Author Alexis Daria and podcaster Kelly Reynolds discussed the updated edition of her opposites attract, enemies to lovers, reality TV romance 'Take the Lead.'
By Emily Calkins
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Kelly Reynolds: I'll go ahead and introduce myself and Alexis and we will get started chatting. My name is Kelly. I am the podcast host of Boobies and Noobies, a romance novel review podcast. I am, as of recently, a self-published author myself, and I am super excited to be sitting down to chat with Alexa Daria, an award-winning and international best-selling author. You might know her as the author of You Had Me at Hola, A Lot Like Adíos, What the Hex? and so much more. And her debut novel, Take the Lead, is now being made available in print for the very first time, expanded with so many new, wonderful additions to it. It will be out on Valentine's Day, just in time for Valentine's Day. So Alexis, welcome. So excited to chat with you.
Alexis Daria: Thank you so much for joining me and thanks everyone for listening tonight. Maybe in the chat let us know where you're all listening from. I would love to see, yeah, thank you all for being here and thank you Kelly.
Kelly: My pleasure. Absolutely. I myself am a big, big fan of You Had Me at Hola and A Lot Like Adíos, so I was super excited to not only get to read an early copy of Take The Lead, but to chat with you about it. First things first, I want to take you back on this romance writing and reading journey of yours, Alexis, and find out where it all began, how it all began. So talk about your relationship with romance, both as a reader and a writer.
Alexis: Sure. Well, my mom was a big romance reader and she would get the books from the library and I remember being a little girl and watching her pick out books from the spinner rack and these were the 1980s Fabio covers, the “bodice rippers.” I was fascinated by them. I was like, "what is going on in this book cover?" And then when I got older, she would read the funny parts out loud to me when I was a kid. But then she caught me once. She sent me out to get something from the car and the book was in there. So I picked it up and she caught me reading one of the books and was like, okay, you can't read these books just yet. So after that, when I did start reading romance, I did not want her to know that I was, so I would sneak her books, but then I would also get my own from the library, which she did know about. I don't know what I was thinking. Clearly she knew that I was reading romance also. I was 15 by this point. So my first experience taking out my own romance books from the library was a friend of mine from school was like, “you have to read these books by Nora Roberts.” And she took me to our local library in the Bronx and we took out two books in the MacGregor series. Then I was hooked and just kind of went from there.
Kelly: If you're going to start with reading romance, I think Nora is a wonderful place to start.
Alexis: I only read Nora for a while because she had so many, even by that point in the mid to late nineties. From there I branched off into paranormal and historical and some of the other subgenres, like romantic suspense. But I had also always read urban fantasy and mystery and that kind of stuff. Once I realized I can have all of these genres that I love, but make sure that there's going to be a satisfying romance in them, then there was no turning back.
Kelly: Not that I need to plug Nora Roberts books because Nora Roberts is Nora Robert, but I did want to ask you—one of my all-time favorite series is Nora Roberts' Bride Quartet series. Have you read that one?
Alexis: I read the first one but I don't think I've read the other ones.
Kelly: Okay, I love that series. I think it's a wonderful introduction to romance as well, which is something that we talk about on Boobies and Noobies all the time, is finding great gateway books into the genre. It’s a wonderful series. If anybody is looking for a group of friends who have a wedding planning business and fall in love while doing it, check out the Nora Roberts Bride Quartet series.
Kelly: So you expanded your reading interest across different sub-genres with romance. When did writing enter the scene?
Alexis: I have written since middle school. I started writing long form stuff and I wrote fanfic in high school, of course. I started doing NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month—when I was 21. So I was always writing, but it was just kind of a secondary interest of mine because what I was actually studying in school was fine arts. It wasn't until 10 years ago that I was like, I'm going to try writing a romance novel for real this time, not accidentally writing one because I'm just writing what I want to write and it's kind of turning out that way, but really trying to hit the beats and adhere to the kind of conventions that we expect when we read a romance novel. The first one I wrote was a historical because I was reading so many at that time. It was really hard—the historical piece was hard, but actually writing a romance was difficult, having all of those scenes and telling the whole story. So that was the first one that I wrote. It is not published, it's just on my hard drive where it belongs.
