The New York Times-bestselling romance novelist talks about the intertwined world of her books and writing her newest novel, While We Were Dating, in the midst of the pandemic.
Some romances are designed as an escape to historical times or extraordinary places, while others aim to show love that can be found in a world not so different from our own. Jasmine Guillory’s novels, which include bestsellers The Wedding Date, The Proposal (a Reese’s Book Club pick), The Wedding Party, Royal Holiday, and Party of Two, are firmly in the latter category.
They are steeped in reality, with characters who could easily be your friends, trying (or not, as the case may be) to find and make space for love while balancing demanding careers, family duties, and meaningful friendships. It’s the friendships that make Guillory’s fictional world go ’round with the best friend (or even parent) of a character in one novel showing up in the spotlight of a future novel. It’s a technique employed by many romance novelists, but one that Guillory, a lawyer by training, has become known for, likely because of how fully developed the relationships are.
Still, it’s the romance that brings readers back book after book. Guillory’s novels make use of the close third person, with the point-of-view switching between the love interests. Readers feel the sexual and emotional tension build between characters as the first sparks of interest shift into actual feelings complicated by each person’s insecurities, doubts, and desires.
In addition, everyday occurrences—riding in an elevator, attending a baseball game, eating in a restaurant—turn into moments of potential love, scenarios that have become more impactful in the days of COVID lockdown. Guillory wrote the entirety of her newest novel, While We Were Dating (Berkley, July 2021), during the pandemic. When I express surprise at not being able to tell a difference in the writing of those “before-times” activities from her previous novels, she replies, “There were many ways in which writing this book was my savior. A lot of the book I wrote last August/September, and those were some of the hardest months for me. Leaning into this book was my joy throughout the hardest parts of the pandemic, so I tried to put that joy in this book.”
The joy shows. Ben Stephens, a junior executive at an ad agency, and Anna Gardiner, a famous actress who appears in an ad he produces, take pleasure in the little things: a hot meal from the In-N-Out Burger during a road trip, laughing over a drink at a rooftop bar as they move from a professional, working relationship to something more.
WD spoke with Jasmine Guillory by phone at the beginning of April, and we started our conversation by talking more about Ben and Anna’s budding romance.
Both Ben Stephens and Anna Gardiner make cameos in your previous books. What was the inspiration for getting them together in this book?
As soon as I wrote Ben, I knew I wanted to write his story. I just had so much fun with him as a character in The Wedding Party, and I was thinking about what kind of story will I write for Ben? I wanted him to fall in love out of nowhere because it felt like Ben is the kind of person who at least pretends that life is all fun and happy and just all games for him. And then I wanted it to not be a game all of a sudden. So that’s how I came up with the idea of Ben and Anna. I thought it would be fun to have a bit of a Hollywood story. It just evolved from there.
A lot of us have come face-to-face with our mental health in the past year or so, and mental health plays a key role in this new novel. Did you plan on writing a book with this as a sub-theme or did that develop during the pandemic?
Well, there was a pandemic, yeah! That played a big role in some of those things that came up in this book. It was funny because I had a throwaway line in The Wedding Party about Ben—Theo was talking about him and said something about his brother going to therapy. I had forgotten about that, and I started writing and I was adding the Anna stuff about mental health and I was like, Oh, Ben goes to therapy too. I already said that in another book. OK, well, I guess we’re just going all-in with this!
Even though that theme does exist, the book is laugh-out-loud funny. They get into all kinds of escapades. That balance of realistic, serious life issues with fun, lighthearted moments creates scenarios that allow the characters to connect and develop their romance shows up in all of your books. How did you teach yourself how to do that so skillfully?
Just really thinking about life—some of the funniest moments I’ve had with my family and friends have been at funerals, where sometimes you need to escape the sadness of life and think about funny things or lean into the joy. Sometimes, life is not all one or the other. Usually in the midst of a lot of good things, you’re experiencing hard things at the same time and vice versa. So, I wanted to be able to try to balance that.
And also, it’s hard reading fiction that’s all one thing ’cause I think about, Well, but sometimes something bad has to happen, right? Or, come on, there’s going to be some good. And so I, as a writer, want to try to balance that as well.
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Going back to your earlier work, those first three books have fairly complex overlapping timelines.
[Laughs] I know! It was so hard!
When did you know they would overlap in that way and how did you organize that?
Oh my gosh. I will never do that again. It was mostly accidental. I wish I could say that I had a grand plan for it. I did not. When I wrote The Wedding Date, initially I wanted the next book to be The Wedding Party. I had the idea for The Wedding Party while I was writing The Wedding Date because there’s a scene about a third of the way through The Wedding Date that’s the first scene in The Wedding Party. When I wrote that scene and had Maddie and Theo interact for the first time, that was when I was like, Oh, these two are going to go home together tonight. So then I sort of had the idea for that. It wasn’t much later that I had the idea for The Proposal, and we kind of decided that that would go in between them.
