Published March 25, 2021

As part of the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book, Karen Grey (What I’m Looking For), Tif Marcelo (Once Upon a Sunset), and Lorelei Parker (Crushing It) discussed their contemporary romance novels, featuring healthy doses of romantic comedy, passion, and heartwarming second chances. In conversation with Priscilla Oliveras.

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Watch the recording of this event here and read the transcript below:

Thanks to our bookseller for this event, Books Bound2Please.

Recommended reading from our featured authors

Recommended by Lorelei Parker:

Recommended by Karen Grey:

Recommended by Tif Marcelo:

PLUS, books by Priscilla Oliveras, which you can explore here

“Shakespearean actor Will and financial analyst Kate aren’t exactly star-crossed lovers, but, despite intense attraction, they can’t ever seem to stay together very long. Set within the Boston theater community and the (equally dramatic) world of high-stakes consulting, Grey’s wry, charming, and compulsively readable novel demonstrates that, when it comes to romance, falling in love is only the beginning.”—Dana Sachs, author of The Secret of the Nightingale Palace

“[In Once Upon a Sunset] the lush backdrop of the Philippines brings new chances at love for both Diana and Margo as the old love letters connect them to a new family.”―Booklist

Crushing It will speak to gamers and romantics alike. The story pulls at readers’ heartstrings as Sierra gets caught in a love triangle that has her torn between the past and the present, and gamers will love the references to new and old favorites. Parker crushes it in her debut novel.”—Booklist

Transcript

SARAH LAWSON: Welcome to “Contemporary Romance,” a program in the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book. I’m Sarah Lawson, associate director of the Virginia Center for the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities. Thanks for joining us.

A couple notes before I hand the program over to our speakers: Please share your questions using the Q&A tab on Zoom or share them in Facebook. This event also has optional closed captioning, which you can turn on and customize at any time during the event by using the Closed Captions tab at the bottom of your window. If you haven’t already read today’s books, we hope you will. For details about how to buy them from our bookseller for this event, Books Bound2Please, visit VaBook.org, where you can also explore our full schedule and watch past events. While you’re there, please consider making a donation to support the Festival’s ongoing work at VaBook.org/give.

Also, we greatly appreciate the support of all Festival sponsors, donors, and community partners. Thank you.

Now, I’m very pleased to introduce our moderator for today, Priscilla Oliveras. Priscilla is author of Anchored Hearts and writes contemporary romance with a Latinx flavor. Her work has garnered praise from The Washington Post, The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Oprah Magazine, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and many more.

Priscilla, welcome. Thank you, and take it away.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: Thanks, Sarah. Hola, everyone. Hi. Thank you so much for coming to spend, if you’re on the East Coast, part of your lunch. If you’re maybe out West, maybe a mid-morning break. If you’re somewhere else around the world, and wherever you are, I hope you’re safe and healthy, and we’re ready to talk romance. So let’s bring on our first panelist. It’s Karen Gray.

Karen Gray is the pen name for award-winning audio narrator Karen White. An actor on the stage and screen in the late twentieth century, Karen began recording books in 1999 and continues to do so in between making up her own stories. She published her first two novels in 2020, and her third release is April 29th of this year, so it’s just around the corner. Welcome, Karen.

KAREN GRAY: Thank you. It’s great to be here.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: Yes, I’m excited. Would you like to give us a quick blurb about your upcoming book?

KAREN GRAY: The upcoming book, yes.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: Or any of your books.

KAREN GRAY: Well, I’ll start with the first book. It is an opposites attract rom-com called What I’m Looking For, set way back in 1988. Is it historical? Is it contemporary? I say it’s both. And it has a finance geek heroine and a Shakespeare-quoting bartender-actor-hero.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: Nice. I’ll tell you. First when I was reading it, I thought, wait a minute, this is like around my—I was a little bit younger than they are, but it was really fun revisiting that era. And I wondered, yeah, it’s contemporary, it’s not historical—modern. I thought it was wonderful that you set it there. So I really enjoyed it.

KAREN GRAY: Thank you.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: And now we’re moving on. Our second panelist is Lorelei Parker, the author of Crushing It. Lorelei, hi.

LORELEI PARKER: Hello.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: She lives and works in central Virginia. In her free time, when she isn’t playing videogames—we’re going to talk a little bit more about that—she writes contemporary romantic comedy. Lorelei, do you want to whet our appetite with a little info about Crushing It?

LORELEI PARKER: This is my little Link from Zelda. I have a bit of a Zelda addiction. So my book Crushing It, which is here, that came out in July is about a videogame designer who has a fear of public speaking, and she decides to face this fear by going to a bar challenge, where she’s supposed to read from an old diary. They call it mortification, I think. Mortify is what it’s actually called. They do this live in different bars, and it’s a real event that happens. But I set it in a fictional bar, a fictional contest.

And she’s reading a diary from her college days about a guy she had a crush on and how embarrassed she was about it, and it turns out he’s actually there. So that spins off into the story.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: Such a great setup. So I think both of your heroines—Karen’s and Lorelei’s—have a similarity that kind of ties into a question I want to ask a little bit later. But let’s bring up Tif Marcelo. Tif is the author of Once Upon a Sunset and In a Book Club Far Away. Tif is a veteran Army nurse, and she writes about the strength of families, the endurance of friendship, heartfelt romances, and she is inspired daily by her own military hero husband and her four children. Hi, Tif.

TIF MARCELO: Hello.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: Good to see you.