Kelly: That's so fun, that you started with a historical! Take the Lead is technically your debut novel, correct?
Alexis: Yes, Take the Lead was my debut. It's actually the fourth romance that I wrote. I first wrote a historical and then I wrote two paranormals. Nobody was buying paranormal at that time. So I was like, okay, well, let me try writing a contemporary romance. And that's where Take the Lead came from. It first came out in 2017, but for the longtime romance readers in here, you'll remember that this was at a time where a lot of books were digital-first or digital-only. It was only available as an ebook up until now, basically. I got the opportunity to revisit it, give the book a fresh edit, update it a little bit, add some bonus material, and now it's got this beautiful new cover and new format. We are going to release it in audiobook, but it's probably not going to be for maybe another month and a half, but it is coming. It's on the way.
Kelly: That's great. Before we talk more about Take the Lead, I have to know—will you ever go back to those unpublished early novels or are they just part of the learning process?
Alexis: Well, they were definitely part of the learning process. I've thought about it. I really love those stories and I had such a good time writing them. I've thought, well what would I have to do to them to get them publishing-ready? It feels like with some of them it would be easier just to rewrite the whole book rather than trying to edit it. That's partly why those first two never went anywhere. I just couldn't even revise them at the time. And then the third one, it was a very confused book. I was still learning at that point too. We'll see. I would love to write more paranormal.
Kelly: I know you've dabbled in it a little bit, right? With What the Hex?
Alexis: Yes. That was so much fun to write. I can't even tell you. Getting the opportunity to do that was definitely a breath of fresh air. It felt returning to my roots. I grew up with all of the campy, spooky stuff like The Addams Family and The Munsters. Getting to write a story in that vein but also sexy and romantic was really fun.
Kelly: You wrote it as an Audible Original, which I have fallen in love with. I am not an audiobook listener by trade, but the Audible Originals have been giving me so much joy the last couple of years.
Alexis: It was an interesting experience writing for audio, because there are different things that you have to think about as a writer. We want this to be more dialogue heavy. We want to make it clear who's speaking without having dialogue tags, things like that. So it was a little bit of a challenge. I like to try new things and I am a huge audiobook listener, so it was really exciting. I was in close contact with my narrator for that project. She was like, "what about this kind of voice for this character?" And I was like, "oh, here's the character document that I made for the cover. Maybe this will help." We're friendly now.
Kelly: Let's talk about Take the Lead. Would you mind giving everyone a little synopsis for what they can expect?
Alexis: Take the Lead takes place on a dancing competition reality show similar to Dancing With the Stars. The main characters in the book are Gina, who is a professional dancer on the show, and Stone, who is on his own reality show where he and his family are kind of homesteading in the Alaskan wilderness. He gets tagged to be on this show and he's got his reasons for doing it. He's trying to help his family, but he really doesn't want to be there. Gina, on the other hand, has been on the show for a few years and she's never won. She's never even made it to the finals. She wants to do really well this year. Her job is in jeopardy a little if she doesn't make it. She's very ambitious. She's got big dreams for herself and she wants to use this show as a launchpad for that. The two of them clash at the beginning, mostly because he's just not into it. There’s also a producer who's kind of trying to push the two of them into a show or a faux romance and Gina is not having it. Of course, a real romance sparks between them and they're trying to keep it hidden. The book takes you through the season on this show.
Kelly: After reading just a chapter, my first thought was, "wow, I need to ask Alexis how much Dancing with the Stars she watched in preparation for writing this book."
Alexis: Well, to be fair, I already watched the show religiously leading up to this. It was one of the things that sparked the idea, the thought that some of the dances really tell a story in those 30 seconds. I was like, wow, these would be fun little writing projects, to try to write the story that's being told in these dances. At the same time, I had also, I don't know why, watched a lot of survivalist reality shows, in the days before we had streaming.
Kelly: That would've been my follow up question: how much Alaskan Bush People are you watching?
