The Fan-Fiction Friendship That Fueled a Romance-Novel Empire

“We have two relationships. We have to talk about money, and then we have the friendship.”

Wenjia Tang

Every week, The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.

This week she talks with a pair of romance authors who write under the combined pen name Christina Lauren. They met through Twilight fan-fiction forums and began their collaboration with a story written in response to a risqué prompt. Over the next six years, they published 22 romance novels, many of which have hit the New York Times best-seller list.

The Friends

Lauren Billings, A.K.A. “Lo,” 44, who lives in Orange County, California
Christina Hobbs, 42, who lives in Salt Lake City, Utah

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Julie Beck: Let’s start at the very beginning. When, and how, did you guys first meet?

Lauren Billings: We met in 2009. We met online before we ever saw each other in person. We were both writing fan fiction and reading each other’s stories. Christina had a really big story called The Office online at the time, and I was putting on a panel at San Diego Comic-Con on fan art, so I invited her to the panel. Back in the day, The Office was this big, exciting Twilight fan fiction that everybody was reading, so having her there was a huge draw. We had a totally full room.

That’s where we met in person, and we just really hit it off. We met in July, and in August we decided to try to write a little short story together, and it was so much fun that we decided maybe we could write a book together. It was basically a collaboration from the start.

Beck: Tell me about that first in-person meeting. You hadn’t been corresponding for too long at that point. Was Christina what you expected, Lauren, and vice versa?

Christina (left) and Lauren (right). Courtesy of Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings.

Lauren: Whenever you meet somebody in person after knowing them online, you’re always curious to see if they match. And we’re very different people. I tend to be the more structured and neurotic one in the relationship, and she’s much more bubbly and easygoing. So that was definitely my first impression—that she was very lighthearted and fun. All of this humor that she had in her stories really translated to how she was in person. It was sort of a tricky trip for her, because she fell and broke her foot, so that whole time, she had her foot wrapped and was on crutches. But even so, it was fun.

Christina Hobbs: Lo had a really big story too. It was this love story where the main character was just this sweet thing. I remember when I first met Lo, thinking how much her character reminded me of Lo. A big thing about Lo is that she’s super loyal and will just do anything for you. And I was so cranky and had this broken foot, and she still stayed my friend.

Beck: What was this story by Lauren?

Lauren: Oh, so my story was called Let Your Light Shine. It was just what we called “the canon”—Edward and Bella—because I hated how Breaking Dawn [the last book in the Twilight series] went. So I basically rewrote the last book as my version of what it should have been.

Christina: She wrote this version where they are basically sweet and in love for the entire thing, and I sensed these aspects of Lo that were just so sweet and lovely, exactly the way that she wrote her Bella.

Beck: Nobody got a baby bit out of them in that one.

Lauren: No.

Christina: Exactly.

Lauren: My God. One of my favorite quotes from Christina is, we were watching the trailer for the Breaking Dawn movie, and she was like, “It looks like there’s a pie-eating contest, and Edward won a baby.”

Beck: That’s the best description of that I’ve ever heard.

Christina: Isn’t it?

Beck: Okay, so at the time you met, what were you doing for work?

Lauren: I was working full-time at a pharmaceutical company. I have my doctorate in neuroscience, and I was doing research on macular degeneration. I was just writing for fun. When I had my son, I couldn’t sleep very well, so I started writing again. I used to write fiction for fun when I was younger, and of course I lost that habit when I was in grad school and didn’t have time for anything else. But I came back to it when my son was a baby.

Christina worked at a junior-high counseling office, and she loved it. She’s so awesome with kids. We were both working full-time and writing in all of the little spaces we could find.

Beck: Was it immediately after Comic-Con when you guys were like, “Let’s collaborate on something”? How did the writing relationship develop alongside the friendship?

Christina: One of the things in fandom is that they have these one-shot contests for a specific prompt. A one-shot is just a short story that you write, and it’s 12,000 words or something. They might pick a winner, but it’s all purely for fun. So we decided to write something together.

Beck: Do you remember what that prompt was and what your original story was about?

Lauren: Okay, so keep in mind that when you are in fandom, everything seems normal, and then you step out and you realize how insane everything has been. Oh, God. I mean, we’re talking to The Atlantic, so I’m just going to have to go with this. But the prompt was to write a story about Edward with a foreskin. That had to be mentioned.

Beck: And everything else could be whatever you wanted?