But the timeline … I did not think through, or think through how difficult it was going to be for me, especially because when I wrote them, The Wedding Date and The Proposal, I had a little bit of separation between writing those two. But The Proposal and The Wedding Party I wrote relatively close together. There was one time when I was going through final edits for The Proposal, and I was drafting The Wedding Party and I realized I had to change some timeline stuff in The Proposal’s [timeline] to make it work. I was doing a lot of juggling. Thank God for copy editors who kept my timelines working throughout all of those books because that was the hardest.
There were a lot of calendar setups, especially toward the end as I was figuring out The Proposal and The Wedding Party at the same time, making sure it all worked. That was a challenge.
You worked on the first book for years, writing it and revising it. But since that first book came out in 2018, you’ve published five more books. Regardless of publishing cycle quirks, that’s still an astounding pace. How have you had to change your writing practices to keep up with that?
It’s interesting because every book is different, and I keep thinking, Now I have found my groove and I know how to do this, and then a pandemic comes along and it’s much more difficult. In some ways, it’s helpful because I now write full-time, so I have more time for my writing. But sometimes that just means I have more time to think about writing. It’s not so much that I write more words a day, which, sometimes it’s true and sometimes it’s not, but it means that I have more mental space to let myself lean into thinking about writing and figuring stuff out. But you know, a deadline is an encouraging force, so that helps. [Laughs]
It also does help that I have institutional help now. I have my agent to talk things through with; I have an editor to talk things through with them and figure stuff out with. So, it’s not just me on my couch thinking through things. I have a lot more writer friends too that I can explore ideas with. Also, there’s a lot to just having the experience of doing something before. It helps you figure it out easier.
When I was in the midst of the first draft of The Wedding Date, I was talking through a plot point with a good friend of mine who has been one of my first readers since the beginning, and she was like, “Well, why does Alexa do that?” And I was like, “Oh, but that doesn’t matter because …” And she was like, “No, no, but why did she do it?” And I was like, “No, but that—you’re not listening, that doesn’t matter.” And she was like, “No, why?” And I was like, “Fine. OK, I’ll think about why she does it.” And then I thought about what she did and figured it out.
Now I hear her voice in my head all the time when I’m doing stuff, so I think about that and move through it faster. I think of the questions earlier on and then know that I have to answer them. As opposed to before, I’d get through the fifth draft and send it to someone and they’d be like, “But I don’t understand why this happens.” And then I would have to fix a whole big thing. Now I can pinpoint the “I don’t understand why” a little bit easier.
You mentioned sending your ideas or questions to your agent or editor. We talk a lot about how authors find their agents, but we don’t talk about what that working relationship is like, and they’re all different. I wondered, what’s your author/agent working relationship?
You know, it varies. I talk through book ideas with her usually at the beginning. If I’m in the early stages of figuring something out, I’ll talk something through with her. And then I will often talk something through with her toward the end. I send her a draft sometimes before my editor gets it if I’m anxious about it and I need other eyes on it or reassurance. Then there’s a lot of small things that I will talk through with her. I can’t say enough good things about my agent. I can’t imagine being in this career without her. It is very helpful because, at the beginning, you don’t really understand it.
I think that’s so true—people do talk about how to find an agent, but not the actual working relationship. I’ve emailed her when I’m stressed about something, and she will either reassure me or tell me, “I understand why you’re stressed about this, but,” and these are all the other things to think about. Or, we’ll have a long phone call where we talk details and then big picture. That’s also helpful, to talk things through with her on the scale of this is the book I’m thinking about and then also on the scale of what are the next five things I want to do in my career. That is also helpful to think about everything in context.
I heard that you participated in NaNoWriMo. What book did you work on for that challenge, and what was that experience like?
NaNoWriMo does an April month. They do Camp NaNoWriMo, and you can do it the regular way or it’s an opportunity to finish another project or do editing or whatever. But, it starts on April 1, and April 1 six years ago was when I started The Wedding Date. I did Camp NaNoWriMo, and that’s how I wrote the first 15,000 words of The Wedding Date.
I only decided to do it because a friend of mine was doing it. She texted me, I think it was March 30, and was like, “I’m doing NaNoWriMo with (another friend of hers), you should do with us.” I had had the idea for The Wedding Date. I jotted it down. But I hadn’t really committed to myself that I was going to write it. I got that text, and I was like, “OK, let’s do it.” So I decided pretty last minute that I was going to do it and then I just committed.
Ready to try NaNoWriMo for yourself? Join the webinar hosted by NaNoWriMo Executive Director, Grant Faulkner, and author Rachael Herron to learn more!
