Jill ShalvisCredit: Avon Books
Credit: Avon Books

Jill Shalvis always wanted to write a sitcom.

So when the author created her Heartbreaker Bay book series, which began with Sweet Little Lies in 2016, she set out to bring the flavor of beloved television shows like Friends and Sex and the City to her latest romance stories.

Set in an apartment complex in the Cow Hollow neighborhood of San Francisco, the series was originally intended to run for three books and explore romances between three different couples who live or work in the building, and also happen to belong to the same friend group. The series took off and new characters continued to walk through the door of the home base of Finn’s pub, captivating Shalvis and urging her to tell more of their stories.

Now, only two and a half years after the first book launched, Shalvis is preparing to release the sixth and seventh books in the series: this fall’s Hot Winter Nights and January’s Playing for Keeps.

Shalvis shares the eye-catching cover for Playing for Keeps exclusively with EW, featuring the rugged shoreline of Marin County, just across the Golden Gate bridge from San Francisco. EW also sat down with Shalvis at the annual Romance Writers of America conference in Denver and got all the details on what to expect next from her cast of characters.

Jill Shalvis Playing For KeepsCredit: Avon Books
Credit: Avon Books

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where did the idea for the Heartbreaker Bay series come from?
JILL SHALVIS: I’ve always written small-town. Every book was small-town in some fashion, wherever they were across the world. But my daughters moved to San Francisco, and I fell in love with the city. I’m there all the time, visiting from Tahoe, so I decided I needed to honor this new love of this new city I have found. But I didn’t want to disappoint readers who came to rely on small-town romances from me, so I set it in the Cow Hollow district, which is one of my favorite places, and then I created this building that gave it a small-town community feel within the big city. We’ve got Heartbreaker Bay in this building that has a fountain, and the myth around the fountain is that if you wish for true love with a true heart, it will come true. That gave me the best of both worlds because there’s retail on the bottom floor, there’s the pub and the stores, and then the second level of this building is more retail, and then people live on the third and fourth floors, and the fifth floor is the penthouse. It was like a whole city in one building.

You can live in this huge, big city, and you’re anonymous,. You can go to the grocery store and never see another soul. We moved to this small, small town in Tahoe, and you go to the grocery store and you better not be in your pajamas because you’re going to run into your gynecologist and your dentist and your kid’s principal. I’m really amused by the clichés of the small town, so I’ve put this little building in this big city.

When you pitched it, did you envision a certain number of books and now you’ve added more? How many books do you see it being?
I was hoping for five, but we set it at three because you never know if readers are going to love it. I knew I wanted to start with Finn in the pub and with a big secret to suck us all in and show how these people come together and really have each other’s backs. What is the family you have when you don’t really have family? It’s friends. I wanted to really have these people be each other’s family.… [There were] three books I had in my head, but then Spence had walked in on the page and became this really big thing for me. He was my first sexy, geeky billionaire. I’d never done that before. I didn’t think I would. But I loved him and readers were asking for his story, so he became the fourth book, with Chasing Christmas Eve.

As more books have come, has it just been people who’ve wandered into your writing and you’ve wanted to know more about them?
Yes. For instance, Archer runs a security company. He has a bunch of sexy guys working for him, but he also has a really sharp, smart woman, Molly, running his office, and she was a surprise to me too. That is Hot Winter Nights. Molly really surprised me by falling for one of Archer’s men, Lucas, and they’ve been bickering for a couple of books. That book opens with Lucas waking up in his own bed with a woman next to him and no memory of how he got there and who the woman is with him.

One of your secondary characters, Haley, is gay. Will she get her own book?
In Playing for Keeps, I give her a secondary love story. That’s important to me. I have done secondary gay characters before, in my Animal Magnetism series. In Playing for Keeps, the heroine is a tattoo artist and has a very rough past. The tattoo parlor she works at is in the bottom floor of the building, and her boss, Rocco, owns the tattoo parlor. He’s this big, burly guy, and he’s gay. He has a secondary love story as well. It’s important to me because it’s in my family, and I want them to see people like themselves in books. It should just be a fact of life. No one should blink at that.

