There are a few audio skips or what I think of as sound bubbles, and my apologies for that.
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Sarah Wendell: Hello and welcome to episode number 551 of Smart Podcast, Trashy Books. I’m Sarah Wendell, and this week I have an interesting conversation for you. I mean, I try to do that every week, but I’m very excited about this episode. Back in December, I connected with author Helena Greer, who wrote Season of Love, which you might have heard me talk about. I also connected with Sam Brody, who’s the acquiring editor at Hachette, who worked on the book with Helena, and so we talk about the behind-the-scenes details of writing and editing, why Sam acquired this book, what it meant to her, and what the experience was like bringing this book into market.
There are a few audio skips, or what I think of as sound bubbles? Like, there’s just a little bubble in the audio, and my apologies for that. I did my best to correct them.
We talk about a lot of books in this episode, and you know they will be in the show notes at smartbitchestrashybooks.com/podcast.
I have a compliment this week! This makes me so happy.
To Rebecca T: You may not have thought that the effort you made was noticed or appreciated, but there are currently seven different people who are now convinced that you have made the world much, much better. Thank you.
If you have supported the show with a monthly pledge of any amount, thank you, thank you. You’re helping me make sure that each episode has a transcript – hi, garlicknitter! – [hi! – gk] – and you keep the show going every week. And if you join our Patreon at patreon.com/SmartBitches, you get bonus episodes, a very lovely Discord, and you get lots and lots of bad jokes in the joke channel! It’s like a sneak preview of terrible humor.
I also want to say hello to Theresa, who joined the Patreon this week. Hello, Theresa! Thank you for joining us!
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All right, are you ready for a funky conversation about Season of Love with Helena Greer and Sam Brody? Let’s do this: on with the podcast.
Sam Brody: Hi! I’m Sam Brody. I am an associate editor at Forever, which is an imprint of Grand Central Publishing at Hachette, where we publish romance and relationship-focused fiction. I realize I should put my phone on mute.
Sarah: Nah, that’s fine; I never remember to do that, so don’t even worry about it.
Helena Greer: I’m Helena Greer, and I am a debut romance novelist. My first novel, Season of Love, is out now. I’m also a librarian and sex educator!
Sarah: Whoa, that’s cool! Congratulations on the publication of Season of Love. I have to tell you – all right, I always do this; my listeners are going to be so tired of this – I owe you guys an apology ‘cause I inhaled this book in one day, so you did all of this work and all of this writing, and I was just, like, unhinging my jaw and just being like – [gargles] – and putting it down into my mental gullet. It was so freaking adorable! Easily one of the best books I have read this year, and I read a lot of books. Thank you so much for this book. I have sent it to friends; I have gifted it to people; I am, like, bothering everyone I know like, Have you read this yet? You should read it. Have you read it? I send quotes to people, and they’re like, Oh my God, would you stop? And I’m like, No!
Helena: Well –
Sarah: No, I won’t.
Helena: – Sarah, I don’t know if you know this or not, but Smart Bitches is the reason that I’m a romance writer.
Sarah: Get out of town! Really?!
Helena: Yeah. I, I have a –
Sarah: I’m going to turn purple; watch.
Helena: – Bachelor’s in Creative Writing, but I was a poet, and then I went to graduate school for librarianship, and when I was in grad school a friend said, You should really read this website; I think you’d really enjoy it.
Sarah: Oh wow!
Helena: And I had never read any romance, and I went to read the Smart Bitches comments, and someone said, I’m Kushiel’s Bitch –
Helena: – and I said, I have to know what that means!
Sarah: I’m sorry, you’re, you’re who, what now?
Helena: So I read, I started reading romance, and during grad school I read probably two romance novels a day, trying to get through library school –
Helena: – and –
Sarah: Story checks out.
Helena: – in the past, and I quit writing completely after grad school, ‘cause I was doing, building a career and doing all of that stuff, but I was still reading thousands and thousands and thousands of romance novels. And if it hadn’t been for the Smart Bitches readers and you pointing me to the right romance novels so I could have an entry point into feminist, smart romance, I would never have learned to read romance, and then I would never have gone from poetry to writing romance! So.
Sarah: Holy cow. That is amazing. Thank you! Oh my gosh!
Helena: Thank you! [Laughs]
Sarah: Oh my goodness, I’m going to, like, get all, like, weepy now.
Helena: It’s very full circle.
Sarah: It is very full circle.
Okay, so I have the most evil question: I’m going to ask each of you, I’m going to ask each of you to describe this book.
Sam: Would you like to go first, or would you like me to go first?
Helena: I was going first! [Laughs]
Sam: I know there’s, like, overlap in our descriptions for how we will describe it. I can, I can go first if you want –
Sam: – and I can, I, I won’t take the part of the description that I know you use. It is a Jewish, queer, holiday rom-com that is grumpy/sunshine, enemies-to-lovers between a chaotic bisexual disaster and the hot butch of your dreams.
Sarah: The hot butch of your dreams! [Laughs] Okay! Yeah, I would say that in the, in a competition that I have just started, you are now one point ahead! Helena, can you describe your own book? [Laughs more] Which is, like, the worst thing. Go. You can do it.
Helena: I have been a librarian for fifteen years, so I’m supposed to be good at, professionally good at selling people books. Season of Love is a campy but also angsty, glittery, rage-filled, millennial rom-com about two people who meet-cute at a funeral and bond over art and fall in love over their grief and shared trauma, but it’s really funny, and it is like Hallmark if Hallmark were gay and had more pop culture references in it.
