jen Armentrout’s new fantasy From Blood and Ash. I’ve watched Eurovision more times than I’m willing to admit and am willing to send stuffed lions to Netflix to get them to do a follow-up for Dan Stephens’s character. I want someone to play “Jaja Ding Dong”! As for TV, I do a lot of binge-watching old favorites right now. I’ve rewatched “Parks and Recreation” and “The Office,” and now we’re working our way through “The Big Bang Theory.”

Is there a trope or setting you haven’t explored yet in your writing that you’d love to use one day?
Oh, so many settings! I love to travel—this year has been rough on me—and I like to spend some time in the places I want to write about. I’ve spent a lot of time in New Orleans, which is probably why I set many books in that part of the country. London and New York are settings I’m super comfy with. I live in Dallas so North Texas is a big setting for me. I had trips planned for Romania and Scotland this year. Both were cancelled for obvious reasons, but I hope to get to go and potentially write about both those places. I’m super excited to announce that all of my books for the foreseeable future will be set in my backyard. I know that sucker like the back of my hand now! Also, the squirrels have real drama.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Bayou Baby.

What’s next for you?
I’ve got the last book in The Forgotten series coming up in September, and I’m super excited for that. It’s called No Love Lost and it ties up a bunch of loose ends in my Masters and Mercenaries world and sets up for a new series. In December, I’ve got the third Butterfly Bayou book—Bayou Dreaming. It’s Zep and Roxie’s book and it’s a lot of fun.

Author photo by Annie Ray/Passion Pages.

Lexi Blake’s work runs the gamut of contemporary romance, from paranormal and suspense to more gently paced small-town stories. Her latest book, Bayou Baby, may be set in the small town of Papillon, Louisiana, but its family secrets, surprise inheritances and forbidden love make it just as thrilling as her previous works. We talked to […]
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Lady Charlotte “Lottie” Wentworth hates Ethan Ridley, Viscount Amesbury, for making her a laughingstock back when she was a sheltered debutante. Ethan wants to make amends when they cross paths five years later, but Lottie is single-mindedly pursuing a marriage of convenience to escape her father’s attempt to pawn her off to the man of his choosing. But as it becomes clear that Ethan truly has changed and Lottie begins to value his friendship and support, she wonders if her carefully constructed plans will truly satisfy her.

We spoke with debut author Bethany Bennett about how she finally nailed Any Rogue Will Do’s tricky plot progression, whether she hates mornings as much as Lottie does and what comes next.

There's a really cute running bit in this romance about how Lottie is the farthest thing from a morning person, to the point that Ethan learns to not even interact with her until she's had enough tea. Are you a morning person or a night owl?
Every snarky thought Lottie has about mornings I would proudly wear on a T-shirt. When my husband brings me coffee in bed, I fall in love with him all over again.

If I could, I’d be a night owl and not move from my pillow palace until well after 10 a.m. However, life has a way of forcing you to do things you’d rather not. In my case, that means peopling before noon. These days I’ve adapted to life with a young child, so I’ve flipped my natural schedule 180 degrees. In retaliation, my system demands dangerous amounts of caffeine to cope.

Speaking of mornings, if they were suddenly sent to the present day, what types of coffee drinks do you think Ethan and Lottie would love? Or would Lottie never abandon her beloved tea?
I think for their day-to-day wake up routine, they’d stick with tea. But if they were to walk into a modern coffee shop on a date, they’d choose an independently owned espresso joint with fair trade coffee, because they’d be big into the shop local/shop small movement. Lottie would splurge on a mocha with all the trimmings and torment Ethan by licking the whipped cream. Ethan would keep it simple with a breve (espresso with steamed half-and-half). He’d think the foam art on the top of the cup was a waste of time and effort since he planned to ruin it by drinking the thing, but he wouldn’t say so to the barista because Lottie would squeeze his hand in a silent reminder to not growl at strangers. They’d tip big.

Both Lottie and Ethan are devoted landowners and farmers, and they bond over their shared interest in improving their holdings. Where does one go to research how a country estate was run in the Regency?
I disappeared into a research rabbit warren on the internet. None of that information really ended up in the book, but for a while there I got grossed out every day over historical treatments for livestock ailments. Thankfully, there are so many blogs and archives online, compiled by far smarter people than myself who truly know their stuff, so it’s fairly easy to cherry-pick information.

The Regency period was a time of upheaval for agriculture, as factories and industry began to make their imprint on the economic landscape. I wanted Ethan’s goal of opening a local brewery to focus on controlling the supply chain and turning toward a production/retail endeavor, because that was the future of their economy. Ethan could see the way the country was changing, instead of holding onto the way it was always done.

I am extremely curious as to what Cal and Ethan thought of each other when they first met! And why do you think they're such good friends?
This is very much opposites attract, crossing paths with a white-knight complex. At first Ethan was probably intimidated by Cal’s polish, but stayed in his orbit to learn how to deal with society. Ethan could follow along in Cal’s wake as he tried to fit in with the ton. Cal saw someone who needed him and didn’t judge him for the scandals of his father.

I think Ethan appreciates Cal for being a loyal, steady friend who accepts him wherever he’s at, while always encouraging healthy growth. Cal has a knack for recognizing the good in someone, and we know our hero is very much a good guy at his core.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Any Rogue Will Do.

Ethan and Lottie go through such a lovely progression from enemies to friends to lovers. What was structuring that evolution like for you as a writer? Did you move around any events or developments in their relationship while drafting? Or did you realize you had to add certain moments to make those transitions work?
Man, how brilliant would it be if I could say that all flowed like honey and worked from the beginning? I equate my first round of edits to hacking through a jungle with a machete. It wasn’t until I was working with my editor that I was able to match emotional arcs with romantic arcs and then pair everything with that series of tropes.

I wrote each scene on a 3-by-5-inch notecard and shuffled them on my bed until a new progression of events made sense. The end result speaks to my editor’s talent for helping me see how the structure of the story should work. This book was a crash course in so many craft elements. I’m still very new at this, and I’ll never stop learning.

"Basically, if there are people kissing after 1810, sign me up."

When did you first come up with the backstory for Lottie's parents? I thought it was really interesting to read a romance where a couple's overwhelming love for each other was actually a problem and not a perfect and holy thing, forever amen.
With Lottie’s father emotionally paralyzed by grief for years, it made sense that they’d been a love match. From there it developed very organically.