TIF MARCELO: So Once Upon a Sunset is a mother-daughter story. It’s about thirty-nine-year-old Diana and seventy-six-year-old Margo. And they discover crumbs that lead them to the Philippines to discover family that they had not known about. But within their history—or within these ladies—there are two romances that occur with both Diana and Margo. So this is a contemporary fiction, but there are romantic threads in there. But I do write also contemporary romance.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: Yes. I will say I loved how both of the women had those romances. I think the romance reader in me really loved that, but even the mother-daughter relationship was really touching and really moving.

So first off, I want to say it’s so great. I mean, I’m down here in Florida. Lorelei, you’re in Virginia. Tif, you’re in that area. Karen, I’m not sure what area you’re in.

KAREN GRAY: I’m in North Carolina.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: Okay. So normally it might’ve been hard for us to kind of get together. So the one plus—the one silver lining over the past year—has been the number of virtual events so authors and readers can keep meeting together. And they’ve allowed us to connect. Books throughout the pandemic have been for me—and I see it also on social media—readers talk about how books help them kind of escape or get away, like a virtual vacation. And I feel like all three of your books kind of dip us into a different world. Like with Tif—yours we get to go all the way across to the Philippines. We also learn a little bit about World War II and what they were going through on the home front, and a little bit of Diana’s medicine.

And Karen, you take us into the world of Shakespeare and theater and just the life of a working actor. And I am not a finance person, so I found her conversations and your heroine’s—the way she could think—really intriguing. So a mix of like finance and theater and then the gaming world. You probably game enough for both of us because I’m a non-gamer, so I don’t know very much. So I found it really interesting. So I just wanted to know if you want to share your connection or what drew you to your different story worlds. Lorelei, would you like to go first and kick us off with your story world idea and why you wanted to take us there?

LORELEI PARKER: Well, I’m a developer; that’s my job, so I wanted to write a developer heroine. You don’t see a lot of actual tech women. There’s women that do social media or different types of influencer things that we see a lot of, but not usually women who are actually programmers, so I wanted to give that some focus. And then also with the gaming, part of the gaming is me. Part of it is my kids. I’m always surrounded by somebody playing either Animal Crossing or Mario-racing. Something is always going on here. So I wanted to bring that in too because it’s something fun. And I kind of wanted to make this book sort of a hero’s journey, in the sense like there’s always a story behind a game. Obviously there’s games like Asteroids or whatever. You just shoot things. But most like role-playing games, they have a real story arc to them, and I wanted to have that in there with her making progress, getting rewards, learning things along the way that she could then use later. So it made a lot of sense to me to focus the whole thing. I mean, it’s only part being in the gaming world because the rest of it obviously takes place in this other historical—her historical diaries and whatnot. There’s more than just gaming in there. Gaming is sort of more of the local flavor, if you will.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: Yeah. Well, do you want to tell us a little bit about the historical aspect?

LORELEI PARKER: So she went to college ten years ago. She went to Auburn University. So did I.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: Oh, I’m a Gator. I wanted to give you the SEC nod.

LORELEI PARKER: I went to the University of Florida for my master’s, so I’m a traitor in my family. But she lives in Atlanta, which is where a lot of people end up. My family is in Atlanta. A lot of people who went to school in the SEC, they end up around the Atlanta area, which is what she—she’s there. So there’s a lot of people there that she knows from college that she’s running into.

So when she goes to read from this diary, it’s from a COMS class that she took in college where they had to write like a daily journal. So she was journaling every day for this particular class she was in, and so were these other people that she knows from that time period. So there’s a lot of overlap between the journal that she’s reading and the journals that they’re reading from. And so they’re putting together kind of a little bit of a mystery of what happened to them together in the past, when she has an angle on what she thinks happened to her with these two guys that she’s encountering again for the first time after ten years and their point of view. And it’s revealing different pieces of information that she wasn’t aware of until it comes forth in this diary reading.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: Right, yeah. Being able to intertwine all those pieces as an author—I’m thinking, gosh, how interesting, all that layering in. But it was great. I loved it. That’s something I’ve never done, so even as a reader I appreciated it. As an author, I appreciated it as well.

LORELEI PARKER: And I’m a pantser, so I had to plot that book. I was like, oh gosh.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: I would think so. So for any who’s listening, if you’re not sure, a plotter and pantser: A pantser is typically an author who has an idea and just kind of trusts their vision, and they sit down, and they just kind of let the story flow. And a plotter, which I am firmly in that camp, typically has some kind of outline or at least some scenes—you know, some kind of structure that then they kind of follow.

But Karen, you took us into—and my girls and I have done community theater, but nothing like what—your characters are working actors and then also there’s the finance aspect. I loved how you blended that. So I’m thinking that comes a little bit from your acting background.

KAREN GRAY: Yeah. I was a young actress in Boston in the eighties and early nineties. So that was one reason why I set it then. I was really lucky both in college, when I studied abroad, and when I was in New York City after college and then a bit later to work with people who made me see that performing Shakespeare is sort of like the Ironman of theater. It really takes everything you’ve got—your brain, your body, your soul, your emotional life—and exorcises all of those. Not that I don’t love doing other kinds of theater, but it really ignited a passion in me. 

So I spent about the first ten years of my professional acting life mostly directing and performing in Shakespeare, both in Boston and around different parts of the country. The theater that’s in the book is a fictional one. It’s sort of my dream theater. It sort of takes the best of the theaters that I worked with and smushes them all together. And a lot of my mentors are in there in different guises, again mushed together into one character sometimes. So that was the actor part of it.