Sarah: Ohhh! Very true.
Sarah: Well played, well played! Now, I know from my email from Estelle, Sam, this is your first acquisition at Forever!
Sam: It is! It was!
Sarah: Okay, first of all, congratulations! That’s really exciting when you make your first acquisition! Like, that’s a big deal!
Sam: Thank you! It was! I, yeah. This was, like, the perfect book to acquire first…
Sarah: So tell me about acquiring it, and what were some of your thoughts when you read the manuscript?
Sam: So I took notes before this ‘cause I’m me. So Helena’s agent had actually sent Season of Love to my boss, Amy, who’s the editor-in-chief at Forever, and I may or maybe not have been, like, complaining to Amy? I said to Amy for –
Sam: – a while that I wanted to see more Jewish holiday romances…
Sarah: Oh, you and me both.
Sam: Right? I was like, I don’t know any. I mean, like, there, I mean, I knew, like, indie ones, but, like, I didn’t know any of the, the big five. I was like, Oh, I want to see some! So when she – and I really wanted to see more queer romances, so when she got this in she was like, So I think this is up your alley. Do you want to read it?
Sarah: [Laughs] So she put it under a box with a little stick on top and, like, was like, Sam, I built you a trap.
Sam: Basically! So I was like, Yes, I love this. I mean, I basically was in love from the first page. I had just, the year before I’d lost both my grandparents, so I had been sitting a lot of shiva.
Sarah: I’m sorry. That is never fun!
Sam: Thank you! But yeah, it was –
Sarah: It’s a lot of kugel.
Sam: It was so much kugel. So much shiva.
Sarah: So much.
Helena: So many hard-boiled eggs.
Sarah: Oh my God.
Sam: Yeah. I remember just, like, opening it, and it punched me in the gut in that, like, really good, I-feel-seen kind of way?
Sam: Honestly, like, that was just really what I felt like when I started reading. It was just like, oh! Like, yes, this. This is what I’ve been wanting to read. Like, this, this feels like a conversation, like conversations I have with my friends. This feels like my queer community. This feels like my Jewish community. Like, this is it.
Sam: And I, honestly, I couldn’t stop laughing? And, like, ten reads down the line, still laughing at the same lines, which I feel like is a very good sign!
Sarah: Absolutely, ‘cause when you acquire and edit and write a book you read it like, what, ninety-forty billion times? You read it a lot.
Sam: And true confession, I may be listening to the audiobook right now. [Laughs]
Helena: It’s very good!
Sam: It really is? [Laughs]
Sarah: Helena, how long were you writing this book? And do you remember what led you to writing this particular story? Like, where did you start? Was it the characters, or was it a scene? Like, what led you into this particular – ‘cause there’s a lot going on in this world? There’s a lot? There’s a whole lot.
Helena: There’s a lot going on.
Sarah: A whole lot.
Helena: The way that this started is that I was watching Hallmark movies the day before the 2018 midterms –
Sarah: Ugh. Good –
Helena: – on November 5th –
Sarah: – good call, good call.
Helena: – 2018.
Sam: Good call.
Helena: And I started tweeting –
Helena: – rage-tweeting, Okay, Lifetime, here’s a free story idea for you! And I tweeted this series of, like, you know, girl inherits a tree farm – it wasn’t exactly the, the, the plot of Season of Love, but it was fairly similar – and a friend of mine, a queer, Jewish friend of mine, DMed me and said, Helena, you’re a writer. Why don’t you write this instead of –
Sarah: I regret to inform you that you have to write this now. Yeah. [Laughs]
Helena: – just tweeting it? But I hadn’t written anything in twelve years, since I’d left, I’d left my Bachelor’s program.
Sarah: And it’s really annoying that tweeting doesn’t count as writing?
Helena: It is in my house. I have –
Sam: I count it; I definitely –
Helena: – written –
Sarah: Sam counts it.
Helena: – several novels. [Laughs]
Sarah: You heard it: an official editor at an actual publishing house has said that Twitter, Twitter is writing, everyone. I mean, it’s going to hell right now, but it’s now official. It’s writing. [Laughs]
Sam: Not to deviate, but I desperately want a novel, a romance novel that’s entirely like epistolary social media.
Sam: So I definitely count it. [Laughs]
Helena: So my friend said, Start the Google Doc and share it with me.
Sarah: Good friend!
Helena: And I did, and by the end of Christmas break I had the forty-thousand-word first draft.
Helena: It just sort of happened, and a lot of the stuff that’s there – I mean, it’s been rewritten several times, but a lot of the stuff that was in that early draft is still there, and I wanted something that felt like the beats of a Hallmark movie, right, where Miriam has like an icy blond fiancée who’s wrong for her, and then she goes to the home town she hasn’t been to in ten years, and then she has to stay at the business with, like, a big party.
Sarah: And the home town is Christmas Town.
Helena: Yeah, and her home town is, like, weirdly obsessed with Christmas.
Sarah: Christmas Town, yeah, absolutely.
Helena: Christmas Town, yeah. As I started writing into those beats, they opened out, because a, a Hallmark movie, you can gloss over the Why of all of those things, because we all have a shared vocabulary –
Helena: – in Hallmark movies.
