How Romance Novelist Courtney Milan Does, & Writes About, Money
by Sara Brady
Over the past five years, romance novelist Courtney Milan has carved out a niche for herself with historical romance novels set mostly during late nineteenth century in England. Her books have always resonated for me because they are unlike a lot of England-set historical romances that concern themselves with parties and dresses and drawing-room banter. Don’t get me wrong, I love those as much as the next romance reader, but Milan’s books grapple honestly with the realities of women’s lives in the 1800s, when women had vastly less, or no, control over their money, their relationships, and their bodies, and she’s particularly sharp on how those three intersect. (If that sounds like something you’d like, I recommend starting with The Duchess War.)
Milan’s newest book Trade Me is her first contemporary romance, as well as her first in the emerging genre called new adult, which features characters in their late teens or early twenties. I was initially a little wary of Trade Me, because some of the new adult romances I’ve read haven’t really been up my alley. But an interview with Milan on my favorite romance podcast sold me: it’s Courtney Milan setting fire to the incredibly popular trope of rich-person-sweeps-poor-person-off-her-feet — and, yeah, usually it’s the woman who’s poor — as replicated in everything from Cinderella to Pretty Woman to that very popular monochrome trilogy that will shortly be a major motion picture.
As I read, I stopped a couple times and wanted to pinch myself, because this book is so unlike any billionaire-focused romance I’ve ever read. Tina Chen is the daughter of Chinese immigrants, working her way through college and helping support her family. Blake Reynolds is the son of a self-made billionaire, the heir to a multinational tech company, and already incredibly wealthy in his own right. When he starts expounding in one of their mutual college classes about the social safety net and how poor people should just work harder, Tina loses it and yells that he could never handle one week of living her life. So they decide to trade. She gets his house, his salary, and his Tesla for the rest of the semester, while he gets a job washing dishes in a Chinese restaurant and lives in the illegal unheated garage she and her roommate call home. And then things get really complicated. And sexy. God, this book is so sexy.
Where did the idea for Trade Me come from?
There was a point where I told someone, “I could never write a billionaire romance because …” Fill in the blank there. The thing, though, is that every time I tell myself I can’t do something, I figure out how I would do it.
Part of the reason I might say I have difficulties writing a billionaire romance is that as part of my background, I’m a former lawyer/law professor, and so when I think about billionaires, I think about people skirting the rules of Sarbanes-Oxley, about people who never pay ordinary income tax and usually only pay capital gains tax, and so forth. I don’t think of them as … super-sexy beings who have an infinite amount of money. I think anyone who has a billion dollars — unless they’re blowing it all, which some billionaires inevitably do — inevitably is someone who has no time to spend money.
I think that comes through in what I write.
Why did you decide to make it a contemporary romance, and a new adult?
As soon as I had the idea, I knew it had to be a contemporary. If I was going to write someone that aggressively wealthy, I would have to know something about the wealth and the source of wealth, and that put it firmly in contemporary times for me. Also, at the point when I had the idea, I knew that I wanted my heroine to be named Tina Chen. That came for me almost immediately, and I didn’t want to have to go through the justification/song and dance. I just wanted people like Tina to be familiar and not a curiosity in the world.
As for college, it’s one of the few places in the world where you have a legitimate, believable mixing of the classes in a way that’s stripped, at least partially, of power dynamics. Billionaires do encounter non-billionaires, but it’s often in a subservient position: they’re purchasing their business, or the person is cleaning their house, or something along those lines.
When you’re writing something that doesn’t have some of the built-in rules of a historical, is it easier, knowing a female character can just get a job or have sex if she wants to? What surprised you about writing a contemporary after all your experience in the nineteenth century?
First, I’m not sure I buy this “built-in rules of a historical” thing. I’ve written female characters with jobs. And ones who have sex. In historicals.
Second, those rules, to the extent they exist, don’t make things harder on me as an author. They make things harder on the character. But books are better when things are hard on the character, so actually having a difficult backdrop makes my job as an author much, much easier.
The one thing that surprised me about writing a contemporary is that I ended up doing more research for the contemporary than for my historicals. There was just so much more information available.
When Blake and Tina agree to trade lives, she takes on his primary burden — the way his work and his fortune are tied up in his relationship with his father — but even when Blake takes on Tina’s financial responsibility to help her parents pay their bills, he can’t take on the emotional weight of Tina’s complicated relationship with her mother. Did you deliberately set out to make one character’s obstacles more difficult to overcome than the other’s?
Hmm. Well, first, I think that neither Blake nor Tina are able to pick up the other person’s emotional burden at heart. Blake can’t pass over the real thing he’s grappling with to Tina, and Tina can’t pass over the real thing she’s grappling with to Blake. So in that sense, I deliberately made it so that the heart of their problems was untradeable, so to speak, and that’s just because I think that’s true.
If you give someone a million dollars at twenty-one, it will not do as much for their life as if their parents had a million dollars when they were a baby. That’s just the way the world works.
As for whether I deliberately set out to make one character’s obstacles more difficult … No, I don’t think that I put that there. I think that is a part of the world. I just think that inherently there is an asymmetry in the obstacles that the two of them face. The fact that Blake is a rich, white man inherently means that even though he faces problems, those problems are easier for him to cope with than if he wasn’t.
Just like Adam (Blake’s father)’s problem — yeah, it’s a problem, but you know what? It’s not as much of one as if he didn’t have a ridiculous amount of money. They fundamentally can’t change the fact that Tina’s starting from a disadvantage on almost every front. Blake’s had everything that money can possibly buy all of his life. Tina hasn’t. Even when they trade, Blake’s prior life — for instance, the fact that he’s learned Mandarin — makes his life easier as they trade.
