Amy Jo Cousins has a new duology out now, featuring two incredible novellas in the Bend or Break universe!
In Love Me Like A Rock, artist Austin has to get his head out of the clouds or he risks losing both his best friend Vinnie and his new relationship with geology student Sean. In Hard Candy, Vinnie wakes up from a one-night stand with Bryan, a dance major who is everything that Vinnie is not. Together, they make Between a Rock and a Hard Place!
You can read more about the duology here, including summaries and my reviews of both novellas!
Today I’m thrilled to be featuring author Amy Jo Cousins on the blog, to talk about challenging common romance tropes, writing awkward sex, and the planning that went into this duology… plus some hints about what’s to come from AJ!
So check it out…
1. Best friends to lovers is a pretty common trope in Romance… and one that you’ve completely turned on its head. Did you ever plan to have Vinnie and Austin get together, or did you know from the start that they were never meant to be? (And if the latter, WHY DID YOU TEASE US SO!?)
I didn’t have a solid plan for Austin and Vinnie when I wrote LEVEL HANDS, but best friends to lovers is a favorite of mine and I think I assumed I probably would write a book about them down the line. I’m always paying attention to interesting secondary characters, getting curious about their problems and feelings, because I’m a nosy parker and I always want to know who’s secretly dying to hook up with whom in the background. But while I was writing REAL WORLD, I ended up thinking about what Austin and Vinnie had been doing off screen since the end of LH, and it occurred to me that Vinnie was probably still focused on his own worries, paying very little attention to Austin and Austin’s totally obvious feelings. It also occurred to me that Austin was a pretty great guy, a fact that someone else was bound to notice. And if that someone else was the kind of guy who’d give Austin his full attention, Austin was going to figure out what he was missing by waiting around for Vinnie to get his head out of his ass.
Sometimes we really, really like someone and they just don’t feel the same way back about us. And even if that person we like might get there emotionally, someday, waiting isn’t always the right choice. I guess I don’t believe there is just one perfect person for anyone. I think Austin and Vinnie could have had a good relationship together (although holy cow, they’d have had a lot of work to do to fix old, bad habits), but Austin and Sean absolutely work too. Plus, the idea of writing the guy who’d missed his chance was so appealing. I love tortured souls.
2. Did any of the characters change from inception to final version? If so, can you tell us how?
Hmm, that’s an excellent question. Actually, I’m a pretty character-driven writer and the details of my characters are usually what come to me before anything else. So I knew I wanted someone supremely human for Austin, because Austin spends all his time with these totally driven, perfect bodied athletes, many of whom are also pretty neurotic. So I wanted this scruffy, low-key guy with a job, not a six-pack, who would be focused on Austin and totally there for him. And with Vinnie, it was clear that while he’s a good guy deep down, what he needed more than anything was to have his uptight nature challenged. And I’d just watched a video about the Prancing Elites getting turned away from a parade they’d wanted to march in, so I had them in mind when I started thinking about Bryan’s femininity, grace, and bravery. I think the only thing I was surprised by while writing this one was the yoga thing, but Vinnie had such a hard time unclenching his anxious grip on the world that I needed Bryan to show him a way to do that. I loved watching Vinnie, who can barely walk across campus with Bryan at first without wanting to correct Bryan’s clothes/attitude, learn from someone he thinks is kind of weird. Bryan makes Vinnie a better person, and I loved that about them both.
3. Vinnie and Bryan’s relationship is really unique in many ways, only one of which is the way they interact physically. I’m not sure that I’ve ever read a relationship like that, where the focus is on touch and not sex. Was it a challenge as an author to shift tracks and look at sex in such a different way?
It’s funny, because I love writing sex. It’s such an intimate thing, or at least it can be, and it’s power to reveal hidden feelings and weaknesses or strengths of my characters is wonderful. But…every once in a while, I can get a little burned out on writing sex. I think I started writing the first draft of HARD CANDY right when I felt as an author very much the way Bryan feels as a person. I was into the touching and the kissing, but I was ready to put everything else on hold. It made me nervous though. As much as I write the books I want to write, I’m also very aware of the market and what it wants. Writing is my job, and if I write books that only a handful of people want to read…well, I’ll have to go get a different kind of job. And books without sex are a tougher sell right now. I think in the end the book is working for readers–who have said such lovely things!–both because there is still a level of sensuality that satisfies and because Vinnie and Bryan’s relationship is different, which has intrigued some people.