When you delve into child-rearing practices among the upper classes during that period, you see something drastically different from our modern households. My heart always hurts for those children and everything the parents missed out on. I wondered how that kind of emotional-outsider experience could damage a person, especially someone who already knew she was a second-rate citizen because of her gender.

I was delighted to read a romance where the lady does the groveling! Was that always the plan?
Absolutely. I’m a firm believer that everyone in a relationship needs to acknowledge their baggage and apologize for any pain they cause.

Lottie is so entrenched in a certain plan, she misses what’s right in front of her. However, the time period comes into play here. The act of altering her course isn’t just about switching to Plan B. Legally, it meant giving up all control. Because of her father, it had financial repercussions that might not hurt just her, but the man she loved and everyone he cared about. That is not only a change, but taking an enormous risk. For someone we could lovingly refer to as a “control enthusiast,” it would be terrifying.

But the lady certainly can own her stuff when she needs to. Like everything else, she doesn’t apologize by half-measures.


Are there any other tropes you'd love to tackle in your writing going forward? Are there any other historical eras you'd love to explore, or do you see yourself happily settled in the Regency for the foreseeable future?
Tropes are an absolute playground for me. The rest of the Misfits of Mayfair series will see us toying around with Girls Wearing Pants, Friends to Lovers, Single Mother, Fake Widow and the evergreen Pirate trope. Except he’s not actually a pirate, it’s just a long-running joke. However, his cave of treasure isn’t compelling evidence against the label.

After the Misfits (currently planned as a trilogy), I have a Victorian series in mind with a runaway bride I’m itching to get to. Regency will probably be the period I return to time and again. That’s the time period that made me fall in love with historical romance, so it just feels right. That said, I’m not ruling out writing a contemporary down the road. Basically, if there are people kissing after 1810, sign me up.

What's next for you?
I’m editing West End Earl, which is Cal’s book—no machete-hack-style edits involved this time, thank God. His story releases summer of 2021. I’m also drafting the third book, All Rogues Lead to London, which is slated for publication the following winter.


Author photo by Kristen Lauren Photography.

We spoke with debut author Bethany Bennett about how she finally nailed Any Rogue Will Do’s tricky plot progression, whether she hates mornings as much as Lottie does and what comes next.
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As the various Wildes have found and fallen in love in Eloisa James’ Wildes of Lindow Castle series, their ducal father, Hugo, and his duchess, Ophelia, have been following merrily along, offering advice, commentary and quips along the way. After five delightful romances starring their children and stepchildren, fans were delighted to discover that My Last Duchess would be traveling back in time to tell the story of how Hugo and Ophelia met.

We talked to James about the joys of fashion research, why she would like to go to a Frost Fair and how she made the very tricky trope of instalove work.

Did you always know that you would eventually write Hugo and Ophelia’s love story? And if not, when did the idea come to you?
The idea came to me as the Wilde books were being written; Hugo and Ophelia turned out to be such a lively couple that I wanted to tell their story, not just their children’s.

The other books in the Wildes of Lindow Castle series are set in the later decades of the 18th century. What did you enjoy about going back to the 1760s? Were there any differences you wanted to highlight between this period and the setting of the other Wilde books?
It’s always fun to settle into a new decade. One of my delights is fashion research. For example, Ophelia wears a sack-back hand-painted dress that actually exists. But I couldn’t just drop in a description of the dress; it had to have meaning. So, when Hugo realizes how expensive her dress is, he knows that she has no financial problems, and it takes the edge off his instinctive protective alpha reaction. A fun tidbit: Wilde Child comes out in the spring and takes place over a decade later. My Wilde heroine (Joan) wears a refurbished version of her stepmother’s dress! Many gowns at the time—especially exuberantly expensive ones like this one—were resewn into new fashion. And it’s a nod to Ophelia’s prudent nature, as shown by her rabbit muffs.

“I wanted her to be startled by something new and throw herself into a marriage without forethought.”

As a literature nerd, I had so much fun looking up the books that characters read and discuss in My Last Duchess. Which of those titles was the most interesting to you? Would you recommend any of them to a modern reader?
I love dropping literary nuggets into a story. I can’t say I would recommend picking up The Life and Adventures of Mr. Francis Clive, which Ophelia is reading—but I loved noting the fact that novels were written long before Dickens came along. The plot of Mr. Francis Clive gave me a way to establish Ophelia’s dead husband’s character, which I needed to do before Hugo introduced himself to her.

Hugo basically falls in love with Ophelia at first sight, and her own feelings for him aren’t far behind. Instalove can be such a tricky trope. How do you approach it as a writer? What do you think is needed to make it work?
You’re right about the challenges of instalove. On the one hand, it’s a beloved trope; on the other, it runs the risk of being really boring (two beautiful people instantly fall in love—ho-hum). When I was designing the Wilde family series, I decided that the male Wildes would know immediately that they had just met their future partner or, at least, a person whom they could love dearly. That decision changed the nature of conflict in the novels: I couldn’t include an “alpha who hates marriage,” for example. Here, Ophelia genuinely doesn’t want to be a duchess. And from my research, that was a prudent decision. But, obviously, Hugo won her over.

It was such a delight to see the young Ophelia. What did you enjoy most about writing her in prequel form?
I really enjoy filling in aspects of a character whom I had sketched in previous books—here, Ophelia’s red hair, her temper, her widowhood, her love for Viola and Hugo. It’s so satisfying, like filling in a crossword puzzle. I discovered why she made certain decisions in earlier books; I discovered why Hugo loves her so much. I found out what gives her the backbone to act as duchess-like as she will in Wilde Child!

I really enjoyed the complexity of Ophelia’s first marriage: it wasn’t great love or a passionless union, but something in between. Did you have any specific inspirations for that type of relationship? When did Peter’s character come into focus for you?
I’m glad you liked it! I wasn’t interested in the “terrible first marriage” trope (though I have certainly used that at times). Ophelia’s character suggested that she would have made a reasoned, thoughtful choice. At the same time, I wanted her to be startled by something new and throw herself into a marriage without forethought.

