Susan Elizabeth Phillips Chats 'First Star I See Tonight', The Chicago Stars, And The Secret To Writing Romance
The football season has yet to kick off, but the players of the Chicago Stars are already in the throes of one of the biggest games of their careers. In her latest novel, First Star I See Tonight , out Aug. 23 from William Morrow, beloved romance author Susan Elizabeth Phillips returns to the Windy City and the world of the fictional Chicago Stars football team for an explosive love story with a brand new cast of characters.
It's been eight years since the last Chicago Stars novel, Natural Born Charmer, hit bookshelves. At the time, Phillips said it would be the final installment in the behemoth romance series, which first began in 1994 with the release of It Had To Be You.
"After the last four books, I said each one would be the last," Phillips tells Bustle in a phone conversation. "I really felt that way about Natural Born Charmer, because I thought there was nothing fresh I could bring to this series."
After she released Heroes Are My Weakness , a standalone romance set in coastal Maine, she stumbled upon an idea for a another story — one with a heroine who could kick some serious butt. Literally. She wanted to write a woman who could shoot. A woman who was trained in martial arts. After writing a book set in a secluded village in the Northeast, she also wanted to return to a big city. So why not Chicago?
"The more I thought about it, the more I realized I could do it again. So we were off to the Stars again," Phillips says.
This novel centers on two never-before-seen characters: Piper Dove and Cooper Graham. Piper — who definitely has some "mad skills," to quote Phillips — is determined to make her private investigation firm a huge success. So when a mysterious client hires her to trail former Stars QB Cooper Graham, she takes the job without hesitation. But Cooper isn't the dumb jock or the tomcat she expects him to be. Instead, the former athlete and current owner of Chicago's hottest nightclub proves to be much sharper — and sexier — than she anticipated. When Cooper discovers he's being trailed, he asks Piper to jump ship and work for him instead. But when she goes undercover at his nightclub, she discovers that he may be in serious danger. The kind of danger that could lead to someone getting killed. Now she has to figure out how to keep him safe — all while fighting her horribly inconvenient attraction to the guy.
True to form for Susan Elizabeth Phillips, the story is a duel-to-the-death match of personalities. Piper Dove is emotionally resilient, fiercely intelligent, and unrepentantly stubborn. She can definitely hold her own — even when confronted by the relentlessly alpha Cooper Graham. "I like the alpha hero," Phillips says. "I'm not crazy about the beta hero. The [beta] is the guy you would want to be married to in real life."
Phillips likes to balance the alpha hero with a strong heroine who has suddenly found herself down on her luck. This is a tried-but-true method she's used for decades: In It Had To Be You , Phoebe Somerville inherits the Chicago Stars empire, but has no idea how to manage the team's hotshot coach, Dan Calebow; in Match Me If You Can , Annabelle Granger inherits a matchmaking service for senior citizens and attempts to revitalize the company with an exclusive client, sports agent Heath Champion; in Call Me Irresistible, Meg Koranda finds herself stranded in Wynette, Texas with no money, no job, and one ferocious enemy — the town's mayor, Ted Beaudine.
"I like to write a heroin who's had her entire support structure pulled out from under her," Phillips says. "My books tend to be about a woman's journey. For me, that means at the beginning of the book, they need to have pretty much lost everything."
In First Star I See Tonight, Phoebe's journey allows her to come to some important realizations — about her relationships, about her career, about herself. But she's not the only one who faces some hard truths in the quest for true love. Cooper Graham must also tackle his demons in order to find his peace. Their story — which, of course, ends with a happily ever after — is a perfectly satisfying conclusion to the beloved series.
And yes, Phillips says, First Star I See Tonight is the last book in the Chicago Stars series.
(Though we've certainly heard that one before.)
This novel is Susan Elizabeth Phillips' first release in two years — a rarity in the world of romance, where it's not uncommon for authors to publish multiple novels every single year. Phillips says she isn't a fast writer, so her releases are limited. "Believe me, if I released a novel every year, you wouldn't want to read it," she says.
Phillips may not be as prolific as many other bestselling romance writers, but she's a woman with a plan and she sticks to it. "I write daily, even on weekends. I set a timer for three hours," she says. "Every time I stop writing to check email, I turn off the timer. Sometimes, I can be done by noon. Other times, it's five o'clock."
Whatever her method, it clearly works. She's published over 20 novels, she's a New York Times bestseller, and she's a five-time RITA Award winner. The secret to her success, she says, is in the dedication and the practice.
"You know the whole secret to being a writer is keeping your butt in the chair and getting the job done," she says. "We always say at RWA (Romance Writers of America conference) that we know the secret of writing a great book, but we're not going to tell you."
She can keep her secrets — so long as she gives us more books.
Beginning on August 1, Bustle will host Romance Novel Month, a celebration and examination of the romance novel genre. But don't worry, romance readers: the coverage won't end in August. We're proud to support romance novels, and we will continue to do so all year long.