Actually, when I first started writing HARD CANDY, I thought I was writing a book about a low libido guy. But it turned out that Vinnie wasn’t as much low libido (although Vinnie is definitely okay with much less sex than Austin, who would happily bang Sean morning and night) as having the wrong kind of sex. Meeting Bryan gives Vinnie the freedom enjoy the kind of sex he likes, as opposed to feeling uncomfortable doing stuff he isn’t really into. I really enjoyed writing that. Plus, Vinnie’s super awkward about sex, especially at the beginning of the book, and I love writing awkward sex.
4. Okay, this isn’t a question, but huge applause for coming up with the titles for both novellas and the duology. “Love Me Like a Rock” + “Hard Candy” = “Between a Rock and a Hard Place”? UGH GENIUS, I can’t get over it. Also, the covers are stunning.
My cover artist Kanaxa is amazing. I can’t get over her ability to make this series visually recognizable as a whole and yet give each book such an individual cover. I had actually found the image for HARD CANDY when I was looking for stock photos for FULL EXPOSURE, but it didn’t have the right feel for the latter. Kanaxa had sent us a possible image for the HARD CANDY cover that was gorgeously vibrant, but the guy read as too old for me. I remembered the photo I’d seen of the guy hugging himself & when I saw what Kanaxa did with that image…I was in love.
As for the titles, ugh. Kill me know. I eventually find my way to titles that make me happy, but it takes a lot of work! I make lists, twenty or thirty titles long. More than that, even, to get to the words that fit the story. LOVE ME LIKE A ROCK was the first one I figured out and that was, for once, pretty easy. While writing LMLaR, I was listening to a lot of music Sean would play on his guitar around the campfire and my playlist was heavy on Simon & Garfunkel. Their song “Loves Me Like a Rock” is one of my absolute favorites. My mom used to sing it to me when I was a kid and I sang it to my son when he was little. “My momma loves me, she loves me, she get down on her knees and hug me, oh she love me like a rock.” Wrong gender for this story, I know, but it’s just such a great song about that kind of love that is so rock solid you never doubt it. It definitely affected my writing of Sean! So, I had that title, and a bunch of possibilities for Vinnie & Bryan’s book that were all about sweetness, sugar, sparkle, candy. I also knew I needed one for the duology that would incorporate both novella titles. BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE came to mind as a duology title that could link titles involving rocks and hardness, and HARD CANDY was a relatively simple leap after that.
I’m a title-writing mess, but I’m pretty happy with the way these three titles work together.
5. Did you go into the duology intending it to be all about opposites and parallels? I think that was my favorite part, watching all of these opposing personalities balance each other out so perfectly… especially Austin with his head in the clouds, and Sean who’s so down-to-earth (Ha, I realized this pun after re-reading this. I’m brilliant).
Yes! LOL. I almost never have that much of a plan in mind about my books, but Austin and Vinnie are so different, and need such different things, that the opposites were built into my plan. And I knew they’d both be stepping out of their comfort zone by developing relationships outside of their circle, so that was going to be interesting for both of them. Austin and Vinnie used each other like a safety blanket. Not to denigrate their very real affection for each other, but they definitely kept each other in a comfort zone that meant they weren’t taking any risks with their personal lives. Watching them do things that scared them was great fun.
6. What’s next for AJ? More Bend or Break novels? Something completely different?
The Bend or Break books are on hold for now while Samhain figures out whether or not they’re closing. If/when I get the rights back to those books, I will definitely be adding to the series. I’ve got a couple more stories to tell. 🙂 In the meantime, I’m working on a couple of sekrit projects, and making plans to self-publish a small town LGBTQ romance series. Book one will come out this summer, so I probably ought to figure out a title for that one…
Amy Jo Cousins writes contemporary romance and erotica about smart people finding their own best kind of smexy. She lives in Chicago with her son, where she tweets too much, sometimes runs really far, and waits for the Cubs to win the World Series.
Her books include the Bend or Break series (M/M, M/F), and you can check out my reviews of the series here. She’s also written some super steamy M/F romance, and as well as other LGBTQIA+ shorts and novellas.