Helena: And so, like –
Helena: – why has this person not been to their home town that they love for ten years? That’s a weird thing to do! Like, what’s the, what’s the Why behind that? And what would happen to your relationships with your loved ones if you didn’t come home for ten years, and how’d that affect them, and why is this Jewish-owned Christmas tree farm so into Christmas? You know, my agent says that my brand is angsty, queer millenials obsessing about home?
Sarah: Story checks out, yeah. That tracks –
Sarah: – mm-hmm.
Helena: You know, you asked, like, sort of, like, what’s the – I think I, because I had never written a novel before, I was sort of like, let’s put these parts in that I love in a blender, right? So there’s, like, some Dawson’s Creek references and, like, the sort of vibe of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City if it were on a Christmas tree farm –
Helena: – and, like, it’s like, what are some things that I am personally influenced by? Let’s put them into a blender and come up with, like, a peppermint mocha. I really, I didn’t ever think anything would come of it, you know. I sort of said, I’m going to share this with a friend, and the friend is a published author, and she was like, I think you should query this, and then – you know, at every step I was sort of like, Nobody’s going to ever read this book, so I’m just going to put everything I love in it and see what happens! Now it’s on Barnes & Noble shelves all over the country, so – [laughs].
Sarah: Clearly it worked out!
Helena: It worked.
Sam: That’s what worked so well with it, though. Like, it, it felt really so, like, fresh and new and – I will say this again and again: it feels so incredibly, I feel so incredibly seen…
Sam: Like, you have such a great way of understanding that)! [Laughs]
Sarah: Well, that was actually my next question for you, Sam: how exactly did this book make you feel seen? My experience reading this was the constant, quiet determination of all of the characters who are Jewish to keep on being Jewish in the midst of what my in-laws would call “ongepotchket Christmas!” Like, it’s not just Christmas; it is Christmas with a fire hose, and everything is hosed down! It’s like the most Christmas that has ever Christmas-ed, and they’re like, Yep! Still Jewish! Going to go do some Jewish-y things! Watch me eat some rugelach. Like, the continued determination to just keep on going, utterly surrounded by Christmas, in the story of the book was the perfect thing for me to read right now, because literally I can buy Jesus at Costco right now.
Sarah: There’s two options, actually, this year; there are two different Nativity seasons, or Nativity sets inside the Costco, but I can buy Jesus at Costco, and I’m not even joking! So the idea that there are these characters who are just very quietly, determinedly, happily Jewish in the midst of great Ye Olde Christmas hoedown was like this microcosm in the book of how I feel right now, at this time of year? That part meant so much to me, and I sent it to so many people for that reason.
But I’m curious, Sam: what was it about it that made you feel very personally recognized? ‘Cause it’s, it’s good to know that I’m not the only one who had that experience.
Sam: I mean, that definitely was part of it. Like, I, I had a conversation I think like ten years ago with, like, a younger Jewish friend of mine who was, like, starting college and, like, she had grown up in a very, like, insulated Jewish town and, like, so college was her first time really, like, experiencing the Christmas overload?
Sam: And talking about, like –
Sarah: It’s a lot.
Sam: – how do you really navigate that as, like, someone, as basically in a world where, like, you can’t really escape Christmas and, like, inevitably, like, you’re going to end up enjoying some part of it, like, probably, like – and for me that was, like, incredibly important, like, that idea of being Jewish in a world where, like, you’re, you’re not going to – I keep saying escape, and it’s not like, I don’t mean that in, like, a bad way, but, like, I work in Rockefeller Center. Like –
Sarah: Oh yeah, you got mad Christmas. You got –
Sam: [Laughs] Right, like –
Sarah: Whoo! You got like a forty-foot tree!
Sam: Exactly. Like, I – the only possible way I could pretend it’s not Christmas in December is if I literally locked the doors in my apartment –
Sam: – didn’t turn on the TV; didn’t turn on, like, Spotify; and, like, cut off, like, cut off all electronics, barred my windows, and, like –
Sam: – moved into the middle of nowhere. Like, it’s, you, you can’t do that!
Sarah: Yeah! It’s –
Sam: Like –
Sarah: – it is omnipresent, and you don’t see it until it’s not yours.
Sam: Yeah. So I think that was like, that definitely was incredibly important to me, and also growing up – so I was raised Jewish, and growing up I think there was, like, a very specific image of, like, what you would see for Jewish people in the media. You know –
Sarah: Oh! You don’t say!
Sam: – basic – yeah. You know, what?! No!
Sarah: Yeah! Hmm? What? No!
Sam: Yeah! What?!
Helena: And it was just Holocaust books.
Helena: Or –
Sam: It’s all Holocaust books
Helena: – horrific anti-Semitic stereotypes.
Sarah: Or both! I mean, por que no los dos? [Laughs]
Sam: Lots of grumpy old men. If you were lucky, there was maybe an event, but it was always about, like, a bar mitzvah, and maybe there was a side thought about, like, a Jewish woman dealing with, like, beauty standards. Maybe. If you were lucky. [Laughs] That was never reflective of my Jewish experience or my –
Sam: – my friends. Like, I talk about, like, this stuff with my friends and, like, and the importance of social justice, like.
Sam: To me, that’s the conversation about Judaism that I have with, like, all my friends, like –
Sam: – what it – like, social justice and Judaism –
Sam: – and, like – and the, how much we hate Holocaust books.
