The authors of four acclaimed young adult novels, Emily Wibberley and Austin Siegemund-Broka enjoy a friends-to-lovers romance that is better than fiction. Long before they even thought of writing romance, they were childhood rivals-turned-friends who fell in love. But the characters in their adult debut, The Roughest Draft, have a far thornier path to happily ever after.
Nathan Van Huysen and Katrina Freeling were once close friends and writing partners. Their relationship fell apart shortly after releasing a bestselling novel, and the pair haven’t spoken in three years. But unfortunately for them, they signed a two-book deal, and the deadline for their second novel is looming. Nathan and Katrina return to Key Largo, Florida, where they wrote their first book, to fulfill the requirements of their contract and write one final love story together. But the line between a polite peace and real affection proves slippery and hard to maintain.
In a call to their home in Los Angeles, Wibberley and Siegemund-Broka readily admit that they’ve known each other so long that it’s hard for them to pinpoint when they first met. Their literary doppelgängers in The Roughest Draft, on the other hand, had a far more turbulent start to their relationship. Nathan and Katrina had amazing innate chemistry at first, but they met at a complicated stage of life and never enjoyed good timing. Whatever pining bubbled up as they wrote during intense, secluded periods was suppressed in real life, only to be expressed through their fiction.
You can see the imprint of Wibberley’s and Siegemund-Broka’s personalities, palpable chemistry and, most of all, interests stamped onto these characters. That’s very much intentional, and both authors describe the metafictional commentary on narrative in The Roughest Draft as an essential part of the book’s premise. “We liked the idea from the beginning that writing is putting yourself on the page,” Wibberley explains. “So you’re sharing . . . a layer of yourself there that you wouldn’t normally.”
That, Siegemund-Broka says, is “the thematic wellspring of this book. . . . You are creating professionally, and you’re doing it to write for an audience and to craft stories that you think people will engage with. But at the same time, there’s no avoiding the degree to which it also springs from your own passions, your own preferences, the things that you think are exciting and lovable.”
Wibberley and Siegemund-Broka’s collaborative, reflective and intellectually curious sensibility comes through loud and clear on the page, especially in their approach to tropes. Both authors are very conscious of storytelling traditions and structures, and The Roughest Draft leans on beloved conventions such as estranged friends, friends to lovers and a second chance at love.
Nathan and Katrina’s relationship at the beginning of The Roughest Draft is similar to fake dating, but rather than performing a relationship for others, they’re performing a friendship for themselves. To diffuse tensions at the start of their time in Key Largo, Katrina suggests that they should, in essence, fake it till they make it: “You and I will be creating fiction together. So let’s embrace it. Let’s live a fiction.” This creates a safe space to enjoy each other’s company without having to address the tensions that broke up their partnership in the first place.
The Roughest Draft explores this dynamic in extremely effective ways. Here, it’s not simply about getting the characters into close proximity or forcing them to go through the motions. It’s about giving them permission to do things that they wouldn’t feel they had license to do otherwise. Siegemund-Broka points to a scene in which Katrina acts out choreography for a love scene in front of Nathan. “She’s performing for a very logistical, clear reason,” he says. “But the actions are what they are, and [so are] the feelings.”
Speaking of love scenes, what is it like writing them with your life partner? “It was the hardest part of the book for us,” Wibberley says.
Siegemund-Broka agrees. “It’s too [much] like you’re being watched while you’re trying to channel those feelings,” he says. “It makes it difficult to write and difficult to edit and difficult to negotiate.” These are the only parts of the book they wrote separately from each other, and this potential for awkwardness when writing about sex with another person carries over for the characters in The Roughest Draft. “We wanted to include those moments in the book, both for the obvious character tension but also for the humor, because of course, you have them sitting on the couch being incredibly awkward together,” says Siegemund-Broka.
These sorts of layered interactions between fiction, the craft of storytelling and real life are at the heart of The Roughest Draft, and it’s a cerebral yet swoony way to depict a love story.
“It’s a very ‘us’ preoccupation, these kinds of meta questions of how stories resemble life, but also how, in life, we are often telling stories,” says Siegemund-Broka. “They are spinning a fiction within their own lives, pretending that they are co-workers who are completely fine with each other.”
As Wibberley points out, we all tell stories, smoothing out the rough parts or blowing up the things we find significant. Even “people who don’t write novels . . . might see themselves [in the book] and be like, OK, yeah, sometimes you [do] tell yourself a story to get through the day.”
Wibberley and Siegemund-Broka plan to continue writing adult romance that explores long-term relationships. As Wibberley points out, they certainly have a lot of experience to draw from, having been together since they were 17.
The idea of characters who have seen many different versions of each other is creatively inspiring, Siegemund-Broka says. “We are very attracted right now to writing characters who’ve been in each other’s lives a long time . . . whether it creates tension or longing or, alternatively, stasis, and figuring out how you deal with that weight of time.”
After reading The Roughest Draft, many readers will make a similarly long-term commitment to having Wibberley and Siegemund-Broka’s work on their shelves for years to come.
Author photo by Sue Grubman.