A romance between a bawdy courtesan and the shy nobleman who wins a month with her, The Mistress Experience is a sparkling conclusion to an already dazzling series.
A romance between a bawdy courtesan and the shy nobleman who wins a month with her, The Mistress Experience is a sparkling conclusion to an already dazzling series.
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Author Uzma Jalaluddin deploys romance tropes to expand the boundaries of the genre.

After updating Pride and Prejudice with her debut romance, author Uzma Jalaluddin turns to a more modern but no less beloved classic: You’ve Got Mail. Her sophomore novel, Hana Khan Carries On, is a retelling of the beloved Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks rom-com that swaps the film’s duelling bookstores for halal restaurants. The titular Hana helps run Three Sisters Biryani Poutine, a community staple that’s owned and operated by her family. Unfortunately, sales are down, and an upscale halal eatery opening nearby could put them out of business for good. 

But Hana’s heart is not in the restaurant business. She launched her own podcast while interning at a local radio station and recently formed a flirtation with an anonymous caller. Add in a fearsome, scene-stealing aunt and a cousin so compelling he seems destined for his own spinoff novel, and Hana has her hands full. 

Hana Khan Carries On was dozens of drafts in the making, and Jalaluddin freely admits to reworking the story several times over. “The book itself took me many, many years to write. Like a lot of people, I wear a lot of hats,” she says with a laugh during a call to her home outside Toronto. Not only is she a mom, but she also writes a column for the Toronto Star and teaches high school English. Her love of language is evident in every sentence of Hana Khan, as is her gift for precise plotting and clearly defined, immediately lovable characters.

“You don’t usually see a woman in a hijab having agency and being the star of her own love story.”

A lengthy crafting process isn’t new for Jalaluddin. Her first novel, Ayesha at Last, also took a long time to write, beginning in 2010. “I wasn’t writing every day, but it did take me around seven years to reach a final draft,” she says. She describes that story’s Jane Austen connection as a “happy accident,” as it was some time before she noticed Lizzie and Darcy reflected in the novel’s characters. 

“I know that sounds ridiculous looking back on it,” Jalaluddin says, “but I also feel like I was writing in a vacuum.” Jalaluddin’s parents immigrated to Canada from India, and she seldom saw an experience like hers represented in the type of books she wanted to write. “In the early 2010s, there was so little South Asian representation in romance or comedies, especially South Asian Muslim representation,” she says. “Part of the reason why I decided to turn my head toward Jane Austen in my first book was because I was a little bit scared that people wouldn’t know how to deal with my story.”

Jalaluddin’s concerns were justified. Even with the Austen hook, Ayesha at Last was rejected countless times by publishers who didn’t know how to sell a novel that featured characters and storylines outside of the industry’s narrowly defined expectations for a Muslim romance.

“You don’t usually see a woman in a hijab having agency and being the star of her own love story,” she says. “You expect a story about her arranged marriage where she runs away, takes off her hijab and dates a white boy. That’s the story we usually hear—not one where she falls in love with a conservative Muslim man who changes a bit but still has his beard at the end of it.” 

By adopting familiar frameworks, like the beats of a rom-com or the slow burn of an Austen novel, Jalaluddin artfully deploys classic tropes to give happy endings to characters from backgrounds that are rarely represented in the works she is referencing. And those happy endings aren’t just about romantic love. Jalaluddin also addresses other aspects of her heroines’ experiences such as community, identity and honoring your faith in a secular society. 

Though both of Jalaluddin’s novels contain similar pleasures, the author sees differences between her debut and Hana Khan Carries On, which was written during a time of political and social upheaval. “In the past few years, I was more aware of the storm clouds gathering, and I think that comes through in Hana Khan Carries On.” she says. Within the course of the book, Hana and her community must deal with microaggressions and hate crimes while pursuing their dreams. 


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Hana Khan Carries On.


But passion flows through it all, from the devotion of Hana’s family to keeping their halal restaurant afloat to Hana’s excitement and ambition in launching a podcast. It’s similar to the passion in Jalaluddin’s voice when she’s discussing her path from reader to writer. 

“When I was growing up, I wondered, where is the Muslim Bridget Jones? Where is the Muslim Meg Cabot?” Jalaluddin says. She has become what she sought as a young reader, and if another young girl has those same questions now, hopefully she’ll discover that the answer is Uzma Jalaluddin.

 

Author photo by Andrea Stenson.