And then Kate, who is a financial analyst, is actually based on a close friend of mine—so closely based on her that she wouldn’t let me use her actual name in the acknowledgements because she was afraid people might get mad at her for sharing some of the stories. There’s a lot of sexual harassment in the book that Kate has to go through, which if you were in the workforce back then—a lot of younger women who have read the book are shocked. But people of my age and older who have read it are like, “Yep, that’s what we dealt with.” And especially in finance. It was a very male-dominated field. It still is, I guess, in some ways.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: That’s what I was going to say, yeah. Some of the stuff that she experienced in the workplace was jarring. And it’s good to see that there’s been some change. It’s still around. But I think that was an aspect that I was glad to see. It was real. You know, realistic. Because I love that all three of you have heroines in STEM. So I loved that aspect of it. But the sexual harassment that she experienced really was—I mean, that’s a topic that was important, and you found a great way to weave it in, but it didn’t overtake the story. It wasn’t just about that, but it was a realistic part of a woman in her field, especially during that era—what she would’ve been dealing with.

KAREN GRAY: Yeah, that’s what I’ve really enjoyed in writing these books set back then. There’s a novella too, so I have four different ones once this next one comes out. And with each one, I’ve really played around—and a lot of readers have gotten this—with sort of luring people in with this feeling of nostalgia. “Oh, weren’t things so much simpler back then? Oh, we didn’t have to date with an app.” But then once we get there, I like to play around with, “Whoa, some things were really terrible back then.” And then some things, oh, we still have to work on those things in our society. So I like to mix a little medicine in my sugar.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: You did a wonderful job. And then Tif. I have never been to the Philippines, so I was really excited. But you kind of mix—I mean, Diana is believable. You open up, and I feel like I’m in that labor and delivery room with her in the VIP suite. So I guess—and I figured you were drawing on your nursing background but also your—as a Latinx author, I love the ease with which your book infuses a little bit of your culture, but it’s just a part of it. It’s like a natural feel. It’s similar to like what Karen was saying. There’s no lesson that we’re learning or anything, but you did it beautifully. So I just wanted to talk a little bit about your inspiration to write and then to include the world, these two aspects.

TIF MARCELO: Yeah, thank you so much. Yeah, definitely the book opens up with Diana having to make a decision. And she is the OBGYN doctor on call, and she has to make a decision on a patient. Some of it has to do with the patient’s financial status. And that scene is definitely, I would say, inspired by—like I was a labor and delivery nurse for a short amount of time. Mostly I did mother-baby. But that—I always say the labor and delivery ward is like—it goes to hell and a handbasket. It’s either wonderful—absolutely perfect, even in all the mess and all the screaming or the chaos, but it’s still wonderful. Or it goes the other direction, which is the worst case. There is such a range, but the range to the not so great is huge and painful. So I wanted to really bring that up.

But the inspiration for my book really is my grandfather who fought for World War II in the Philippines as part of the US Army. So he was here in the United States and then enlisted during World War II and then went back to the Philippines and then met my grandmother there. And she said, “I am absolutely not going back to the United States.” So he ended up staying there. So my dad and his siblings were born there, and I was born there, but we were all American citizens, right? Because he was—my grandfather was an American citizen.

So the what if really played in because he was here for very many years before he went back to the Philippines. Because by the time World War II happened, he was forty years old. Thirty-nine, forty. So it makes me wonder, right, like what kind of a life did he have here? And who did he meet? Who took care of him? Did he have any relationships? So this whole found family really came from that and the generations thereafter, right? Because they’re trying to find who they are. And this whole thing of identity—of our flux in identity and where we belong. And that could change in your work status, like depending on where you work—that’s your identity. Margo was a caregiver for her mother, so there were so many years where her identity was as this full-time caregiver. And when her mother passed away, what is she now? So they’re both going through this flux. And then they find clues, and they’re like, “Oh my gosh, we really need to go figure this out,” because they think this is what’s going to heal their family. And in the process, they fall in love.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: Yay.

TIF MARCELO: Yeah. It was great. So just as a small tidbit, it was so neat because my husband was—my husband is in the Army. He was able to get my grandfather’s old documents from the military. So I was able to trace where my grandfather was at—certain points in his career. Which for my own family history is like, priceless.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: Yeah. It became like a passion project, then, that you’re sharing with us.

TIF MARCELO: Yeah, and I think oral history is kind of fuzzy, especially from like my grandparents and my uncles. Everybody has a different take on what happened so long ago. And so to have these documents—it’s like, okay, for real, he was here because he got his paycheck right there. So it’s just—to be able to imagine his route is kind of super neat.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: I love that idea that you kind of created his family here—like the family that he would’ve left behind when he stayed over there out of that story.

LORELEI PARKER: I really love that. I love the idea of somebody having a full life and then another life. That’s fascinating.

TIF MARCELO: I think too also, with Diana and Margo, Margo is seventy-six, and she still has a life after. And I wanted that definitely there. That’s why I wanted her to fall in love. Because I always think that there’s always an after. There’s more.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: I love that. I think it’s a good message. Like it’s never too late to start something new. It’s never too late to—I loved the ladies Thelma and Louise on social media. But I feel like how you’re talking in both of your—in Lorelei and Tif, you know how you mentioned earlier, Lorelei, the letters and the journals—those two aspects. How you both found—they’re different ways, but it works in both of your books to weave in those aspects.