And I think that’s true.
One thing that stuck out to me about Trade Me is that you didn’t spend a lot of time on the kind of lifestyle porn that’s a hallmark of some billionaire books. He didn’t take her on a Prada shopping spree, there are no loving descriptions of Blake’s immaculate, palatial home with $4,000 six-burner stove that he never uses. In fact, you spent more time on why Tina’s white sweater was important to her than on anything Blake owned, even the Tesla. Was that a deliberate decision, or are you just not the kind of author who makes Pinterest boards for her billionaires?
This was a deliberate decision on my part.
I spent a good long while constructing what kind of billionaire Blake, and his father, would be, based on how they got to where they were. I think there is a huge difference between someone who is earning billions on his own, and someone who has a billion dollars and is trying to spend it. I also think there’s a difference between someone who is born with money and someone who has come into it. And then there are billionaires who are frugal, like Warren Buffett, and billionaires who aren’t.
Blake was born so wealthy that he never has to impress anyone, and it has literally never occurred to him that other people in this world would spend money to prove that they have it. If someone told him that people did that, he’d think it was weird and counterproductive: You spend money to prove you have money, but then you’ve spent the money so you don’t have it anymore? How does that make sense?
Blake’s father is so far beyond the point of having to prove that he’s wealthy that Blake would never have been infected by this. He’s never had thing-envy brought on by other kids. He’s never wanted something and not gotten it. He’s never felt jealous of what someone else has.
The stress point in Blake’s life, and his father’s life, is not what other people will think of his wealth level; it’s the fact that his time is limited.
Blake has a personal assistant, a personal chef, a personal shopper. He literally has no idea what anything costs. He would not have taken Tina on a shopping spree, because aside from paying the bill in restaurants, he would never think about spending valuable time going to a mall — what, going to multiple stores trying to find one thing he wants? Deeply inefficient; who does that? Blake’s time, and his father’s time, is so valuable that it is too expensive for him to buy things personally.
That’s the equation that underlies much of the wealth on display here. True ostentation takes time, and neither Blake nor his father have that in abundance. They have so much money that money is air to them. They don’t notice it. Money is so common that it’s not currency any longer.
For the record, aside from photographs and the like, there is only one valued possession that Blake has, and it’s mentioned only peripherally in the book. Blake’s favorite toy when he was a kid was a red plastic dimetrodon that he named “Chip” that he got from a vending machine for fifty cents.
When Blake thinks to himself that his father loves him, he doesn’t think about all the many purchases his father has made. Those are invisible to him. He thinks about the time he lost Chip during a Cyclone board meeting, and his father put the meeting on hiatus until Chip was found.
Blake is so wealthy that his currency is time, not money. It wouldn’t occur to him to try to woo Tina with money because money is not how he has processed any show of affection anywhere. He woos her with time.
I would argue that the modern romance genre is much better in terms of diversity than it was even ten or fifteen years ago, and your books are part of that. There’s an interracial couple in The Heiress Effect, and both of the first two books in the Cyclone series feature interracial couples. Why is that important for you as a writer?
I don’t deserve any credit for diversifying the genre. I don’t know that the modern romance genre is any better in terms of diversity than it was ten years ago; I think that we now have ways to talk to each other about diverse romances. But Beverly Jenkins, Selena Kitt, and numerous other authors have been writing diverse romances for years and years, since long before I started writing.
By contrast, it took me six full-length books before I wrote a secondary interracial pairing. That’s not something that I should get cookies for. This is something where the credit belongs elsewhere.
In terms of its importance to me: Despite the fact that my mother is Chinese, it took me six full-length books to realize that I could include characters of color in my books, simply because I hadn’t been reading them in historicals. That’s how long it took me to get to the point where I thought that I could be a protagonist, and I’m not stupid.
I hope that it doesn’t take others that long.
I was really interested in your decision to start self-publishing a few years ago, and you’ve been very candid about the economics of publishing for an independent writer. At what point in your writing career were you able to make it your day job? What were some of the factors that led to your decision to self-publish? And how’s it going?
I quit my day job about a year and a half after I self-published my first work, and actually, I turned in my notice that I anticipated leaving about five months after I first self-published. I had actually earned a decent living wage before that, but without self-publishing, there would have been no guarantee of further contracts, and I don’t know that I would have felt comfortable leaving without substantially more money in the bank and a higher level of success.
In terms of why I self-published, there are a handful of reasons, but the two main ones were this:
1) I wanted more creative control over the entire process: what I was writing, how it was presented to the market, and so forth.
2) I wanted a greater royalty share.
In terms of how it’s going, it’s going way better than my wildest predictions. I’m a spreadsheet kind of girl, so I can actually look at my wildest predictions, and yes, they were far too pessimistic.
I tend to be pretty financially conservative (er, read “paranoid”), and so I also don’t assume that any of this will last.
Why do you think there’s been this mini-boom in lawyers — like Julie James, Lauren Willig, Grace Burrowes, and others — becoming romance novelists? Do you think there’s a kind of affinity between the law and writing fiction?
One of the jokes I tell is that lawyering is one of the only professions where “Yay, congratulations!” is the appropriate response to both these statements:
“Whew, I finally got a job!”
“Whew, I finally quit my job!”
This is a joke. It is a joke that is only funny because it is true.
I think there are a lot of people who become lawyers who are very intelligent and enjoy writing. I also think that being a lawyer is not always a good outlet for intelligence and writing.
Do you find that writing what you do, with such a distinct emphasis on feminism and principles of justice and equality, limits what you can read for pleasure?
No. I can and actually do read a lot of stuff, some HIGHLY problematic, which I recognize as problematic but enjoy anyway. I enjoy all books that let me shut off my brain.
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