Sam: Like, that’s a conversation we have a lot! Reading something where, like, everyone is just Jewish, and it’s just part of them, but they’re also, they’re not like grumpy old men, or they’re not like people who are just, like, talking about the Holocaust, and – which is important and, like, part of our history, but also is, like, not the only part of our history and has kind of turned into trauma porn at this juncture –
Sam: – for, like, most of America.
Sarah: Oh yes.
Sam: Like, I, I felt seen! I was like, Oh, these are conversations I have with my friends! Like, this is like services when I – like, this is when I observe, like, Shabbos with my, like, with my friends and family. Like, this felt, like, incredibly real to me.
Sam: I didn’t realize I was, I was bisexual until I was in my twenties, and, like, at that point, like, seeing Jewish romance was – and I didn’t start reading romance until my twenties, either? Seeing Jewish romance was rare at the time. Seeing queer Jewish romance was, I mean, nearly impossible.
Sarah: Yeah. So I have a question for you, for you both: what was your reaction when you saw the cover for this book? Did you have to put your head between your knees ‘cause it was that great?
Sam: I’ll let Helena go first.
Helena: Yeah. So first of all, I’m so grateful to Sam and Amy, because when I sent them the words, Can we do a midcentury modern thing? They did not email me back and say, No! No, that doesn’t look anything like any of the other books that are coming out this year. Amy said, You know, I love midcentury modern illustration, and I’m so grateful, because I had this vision, because Carrigan’s, the Christmas tree farm that they all live on, was founded in the early ‘60s, and Cass Carrigan, the matriarch, would have made everything this, like, weird atomic-age midcentury modern vibe, and, and the art department ran with that. So first of all, like, that was just brilliant to me, but also I was like, there is a fat butch in a clinch cover grabbing a woman’s ass on the cover of this trad pub!
Sarah: And she’s tall! She’s nearly as tall as the tree!
Helena: She’s tall, and she’s fat. I did not have to go back to the art department and say, Can we make her fatter? Which is so beautiful. She didn’t get skinny-washed or femme-washed or, like, none of that, and I love all the Santa covers that have come out this year, and I love all those books, but none of them are touching each other!
Sam: So the backstory to that is I have, I was complaining about that, actually, while we were working on the cover for Season of Love. [Laughs]
Sarah: Do not let the lesbians touch on the cover. No touchy! No touchy!
Helena: No touchy!
Sarah: No touchy!
Sam: No – right! That was the thing! I mean, it’s still kind of a thing!
Sarah: They’re just pals, people. They’re just –
Sam: They’re just pals. And the –
Sarah: They’re just good gal pals. [Laughs]
Sam: That was my one request to the art department. I was like, I want them in an explicit embrace to make it clear that they are romantic. That –
Sarah: Got her hand on her ass, so it’s pretty clear.
Sam: Yeah. I was like, that’s all, that’s what I want for the cover. Like, that is my contribution for what I would like.
Sarah: Who came up with “It’s time to make the Yuletide gay”?
Helena: I said something to my agent about it years ago, and then I forgot about it, because I have the memory of a goldfish.
Sarah: Yes, you and me.
Helena: And then it appeared magically on the front of my book, and I said, Maybe this is Becca’s, idea; I don’t know. [Laughs]
Sam: It was, it was your Beck that had said it at some point or had said at several points, like, when we were talking about marketing, and at several, and I kept being like, Oh, that’s so great! Like, we have to use that somewhere! And then we were trying to think of a tagline for the front of the book, and I was like, This! This is where we are using this!
Sarah: It’s time to make the Yuletide gay? It’s so good! [Laughs] It’s so good! And you know me; I’m a complete sucker for a good pun. I mean, that is just, that is just A+. Absolutely glorious.
So when you saw the cover, Helena, did you have to, like, have a seat?
Helena: You never know. Like, you get an email and it’s like, Look at this cover sketch, right, and there’s moments like –
Sarah: Oh, it’s like editorial notes! You’re like, Do I even want to open this?
Helena: Do I want to open this email?
Sam: Sarah, don’t say that. I, I, I’m working on editorial notes for book two now. I don’t –
Sam: – want to scare you.
Sarah: Sam –
Helena: I’m going to open your editorial notes.
Sarah: Sam, you must know that, that an author gets an editorial note and they’re like, Okay, I must prepare; I must be centered; I must place myself in a good position to click open the document and go, Whoa, look at all those comments! Yeah.
Sam: I always have to, I always, like, spend the week when I’m waiting to hear back from the author being like, Oh God, they hate it. They hate all my notes. Like, I’m just going to hear back that they hate everything. [Laughs]
Sarah: So you are currently editing book two.
Helena: Yeah. Book two, For Never and Always.
Sarah: Oh, good title!
Helena: Yes, thank you. That’s a collaborative effort between the two of us.
Sarah: Very good!
Sarah: For Never and Always. And this is –
Sarah: – a hot, semi-estranged, semi-celebrity chef with a beard and the woman who has been holding down the Carrigan’s operation, because she told him to GTFO.
Helena: Yes. It is –
Sarah: Oh, goody!
Helena: – childhood best friends, two lovers to – SPOILER BRACKETS – to explosive breakup, estranged, haven’t spoken in four years after being obsessively in love with each other their entire lives, and now he’s back for Passover.
Sarah: Which is a long holiday if you’re doing the whole thing.
Sarah: Two up front –
Sam: – long holiday.