Alexis: We watched Man Vs. Wild, Survivor, that one where the guys throw each other into the wilderness and all they have is a teddy bear and a compass. Like I said, before streaming, my boyfriend would be channel surfing and those would be the things that he would land on and I would just be subjected to them when nothing better was on. I was thinking, "what would a kind of survivalist romance look like?" Except I couldn't come up with a scenario where the happily ever after was going to be that they went to go live in a tree. I didn't want to write a survivalist romance per se. And then someone was like, "well, why don't you put them together?" And then I was like, "oh, that's the best idea in the world." So I mashed those two ideas together and actually wrote a survivalist going on the show.
Kelly: Which, let's face it, is hysterical. They really do try to gather a wide variety of stars from former athletes to singers, actors. I personally would love to see somebody from the survivalist go on. I want to say they had somebody from Duck Dynasty a few years ago, but I could be mixing that up.
Alexis: They did! I think they had one of the older guys and they had the daughter when she was like, 16 or something. I definitely watched a lot of Dancing with the Stars. I thought, oh, I can totally write an entire book about dancing because I've watched and I'm an armchair judge for the show. But that was absolutely not the case. I had to do so much research.
Kelly: Let's talk about that. As somebody who worked in reality television in Los Angeles behind the scenes, there are a lot of things that you talked about in the book—having somebody logging the story for each episode and having producers trying to goad people into playing into this showmance—that I was reading and thinking, wow, she must have really talked to some people behind the scenes in television. What was the research project process like for you?
Alexis: I used the internet mostly. I did a ton of research, basically digging up dirt on all these shows. The hardest part was figuring out who are these different kinds of producers and what do they all do exactly, what are all of the jobs? Some of the best resources were alumni magazines for students who had from whatever college they did, and then their alumni magazine did a little writeup of them working on a reality show as a story assistant and explained what they did.
Kelly: Oh, that's so interesting.
Alexis: I do have one friend who is a producer for shows and I was able to just ask her questions like that, what is a segment producer, line producer? That kind of thing.
Kelly: I think you did a great job. You get my stamp of approval from somebody who used to work in TV.
Alexis: Thank you. Because when you told me that, I was like, "oh no, did I get something wrong?"
Kelly: I used to work in post production, so I did a lot in the story departments and the editing departments. And I can say the show that people end up seeing on TV is not necessarily exactly the way it's filmed, but especially in the podcasting space in the last few years, you've seen a lot of people who have also been contestants on shows like this who have started their own podcasts or gone on to podcasts to talk about shows, The Bachelor or the dating shows on Netflix. I find a lot of interesting tidbits from the people who have been contestants as well.
Alexis: The beauty of it now is that everybody's putting it all out there on YouTube and podcasts and blog posts. So I was able to find a lot more to add in.
Kelly: That's great. What were some of the additional changes that happened this time around from when the book first came out five, six years ago?
Alexis: Well, I finessed the beginning and the end more because I felt like those were a bit rougher. So I was like, "okay, let me really pay a lot of attention to these scenes." I also went through strengthened Stone's arc because I felt like it wasn't on the page as much as Gina's was. I added in a scene where he goes out with a couple of the guys from the show, which was my dad's idea. When it first came out, my dad was excited. He bought it. I had given him a Kindle, and he was like, “I feel like Gina uses the F word a lot.” And I was like, “Dad, you're probably going to want to stop reading this book if that bothers you, because there’s worse coming.”
Alexis (cont'd): He also said, “I felt like Stone needed a reaction scene after this moment,” and I was like, “oh, you know what, he's right.” So I went back in. Thanks, Dad. My dad's writer too. I wrote in a scene. There were also some characters who had been cut down in the original because there were so many characters in the book. There's a whole cast of people. I wanted to make sure that they were all just given a little bit more page time, even if it was just to further describe them with details I knew about them, but that hadn't quite made it into the final version of the book. Some of the judges and some of the other contestants. Then the end kind of Stone's career, that he has a "Happily Ever After" had never quite sat right with me. I really put a lot of thought into how to fix that. I feel like it's better now. You'll all have to let me know.
