Hello, my friends! The holidays have certainly slowed down my reading pace, but I have picked up my speed again this week and am trying to secure some new authors here for our Sundays With Writers feature. I mentioned that I was completely enchanted by, The Royal We this week and as soon as I shut that incredible book, I emailed the authors to see if they would share more about their fictional story of an American getting swept off her feet by a real Prince.
Perhaps, that sounds a little cheesy, but it is anything BUT cheesy. Instead of focusing on the fairy tale romance aspect of the story, Heather & Jessica really dive into what it would take for someone to transition from college student into a Princess and the very real dilemma of losing her privacy, what strains that might put on her friendships, and what her family might go through as she takes on a celebrity status that she had never desired.
It’s funny, heartwarming, and really beautifully executed from a really smart family lineage (we will dive into that in our interview below) to what training might be involved to be a part of the Royal family.
It read like a guilty pleasure read that still had lots of depth and soul. I laughed, cried, and was disappointed that I had to close the final pages when I was done. I just didn’t want it to end and I am convinced there is more of a story to tell.
On that note, go grab that coffee and settle in for a REALLY incredible interview with Heather & Jessica about their incredible novel, The Royal We.
You are only the second set of authors that have joined me on Sundays With Writers that write as a duo instead of solo. How do you build the story in tandem and what do you think the benefits have been with writing together instead of tackling a book like this on your own?
JESSICA: Basically, we work from a super detailed outline. Once we’ve gotten together and hammered out our plot, one of us will start writing and go at it until she wears out, more or less — at which point she ships the manuscript over to the other, who edits and reworks the first chunk, then writes the next chunk until she taps out. So we go back and forth, essentially, until we’re done. I love working this way. I think most writers have a crew of creative people they can go to for feedback, or help with a plot issue, and we have that built in, automatically, which for me is invaluable.
HEATHER: It also incorporates automatic breaks. When a writer needs to, say, deal with their kids, or their day job if they have another one, or even just take a break because they feel stuck, the project doesn’t move along without them. The beauty of being in a duo is, when one of us passes it off to the other — for any reason — we get a brain rest AND the project keeps moving along. There isn’t that sense of, “Ohh, every time I walk away from my computer, I am going to have to make up for it later.” As for building the story, hammering out that initial outline requires a lot of back and forth — we both work better via e-mail or IM rather than in the same room, in part because when we start to digress we can scroll back and be like, “OKAY, no, this is where we were, let’s pick up again.” So that’s just easier for us.
But once we start writing, we also communicate with each other closely because invariably we realize the outline was too ambitious, or made a logic misstep, or just needed some compressing, and so we’ll leave notes for each other throughout the draft referencing those issues and being like, “Here is my pitch to fix that; here is where I was going with this,” or whatever. You just really need to communicate. And you have to be able to do it without taking any of it personally. The goal is the same: a great book.
Some of our readers might not know that this is actually your third book that you have written together. The Royal We has been so well-received, even garnering you a nomination for Best Fiction on GoodReads! As authors and as bloggers, do you think the success in this third book is because of our new ways to share about books on social media, is it just the story itself that is really resonating with readers, or is the secret sauce having a strong story and having those ties to social media because of your online writing?
JESSICA: Gosh, I wish I could explain why some books do well and some don’t — I think that’s the question that writers and publishers ask themselves every day! I certainly think that, for us, having a strong social media following was absolutely helpful, and I am quite sure the book would not have done as well as it has were it not for our wonderful, supportive readership from the blog. That platform was very valuable for us. But all that said, few people are going to spend $12 to $20 on a book just because they follow the authors on Twitter. If the book isn’t any good, it’s not going to continue to sell, and having a strong social media following definitely doesn’t guarantee you good reviews, or good word of mouth. So for us, I think we also needed to be able to deliver the goods.