So we’re sticking to like Women’s History Month, or Her Story Month as I’ve heard it called also. And all three of your heroines—or, I will say Tif, your two because Margo is one in her own right as well—they’re multifaceted, strong women. I really feel like they kind of debunk that age-old idea from generations past that some people still tend to have now that romances are all these waif-like women who need to be saved by the virile alpha male. And I firmly believe that we’ve come a long way from that, and both of your—I mean, all three of your heroines (and Tif, both of yours) kind of debunk that idea. So I wanted to ask what your thoughts are—and I love that, like I said earlier, they’re all STEM—your thoughts on kind of where romance is now. If there’s someone who is listening in now or listens to the recording who is not as familiar with the romance genre, what would you tell them about the romance genre today? Karen, do you want to start?

KAREN GRAY: I will say that was another reason I wanted to set my books in the eighties. Because from my understanding, romance books written in the eighties were kind of the worst of this example of the bodice ripper. And there’s even a lot of rape that was then considered seduction. So I feel like we need to have a do-over with that era of romance. Because my experience and my experience of my peers was that most of us coming out of the seventies, we had a pretty healthy sexual life and appetite and experience. And most of the women I knew were smart and go-getters whatever their field was. So I’m writing from who I know. Whether I actually went into finance or not, I totally could identify with Kate. It was a struggle to have to balance your career and this whole wanting to have it all with finding both the time and the emotional bandwidth for a relationship. And knowing how much to give and take. And that really still interests me. I think it’s something that every day I consider. So that was my intention.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: Nice. Lisa R. here in the chat is saying that you nailed it about the sexual harassment in the workplace in the eighties. So thank you, Lisa, for chiming in. Lorelei, what about you? How do you see your, maybe, Crushing It as an example of how romance has evolved?

LORELEI PARKER: I would say I am not an example and I am not expert on romance.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: Just your thoughts.

LORELEI PARKER: For Crushing It, my thing is I have a—I like alphas. I like betas. But I like gamma. The gamma is sort of an in-between kind of a romance. It’s a hero who has like—they’re assertive, they’ve got confidence. They’ve got, like, some of the good traits of an alpha, but they’re not like alpha wholes.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: Yes. I like to say cinnamon roll heroes.

LORELEI PARKER: Kind of. I think of cinnamon roll as being more beta, in a way. For me. Anyway, but yeah, I like the sweet boys. What I would say, though, for what I see happening in romance right now that’s really exciting for me is that it’s really breaking open in terms of points of view. I really love queer romance, and like the last year or two it’s become super mainstream. And it doesn’t look like it’s going to be stopping any time soon, which is exciting. So that, for me, has been one of the best things that’s been going on on the romance side. And also, of course, diverse points of view of all kinds that have been getting a lot of attention. So it’s great because you get to read a lot more perspectives than you normally get. To me, it seems like it’s getting better. I know that we have a long way to go.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: Yeah, I agree with you. I think there has been change, where lots of people are still calling for more change. But similar to what you were saying, I do believe that in the romance genre, the beauty of it is, under this romance umbrella, there is more than likely a book for you, the reader. Whether it’s heat level, whether it’s subgenres, whether it’s point of views, whether it’s the jobs they’re doing. So we’ve come a long way. But like you said, we still have a little bit more.

LORELEI PARKER: But it’s exciting to see.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: I completely agree. Tif, what would you say?

TIF MARCELO: Yeah, so I came into romance—I’m a young romance reader. Ten years, maybe twelve years. So I came in, and I have already folks that I look up to that were already in place. So I’m coming from that point of view where it’s a very positive experience for me. I’ve seen and read many of the diverse voices out there that really just fueled me, to encourage me to write romance and to continue to write romance.

But with this book specifically, I really wanted to explore people—because a lot of contemporary romance are written with characters who are in their twenties or perhaps in their late twenties and early thirties. But I’m no longer in that stage. So it was nice in this book to be able to put a thirty-nine-year-old who is not set and then a seventy-six-year-old who figures out, like, there is more for her. And it really for me—it’s an homage, I guess, to say that romance is for everybody. And that’s what I see right now, and I think that folks are really not only opening their minds, but I feel like people are continuously talking about it. You know, Lorelei, you’re talking about it. So many folks are talking about this need for inclusive romance, which I think is so important.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: Yes. Amen. Everything Tif said. It’s beautiful. Yes, we have more work to do. But I feel like there are more doors opening. We’re seeing more. Like right now, if you’re on social media, the wave of support for AAPI authors and the entire community. I feel like the more we talk about it and the more we support each other and the books that are out there expanding perspectives and giving people different experiences, then those differences become the norm instead of just the anomaly. So I love that.

Let me see where we are here. We talked about how all of your books for me were escapes to different worlds. Do you guys have any title—like what’s one or two books across time that you can pick up that are on your keeper shelf, or maybe that you read in the past year that kind of helped you get away from everything going on? Lorelei, do you have a book or two you want to recommend?

LORELEI PARKER: So last year, I was lucky enough to get an ARC for Boyfriend Material. So that was my first entrance into Alexis Hall, who actually has a backlog that I then went through. And July was basically just—I became the biggest, dorkiest Alexis Hall fan on the planet. I think he knows that now. Yeah, so all of those books were fantastic. Also, The Roommate last year was amazing. Great sex positive, hilarious book. And I just got Casey McQuiston’s ARC as well, the new one. I would recommend that as well.

TIF MARCELO: I’m jealous.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: You got the ARC?

LORELEI PARKER: I got the ARC, yeah. I got the ARC for Red, White & Royal Blue too, and I thought I was, like, the only that was like—I was all like, oh, I’m your fan. And then it’s like that book got huge. And I was like, yeah, I’ll just get in line.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: Hey, you’ve got ARCs. Nice. Karen, what about you?