Kelly: I love that. The two things you reminded me of when you were talking about Stone: one, I really enjoy the moments that he has with these two other guys who are on the show. They have their bonding moments together, which is great. One of the things that romance has done is elevate female friendships, but we don't necessarily really get to see male friendships in a relatively healthy manner in books. I'm glad that we got to see those moments with him. The second thing is that I'm noticing a lot of heroes in romance novels in the last couple of years not having to be these outwardly alpha, aggressive, traditionally masculine men. Just being maybe a little more introverted and a little more self-conscious at times. I really appreciate seeing characters like that.
Alexis: I agree. It was so funny when I was writing this. At this time, alpha males were huge because this was before #MeToo. When the kind of band of brothers was really big in romantic suspense and paranormal and even historical. I was like, okay, I'm writing Stone and he looks like one, he's gigantic and muscular, bearded in all of that. But this was also when the term cinnamon roll was starting to be used more. And I was like, oh, that fits him. I wanted to play with that dichotomy where he looks a certain way and he knows that he looks that way. He tries to be aware of not being too physically imposing to the people around him. He's very careful about that. I'm just trying to write people who are people.
Kelly: ...That are human beings with different feelings and emotions.
Alexis: Right? Maybe they're not going to get it right all the time, but they're trying. I love that.
Kelly: Personally, that’s the kind of romance and the kind of characters that I want to read. I think of them as less of a fantasy and more aspirational. These are people that reflect the people that are in our lives, but also reflect the people that we want to see ourselves with as partners, as friends, as whatever in the future.
Alexis: Especially writing dual POV, because you are in that person's head, I want both of them to have a strong growth arc so that you as a reader can understand and go on that journey with both characters or however many characters are in the romance, especially for a full-length book. With novellas and short stories and stuff, sometimes I'll stick to one POV, like The Ex Hex. For a full-length book, I want both of them to have the arc so that way you can relate to them and understand where they are and why they're doing the things that they're doing and not have one of them just be an archetype.
Kelly: As much as I love Stone, I am also a big fan of Gina. I see a lot of myself and a lot of my friends in Gina. I am surrounded by a wonderful group of women who very much love their careers and are very passionate about what they do and what they want to do. I love that Gina is unapologetic about that, that she is just so focused and so excited about the career that she has ahead of her.
Alexis: The word that always comes to me for Gina is ambitious and I think of that as a positive trait.
Kelly: I do too.
Alexis: That's never been a negative thing for me. The question at the heart of this book, when I was writing it, was this idea: can you have success and love? What does that look like? Especially if your single-minded focus is your career. What does it look like to make room for that and to open yourself up to it? How do you then shift to make room for somebody else in your life? And can you try to have both? That was the idea of what I was working toward with this book.
Kelly: In the very beginning, in the note to reader, and you mentioned that at its heart, Take the Lead is an opposites attract romance about living life on your own terms. I think that's so important too. It's not just about are you family-first focused? Are you career-first? Can you balance love in a career? How does that work for you and your partner? It's not going to look the same for everybody, and that's okay.
Alexis: It's something that I think about with all the books that I write. I want there to be a success or a career or creative HEA at the end. I want the characters to find fulfillment, not find love or find a partner, but also level up in other ways as well, personally, emotionally, and successfully. I always think, well, how can they do this with the things that they want in a way that's still going to work together and have both of them come out stronger together careerwise at end.
Kelly: Okay. I've got a series of rapid fire questions for you. Are you ready?
Alexis: Let’s do it.
Kelly: All right. If you could fantasy cast our two main characters, Gina and Stone, who would you cast to play them?
Alexis: I've seen a lot of people using pictures of Chris Hemsworth for Stone, obviously.
Kelly: I mean, that was who came to my mind, I'll be honest.
Alexis: I think he has the romcom chops. I would love to see more of all these superhero guys do some romcoms. I feel like there's just been this weird dearth where they've all been locked into these Marvel contracts and whatnot for so long that they're not doing these other movies. And for Gina… I don't know. My idea for that has kind of changed over time. I’d want to see who's out there now doing stuff, who can handle the dance component.
Kelly: I don't know if she can dance at all, but funnily enough for Gina, I was picturing Gina Rodriguez from Jane the Virgin.
Alexis: She probably can dance a little and I will say, that is not where I got her name from. I know they have the same name.