Author Uzma Jalaluddin deploys romance tropes to expand the boundaries of the genre.

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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.

Interview by

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

With an appealing new love story set on the Q train, the bestselling author of Red, White & Royal Blue is poised for a swift return to the bestseller list.


If you’re looking for an affordable and romantic date, Casey McQuiston thinks the New York City subway is the perfect setting. “The Q is the most romantic line,” she says. “From Midtown to Coney Island is a picturesque ride.” 

From the gleaming skyline to the architecture of the Brooklyn Bridge and the calm waters below, the Q offers several romantic views for riders to enjoy. From there, McQuiston imagines her date’s next steps: “Hop off at Prospect Park to do a little pedal boat ride. Hop back on and take it all the way out to Coney Island, where you ride the Wonder Wheel and put your feet in the ocean. Get a hot dog from Nathan’s and then get back on the train.” Where are you going to eat that hot dog? On the train, of course, because as McQuiston notes, you’ll have a lot of downtime waiting for the Coney Island train to leave the station. Plenty of time to gently wipe a smudge of ketchup from the corner of your partner’s mouth with a napkin, if you’re so inclined.

McQuiston’s love for NYC (where she now lives, though she grew up in Louisiana), and specifically its subway system, is clear on every page of her sophomore novel, One Last Stop, which she describes as “a public transit crush romance with a time slip twist.”


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of One Last Stop.


Its protagonist is August, a “lost and confused 23-year-old who moves to New York [City] because she’s lonely and cynical and she wants to live in a lonely and cynical city, as she sees it,” McQuiston explains. “She gets there and discovers friends and family and love in all of these weird, broke, early-20s, New York types of ways.” Despite her cynicism, August quickly finds her people, including a trio of quirky, smart roommates. She also finds a potential romantic connection in Jane, an alluring young woman she meets on the subway. 

After Jane gives August her scarf to hide a particularly ghastly coffee stain, August can’t stop thinking about her, even though she knows the odds of seeing her again are incredibly slim. But Jane’s reality turns out to be much more complicated than August realizes: She’s been, somehow, displaced from the 1970s into the present day and is now stuck on the Q train, with no memory of how she got there. Because Jane is unable to leave the subway, the romance between her and August is a little challenging. But throughout their burgeoning relationship, McQuiston makes certain that no bare body part touches a subway seat, a detail that, if it had been overlooked, surely would have made any New Yorker cringe.

The time slip element of One Last Stop has been present since McQuiston first began working on the novel. “The first flicker of an idea came to me when I was on a trip to New York and had ridden the subway a bunch,” McQuiston says. “There’s something super romantic when you’re on the subway and another train passes you, and you can briefly see into the windows of the other train. It feels like such a liminal space, and it’s inherently magical to me.”

As she tried to decide what time period Jane should be from, McQuiston realized she wanted to create a character who had a connection to the subway before getting stuck on it, which meant that eras before its invention were definitely out. The author also notes that since there’s already so much going on in the story, “we don’t have time to also explain to Jane what being gay is,” so she also wanted Jane to be fully out and as queer as she could be during her time period. A historical event triggered Jane’s time slip, and though McQuiston doesn’t want to spoil it, she says that once she landed on that moment, it became easier to write Jane and her ’70s punk aesthetic.

“The ’70s were such a rich time for social movements, and I love the idea of this girl who is this punk rocker who also was deeply involved in different activist movements, like the antiwar movement, the Asian American movements, post-Stonewall uprisings around the country,” McQuiston says. “All of these things fell into place to tell me that the ’70s were the sweet spot for this character.” 

Although August isn’t a time traveler, she’s also a bit of a mystery to the reader and to herself—just as she was to McQuiston at the beginning of the writing process, as she struggled to create a character who is a bit prickly and wary of others, while still pushing them to advance the plot and making them compelling and lovable on top of it all. “August was hard to nail down,” McQuiston says. “The first draft, I really struggled because I tried writing in first person, which I hadn’t done in a really long time. During revisions, I realized that on a meta level, I wasn’t really clicking with her because I was too close to it. I couldn’t see her from the outside and figure out how she fits into her own life. I went through and changed the entire draft to third person, which was fun for me,” she says, laughing.

“For a lot of queer people, coming out is not the end of a story, it’s the beginning.”