Sarah: – two at the end. Oh yeah, it’s a lot. And the thing about Passover, like, we traditionally host the second night? Although now we just host all of them ‘cause of the pandemic. The thing about Passover is that you have to make all this food and then wait, because then you have to do the seder, and then you have the food? So there’s lots and lots of waiting built in and expectation built in, and then the holiday is eight days? Those poor people.
Helena: Yeah. I will say Levi and Hannah are two people who have been, like, obsessed with each other their whole lives? And they think about each other twenty-four/seven, and so their love story is like a little bit more claustrophobic –
Helena: – than Noelle and Miriam’s, because Noelle and Miriam are two people who, their big extended found family is really important to their happiness –
Helena: – and for them to have a Happily Ever After, it really had to be rooted in this, like, big, queer found family that they had built.
Helena: And so there’s this huge sort of, like, extended cast in Season of Love, and those people are in For Never and Always, but to begin with, it’s a, it’s a second-chance book, so, like, there’s just a lot of backstory that has to get there. Also, just because who they are and what their relationship is?
Helena: It’s not as expansive because they’re, the inside of Hannah’s head is just twenty-four/seven Levi, and the inside of Levi’s head is just twenty-four/seven Hannah.
Helena: With anyone where you’ve known them all your life, even if you’re not in love with them, all of the things that have ever happened to you happened to them too.
Sarah: Oh yeah.
Helena: So a lot of their conflict – other than about their breakup – is that they have wildly different versions of their shared past.
Helena: You know, sometimes if you’ve known someone your whole life, you assume that they have the same version of things that you do, because they were there for it!
Helena: And so Levi’s like, Well, of course I did this, because this happened! Hannah’s like, That’s not what happened at all! Levi’s like, You were literally in the room when it happened! Like, what’s, you know, how you don’t communicate with someone you assume you shouldn’t have to communicate with because –
Helena: – you’ve always known them. In any kind of series, you want to question in the second book sort of the things that you set up in the first book.
Helena: So in the first book, Cass is sort of this perfect character who’s, like, deeply beloved by all of the people around her. Even though Noelle is angry with her, like, her, she’s this matriarch, and she’s just died, and everyone is grieving her, but Cass and Levi had a very contentious relationship, and Levi does not have a good memory of Cass at all, and so he’s sort of bringing back the question of, like, was how you all remember Cass correct, or is there more nuance to it?
Sarah: And then, then there’s the pressure of, you’re not supposed to speak ill or honestly of the dead.
Helena: Yeah, and also, you know, everyone who we see at Carrigan’s came there, even the Miriam and Hannah grew up visiting there; they didn’t grow up living there.
Helena: And Levi grew up there because his parents are the, the handyman and the chef, so he lived in the, this hotel in the middle of nowhere in the woods, and he went to school in this tiny little town in the ‘90s as a queer kid, and so, like, his version of Carrigan’s and Advent, the town next to it, is much less sunny and beautiful and like it’s a perfect utopia of Christmas feelings than everyone else’s.
Sarah: Yeah, it’s like the trailers that cast Mary Poppins as a horror movie?
Helena: Oh God yes.
Sarah: Have you, have you seen those? And then a woman comes out of the sky! Yeah, like, it, it recasts something that you think is very sparkly and good and pure, and it’s like, Wait, actually no! [Laughs] This has got some problems! Oh yeah!
It’s, it’s also interesting to play with the heteronormative stereotypes of women where you are either this or this. You are either the benevolent mother who makes cookies; you are the benevolent grandmother who does no wrong; you are the evil ex; you are the heartless woman. Like, it’s very narrow. That’s the other thing about the shared language of, of Hallmark is that it is incredibly heteronormative and incredibly –
Sarah: – gender-essentialist and very limited in its, in its portrayal, and there’s just replete with stereotypes. And it’s nice to break those open and say, Wait, well, what if it wasn’t just, you know, garden variety evil? ‘Cause that’s simple and kind of boring.
Helena: And I think that’s – I love, I mean, I don’t think that you should ever sort of try to rewrite stereotypes or tropes until you love them, right, and I have watched a thousand Hallmark movies and I love them, and I love, obviously love romance novels, but, like, Levi’s this sort of, you know, he’s going to come back, and he’s the prodigal son, but he is demisexual and pansexual, and he wears eyeliner all the time, and he, like, all of his yarmulkes are floral.
Sarah: That’s hot!
Helena: And – yeah!
Sarah: That’s some hot business right there.
Sarah: Keep going! Yep! Mm-hmm!
Helena: He has one that, a green velvet one that matches his green velvet suit. Like –
Sarah: That’s excellent!
Helena: And he is like Eliot from The Magicians meets Roy Kent. Like, he’s –
Helena: – like, whiny, self-obsessed, queer disaster with an anger problem, and he’s not the sort of like romance hero, right – [laughs] –
Helena: – because I just was like, I can’t write that guy.
Sarah: Well, you already wrote a lumberjack; you can’t do it again.
Helena: Right! I can’t, I can’t do like the stoic – but I wrote a lesbian lumberjack, right? Like, the stoic, like, guy who’s, like, super judgmental of your life choices, which Noelle is able to be, like, pretty judgmental –
Sam: Yeah. [Laughs]
Helena: – of Miriam.
Sarah: Oh, right in Miriam’s face! She’s like, Where were you?
Sarah: You left, so fuck off.
Helena: Yeah, which –
Sarah: Keep going; keep fucking off.
Helena: – she were a straight cis man? That would be a power dynamic differential that would be very different than what we have.
