Author Julie Soto on romance, fan fiction and how to write a great sex scene.
Sacramento native Julie Soto, 35, is a natural storyteller. An award-winning playwright (her musical, “Generation Me,” won Best Musical at the New York Musical Festival in 2017), she turned to writing online fan fiction six years ago, crafting unexpected storylines for some of her favorite literary characters, including Hermione Granger from the “Harry Potter” series. The self-described fandom nerd’s success with fan fiction has earned her legions of followers (her most popular work has attracted 1.5 million unique views online) and established her as a fresh talent in this unique literary category. Soto’s debut novel, “Forget Me Not” (Grand Central Publishing), a smartly conceived—and rather steamy—modern romance, will be released in July.
WHAT BOOKS FROM YOUR YOUTH HAVE SHAPED YOU AS A WRITER? The books that shaped me most were “The Hunger Games” books and a lot of the fantasy series that I grew up with, like “Harry Potter.” Also, Jane Austen was big for my teenage years. I wasn’t a huge reader except for the things that I just latched onto and couldn’t give up, books like “Ella Enchanted.” But really, a lot of my reading habits developed as an adult.
TELL ME ABOUT YOUR OTHER CREATIVE INFLUENCES ASIDE FROM BOOKS. I’ve been doing theater since I was 6 or 7 years old. I was involved with River City Theatre Company. I did a couple of shows at St. Francis High School. Theater is probably why I wasn’t reading books, because I was always listening to show tunes and getting storylines from that. Musicals were such a big influence. I was a huge fan of “Hairspray” when it came out and also “Les Misérables.” Theater was such a passion. I grew up wanting to be an actress and wanting to tell stories, and I feel like I’m still doing that as I’m creating characters and inhabiting them as I write.
IT SEEMS THAT MANY OF THE INFLUENCES FROM YOUR HIGH SCHOOL YEARS ARE STILL A PART OF YOUR WORK TODAY. It’s true. For example, I have always loved Jane Austen. “Pride and Prejudice” is one of my favorite books, and that’s like the bible from which a lot of romance is written. I can definitely see that influencing me. Also, listening to musicals and hearing stories that looked nothing like my life really broadened my interests and storytelling capabilities.
YOU’VE BEEN WRITING FAN FICTION FOR ABOUT SIX YEARS NOW. YOUR MOST POPULAR WORK IS “THE AUCTION,” WHICH CENTERS AROUND THE “HARRY POTTER” CHARACTERS HERMIONE AND DRACO. TELL ME ABOUT WRITING IT. “The Auction” is not my first work of fan fiction, but it is the best known. It has some dark, “Hand-maid’s Tale”-type of themes, so it’s not for everyone, certainly. Luckily, fan fiction has a great way of searching for things you want to read and also exclude things you don’t want to read.
Fan fiction is really a labor-of-love situation where people who are huge fans of something, whether it’s “Harry Potter,” “Star Wars,” even video games, will take a small character that was barely mentioned or even a better-known character and write novel-length pieces about them out of complete curiosity and love of the source material. A lot of it is about stretching your storytelling capabilities without the pressure of publishing.
YOU’RE OFTEN DESCRIBED AS A WRITER OF “SPICY” FAN FICTION. WHAT DOES THAT WORD MEAN, EXACTLY? IS IT JUST A EUPHEMISM FOR EROTICA? Spicy is a delicate way to say there is explicit sex in this book. It could be one sex scene or it could be books that are extremely close to erotica, so it’s a broad indicator, I would say. In fan fiction, we call a story that’s just about sex “smut.”
WRITING A SEX SCENE COULD GO REALLY WRONG AND END UP SOUNDING INCREDIBLY CHEESY OR WORSE. HOW DO YOU KNOW WHEN YOU’VE GOTTEN THE LANGUAGE RIGHT? A lot of it comes from doing a lot of reading and figuring out what doesn’t make your eyes roll. It’s almost like writing an action sequence. If you watch enough action scenes, you know what makes it interesting and what makes it surprising or unique. So you read explicit scenes and pick up on the language you don’t like.