KAREN GRAY: I think it’s interesting. For me, I think what I love about romance is when—it sort of runs parallel to real life where there are things that are grounded in reality, but you know there’s going to be a happy ending. And I think for me that has been what I had needed this year. And the most recent book that I read—I read so many that have done that for me, but most recently is First Comes Like by Alisha Rai. It’s the third in this trilogy, but she does a really interesting thing in that book where she refers to COVID. She doesn’t ever say the word, but she makes it pretty clear that the heroine was really sick and separated from her family. And it just feels right for me for this time. There’s a melancholia to it that sort of underlies it, but there’s also joy and hope and a happy ending, of course. So that book was really eye opening to me. I feel really lucky, writing in the eighties, that I don’t have to include COVID in my books going forward. At least not for another few years maybe. But I thought it was a really deft way of dealing with it plot-wise. But also emotionally it was spot on.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: People have asked me if I’m including COVID and the pandemic. And thus far—like the book that I’m revising now will come out in 2022, but it has no mention of it. So that’s a fine line. I wonder at one point it will—

LORELEI PARKER: I feel like it’s got to be fair game either way.

TIF MARCELO: It’s so hard to not—you know, my kids even will watch a show that obviously was filmed years ago. And they’ll even say, as I’m sitting next to them, “Oh my gosh, they are too close to one another.” It was like one of Jenny Han’s movies. And my daughter was like, “Oh my gosh, they’re like about to kiss, Mom.” And it wasn’t because of the kiss; it was because they’re going to put lips onto one another. And I’m like, oh.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: It’s amazing how it has now seeped into our psyche and part of our normal life. So Tif, do you have a book or two? I don’t think you’ve recommended yet.

TIF MARCELO: Yeah, I have a couple of books. One is Tembi Locke’s From Scratch. This is a memoir of a woman who goes to Sicily. And I think she was there for grad school for an exchange. And she meets a restaurateur that ends up becoming her husband. It was really her memoir about losing her husband to cancer and then finding love again after that. And if you follow her now like on social media, she’s remarried, and it’s just beautiful. But it’s really so heartfelt. I read that in the middle of COVID, and it was the perfect thing to read because there was so much hope in the truth of it all. So that was a wonderful thing, and it was romantic at the same time. Because her prose was just beautiful.

And the second one is Tracey Livesay’s Like Lovers Do. And that takes place half in Baltimore and then most of it actually—not half—but most of it in Martha’s Vineyard. And so that was super fun because I’m just like I want to go away. Let’s go on vacation. Let’s go to Martha’s Vineyard and chill out.

LORELEI PARKER: I have to say, first, thank you by the way for taking me to Key West last year.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: I appreciate you saying that. That first book was kind of like an homage to the island. And my hope is people who have been there feel like they revisited, and those who never have been feel like they had their toes in the sand with the other ones. But so many books were able to do that for us.

If you’re listening in, remember if you can, there are links here in the chat to all of the ladies’ books. Or if you don’t click on one of those, and you go later to look for them from your local indie bookstore or your favorite indie bookstore, we would really appreciate you supporting your local indies.

Let me see. We’ve got about seventeen more minutes. I think I jumped over our—and I did want to talk about this. I mentioned that your heroines are really strong. All of your main characters and your secondary characters in all of your books were just people that I wanted to go hang out with. I wanted to go get a drink at the bar in your novel, Karen, and I wanted to jet off to the Philippines and go to a party. And I can’t remember the location of your city, Lorelei, but—

LORELEI PARKER: Atlanta.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: Yeah, Atlanta. If I’m in Atlanta, the first thing I want to do is go to a baseball game. I’m not sure if your heroine is as big of a sports fan as I am. I don’t think—

LORELEI PARKER: Football, football, football.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: Football, football. But as strong as they are, what helps them to be believable is the flaws that they have or the struggles that they’re dealing with. Because I think that helps us as a reader. It makes the character more believable. So I found it really interesting, Lorelei and Karen, that both of your characters are dealing with some form of anxiety. And they kind of handle it in a little bit different ways. So I wanted to know how you researched that or how did you get it so believably on the page. Whoever wants to jump in first.

KAREN GRAY: Well I’d love to say that, first of all, it’s almost like someone gave Lorelei and me the same writing prompt, and we ended up with totally different books. Because if you just said write a book about a nerdy heroine who has a deep fear of speaking in public and then who meets a bartender that she falls in love with, and then we divert from there. I just thought that was fascinating.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: You can have like a blurb in different authors’ hands, and then you have different characters.

LORELEI PARKER: It’s like nothing new under the sun except everything, yeah.

KAREN GRAY: Yeah. But so when I was in Boston, in addition to acting and directing, I taught acting and vocal production. And part of that training to teach was recognizing that speaking in front of strangers or speaking in front of a group of people—and I just looked this up again—seventy-five percent of people ranked that as their number one fear.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: More than death.

KAREN GRAY: Before death, yes. And I think that’s partly because we don’t think that we’re going to experience death. We just can’t even face that. But we might experience having to speak in front of a crowd. So we spent a lot of time sort of understanding what happens in your proprioceptive nervous system when the fight-or-flight response happens, which is what happens to anyone who is fearful of anything, but especially in this situation.