Kelly: Moving on: if you were on a show, the show we have in your book, or let's just call it Dancing With the Stars, what would be your dream dance number? What number do you think you could just tear up the floor with?
Alexis: I mean, the one that I love the most is the pasodoble. I think I would be terrible at it, but I love it because it's so dramatic and mean. It's just so dramatic. They always have fire and explosions and stuff with the paso and it's very forceful, a lot of stomping and getting in each other's faces. And I feel like that would be really fun. I mean, I would get sent home, but—
Kelly: Hey, if you had the right partner, I think you'd be fine. Okay. knowing that you are a Dancing with the Stars fan, do you have a favorite star from Dancing with the Stars or a favorite number from Dancing with the Stars over the years?
Alexis: Oh my gosh. Okay. I have favorite pairings and one of my favorite pairings was when Zendaya was paired with Val.
Kelly: Ooh, okay.
Alexis: They did a, gosh, it might have been the foxtrot. I think I watched that video probably 20 times when I was working on the foxtrot scene. There was also one of my favorites was when Gleb was paired with, gosh, I can't remember her name now, Jana something. She was a country music singer. I had never heard of her before. She was on the show, and they did a tango in the rain that was super sexy. And then Rashad Jennings and Emma Slater did a rumba. That was just phenomenal. That's one of my top dances ever on the show. Oh my God, there are so many.
Kelly: And there've been so many seasons! I will say one of my favorite pairings, and I did think about them while reading the book, was when Iman Schubert, who's a professional basketball player, was paired with Daniella. I loved them together because he was about a foot or so taller than her. That was definitely the way that you described Stone and Gina in the book as well. They had that extra challenge of having to work together to make up for the height difference. And they had this one number that they did. And I think the theme was "Horror Night". And it was—
Alexis: I know exactly which one you’re talking about.
Kelly: It was that song from Us, and it was so creepy, but it was so incredible. And of course, they got a perfect score.
Alexis: Yeah, I think he won that season.
Kelly: One of the things I found interesting was the politics behind the scenes of a show like this, like this person's a favorite dancer, so they usually get paired with somebody really good. Knowing that it's also a popularity contest in addition to the dance.
Kelly (cont'd): One more thing to look forward to when you read Take the Lead. There was a scene in this book that just reminded me of the good old days of living with a couple of girls in college where Gina's friend makes her guacamole late at night. My question for you is, what's your go-to midnight snack?
Alexis: I love a bowl of cereal. It's so easy, so quick. You can eat at any counter space and it's just a bowl of cereal.
Kelly: That's a great answer. I don't think it ever goes out of style, regardless of what kind of cereal you're eating.
Alexis: Or crackers with either cheddar cheese or peanut butter. Not at the same time, obviously.
Kelly: I mean, don't knock it till you try it.
Alexis: You know what, that's true. I have not tried it.
Kelly: I'm more of a toast girl, but cheese and crackers I can definitely get down with. I also wanted to ask: now that Take The Lead is out, I fell in love with some of the other characters. I hope they all have books. Then, lo and behold, I find that there are two other books in this series! Are there any other plans to re-release those or edit those?
Alexis: That is a great question. When this first came out, the sequel Dance with Me came out just two months later, but I don't think anybody knew about it. It's currently out of print. It is Natasha's book. I love that book. I love Natasha and I love her. I actually was rereading it this weekend, because I wanted to see how much work the book needs. I got 60% in, and I was like, this doesn't need a whole lot! Way less than I was thinking. My hope is that that book will also get a a similar treatment and a chance to come back. There is a holiday novella that is still out. I had self-published that one, and that one's about 40,000 words. It is one of the other dancers from the show, Jess and the brother of the guy who Natasha is paired with in book two. I started writing Kevin's book and Lori's book way back when, and I would love to finish them. It all just depends on how this book goes.
Kelly: Well, I would love to see them. Reality TV themed romance is such a hit right now. There's no better time to see them. This is me manifesting them into existence.
Alexis: Yes, let's do it. I would love it.
Kelly: What else is going on for you? What's up next after this?