Lauren: Yup. There was some debate in fandom at the time about whether cut or uncut was hotter, and the people who were organizing the contest were adamant that foreskin was the hottest thing ever, so people were writing stories to try to show how hot it could be. I’m sure my face is bright red right now. And they called it a “parka.” So this was the “parka word” contest, and that was the very first thing we wrote together.

The funny thing is, it’s not even what the story’s about. We ended up writing a story about this Doctors Without Borders Edward. He moves in across the street, and Bella feels like her life is kind of stalled. They make really interesting dinners together and have really interesting conversations, and he kind of brings her back into life. We actually really loved the story. But, yeah, that was the prompt.

Lauren (left) and Christina (right) reading their book Beautiful Player. Courtesy of Lauren Billings and Christina Hobbs.

Beck: Well, all right! Now we know about that.

Christina: The story was really great, and so we were like, “Well, what if we tried to write an actual book?” So we started writing this really terrible book, because we thought if we were going to be serious writers, we should write something really serious. We wrote this serious thing about this man who’s widowed and meets this girl who brings his heart back to life and stuff. It was so depressing. I think we had 5,000 words, and we were like, “What is this?” So we started writing this teen-romance mythology thing instead, and it was just really fun.

Beck: I know that the first book that you published, Beautiful Bastard, was kind of a reworked version of Christina’s fanfic story The Office. Can you just give the quick pitch for what The Office was?

Lauren: The Office was kind of a play on Edward’s surliness in Twilight. At the very beginning of the story, Bella meets him and calls him a “beautiful bastard,” so that’s where we got the title for what we ended up adapting as the book. Edward, he’s just this exacting perfectionist, and he doesn’t think anyone is as good as he is at any job. But Bella, in The Office, she proves to him that she’s a match for him.

Christina: I had no intention of ever publishing The Office. It was the first thing I ever wrote. It was just silly, ridiculous, fun. But then Fifty Shades of Grey came out, and it was huge. The author of Fifty Shades was in fandom with us; Fifty Shades originated as fanfic.

Beck: That was Twilight originally as well, right?

Christina: Yeah. We used to think writing fanfic was a black mark on our writing résumé, but it turned out it was the exact opposite.

Beck: Did you know that you two wanted to write together long-term from that first book, or were you thinking, We like doing this, but maybe we’ll write by ourselves also?

Lauren: I don’t think either of us had plans to write solo, but once we published Beautiful Bastard, we had six books out that year, in 2013, and we were still working full-time. So I don’t even think we had time to take a breath and imagine a different way. We didn’t leave our jobs until December of 2013. By that point, we had such a good thing going that we were like, “Why would we stop working together? You’re my best friend, and I have the best job ever.”

Beck: Six books in one year? That is an astounding rate. Is that just the fan-fiction pace you were used to?

Lauren: I think it was. And I also think we were riding this crazy train—2013 was sort of like the renaissance for romance. But all that said, we both maintain that if there was ever a time that one of us wanted to write something that didn’t mesh with the other’s style or interests, we would be 100 percent supportive. We haven’t found anything yet where we don’t want to do it together.

Beck: You guys are co-writing these things long-distance, and, obviously we have Google Docs and whatnot, but how do you manage that at an organizational level?

Christina: We talk all day long. We’re texting nonstop. Thank God it’s the year 2019, where you can text, call, FaceTime. We always outline our books in person—I’m going to California tomorrow to do that. And then we sort of split it up. Some of the books are alternating points of view; some of them aren’t. So we split it up by chapter, or by character, or by scene. We put everything into Dropbox, and at one point we’ll combine them and start reading through.

We’ve published 22 books together now; it’s the process we did with every book. The reason that works, I think, is because we’re such good friends. It’s such a magical thing between our personalities. We seem to be stronger where the other one is not as strong.

Beck: Did you find that your friendship morphed into more of a business relationship after you were published? How do you balance the different aspects of your relationship—the money part, the creative part, and then the part that’s just you two being friends?

Lauren: That’s a huge question.

Christina: We have two relationships. We have to talk about money, and then we have the friendship. We try to put just as much work into both of those. One of the biggest questions I always get is, “Do we fight?” I bicker with my husband. Lo bickers with her husband. Lo has said, “I wouldn’t want to be in a relationship with somebody that I couldn’t fight with.” Because that just means that you’re going along with everything that they say, and you’re not putting your own thoughts into anything.

So we do have to talk about business, but then we have trips that are just Christina and Lo. I can’t even think of how many years now my family has come out to her house for Thanksgiving, with our kids. We spend holidays together, and we’re just as much friends as we are co-authors and business partners.

Lauren: I treat it a lot like a marriage in that I’ve made a commitment to be with this person as a best friend and as a business partner. We’re managing this aspect of our lives together. I see it as a commitment. It’s not something that if we get in a fight that’s too big, it’s going to disappear. We have built something that we’re both really proud of. I’m still in awe of her, of all the things that she can do. I just can’t imagine not doing this with her. But if we didn’t write books together, I know we would still be really close.

Beck: Your writing focuses so much on relationships. Have you learned anything about different ways that you each view relationships in the course of writing these books?

Christina: One thing that I learned from our book that came out in December 2018, My Favorite Half-Night Stand, is that Millie [the book’s protagonist] is sort of closed off emotionally, and she shies away from feelings. I related to Millie so much. I don’t really like to talk about feelings, and Lo is like, “Let’s talk about this. Let’s talk about this.” Lo’s parents are both therapists.

Beck: That book is about online dating, and the main character acts really differently with her love interest online than she does in person. Do you find that the medium that you guys are using to communicate with each other changes your friendship?

Lauren: I think we communicate so much in every medium that we get each other no matter what form we’re using. But I think we have learned that we don’t have difficult conversations over text or email. That’s a phone call; that’s in person. Because things can be misinterpreted in text.

Christina: People always say, “Oh, internet friends aren’t real friends.” And I think there are some people who look at online dating in the same light. But it felt really natural to write Half-Night Stand because that’s how we met. We weren’t dating, but some of my closest friends are people that I’ve met online.

Beck: It’s interesting. There are friendship versions of dating sites, and those relationships seem to follow similar trajectories. I imagine it’s different when you’re meeting on a fan-fiction website, or a site that’s not specifically for meeting people, but did you feel kind of a similar narrative to dating?

Lauren: We were lucky enough not to deal with this, and I’m not sure if it’s because we started working together so fast, or if we had some chemistry that helped us escape it, but one of the dangers of meeting somebody online is that you feel much safer sharing a lot more of yourself when you are behind a screen. Nobody knows what you look like or sound like. Everybody is sort of the best, funniest, most well-rested version of themselves online.

A stack of books published by Christina Lauren. Courtesy of Kristen Dwyer.

We all have good days and bad days in person, so the tendency to get too close too fast and develop almost a false intimacy is a real danger with online stuff, especially if you are in a community like fandom, where you’re all really excited about the same thing. I was in my 30s when I was in the Twilight fandom, so there was a certain amount of loving shame that we were all in a fandom about this teenage vampire story. We bonded over that, but I think sometimes you tend to bond too fast.

Beck: What are the consequences of that?

Lauren: I had some people just tell me too much. They exposed themselves too plainly and were a little too vulnerable. Then either we met in person and it was embarrassing for them to feel like they were so seen, or they wanted more than I was willing to give on an emotional level. Or you just don’t get along in person.

Beck: You guys met up shortly after you started corresponding online, and I feel like it is often the case with online dating as well that if you talk for a really long time in texts, it could be weirder than if you just meet up pretty quickly.

Christina: When we were doing research for online dating, one of our friends was like, “No, no, no, you don’t talk that long. The whole point is to meet in person.”

Lauren: I do wonder if part of what helped us is that there initially wasn’t pressure for us to be besties. The pressure was to write well together, and because that ended up being fun, our friendship came out of that. We have friends who have been really close and then tried to write together, and it wasn’t an easy or fun process for them. Whatever it is, whatever happened, we just got super lucky. I think about this all the time, that I’m so lucky that I met her and that it went the way it did.

Beck: There are a lot of people who co-write books, but I don’t know of many who exclusively write books together, never separately. You’ve even morphed your names, so each book has one author. It’s Christina Lauren; it’s not Christina and Lauren. So in a way, you’re two people sharing one career. Has that ever been hard? Do you ever wish you could stake out your own professional identities more?

Lauren: No. I feel like the joint pen name has only been a good thing. We both feel complete ownership. But also, writing can be really lonely sometimes. We go to these signings, and we see people sitting at their tables alone, or with a big line, and I’m just like, “I don’t know how you do it by yourself.” It’s a really stressful career. It’s fun, and it’s incredibly rewarding, but it’s also really stressful, because you’re putting your words and your soul out there, and people can be really honest about what they think. It’s nice that we have each other to weather that with.

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