I’ve been looking forward to these books for a long time. Lily Java has been in her writer’s lab for over a year, only allowing very brief peeks into what she was working on. Then, late this summer, I got more than a brief peek and was blown away. I always knew she was a great writer, but a double-release, where the story spans a couple of decades is also ambitious, and somewhat risky. But she pulled it off.
Not only did she pull it off, she pulled me in … Into 1970s and early 1980s New York when the city looked and felt very different from it does today, and when gentrification wasn’t even a thing. But that’s just the backdrop, and however well-drawn and integral to the story the time and place may be, the characters are still the stars of this duo of books. Ethan Vance, and Serena Clay are two college kids who fall deeply in love, and learn very quickly that sometimes love isn’t all that matters. There’s almost nothing else I can tell you without ruining it, and I definitely don’t want to ruin it. BUY these books! Read them. You won’t regret it.
Still, since Lily has had some of us on tenterhooks awaiting these releases, I wanted to hear from her about what it her creative process was like this time around, where she’s going next.
Read the interview below. Take it from me, she’s just as interesting as her books …
- You’ve taken a fairly long hiatus from releasing, though clearly not from writing since you’re giving us two full-length novels in quick succession. Tell us a little bit about what your process was to create ‘Ethan’s Choice’ and ‘Serena’s Vow’. Where did the idea come from, and how did these novels come about?
Hiatus. Great word. Makes it sound like my being away so long was all part of some grand design. It wasn’t. LOL. The idea for these two books came initially from one troublesome little scene in my last book, Blackbirds. In that book, my hero Elliott is having a pleasant Thanksgiving with his mother, his girlfriend, and his young daughter when his father Ethan Vance, a man he’s never met shows up. It’s an explosive encounter and from it we learn that Ethan had what seems like a good reason for his initial abandonment of his family, but it left a lot of open-ended questions. Then Ethan is only mentioned once more in the epilogue of that book, saying that he’s a guest at his son’s wedding. But, that’s it.
Naturally, readers being a curious bunch said “Hey Lily, what about that guy Ethan? Will we ever find out more about him and Ell’s mother Serena?” And that was it. I couldn’t get the two characters out of my mind.
I thought Serena and Ethan’s story would be one book. I was so cocksure of it I wrote six chapters and gave the book a title: Blank Pages. But conceptually I wanted to show a fully realized love story—a relationship that spanned many years. The idea of writing about a young couple in love, then tearing them apart for a long time, then showing them again mature and in love was intriguing to me. It was a theme I experimented with in Blackbirds but not to such an extreme. When we meet Ethan and Serena initially this time, they are only 18 and 19, then when we see them really come together as couple again it’s that fateful Thanksgiving when they’re in their 50’s, and they both have done a whole lot of living in between. I could have squeezed all that into one book, but it would have either compromised the story OR been something like 600 or 700 pages. Heck, that’s a Marlon James or a J.K. Rowling novel, not women’s fiction.
So, two books it became. Ethan’s Choice gives us a lot of, I hope fascinating, backstory on Ethan and covers our couple falling hopelessly head over heels gaga for each other before life forcefully intrudes on them. Serena’s Vow shares everything that comes after, including when love resurfaces for two people who it’s been lying dormant in for a very long time.
- These books span over a couple of decades, including a very interesting time in New York. What was it like to write about a different era?
Well, it was not as challenging as you might think because I was actually alive and living in New York in every decade I wrote about, so I had many personal experiences to work with. Still there were a few moments when I felt like I was in over my head. So, I did some research too. Honestly it was an amazing time to reexamine after having lived in it. New York City in the seventies was a scary, turbulent place but as a young kid I didn’t see it that way at all. It was all just normal to me.
I have some serious admiration for actual historical fiction writers who do this kind of thing all the time and have to write about bygone eras that require a lot of research. Then they have to take that research and turn it into an engrossing narrative with fleshed out characters who see their world very differently than someone looking years later with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. It’s an intense enterprise for a writer mostly cause it’s fairly easy to screw it up.
I had to caution myself often that even though I was familiar with many of the settings and types of people I was describing from the past I wasn’t writing history per se; I was writing a fictional love story. Eventually I decided to make it a little easy on myself and start deep writing where I usually do, thinking about the music my characters listen too. From the beginning that was a joy and super helpful.
Sorry for everyone born after 1986, but music in the seventies and early eighties was freaking amazing. My playlists for these books were AWESOME. Doing that also provided me with some sense memories about the current events of the time, the clothes, the devices that were used, the spaces and neighborhoods the characters lived in. It helped me reflect and create a nuanced vibration for the times I was writing about.