Alexis: Well, I'm editing Ava's book. Yay. That's the third book in the Primas of Power series after You Had Me at Hola and A Lot Like Adíos. I've got some other things in the works. There's a lot of things I want to do. It’s just figuring out what's the next thing right after I finish these edits. It's called Along Came Amor and the cover is stunning. I don't know when we're going to release it, but it's definitely in the works.
Kelly: Is there a dream project that you have lurking round the back of your mind that you just are dying to tell? Or even just something that you haven't had the chance to write yet that you would love to?
Alexis: Oh yeah. I definitely want to write sci-fi. Sexy in space sci-fi, not robots sci-fi. That’s my dream.
Kelly: That sounds amazing. I'm trying to wrap my head around that just because that is so not what I've read of yours so far, but I don't care. I'm excited.
Alexis: Sci-fi, fantasy, paranormal, that's really where I came in from. Contemporary was not what I set out to do. I just kind of stumbled into it. Contemporary is really fun to do, especially with all of the celebrity and behind the scenes stuff. That's what I think is fun. But I would really love to be able to explore some other areas, some of the worlds, if you will.
Kelly: Okay. Crazy idea. Why not blend reality TV and space?
Alexis: Yeah, you're not that far off.
Kelly: I mean, it's kind of like you mentioned before where someone said, why not blend survivalist and dance competition? Sometimes you just have to put it all together.
Alexis: True. Yeah. Go with what you like, follow your bliss.
Kelly: What are some of your favorite paranormals that you might want to recommend?
Alexis: Well, I love Ruby Dixon’s Ice Planet Barbarians. Robin Lovett has the Planet of Desire series that is really fun and very hot. There are some other ones. The Ex Hex was just so immersive and so funk, by Erin Sterling.
Kelly: That was such a cute book. Honestly, that one was perfect for somebody like me who doesn't read a lot of paranormal or sci-fi set outside of planet Earth. It was a great way to get into paranormal, but still have connections to reality.
Alexis: It feels very familiar too, if you've seen Practical Magic or any of those kind of movies.
Alexis: You're like, "okay, I know what to expect here. We got a town with some witches in it." I thought that one was really fun. Off the top of my head, those. I'm looking at my bookshelf behind me.
Kelly: Juliette Cross also has a great witchy series, and they all have the cutest names. There's Resting Witch Face and oh, what's the other one?
Alexis: Don't Hex and Drive. She has great titles.
Kelly: They're very fun. So I do think, especially because I feel like witches, reality TV, and aliens have really been having a moment the last couple of years. There's your future book: witches, aliens, and reality TV, all together in space.
Alexis: I'm going to do it.
Kelly: Wonderful. I'll just tell everyone, grab your copy of Take The Lead. It comes out on Valentine's Day. Lots of fun, lots of laughs. You really do get to see a little bit—or a lot, honestly, behind the scenes of what goes into planning each of the dances that they do. You feel like you're on the set of Dancing with the Stars.
Alexis: Thank you so much. I'm glad that it all came across.
Kelly: Where can we find you and follow you and learn about all the projects on your plate?
Alexis: Well, I am most frequently on Instagram @alexisdaria, very easy. I also have a website where you can sign up for my newsletter. I try to send one newsletter a month, and I always try to include content in there that you can't really find anywhere else, whether it's a short story or exclusive information or a cover reveal before anybody else gets to see it. And I do have a cover reveal coming up at some point, so that might be a thing you want to do.
Kelly: Oh, fantastic. I mean, look at the cover. You're going to want a copy of this for your bookshelves. Come on.
Alexis: I got the finished copies in the mail and I was like, "oh my God, this looks even better than I expected." I'm so happy with it.
Kelly: It's beautiful. I'm going to need one to go right next to my copies of A Lot Like Adíos, so I'm going to need it. This has been so fun. It's been a treat chatting with you. Like I said, I really enjoyed the book and I hope that the rest of the dancing crew gets their own books in the future.
Alexis: Me too. Thank you so much. Thank you all for joining.
Kelly: Thanks everybody for tuning in. Thank you, Likewise. Thank you, Alexis and everybody have a wonderful evening.
If you liked this, make sure to give our past Likewise Q&A event transcripts with authors Kat Rosenfield, Kate Clayborn, and Jessica Knoll a read!
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