With its time slip mystery and more contemplative, thoughtful tone, One Last Stop is a markedly different read from McQuiston’s debut. Compared to Alex Claremont-Diaz, first son of the United States and the main character in McQuiston’s bestselling 2019 novel, Red, White & Royal Blue, August is a shift in the opposite direction. Whereas Alex was “extroverted and extra,” August is more internal and reserved. 

August also carries some baggage due to her unconventional upbringing, which McQuiston says was partly inspired by the mother-daughter duo of Lorelai and Rory in “Gilmore Girls.” Although August and her mother embody the “us against the world” vibe of Rory and Lorelai, McQuiston also wanted to explore the darker side of how that type of codependent relationship can affect a person in adulthood.

August’s mother, who’s a bit of a conspiracy theorist and hoarder, has been obsessed with the disappearance of her brother, August’s uncle, since August’s childhood. “August’s mom is just complicated, and that’s how a lot of our parents are. Early adulthood is about figuring out who you have grown into and then being like, ‘Oh no, it’s my mom!’ Or, ‘It’s my dad!’ The thing about generational stuff is that with every generation, you do it a little bit better than the generation before you. You can have absorbed these personality traits and these habits and these interests from your parents, [but] maybe do it in a way that works better for you,” McQuiston explains, pointing toward August’s love of puzzles. Whereas her mom lets unknown answers consume her, August sees them as opportunities to challenge herself. 

Which is exactly why Jane intrigues August so much. Their attraction begins as a “fleeting moment of connection between strangers in a big city,” so August certainly doesn’t expect to see Jane again in the exact same subway car or to eventually find out that she’s not from this time period. Once she learns the truth of Jane’s situation, August becomes determined to use all her puzzle-solving know-how to help her.

Another critical difference between McQuiston’s debut and One Last Stop is that August and Jane are fully out, both to those around them and to the world at large. Although coming-out narratives are a crucial part of queer identity (and played a large role in Red, White & Royal Blue), McQuiston says One Last Stop is “the story that comes after coming out. For a lot of queer people, coming out is not the end of a story, it’s the beginning. I don’t necessarily want to rehash my coming-out story again and again, because the richest experiences I’ve had as a queer person have come after that.”

Those who are beginning to explore their queer identity might feel as though coming out or putting a label on how they identify is like putting a period on their journey. But in actuality, that initial discovery gives way to a lifetime of new experiences. The themes of found family and figuring out who you are as an adult, separate from whatever familial environment shaped you, wind through both of McQuiston’s novels. The importance of “finding your people and letting them guide you” is one of the more powerful messages she imparts, knowing that shared communities are integral for many queer people who may feel misunderstood by family or even openly derided. 

As McQuiston gradually builds a welcoming backlist for queer readers, it’s hard not to wonder what her younger self would think of One Last Stop. “I had to be at this point in my life to write [this book], because it’s so personal in a way I’ve only become secure enough to write about in the last couple years,” she says. “I think a young me would be floored that I had the nerve to write something so personal and think, ‘Oh my God, this is what we get to do? We get to write books? That is so cool!’ They would read it and be stunned that they could be this gay in public.”

With One Last Stop, it’s clear that McQuiston has come into her own as a person and an author. Whatever direction her work takes her next, McQuiston is unstoppable.

 

Author photo by Sylvie Rosokoff.

Stand clear of the platform and the closing doors as the bestselling author explores what comes after coming out.

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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The first adult novel from YA superstar author Julie Murphy (Dumplin’, which was adapted into the hit Netflix film) is both right on trend (Rom-coms are big, have you heard?) and timelessly appealing. If the Shoe Fits takes its cues from the iconic fairy tale Cinderella, but its buoyant humor and good-hearted outlook are all Murphy. She talked to BookPage about the liberating experience of writing grown-up characters and why her version of the wicked stepmother is more complicated than conniving.

How does it feel to have written your first adult novel? Did the writing process feel different at all?
I am so incredibly excited to be dipping my toes into the adult waters. It's something I've hoped to do for quite some time, and this seemed to be the perfect crossover project to start with. Of course If the Shoe Fits is an adult book, but I think it's a really good first step into adult romance for teenagers as well. The romance is exciting and steamy while still maintaining a lower heat level, so I've really found it to be the perfect access point for new romance readers. 

As I was drafting, I had this really great lightbulb moment. As a YA and middle grade author, I spend a lot of time on the page working with and sometimes around adult characters, but this time my main character is the adult. There's no curfew or grounding to stand in her way, but that also means the safety blanket of turning to someone older and wiser is pulled out from under her in some ways. I actually found the process to be really liberating and exciting!