My Last Duchess is our first glimpse of Horatius, Hugo’s sadly deceased firstborn son. Did finally portraying him in all his stuffiness make you feel better or worse about killing him off?
Ahem. I live and write in Romancelandia! Who knows what actually happened to Horatius . . . I’ll just add that if I were so inclined to listen to the desolate readers who have written to offer fantastical ways by which Horatius may have actually survived, I would definitely bring him back as a very different man than he was as a youth. IF. . .

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of My Last Duchess.

The Frost Fair that Ophelia and Hugo both attend is so magical. What activity would you be most excited to do if you could travel back in time to attend it yourself?
I would love to travel by way of Doctor Who’s TARDIS. (Check out Doctor Who’s visit to a Frost Fair!) I’d wear a gorgeous pelisse with a muff. A duke would buy me gingerbread and mulled wine, and then bring me to the dancing enclosure where we would caper about doing country dances. Or, if I could travel to Regency times, a waltz!

What’s next for you?
Wilde Child comes out March 30, 2021! It probably won’t surprise you to hear that my heroine is not only a Wilde, but wild. Lady Joan doesn’t care a fig that she regularly shocks polite society. Joan goes for broke: She cross-dresses in order to play a man’s part on the public stage—risking the Duke of Lindow’s fury and her reputation—and the only thing standing between her and ruin is a very upright young duke.

I had a lot of fun writing this book—and My Last Duchess, for that matter! I hope they both make readers very happy.

We talked to Eloisa James about the joys of fashion research, why she would like to go to a Frost Fair and how she made the very tricky trope of instalove work.
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In The Stormbringer, Amris thought he defeated Thyran, an evil wizard intent on remaking all of existence in his own image. But instead, they were both frozen in time and awakened hundreds of years later, restarting a worldwide magical conflict. To make matters even more complicated, the soul of Gerant, Amris’ wizard boyfriend, now resides in a magical sword wielded by Darya, a gifted warrior for whom Amris begins to develop (highly inconvenient) romantic feelings.

Darya and Amris’ love story is sweet and emotionally mature, a spark of hope in the chaotic, action-packed landscape of author Isabel Cooper’s new Sentinels fantasy romance series. We talked to Cooper about dreaming up creepy monsters, crafting her post-snowpocalypse world and why there isn’t any room for jealousy in the three-sided relationship at the heart of The Stormbringer.

You wrote large portions of this book while quarantining with your parents. What was that like?
Lots of logistics! My parents are very respectful of my time, but it’s still really easy to get drawn in to stuff around the house or distracted. I can write on trains and in cafes, but I can’t tune out people I know the same way that I can ignore strangers. I had to establish a fairly strict “OK, I’m going to write for this amount of time, starting now” routine.

"I don’t really have a lot of time or patience for jealousy. It’s one of my bright lines as an author, a reader and, to be honest, a person."

Your previous series have been historical paranormal romances. Why did you decide to go full-on fantasy with this new series, and what have you been enjoying about it so far? Is there anything you miss from writing novels set in our world (sort of)?
I’ve always been very enthusiastic about fantasy as a reader—I saw the Rankin-Bass version of The Hobbit when I was 7 or 8, read The Lord of the Rings shortly after (though I didn’t understand huge parts of it) and started playing Dungeons and Dragons when I was 11. The first books I wrote were much more fantasy with romance elements, and then I gradually transitioned over to romance with No Proper Lady.

I really love the world-building opportunities of secondary-world fantasy. On the positive side, it’s a chance to create entire societies, mythologies and even types of people out of whole cloth (albeit with strong influences from elsewhere). On the negative side, it means I don’t have to stop and look up the date of a particular real-world battle or explain why my heroine has an attitude that wasn’t encouraged in medieval or Victorian Europe.

That said, I do miss having a readily available reference pool! There are resonances in quoting Shakespeare or the Bible that are much harder to set up in fantasy, when the audience doesn’t have the cultural familiarity and possibly baggage to go along with it.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of The Stormbringer.

The complex but loving relationship between Gerant, Darya and Amris is so beautifully done. Where did you get the idea for his character, and did anything about him and his interactions with Darya and Amris change in the drafting process?
Thank you! When Mary Altman, my editor, and I were brainstorming for the book, she suggested having the hero’s ex as a soulsword would be a nifty potential complication. I totally agreed—it also really helped set up Amris as a real person with a past and emphasize how much he’d lost by being stuck in time.

I don’t really have a lot of time or patience for jealousy. It’s one of my bright lines as an author, a reader and, to be honest, a person, so I knew Gerant wouldn’t be an obstacle per se. It wasn’t until I started writing the story, though, that the relationship really expanded to include all three of them. At the point when he and Darya bring Amris in on their mental link, it became clear how much of an emotional center he really was.

Something that I thought was fun and unique about this series is that it essentially takes place in a post-apocalyptic, post-world war setting. What drew you to that particular setting, and did you do any research to get the atmosphere of it right?
It was around 2013, it was February, and Boston had so much snow that parts of the T system just stopped running for weeks. A bunch of us up there were making various jokes about Narnia and then about apocalypses, as you do, and my friend Hillary suggested that I should write post-snowpocalypse fiction. That idea sort of lurked around my head for a while (I’m running a D&D game with the same basis, though the world is much more straight D&D than the Sentinels universe), and when Mary and I started talking about fantasy, it came right to mind.

I didn’t do specific research about it, but I’ve also always been a fan of post-apocalyptic novels, as long as there’s enough magic that it’s not completely grim. There’s something about a world in the process of rebuilding itself that attracts me. The Stand (which has been making me paranoid when I get a cold since 1995 or so) and Swan Song were distinct inspirations, as was S.M. Stirling’s Emberverse series.

The Sentinels’ various magical abilities were so creative and so much fun! Which of their powers would you most like to have for yourself?
Thanks again! Of the Sentinels that appear in Stormbringer, I think Emeth has the most fun power set: Talking to animals sounds like a good time and would definitely be the most useful in my real life. Maybe I could convince my sister’s dog to calm down on occasion.

This romance is definitely a slow burn, since Darya and Amris are busy worrying about Gerant’s feelings as well as, you know, the end of the world. What do you think makes a slow burn work? Was there anything you tried to avoid?
It’s a hard balance, in my experience! You have to provide opportunities for the characters to get physical, as well as reasons for them not to go for it—and for me, a 21st-century girl who’s never needed any motive other than “he’s cute and there’s nothing good on cable,” those are hard to think of! (That’s another way historicals are easier: You can always have a hero get all flustered and worried about taking advantage.) Emotional slow-burn is easier for me, because emotions and the confessing thereof don’t come naturally, WASP that I am. Having “No, I really like you” revealed like deciphering the freaking Enigma code makes way more sense.

