Netflix is feeling the love.
The streaming platform announced last week that it’s making a push into Hallmark-style programming with straight-to-series orders for two romantic dramas based on popular book series: Robyn Carr’s Virgin River and Sherryl Woods’ Sweet Magnolias. Both series will get 10 episodes.
The pickups represent another instance of Hollywood turning to the romance genre as a rich space for potential properties to adapt. This past summer it was announced that Shonda Rhimes’ team is developing a series for Netflix based on Julia Quinn’s historical Bridgerton series, and just last month, romance-focused bookstore The Ripped Bodice announced an overall deal with Sony Television.
Speaking to EW in the wake of the Virgin River news, Carr says she’s “stunned” to be part of a movement in Hollywood that sees the oft-maligned genre finally getting some recognition. She’s written nearly 50 novels, with her first debuting in 1980 and her newest title, The Best of Us, poised to hit shelves in January — but she says the hubbub surrounding the Netflix announcement and the pre-production experience thus far is “the most fun” she’s ever had.
Virgin River is one of Carr’s most successful series, a contemporary romance set in the titular small town. There are 20 books in the series, and they’ve combined to sell more than 13 million copies, but this will mark a new milestone for the author and her work.
The series centers on Melinda Monroe, who decides to start fresh as a nurse practitioner in a remote corner of Northern California but finds small-town living more complicated than she anticipated. Sue Tenney (Cedar Cove, 7th Heaven) is attached as showrunner and executive producer, with Roma Roth and Chris Perry also on board as EPs.
Production is slated to begin later this year and Carr has weighed in on a few scripts, though she says she doesn’t have much information beyond that — including casting or filming locations that might provide the redwood-studded backdrop of Virgin River. EW caught up with her about the series, what this means for fans, her inspirations over the years, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did this deal come to be, and was it something you’ve dreamed of for a while?
ROBYN CARR: I really thought the Virgin River series would make a good television series. It has all the components that have worked for other series like Longmire and things like that, so I thought it would be really good. We’ve had a lot of interest over the years. They rarely pan out. But this time, I knew from the very beginning that it was going to work. I was on a conference call with the producer and the showrunner, and they knew all the characters’ names from all the books, and I thought, “Oh, these people know what they’re doing.” It was a no-brainer, but did I want it for a long time? You bet. But we didn’t go chasing it; it chased us.
This was announced as Netflix taking a step toward Hallmark-style programming. Would you feel that’s a fair assessment of the tone and feel of what you think this will be like?
Yes, but I think Netflix is edgier. I really enjoy the Hallmark movies, but I think where they’re really soft, Netflix is a little bit edgier. It’s a perfect fit.
The logline for the series, with its tale of a nurse in a small town, reminds me a lot of a contemporary Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. Was that an inspiration for you? Or what other TV shows or films might have inspired the series?
I really loved Picket Fences, that goes back a long time ago. That was a contemporary, small-town domestic drama, and that was a lot of fun to watch. The thing that really inspired me — I just loved Jan Karon’s small-town series with Father Tim. I always said to myself, “If I ever write a series, my people are going to swear and have sex.” And they do. They’re just like real people, and my first series was the Great Valley series and it was very popular, even though the books came out one a year. People wrote to me a lot, so I thought, “I’m going to do that again, and I’ll put the town closer to Great Valley so that I can use the people from Great Valley in the new series,” and it was just a runaway train. It just kept going and going and going. There were new people all the time. Twenty books in the series is a lot.
Did you base any characters on particular actors or other fictional characters?
Here’s the thing, I’m 67 — they’re all Tom Selleck to me. I don’t know the young actors, and I can’t remember titles of songs or the names of young actors or actresses.
Virgin River has actually been the subject of a PhD study in sociology: Envisioning Utopian Possibilities in Robyn Carr’s Virgin River Romance Novels. How do you feel this ethos of social solidarity will translate to screen, and do you think it’s particularly important right now?
Isn’t it a sad commentary that that’s considered utopian? A town where people are nice to each other and help each other, and that’s utopian? But that’s really how they describe it in their study: It’s idealized, it’s utopian, it’s the perfect small town. People always write and say, “Where is it? I want to go there,” and I have to remind them that it only exists in our hearts and minds. But to further that thought, we can have that sense of community in our own neighborhood or school or church group or community center or library association. All we have to do is try to create it. We create it by being helpful neighbors and good friends and positive people. They’re not without their flaws. Poor Jack, the most popular man in the series and the anchor of the series, he gets himself in trouble constantly by being nosy and a butt-in-sky, and thinking he should direct traffic all the time. But at the end of the day, they help each other. What a thought.
Romances are notable for being stories told by and for women. Obviously, that’s something people constantly point to as missing in Hollywood. How do you feel Virgin River fits into that need for women’s voices and stories?
There’s a need for positive drama. Not just goody-two-shoes, everything-is-beautiful kind of story, but a kind of story where people have real problems and real issues and they have to resolve them. Hopefully intelligently and with the help that’s available. Maybe with counseling, maybe with medical intervention. They need to come out the other side in a better place than they were, and the characters need to serve as positive role models for the women who are reading the books. People don’t write to me and say, “Oh, I love Jack.” Well, they do. They write to me all the time and say, “Send Jack.” But the other thing they do is they write to me and say, “My husband died last year and your books got me through a bad time.” Or they say, “My baby died and I know exactly how she felt.” They have real issues, real emotions, real drama, and they really have to deal with it in a safe place. And a book is a real safe place.
In terms of representation, do you feel your series will have an inclusive, diverse cast? Is that a priority?
I hope so, because it’s present in the books.
Hollywood is finally taking notice of romance. Is that something you and others in the genre have been waiting on?
It’s long overdue. And I think we’re heartily sick of reality TV. We really want a good, solid story that we can relate to. Thank you, Reese Witherspoon, for saying women can do this. She’s doing it. We have been waiting. And we’ve been trying to encourage them to see the light. I have a lot of male readers, and they’re not male readers because they’re a certain group of men looking for romance. They want a good story too — about real life and real neighborhoods and real homes and real families. The women want their men to read these books to see how men should act. We certainly don’t stand for abuse of any kind in our stories. Those are the villains.
How does it feel to be at the forefront of what seems to be a rising trend?
I am stunned. And so happy. And feel so lucky and fortunate because there are a lot of good books out there that are largely overlooked. I feel completely blessed. And grateful.
You have a new book coming out in January. Can you tell us more about it?
The January book is the fourth Sullivan’s Crossing novel, and its title is The Best of Us. It incorporates three relationships: a teenage romance, a romance in their 30s, and a couple in their 60s and 70s. There’s every generation represented. That’s been one of the things that people have loved about Virgin River also. There’s teenage love, there’s middle-aged love, and there’s love with seniors. They love that. I was looking at my demographic, and it really is from 19 to 90. I’m sure it’s because everybody’s represented. I didn’t do that on purpose as a strategy. I really like it. It’s fun. I’ve been doing this for over 40 years, and it just keeps getting more and more fun.