A year and a half ago, I got a text from Jasmine Guillory, lamenting that she’d never be a published author. A week later, she sold her first book, The Wedding Date, which was published by Berkley Press last month. A Stanford law graduate and alumnae of Wellesley, Guillory is also now under contract for three more novels.
The Wedding Date is a classic romance—boy meets girl in an elevator, boy asks girl to be his fake wedding date, and sparks fly. It’s fun and funny, and very, very sexy.
But it’s also ballsy as hell, and I mean this literally and metaphorically. The protagonist, Alexa, is the chief of staff to the mayor of Berkeley, California. Alexa is black and her love interest, Drew, is white. She flows in and out of white spaces, and Guillory never backs down from commenting on the tensions and nuances of race. Alexa also eats food and enjoys it. Her uncomplicated relationship with food is almost as sexy as her love life.
I spoke with Guillory about finding success, writing sex, and the revolutionary act of eating.
The Rumpus: How does it feel to go from “I’ll never sell a book” to “Oh, my God, now I have a book coming out and three more book deals”?
Jasmine Guillory: It feels totally surreal. My agent got the first deal for me. But then I didn’t sign my contract for, like, three months, and we didn’t announce it for two months after that. There was at least a month where I was convinced to my core that it was not going to happen. I was like, “She just called me on the phone and told me about this. That’s not real. I haven’t signed anything. They haven’t signed anything. This isn’t going to happen.” I still feel like this at every step of the process. The whole thing feels very weird.
Rumpus: Does the anxiety of failure ever leave?
Guillory: No, and I just recently started thinking, “Oh, great. I have to write more books. Obviously, everyone’s going to hate them. I don’t know how to write books. Why would anything think I know how to write books?”
Rumpus: It seems like being a writer is being is to live in this constant state of fear and self-doubt. And then people from the outside look at you and they’re like, “Oh, you look so successful.” And you’re like, “I’m a crippling ball of human emotion and anxiety.” But don’t you think some people transcend that level? Margaret Atwood is not a crippling ball of anxiety, right?
Guillory: I would hope not.
Rumpus: Now that you’re so successful, and you have this gorgeous, sexy book out in the world, are men from your past resurfacing?
Guillory: I had sort of wondered if that would happen, and when I announced my book deal, I didn’t hear from any of them for a while. I was like, “That’s weird.” And then, I got a text out of the blue, three weeks after I announced my book deal, from an ex congratulating me. So that was nice.
Rumpus: I want to talk a little bit about the relationship between food and love because you are a romance author, but you also think a lot about food and write a lot about food and create a lot of beautiful food.
Guillory: I love food a lot and I love to cook. And I really enjoy cooking for people I care about. One thing that I’ve never understood is when people get all upset when they have to cook for someone who is vegan or has specific food allergies. I like that challenge. I want to make something for this person who thinks that no one could cook for them and make them happy.
The main way that I see my friends is around a meal, either at someone’s home or we go out. Food, for me, is a big part of relationships in The Wedding Date. I didn’t even realize that there was so much food in the book because it’s so natural to me. And then everyone’s like, “There’s so much food in the book.”
One of my favorite moments is when Alexa first meets Drew’s best friend and they bond over tacos. And that felt really real to me. Meeting the friends is always awkward, but this is something that we both enjoy that will break the ice. And often I find that food is that—it can kind of break the ice.
Rumpus: That scene is also important because it addresses race. Alexa is visiting Drew in his really white world and his friend Carlos also inhabits this space, so that scene is where two people of color connect.
Guillory: They see each other and that’s communicated through food.
Rumpus: That scene just shows how you handle race so deftly. Was it just like the food; did it just come up naturally?
Guillory: Some of that definitely came naturally. Part of it is, I’m used to having those conversations with my friends. Like, most of the time when my friends and I talk about things like race and class, it’s not like a big conversation. Do you know what I mean? Something that just comes up as we’re talking about something else and then we move through. So I wanted my characters to be able to have conversations that felt natural to me, where it wasn’t like, We’re sitting down to talk about race.
Rumpus: What food is your favorite food to make for someone you love?
