When ghostwriter Chandler Cohen has a wildly disappointing one-night stand with actor Finn Walsh, she chalks it up to the perils of casual sex and moves on. But then she finds out that Finn is her new client—and he’d really appreciate it if, when they’re not working on his book, she taught him how to satisfy a woman properly.
Sex in romance novels is often idealized and aspirational, but you absolutely turn that on its head in this book! What made you want to create a handsome, charming, appealing hero who’s genuinely awful at sex?
I love subverting tropes whenever I can, and while I adore romance novels, the sex can sometimes feel a bit airbrushed. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes that’s exactly what I want to read. Other times, though, I’m eager to see more varied, more realistic sexual experiences on the page—and those can absolutely still be hot. I would argue that sometimes they’re even hotter.
There’s a reason I only ever write beta heroes: I love the awkwardness and fumbling and blushing. It’s far sexier to me to read (and write) a spicy scene between two people working together to learn what each other likes, especially because this lends itself to significant character and relationship growth. Communication is crucial in these scenes, and when the sex is bad, there needs to be a lot of communication to make it better. That journey makes the end result all the more satisfying.
With Finn, I wanted to challenge myself: Could I redeem a hero who’s bad in bed? Would readers still root for that character? (I hope so! He’s quite sincere about wanting to improve, and he is a very good listener.) That’s also why I made his most famous role a nerdy scientist type who wasn’t the main character of his show: I didn’t want him to be typical leading man material.
I was intrigued by the comparison Finn made between ghostwriting and acting—how both are a chance to escape from your own story for a little while and live in someone else’s. Is that something you enjoy as an author?
It’s truly my favorite thing, and it’s why I studied journalism. I am so curious about people, and journalism gave me a noncreepy way to ask them questions about themselves. In all seriousness, though, it’s such a privilege to get to learn about what someone loves and then to try and bring that passion to the page.
As you note in Business or Pleasure, there are countless different ways to approach writing a memoir. Did you read a lot of them for research? Do you have any particular favorites?
I’ve read plenty of celebrity memoirs over the years, so in a way, I was researching before I started writing! I also spoke to a few ghostwriters about their experiences, which helped me add more depth as I was drafting. I will admit that the first memoir I read post-Business or Pleasure happened to be Prince Harry’s Spare. I found myself trying to determine which turns of phrase might have been massaged by the ghostwriter and which ones might have been exactly as the subject had spoken them. That was the first book where I felt I could really see the ghostwriter.
As for favorites, Mara Wilson’s Where Am I Now? really struck a chord with me. I also loved both of Mindy Kaling’s books and Judy Greer’s I Don’t Know What You Know Me From.
Outlines and planning of all sorts are very important to Chandler. Is that a trait you share? What did that add to her character for you?
Perhaps to my own detriment at times, but yes! My process usually begins with some character work, learning their backstories and what brought them to the places they’re at when the book opens. Then I outline. I recently started using Gwen Hayes’ Romancing the Beat and can’t believe it took me this long to pick it up. Total game changer.
The outlines Chandler uses were my editor’s idea. In my first draft, Chandler’s sex-ed instruction was interwoven with the “practical” portion of her lessons, and it messed with the flow of the intimate scenes—they’d be getting into it, and she’d pause to give him a lecture on anatomy. The outline suggestion was great because it speaks to how Chandler is a planner who’s spent years chaining herself to a career that isn’t giving her what she needs. She takes the job with Finn in hopes of getting out of a professional rut, and it wrecks her plans in the best possible way.
In Chandler’s lessons with Finn, she talks about how movies and TV tend to focus on the male gaze. It could be said that heterosexual romance tends to focus on the female gaze. Do you agree?
I agree to an extent, yes. But I think this can get tricky because the male gaze so often sexualizes women, and just as I’m not interested in media featuring women as sex objects, I never want to write men as sex objects either. That’s not progress. While my books center women’s desires because I’m mainly writing from a single point of view, my heroes’ desires are still present, and my hope is that these relationships feel healthy and balanced.
The Lord of the Rings books were deeply formative for Finn. Was there a series like that for you? One you connected with as a child or a teen that still holds a lot of resonance?
Yes, absolutely! The Princess Diaries books were my comfort reads, and they always feel like slipping back into conversation with an old friend. I have distinct memories of sitting in an aisle of Borders (RIP) with the latest volume, trying not to read the whole thing before I could bring it home but unable to stop myself from turning the pages.
You render the world of fan conventions so vividly! Do you have much experience with them?
Thank you! I’ve been to Emerald City Comic Con a few times, and I’ve always loved the energy there and how cons are a place where people can be unashamedly passionate about what they love. One of my early ideas for Business or Pleasure actually sparked at a con many years ago at a panel with a few “Buffy” actors. I found it fascinating that their careers mainly centered on the con circuit and wondered what that might be like—to be most well known for something you did two decades ago.
I’m this weird combination in that I studied journalism, which revolves around interviewing strangers, but I also have moments of intense shyness. Most of my con experiences were with my now-husband, and he’d always have a joke or anecdote ready for a celebrity, while I’d give an awkward smile and struggle to make eye contact. Essentially, I’d be terrible at Chandler’s job!
I loved the specificity of your portrayal of the Jewish experience, from looking for matzo ball soup when you’re sick, to seeking out menorahs in holiday movies, to going to services and realizing you still remember all the words. Why was it important that Chandler and Finn shared a Jewish background?
While all my protagonists are Jewish, I tend to go back and forth with my heroes. For Business or Pleasure, I wanted another point of connection between Chandler and Finn. They’re coming from two different worlds, but they have more in common than they initially realized, from a shared feeling of imposter syndrome to mental health to religion.
You don’t shy away from serious topics in Business or Pleasure, including mental health and abortion. What made you decide to include those subjects? What story possibilities did they open up for you?
I never want my writing to feel didactic, but mental health tends to play a key role in my books because it’s often at the forefront of my own mind, and it’s been a long journey for me to feel comfortable and safe in my own brain.
I want to test the limits of what we can call a romantic comedy, because I still consider my books rom-coms even when they deal with depression or grief or any number of “heavier” topics. And I put that in quotes because while those things might seem heavy for a rom-com, they’re so much a part of our regular, nonfictional lives, and humans still manage to fall in love all the time. My characters don’t love each other in spite of whatever else they happen to be dealing with. They simply love each other, full stop.
Photo of Rachel Lynn Solomon © Sabreen Lakhani.