And I personally am not a visual—my imagination does not work in the visual realm as much. It works aurally. So I hear things. But I also feel them in my body. So for me, that’s how I sort of put myself in that situation. And even though I’m an actor and I have performed I don’t even know how many times in front of audiences, whether it’s improv or Shakespeare or whatever—but doing this kind of thing is scary to me. So I think that there’s always something that we can connect with as writers or readers. And we can put ourselves in that situation. And then if you let yourself feel what you’re feeling, then the words, to me, come from there.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: Right. Try to put yourself in the character’s shoes. Like you’re there. What about you, Lorelei?

LORELEI PARKER: Did not have to research that one bit. If you can see me, I’m doing this right now with my hands. It’s weird. I’m an extrovert for the most part. I have high WOO.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: I’m WOO 9.

LORELEI PARKER: And I’m fine in most situations. If I’m at a party, I’m right there talking to everybody. But something like this—getting on a camera, getting in front of people. I don’t mind a chat. Panels are great for this because all are talking. But one-on-one things, yeah, no. And it’s a totally physical response. I can mentally tell myself what’s the worst that could happen. And yet the words going through my head at the beginning of it is, I would rather be dead. So I can see where it’s above—yeah, it’s weird. Because what is the worst that can happen? You’re kind of embarrassed or you say something stupid? I don’t know. You come off like an idiot? I don’t really know what it is, but there is just something physically that—it is definitely fight-or-flight, and it’s a whole physiological thing, and there’s nothing you can do to control it, really. It’s going to happen.

So that’s kind of where I was with my character. She is fighting against this, trying really hard, because she knew that she could do these things. She was able to teach classes, which I’m perfectly capable of doing. Things where she’s familiar, where people know her, where she’s in control. All those things, fine. Get in front of a group of people on a microphone, and it was just like game over.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: You can more easily put yourself in the character’s shoes, yeah.

LORELEI PARKER: Personal experience all the way. Mmm-hmm.

KAREN GRAY: Funny enough, I consider myself an introvert, but I am a gregarious introvert. And I think a lot of actors are. Where you’ve developed a whole set of tools to sort of get through social situations or performative situations, but it is exhausting. And you just want to crawl back in your little hole.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: There are a lot of writers that are like that. Like at conferences they need to go back to their room to decompress.

TIF MARCELO: Yeah, I take a nap like in the middle of our—like at RWA. I’m like I’ve got to go.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: Yes. I’ve been known to go up to our hotel room and take a catnap also. But Tif, Diana is confident. And part of that is, I feel like, her job. What I noticed, though, with her—so I wanted to ask more probably from a writer’s perspective—and then, Emily, I see your question. So we’ll get to your question. I don’t want you to think we’re not going to ask it. Emily has got a question in the Q&A, and I have the box open. But Tif, Diana—one of the things about her is that she’s a little bit, like, removed. She keeps herself a little bit apart from her loved ones. Like that’s what Carlo says was the problem. Her mom notices it about her. So I wondered, when you have a character who is kind of, like, shut down in some areas, as an author was it harder to identify with her? Or were you able to peek inside her brain to get that on the page? Or how was that writing a character that is really contained like she is?

TIF MARCELO: Yeah, I really had to ask myself, like, who is she. You know, what moves her and what keeps her going? And I feel like I can associate with her just a tiny bit in the sense that, when somebody talks to me about how do you go from one thing to another, and I always say when I go into one patient’s room, I’m focused on that patient, and I’ve blocked everything out behind me outside of that door, and I’m with that patient only. And then when I walk out, I forget about that patient, and I move on to the next patient. So I feel like that’s how Diana is but to the max. So there are some things that she doesn’t want to face. So she would rather focus on the things that she knows she can do, which is deliver babies or assist mothers to have their babies. You know, doctors don’t deliver babies. Mothers have their babies.

But for me to write that was really tough because it’s always—you have to figure out like what really hurt her. And I don’t like to think of my characters hurting. So in the first drafts, she was still very like chipper. But it didn’t make any sense for the kind of pain that she had. Everybody just deals with grief differently. And some folks just tend to put it away. Put it away and keep working. And workaholism is a true thing. And for some—

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: It’s a good way to not deal. It’s a good way to not have to deal because you’re dealing with this, so.

TIF MARCELO: Yeah, and in our environment and in our society today it’s an accepted way because everybody’s always at work, and the cool thing is to be busy. So for a woman like her who’s using her work as a shield, sometimes you don’t—she doesn’t know that that’s her coping. And some people don’t even notice it for forever because everybody is so busy all the time. And next thing you know, she’s just really grieving.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: Yeah, yeah. I think all three of you did—the issues that each of your characters were dealing with are universal on some level. So like as a reader, I don’t get a lot of stage fright unless I’m not prepared. I don’t want to be like pushed out there and I have no idea what I’m supposed to be saying out there. But yet there have been times where—like at a cocktail party, I’m not the best at just going up to a bunch of strangers. I’m going to look for the person that I know and feel comfortable. So there were moments where I could identify with both of your heroines, Karen and Lorelei. And Tif, how many times have we and as readers not wanted to have to deal with something, and so we focus on something else? So I thought all three of you did that beautifully. Nicole says, “We nurses can use that twelve- or sixteen-hour shift to push things away.”

TIF MARCELO: It’s very easy to do that because you’re forced to.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: You have to think about your patients and them, so you don’t have time to think about your stuff. Totally. So Emily, here in the question and answer, she said, “How do you talk about yourself as a writer when you meet people randomly?” Then she had in parentheses, “It can be awkward to talk about romance or writing romance sometimes.” Boy, that can be—well I’ll just let—who would like to answer if someone asks what do you do, or someone says what do you write. Tif, yeah, go.