HEATHER: I wish there was a secret sauce. We would sell that and retire to Fiji. I think a lot of things have to come together and there’s some magic involved. For instance, would Girl on a Train have done such gangbusters business without Gone Girl being a hit at the cineplex? Maybe — it’s not a question of Girl on a Train being good, but rather how brilliantly they leveraged that timing. The movie version of Gone Girl had come out to great acclaim and awards nominations right around the time Girl on a Train came out, so being able to position it as a combo of “Gone Girl” and “Rear Window“ or whatever, was a genius piece of marketing. But all that is just a jumping off point, and if the book doesn’t deliver, it goes away; Girl on a Train delivered on the promise, and a juggernaut was born. But that first push… man, getting those stars to align is so hard.
We did time our book’s release to Will and Kate’s anniversary, and frequently joked about whether she’d thoughtfully get pregnant for us as well. And then that happened, and it meant the royal couple was foremost in everyone’s minds from about January through April, and that made it a lot easier when our book crossed people’s desks, because it resonated with something current that was also captivating pop culture. Which isn’t to say that nobody can get noticed if they don’t dovetail with something else in pop culture, but it sure does help. Because for us, it’s not like we were known commodities as authors. Switching from YA to contemporary adult fiction was basically like starting from scratch — it didn’t matter that we’d written Spoiled and Messy; the wider adult audience didn’t know that, and doesn’t know who we are — and so it helped tremendously to have that hook. And then as Jessica said, because we did deliver the goods, we were able to back up the attention we got.
I’m also really proud of Spoiled and Messy, but I think what’s hard is that the audience of contemporary fiction is larger and wider than for YA, and the publications that serve it are also much bigger — People, EW, etc. Which isn’t to say that YA’s audience is insignificant, or even restricted. I’ve long said that YA is just a classification based on the age of the protagonist, and not the age you have to be in order to read it. But I do think that in terms of publicity and reach, as compared to general fiction, it’s a smaller pool with just as many bodies in it. And so it’s harder to get noticed, or break through and be invited to the next pool. There are so many wonderful books out there that don’t get the lightning strike of being on the right person’s desk at the right time. And it really is a lightning strike.
As I dove into your book, I really thought it was just going to be a light and fun read, but it really became evident as I read that you did a lot of in-depth research on the royal family. I understand you even visited Buckingham Palace to see it all in person which is incredible! What was one of the most surprising facts you discovered when doing your research about the real royal family? Do you have any favorite recommendations for books or documentaries for those of us that would like to dive into learning about the royals more?
JESSICA: Thank you so much! We did do a lot of research — it was important to us that the book felt grounded in reality, especially because the story itself is sort of fantastical. So much of it is about the difference between the gilded fairytale exterior of falling in love with a prince, and the actual, much less glamorous reality, so we really wanted to nail the reality bit, as much as we could. In terms of books, we read a lot of biographies of the current young royals, mostly for logistical details — Katie Nicholl’s book WILLIAM AND HARRY, for instance, had a lot of bit and pieces about the way the royal family’s security detail works in their daily life, which we needed to know for the book. Although it’s not about the current royal family, I strongly recommend THE HEIR APPARENT, by Jane Ridley, which is about Edward VII and his mother, Queen Victoria (who comes across like a real piece of work). It’s a very smart, juicy read. I also used Kate Fox’s WATCHING THE ENGLISH, which is social anthropology focused on the British class system, and which is a really funny, interesting book. (There is a line in there which I often mention, because it’s so memorable, in which she notes that the British love toast racks, while we Americans prefer our toast to be “humid,” which is pretty accurate and very funny.)
HEATHER: The trick for us was that there’s a point where we can’t do research. Because there’s a point where only a select few REALLY know what’s happening. What are the private apartments at Windsor or Buck House like? No idea, and there aren’t pictures. (We found one of the Queen’s study but that’s it.) The curtain has only been pulled back so far, to the world, so our challenge was to research whatever we could, and ground the book in every place possible, so that when it came time for us to make a guess, it was educated. And if the reader felt grounded in the other realism, it increased the odds they’d take that leap with us, and trust us and not think about it.
The tidbit about the family paying for whatever clothes Bex picks is true though. Helpfully, I can’t remember where I read that about Kate, but I know I did. I also enjoyed tips on how to curtsy and get in and out of cars without exposing oneself. We invented the idea of them doing Duchess training with Bex, but honestly, once we dug into the types of things she’d be expected to know and do — without looking like she had to learn them — it didn’t seem like such a far-fetched leap.