Sarah: Oh yeah. Oh yeah.
Helena: Right? And so I felt comfortable writing into that for Noelle in a way that I would not have felt comfortable for a, for a male character, and, you know, for, to do a queer male/female book for my second book I was like, I don’t feel comfortable with this sort of like alpha dude who’s, especially the really angry one. You know, he needs to, he is a really angry character, and he needed to have some, like, really outside-of-the-box of the trope stuff. So I think that’s part of my writing whatever is to kind of find the trope that I love –
Helena: – and go like, What happens if we turn this on its head?
Sarah: Yeah. ‘Cause I’ve seen angry dudes. I’ve seen plenty. Don’t –
Sam: [Laughs] Yeah!
Sarah: – I don’t need more.
Helena: [Laughs] No.
Sarah: I am not a big fan of the romance hero who’s like, I have had a feeling, and it is your fault, and I don’t like it –
Sarah: – so I’m going to be mad at you, and I’m going to treat you poorly because I have had a feeling, and I don’t like it, and it’s your fault, so I’m going to yell at you about it. Like, my guy, emotional security and emotional maturity are super frigging hot! Catch up!
Helena: Levi thinks all of his feelings are his fault, and also all of everyone else’s feelings are also his fault, and he feels very bad about it all of the time. [Laughs]
Sarah: Yeah, yep. Which also, very relatable; can confirm. Have had that thought too!
Sam: I mean, I love him; I love what you’ve done with him. I think it, like, I think he works great.
Helena: We’re going to see if the world is ready for a pansexual, eyeliner-ed man in too many scarves.
Sarah: I mean.
Sam: I think so.
Sarah: I think so.
What books are you reading that you want to tell people about?
Helena: Sam and I were texting like, What’s – do you have a list? [Laughs] ‘Cause we both just forget when someone asks us.
Sam: I have a long, I have made a list. I specifically checked out my, like, iPad because I was like, I’m going to forget.
Sarah: Oh yeah! Some people always, some people ask me for book recommendations, and I’m always like, Wait, what’s a book? You can’t ask me that question without, like, me having some writing implements nearby. It’s just, whsht, my brain goes bye-bye!
Sam: I need at least –
Helena: Me too, and I’m a librarian!
Sarah: Yeah. I know this, I know this problem.
Sam: Let’s see: so if you like You’ve Got Mail epistolary stories, which I think there are not enough of in the world? And you like fantasy, I am personally obsessed with Megan Bannen’s The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy?
Helena: Mm-hmm! Mm-hmm!
Sam: Quite possibly one of my favorite books of this year? I cried hysterically?
Sarah: I loved that book.
Helena: It was a stunner.
Sarah: It’s so good.
Helena: I was like, How did she do this, from a craft perspective, how?
Sam: I know. I was like –
Helena: I was mad at how good it was.
Sam: I, like, was like, This is just the best thing I’ve read, I think, this year. Like, I want everyone to read it!
Sarah: I love books that deal honestly with death.
Sarah: Like, let’s be real about what death is, and that was very, very honest about, like, the repercussions of dying and, and – yeah, that book was, oh my God, it was so good!
Sam: This is a, a sadder death book, but Helena and I both read Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series, which I cannot recommend highly enough, and Be the Serpent is the latest book in that series, and it is guaranteed to kill you! Literally, and I cannot stop thinking about it, and this has been months since I’ve read it.
Helena: It is like book sixteen in a series, so you do have to read the other ones.
Sarah: Oh yeah. Yeah, it’s like, it’s like you can’t start, you can’t start the In Death series in the middle. You’ve got to –
Helena: Also, look for content notes for every single book.
Sam: Oh yes.
Sarah: Oh yes. Absolutely.
So Helena, do you have any books that you want to mention to people?
Helena: Yeah! So I spent a lot of time during the pandemic – not that we’re out of the pandemic; we’re obviously not, but – reading only historical mystery romance series with plucky lady detectives.
Sarah: Oh, me too! Tell me all your recs!
Helena: So I’ve a million, but the couple that I’m really into right now: Kate Belli’s series, the first one is Deception by Gaslight? That’s, the third one just came out; it’s a new series; it’s really good.
Sam: And it’s really good; I’m seconding that. I love that series. [Laughs]
Helena: It’s so good. Both of these series that I’m going to rec right now are, are Gilded Age New York – just happens to be – and then, the other series that I like a lot that’s, is Counterfeit Lady by Victoria Thompson?
Helena: That’s, those are not murder mysteries; they’re cons. The main character is a con artist who’s, like, fallen in love with someone who’s proper, so she’s reformed, but she runs cons just, like, to help people, so it’s like Gilded Age Leverage.
I will only read historical mysteries if there’s, like, a couple that’s going to end up together; there’s going to be smooching. Like, I’m very specific parameters, and I also have three, like, ironclad rules that I’ll, will make me quit a series: no, like, aggressive fat phobia, which kicks out a lot of series –
Sarah: It really does.
Helena: – of historical mysteries really fast. No super weirdness about the Romani? Which, like –
Sarah: What is with that? Why does –
Helena: All the time!
Sarah: What the hell?
Helena: And then we went to the Roma fortune teller! No! No!
Helena: If anyone goes near a Romani person, I’m, like –
Sarah: And we are out.
Helena: – out. And the third one is –
Sarah: It’s like that chapter of The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer, where she just goes to a Jewish moneylender because –
Sarah: – Georgette Heyer was a raging –
Sarah: – anti-Semite –
Sarah: – and there’s no other reason?