I definitely tried to avoid both Big Misunderstanding and jealousy as a plot device. As I mentioned above, I don’t really like the latter at all, and it’s hard to find a big misunderstanding where people, even people as emotionally bonsai-ed as I am, wouldn’t just talk to each other.

"I’ve had more sex than I’ve fought demons."

The various monsters and creatures Darya and Amris face off against were impressively creepy. Did you take any inspiration from other fantasies or from folklore? How does one go about creating a fantasy monster?
Yay! It really helps to have run role-playing games for a while. I didn’t draw any of the Stormbringer monsters directly from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons bestiaries, but throwing different horrible beasts at my players every week for sure helped me get a sense of what makes a creature creepy or threatening. Mostly the process involved figuring out what the monster “type” was (the twistedmen were shock troops, then I needed a creature that could ambush people from the trees, then something kind of hypnotic, etc.) and figuring out the creepiest way I could make it do its thing.

Folklore definitely helped. I used the Dullahan from Irish stories—sort of the Headless Horseman but up to 11—as an inspiration, and the twistedmen are or look skinless because the stories of the nucklavee made an impression on me in my formative years.

I also spent a lot of time in college playing the Silent Hill and Shadow Hearts games, which are excellent examples of taking a normal person or creature and finding new ways to make it freaky and wrong.

What was the most difficult part of this book to get right? What was the easiest?
Fight scenes were by far the toughest. Translating physical action onto the page so that it’s both exciting and possible to follow is really tough for me. Same thing applies to sex scenes, to some extent—in both, I will inevitably give someone too many hands and only realize that during the first round of edits—but I’ve had more sex than I’ve fought demons.

What’s next for you?
Two more books in the Sentinels series—telling the rest of the story about Thyran’s second attack, revealing what the heck’s up with Olvir and introducing more of the world! After that, fantasy and horror! Also, I keep thinking someone needs to write a Christmas romance called Hither, Page and follow it up with Brightly Sean, but that’s because I’m a horrible person and have eaten half a box of cherry cordials.

There wasn’t any room for jealousy in the three-sided relationship at the heart of Isabel Cooper’s new fantasy romance, The Stormbringer.

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Most paranormal romance series take place in our world, or in a place extremely similar to it. But few are as invested in the most pressing issues of our time than Suleikha Snyder’s Third Shift series, which begins with Big Bad Wolf. In Snyder’s alternate version of America, the existence of supernatural beings was revealed to the general public in 2016, leading to mass panic, the creation of a surveillance state and the registration of said supernatural beings. Even worse, the government’s totalitarian bent has amplified homophobia, racism and sexism.

We talked to Snyder about putting her unique stamp on the shifter romance, scene-stealing vampires and more.

You're perhaps best known for your contemporary romances. What led you to switch genres? 
Big Bad Wolf is my first longform paranormal romance. I've dabbled in the subgenre in some of my indie-published short stories, which readers can find in my Prem Numbers collection. Suffice it to say, diving in headfirst to a full-length series and having to build out a whole world was pretty daunting. But I always want to challenge myself!

I don't see it as switching genres so much as hopping around. I will no doubt jump back to contemporaries after this because I want to keep growing and learning as an author. And writing shifter romances has taught me a lot about continuity and just keeping the little details straight. What are the rules of this world? How do wolf shifters heal? Can vampires eat or drink? These are all things you learn to hash out as you pen a paranormal.

"I fully admit that I talked about imprinting mostly so I could make duck jokes."

Your paranormal world is clearly inspired by the political climate of the last few years. How long has this world been in your head? Did it change at all over the years? Why was it important to you to create an alternate reality that so clearly mirrors our own?
I've had some version of this world in my head since 2013 or so! But the shift in the political climate since 2015–2016 definitely kicked it all into high gear and informed how I moved forward with the stories. It became all the more vital for me to use the supernatural community as a metaphor for the challenges all marginalized people face. Not that I left it solely up to my shifters and vampires to carry that. My cast features Americans of all sorts—Asian, Black, Latinx—and characters represent the LGBTQ+ spectrum as well. My goal is to show that an "alternate reality" is often the actual reality that we've lived with our entire lives.

Big Bad Wolf doesn't confine itself to the main couple's POV in the way a traditional romance novel would; you tell parts of this story from other characters’ perspectives as well. What did that choice open up for you as a writer? When did you realize you would need to break from the stereotypical romance structure to tell this story?
I didn't even really think about breaking away from typical romance structure. This is just how I write. I think a lot of that comes from watching serial dramas my whole life. I'm a soap opera fan, both primetime and daytime, and love procedural shows and comic book movies. And most of those forms weave in multiple narratives to show you a full picture of what's happening. "Let's go see what's happening in the villain's camp." "Oh, here's some comic relief." And I love a good ensemble cast, so this was an opportunity for me to create one!

Were there any supernatural creatures you wanted to include and decided not to? Any that you'd still like to incorporate further down the line?
There are no supernatural beings that I deliberately left out. I like to leave myself room to do anything, try anything. But you will see more characters from South Asian mythology as the series continues. It's really important to me to pull from my own background and our rich cultural mine. I grew up with vampires and werewolves because of Western pop culture, but I also had the stories of nagas, yakshas, apsaras and djinn. So readers will get to experience some of that in the next two books.

One of the things I loved about this book is how you play with already established shifter romance tropes, such as imprinting/fated mates. Joe and Neha's attraction to one another both is and isn't the sort of paradigm-changing, life-altering force we would find in similar romances. Can you talk a bit about how you developed your own take on the imprinting trope?
I fully admit that I talked about imprinting mostly so I could make duck jokes. Sometimes I just do things for the quick laugh. But on a larger level, I'm not a huge proponent of the fated mate trope, because I grapple with what that means for free will. So I kind of dug into that with Joe and Neha. Sure, they're pulled toward each other and that might be because he's a shifter . . . but what does that mean about their ability to choose one another?

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Big Bad Wolf.