What else can you tell us about Playing for Keeps?
I wanted to do something a little more emotional and deeper. You’ll see the heroine in Hot Winter Nights, in the background, and her name is Sadie (short for “Mercedes”). Sadie has a troubled past. She’s a great self-made, tough young woman who’s doing the best she can with what she’s got. She has some trust issues, and so she needs those barriers broken down.

She sounds rougher around the edges than some of your heroines.
Yes. What I wanted to do was two opposites meet, so we have the guy who she calls Suits. His name is Caleb, but she calls him Suits because she’s only ever seen him in a suit, which irritates the hell out of him. He’s Spence’s business partner [from Chasing Christmas Eve], and his name is Caleb and he goes to the bar after business with Spence some nights. He and Sadie have run into each other, and had real, instant dislike.

The book opens with a storm, and he’s out there trying to rescue something in a dark corner — they can’t see what it is; it’s growling and she comes to help them and it turns out to be this poor little abandoned, neglected dog. Then, they argue because they both want to adopt this dog. These two strangers end up adopting this dog and co-parenting like a divorced old couple. He has a lot to reveal to her because she thinks of him as just a tight suit and he thinks of her as a “Judgey, McJudgerson” which is really funny to her because she thinks she’s the opposite of that. She thinks she would never judge anybody, but she’s totally judging him.

The cover is gorgeous – what was your role in the design process and how did you land on this iteration?
My publisher does an amazing job with my covers. The art department has always been amazing. They show several concepts. They’re kind enough to let me have some input. I said, “She has purple streaks in her hair, so we need to do that.” They said, “Ok, no problem.” I said, “She has a few tattoos so we need to show at least one;” they go, “Ok, no problem.” They were really good about it.

How did you hit on this location down on the rocks?
For the most part, this book takes place in San Francisco, but now we’re at book six so we’ve done the bridge, we’ve done the city. If you know where Marin County is, we’re out there looking back at the city just to give the viewer something new to look at.

You mentioned this dog and your books always feature lovable creatures. Are you a big animal lover yourself?
Always. We’ve always rescued animals and we have rescue animals now. Animals are part of our life. I like to make them characters. I don’t want them to take over the story. Not everybody loves animals the way I do, and I don’t want to be the crazy dog person or the crazy cat person, but they have a place in a person’s life and they can show how a person can love somebody. We can reveal a lot about a character through how they treat animals. In Playing for Keeps’ case, you reveal a lot about the heroine, who is really tough and has a shell around her, and yet she will melt over an animal who’s been left in a storm.

All of the characters in this series have interesting professions. Do you get much firsthand insight into these jobs — like in this case, Sadie being a tattoo artist?
My daughters have tattoos. I did go into tattoo parlors and got all nosy and asked a bunch of questions. I was really struck by how many are men-centric, so I thought the idea of a female tattoo artist was interesting. Then I started trying to find female artists, and it was hard to find artists that would talk to me. You’re writing a romance novel? Do I really want to talk to you about a romance novel? It’s a love story. Who doesn’t want a love story? Come on.

With all these professions, is there one you would want the most?
The funny thing about being a writer is it means I’m uniquely suited to do nothing else. If I lose this gig, I’m going to be knocking at Target or Taco Bell’s door. It’s my fantasy living out all these professions of things I would have loved to have tried. I would be a rock star if I could, but I can’t sing. I can’t hold a tune. So this is my fantasy life.

You also very recently made the jump into women’s fiction with Rainy Day Friends and Lost and Found Sisters — after writing in romance for many years, what made you want to do that?
I’m always going to be in romance. I’m never going to leave. But I also was looking to do slightly bigger stories — that still have romances in them, by the way. Rainy Day Friends has two romances in it. You can have more flaws and you have more time to see a journey. You can have more people and more relationships. In Rainy Day Friends, it’s a sisters thing, there’s a bromance, there’s two romances. I have the time and the pages to explore all these different things and connect them all. I love big family sagas. Sometimes in romances, as much as I love them, you want to write more people. You want to expand.

You have been writing for awhile, so what would you say is biggest change you’ve seen in the romance genre and what do you think will happen going forward?
One of the greatest changes has been recently with diversity and [the genre becoming] more inclusive. The world is open to hear more love stories. Love is love is love, so let everyone have their happily-ever-after. Romance writers have always wanted to do that and now the world is ready to pick up those books and support them.