Julie Cohen grew up in Maine and studied English at Brown University and Cambridge University. Her award-winning novels have sold over a million copies worldwide, and she has twice been selected for the Richard and Judy Book Club in the UK. Her bestselling novel TOGETHER has been translated into eleven languages and optioned for television adaptation. Julie runs an oversubscribed literary consultancy which has helped many writers go on to be published. She is a Vice President of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, founder of the RNA Rainbow Chapter, and a Patron of literacy charity ABC To Read. Her most recent novel is LOUIS & LOUISE.
I was lucky enough when I was first starting out to sit in a panel and watch Julie in action. Like her workshops, she tends to “make s*@t happen” and get you fired up and ready to write.
Aside from being one of the most prolific and highly respected writers around, Julie is now the vice president of the Romantic Novelists Association and has founded their Rainbow Chapter. So, I set Ferb on her and lured her in to showcase why she’s a super-author and why she is leading the way to bring equality to our written word.
- – Hi, Julie! Thank you for chatting to me. I wanted to start at the beginning (cue Sound of Music singalong) and ask you when you took the plunge and wrote your first book. What was it about the idea that gave you the drive to complete that first manuscript?
I wanted to be a writer from a little girl, but that dream sort of got lost along the way—mainly because I had no idea how to go about it! For some reason it never occurred to me that I just had to sit down and write a whole book. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s, a full-time teacher of English, that I dusted off an old manuscript I’d started when I was at university, and decided to finish it. (Spoiler alert: it was crap.)
And, what did you learn about yourself and what you wanted to write?
Up until I started writing, I was pretty good at everything I had ever tried, and if I wasn’t good at it, I tended not to do it. When I sent in that first manuscript, though, it was rejected immediately.. Turned out I wasn’t actually that good at writing a book. Fortunately by the time I got the rejection, I’d already started a second book because I’d become addicted to writing. So I learned that failure is pretty normal in the writing world, and that if you keep trying, you’ll get better.
- – You wrote for Mills and Boon for a while. What did you learn about the romance/relationship based genre during that time?
Yes, I wrote six novels for Mills & Boon in 2004-5 before starting my mainstream career at Headline. Writing those six 60,000-word tightly-plotted romance novels taught me a lot about writing conflict. The whole point of a Mills & Boon is that you have to keep your characters apart until right at the end—so you get good at creating deep inner conflicts for both characters. I also learned a lot about character arc and pacing.
What area/s did you find difficult in your writing? Was there anything you were focused on improving?
At first I liked my characters too much to really put them through hell. I’ve learned better since.
What writing strength did you discover and why did you feel it was a strength?
I learned a lot about character arc, pacing and structure in those days, but this is all craft stuff that anyone can learn. What I think I truly discovered was my writing voice. Even though I write very different novels now than those early M&Bs, I think my voice has remained more or less constant in a lot of ways.
- – You moved into “trade publishing” (the writing Champions’ League) but was it an easy transition? You mention about writers “going deeper” if they are looking to make that step up. Can you explain what that means for us?
Fortunately I had an editor (then at Headline) who believed in my work and who worked with me to expand my writing horizons and write more complex stories.
When I started writing longer books, though, I found it pretty daunting because I was used to writing very tightly controlled 60k stories. My first instinct was to add lots more plot and subplot. But I was given this golden advice, by veteran editor Karin Stoecker: “Don’t write more, write deeper.” Really explore conflict and character, rather than chucking in the kitchen sink.
What are the three major differences you found between writing for Mills and Boon to writing for the major trade publishers?
1) The turnaround time. I published six novels with M&B in eighteen months and the deadlines were pretty fast.
2) Mills & Boon promote category lines rather than individual authors or books. So all the books look very similar (for branding) and you only do sort of corporate PR to promote the brand. At a major trade publisher, your book is promoted individually. So you have your own marketing and PR team, which is great—but also the success or not of your book is down to your book, not to the entire brand. So it feels less secure.
3) With Mills & Boon, they have global rights and you have zero say over your titles or covers. They make you fill in a cover information sheet, and then they totally ignore it. I have some international covers which I find frankly insulting—and others that are just plain funny. With my mainstream publishers, I have much more input.