Your blog, Go Fug Yourself, is focused on celebrity fashion so I must ask you, which real-life royal’s style have you admired the most?
JESSICA: I think the British royals have a tough row to hoe, sartorially. Kate gets a lot of flack for being too boring, but if she were NOT boring, she’d get a lot of flack for that. I personally enjoy a lot of her preppy, ladylike style, but you can’t really call it groundbreaking from a fashion standpoint, and nor should it be. On the wackier side, I must say that I always enjoy the many insane hats sported by Queen Maxima, of the Netherlands. That woman knows how to wear a turban.
HEATHER: I don’t know that I am that captivated by any of them, particularly, to be totally honest. I will give it to the Queen. She knows what she likes, or what works for her, and manages to keep it varied and cheerful in other ways without straying from the basic cuts and coverage she prefers.
I also give credit to Camilla, who I think has had the toughest road to walk, given the circumstances of her relationship with Charles and their eventual marriage. Talk about being under a microscope, because everything she did was going to be compared unfavorably to whatever Diana used to do, because she was the most beloved royal in history in her day. So I find my favorite royals are borne of sympathy rather than me being actually enamored of the clothes. But I mean, if you want someone who keeps it clean and classy, Queen Letizia in Spain is pretty solid. She even kind of makes me want to wear business slacks, which is madness.
You developed a well-blended timeline of the real royal lineage and your fictional lineage that is actually quite astounding in detail and depth. Was this one of the most complex aspects of creating your story and why did you feel getting this accurate was so important to your story?
JESSICA: It was definitely something we spent a lot of time figuring out. I will note that Heather did a great deal of the heavy lifting here, and she can probably speak to the nuts and bolts of this aspect more than I can. But we had to figure out a way to create essentially an alternate history that kept in place enough familiar touchstones that it was still recognizably the UK, but that WOULDN’T have the person who is currently Queen Elizabeth, like, wandering around in the background as a distant member of our ruling family. It was really fun, actually.
HEATHER: When we sold the book, we did it with the prologue and the first chapter written. And when that’s all you have to worry about, you can toss in random little asides about ancestors or foreign royals, and it just feels rich and fun and insidery.
But when when you sit down to write the REST of the book, suddenly it matters.
The portraits on the piano in Bex’s hotel room, for example — we didn’t put any thought into who they were when we first wrote the prologue, so we just made them as colorful-sounding as we could.
But then once you’re writing a whole and complete book, and these characters are walking around and have real anchors to history, you have to go back and do the math: “What makes sense? Could that person have existed? When do we think Bex and Nick went to a royal wedding in Europe? Not possible! DELETE.”
And it’s for the same reason that we needed to research the rest of it: Readers can tell when you’re flying by the seat of your pants, and if they have to take themselves out of the story to figure out whether that royal could have existed, or who the hell that person is, or where THEY come from, and why are they marrying someone from that country… anything that causes the reader to put down the book and frown is a risk of losing that reader. You have to keep them on the journey, keep them swept up in it.
So while Jess had the actual book, I put my mind to the basic dates and a rough ancestry.
It seemed the likeliest places to change it were either to keep Edward VIII on the throne instead of having him abdicate, or change up Queen Victoria’s succession.
Edward’s rumored Nazi ties were not ideal, to say the least, and he was a bit too close — keeping him meant we didn’t have enough time to invent our own monarchs, and Queen Elizabeth was born in his lifetime, so she’d be a real person unless we got to tinkering with his family timeline as well.
It got muddy.
Victoria, we didn’t want to eliminate — she’s too seminal to the world, for a lot of reasons — but we found a nifty loophole in her succession.
Her son, who would become Edward VII, survived an assassination attempt.
And HIS firstborn son died of pneumonia as a lad.
So by changing those two things — Edward IS assassinated while still Prince of Wales, and Albert Victor does NOT die of pneumonia but instead lives to succeed his grandmother — we had an entirely fresh line of royals, and we could make them whatever we liked.
After that, it was just pinpointing rough ages we needed the current family members to be, and working backward through the dates. There was, in fact, lots of surprise math on this exam.