Helena: Yeah, yeah!
Sarah: It’s like, Why are we doing this?
Helena: You’re always like, Why do you –
Helena: Unless the author, like, has a Roma background or a Traveler background –
Helena: – I think it’s best if we just –
Sarah: Let’s not –
Helena: – acknowledge that they were there and don’t try to write about it!
Helena: Especially if we’re going to use some ethnic slurs to do it!
Sarah: It would be great if we didn’t fetishize, just as a rule!
Helena: As a rule.
Helena: The third one is that nobody –
Sarah: [Laughs] Sam’s like, I’m sorry on behalf of publishing. I’ve got to say, What?!
Helena: – nobody can have been driven mad by their homosexuality to become a serial killer. The number of –
Helena: – historical mystery series that I’ve quit because the murderer was a gay person who was driven mad by their homosexuality to become a serial killer, it’s like –
Sarah: So no murder-y queers. Well, I mean –
Helena: They could be, but they –
Helena: – murder-y –
Sarah: They could be murder-y and queer, but they can’t be murder-y because of the queer. Gotcha.
Helena: Right. Yeah, ‘cause they’re queer, right.
Sarah: I mean, I’m all fine for murder.
Helena: So those are like my three hard passes, and it turns out that that kicks out a lot of series –
Sarah: It really does.
Helena: – of historical mystery romances.
The book that I can’t stop talking about this year, that I talk about all the time, is Bet on It by Jodie Slaughter. It’s so good! I think Jodie Slaughter can do no wrong. I love everything Jodie Slaughter writes. I love Jodie Slaughter as a human. It’s billed as, like, these two people have a Bingo-based sex pact, and they do have a Bingo-based sex pact, but it’s also has this incredible anxiety rep. I’m an adult child of alcoholics; it has the best adult child of alcoholics rep I’ve seen maybe ever. I sobbed, and I texted Jodie and was like, Why do I keep crying so hard for your book? It’s really sexy; Jodie Slaughter always has a hot car sex scene, so, like, there’s hot car sex. There’s great fat rep. He takes care of her when she’s on her period.
Sarah: Oh, win! I love that!
Helena: Like – it’s really good. And I think it just flew too much under the radar for my personal preference this year. I wish everyone was yelling about it.
And the two that I haven’t gotten to this, yet, that are, like, my to-buy no matter what, auto-buy-forever authors that are on my TBR is Therese Beharrie’s new book, A Ghost in Shining Armor, and Jackie Lau’s new book, The Stand-Up Groomsman.
Sarah: I have two recommendations for you. Have you read Hither, Page?
Helena: Yes! And the sequel.
Sam: Oh, they’re so good.
Sarah: Oh good, right. I’ve reread it. It’s like one of my comfort reads.
Sarah: I’m like, Why am I reading –
Sarah: – this book about this doctor and this other guy, and they’re constantly out in the cold? This is not cozy! Their feet are wet! Their feet are wet all the time! Yet I keep going and reading it again, ‘cause I love it so much!
The other book I want to suggest is a historical heist with magic set in 1920s Black Washington, DC.
[Laughs] Okay, the look you just gave me – what? It’s called the –
Sam: I think I know what book this is! But I’m going to let you say it first.
Sarah: It’s called The Monsters We Defy by Leslye Penelope.
Helena: [Gasps] Okay, yes.
Sarah: It’s so good? It is so good, and it’s got all of that mixture of historical, but historical specificity, plus magic and magical worldbuilding on top of this wonderful, specific, like, anchored world. It’s so good.
Sam: I also will plug her fantasy romances –
Sarah: Oh yeah.
Sam: – which I can’t remember the names of right now, but they’re –
Sarah: Something, something Blood and, a, a Something of Blood and Something. A Song of Blood –
Sam: Yeah. Song, I think it’s a song. It’s a Song of Blood & Stone?
Sarah: A Song of Blood & Stone! You win! Yay! [Applauds]
Sam: Wow! I never remember anything these days!
Sarah: Well done! Excellent work!
Sarah: Well done. Yeah, I love historical mysteries too. I was thinking earlier that I think the reason that I’ve been gravitating towards mystery with romantic elements is that everything is so disordered and chaotic in the world, and there’s so much harmful disorder that reading about the restoration of justice and order and fairness and, and making sure that people are looking after each other appropriately in the, in that context is very, very soothing. I –
Sarah: – completely agree, very much.
Helena: I am really interested in, like, immediately post World War I and immediately post World War II books –
Helena: – especially if the person was a spy. So like the Verity Kent series, where she was a spy and, in World War I, and her husband was presumed dead, and he comes back, and they have to, like, put their world back together and put their marriage back together, and they keep getting –
Sam: What series is this, by whom?
Helena: – sucked into old stuff? Verity Kent: it’s by Anna Lee Huber –
Helena: – H-U-B-E-R.
Helena: She has two series; the other one is like –
Sarah: Lady Darby
Helena: – set in the 1600s or something?
Sarah: No, Lady Darby is, oh God, I want to say Regency or thereabouts? But the current Lady Darby books that are coming out right now are set during the cholera epidemic?
Helena: Mm, yeah.
Sarah: So she’s writing about a pandemic of cholera, and they, and they, they don’t know like why it’s happening, and they don’t know why it’s spreading, and I’m like, oh yeah, ooh, this is giving me the chills! Hhzh!