- – Believing in your own work is an important thing for any writer and you proved that believing in yourself is worthwhile with Together. Can you tell us about your decision to stick with your creative vision? What message do you want to give to other authors in similar situations?
My original publisher for Together, after initially accepting the book, changed their mind and wanted me to change the ending. They told me that if I didn’t change the ending, it wouldn’t get reviewed, or stocked in shops, or chosen for any book clubs. Usually when a publisher suggests a change, it makes a book stronger—but I couldn’t agree with this change. I struggled with this for several months, trying to find ways that I could change the ending without making the book worse. In the end I decided I had to keep the ending, and so I pulled it from that publisher and paid back all the money they had paid me. I decided I’d rather not have the book published than ruin what I thought was the best thing I’d ever written.
Fortunately, I found another publisher, and the book has been extensively reviewed, has won Romantic Novel of the Year, been chosen for the Richard and Judy Book Club, has sold over 200,000 copies and been optioned for TV, and has helped me launch a career where I can take more risks instead of playing it safe. But for a while I was sure this book would never see the light of day, and that my career was over.
I don’t know what message I want to give, except that when it’s really important, you should believe in yourself. Publishers aren’t always right. (They normally are, but not always.) I don’t think anyone should be a diva and usually it’s best to do the revisions. I certainly don’t recommend pulling a book from a contract in any but the most extraordinary case. It caused me a lot of anxiety and pain. But in the case of a serious artistic difference…it’s your work, it’s your name on it, and you’re going to have to live with it for the rest of your life. So.
- – Being yourself is equally important, right? Why did you make the decision to talk about your sexuality?
I’ve only been publicly open about my sexuality for the past five or so years. Like many writers I think that I understand things better when I’ve written about them, and although I’ve often had gay, lesbian and bisexual characters in my books, these characters have come more to the forefront recently. Through them I’ve come to understand myself a lot better. I’m bisexual/pansexual/omnisexual (I feel all of these terms apply to me). But as I’m married to a man and I’m middle-aged, I feel like it is really easy to assume that I am straight, or that my attraction to people other than cis men is irrelevant. I’ve learned more about bisexual erasure, and I’ve been inspired by people like me being open about their sexuality. So I decided that if it’s relevant to me, I should speak openly about it.
I came out to the Romantic Novelists’ Association sort of by mistake, in front of a few hundred people during a panel discussion on diversity and inclusion, but I’m glad I did because I want it to be really clear that romantic novelists (and love stories) come in all flavours.
- – How did people respond?
Most of the people I have talked to about my sexuality have said, in essence, ‘Yeah that is flipping obvious, what else is new?’ I’ve had a few difficult comments but in general everyone has been super supportive.
An author told me that after I came out in front of the RNA, they also came out to their writing friends. I cried when I heard that because I guess that is the magic of speaking your truth, and I know that other writer’s truth will go on to help other people speak theirs.
- – How did that lead to you founding the Rainbow Chapter and what do you think the RNA has to offer writers within the rainbow community?
As a Vice President of the RNA it is my goal to try to make it appealing to every single writer of romantic fiction in the UK as a place to network, get feedback, share knowledge, support each other, and celebrate the genre. I know that writers of queer romantic fiction have great support networks available already, but the RNA has connections to traditional publishing which may be more elusive. Our New Writers’ Scheme is unparalleled for helping unpublished writers, our Awards have a good profile in the commercial publishing industry, and our published members are so generous with their knowledge and eager to learn more. I think as writers we can all learn from each other, so having writers of all types of romantic fiction and from all types of backgrounds and of all sexualities and genders will enrich our genre as a whole.
- – Why do you personally feel it is important to encourage and inspire these writers?
In the UK there is a huge and popular body of LGBTQIA+ romantic fiction with happy endings, with thousands of happy readers—but you wouldn’t know it from looking at the supermarket shelves, the front tables of Waterstones, or the Sunday Times bestseller lists. I think it’s so important for these books to be visible, read and popular—not just for the audience who goes looking for them, but for every reader everywhere.
- – What unique challenges, that you have experienced, helps and draws you to supporting the growth of rainbow writers?
