For Nicole Cliffe and Jasmine Guillory, it was love at first tweet. The Slate columnist and the romance novelist bonded over a love of the royals and similar social media sensibilities. Over time, their friendship progressed along a very 2019 trajectory—they went from Twitter DMs to text. Along with another friend, Samantha Powell, they formed a “Royals Group Chat,” where they dissect, celebrate, and challenge anything and everything related to the British Royal Family. (The group is so serious about their subject that they met up IRL for a weekend away to watch Meghan and Harry’s wedding.)
As Guillory began to research and write her latest novel, Royal Holiday—a Doria Ragland-inspired love story where a 50-something black woman falls for one of the Royal’s private secretaries—she called upon Cliffe and Powell for help. They brainstormed cottage names, swapped royal insight, and served as Guillory’s soundboard. So when Glamour asked Guillory to participate in our “Bodice Rippers,” series (an exploration of the $1 billion romance novel industry) we couldn’t think of anyone better to speak with her than Cliffe. Read on for their conversation about fully-formed heroines, royal research, and why so many romance novelists are lawyers.
Nicole Cliffe: Something I’ve always loved about your books is that your characters are such adults. They have jobs and friends and familial responsibilities, none of which they can just throw overboard when they meet a new romantic interest. In Royal Holiday, we get to enjoy a 50-something heroine. Why was it so important for you to portray women with rich, full lives?
Jasmine Guillory: I love writing slightly older characters, partly because they have more life experience to draw on, and partly because they’re more set in their ways. So it’s fun for me to see what and who will break them out of their patterns, and to see what they really care about. For me, the more well-rounded and complex a character is, the more interesting they are—and the more there is for someone to love about them. When I start writing a book, I usually start with one or two elements of each main character, but one of the things I think about a lot is what would make each character fall in love with someone, and so I add layers to each of them until I figure out why these two specific people would fall in love with each other. I loved writing Vivian, because she has a lot of life experience, but she’s also figured out a lot about what really matters in life, versus what she doesn’t need to bother worrying about. I need to take more lessons from her!
I want to talk about Vivian, who was inspired by Meghan Markle's mother, Doria Ragland. When did you decide you wanted to write a character reminiscent of her?
I have to thank my friend [librarian and podcast host] Margaret H. Willison here. In the fall of 2018, just as I was finishing up the draft of my third book, The Wedding Party, there was a news story that the Queen had invited Doria to Christmas with the royal family at Sandringham. And Margaret tweeted, "I now NEED a charming romance about the single mother of a new Duchess falling in love with an appropriately aged royal retainer while spending Christmas at Sandringham." I responded, as a joke (really!), "I VOLUNTEER AS TRIBUTE". But so many people responded to that tweet, that I started thinking about it. And in The Wedding Party, the mom of the heroine was Vivian, a Black social worker single mom in her 50s, and I'd already been tossing around ideas for how I'd get to write a book for her. So, I emailed my agent, and she loved the idea, and my editor loved it even more—and Royal Holiday was born. If you can believe it, I was so excited to write this book that I voluntarily moved my deadline up by six months.
Your novels, to date, have all featured recurring characters. One book may star a cousin who just made a brief appearance in a previous novel, or in Vivian's case, she went from being the mother of the heroine to the love interest of the next book. When you wrote your first novel, The Wedding Date, did you have any idea that it would become the first book in what I refer to as the "Extended Jasmine Guillory Literary Universe?"
I love that you call it that. When I wrote The Wedding Date, I definitely had sparks of ideas for some future books. For instance, as soon as Maddie and Theo appeared on the page together, I knew those two were going to make out later that night, and that I really wanted to write that story (which later became The Wedding Party). But I didn't have a publishing deal when I wrote The Wedding Date, I didn't have an agent, I didn't even know if the book would find a home at all. And so I'm just so overjoyed and feel so fortunate that The Wedding Date found such an audience, and that I've gotten to write so many more books in that world. And more to come!
I've found that people suppress shock when hearing that romance writers research their books, especially when those books are set in contemporary times and not the Regency Period. I know Royal Holiday is the book you did the most work to get every detail right. Can you talk a little about how that process worked in Royal Holiday?
The delightful thing about the research for Royal Holiday is I'd been accidentally doing a lot of it for years. I was always low-key fascinated by the whole concept of royalty, and have read a lot of fiction and nonfiction about it, but Harry and Meghan really stepped that up. I spent the months after the 2016 election binging royal books and biographies and stories and blogs—I needed to go back in history some, to read about times when people were bad and things were bad but civilization still made it through. And it helped that some of that was accompanied by lots of sparkles—I spent a lot of time on royal jewelry blogs (The Court Jeweller is my favorite).
But in the process I learned a ton about how the royal family operates, how the monarchy operates, and lots of little protocol and procedural details that came in very handy when I decided to write Royal Holiday. For instance, I knew who Vivian was already, but when I was deciding who the hero would be, I knew the names and titles (and job duties) of lots of the people who worked for the Queen, so I decided to make Malcolm her private secretary. And I decided to make him her first black private secretary, because, you know, why the hell not? (The Queen does not hire many black people at all, this is likely one of the many reasons the monarchy has had such a problem with Meghan.) And after all of the reading I did, I also took a trip to London to get a bunch of details right about where they went and what they did. It was also helpful to be there to listen to people talk so I could try as best as possible to get British English right. (I also had some very helpful readers who helped fix some of my Americanisms.)
Something I've always been curious about is the fact that so many romance novelists, like yourself, are lawyers. Women like Courtney Milan, Grace Burroughs, or Stacey Abrams. Any theories on why this might be the case?
So many of us are! I think maybe it's because in so many ways, writing romance is the opposite of any legal writing. But also, becoming a lawyer and all of that discipline is so helpful when it comes to writing and publishing. Writing and especially publishing can be a grind. It can take forever, and can be stressful and overwhelming, and despite everything, you have to just keep going. That's a lot like how both law school and legal practice can be! But also romance in particular is so fun to write, maybe that's why lawyers love writing it so much. When I wrote The Wedding Date, I was working really long hours as a lawyer, and those thirty minutes here and an hour there I could steal away from work to dive into my writing was such a fantastic break, I looked forward to it every time. Maybe we all still feel like we're playing the best kind of hooky from our jobs as lawyers when we write romance! That's how I feel, anyway.
Nicole Cliffe is a columnist for Slate and has written for The Guardian, ELLE, Christianity Today, and SELF. She co-founded The Toast and lives with her husband and three children in Utah.
Originally Appeared on Glamour