By Maureen Lee Lenker
July 18, 2019 at 10:00 AM EDT

Nowadays, relationships are often conducted online, whether we’re connecting via a dating app or sending text messages ranging from flirtatious to X-rated.

But for romance authors Vi Keeland and Penelope Ward, there’s nothing sexier (or more intimate) than a dirty letter. Hence, the title of their latest book, Dirty Letters, which EW is exclusively revealing the cover for below. Keeland and Ward are a best-selling writing duo (the two also write titles solo under the same names), known for their funny, sexy novels.

The two first met while working on an anthology featuring both of their work, and their first novel together was 2015’s Cocky Bastard. Since then, the duo has collaborated on nine books. While they’ve primarily worked as indie authors, last fall’s Hate Notes marked their first foray into traditional publishing and this November’s Dirty Letters continues their crossover.

Dirty Letters tells the tale of Griffin Quinn and Luca Vinetti, childhood pen pals who bond through hundreds of letters in which they share their deepest, darkest secrets. Their epistolary friendship ends suddenly, with no explanation, until a drunken Griffin sends Luca an angry letter that tosses them headlong back into their friendship with a new element of heat. But things get complicated when Luca decides she has to meet Griffin in the flesh, potentially eliminating the mystery and excitement built through a relationship entirely crafted through their correspondence.

To find out more about what it’s like writing romance as a team, what inspired them to tell a love story predominantly through letters, and why the old-fashioned way of corresponding is inherently sexy, we called up Keeland and Ward. Read more after the cover.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, how did you two start writing together?
VI KEELAND: We met in an author group that we were part of that did a box set together. After the box set was finished, we hit it off, we became friends and we started chatting. We wound up talking every single day after that. We had always kidded around about writing something together. One day out of the blue, Penelope sent me this mock-up of a cover called Cocky Bastard. and that was the first book we ever wrote together. We just said, “Let’s keep it to ourselves and try it and see if it works,” and it did. It stuck.

So wait, you had a cover for your first book before you ever started writing it?
PENELOPE WARD: Yeah, I put together a fake cover, and it said Cocky Bastard on it. It was really meant to humor her. We started hypothetically talking about what that story might be about if we were to write it, and then we ended up developing our first book with a funny road trip story. That’s how it all came about, very spontaneously and unexpectedly, and then we just decided that we really enjoyed writing together so we kept going.
KEELAND: That cover didn’t actually end up being our cover oddly enough. 

You also both write solo, so how does co-writing a book change your process?
WARD: I always tell her it’s so much easier.
KEELAND: We do a lot of ad-libbing. I’m not a plotter. Penelope’s a little bit more of a plotter than me. But when we co-write, we just basically know the beginning, middle, and the end. It’s very unstructured so it’s fun because we wind up being part reader and part writer. I usually start off the book. I’ll write the first few thousand words, and she’ll take it over and take it in maybe a different direction. We’ll know where we’re going to; we’ll know what the twist might be or the ending might be or what the conflict is, but we don’t necessarily know how we’re getting there so it’s up to each of us during each chapter or whatever part we write to steer it.
WARD: We just pass it back and forth like a ball, and it is improvisational in that way. We never really know exactly where the other person is going to leave us off. So, we never have to overthink it too much while we don’t have the manuscript. We just wait and see what the other brings to the table and then we take it from there. 

Dirty Letters is only your second non-indie book together — what made you two decide to take the leap and why was Montlake the right fit?
WARD: We definitely wanted to diversify, and we wanted to have the experience of working with a traditional publisher. We had a very good experience with Hate Notes, and so we wanted to continue on with a working relationship with Montlake.
KEELAND: Something about Amazon just felt right when we started talking to them. We had spoken to a couple of other more traditional publishers, and Montlake being a mainly digital publisher just felt right to both of us.
WARD: It was important too that we were able to keep with our typical style. We didn’t want to have to veer too much [away] from what our readers were used to. Montlake never made us feel like we had to conform to any other type of style, so we felt very comfortable in knowing we would have a fair amount of control.

Where did the idea for a pen-pal romance come from?
KEELAND: We wanted to have a little bit of a theme to our books with Montlake. Our first book was about a woman who finds a note pinned inside the wedding dress. She finds it in a secondhand store, and she’s curious about the person who wrote the letter and she tracks them down. So, we went with the theme of letter writing and notes and people connecting via written words.
WARD: We both enjoy writing correspondence in books, so while it started out a little bit differently than some of our other stories where there’s a meet-cute at the beginning and the couple meets immediately right away, the couple was able to connect in a different way via these letters. Almost more intimately. There’s a great buildup because of that — in terms of the suspense of what’s going to happen when they actually get together.