The Third Shift team feels immediately present and dynamic on the page. How did you build out all those characters and their relationships, and did any aspect of that surprise you?
I am a character person. Plot is so much harder. I could create friends and lovers and family members and have them all banter and spar all day long. So creating all these fun personalities was totally my wheelhouse—especially, again, coming from it as a soap viewer. I love relationships of all kinds. The close friendship between Third Shift founders Elijah Richter and Jackson Tate and their recruits is sort of the spine of the series. And then I just add romance wherever I can! One thing that surprised me was what develops between Nate, Finn and Grace. I had very different intentions for those characters, and their spark snuck up on me. The follow-through in Pretty Little Lion might very much surprise readers as well!

Speaking of Finn, he is the definition of a scene stealer—was he as fun to write as he was to read?
Oh my gosh, yes! I think people who follow me on social media know that I can't resist puns and innuendos, so I just leaned into that with Finn. I laughed aloud so many times while writing his dialogue. And please don't EVER do a drinking game to his eyebrow movements. I don't want to be responsible for what happens. With that said, readers will learn more about Finn in book two, Pretty Little Lion, and see another side to this quip-heavy flirt.

There's a really powerful moment near the end of the book when Neha talks about how, despite the darkness of her reality, she finds hope because she expects better from the world. How and where do you find hope?
Hope is the core of why we read and write romance, isn't it? That's where I find it most often. In that “Happily Ever After” at the end. So having Neha talk about hope and expecting better from the world helped me with my own sense of that. Fighting fiercely for who and what you love is what keeps us going in the end.

What's next for you?
I'm finishing up revisions on Third Shift book two, Pretty Little Lion, and after that it's on to book three! Tentatively titled Coldhearted Snakes, it will tie up the arc begun in Big Bad Wolf. And then I might find another subgenre to play in!


Author photo by Elizabeth McQuern Photography

We talked to Suleikha Snyder about putting her unique stamp on the shifter romance, scene-stealing vampires and more.

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The couple at the center of Betina Krahn’s new romance, Hero Wanted, are seemingly the opposite of “meant to be.” While on a boating excursion to get to know each other, Lauren Alcott urges her new fiancé Rafe Townsend to save two women whose vessel has overturned. When he dithers, she frustratedly rips off her dress and jumps in to save them herself. Outraged by his seeming cowardice, she promptly breaks their engagement, only to have both of their fathers urge them to try again, given that a merger between their two companies hinges on Rafe and Lauren’s marriage. We talked to Krahn about the real life (and truly disastrous) date that inspired Hero Wanted and how she ultimately brought this mismatched couple together.

You mention in the afterword that Lauren and Rafe’s disastrous boating excursion is based off of something that actually happened to your niece! Can you tell us more about that? 
Yes, well . . . it was a canoe, not a rowboat, and they were certainly not engaged. In fact, it was a first date that the wealthy young man had asked for more than once. She kept expecting him to help the two women floundering, but he just sat, watching them struggle. She finally stripped off her shirt (over a swimsuit) and dove in to help them. He was astonished and declared her “amazing” and a “hero.” She was appalled at his inaction and when she retrieved her car from his driveway, he apologized for not inviting her into his home. He said his lawyer told him never to be alone with a woman in private, for fear she could claim something untoward had happened and try to get money from him. My niece was appalled. Though he tried to ask her out again and again, she refused all approaches. I can’t really blame her. To hear her tell the story is hilarious . . . and also a sad commentary on the effects of sudden wealth on some people.

You’ve written romances set in so many different time periods, from the American Revolution to the late 1800s to the medieval era. What do you enjoy about the Victorian era?
For a long time I avoided the Victorian period because I thought of it as stuffy, restrictive and morally hypocritical. When my sister did a master’s thesis on Lady Audley’s Secret and began researching the era, she showed me personal ads from period newspapers and I was shocked to learn the true nature of English Victorian society. Fascinated by the imbalance of the numbers of men to women (so many men went abroad to seek their fortunes or served in the army or navy at the time that many women had no chance to marry), I began to research it myself. What I learned was astounding and so human and oddly “modern” that I fell in love with the era and began to set stories in it.

"I love that we’re all a little ridiculous at times—it’s a human thing."

I thought Lauren’s Ivanhoe obsession was such an adorable and funny character trait. Who is your favorite hero in fiction? Do you share her love for Ivanhoe?
I do love Ivanhoe, though I confess, I have tried to wade through the book, but find it wordy and tough going. I prefer the movie version made in the heyday of Hollywood and starring a wonderful cast. He is the ultimate heroic figure . . . the quintessential “white knight.”

It’s hard to pick a favorite fictional hero, but Wulfgar in The Wolf and the Dove by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss has to be in my top five.

Your website prominently features the phrase, "The only thing the world needs as much as love, is laughter." Why do you think laughter and humor is so important to a love story?
Laughter is found in the wonder and unpredictability of our world and ourselves. It is the balancing factor in our hearts and minds and is the leavening that permits joy in our relationships. In laughter, we find hope, commonality and acceptance. Sharing such things is critical to loving relationships and gives us a foundation for genuine love. I love that we’re all a little ridiculous at times—it’s a human thing. And the ability to laugh at ourselves is one of the most revealing and endearing personality traits a person can have.

At one point, Lauren reveals that she’s learned how to pick locks because the iconic Victorian advice book Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management said that it was a useful skill for a lady of the house to have. Did Mrs. Beeton really recommend learning to pick locks? Have you read her household guide?
I’m afraid that’s my invention. I doubt Mrs. Beeton would have included detailed instructions for such a thing, but I also have no doubt it was necessary at times for household staff to access things that were locked up for safekeeping.

What jobs do you think Lauren and Rafe would have if they lived in our modern world?
Lauren would probably be the daughter of a hedge fund guru and Rafe would be the son of a rival. She would have gone to Vassar and become a crusader for social causes and a proponent of literacy. He would have attended Annapolis in spite of his family’s wishes and ended up in the family firm. Not so different from the book, actually. See what I mean about Victorian society being so similar to ours—and still different enough to be interesting?

What do you think is the biggest obstacle in Lauren and Rafe’s relationship?
Both of them have preconceived notions of the other, which makes them act in ways that didn’t allow intimacy to develop. And a big part of the problem is their sensual attraction to each other. There are layers here. Neither wants to reveal his or her true self because that makes them vulnerable. The face they present is a defense and prevents the other from learning their true selves. And isn’t that what often happens in real life?