- In reading these books, the first thing that struck me is that they’re not romance novels, though much of your readership are diehard romance readers. How would you categorize this work? And is this the voice we should come to expect from you in the future?
From the beginning, I have always prayed for my writing to do two things for people reading it: give them joyful satisfaction on completion and help to heal whatever ails them, even things they didn’t necessarily know they needed healing for. Anyone who really knows my work knows I am a romantic with a capital R. I write complex, entertaining, and evocative love stories. However, true love stories featuring human beings anyway, are fraught with minor and major complications, so I write about that too. I think writing about those parts of a love story is exploring “the negative space” Walter Mosley is always talking about. The things that are unseen that make us think and react the way we do are important to consider and talk about. Cause let’s face it that’s where we’re all living our life, right? I’ve heard a term used lately called Romantic Realism and I think I fit quite nicely between that R and R. And yes, I expect I’ll write more of it but I bore easy so there are many different ways that kind of writing will manifest itself for me, I think.
- It’s always interesting to hear what writers read. What are you reading these days, and who are some of the writers who influence you, or who you are inspired by?
I’m influenced/inspired by so many writers, including you. This past spring, I made a promise to myself that I’d finish writing these books this year. That commitment changed my reading habits a lot. I couldn’t read anything romantic for a long time. I also couldn’t read any super emotional women’s fiction. I’d start books like the last Tayari Jones that everyone devoured when it came out, and I couldn’t get past the first few chapters. I finished it finally last month and loved it but glad I didn’t read it while writing about Ethan. That book put me in such a mood there’s no telling what might have happened to him. Instead I inhaled Lisa Regan’s detective novels over the summer, which were great but as far from what I was writing as I could get. In between to prep for the next Wine With Writers event, I read most of the catalogues of Piper Huguley and Joan Vassar, which blew me away and let me know unequivocally that I was not writing historical fiction. Right now, I’m still reading Regina Porter’s The Travelers, which has grown on me. What a massive undertaking that was. I really want to know how long that took her to write. Her vision boards must have looked like police procedural or army war maps. I just started books by two favorites Stephen King’s The Institute and an Alice Hoffmann novel I somehow missed called Faithful.
- What is your ‘dream novel’? By that I mean, what’s the novel you desperately want to write? And why is it your ‘dream novel’?
I have several dream novels actually, but I’ll tell you about one. It’s about the struggles of two married soldiers having to live apart while one is on tour. There’s a lot of nefarious outside forces complicating their lives and they don’t have each other to fall back on. It’s a suspense novel with a little law of attraction spirituality thrown in for good measure and a love story too, of course. I’d like it to part of it take place in what I see as the most wildly polemic and problematic part of this country right now. The so-called heartland. I don’t know why it’s my dream novel other than the fact that it comes to me often in daydreams and sleep dreams too. I haven’t got much of a frame of personal reference for any of it, which makes it feel like an audacious idea. That’s also what makes it somewhat exciting for me to think about.
- What’s a trend in publishing or self-publishing you’re happy to see lately? What’s a trend you’re less excited about, or don’t like?
Honestly, I don’t talk a lot about this because it gives me a headache but since you asked. LOL. I’m happy to see that content is flourishing. There seems to be an endless supply and it seems to have a never-ending number of forums where it’s featured. It’s creating this ripple effect that encourages the diverse voices of the young and socially conscious. It also means that reading has a lot more competition so shorter books are preferable to go along with the shorter attention spans. That’s disheartening but it may also be why poetry, which I love is having a resurgence. It’s really short. LOL. Book quality is back in vogue. That’s great. Marketing earlier is a necessity for success. That’s a pain in the neck for indie writers especially. Hopefully it will mean there are more opportunities for how you can market. Best of all, independent bookstores didn’t disappear entirely. Love that story about the only indie bookstore opening in the Bronx recently. It serves wine so I’m making a special trip to that one very soon.
- Now that you’ve completed two very ambitious books, what’s your next project?
I have one last project in the Blackbirds saga to do. I wrote and shared some excerpts of it over the Xmas holidays under the working title ‘Home At Last’. It was well received but I doubt that many knew who I was writing about. The main female character features a young woman named Laura. She happens to be none other than Laura Vance, daughter to Elliott and granddaughter to Ethan and Serena. She was seen as a child in two of the books in the Blackbirds series and she’s always been a super interesting character to so many people, including me. Her backstory is charged like every lead in this series, but I wanted to explore what that would do to her little psyche when she grew up and tried to navigate her own love life and relationships. I’m planning on an early 2020 release for that book. There are some other surprises you can expect from me in 2020 but I’m not letting that cat out of the bag just yet.