This is the first installment of Meant to Be, a series of Disney princess retellings, each written by a different author. Are you able to tell us more about what’s coming up?
I can promise exciting things ahead! Each book will reimagine a different Disney princess, and while I can't tell you exactly who is writing the next book or which princess it will be, I can tell you that you will not be disappointed. The next author is one of my all-time favorites, and it's been really hard for me not to completely fangirl over this princess-author pairing.

“I never got the chance to see a chubby girl get swept off her feet by Prince Charming.”

Was Cinderella your first choice for this romance? Why did you want to revise this fairy tale? (I love the nods to the source material on the cover!)
Yes! The moment this series was pitched to me, I told my agent that I had to have Cinderella. The story of Cinderella was so iconic to me growing up.I spent so much time in a make-believe space pretending that my mom was forcing me into child labor (she wasn't, I swear!), that my older sister and cousins were my mean stepsisters and that I could talk to birds and small, adorable rodents. But the spell of my childhood imagination always broke the moment I looked in the mirror and didn't see a tall, thin blond girl staring back at me. Later on, I discovered my love for Ursula, and that really helped me reshape how I felt about myself, but she was also the villain. I never got the chance to see a chubby girl get swept off her feet by Prince Charming. Even though Cinderella wasn't the first Disney princess, she was my first Disney princess, and that's why it was so important to me that I reinvent her story with a plus-size lead for a modern audience.

Would you want to adapt another, non-princess fairy tale or Disney property in the future? If so, which one?
Are you kidding?! I would love to! This process has been such a joy from beginning to end. Though The Little Mermaid is a princess fairy tale, I would love to see a contemporary retelling from Ursula's point of view. I'm a kid of the ’90s though, so I keep finding myself thinking of Heavyweights and how amazing an updated version of that might be. I also think a modern Peter Pan set in a skate park would be so fun and—I might be going out on a limb here—but I would absolutely die for a chance to see a Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog rom-com.

A common theme in your books, including If the Shoe Fits, is plus-size main characters and body diversity. From the standpoint of a writer who's been in the industry for several years now, do you feel acceptance of larger body types and plus-size main characters has increased? Are there places where you think publishing still needs to improve?
I can definitely feel the shift, but as with all important changes, it doesn't feel like it's happening quickly enough. I think it's happening more readily in contemporary spaces, but I'm ready to see it happen in fantasy and sci-fi and all other types of genres, too. We also need to see a more diverse lineup of plus-size characters from race to sexual identity. I also just want to see more plus-size people behind the scenes as editors and designers and publicists. Lastly, I want to see space for stories with plus-size bodies that aren't issue books and that create space for body size to be a fluid part of a story and a character's identity.

Cindy becomes a last-minute contestant on the reality dating show "Before Midnight." Are you a fan of reality TV? Are there any shows or TV moments that inspired you?
I was a huge fan of “The Real World” and “Road Rules” growing up, but I was only a casual viewer of reality television dating shows. So beyond rewatching every version of Cinderella I could find to prepare for writing this book, I also had to beef up on shows like “The Bachelor.” Thankfully my editor, Jocelyn Davies, is a huge fan and was able to guide me through the many, many seasons. And now I'm a devout fan. In fact, I'm currently deeply invested in the newest season of “The Bachelorette.” (Is anyone else a little weirded out by the cat guy? And I like cats!)

Making Cindy’s stepmother, Erika, a producer on "Before Midnight" was a genius idea, given that there’s often a stereotypical, meddling executive behind the scenes in depictions of reality TV. But she's more than just a one-dimensional villain. Why did you want to complicate the figure of the wicked stepmother? At what point in the writing process did you start realizing there was more to unpack with her character?
From the beginning I knew that a really compelling way to complicate this story would be to give Cindy's stepmother some more dimension. Without even adding in the other elements of the traditional Cinderella story, the relationship between a stepchild and stepparent is already so interesting. I also really loved the idea of Cindy knowing a slightly softer side of her stepmother than the rest of the world does.

The thought of being Cindy's age, where you're technically an adult but still turning to your parents in many ways, was an added layer that I was really excited to dig into. Cindy's parents are gone. The only parental figure she has is a woman her father married a few years ago. All of those ingredients made the relationship between Cindy and Erika really thought-provoking without even having to go for the more obvious villainous tendencies.

