As our loyal readers know, the Bookish team adores Christina Lauren. We’ve followed along with their Beautiful and Wild Seasons series, and were ecstatic to dive into their first standalone, Dating You / Hating You. It’s a contemporary romance that follows two talent agents who find themselves competing for the same job and fighting their growing sexual tension. We caught up with both Lauren Billings and Christina Hobbs (the writing duo behind the pen name Christina Lauren — often affectionately shortened to CLo) at BookCon and chatted with them about their latest release, everyday sexism, and the best parts of romance novels.
Bookish: This is your first standalone, and it shares a few elements with your debut, Beautiful Bastard: an office romance, a mix of desire and aggravation. What was it like to revisit that setting and explore it in a brand new way?
Lauren Billings: When we had this idea, we weren’t thinking about Beautiful Bastard or trying to redo it in any way. But as the concept evolved, it started to feel like a grown-up BB and the more we discussed it the more we thought, “Yeah, this is something we can do. This is our wheelhouse.” One of the reasons why people really like BB is because it is sort of ridiculous and over the top. We wanted Dating You to be grown-up CLo but still have that element of the absurd. The shenanigans that Evie and Carter engage in bring that absurdity. Now instead of banging all over the office (like in BB), these are characters who are resorting to really terrible behavior and pranks because they’re driving each other crazy.
Bookish: What is your favorite part of romances to write?
Christina Hobbs: I’m realizing I have a very specific male character that I enjoy writing. I love the Carters, the Ansels, the Lukes—the really charming, funny guys. So for me, the scenes that are the most fun to write are the ones where the leads make each other laugh.
LB: My favorite part is when the characters first meet. I love meet cutes. That’s where you set up their personalities and their dynamic. It’s so fun. When I get stuck, I write kissing, but my overall favorite part to write is that first meeting.
Bookish: All of your books have strong feminist themes in them, but this one deals with sexism in a very head-on way. Evie and the other women in her office face a lot of everyday sexism, the kind that even Carter is sometimes oblivious to. Aside from being relatable to your readers, why was it important for you to feature that in this book?
LB: Both Christina and I had experiences in the workplace where we’d work equally hard as a male counterpart and be relegated to a different place on the hierarchy, but I think the more common experience is inadvertent sexism. I worked with people who reported to me who would call me kiddo or sweetie or honey. These are subtle things that chip away at you bit by bit.
When we first meet Evie’s boss Brad in this book, the reader notices the ways that he’s sexist towards Evie because she notices it. But when it happens in your own work place, often you initially let those little insults slide. You think, “Is it just me? Am I being sensitive?” And the insults build up over time. The subtle sexism is where it all starts; it’s the root.
CH: With sexism, there is also a level of privilege. Carter isn’t affected by it in the same way that Evie is, so he doesn’t have to see it if he doesn’t want to. The first time he does he has a moment of realizing he receives preferential treatment.
Bookish: Carter is described often in this book, and Evie thinks a lot about how hot he is. Carter is definitely attracted to Evie, but at least on the page, he doesn’t focus on her body in the same way. Similarly, her pleasure always takes center stage in their intimate moments. It reads like a subversion of the male gaze. Is that how you intended it?
LB: Absolutely, 100%. Like you said, what we notice about Carter is how he looks walking off down the hall in his pants, and a lot of that is for the romance reader. We want our readers to be able to visualize the hero and identify with the heroine. Carter looks at Evie and he sees her intelligence, her strength, her frustration, and he admires all of those things about her. We hope readers will see him appreciating those parts of her and maybe they’ll appreciate those aspects in themselves.
Bookish: In romantic comedies, women who are “married to their jobs” take a lot of heat and get told to take a step back. But here, Carter is also married to his job and he doesn’t ever expect Evie to step back. What made you want to play with that trope in this way?
CH: It’s something we deal with in our own lives. When you’re on a deadline, you have to work. We both have marriages that are truly equal partnerships and husbands who support that.
LB: And our husbands are just as dedicated to their own jobs. To be honest, it’s one of the reasons I’m passionately in love with my husband. He’s so good at his job and it matters so much to him. I think that’s incredibly sexy. I value hard work and if Carter was slacking while Evie was working hard, it would be difficult for me to write him in a swoony way.
CH: I also don’t think we’d root for a heroine who would give all of that up for the hero. Writing strong women in our books is absolutely intentional and important. Those are the women we surround ourselves with, and the women we are. We’re opinionated and strong, so it’s natural that our characters would be as well. And we like to show that there are different types of strength. Some of our women are loud, some are quiet, but they all know who they are and what they deserve. Especially when it comes to writing sex in our books, we want our women to own their sexuality and not be ashamed of it.
Bookish: Evie is older and established in her career, Carter is young and talented but a bit naive sometimes—which is another flip of popular tropes. How did this influence how you wrote their dynamic?
CH: You wanted that.
LB: I did! We’ve written a bunch of books where the man was older, and not because we thought it was sexier. It stemmed from each character’s backstory and life experience up until that point.
Here, we wanted Evie to be older and more experienced because the job that they are both up for should be hers. Logically, she should get it. But because there isn’t a level playing field there it’s called into question.
Bookish: Female friendships are important in all of your books, and a lot of your characters work together. Do you gravitate towards these relationships because you two work together?
LB: That’s so funny! I think you may have pointed out something that we’re not totally aware of. The workplace dynamic comes naturally to us. Our working relationship really is like a marriage. We lean on each other for more than just work stuff; we lean on each other for everything that goes on in our day. In some ways, I feel like writing the female friendships in our books is just as intimate as writing the couple’s dynamic.
CH: Also, people spend such a huge chunk of their day at work so it’s only natural that those people who help you get through it become important to you.
Bookish: You’re capturing a fascinating point in life. Basically from kindergarten to college, friends are on roughly the same track. But after that some get married, some follow their career path, some travel, some have kids. It’s easy to feel like your own accomplishments don’t stack up, and both Evie and Carter feel this way, like they’re failing at adulthood. How do you see this affecting each of them as characters?
LB: We do hold out those yardsticks. Even when you’re married with kids and have a job, you still compare yourself to your friends who are doing other things. Society has these expectations of a specific track you go down, and I think a lot of that is bullshit. There are more paths now, I believe, but I still feel like 30 years old is that flashing sign: You’re supposed to have some of these boxes checked by now.
The very first moment you see that is when Evie is going to Michael Christopher and Steph’s house. She sees that they have a mailbox with their name on it, and a doorknocker, and a three-year-old kid and she doesn’t even have a significant other. For Carter, he had a failed engagement, his younger brother is more successful, he doesn’t want to disappoint his parents, and now he might lose his job.
In a lot of our other books, the characters’ careers were set so it was fun to write characters who were struggling with it.
Bookish: This is a standalone, but if you were able to give one of the characters a spinoff, which would you choose?
CH: I also really love Michael Christopher. I would send him, Steph, and Morgan on a roadtrip. But I’d still pick Daryl. There was a point where our editor asked if we were intending for Daryl and Eric to be having a thing. And we said, “Maybe they are…” It was totally inadvertent.
LB: Our editor also called us out because at one point Jonah was named Derrick, and he was like “You have Daryl, Eric, and Derrick.”
Bookish: You’ve written so many books. Do you ever run into the issue of accidentally reusing the same name?
CH: I never remember anything. I would most definitely write a book with the same name for a different character. Lo would stop me; she’s good remembering thing like that.
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.