There’s a particular frisson in sitting down to interview Elissa Sussman at a restaurant, especially on a cloudless spring day in Los Angeles. You ca n’t help but notice that the scene unfolding between you mirrors the opening pages of her latest novel de ella, Funny You Should Ask — except, of course, that neither of you is a handsome, charming movie star named Gabe Parker.
In Funny You Should Ask, readers meet Chani Horowitz — a journalist watching her peers ascend with big profiles and book deals while she’s still figuring things out. But after endless puff pieces, she gets the opportunity to interview major superstar Gabe Parker. She’s horrified (okay, and thrilled) to find herself face-to-face with her No. 1 celebrity crush. What throws her off even more, though, is that he seems just as interested in her as she is in him, and their hour-long interview morphs into a whirlwind weekend of movie premieres, after-hours dancing, and alcohol-soaked house parties. It’s surreal for Chani, and she ca n’t tell whether he’s just trying to give her a good story or if her flirtation is dangerously sincere.
funny ping-pongs back and forth in time charting those heady early days as well as Gabe and Chani’s follow-up interview 10 years later as they finally deal with the fallout from their first encounter — and figure out if there’s more between them than just good chemistry .
In addition to funnySussman is the author of three young-adult novels: Burn, strayand Draw That Way. She’s also been a ghostwriter for a number of romance novels. Shondaland spoke with her about transitioning from writing young-adult books to the world of romance, reimagining masculinity in the romance genre, and, of course, how she crafts her sex scenes from her.
ZAN ROMANOFF: You got a burger, so I have to ask: Did you intentionally order what Chani orders in the first interview scene in the book?
ELISA SUSSMAN: Do not!
ZR: Okay, I believe you. But I am curious: Does the perfect sour beer she drinks exist?
IT IS: For me, yes. It’s based on a real beer called the Duchesse de Bourgogne. It’s the only beer I like, and John, my husband, thinks it’s the grossest, weirdest thing he’s ever had. It’s for a very particular person — someone who doesn’t like beer, apparently.
ZR: So, where did the idea for this story come from, and how did it come together?
IT IS: The idea was inspired by Edith Zimmerman’s interview with Chris Evans, but also [Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s] Tom Hiddleston interview, and then there’s the Channing Tatum one. It was interesting to see female journalists inserting themselves in the story in a way that played with our ideas of parasocial relationships and how celebrity exists. It was very self-referential about how weird those interviews were. So, that sparked the idea: What if that happened to you?
Romance novels between normal people and celebrities are very popular, but the most common version of that trope is the normal person does not know who the famous person is. And… I know who famous people are! So, how would it change the dynamic if not only did she recognize him, but she really liked him? What happens if you have to interview your celebrity crush and you know, on the one hand, this is a job? He’s here because of a job. And on the other hand, he’s flirting with me? Maybe?
ZR: The book takes place over the course of three days — but two different sets of three days, 10 years apart. Why did that kind of structure appeal to you?
IT IS: It’s six days, but it’s 10 years in six days.
“Instalove,” quote unquote, is hard to pull off. Insta-lust — that’s a different thing. I wanted their first interaction to be really lusty.
And then you add this element of who are they 10 years later? I really wanted them to have these separate journeys where they’re both dealing with big issues, and celebrate this idea that, as he says, “Ten years ago, we would have been a month.” Timing is important in relationships: who you are, and who you become.
I also want to celebrate finding love and being in love when you’re older. Romance is a genre I love, but it is very centered on 20-somethings. And it’s nice after writing teenagers to write adult women.
ZR: Speaking of which, can you talk about why you wanted to transition from YA to writing for adults?
IT IS: When I started working on funnyI’d already sold Draw That Way. I was just of the mindset of “I’m a YA writer, and I’m just gonna be in the trenches and keep going.”
I had been wanting to write an adult romance for a while, because I’d been ghostwriting romance, and had read it, and was rediscovering why I loved it so much. I had written a YA book that didn’t sell that was very depressing. Draw That Way was like, “I’m just writing for me, and it’s very personal.” I carried that energy into funnybeing like, “I’m just gonna write what I want.”