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Hero Wanted.

What was the most difficult part of this book to get right?
Bringing Lauren and Rafe together after such a rocky start was harder than I imagined. It took a tête-à-tête in the drawing room (where humor snuck in) for me to believe these two were meant to be together. I confess, I wasn’t sure if Rafe would be the hero or not, at first. He came through with flying colors in that first meeting after the river incident!

What’s next for you?
Another Reluctant Hero book! This one with a different kind of hero—Rafe’s best friend, Barclay Howard. He’s far from society’s darling. He’s big, muscular and imposing . . . with a wolfish grin and a heart of gold. I can’t wait for readers to meet him!

We talked to Betina Krahn about the real life (and truly disastrous) date that inspired her new romance, Hero Wanted.

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The idea for Sally Thorne’s latest romance sprang from a joke she and a close friend used to make about the hijinks they planned on getting up to when the day comes for them to move to a retirement home. And Thorne clearly has a blast portraying the lovable residents and charming quirks of her fictional Providence Luxury Retirement Villa in her latest novel, Second First Impressions, which blossoms into a moving tale of self-love, liberation and second chances.

All three of your romances have been standalones. Why do you love writing a standalone novel as opposed to writing within a series? Have any of the worlds of your books tempted you to return to them? And if you were to write a series, what would it be?
The challenge with writing a series is that if the reader has not read the first book, they are unlikely to dip into that world partway through. A standalone can be picked up by anyone, and they are satisfying to write because I get to create one great big happily-ever-after-forever. As more readers get to know my writing style, and hopefully decide I’m a one-click author for them, I think I’ll have more scope to try writing a series. They’ll trust that the journey will be worth it.

In my second book, 99 Percent Mine, there are sparks between the main character’s twin brother and her best friend, and I did want to write a standalone book for them. If I had carte blanche to write a series following a large group of characters, I’d do something unexpected, dark, sexy and gritty, like a motorcycle club.

Your books have also all been entirely told in the point of view of your female main character. Why do you think you gravitate towards this way of telling a love story? Have you ever thought about writing from the perspective of both halves of a central couple?
I like writing from one point of view to give the reader an intense experience of falling in love that the protagonist often doesn’t understand. It takes a lot of skill to be able to balance both perspectives and conflicts of a romantic couple when alternating chapters—it's a challenge I haven’t tried yet, but maybe one day!

"One of my top requests from readers is to have 'The Hating Game' rewritten from Joshua Templeman’s perspective. I would sell a lot of copies of that, and even my mum wants me to do it."

If you could choose the perspective of one of your male love interests to write from, which would it be?
One of my top requests from readers is to have The Hating Game rewritten from Joshua Templeman’s perspective. I would sell a lot of copies of that, and even my mum wants me to do it, but I don’t think I could do justice to the Joshua my readers hold dear in their imaginations. If you knew what he was thinking the entire time, your experience of rereading the original book would be changed.

If I could pick one of my characters, I’d go back to Jamie from 99 Percent Mine. I’d love to tell the story from the perspective of an arrogant overachiever who enthusiastically hits the dance floor at weddings, falling in love with his sister’s homebody best friend.

Speaking of perspectives, there is a lot going on in Ruthie's head during Second First Impressions. How did you get into her headspace? How do you write a character who is often shying away from bad memories or hard truths?
Ruthie’s humor and observations are very dry, and hopefully she is a fun narrator for this book. No character comes to me fully formed, and writing Ruthie required many drafts of adding layers to her. She has a trauma from her past that she processes this in the book. It’s a balancing act of what to reveal, and how to creatively “show” rather than “tell” the impacts that this has had on her, and especially difficult to do in a book that is essentially a comedy. I hope I did it.

". . . he [gives] Ruthie the open-hearted affection and love she has craved all her life."

The Providence retirement community was such an enjoyable setting. What was fun about that for you? Where did you get the idea to set a romance in a retirement community?
A friend and I used to joke that when we were old and wealthy, we would share a room in a luxury retirement villa and hire a handsome young man as our personal assistant. That’s pretty much the plot of Second First Impressions—but it’s told from the perspective of office manager Ruthie, who supervises the hijinks of her wealthiest residents, the Parloni Sisters. They try to break Teddy’s spirit, Ruthie tries to resist his gorgeous hair and a good time is guaranteed.

Which of Renata's incredible outfits would you most like to own?
Renata Parloni was a fashion editor for a (fictional!) magazine called Hot or Not, and she still walks around at 91 years old dripping in labels and jewels. I am a sucker for Chanel, so that’s the tag I’d be searching for when ransacking her closets. I’d wear a pink tweed skirt suit, a matching quilted flap bag, a beret and about 10 pearl necklaces. Then I’d go have a fancy lunch.

The question of who is the "taker" and who is the "giver," and whether someone can be solely one or the other, is constantly hovering over Ruthie and Teddy's interactions. When did this question become clear to you in the writing process and what drew you to explore it?
Someone once told me their theory that every relationship has a giver and a taker, or an adorer and adore-ee, and that was something I wanted to explore. At the beginning of the book, Ruthie has decided to attempt dating after six years of barely leaving the retirement village. Then she meets Teddy, who literally has “give” and “take” tattooed across his knuckles. He sure gives the first impression as a taker—he even borrows her shampoo.

Teddy is hired in a caregiving capacity to be at the beck and call of his employers, which makes for some of the most tender moments in the book as he also gives Ruthie the open-hearted affection and love she has craved all her life. It’s equally enjoyable seeing Ruthie begin to take things for herself.

As someone who has used many, many TV shows as comfort objects, I felt uncomfortably seen in Ruthie's obsession with the fictional TV show "Heaven Sent." Why do you think Ruthie is devoted to this show in particular? Have you had similar relationships with media in your own life?
“Heaven Sent” is inspired by “Seventh Heaven,” and it is Ruthie’s comfort show because she grew up in a religious household and this show became her weekly touchstone, grounding her and providing stability. Now, she runs a forum dedicated to keeping this show alive.

When I’m living in a luxury retirement villa one day, you will find me binge-watching “Party of Five,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Veronica Mars,” “Degrassi,” “Gavin and Stacey” and “30 Rock.” I assume I’ll either be watching these via a chip inserted into my skull, or high-tech 5D glasses. My young assistant will work it out for me.