We always talk about, at least with the November NaNoWriMo challenge, “winning the challenge,” but we don’t talk about the revision afterward. What was that like for you?
I wrote the first 15,000 words that April, and then I kept going. I didn’t write as fast, but I still wrote—my first drafts are always too long, so the first draft of that book was over 100,000 words—but I finished drafting in June. Then I took twice as long to edit. I tend to write pretty messy first drafts because usually midway through a draft, I figure something big out about a story or the beginning that changes a lot. I almost never go back and fix it; I just make a note like, Rewrite the first chapter to make it like this and then continue and pretend as if I have done it already.
By the time I finish the first draft, I already know a lot that I need to fix about the story. So, my second draft is about doing all of those fixes that I’ve already made notes for myself. I’ve made a ton of notes already, and I go through and make those fixes. Talking about writing too long first drafts, that’s usually when I make the biggest cuts.
My subsequent drafts are figuring out what problems are left, narrowing stuff down, fixing the language, all of that kind of stuff. I narrow down as I go along ’cause I usually don’t send a draft to anyone until the fourth draft or so. The second draft is my biggest revision and then it keeps going through a few more.
In other interviews, you talked about reading different books of writing advice and choosing the advice that worked for you. Could you talk about the specific writing advice that you’ve chosen to follow and what you’ve chosen to ignore or what you found has not worked?
The most important thing is—I tend to pay attention to what other writers say works for them and then trying different things. That’s particularly helpful before you’re published because then you have more free time. We were just talking about how the publication schedules are set up and having deadlines. It’s easier when you’re learning how to do it, to see this works for me and this doesn’t.
I know I need to have an outline ’cause I tried to write a book without an outline and it didn’t work for me. Now I know I need something. Even if most of the time when I write an outline I diverge a lot as I go through, it helps me to have something there to keep going. And I usually then, once I start changing the book, make edits to the outline and fix my path forward. So, that’s something that I need.
There’s a big “write every day” kind of writing advice that a lot of people will say. You don’t have to write every day. I don’t think people have to write every day. I know that I have to, not every day of my life, but when I am writing a draft of a book, I work on it every day until I finished a draft. Partly because, as I was saying earlier, it helps keep it in my head all the time. So, it’s not that I have to write a certain number of words every day, it’s that I want to keep the book alive to myself so that I keep thinking about it. So that when I’m washing dishes, I’ll have that idea or so that the people are alive to me in a way that doesn’t happen for me if I take breaks.
But even while I was writing While We Were Dating, a lot of stuff that I had done in the past had to go out the window because it was a pandemic. I had to figure out how I can still be a writer. I wrote the entire first draft by hand. I have never done that before. Part of the reason that happened is because I usually write the first scene by hand because having the blank computer is intimidating. It’s helpful for me to start something by hand, and then I type up those 500 words or whatever. Then there you go. I had the beginning of the book, and I can keep typing.
I started that with While We Were Dating, but it was just the beginning of the pandemic when I started that book. It was so hard to even think of writing something that was a book. I didn’t even want to put the pressure of a file on my computer on myself. I just kept writing in a notebook, and then eventually I was like, All right, fine. I guess I need to type some of this up. But then I kept writing by hand ’cause I was like, It’s working, it’s working, I’m not going to mess with it. I just kind of kept going that way. That’s not something I’ve done before. I don’t think it’s something I will do again, but it worked at the time.
It’s also important to be flexible on these things. Figure out what works for you, but don’t think of that as dogmatic because circumstances change, and people change, and we change as writers. See how you evolve and see what keeps working and what doesn’t.
The romance genre as a whole, it doesn’t always get a lot of respect in the publishing world, even though it’s a billion-dollar-per-year industry. Why do you think that is, and what do you wish was different?
I think the answer to that goes, generally, back to misogyny, and it’s a genre that, not fully, of course, tends to be dominated by women. The authors writing it to the people reading it are mostly women and, therefore, people—both men and women—think that there’s something wrong with it. Like, [they] think that it’s easy to look down on or it must be bad or guilty or not as well written or all of these things just because it’s love stories and good things happen. Lately, I’ve seen more pushback on that … Especially when you confront people, Why do you think that? And they don’t have any answer. They’ll go back to Fabio on the cover—Fabio hasn’t been on the cover of a romance in, like, 30 years!
Romance writers have a deep understanding of people’s psyche, what makes them tick, and how they connect. It’s an incredible skill that isn’t paid enough attention to in the romance genre.
Well, because romance is about relationships, right? It’s not just about romantic relationships. It’s about the way people relate to other people. To write a good romance, you have to figure that out. And good romance writers can do that better than anyone. WD