TIF MARCELO: This happened this morning. So kids started back up at school part-time here in our district. So I am now walking my ten-year-old to school. And there was a mom there, and she’s great. She’s been in our neighborhood, but we haven’t seen each other because it’s COVID. And we’re just talking. And I don’t bring my work up at all because I’m just like this is so weird because I’m an introvert in that sense. And then she asked me what I did for a living. And I’m like, “Uh, well, I write books.” You know, what kind of books?

But it’s not—and then once I’m open, then I start talking about it. But just to say what I do is—I’m shy. But I don’t like to talk about myself, period, so that’s just me. I’d rather talk about our kids and whatever’s happening in the neighborhood.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: Lorelei, what were you going to say?

LORELEI PARKER: That’s funny because this isn’t what I do. It’s my side job. So when people ask me what I do, I never say writing. I always say I’m a developer. I mean, if I’m at like a dentist—I know people who can just sit there and sell their books. And I’m like never. Never bring it up. Yeah, I’m shy about it, so.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: What about you, Karen?

KAREN GRAY: I have to admit that I do—I hate that I do this, but—I mean, I also have a—audiobook narration is really my primary job now. And people are often—especially now because more and more people are listening to audiobooks than ever. They’re like, “Oh, that’s so cool.” And they want to know how it works, you know? But I think people are similar about writing. But I think a lot of people—everyone can write something. But I think it is a big mystery to people how one actually writes a book—a novel. And I do often sort of say, “Well, I write romance.” It’s not like literary fiction, you know? Which I hate that I do that, but I do feel compelled to do that. But then I’ll circle back around and say, “It’s a big genre. It’s a genre where this is amazing writing, where there’s really adventurous writing. There’s crappy writing too, but there’s crappy writing in every genre. And my goal is to write the best romance I can. And the reason that I want to do it is that I want to put positive things out in the world.” Especially now. But I don’t know. I couldn’t write a mystery if you made me. I couldn’t write about murder. I don’t think I could even write about delivering babies because I don’t ever want to read that part of my experience in life again. Not that the product wasn’t great, but the experience itself was not so great. So I want to work on that. I want to work on owning romance more. On the first mention, not after fifteen.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: Yeah. I like to say that romance—at least I feel where we are today—is a depiction of healthy relationships. And across, especially since we’re seeing more diversity. Like Lorelei—you were saying how you love seeing more queer. I think it’s an example of, it doesn’t matter—you know, like love is love, and we’re all deserving of it. And I feel like predominantly romances today are examples of if you have the right partner and you have—even the secondary characters, right? If you have healthy relationships around you, and you’re working to be a healthy person, then overcoming the odds or overcoming that conflict is possible.

So we’re going to go—I just got a message. Since we started a little bit late, we can go to like 1:05, 1:10. So I have one kind of last fun question. I guess someone in here—Kathy says that Gone with the Wind was romance. And I’m going to say, mostly because I’m a teacher. I have my MFA in writing and popular fiction. I teach a romance writing class. Actually, Gone with the Wind is romantic fiction. But like the definition of romance, the book needs to end in that happily ever after. Or like with YA or what’s called—

LORELEI PARKER: Happy for now.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: Happy for now. It has to have that satisfying ending. And even if—what I would tell my students—even if the same couple is going to be in the next book so they’re not walking down the aisle at the end, at the end of that book the reader needs to feel satisfied that there’s been some forward progress in that relationship. Even if, okay, Book Two we’re going to still visit these same people. But a lot of people will say Nicholas Sparks is a romance writer. And he has written a couple maybe, but even he himself will say he’s not a romance writer. He writes romantic books. But I’m not going to give away the ending in case someone here has not seen the movie or read the book The Notebook. The endings are a little bit different, and neither one of them meets the romance criteria. So The Notebook is a romantic film and a romantic book. But I’m going to take off my teacher hat now and ask a fun question.

TIF MARCELO: That’s good. It’s good to point that—because it is a point of topic.

LORELEI PARKER: Yeah, and people will say Romeo and Juliet. It’s like, what? It has a romance. It isn’t a romance. There’s a difference.

KAREN GRAY: In the audiobook world, our sort of Oscars are the Audies. And for years—and it’s finally, I believe, that we have educated those who are in charge—but it would be Nicholas Sparks and books about—like what’s that book? A Bridge?

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: Bridges of Madison County.

KAREN GRAY: Yeah. It would be those kinds of books that were in the romance category, and people wrote—back then, I was just narrating romance. But people who wrote it and narrated it would be so frustrated because that’s not romance.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: It’s romantic, but, yes. Okay. So Penfed is nudging us, “What’s the fun question?” Okay, and the fun question—I think, Lorelei, you threw this out here. Carmala, hi. Thanks for the nudge. The fun question Lorelei kind of came up with when we were emailing was what would your—and you can say both your hero and heroine. Or Tif, you can say Margo and Diana—whatever. But how would your characters be passing their time while quarantining during the pandemic? Lorelei, do you want to go? It was your question.

LORELEI PARKER: Well, this is easy. Mine is in her basement. She’s in the dark. She’s got her network hooked up. She’s talking to people on World of Warcraft. She’s got no problems at all with the pandemic.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: She’s fine staying home.

LORELEI PARKER: She is perfectly fine. She’s at home. So, yeah, that’s not a problem. One of the guys involved, though, he owns a bar, so he’s having a bit of a time, you know? Financially, it’s difficult. But things are starting to open up, so maybe he’ll be fine.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: Maybe he was doing curbside service. I don’t know if they allowed that in Atlanta. But like some places you could do curbside service. So I hope so for his sake.