Guillory: I want to make someone something that they’re going to love. Like, my dad’s birthday is this week, and I’m going to make him a chocolate cake because he loves chocolate cake. But I wouldn’t make that for everyone because some people wouldn’t care. I like to know what people love and then I like to make that for them.
Rumpus: Do you have a standard recipe that everybody loves?
Guillory: People love the brownies that I make. They are not difficult to make and super-delicious and they have a little sprinkle of salt on top, which often people are skeptical about but it’s perfect, especially in dark chocolate brownies.
Dorie Greenspan has a great recipe for a goat cheese and chive cookie and I love to make it. It’s basically like a cookie recipe except that there’s no sugar and there’s a lot of cheese. And you make a big batch of the dough and roll it in a log and then slice it and bake and it’s delicious.
And another one everyone also loves, are brown butter Rice Krispies treats and they are amazing because everybody loves Rice Krispies treats. And then when you put brown butter in them, they make them a little more grownup. Bring them to an adult party and then everyone’s like, “I love Rice Krispies Squares. I haven’t had those in years.”
Rumpus: I just rewatched How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and Kate Hudson is always eating in that movie, but in a way she’s allowed to, because she’s so thin. So the fact that she’s always chowing down, but maintains this impossibly thin figure is part of that male fantasy about women. For your book to have a real, not skinny woman eating food and not worried about it felt so refreshingly radical.
Guillory: I wanted to acknowledge that it is normal for women to have issues with their bodies but I didn’t want Alexa to stress about what she eats or feel bad about food. I think all women feel weird about issues around their bodies, but it’s okay to not have a difficult relationship with food and to like food, and not worry about it.
And so that was something that I purposely wrote into the book because I think a lot of woman relate to both. Like looking the mirror and being like, “Oh, these jeans. Why do they look like that on me?” And then also thinking, “Oh, potato chips. Awesome!” You know?
Rumpus: But when it comes to questions of love and desirability, there are also questions about who is allowed to eat and what it takes to be desirable. And your book bucks some of those moral issues attached to food.
Guillory: You are not a bad person for eating and liking food. And the moral issues around food irritate me, especially the whole “clean eating” thing.
Other food isn’t dirty. Do you know what I mean? Like, I support eating kale as much as you want to. I eat it all the time, but that doesn’t mean that if I eat french fries, they are dirty or my body is dirty. You know, we can all eat the things that we want to eat or not eat the things that we don’t want to eat. And that’s fine. Everybody is fine.
Rumpus: So when it came to writing romance, how did you decide what you wanted to seem like fantasy and what you wanted to feel real?
Guillory: A lot of the fantasy came in the sex scenes and the way that each of the characters approached it and how good it was. In real life, that doesn’t happen every single time.
The Rumpus: Were there rules about how explicitly you could write those scenes?
Guillory: There used to be more sex in the book and that was one of the biggest things that I had to do cuts on. [My editor] never told me exactly where the line was. But she went through the manuscript and basically in a few scenes said, “I would cut this part,” as an example. So I had to cut stuff and then wrote around some things, just so the sex wasn’t quite so detailed.
Rumpus: Was that frustrating, not to have hard-and-fast rules?
Guillory: Honestly, it was less frustrating in revising the first book than it has been while writing the second book, because I’m not sure quite where to write to. One of my friends read the first book in the relatively early stages before I sent it out to agents. And then she read the second book when I was getting ready to send it to my editor. She said, “Where did all the sex go?”
I wasn’t quite sure where the line was for the second one.
Rumpus: Writing sex seems like the hardest thing in the whole world. Great writers of canon literature have failed at writing sex. Case in point, The Bridges of Madison County. So I would love to know what you think are some of the best sex scenes in literature.
Guillory: Courtney Milan writes some great sex scenes. Tessa Dare’s sex scenes are fantastic. And then Sarah McLean’s sex scenes are also great. It is interesting, though, because I think a lot of historical romance has really great sex scenes, partly because they don’t have to worry about some of the things that we worry about in the contemporary world, like pregnancy. It’s a little more challenging to write about people using condoms.
And if they don’t use condoms, I get very paranoid about it and I think, “Is she going to get pregnant? Is she really set up for that? Are they getting married? What’s going to happen the rest of this book?” So I think that’s something else that was kind of in my mind the whole time.
Author photograph © Andrea Scher.