Helena: It’s, yes, yes. Both of those series are great. The Verity Kent one, there’s something about the fact that these two people who are working so hard to put their world back together with, like, really bad PTSD, which they don’t really know anything about –
Helena: -‘cause it’s the 1920s in Britain –
Helena: – and that they don’t know that there’s another war about to happen?
Helena: But would you?
Sarah: It’s like, yeah, you can sort of see it coming.
Helena: There’s something about that that I am, like, really drawn to.
Sarah: Oh yeah.
Sarah: You might also like, it’s contemporary, but there’s also a historical element? You might also like Deanna Raybourn’s Killers of a Certain Age. It’s about assassins, and they are on their, their – women assassins, there’s four of them, and they are on their retirement cruise from the Museum, which is the extra-governmental agency that they started working at after World War II, and their job was to kill Nazis, and then it got bigger. They’re on their retirement cruise, and they spot someone that they know is an operative, and they realize that the cruise is a setup to kill them. And so they have to hide, get away, figure out who’s trying to kill them, and outwit them, without any of the resources of the agency for which they work.
Sarah: So they have to use all of their abilities, but it relies very heavily on very quiet, determined female rage and the fact that people always underestimate older women?
Sarah: And they have to use incredibly creative ways of being lethal? It is so much fun.
Well, where can people find you if you wish to be found?
Sam: Just, I know, I was going to say, by the time this comes out, will there be a Twitter? [Laughs]
Sarah: I have no idea.
Sam: But in all places, I’m @SamJBrody, J as in June, and B-R-O-D-Y.
Sarah: Got it.
Helena: I am @BlumAgainCurios, B-L-U-M Again Curios. Blum is Miriam’s last name; Blum Again Curios is her shop where she remakes unwanted antiques into very bizarre pieces of glitter-covered art. @BlumAgainCurios, B-L-U-M Again Curios is my Twitter and my Instagram handle, and you can go to helenagreer.com and sign up for my newsletter, where approximately once a month I send out news about what’s happening at Carrigan’s right now!
Sarah: Yay! Awesome! You got a whole fictional world to play around in.
Helena: I do have a whole fictional world to play around in.
Sarah: Well, thank you so much for doing this interview, and thank you most of all for this book. I absolutely loved it, and it was so exciting to talk to you about it, so thank you so, so much for this.
Helena: It was a literal dream come true.
Sarah: Aw, thank you!
Helena: When I got asked, like, what I wanted to do to publicize the book I was like, Can I go on a Smart Bitches podcast, please?
Helena: I asked for you and Glennon Doyle, which –
Helena: Yeah. I didn’t get Glennon, but that’s okay!
Sarah: You should! I’ll, I’ll, I don’t know her, but I’ll just be like, Glennon! Forever. Thank you so, so much, and thank you for the compliments; that completely makes my day. I’m honored to have had a small part in having this book come into the world, and thank you both for bringing this book into the world. It’s really, really wonderful.
Sarah: And that brings us to the end of this week’s episode. Thank you so much to Sam and Helena for connecting with me and for all of the things they talked about in this interview. I had such a good time.
I will have links to all of the books that we talked about, but after we finished recording, Sam actually emailed me with two other titles that she wanted me to mention for her. She felt bad that she hadn’t mentioned them.
Lissette Decos’ Ana Takes Manhattan is “my coworker Sabrina Flemming’s first acquisition” – that’s so exciting! – “and is an absolutely hilarious, cannot-put-down story about a television producer who’s known for creating perfect marriage proposals, but her life is anything but. The author and Ana are Cuban-American, and she’s pulled inspiration for her life as a reality TV producer for shows like Say Yes to the Dress and 90 Day Fiancé.” That’s so cool!
The other book that Sam asked me to mention was Felicia Grossman, who is joining Forever, with Marry Me by Midnight, a Cinderella Regency retelling set in London’s Jewish community, where a charming heiress must marry to save her family business, but the one man she dreams of most is the one she can’t have. It’s sweet and swoony and sexy and basically all the feels of Ever After in book form, says Sam.
Thank you, Sam! I will have links to all of those books, of course, in the show notes; never fear.
And as always, I end each episode with a dreadful joke, and this week’s joke, no one has heard it, not even the people in the Patreon. It’s from Helena, specifically Helena’s child. This is a joke from Helena’s child; I’m so excited about this.
What dud – [laughs] – I’m so excited, I can’t even talk. Let’s try that again:
What did the doctor say to her marshmallow patient?
Give up? What did the doctor say to her marshmallow patient?
I think you have a s’more throat.
[Laughs] It’s so cute! I love it so much! Thank you, Helena, for sharing this joke! I love it! I love it, I love it!
On behalf of everyone here, we wish you the very best of reading. Have a wonderful weekend, and we will see you back here next week!
Smart Podcast, Trashy Books is part of the Frolic Podcast Network. You can find outstanding podcasts to subscribe to at frolic.media/podcasts.
S’more throat! [Laughs]
This podcast transcript was handcrafted with meticulous skill by Garlic Knitter. Many thanks.
Add Your Comment →
This was such a fun episode! Season of Love was one of my favorite books of last year and it was great to hear more about it.
Thank you, Sarah, Helena, and Sam for an entertaining chat!
My go to queer, Jewish, holiday romances is Secret Light by Z.A. Mayfield. This a historical, set in the 1950s.