I do think the fan fiction community is fine with a lot of specific words that the traditional book publishing community finds quite jarring. I get feedback from readers that I have a certain way with words when it comes to the spicy scenes. But for me, at least, when I’m writing spicy scenes, the story comes first. I don’t put a sex scene in just for the sake of it.
THERE’S BEEN A LOT SAID OVER THE DECADES ABOUT WHAT WOMEN SHOULD OR SHOULD NOT WRITE OR READ. I IMAGINE YOU HAVE SOME OPINIONS ABOUT THAT. Women should be allowed to read and write whatever they would like to, especially if it’s not hurting other people and everyone reading is a consenting adult. I think there is a lot of “protect the children” and “protect the women” and virtue signaling in the world these days.
YOUR NEW NOVEL, “FORGET ME NOT,” IS A ROMANCE. WHAT DOES ROMANCE MEAN TO YOU? WHAT MAKES A ROMANCE NOVEL A ROMANCE NOVEL? The romance genre is usually defined by a happy ending and a plot that centers on finding love or the fight against finding love. That really aligns with my views. For me, romance is about joy and the joy of falling in love and all the different ways that someone can fall in love and find love and keep love.
I’M CURIOUS HOW YOU THINK THE WAY IN WHICH WOMEN’S LIVES HAVE CHANGED HAS INFLUENCED THE WORLD OF ROMANCE WRITING. I think the view on what women deserve and what they want has shifted in the past 50 years, even in just the past 10 years. Until maybe the last decade, the alpha male was really the main romantic interest in romance novels. He was someone who was jealous and maybe a little rough and would kill for [his lover]. And that fantasy still exists for some people. But more and more, women are finding and enjoying books with men who fall in love first, not the “I-wish- he’d-choose-me” stories.
Even more than that, romance is not just women and men nowadays. There’s so much romance for the queer community, for the nonbinary community. There are more characters of color in romance books and more POC writers who are telling their stories. I think so much has changed for the better.
WHAT WOULD IT MEAN TO YOU TO HAVE YOUR OWN FAN FICTION FOLLOWING SOMEDAY? I am ready. I cannot wait for the day when there would be fan fiction online about Ama and Elliott from my novel “Forget Me Not.” Or maybe something about a smaller character. That would mean so much to me. It’s a different kind of community, the fan fiction community. It’s so different from the romance community or the community of people who read published books. I’m very hopeful that it will happen.
Julie Soto’s Sacramento
There’s more than one romance animating Julie Soto’s debut novel, “Forget Me Not,” about a steamy affair between a wedding planner and a florist. The author, who grew up in Sacramento’s River Park neighborhood, has written a love letter of sorts to her hometown by inserting some of her favorite local businesses and locales—some with their real names, others with fictional ones—into the storyline. (This magazine even gets a mention.)
Much like native daughter (and fellow St. Francis High School alum) Greta Gerwig did with her hit film “Lady Bird,” Soto found inspiration in the places of her youth. “Greta opened my mind to thinking of Sacramento as a character in my writing,” says Soto. “This book could have taken place anywhere, but being able to ground it so thoroughly in the town gave it a life of its own.”
In the novel, J St. Donuts is based upon STANELY’S DONUTS at 37th and J streets. “That’s my Sacramento doughnut shop, for sure,” Soto says. NATURE LOVE, the nail salon just down the street from Stanely’s, is a favorite of Soto’s, as is DIRTY BIRD ESTHETICS, a midtown waxing salon owned by close family friend Meghan Vanderford. “When I told her I was putting the name of the shop in the book, she cried.” The book’s fictional flower shop, Blooming, is based on Soto’s recollections of buying prom corsages at RUST FLORIST on Folsom Boulevard (now the Italian restaurant Allora). Soto also gives a shout-out to RELLES FLORIST, “one of the biggest names in flowers in Sacramento.” Scenes are set at the venerable SUTTER CLUB as well as THE WILLOW BALLROOM, an event venue in the Delta town of Hood that’s owned by friend Angelica Whaley, whom Soto consulted on the book. And, of course, there’s the MCKINLEY ROSE GARDEN. “One of my best friends lived across the street from the park, and I remember seeing weddings there on the weekends. It’s such a beautiful and interesting place.”