My sister helped out a ton with researching defunct dukedoms we could revive for the various spouses of our royals, and which countries might offer princesses for our kings to marry that wouldn’t monkey with ancestry. She was able to point out where it was illogical for a particular heir not to have married, and help us get past that. For example, we betrothed our Arthur I to Grand Duchess Olga from Russia, a real person who died in WWI. We had him drag his feet after the betrothal because he was in love with his best friend’s wife, and by the time he was ready it was too fraught to get her there due to the war, and then she didn’t survive it. Hence, he remained an unmarried heir. My sister was crazy helpful with all that stuff. It mattered to us that we would be able to explain this. If the world isn’t real to us, then why would it be to anyone else?
You really showcase the challenges that would be placed upon the shoulders of someone who is wed into the royal family. The story sheds light on the things that Kate Middleton and her family might have experienced during that courtship and the scrutiny one might be under in this new role. Why did you want to explore this and do you hope readers will think differently about Kate through this fictional account?
JESSICA: I don’t actually care if anyone thinks differently of Kate — and that sounds so unkind, and I don’t mean it that way! I just mean that we didn’t write the book as a way to make Kate Middleton more sympathetic. We wrote it because it seemed like an interesting story to explore — how difficult it would be to go from being a basically normal civilian to being thrust into a huge spotlight, simply because of the person with whom you fell in love. You know, we write about celebrities on our blog all the time, but those people chose to be famous. Nick — the prince in our book — was born into it, and Bex, our heroine, is forced into it because she loves him. And that seemed like something that would be interesting to explore. What do you give up for love? What are the downsides of this development that we are all taught is a fairytale, because there are actually quite a lot of them — you can never go outside in yoga pants again, and that’s the very least of it. Is it possible to love another person enough that you give up some of what makes you you? There seemed like a lot of interesting conflicts we could explore. Once we got into writing the book, I never really thought about Kate at all. Obviously, the story is based loosely on her relationship with Prince William, but I never thought of our protagonist as anyone but Bex. That being said, if people find themselves thinking more fondly of Kate because they were so fond of Bex, that’s a wonderful tribute to our book.
HEATHER: Yes, it’s definitely not a book that was borne of us liking Kate, per se, or being Kate apologists or anything. It’s just… once you start to think about it, how the hell does she DO it? She has only ever seemed totally composed. And when you consider she’s really the first person to marry into this family during the crazy paparazzi/Internet age, she’s treading new ground because nobody really knew what it would be like for her until they were in the middle of it. She’s handled this scrutiny with such calm. And Jess and I were talking about that with our agent one day, very casually, gabbing all about what the still waters must look like from underneath — are her feet paddling like crazy trying to keep her afloat — and suddenly our agent was like, “Someone should write that book.” We basically both shouted, “WE SHOULD WRITE THAT BOOK.” I think it’s a nice exercise in considering how ANY situation might feel from the other side. There always are two sides to every story, if not more, whether that person is the jerk at your office or the Hollywood starlet or the sudden princess. Look again and then think about what you’re not seeing.
You made a big announcement that the book will be adapted to the big screen. As a big Parenthood fan, I was so excited to see that Lauren Graham & Mae Whitman will be teaming up for this adaptation. How involved will you be with the film adaptation of your book and tell us about what was that moment like when you heard the news?
JESSICA: Oh, it was BEYOND exciting! We didn’t really expect that the book would be optioned — I think every writer hopes that it happens, but no one really thinks that it will — and it’s still so very surreal. Lauren and Mae are so smart and kind and really everything you could hope for; I feel incredibly grateful and really excited about the entire thing. We got really, really lucky. That said, I don’t know how creatively involved we will be — contractually, not at all, and that’s fine! We totally trust Mae and Lauren to do the book justice. As I said to them, I really just want to be in the room when they cast the hot British dudes. I don’t need to have a VOTE, I just want to get to eyeball them from the back row.
HEATHER: It is basically now their boat to drive. If they tell us there’s a seat on it for us, then great! If they tell us we can ride it for half an hour once, that’s fine too. If they never speak to us again, that’s totally their call (although it would make us sad, just because as humans Mae and Lauren are truly even smarter and cooler than we imagined). We have no expectations of anything, and are just grateful the book is in loving and intelligent hands.