In addition to TV production, If the Shoe Fits also explores the world of shoe design, which is Cindy's dream career. Was there any research involved in getting the details of both those industries just right?
Spending time on the set of Dumplin' really primed me for the reality TV aspect. It also gave me easy access to lots of people who could give me some great insight. I also found Amy Kaufman's book, Bachelor Nation, immensely helpful.

As far as the design aspect, it really came down to good old-fashioned research. When I graduated high school, I was actually accepted at and planning to attend the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising but had to back out at the last minute because of a family financial crisis. Even though I never did make it to design school, I had a really strong understanding of the expectations and what that sort of career path might look like. So making Cindy a shoe designer ended up a really natural fit.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of If the Shoe Fits.


Cindy’s appearance on "Before Midnight" throws her into the spotlight and makes her a body positivity icon. Do Cindy’s experiences and insecurities around becoming this de facto spokesperson of a movement mirror your own as a writer who focuses on body positivity and diversity?
There are so many incredibly talented and creative voices out there addressing body positivity and fat positivity (because they are truly two different things), but in some ways the success of Dumplin' did make me and my work some people's first interactions with the idea. That does come with a lot of pressure and responsibility, but it's also so, so important to remember that there's no one single fat experience. Every plus-size person out there sees and experiences the world through a different lens, and I think that's important for creators and public figures to remember, but also audiences. If someone learns about body and/or fat positivity through me, I hope that I'm only the first step and that they continue to learn more and experience more. I'm only one fat white lady from Texas, and I can't and will never speak for fat people as a whole. All that said, if all my work amounts to is widening a path for more plus-size creatives, then I'm happy. Lord knows someone came before me, and someone came before them.

What can we expect from you in the future?
It's been a really exciting time in my career. During the pandemic, I found myself writing even more, because it's my passion and I find it so comforting. This year, I released the third and final book in the Dumplin-verse, titled Pumpkin. I also have the second half of the Faith duology, Faith: Greater Heights, coming out in November. Next year, I'm launching a really different and exciting project, and I can't wait to talk about it. I'm literally bursting at the seams! And lastly, I'm currently working on an adaptation of my middle grade novel, Dear Sweet Pea, for the Disney Channel. I'm happy! I'm busy!

Julie Murphy dishes about the liberating experience of writing grown-up characters and why her version of the wicked stepmother is more complicated than conniving.

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Helen Hoang’s debut romance, The Kiss Quotient, was released to universal acclaim in 2018. Quan Diep, a tattooed bad boy with a heart of gold, nearly stole the show, and fans clamored for him to get his very own love story. But the pressure of creating a match for Quan weighed heavily on her. We talked to Hoang about how her artistic burnout led to The Heart Principle, in which Quan meets his match in Anna Sun, a classical violinist.

Romance fans have been so excited for The Heart Principle, and now it’s finally out! How do you feel?
This was an extremely difficult book to write, and one of the reasons is how personal it was. Anna’s story was inspired by recent events in my own life. Her emotions and thoughts, especially, are things that I personally felt and thought. Now that I’m sharing my experiences with readers, one of the biggest things I’m feeling is vulnerable.

While many readers will be familiar with the first two books in the series, this may be the first Helen Hoang romance for others. What would you tell those new readers to expect from The Heart Principle?
This is not the most lighthearted book I’ve written, and I recommend picking it up when they need catharsis rather than a fun, feel-good experience. I suspect this is the kind of book that will make people cry. It’s also, in my opinion, very steamy.

"I had to fight for every word. . ."

What is your typical writing process like? Was there anything different about crafting this book in particular?
Before I was published, I used to daydream my books in their entirety before I wrote them. My stories were an escape, somewhere I could go when real life became too much. The Kiss Quotient and The Bride Test were “daydream” books, and because of the way publishing works, I finished writing them both before my debut. The Heart Principle is the first book that I had to write after being published, after people had developed expectations of me, and the pressure to meet those expectations made it impossible to daydream. Honestly, the pressure, combined with life events, made me mentally ill.

Like Anna, I compulsively started this book over again and again. Nothing I wrote was good enough, and I couldn’t see where the story was going. I completely lost confidence in my ability as a writer, and I second-, third-, fourth-, fifth-guessed myself with every sentence, which led to panic attacks and burnout. Writing this book was a real journey for me. I had to fight for every word, and I had to fight for my mental health as I did so. In the end, I can’t quite say I managed to regain trust in my writing, but I do accept my writing. This is what I have to give. It’s not perfect. It’s not the best. It’s not what every single reader wants. But it gets to stand, it gets to be—just like each of us gets to be.