In our modern era, we tend to think more about sexting or dirty texts than we do a dirty letter. What made you two decide to return to that more old-fashioned format and take something we tend to think of as very contemporary into a more romanticized form of written conversation? 
WARD: The characters started out as childhood friends, so the story lent itself to having that old-fashioned start where they continued communicating the way they were used to when they were younger. But of course, now that they’re older, we were able to incorporate more of an adult theme to the letters.
KEELAND: There’s a lot of romance that can go into a letter that is just lost in an email or text. Everything is so short-winded when you’re sending it via a text or an email. But when you sit down with a piece of paper and a pen, it lends itself to a different kind of letter. I feel like it’s so much more intimate.

What makes a letter inherently sexy or intimate to you?
WARD: People are a little bit more apt to say what they really feel or be a little bit more open when they’re writing to someone as opposed to having to face them. It allows for people to be a little bit more open and be a little bit more in touch with their emotions because they have more time to process what they want to say to the other person.
KEELAND: The way I grew up — emails are very business like. I was an attorney, and all of my emails were always more formal. I didn’t write somebody a friendly note over email. I picked up the phone and called them. Or you wrote to them. When you take out that actual piece of stationery, you start writing to somebody, it becomes so much more personal.

Were there any epistolary novels that inspired you? Or even real-life letters between lovers? 
KEELAND: Not for me, but my son did have a pen pal program in elementary school.
WARD: I wasn’t consciously thinking of anything else. If I think back to my childhood, I can remember receiving letters from my first boyfriend that were folded up in these little squares and stuff. So maybe somehow in the back of my mind that might have been where I got it, but no, it wasn’t referencing anything specific or any book or anything that happened in real life that inspired these two characters.
KEELAND: It’s funny that you say that because I think about passing notes — my husband’s a school teacher and we got into this topic not too long ago and he said he doesn’t confiscate notes anymore because it’s all texts and that’s kind of a shame because he really enjoyed reading them aloud to the class when he confiscated them [Laughs].

Here, you’re writing letters and it’s more of an epistolary approach to storytelling, did that change things up for you?
KEELAND: We would prefer to write just letters I bet [Laughs]. The two of us love to write letters and funny kind of things where people are sharing things without having to have the dialogue. They’re just more candid on the paper. We both really enjoy that aspect of writing. We seem to incorporate it, both of us, in solo and then in our co-writes a lot.
WARD: There’s something about the letters or any type of correspondence like that that just brings out something extra. I don’t know if it’s the fact that when you’re writing dialogue, it’s broken up a lot by actions and certain pauses and things that need to happen in between, but whereas, in something like a letter, you can just express the thought straight through and there’s a certain flow about how those thoughts are conveyed that’s a little bit different than dialogue.
KEELAND: It becomes heartfelt. 

Obviously coming from indie publishing, you have a background where you have a lot of input on cover design. How does the process differ here, and how much input did you have on the Dirty Letters cover?
KEELAND: Montlake has been a dream to work with when it comes to stuff like this. They let us pick our own cover. This time we even used one of our designers, so you get the indie feel except you don’t have to do the work. It’s fabulous; it really is.
WARD: That was one of the more important factors for us going in. We didn’t want to do a 180 with the type of cover that we typically have for our indies, and we didn’t want our readers to be caught off guard or disappointed. There’s always a certain expectation when you already have a readership, and we didn’t want to present them with something that was a lot different than what we usually do.

Where did the concept for this cover come from? Were there drastically different options you threw out along the way?
KEELAND: We searched for a model for months for this to have the right feeling. Literally months. The hero has a certain feel to us. It’s actually much easier for us if we find the cover before we start writing the book. After we’re locked into a book and we’re done, it’s so difficult to find somebody that feels that way because not only are we looking for somebody that’s handsome and appropriate for Montlake to approve, then you have a personality in your head and you start looking at people when you’re putting men on covers and you go, “That’s not him, that’s not him,” so it makes it so much more difficult. We probably have hundreds of models that we’d screenshot and put into a file and debated over for a while before we came down to this one photo.
WARD: Something like a simple expression can be very important in conveying the feel of a book. For example, with this particular story being deep and emotional, you wouldn’t necessarily want someone with a big smile. The look of a person that you put on the cover is very important in terms of conveying the overall feel for a story.
KEELAND: People are used to seeing our covers. Life would be much easier when it comes to picking a cover if we put some flowers on it or something, but we’re trying to keep the existing audience happy.

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