by Kristi Daune-Edwards Rabe
Each December, the world slowly turns to sparkles and hope as well as stress and the special holiday anxiety that requires strong eggnog. Holiday romances become havens of joy and wonder that we revisit like old friends each year.
Beyond classic films and made-for-TV movies we binge watch while wrapping gifts and making cookies, holiday romance novels offer a quiet retreat during the busy buzz of the season. This year, Andee Reilly’s new novel, A Christmas Love Song, plays with all the traditional romance we see and spins it with a bit of Christmas spirit. With vibrant characters and cozy settings, this one is sure to become an annual favorite.
We chatted with Reilly, a UCR Palm Desert MFA alum, to discuss writing and music and this magical holiday season.
TCR: This novel does a great job balancing the dichotomy of Christmas cheer and bah humbug disinterest. What inspired you to write a Christmas romance?
AR: I love Christmas, and I adore all the decorations that go with it—from the sparkling tree to the tiny porcelain village and Philadelphia Flyer Train beneath that tree. All that beauty makes me so happy. I can sit for hours contemplating the magic of the holiday season and especially appreciate the time to celebrate with my family and friends. Every year we throw a holiday party that we’ve sadly had to postpone because of Covid, but I’m already planning the next one.
I should also mention I’m Jewish and celebrate Hanukkah as well. My mom always put up a beautiful Christmas tree alongside the menorah, which helped foster my love for the season. Fun fact: many iconic Christmas songs were written by Jewish composers, so it only makes sense I write a Christmas romance and add my voice to the season.
Getting directly to your question, I had just shelved a heavy and somewhat depressing novel I’d been working on for years. I was looking for a new project and wanted to do something completely different.
TCR: Your first was a novel, Satisfaction. It also focused on music—namely the Rolling Stones. Where did your interest in writing about music and musicians start?
AR: Honestly, I never intended to write another musically themed novel. It happened so organically. I was well into writing the story before I realized my tendency to come back to music. Mackenzie, my main female character, recalls a line her music professor once told her: “We never grew tired of the songs we loved because they tapped into a shared heritage of human experience.” The point is music connects us to ourselves and each other.
It’s that concept I try to convey in my work. In both Satisfaction and A Christmas Love Song, I write about characters who discover love within themselves before finally being able to express and share that love. Redemption, second chances, and music are topics I continue to return to.
Speaking of music, while writing the book, I researched the history of some of our most beloved Christmas songs and learned there’s something called a Christmas Song Cannon. Very few songwriters and musicians become part of it. It’s the holy grail of songwriting success.
TCR: What would be your holy grail of success?
AR: Ha! Good question. With my first book, I had all of these huge expectations. It would sell millions of copies! There’d be a movie! I’d meet Mick Jagger and the Stones! Ultimately, this kind of pressure led to dissatisfaction and unhappiness. I’m not sure professionally what the holy grail is, but personally it’s about finding peace within my routine. My ideal day is surfing glassy three-to-five-foot waves in the morning; writing, reading, and napping in the afternoon; and spending time with my husband, Jack, and cat, Dandelion Reilly.
TCR: While I read romance novels like a kid stealing candy, this is the first holiday/Christmas romance I have read. I know made-for-TV Christmas movies involve a type of formula, that of a successful city girl returning to her small-town roots and learning about love. You flirt with similar tropes, but really spin them into a new narrative. Did you intentionally mix these up to play against stereotypes present in the formulas?
AR: Thanks for the compliment! I played with enemies-to-lovers and forced proximity tropes and sprinkled in some familiar movie themes. I tried to mix it up but ultimately let the narrative run its natural course. I followed where the story and characters took me.
TCR: In the beginning of your book, the leading man, Jake Wilder, struggles with writer’s block. I think many writers can totally relate to how he deals with imposter syndrome, worries, and doubts of his identity. The inability to produce new material feels intrinsically woven into his self-perception. How much of his experience reflects your own as a writer?
AR:As a young musician, Jake had early success in his career. The writing came easily to him in the beginning, but now after all these years, it’s a struggle for him to create anything new. His problem is more in his perception of himself as a has-been artist and superstar than his lack of talent.
Unlike Jake, the blank page inspires me. It’s the editing process where the insecurities and imposter syndrome creeps in. One day, I think what I’ve written is the greatest, the next day it’s the worst. I have to keep pressing forward regardless, and I’m so grateful to have had a supportive team behind me. My editor, Cassie, at Champagne Books was so compassionate as she gently nudged me to reach deeper.
TCR: There is a line just before Jake’s inspiration first appears: “There’s more to being a successful musician than fame.” I feel this scene really is where the narrative takes off. Can you speak to your process when dealing with writer’s block? Do key moments and realizations also break the curse for you?
AR: So far—knock on wood—I haven’t struggled with writer’s block. I do, however, have a laziness and/or distraction problem! While I was drafting A Christmas Love Song, I did a lot of timed writing sessions. I’d set the clock for chunks of time and write nonstop. Of course, tons of editing followed, but this process kept me from the dreaded writer’s block.
TCR: Your novel has dueling narrators—the two protagonists and even a few side characters. What made you choose that structure?
AR: Many of the novels I enjoy reading follow this structure. I find I can intimately engage with the characters as I navigate their internal and external conflicts along with them. It’s a technical challenge switching back and forth between characters because you don’t want them to read as if they are the same person. I admire authors that can do this really well and hope I did the same.
TCR: Do you have a particular process for distinguishing the two characters or is that done in the editing process?
AR: Before I even plot out the book, I create fairly detailed profiles of the characters. I sketch out their desires, external and internal conflicts, their personality traits, and speech quirks. This helps me stay on track, but as the story unfolds, I learn even more about the characters, so by the time I reach the end, I have to go back and tweak the manuscript here and there to remain consistent.
TCR: One of the undercurrents of the novel is breaking preconceived ideas and stereotypes that happen so often. In the book, for example, Mackenzie assumes Jake’s niece wants a Barbie, when she really wants to be a NASA engineer. Was this theme of breaking assumptions something you planned to do when you began this book? If so, how did this knowledge mold your characters?
AR: Jake teases Mackenzie about gender stereotypes, but she’s actually a forward-thinking character herself. I was careful not to make my hero a savior to the damsel in distress. In a lot of ways, it’s the female character who saves the man with her encouragement and tenacity. Besides, I appreciate people who are artistic, sensitive, and evolved, so I guess you can say I was being selfish when I created Jake, Mackenzie, and their friends who break traditional assumptions. If I was going to take a year or more writing something, I wanted to spend it with characters I liked.
Kristi Daune-Edwards Rabe received her MFA from UCR Palm Desert’s low-residency program in 2014. Her work has appeared in HerStry, Bank-Heavy Press, and Verdad magazine as well as Manifest-Station and Coachella Valley Storytellers events. Most recently, her personal essay, “What You Really Need to Know,” was featured on the Writers Resist literary website. She is also the multimedia editor of The Coachella Review.