Robinne Lee on Writing Outside the Box

Originally published on Bookish.com, our sister company.

If you’re a fan of the silver screen, you may already know who Robinne Lee is. She’s acted in movies like Fifty Shades DarkerHitch, and 13 Going on 30. Acting is far from being her only talent, however, as she is the author of the novel The Idea of You—you might say that Robinne Lee doesn’t fit squarely into a box. Her writing doesn’t, either. The Idea of You tells the story of a mother who has a romance with a significantly younger pop star who her daughter happens to idolize. Here, Lee writes about the challenges and rewards of writing stories that aren’t easily classified.

When I started writing The Idea of You—the story of a thirty-nine year old divorced woman who engages in an impassioned affair with a twenty-year-old member of her daughter’s favorite boy band—I had a very clear idea of what I wanted this story to be. I knew how it was going to begin. I knew the journeys the characters were going to take. I knew how it was going to end. What I did not know—or more accurately, what I was not thinking about—was in which section of the bookstore it was going to find its home.

I love a good love story. I always have. In literature, in film, in music… I love a story that takes me by the heart and whips me up in a frenzy and leaves me someplace else. And that place does not necessarily have to be a happy place. I saw Titanicfour times in the theater. But it does have to make me feel and long and yearn and hope. And if it’s really doing its job, it makes me cry. I kind of like to cry.

So, that was the story I endeavored to write. An all-consuming love story that makes you feel, but that also makes you think. That makes you question. That tackles deeper, darker subjects. That butts up against cultural norms and traditions and what we expect from society and individuals. That provides some social commentary. That is what I took on with The Idea of You.

About six months in, I workshopped the first few chapters with my writers group, who were extremely encouraging and supportive. One of the members, a brilliant writer and a great friend, took me aside for a bit of advice.  Our exchange went as follows:

“You know, for a contemporary romance you need three love scenes that go from soup to nuts.”

I looked at her as if she had grown horns. “Oh,” I finally said. “But this is not a romance.”

“But there’s romance in it.”

“That’s because it’s a love story. I think of it is as women’s fiction.”

“Oh, well then her life should be more of a mess.”

“Why? Why must women’s lives be messes to be interesting? To be worth writing about? Can a female character not be compelling if her life is not a complete and utter mess?”

“Hmm…”

And so I knew I was up against something. That I was writing outside the box. That, in keeping with one of the main themes of the book, I was redefiningKirkus would later call it “genre-bending,” and I quite liked that. But when I was in the throes of it, I stuck to my gut and my story and tried not to think about the marketing plan. In the end, my query letter described it as “a work of women’s fiction with a literary bent and frank sexuality.”

My publisher, the exceptional St. Martin’s Press, labeled it as both women’s fiction and contemporary romance, and they packaged it with a woman’s face and a provocative tagline. I was hoping for a piece of abstract art (my protagonist owns a gallery and the art world is heavily featured in the book), but apparently faces sell. And facing out on shelves it looks a bit like a sleek magazine cover, which I have to admit is quite alluring.

But still there was the dilemma of it not fitting into the parameters of a traditional romance. I worried about how fans of that genre would receive it. There were elements I knew they would find intriguing, but there were others that deeply concerned me. That went so far against the formula I feared there would be backlash. I was not entirely wrong. But the backlash has not come in rejecting the story, so much as in readers’ request, nay demand, for a sequel. A sequel.

Each day since my publication I have awoken to a handful of readers voicing their desire for a part two. Or three, even. Mostly, it is incredibly flattering that someone has connected so much with my characters that they’d like to read more. But I don’t typically read books that are parts of series. Not as a rule, mind you, they just haven’t been the books I’ve gravitated towards. I read Harry Potter, because Harry Potter. And I read the Fifty Shades series, because as an actress I’d been cast in the films, and I thought it was wise to know what exactly I was getting myself into. And oh, what a universe it was! I devoured the Flowers in the Attic books when I was far too young to be reading them. But as an adult, given the choice, I’d rather explore new voices and new worlds, and walk in someone else’s shoes. And if I love a writer, I’ll keep going back to that writer. But in the expectation that she will offer up new, interesting stories. Not a continuation of the same.

For all these reasons, I’d never intended for this story to continue. I gave it the ending I thought it warranted. The one that felt most organic and truthful to me, and for my protagonist in that particular situation, at that particular time. I felt I’d said all I’d set out to say.

And so I find myself in a quandary. I spent three years breathing life into these people, and while often thrilling it was at times very painful for me. I became more emotionally vested in these characters than any I’d written prior. So much so that it was not entirely healthy; not for my psychological well-being, and not for my relationships. And perhaps that is the very reason people connect with them, because I lived them and their story as fully as possible. To make the choice to dive back into that abyss is one that I cannot take lightly.

But the other part of me thinks, “Well, how can I abandon the very people who clearly love my characters and their story? Maybe as much as I do. Isn’t that what matters?” And so, these last few weeks, I’ve been asking myself: Who do I write for anyway? Am I writing for me, or for my audience? For decades I have only written for myself. Certainly, I’ve shared my works with my closest of friends, but for a long, long time I did not endeavor to publish anything. I did not have the confidence. And there is a certain freedom in just writing for oneself. There is a certain freedom of not having to write within a box. And maybe there is a responsibility when you put your work out there to be consumed by the masses. Maybe there is not.

I am a debut author. I am still figuring it all out.

Robinne Lee is an actor, writer and producer. A graduate of Yale University and Columbia Law School, Robinne was born and raised in Westchester County, New York. Robinne has numerous acting credits in both television and film, most notably opposite Will Smith in both Hitch and Seven Pounds. She recently completed shooting Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed, playing Ros Bailey. Robinne currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two children. The Idea of You is her first novel.

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