Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings entered the romance scene right before Valentine’s Day in 2013 with Beautiful Bastard, a scintillating tale of a forbidden office relationship. The debut took off and was the first in a series of erotic romances driven by empowered female leads. Under the penname Christina Lauren, they’ve kept fans enraptured for years and, this fall, are delivering the final installment: Beautiful. Longtime readers will be happy to reunite with their favorite characters from past books, though the spotlight rests on Pippa and Jensen, who are thrown together on a couples’ wine and beer tour. Here, the writing duo shares their thoughts about fanfiction, gender studies, and the word they promised their editor they’d never use.
Bookish: Jensen and Pippa don’t get off to a really great start. Have you ever had the experience where you’ve tried to keep your cool and instead pulled a Pippa?
Christina Lauren: We’ve absolutely had this experience. We are fangirls to our bones, and regularly lose our composure when we are with authors we adore. Christina meeting David Levithan is a favorite memory of ours. Lo in front of Laini Taylor is always fun to witness. But luckily, in most cases, meeting our author heroes has been an awesome experience because they’re such wonderful people.
Bookish: In this book, some of our favorite couples (and one couple-to-be) go on a wine and beer tasting trip up the coast. If you two could go on a booze tour with any six fictional characters, who would they be?
Bookish: In Beautiful Bastard, Chloe and Bennett are intimate within the first dozen pages. In Beautiful, it takes Jensen and Pippa a lot longer, despite their mutual attraction, to seal the deal. Did you write it this way because of the nature of Jensen and Pippa’s relationship?
CL: In Beautiful, but also in Beautiful Secret (and, to a lesser extent Beautiful Player), the sex scenes come later than in Bastard and Stranger. It was intentional, yes, and is entirely about the characters and who they are, rather than an urge to have a different rhythm in the last book! Neither Jensen and Pippa, nor Niall and Ruby would have sex with a virtual stranger in a bar, conference room, stairwell, restaurant . . . :)
Bookish: Are there any romantic tropes that one of you likes and the other doesn’t? If so, do you choose to still write about them?
CL: There aren’t really any tropes one of us has wanted to tackle and the other hasn’t. If there’s something we’ve so far avoided—such as cowboy & city girl, or unexpected pregnancy—it’s mainly because we aren’t sure we would put the best spin on it, or the idea hasn’t fully crystallized yet. We’re pretty lucky; most of the time, we’re on the same page (so to speak).
Bookish: You met online, writing fanfiction. What did you learn from writing fanfiction that has helped you as authors? Is there any book that you’ve read in the last few years that has tempted you to jump back into fanfiction?
CL: Being in a fandom taught us, first and foremost, how to take criticism. When you’re posting your work under a penname online, people won’t pull punches when they don’t like something you’ve written. It also taught us the golden rule of the internet: Don’t be a dick. You might be a big author in a fandom, but you will be a nobody somewhere else, and no matter how many readers you have, or books you sell, there is always someone out there doing it better, and faster. Keep your head about you.
Sometimes we do miss writing fic. There’s the reward of immediate feedback, and the momentum of posting something regularly and gaining a following. But what we miss in that immediacy, we make up for in having such a solid editorial and publishing team behind us. We may write fic again some day—maybe we still do, ha!—but writing books for publication takes most of our time these days.
Bookish: Christina, you’ve said that the fanfiction community gave you an outlet for a voice you didn’t know you had. What was it like to discover your voice and then, soon after, learn to seamlessly weave it with someone else’s?
CH: I’d never seen a community of women that celebrated each other’s successes in the same way, and to be a part of that was so empowering. For the first time in my life I felt like I had something to say, and that community gave me a place to say it. It’s also where I met my best friend, and the transition from writing by myself to writing with Lo was effortless. It sometimes feels like we’re just writing for each other, trying to make the other laugh or blush, and love what we’ve written enough that we want to pester the other for more.
Bookish: Lauren, have your studies in neuroscience given you any special insight into how men and women think about romance and sex? Has this insight affected your writing?
LB: The field of gender studies in neuroscience is enormous and, admittedly, not my area of specialty. That said, I find the study to be fascinating. There is a good deal of evidence that our brains are wired differently (such as density of synaptic spines, neural connections), but whether or not the brain is intrinsically ‘gendered’ is a matter of pretty heated debate. There just aren’t that many anatomical differences. Evidence suggests that women have verbal centers in both hemispheres, whereas males tend to use their left hemisphere primarily for verbal communication. This may partially explain why women gravitate to emotional content in words, rather than visually. But even when you consider ‘gendered’ neurological centers, such as those for maternal behaviors in mice which is present but less active in males, strong paternal behavior can be induced in males if the neurons are specifically activated. We have all the same parts—it’s just about how we train our brains.
So, because of that, a good deal of the biases in readership are likely to be culturally—rather than biologically—based. One example, in Brazil we had nearly as many male readers in line as female. In the US and most European countries, the men in our lines are generally getting books signed for their wives; that is, they’re supportive and enthusiastic, but don’t view these books as For Them which is very likely to be a cultural assumption rather than instinctive biological preference.
Bookish: Your couples come from different countries, work in different industries, have different fetishes. There must be a lot of research for each book. Which book was most challenging to write because of the research involved?
CL: Of all of our books, Dirty Rowdy Thing probably required the most research because neither of us knew anything about industrial fishing. But of the Beautiful series, Beautiful Secret required us to have a firm understanding of civil engineering and disaster preparedness. Even if we only used a tiny, tiny fraction of what we’d learned, it still helped to have that framework before we started.
Bookish: Your books contain sex-positive stories for women, where female protagonists initiate sex, explore their desires and fetishes/kinks, and aren’t ever shamed for their behavior. Why is it important for you to include this in the series?
CL: The portrayal of strong female characters is always a priority for us, because that’s how the world looks. Being strong isn’t an eccentricity. We are surrounded by strong heroines in all their forms—quiet, brassy, hilarious, and wry. This isn’t a tiny pocket of the female population. By and large, women of our generation and the ones that came before and after us know who they are and what they deserve. Our default is that they are strong; what we get to play with is the manner and expression of their strengths.
Bookish: In your very first acknowledgements you wrote that you promised to never use the word vulva. What are some other things you have learned work and don’t work when writing about sex?
CL: We promised our editor, Adam Wilson, to never say vulva when a copy editor had wanted to replace “wet skin” with the v-word, and Adam said, “If you write ‘vulva’ here, I’m quitting.” We still laugh about this.
But more than anything, when writing about sex, it’s important to remember that it’s subjective. What’s sexy to one person may not be sexy to another. So, we trust our instincts, and write what works for us. Over time, we’ve learned that it also works for many (but of course not all) readers. In any genre, but maybe especially romance, you have to do what feels most natural for you as an author.
Christina Lauren is the combined pen name of long-time writing partners/besties/soulmates and brain-twins Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings, the New York Times, USA Today, and #1 international bestselling authors of the Beautiful Bastard and Wild Seasons series, Sublime, and The House.