As a reader, especially in my teen years when I was forming my ideas about my identity (mostly from books), I saw exactly zero mainstream fiction about bisexual protagonists. Even when I did read books with bisexual main characters—I’m thinking novels like Orlando and The Colour Purple—I was told by my instructors that they were lesbian novels. I knew I didn’t only like women, so I didn’t see what else I could possibly be but straight. I never saw anyone in fiction who matched how I felt. I don’t think this is a unique experience at all; in fact I think it’s extremely common for anyone who is not a cis straight able-bodied white male. It’s vital for people to see themselves in the books they read—and equally vital for people to see characters like themselves succeed, be the hero of their own story, and find a happy ending.
- – How have you personally begun to explore different sexualities and gender identities in your work?
I’ve always had secondary lesbian and gay love stories in my novels (and written lesbian, gay and bisexual erotica under pseudonyms) but as I’ve moved away from genre fiction I’ve felt freer to highlight these characters more. My latest novel, Louis & Louise, is a sliding-doors type story where in one reality, my protagonist Lou is born cis male, and in the other, Lou is born cis female. Aside from this one difference, Lou is the same person in both stories, and in both stories they are bisexual, though this plays out in different ways for them.
- – How did your agent and publisher respond to your submission of Louis and Louise? Were you nervous about what their reaction would be?
They were pretty excited, actually. I was the one who was worried. Even though Lou is a binary cisgender character, we hired a nonbinary sensitivity reader to help me keep my language and story inclusive, and I talked with trans people and read a lot about gender theory to help me write from a more thoughtful point of view.
- – It’s just been released but how has the reaction been so far from the critics and the public?
I’ve been thrilled that it’s been reviewed in a wide variety of places, from mainstream women’s magazines to LGBTQ publications to national newspapers to blogs to Radio 2.
- – Have you got more rainbow-coloured stories and characters you plan to give us?
The novel I’m working on now, tentatively called Paper Ghosts, has two queer love stories, with four protagonists who are variously lesbian, bisexual, straight(ish) or genderqueer. It should be out in 2020. I’m very excited about it.
- – What do you hope your books make readers feel who aren’t within the rainbow community?
I just want to tell good stories about realistic characters. Their sexuality and gender are part of who they are, but it’s not the whole part.
What do you hope your books will make readers and writers of the rainbow community feel?
I hope they’ll enjoy the stories! And I am really pretty passionate about giving non-straight characters happy endings.
- – How has writing more openly and being involved with the Rainbow Chapter changed you as a person? And as a writer?
I think the absolute best things are that I’ve met some great authors and I’ve been recommended some fantastic books.
- – Can you tell us about your events, workshops and agony aunt column where we can find more of you and help and guidance for writers?
I’ll be speaking at the DIVA Literary Festival in Birmingham in March; I’ll be giving workshops at Jericho Writers’ Getting Published day in London this March and their Festival of Writing in York in September; I’m a tutor at the Festival of Writing in Stockholm, Sweden in May; I’m leading a guided retreat at Chez Castillon, France in June; I’m appearing at the Loveletter Convention in Berlin, Germany in June; and I’m leading a guided retreat at Retreats For You, Devon, in November. You can find more details about all of these on my website. www.julie-cohen.com
Quick Fire Questions:
As always, I round off with the quick fire quiz…
- What is your strength now as a writer? Structure! I’m obsessive.
- What is your “typical” writing day? In theory I write from 9-3.30 while my son is at school, but in reality I take the dog for a walk and then fart around in the internet for a really long time and get to work sometime before lunch.
- What do you want readers to say when they pick up your book? I couldn’t stop turning pages, and I cried!
- What don’t you want them to say? Bor—ing.
- Who is your literary hero? Ursula K LeGuin.
- If you could have married a character in any of your books (or been one) who would it be? I still have a real thing for the heroine of one of my earlier novels, Girl from Mars—a blue-haired comic book artist called Philomena Desdemona Brown. I guess I’d rather be her than marry her, because she is really messy.
- What is your “tic” word when you write? “just”
- What is your favourite word? “phenomenon”
- And your least favourite? It’s the phrase “padded barefoot”. AGH!
- What would you most like to develop in your writing? Being less scared all the time.
Ferb has enjoyed the butt-scratches but you’ve got his blonde locks all over you now so while you find some Sellotape to de-fur your clothes, we’ll say thank you for stopping by to chat!
You can find Julie here: