Support Big Gay Fiction Podcast on PatreonSarina Bowen joins us to talk about her new book Roommate, which is an m/m spin off from her True North series. She shares why it took her so long to figure how to write Kiernan, a character carrying a lot of secrets. She also discusses the Vino & Veritas series, which is one of a number of multi-author series that she is creating inside the True North story universe. Sarina previews a little of what’s to come in the multi-book series.

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Show Notes

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Interview Transcript – Sarina Bowen

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Jeff: Sarina, welcome back to the podcast. It’s wonderful to have you here as we kick off 2021.

Sarina: I’m so happy to be here. It’s great to talk to you again, always.

Jeff: Oh, my gosh, you started by year was such a terrific book with Roommate.

I can’t even tell you, I mean, so, so good. Tell everyone in your words, what they’re going to get in this incredible book.

Sarina: Well, okay. So Roommate is a character from a long running series of mine called True North. It takes place in Vermont. All the other books are male/female couples. Although I can’t say that they’re all straight because there are a lot of bisexuals in my work.

But this character Kieran Shipley is a cousin of the Shipley family that everybody has loved since 2016. And Kieran’s always been a little bit of a tough nut to crack, you know, he just doesn’t give it all away, but I never say why. And I knew that Kieran was a gay man – there’s a couple of hints here and there.

But it took me a long time to get the story for Kieran exactly right because I knew that he was holding a lot back. I just didn’t know exactly what and this isn’t a book where the characters sexuality is the big secret. It really isn’t. He has a lot of secrets and I wanted to do right by his secrets and his family trauma so that I could deliver a book that was worth this character.

And that’s why it took me years because, in the numbering of True North, this would be, if I numbered it into the series, this would be like book four and a half. And I’m about to write book eight. So I waited for him until I could give him the story he deserved. That was a really rich, you know, character driven book of why we don’t know Kieran Shipley as well as everyone thinks they do.

Jeff: And it was really. Delightful how you kept unfolding the layers of Kieran as the book went through and you did the same thing with Roderick too, our other hero in the book that they were not what we saw in the first pages that it just kind of kept rolling out.

Sarina: Well, thank you. Whenever you are delivering a secret in fiction it’s difficult like the, the right impulse usually is to give it all up at the beginning because plots where the character just won’t tell you what’s wrong or frustrating, and you don’t want to do that to your reader. So I had to build a plot where Kieran just, isn’t ready to say out loud, this burden he’s been carrying until later in the book.

And then, he loves Roderick and it starts out as an enemies to lovers almost because he’s so afraid that this man knows some of his secrets and that he’s like a dam. If one secret bursts out the rest is just going to come tumbling. And so he just holds very tightly to the position of not being able to tell you what’s wrong.

And then love wears him down. And in the end it’s like fighting for that is what saves him.

Jeff: That’s a great way to put it too, that he is in fact safe, but he saves Roderick too, in a lot of ways. It’s these two truly make each other better as they go.

Sarina: Well, that’s what you want when you’re writing a romance is, and I have, it’s funny, like I have an actual checklist of things that make a romance finished.

You have to show how these characters uniquely need each other and no one else will do. And that is the guts of it. Like that is the hard thing. And that’s why it took me so long to get this book right. Because I needed that, those puzzle pieces to really fit like that. And it turns out that Roderick is easier to save.

He is escaping a bad relationship and he is broke, which is, you know, the age old problem. So he’s easier to save because he’s ready to move on. Like he’s ready to stop making all the same mistakes, for lack of, of gas money and a warm place to stay, like what’s holding him back from fully being himself is really smaller than Kieran’s problem. So it’s fun to watch Kieran save Roderick, but Rodrick needs less ultimately.

Jeff: True. Very true. And this book also starts a new branch, let’s say from True North because you’re starting Vino and Veritas here, a whole new series, what can we expect in that?

Sarina: Well in this year I’m launching a world based on True North. And what that means is I’ve invited other authors to write in my world because Vermont is such a rich and interesting place in the world. And I can’t write all the stories. So Vino and Veritas Is an inclusive wine bar and bookstore in Burlington, it’s completely fictional.

And it came about – I was having a conversation about my world with an author and I told her there aren’t any gay bars in Vermont. And it was true until just a couple of years ago. Like I had missed the fact that there is one now because it’s two hours away from me. She said, “really why?”

And it made me start to think about why. And it’s partly, I mean, I would never say that an inclusive space was unnecessary because of course that’s just wrong. But Vermont is a pretty lovely place to be. A lot of different people and Burlington is like to the left of Bernie Sanders already.

So then it made me think like what kind of space should this be and I talked about this with Annabeth Albert and with Garrett Leigh, who are two writers of LGBTQ romance that I respect so much. And together we sort of shaped how this wine bar/bookstore, this place would be in and why so the first book in the “Vino and Veritas” series is called “Featherbed” and it’s by Annabeth Albert and it’s delightful. When we were talking about what kind of a book it would be. She said, it’s like a little bit like a Hallmark movie, gay romance in this case. And with a little gritty under tone, cause that’s kind of the “True North” series.

It’s the lovely things about Vermont, but also grit. I mean, come on, book two is about a heroin addict, so it’s not all like sun and roses in “True North.” So she wrote this lovely book called “Featherbed” and the title refers to the fact that the main character is a chicken farmer and we did this great cover with a strong guy, you know, like it’s a romance cover.

Strong guy, but he has a baby chick on his arm, it is so cute. And then Garrett Leigh’s book is called “Heartscape” and it’s a stranger from out of town and he comes to save the guy who runs the wine shop side or the wine bar. Sorry, it’s not a shop. It’s a bar of the establishment. And it is a wonderful book.

And Garrett Leigh’s writing is just so terrific. So I can’t wait to launch those and they’re coming in March.

Jeff: Oh, they both come in March?

Sarina: Yes.

Jeff: Fantastic. I like how you set it in a wine bar/bookstore and not the typical coffee bar bookstore that we see. It gives it that little upscale more adult feel, right?

Because you know, it’s a wine bar and that seemed really, you know, just, Oh, I want to go there. And I’m kind of sad that it’s not like maybe a real place or something that I could go to.

Sarina: Well, I did that intentionally. Well, first of all, I’m not afraid to write you a coffee shop romance. I’ve got lots of those, but, the wine bar sort of elevated what I wanted this to be like, I wasn’t going for like trashy pickup joint bar, except as we got into talking about what this space was one author said, well, I don’t want to call it a gay bar because that’s not inclusive enough. And I said, you’re right, it’s not. So this is, you know, a different feather this place.

It’s an inclusive bookstore and the wine bar next door is a wonderful safe space, but the lens of each book will differ. So to some of the guys who visit this place, it is a gay bar. You know, it’s where they meet their hookup. And that’s how life happens. But to others, it performs a totally different function and every character is allowed to have his or her own lens on what the space means to them.

And that’s how we give it, you know, the full dimension that it deserves. And there are also, I should mention two FF novels coming in the “Vino and Veritas” world.

Jeff: I can’t wait. I mean, 2021 is going to be so cool with books rolling out and on the “Featherbed” covered my mind flashes to “Good Boy” with the guy and the dog.

Sarina: Well, let’s face it. Like whenever you can put a hot human and an animal together on a cover. Like that’s just gold. And I had so “Vino and Veritas” by the time all the books roll out is like 18 titles. It’s really a lot of books and I had my cover designer, like the poor lady, she and I were looking at mock-ups and thinking, how are we going to keep this interesting, you know, and props are one way that you can keep it interesting.

So the baby chick, when I saw how she had executed it, I was like, you are a genius. And then the bookstore made us want to put books in a lot of places too, just to keep up that theme. And we couldn’t find the right book cover once. And she was like, you know, we’re just going to baby chick his ass.

So put the book in there. We, we had a little bit of Photoshop use here, but it came out really well. And I can’t wait for readers to see all these covers that we worked so hard on. And I can’t wait for those two FF novels as well. One of them uses a character from earlier in the “True North” series. And it’s a character who I had not thought of as matching with a woman. I had my imagination just didn’t go there. So when I read the first line of her proposal, I just let out a little shriek of joy because I saw what she saw and how that character ending up with a girlfriend was just perfect.

So that’s what you get for expanding your world to accommodate other authors, you get their perspectives that you did not see, and it just makes it a richer place.

Jeff: Did you envision at some point that “True North” could go this direction, was that even in your wildest imagination with that series or did it just kind of evolve to where you knew that it was time to open it up to these other voices?

Sarina: I really had always thought about it in the back of my head, but it’s quite terrifying to let other people play in your sandbox in some ways. So I had to sort of get over myself a little bit in order to make it happen. And you know, it’s possible that people will put words in my character’s mouth is that I don’t love and I will survive the experience, you know, but everyone’s interpretation is, you know, is interesting and those facets are interesting to me. And in a way I walled off the parts that people were allowed to write, but not because I didn’t want them to tamper it’s because I needed to clear a path where I could keep going in this space without tripping over what they’d written.

So that’s why “Vino and Veritas” overlaps a little bit with “Roommate,” but in a way that like, the origin story of Vino and Veritas is told by people who aren’t me and I was bringing in and I checked with them, like I’d sent them that scene and said, what do you see here? And did I get your guy right?

And, you know to make sure that was all gonna work out and similarly there’s a series in the “True North” world called “Speakeasy” for a bar that gets started by some characters in this book, but isn’t like a main setting. So, that was given to those authors as their own place to be.

So it’s tricky and it’s been consuming a lot of time to read all of these outlines and proposals and to make sure, you know, we had over 200 inquiries to write for the world before I stopped counting. And we’re going to end up with around 45 titles. And it was hard to say no, like I definitely didn’t do this project because I like to say no to other writers.

Like that certainly was not a good time, but of course I had more than I could handle. So here we are.

Jeff: Forty-five titles is incredible. Did you have in your head, how many you wanted there to be, or what a cap would be or is it just, they just kept coming in and you kept liking them?

Sarina: I will say for sure that my ideal number was less than 45, but I got so much talent, especially in the “Vino and Veritas” series that that’s the longest series easily by double because there were so many voices that came in that were so unlike mine somebody writing a New Zealand transplant in a veterinary practice, like I’m never writing that book because I can’t do a New Zealander any justice.

I’ve never, I haven’t been to a veterinary practice in 35 years. So I was like, well, we gotta have that one. And you see how this goes. Right?

Jeff: What’s your role in the series? You mentioned going over the proposals, going over the outlines. Do you read every book before it goes out or do you trust after that outline standpoint?

Sarina: Well, I hired a lovely editor named Jane Hartell, whose job it is to read and negotiate those outlines. It’s a contractual point, the outline, so that Jane can look at it mostly and make sure that there aren’t conflicts and something else that’s happening in the series.

So we went proposal, outline and then, I don’t have time to read all the books. Like I’ve been able to read the early ones, but then there are some deadline dates that like, I’m going to be get an avalanche of books, even though they weren’t all coming out at the same time. And I will not be able to read them all.

But of course I know what they’re all about. I know who the characters are, I know what’s going to happen. And then we had to do some shuffling, like in one series, we took what we liked the best. And we were like, Oh, look at all the single dads, you know, there was some trope pile up and one of the series is for College hockey.

And again, we got some great books coming in college hockey. But when you work with college aged characters, you get a trope pile up there too. So we had to say no to some books just because we had, you know, teammate’s little sister already, you know, so in order to construct a series that was unique we had to let some things go.

Jeff: Does somebody have the, what might be a daunting job of the master story universe Bible, to know who all these people are?

Sarina: That proved absolutely to be the hardest part. I definitely provided material about that, but it’s actually quite difficult to figure out where to put that, to make it accessible.

And we do have in the group all the time, like where was the map? You know, because it’s hard, there’s not one space. Like I tried to do a lot of it on Facebook because people visit Facebook anyway. And then some of it’s in a Google folder and it just, it was surprisingly hard to figure out how to index that stuff.

And I have a very complete bible of the “True North” series itself, like what’s in there, but it’s so big that that made it hard to find. So that was the biggest challenge for absolutely for sure.

I did also take Annabeth Albert’s book and Garrett Leigh’s book and give them to the other people, writing the “Vino and Veritas” series immediately like an early, just to prevent some of the the potential, you know, disruptive things so that other people would be able to read those books and then filter it down the line.

And for example, in the coffee shop series, the authors have done a really good job of talking to one another and we have like a floor plan. So the office doesn’t switch, you know, from book to book, but I’m sure will be errors. I mean, there just will be, and I’m kind of a perfectionist. So, you know, that’ll be a bad day when a reader writes in and says, “Hey, guess what? You guys got this wrong.” But in order to do this, that’s going to happen. Yeah.

Jeff: What was your impetus to pull the trigger on this project? Cause you mentioned it’s kind of daunting to decide to open up the world and start working with so many other people. What made you say yes?

Sarina: You know, COVID-19, it was just, you know, trapped at home, like everyone else. And I’m like, okay, now’s the right moment.

And I don’t know, maybe it’s a little crazy, but that’s kinda what happened. And it has complicated my life, but in a good way. So, we’ll, see.

Jeff: It’s good to be able to look back and say something good came out of the year and this situation we were all thrown into.

Sarina: For authors in our position where we kind of work from home anyway, you know, I feel like a lot of my colleagues and I have a certain amount of survivor’s guilt because in March when everything started to shut down and there were these horrible unemployment numbers in the economy, and I thought, Oh, this is it, nobody is going to buy my books anymore. And it’s over, right. It ends here, but that is not what happened. I had a very normal 2020 in terms of business and I did want to do a certain amount of investing in people. So in 2020 I spent half as much money on advertising.

And I spent a lot more money on people. So I did things like I hired narrators to do audio that I wasn’t going to otherwise make. And I hired people to make graphics, whereas I would have done it myself before and I hired an editor for the “True North” series. Who’s the person Jane, who does those things.

I hired translators for projects that I didn’t think I was going to do. And I just thought like, this is the right moment to invest in people instead of Facebook. And you know, that was my idea. And I thought, well, okay, I, how much am I willing to lose? I’m willing to gamble. Let’s just say certain number of thousands of dollars on this idea that investing in people is the right thing to do right now. And I’m pretty sure it worked. Like you could find a couple of spots where I didn’t maybe recoup on this bonkers audio I did do what style that, you know, costs a lot to, to edit, but that’s okay. Everything else worked.

So it’s fine.

Jeff: That’s terrific. And it really is great that you were able to do that and invest in people and make their 2020 a little bit better, hopefully.

Sarina: Well, by a small degree, because of course every investment is small It felt like the right time to try that.

And I’m really glad that I did.

Jeff: I want to circle back to “Roommate” because there’s a couple things that really struck me in the book. And one of them is how you approached religion and faith, which we really don’t see very much of, at least in the romances that I read. It’s not really on page at all even if it’s part of the character’s makeup. You’ve got father Peters who is a longtime member from your “True North” cast. He really steps in and, without giving anything away, he’s really a good person for Roderick to end up interacting with. Where did he come from? Because I want more people in the world like him.

Sarina: Yeah. Okay. So father Peters is a Catholic priest and I wrote him for the first time in 2016 in a book called “Steadfast.” And he happens to give good counsel to somebody who’s battling his addiction. And I did this specifically because as a person, my own history has a great deal of discomfort with organized religion, like all kinds of organized religion.

And I fight that basically. And I think it’s pretty evident in my other books that organized religion is, has not been kind to me over time. So I sort of forced myself to write this lovely Catholic priest into the series. He is a very much a fan of pastry and has been since the early part of the series.

So it naturally made sense to me that he would also like Roderick’s baking. Roderick is a bread Baker mostly, but he does a lot of baking. He, he walked back into this book in a bigger role than he has had lately. And it ended up being some of my favorite scenes in the whole book where this Catholic priest counseling this out gay man on what to do and the freshness, the unexpected relationship between those two just is one of the things that worked.

Sometimes you just stumble into the right character in the right spot. And that’s kind of what happened here.

Jeff: Yeah, it was so good. Now you said that he counsels him in a good way, so it’s not going to be a spoiler to say, when he, turned up at the door, I’m like, Oh no, this is not going to be good.

And then it was wonderful. I’m so glad he’s there. And you know, if he could show up in more in “Vino and Veritas” that would be awesome. We’ll see how that plays out with other authors coming in later.

Sarina: Well yeah, and the truth is I don’t have in my life enough experience to know whether there are Father Peters out there in the Catholic church, especially, I really don’t know. I would like to think there are, but that’s kind of the author’s job is to be the puppet master and to show what’s possible. Like it’s a lovely job. I, you know, I love my job. I get to say it’s a privilege to create a world where father Peter’s exists and I’m happy that I did.

Jeff: Me too. The other thing that I really liked in this book is you’ve got two characters who’ve got a lot of baggage, they’ve got a lot of past. They’ve got past with each other. And you somehow balance this tightrope where there’s gravity to both of their situations. And it’s not weighed down in a ton of angst either. And how did you do that?

Sarina: You know what Jeff, I have to say, I think that is my superpower. I think all my books do this. I mean the first book I ever sold, a lot of copies of is about a woman who is paralyzed from the waist down. And that is not a dark and heavy book. I mean, some people don’t read it because of her situation, but, you know, it’s kind of a fun read and that is just how writing works for me. All of my books kind of walk that line. Like if there was no gravitas at all, like if there’s nothing at stake, then you know, that’s really hard, but I I actually have real trouble getting down in the dirt too much with You know, it’s depressing to write deeply angsty books all the time.

And I don’t think I would enjoy my life to the fullest if I were, you know, writing like terrible, terrible things all the time. So, I’m always walking that line. I have had books where. You know that if this, if you’re writing a rom-com and the stakes aren’t super high, because it’s a rom-com income, then it’s actually hard.

Like it’s hard work. In fact, I remember this moment when Elle Kennedy and I were plotting “Good Boy” which is Blake Riley’s book. He’s a secondary character in “Us” and then he got his own book. And we sort of made a map of this and we said, Oh look, both of these characters come from wonderful high functioning families.

And we’re like, you know, we’re so screwed. And so he got a crazy ex, but yeah, so walking that line… that’s what I do.

Jeff: And the way the 2020 has been, this was such the book I needed. Really solid, good story that had stakes that also wasn’t Oh my God, I can’t go another moment. That’s like, this was like a ray of sunshine. Not to mention you made me hungry, but that’s another story. Roderick might bake too well.

Sarina: Right. Well, if you think about, when you write a book, then you have to go market it. You have to go tell people what it is, so that they want to pick it up and read it.

And if you write books where there’s a lot of baggage, but it’s also a little bit light and funny, that’s a real choice you have to make when it comes time to write that book description, like, am I going the angsty route here or not? And that’s how this book ended up. This book had like seven titles while I was writing it.

And that’s how I ended up at “Roommate.” Because the roommate trope is so solid. And when you show that to a reader it’s like, the roommate trope, then there’s this thing to grab onto, so everybody knows what’s coming kind of, you know, they’re in this house together and Ooh, things will happen.

I could have gone any direction. I could have said, you know, deep, dark, secret. As that as the headline family drama, or, you know, funny guy makes cookies in inappropriate shapes. You know, there’s just, there’s a lot to choose from. And I hope that people find what they’re looking for when they do pick it up.

Jeff: I think they will. That’s just, that’s my own guess. Just based on my experience. What’s something that you’ve read lately that you would recommend to our listeners?

Sarina: Well, recently I have enjoyed, I’m sure everybody who comes on your podcast says this, but “Heated Rivalry” by Rachel Reid.

Jeff: I’ve been hearing good things about that one. It’s high on my TBR.

Sarina: Yeah, that’s a great book. And and also one of the great joys of my 2020 was the “Bromance Book Club” books. That is just a wonderful concept. And she has taken it in such wonderful and insightful places that, you know, I’m looking forward to book four very much. And I had the pleasure to interview Lisa Kay Adams on my podcast, which is called “#AmWriting,” so I got to ask her all those questions. So those would be two titles that I would definitely recommend.

Jeff: Fantastic. And I’ve been so happy to see that you’ve been doing podcasts since we first had you on the show way back in some of our early episodes that you’ve been doing some podcasting and now have “#AmWriting” out there. Tell folks a little bit more about “#AmWriting” so they can check that out.

Sarina: “#AmWriting” is definitely for the writers of the world who aren’t interested in writing all the things we, I mean, we talk about pitching non-fiction. It was started by learning two real world, best friends KJ Dell’Antonia, who is a novelist and an essay writer and Jessica Lahey, who is a non-fiction, narrative non-fiction writer. Both super smart. And and we talk about writing all of the things and it’s, you know, we have great guests, then it’s a really good time and it’s a wonderful excuse to talk to my two friends at least once a week.

Jeff: Very cool. We’ll put that in our show notes too. So if any of the writers in our audience would check that out, or if any of the readers want to get a little peek behind the curtain of the writing world as well. So besides all the good stuff you’ve got coming in your “True North” series, what’s coming from you in 2021.

Sarina: Well, “Roommate” is my January title and in April I have a hockey romance coming called “Bombshells.” I guess I really like one word titles. And “Bombshells” is a new chapter in the “Brooklyn Bruisers” world since that they now have a sister team. There’s a women’s team playing alongside them in Brooklyn.

And Brooklyn will never be the same because now there’s women everywhere. And I’m really excited about this one. It’s also a bit of a love triangle. So I’m waiting for people to throw tomatoes at me about that. But you know, sorry. I really am looking at 2021 as this is the year I write what I want and maybe every year should be that year, but if you get too deeply in the groove of writing what people expect from you, then you have this weird echo chamber thing going on.

And sometimes I have to just like trash the idea that people are listening and waiting for things and just, you know, find whatever that story is. That I can’t set down.

Jeff: Very cool. I look forward to seeing how you branch out as 2021 keeps going. What’s the best way for wanting to keep up with you online and all of this stuff between your writing and your universe?

Sarina: Well, the best way is in my Facebook reader group, which is called Sarindipity, which is a silly word, but it works. And also at

Jeff: Fantastic. We’ll link to all the books and the podcasts that we talked about here in the show notes. Sarina, thank you so much for coming and telling us about “Roommate” and for letting me start 2021 was such an awesome book.

Sarina: Well, thank you so much. It’s been my pleasure as always.