I loved Ruthie's coworker Melanie so much. What type of person do you think she'll eventually end up with? Or will the genius behind the Sasaki Method ironically end up happily and contentedly single?
Melanie Sasaki, matchmaker extraordinaire, developed a return-to-dating plan for Ruthie called The Sasaki Method (patent pending): a program of worksheets, checklists, a makeover and (eep!) an eventual date with a human man. She warns Ruthie most ardently to not fall for the first man she meets. Ruthie disobeys.

I like to imagine Melanie as a version of Jane Austen’s Emma, and I think she would end up with a dry no-nonsense Knightley; perhaps a guy she’s known all her life.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Second First Impressions.

What's next for you?
I am looking forward to The Hating Game movie finding a distributor and hopefully making its way to a screen (large or small) near you soon. It finished shooting just before Christmas in 2020, in what was a very challenging year to make a movie, and it stars Lucy Hale and Austin Stowell. It’s utterly fabulous and I’m very happy with it.

I am also working on my next book, which is still a work in progress and a mystery even to my publisher. I will do my best to create heart-flutters in readers for many books to come!


Author photo © Katie Saarikko.

The idea for Sally Thorne’s latest romance sprang from a joke she and a close friend used to make about the hijinks they planned on getting up to after moving to a retirement home.

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Some occupations are more rom-com friendly than others, sometimes even to the point of cliché (Why do so many male love interests work as architects? How on earth do writer or journalist characters earn enough to live in such enormous apartments?). But Sophie Breeze, the heroine of Katy Birchall’s The Secret Bridesmaid, has a job that is both refreshingly unique and perfectly suited for the genre: She’s a wedding planner who goes incognito as a bridesmaid on the big day (and sometimes before), allowing the happy couple to maintain a facade to their guests that all the festivities have been put together with no professional assistance. We talked to Birchall about her favorite wedding traditions, the real-life inspirations for her rom-com and why she’s anti-canapé.

Where did you get the idea for a professional wedding planner going incognito as a bridesmaid?
A few years ago, I read online that professional bridesmaids genuinely exist and I remember being amazed at the idea. The more I thought about it, the more I considered how it must be both fun and incredibly stressful to go undercover at someone’s wedding. You’d meet so many interesting people and find yourself in the most bizarre and joyful scenarios—there’s nothing quite like a wedding—but also have to learn everything there is to know about someone in a short amount of time to pass yourself off as their close friend. I mulled over the idea for a couple of years before I had the courage to start writing the book!

"I could definitely live without the first dance. The idea of everyone watching me attempt to dance is a genuine nightmare."

How long do you think you would survive if you had to do Sophie's job? Or do you think you would be great at it?
I’m not sure I could be nearly so levelheaded and efficient as Sophie in such high-stress situations, especially as a wedding is one of the most important days of someone’s life. It’s a lot of pressure to get it right!

Having said that, I absolutely LOVE being a bridesmaid and have been lucky enough to be one a few times. All those bridesmaid experiences made me so passionate about weddings that I wanted to write a book that revolved around them.

What is your favorite wedding tradition? Which one could you live without?
My favorite wedding tradition is the speeches. I love the personal anecdotes that are revealed in speeches, especially the comedy ones. Also, a lot of people I know don’t declare their love for one another openly—maybe that’s down to the classic British stiff upper lip—so I think it’s quite sweet that it’s a rare opportunity in life to stand up and say how you feel about that one person.

I could definitely live without the first dance. The idea of everyone watching me attempt to dance is a genuine nightmare. I will certainly be scrapping that tradition when I get married!

All of the weddings Sophie works on are so unique and fun! Which one would you most like to attend as a guest? Are there any that sound like a nightmare to you?
I would love to attend Nisha and Luke’s. I had so much fun writing that chapter! I love how many days the celebrations run over and the fusion of the two cultures. I also would happily attend Cordelia’s as I’d say that would be rather spectacular.

None sound like a nightmare to me. That’s honestly the best thing about weddings, they are all so different, but always fun, because the happy nature of the day means that everyone there can just let go, celebrate and have a day off from life.

Was Cordelia inspired by any real-life celebrities or socialites?
When I was at school in the 1990s, there was a huge obsession at the time with “It Girls,” British socialites who were rich, fashionable and always photographed at celebrity parties. I’ve always loved glossy magazines and those It Girls were constantly on the front of them. I think Cordelia was influenced by a mix of those women, and also by modern, reality TV stars—specifically the ones who end up surprising you.

Are you Team Sophie or Team Tom when it comes to the subject of canapés? If you are Team Sophie, what is your ideal appetizer situation?
I am Team Tom on this one. I genuinely panic at the thought of eating one. Do you attempt to eat half and risk a mess? Or do you throw caution to the wind and eat it in one, risking an awkward pause in conversation because your mouth is too full to speak? What if you’re holding your clutch and a glass of champagne and you’re offered a canapé? What then? How do you hold everything? And, on top of all that, sometimes you’re offered a napkin too. How can you hold a napkin in one hand under the canapé in the other, as well as holding a glass?!

Canapés boggle my brain. They have to be teeny tiny for me to handle the situation or I completely avoid them.

One of my favorite things about this book is that Sophie so clearly, clearly is her parents' daughter. How did you develop their characters? Did they spring more or less fully formed once you had Sophie down? Or did it take a few drafts for their personalities to come into focus?
Once I’d worked Sophie out, I could imagine her parents quite vividly. They’re so different, but their personalities complement each other, a dynamic that is a lot of fun to write. Sophie is efficient and determined like her mother—I knew right from the start that her mum was much more preoccupied by Sophie’s unique career path than her romantic relationships—but has the gentle nature of her father.

Your website says you are "mildly obsessed with Jane Austen." Who is your favorite Austen heroine, who is your favorite hero and do you have a firmly held but unpopular opinion about any of the books or characters?
My favorite Austen heroine is Emma Woodhouse. She’s smart, elegant and sure of herself, but is also snobbish, self-centered and stubborn. She makes so many mistakes and ends up acknowledging that and doing her best to learn from them. She’s not a perfect heroine in the slightest, which is why I love her. I aspire to be more Lizzy Bennet, but Emma’s story has my heart!