Quan was a fan favorite pretty much from the moment he was introduced in The Kiss Quotient. Did you expect that at all? How hard was it to write a heroine to match him?
Truthfully, I didn’t anticipate Quan would be a fan favorite, and yes, I had a hard time creating a heroine to match him. But I tried my best to give Quan someone who saw him, truly loved him and felt real at the same time.

Anna gets a boost of viral fame on YouTube but experiences some heavy burnout while trying to make lightning strike twice. Was this part of Anna’s story always present, or did it become more prominent as you were writing during the COVID-19 pandemic, as many people became burned out in work?
When I first pitched this story to my publisher, it was supposed to be a fun, gender-swapped Sabrina and had nothing to do with burnout. Clearly, things changed during the writing process. My first book, The Kiss Quotient, did far better than I imagined it would, and when I tried to reproduce the magic with The Heart Principle so I wouldn’t disappoint readers, my efforts led to burnout, which in turn inspired that aspect of the book.

The worst of my burnout happened right before the COVID-19 pandemic. Ironically, quarantining under stay-at-home orders was a relief to me. Being on the autism spectrum, social interaction is extremely stressful and demanding work for me, and I haven’t minded social distancing at all. That said, like for most people, the off-the-charts levels of anxiety and uncertainty during these times have been a challenge.

What’s been getting you through the past year? Any wonderful books that brought you comfort? A new, calming hobby?
Hands down, the books that provided the greatest escape for me over the past year are Ruby Dixon’s Ice Planet Barbarians romances. (There are 22, plus an adjacent series with another 15 books, and I read them all.) They’re as far from reality as you can get (they literally don’t take place on this planet), there are no politics or impeachments or elections, and the conflicts revolve around basic survival. The heroes are blue aliens (most of them, anyway) whose greatest goals in life are to make their human mates (they come in all body types and ethnicities and are each the most beautiful person in the world to their alien) happy.

When I was writing and struggling with frequent panic attacks, it helped to have coloring books on hand so I could calm down and reset my mind before getting back to work. I also got really into Rubik’s cubes and such. My current favorite is the Gigaminx. It’s a dodecahedron with five-layered sides. I spent hundreds of hours (not exaggerating) solving, mixing and resolving this puzzle as a form of meditation. The algorithms are ingrained in my muscle memory now.

Complex emotional arcs are always prominent in your romances. Without giving away too many details, Anna deals with a family tragedy in this book. How do you balance tough subjects (anxiety, grief, trauma) while still moving the couple toward a happily ever after?
When I write heavy topics in romance, the key for me is finding the emotional connection between those things and the conflict keeping the lovers apart. Once that’s done, the story seems to fall into place and balance itself very naturally. In The Heart Principle, for example, that emotional connection is Anna’s helpless desire for external validation.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of The Heart Principle.


Out of the three books in the Kiss Quotient series, which hero is your favorite—Michael, Kai or Quan?
I really can’t pick. It would be like asking me to say which of my kids I love more!

One of the things I’ve loved most about your books are your author’s notes. They’re very cathartic to read, and you really give readers a peek at your inspiration for each specific romance. How did that become a tradition for you, and do you think you’ll always write one for each book?
When we were preparing to release The Kiss Quotient, I remember thinking that I had more to share than just the story in the book, that I wanted to talk about my late autism diagnosis. It changed my life, and I hoped that by bringing attention to the underdiagnosis of autism in women, I could help lead other women like myself toward greater self-understanding and improve their quality of life. I asked my editor if I could add an author’s note to the book, and she supported the idea.

For The Bride Test and The Heart Principle, on the other hand, I didn’t originally plan to write author’s notes, but when my editor asked if there was more I wanted to say, I realized that there was. I think she could see how personal these books are to me and wanted to provide the opportunity for me to share the stories behind the stories. I’m not sure I’ll always write author’s notes like these. It’ll depend on the book. If there’s something important I left out or if I feel I can bring attention to issues close to my heart, I imagine I’ll ask readers for those extra minutes of their time before they shut the book.

 

Author photo by Eric Kieu.

Helen Hoang’s third book was the hardest to write. It also might be her best one yet.

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