It takes a certain kind of person to parlay tearful, angry-door-slamming sibling rivalry into a series of popular novels.
But Jill Shalvis is nothing if not creative, so she combined her romance-writer instincts (50 novels and counting) with her motherly concerns, and kicked off her best-selling Lucky Harbor series.
“My three daughters had just entered their teens and were fighting all the time,” Shalvis recalls. “I couldn’t imagine a happily-ever-after for them.” So she made one up. “I pitched a story about three estranged sisters who inherit their mother’s dilapidated beach inn [in a small town in Washington state]. They can’t sell the inn because it’s a mess, so they’re stuck together for the summer. They start out estranged, and end up happy.”
Shalvis says her publisher was enthusiastic about the idea right away. “Grand Central was lovely enough to say, let’s do it as a trilogy, with each sister getting her own story.” Then, “when I turned in the third manuscript, they said, this is becoming very popular, we need more.”
Thus followed three more Lucky Harbor trilogies. February will see the arrival of Book 9, Once in a Lifetime, featuring Aubrey, who’s trying to reopen her beloved late aunt’s bookstore—and check names off a list of people to whom she wants to make amends.
Aubrey’s uncle hires Ben to fix up the store. Ben’s been grieving the death of his wife by doing engineering jobs in dangerous places around the world. Romance isn’t on either one’s mind, but it’s not long before Aubrey’s more than a little distracted by Ben (and his low-slung tool belt), and he her. There’s an underlying threat to their connection, though: Aubrey has a secret she’s afraid to share, and Ben’s afraid to fall in love again.
The two receive well-meaning advice from family and friends, as well as suggestions posted on the Lucky Harbor Facebook page by a group of irrepressible senior citizens. That small-town scrutiny figures in all the Lucky Harbor novels.
“I grew up in Los Angeles, a very large town that’s very anonymous, but my dream was always the opposite,” Shalvis says. “[Lucky Harbor] is truly just a fantasy.”
“I grew up in Los Angeles, a very large town that’s very anonymous, but my dream was always the opposite."
Ten years ago, Shalvis’ dream came true when she and her family moved to a home outside Lake Tahoe, California. “I now live in a small town,” she says, “and it’s easy to find the humor. I’m able to pull out things that someone who’s always lived here wouldn’t think are funny, but they are to me.”
She includes herself in that category: “I always feel like a misplaced city girl. I’m always going to scream when a wolf spider shows up, or if I see a bear out by the garbage. I’m not the Pioneer Woman.”
Shalvis thinks there’s a hint of herself in the character Lucille, the chief gossip of Lucky Harbor. “She’s a little bit of how I would see myself as an old lady. I’m curious, I’m nosy,” she says with a laugh.
Shalvis has a knack for translating real-life relationships to the page.
It’s that intense curiosity—plus a knack for translating real-life relationships to the page—that makes Shalvis’ novels so engaging, whether a dialogue-heavy scene in which characters face up to their less-than-pleasant behavior, or a sex scene in which pleasure is the order of the day . . . and the night . . . and the next morning.
About those sexy bits, Shalvis says, “I try to make each sex scene important to the story and individual. Whether the experience is funny, or even anxiety-ridden, I try to keep it real.”
Also keeping things real: Shalvis’ affinity for men with carpentry skills, and the fact that her husband is a builder. Ben of Once in a Lifetime is a tribute to him, she says. “There’s always a tool belt in my books!”
While the current romance trend is the billionaire bad-boy, Shalvis says she prefers real-life men who work with their hands. “It’s more attractive, to me, to make an everyday guy become a hero versus a guy who had everything easy and doesn’t see how hard life is.”
And “there’s always a bromance,” Shalvis says. “It’s a big part of what I write. In Ben’s case, his relationships with [friends] Jack and Luke are part of who he is.”
Aubrey’s attempt to right past wrongs is a big part of who she is, and who she’s trying to become. “There are so many layers, and her huge complicated past, and some things Ben doesn’t know about,” Shalvis says. “I thought, what can I do to make the worst possible scenario?” (No spoilers here, but: It’s a doozy.)
There’s more Lucky Harbor ahead, with another trilogy starting in August. After that, the series will likely come to a close, the author says. “I want to go when readers are still happy. I don’t want to stay too long at the party.”
For the moment, fans have a lot to look forward to—and there’s always Shalvis’ active presence on her blog, Facebook and Twitter, where she alternates shirtless-hunk photos with less sexy updates.
They’re all part of Shalvis’ plan to maintain the sense of community she always longed for—and has found in her fictional hometown of Lucky Harbor and her connection with fans. “Romance readers are the best on the planet,” she says.