My favorite hero is a toss-up between Mr. Darcy (too obvious?) and Henry Tilney from Northanger Abbey. Mr. Darcy has that attractive broody-but-secretly-nice-guy vibe, but Tilney wins by a long way when it comes to excellent chat and a corking sense of humor.

I’m not sure if it’s that unpopular an opinion, but I root for Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park. Her materialistic flaws aside, she’s brilliant, fun, charismatic and a lot more interesting than our irritating protagonist, Fanny. I’m not convinced Mary is a villain at all.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of The Secret Bridesmaid.

What's next for you?
I’m currently having a ball writing my next wedding-themed romantic comedy, which will be hitting shelves in 2022, as well as working on a few children’s and young adult novels. It’s very busy, but in the best way.


Author photo by Imogen Forte.

Katy Birchall’s latest heroine has what might be the perfect rom-com job: She’s a wedding planner who goes undercover as a bridesmaid.

Interview by

Author Katee Robert is something of an expert when it comes to morally grey but seriously sexy heroes. Her O’Malleys romances follow a modern crime family, and her Wicked Villains series takes its inspiration from classic Disney characters such as Jafar, Ursula and Hades.

In Neon Gods, Robert returns to the character of Hades, this time reaching all the way back to Ancient Greece for inspiration, turning the myth of Hades and Persephone into a love story that touches on public perception and political gamesmanship.

The myth of Hades and Persephone is a perennial fascination in romance. Why do you personally find it so compelling? Why do you think we keep coming back to it, as well as revising it?
I love this myth because there are so many different lenses to see it through. Was Hades really the villain? Did Persephone choose to eat in the underworld intentionally? Was Demeter a controlling monster of a mother or simply overcome with grief? Every retelling brings a different point of view, and I’m totally addicted to reading the different interpretations because there’s always a new perspective to be told. I think a lot of people feel similarly.

"There are a lot of Greek myths, in particular, that are brutal. Happily ever afters are in short supply."

You wrote another version of Hades in Learn My Lesson, inspired by the 1997 Disney film Hercules. What was it like to write two different versions of Hades only a few years apart?
Hades is one of those mythological characters that I feel like you could tell a thousand versions of because he’s so nuanced. The portion of his myths I pulled from for Learn My Lesson was the dark lord of the underworld that people feared. Greek mythology is basically a soap opera, complete with sex, scandal and murder. I really leaned into that source material with Hades and his Furies ruling over the “underworld.”

The portion I pulled from with Neon Gods is more of the misunderstood character who’s not as monstrous as people believe him. I’d honestly like to write a lady Hades someday, too.

The myth of Hades and Persephone is one of the most popular to retell. Are there any myths or stories that just don't appeal to you in that way? Why?
There are a lot of Greek myths, in particular, that are brutal. Happily ever afters are in short supply. I wouldn’t say there are ones that I would shy away from retelling, but I’d retell them my way and give them the endings I craved when I was a teenager. If I had to retell them faithfully, I would definitely avoid most of the hero stories (Jason, Theseus, etc.) because those guys were AWFUL people.

I have to ask or I'll never live with myself: Did you always know that your version of Hades and Persephone would feature some very public (and very hot) sex scenes? When did that element of the story click for you, and why do you think that becomes such an important part of their relationship?
I write very high heat naturally, and both Hades’ and Persephone’s character arcs surround the images they project to the public and also how their public image conflicts with how they view themselves. From there, it seemed a natural extension to bring that conflict and growth out through sex scenes.

A world-building detail I really enjoyed in Neon Gods is that the gods aren’t immortal beings, and they are actually titles bestowed upon people. How did you come up with this way of translating Greek mythology into a more modern setting? And how did you decide which positions would be elected, like Demeter, and which would be inherited titles, like Zeus?
I kind of went back to my roots when I formed my version of Olympus. I am garbage for mob-type of division of territories and responsibilities. I like the number 13, so that’s how many gods I chose out of the pantheon to bring into modern day life. I knew Zeus, Poseidon and Hades would be legacy roles with inherited titles going to the firstborn. From there, I used the various gods’ specialties to inform both their responsibilities and how the title is passed on. (For example: Demeter is elected, Aphrodite chooses their successor, Ares is chosen via a tournament in the arena, and Hera is Zeus’ spouse.) Also, none of the titles are gender specific.

How did you choose what other myths to incorporate into Neon Gods? How did you pick which mythological women would make up Persphone's family? Why do their stories fascinate you?
When it comes to family lineage, the Greek pantheon is messy, to say the least, and there are so many random kingdoms in the myths. I decided to condense things where I could. I knew I wanted to tell Persephone’s, Psyche’s and Eurydice’s stories, so it was simplest to combine them into sisters instead of princesses/nymphs, to give them those foundational sister relationships to pull readers through the series. I love writing women who are strong in very different ways, and Persephone and her sisters fit the bill.

Many of the characters of Neon Gods are between socialites and politicians, due to their prominent and powerful places in society. Were there any real-life public figures or media narratives that inspired you?
Not particularly. My fictional worlds are reality-adjacent, so I try not to delve too much into real-life events or people. The themes often circle back to that old saying about power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely. Examining how different characters react to power (Demeter versus Persephone in Neon Gods, for example) is really interesting to me, so I circle back to that theme again and again.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Neon Gods.

I was delighted by Hermes and Dionysus' ride-or-die friendship/alliance. Were you inspired by a mythological story in which those two figures team up? What about them made that pairing work for you?
I have a deep and abiding weakness for trickster-type characters who just chaotically move through the world, especially the world of the powerful. Hermes gets boiled down to the Messenger in a lot of myths, but I was really inspired by a few different retellings in recent years that touched on different perceptions of him (Hadestown, Lore Olympus and Circe). Dionysus feels like a natural pairing for friendship there because of his area of influence in the myths.

Most of the characters in the Dark Olympus series take themselves exceedingly seriously, so throwing into th emix two chaotic characters who are too powerful to stomp on or curtail has been a lot of fun.

What's next for you?
I have a bunch of indie stuff going on, but Dark Olympus will continue with Psyche and Eros’s story in Electric Idol. I’m writing the third book right now, which is a ménage with Helen, Achilles and Patroclus. Suffice to say that book will divert from the tragic fates of both Achilles and Patroclus in the Trojan War.


Author photo by Bethany Chamberlin

Katee Robert shares why she’s written not one but two romances inspired by Hades, the Greek god of death.

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