Can we expect a sequel from you because I feel like there is so much more to tell in this story of Bex & Nick? Oh, and you can only answer yes to this…
JESSICA: Hah! Well, thank you so much. We don’t know what we’re going to be writing next. We’ve discussed a sequel, but I think it’s really important to us that, if we do write one, we come up with a fresh, new story to tell. We don’t want to write a sequel just for the sake of spending more time with those characters — although we’d love to do that! It also has to be a good book on its own. I think we’ve all bought sequels to books that we’ve loved and been disappointed by them, and that’s what we want to avoid, and figuring out how to do that, and if it’s even possible, is taking some time.
HEATHER: Part of me wants to let them live a while first, you know? The call for a sequel has been so flattering, and obviously tempting. For me, The Royal We has been such a perfect book experience that I don’t want to be careless with it.
I understand you are collectors of Royal swag! What is your favorite piece in your collection?
JESSICA: I collect Commemorative Royal Mugs and I LOVE THEM. It’s so hard to pick a favorite. Heather kicked the whole thing off by giving me a mug commemorating Wills and Kate’s engagement the year that happened, and that is the one that I would hate to lose the most, I think. That said, I also LOVE the mug I have wherein the mug-makers accidentally used Prince Harry’s face instead of Prince William’s. That’s a keeper, as well.
HEATHER: Jess gave me a Chuck and Di wedding jar that has the most hideous photo of Diana on it. It’s amazing. My parents also have a tin wastebasket from their engagement that I have asked for whenever my mother decides to get rid of it. We made an allusion to that in the book. Oh, my mother DID send me the book they got about the courtship and wedding, full of photos. It’s great. There’s a passage that explains that royal babies are not commercialized with souvenirs the way weddings are, which is HILARIOUS to read now, when of course nothing was more commercial than the birth of George.
If you could tell anyone to read one book (other than your own) what would that book be? (This will be added to one of our most visited posts of must-reads from the authors featured in Sundays With Writers)
JESSICA: One book! That is really a difficult choice to make. I have a degree in English lit, and I’m sure several of my professors will strongly disapprove of this — it’s very tempting to choose a classic, or at least something “literary” — but I am going to recommend the classic Judith Krantz book, SCRUPLES (and also SCRUPLES II; the first book ends on a real cliffhanger, so be warned). If you are interested in/enjoy popular woman’s fiction, Krantz is truly the master of the genre. Her books always feature strong women who excel at interesting jobs, and the plots are propulsive and highly readable and deliciously soapy. I personally never feel guilty about anything I read, but if you are into so-called “guilty pleasure reading” — or even if you are a person who only reads highly literary intellectual books but who longs to UNDERSTAND the idea of guilty pleasure reading — Scruples one of the most pleasurable, and, by this point, a classic of that genre. (Her autobiography, which is titled, brilliantly, SEX AND SHOPPING, is also a favorite.)
HEATHER: Oh, wow, I can’t pick that either. I think it’s because I would never advise anyone to read only ONE book, and I don’t even know HOW to answer this without considering the context. If it’s someone who never reads, I’d say start with the Harry Potter series, because it will invite you into books and then keep you there. If it’s someone who likes stuff that’s tonally similar to The Royal We — funny, with heart — I would hand them Someday, Someday, Maybe, by Lauren Graham, which I promise is a recommendation I would have made before she ever even picked up our book. If you’re into literature and wordplay and quirk, I’d suggest The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde (and then read the whole series; they get goofier but no less imaginative and punny). If you want striking prose, read anything by Kate Atkinson. And if you love wartime and friendship and romance, it’s a tie between The FitzOsbournes trilogy and Code Name: Verity, both of which are wonderful examples of books that are technically considered for teens, but offer so much to anyone of any age. How’s THAT for a wishy-washy answer?
You can connect with Heather Cocks & Jessica Morgan on their website! I’m always thankful for these moments with writers and I hope you will pick up this amazing book! You can always connect with me on GoodReads, through our books section of our site, and you can read our entire Sundays With Writers series for more author profiles. Happy reading, friends!
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