LORELEI PARKER: I’m sure he’s fine.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: Karen, what about your characters? How are they quarantining?

KAREN GRAY: Well if mine were magically transported in time forward out of the eighties, and they did have to deal with it, Kate who is an introvert like me—she’d be fine. She’d be on her computer. And she would have Will there to entertain her. And her cat, when she needed that. She’d be fine. He would be struggling a little bit, but I think he would quickly set up his own YouTube channel, and he would be performing sort of like—he’d perform an entire Shakespearean play all by himself. Also, he would probably do cocktail mixing.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: Totally.

KAREN GRAY: Teaching people. Because you know like that movie Cocktail.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: Yes, I could totally see him doing that.

KAREN GRAY: So he’d probably do both of those. Maybe together.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: I would watch that, yes. Tif, what are Margo and Diana doing?

TIF MARCELO: Well, Diana’s working. I mean, she’s always working. People are still giving birth. So she’s still in the hospital. And Margo, she’s probably sunning herself outside. She’s an extrovert. She’s an Instagrammer, like influencer, in her seventies. So she’s probably out there sunning and taking pictures of herself and uploading them.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: Yeah, she is. I would wonder—and this might be a serious note—but how Diana would be de-stressing. Like having a daughter that’s in the healthcare system right now—

TIF MARCELO: She wouldn’t be.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: Yeah.

TIF MARCELO: That poor woman. I love her. I love her so much.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: She’s so buttoned up right now. I’m thinking, oh my gosh, if she was in a pandemic, that would be really hard. But, yeah, thinking about Margo and wondering what is Margo uploading to social media, and I would totally watch—Karen, I would watch your hero’s YouTube channel. Or I would get on TikTok for him.

So let me see if there are any other questions here. I was trying to watch. I don’t think so. But we are at 1:05, so real quickly do you want to say like what book is coming up? I know, Karen, you have a book coming around the corner—at the end of the month. Not this month, but next month.

KAREN GRAY: My next one is called You Spin Me.

LORELEI PARKER: That’s excellent.

KAREN GRAY: It’s the story of an actress and a radio DJ who fall in love on the phone. It’s a Beauty and the Beast–themed story. So the challenge comes when they have to meet in person and what happens then.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: Did you say the title?

KAREN GRAY: You Spin Me.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: You Spin Me. Oh yeah, I was thinking the song. Yes.

KAREN GRAY: The cover reveal is next Friday, and then it comes out. So I can’t show it to you yet, but it comes out April 29th.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: Twenty-ninth, nice. Lorelei, do you have something coming up around the corner or that you’re working on that you can talk about?

LORELEI PARKER: I have a book coming out. I have another pen name, Mary Ann Marlowe, and I have a book coming out in May called Falling in Luck.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: May what?

LORELEI PARKER: May the 4th, I think.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: May the 4th be with you.

LORELEI PARKER: Yes, precisely. I don’t have a pitch handy. This is about a girl who has terrible luck—or she thinks she does. She believes in luck. And she has a massive crush—sort of a Pretty in Pink sort of situation where she has a massive crush on this very hot, wealthy guy, and a goofy best friend character. And through a series of bad luck and misfortunate events that happen to her, she winds up being proposed to by the guy of her dreams. So like bad things land her in like the best situation she thinks she can be in. But it may actually be even worse luck than she could imagine.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: Maybe it’s to be careful what you wish for?

LORELEI PARKER: Yeah. So she ends up in a bit of a great situation, unfortunately for her.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: Wow. So we’ve got April 29th and May 4th. And Tif, you have In a Book Club Far Away.

TIF MARCELO: Yes.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: Tell us about that and when it’s coming out.

TIF MARCELO: In a Book Club Far Away comes out April 6th. And it is right behind me, and it was the Book of the Month selection for this month of March, and it is an Army wife story. So it’s three women who met at a book club ten years ago. And something happened in that book club, and in the present time they get back together because one of them calls an SOS. But the other two don’t know that they are going to be there. So it’s twin timeline story, and there’s three marriages that has to kind of survive the ten years as well. It’s not just a friendship story, but it’s their marriages over time also.

But I also have a contemporary romance coming out with Mott Lake on August 10th. And it is a private island. It’s called It Takes Heart, and it’s on a heart-shaped resort, and it’s a second-chance romance. But there’s heat in that. It’s like two out of ten, I think, if you put a heat level on it. And then I have a YA romance coming out with Underlined Paperbacks October 5th, and that is a Christmas YA.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: Wow, so you’ve got three books that are across the woman’s fiction with romantic—

TIF MARCELO: Yeah, super fun.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: —elements and strong romance and then a YA romance?

TIF MARCELO: Mmm-hmm.

PRISCILLA OLIVERAS: Nice, nice. So we’ve got lots of books. It’s about time for us to wrap things up, but please look at the links in the chat or follow these wonderful authors on social media. You can find them on Twitter or Instagram. Maybe Facebook. So please check them out. Thanks, Karen, Tif, and Lorelei. And to everyone who joined us, who is here watching on Facebook or via Zoom. Or if you’re tuning in later, thanks for watching the recording. Please consider buying their featured books from your local independent bookseller. Or, like I mentioned, use the links that are provided here in the chat. You can also check out other events in the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book by going to VaBook.org.

Thanks everyone for joining us. Adios.

KAREN GRAY: Thank you, bye.

LORELEI PARKER: Bye.

TIF MARCELO: Bye.

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