I would talk to other romance writers, and they would be like, well, you can’t do a dual-time line thing. And you can’t do single point-of-view. And readers want it in third person. I was like, because I don’t have any expectations for this book, I’m going to write it the way I feel like it’s coming to me. I wrote the first half of it really thinking, this is gonna be my side hustle. I thought I was gonna publish it under a pen name.
And then I felt the first half of funny to my agent, and her response was so effusive and so excited. It was such a different experience from the beginning. It sold pretty quickly, and it sold in a way that I’d never sold anything before.
I worked on funny and Draw That Way simultaneously — it would be one month funnyone month Draw That Way. So, it was very easy to compare the two. It felt like … I’m getting all of this support from my adult side, and they’re so excited about the book. Did I become a better writer? And then on the YA side, I couldn’t get my editor to return my emails. Why wouldn’t I continue working with these people, and in this genre and in this community that is so excited for my work? I felt so much more welcomed — not necessarily by the community, but on the publishing side.
ZR: How did you choose Chani’s name? I feel like naming characters is underrated for how hard it is. It’s the word you’re going to have to say and think and type most often for years. And then in this case, her name de ella and how it’s pronounced becomes part of the plot and the romance.
IT IS: I knew I wanted it to be extremely obviously Jewish, because if this, knock on wood, gets made into anything, they cannot change it. I need it to be baked in that she’s a Jewish character. Then there was the added through line of him learning how to say her name from her, and that being an important part of their relationship.
We immediately know something about Gabe when he insists on learning how to say her name right. My name is really confusing for people because of the “E.” People mispronounce my name constantly. And it’s not that hard! So, I imagine that someone who has a name with even more vowels, even more consonants, that looks even more complicated to the Western eye — we all have our tricks of how we correct people. So, it means a lot when people get it right.
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ZR: Gabe is a complicated character. What felt interesting about having him be, in the later time line, a recovering alcoholic?
IT IS: I knew I wanted him to be handling addiction like I’ve seen people handle addiction — to acknowledge that it’s not a straight line. It’s important that he goes to therapy; he went to rehab. I have a sponsor. He’s treating it like work, because it’s work.
With Gabe, I wanted to push back on our ideas about masculinity. I love romance, and I think romance is progressive in a lot of ways. But we still need to come further in the way we represent men and masculinity. So, Gabe is my attempt to challenge that. His relationship with him [his co-star] Ollie is really important. I wanted them to be physically close. They hug; they touch. My husband says, “I love you,” to his male friends of him; that’s sexy!
ZR: What did ghostwriting romance novels teach you about writing sex scenes?
IT IS: Ghostwriting sex scenes is not about what I want; it’s not what I think is sexy. It’s the opposite of specificity when you’re ghostwriting — it’s really general.
Sex scenes, especially if you’ve read a lot of them, it’s so easy to write to the stuff you’ve read versus to your own experience. Because that’s way more vulnerable, obviously. To repeat what you’ve seen in other romance novels is safe. And it can be very sexy! There are certain things that just work. But if you can be specific in sex scenes, that will win the day.
When you’re actually having sex, you’re noticing certain things, and that’s what I wanted to capture — the emotion and the connection and the feel of it. Because sex scenes are for me about character connection. It’s taking this connection between these two characters to a very specific, intimate level that is unlike anything else. Who are these characters when they are being this vulnerable, when they are being this intimate with somebody?
ZR: You’ve talked before about being proud of writing sex scenes —was that ever something you had shame about?
IT IS: I have immense privilege because my parents are both Jewish, and we talk about everything. Conversations about sex happen at the dinner table. I gave funny to my mom, and I said, “There’s adult content in it.” She said, “I’m an adult!” I have less of a hurdle to get over someone who might have been raised in a more puritanical, purity culture-esque thing.
I also think there’s a stubbornness to me that’s like, oh, you’re not supposed to talk about this? You’re not supposed to feel pride in this? F–k you; I’m going to talk about this as much as humanly possible.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Zan Romanoff writes essays, journalism, and fiction, and is the author of three YA novels. She lives and works in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter at @zanopticon.
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