By Maureen Lee Lenker
August 07, 2019 at 09:00 AM EDT
Rachel Nadeau/De La Vue Photography

Note: This article contains spoilers about Abby Jimenez’s The Friend Zone.

Abby Jimenez has gone from being a massively successful baker to a best-selling author in a flash — her debut novel, The Friend Zonehit the USA Today best-seller list upon its release and won her a legion of new fans and readers after already garnering accolades as the founder of bakery Nadia Cakes.

That’s not to say it hasn’t been without its controversy; Jimenez’s romance novel tackles subjects like infertility and unspeakable tragedy, but it’s been polarizing among some readers and reviewers for this very reason. “There’s three camps with that book – you either loved it with a burning passion of ten thousand suns, or they hated it hated it hated it, or they want to see what I do next,” Jimenez laughs, while sitting down with EW at the annual Romance Writers of America Convention in New York City.

She knows people were always going to be taken aback by the tragedy in The Friend Zone, in which the heroine’s best friend’s groom-to-be, Brandon, suffers a fatal accident only days before their wedding. But, it’s because of her next book, The Happy Ever After Playlist, which she actually wrote first, that Brandon was D.O.A.

“Brandon did not stand a chance. The man was dead before I even met him,” she says. “I know it’s this incredibly brutal thing. It was super weird knowing that I have to draw this person, and I knew who he was just from writing Sloan’s story. I knew he was going to be this strong, steady, understated man, and I had to draw that in The Friend Zone and live through his accident and know he was going to die.”

Similarly, Jimenez knows the ending of The Friend Zone, which finds her heroine Kristen’s infertility struggle end with an unexpected pregnancy, isn’t for everyone. “I knew the pregnancy at the end was going to be triggering,” she admits. “But there’s a reason why this story feels authentic. This was somebody’s real story.” As outlined in her author’s note, Jimenez interviewed a friend with a very similar struggle to her heroine, including the quote-unquote miracle baby — and it was in staying true to that story that drove her to write The Friend Zone.

“I felt like I couldn’t look her in the eye and say ‘Okay, I know all these horrible things happened to you but I have to change this ending because no one’s going to believe this is an infertility struggle,'” explains Jimenez. “And for me, it wasn’t even really a book about infertility as it was a book about self-acceptance and self-worth. If Kristen had not run to Josh until she found out she was pregnant that [would have been] a very different story.”

But speaking of different stories, Jimenez is telling one with her next novel, The Happy Ever After Playlist, which follows Sloan Monroe two years after the tragic death of her fiancé. When a dog dashes in front of Sloan’s car, she’s forced to take him home with her, and he turns out to be just what she needs to knock her out of her grief-induced rut.

So when his owner, rising music star Jason, turns up after two weeks, Sloan isn’t giving up the dog without a fight — though things get even more complicated when her exchanges with him morph from lengthy text exchanges to actual phone calls to the prospect of a real-life meeting. But can Sloan handle what could be another heartbreak?

We talked at length with Jimenez about what inspired this book, what would make her own happy ever after playlist, and writing about tough topics in a rom-com format. See the exclusive cover reveal below and read on for more about her next book, which is set to hit shelves April 14, 2020.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You said you had the idea for this book first. So, how did it end up being the second in the series?
ABBY JIMENEZ: Not the idea; I actually wrote that book first. I had a friend who I was very, very close to and her husband died. Two years after his death, she was very much still broken. I didn’t know at the time, but what she was struggling with was actually called complicated grief or extended bereavement. It was kind of baffling to me; it was this horrible ripple effect where her entire life just imploded after this thing. Obviously, it’s incredibly tragic. She dealt with anxiety, she couldn’t hold down a job, and this was somebody who was very driven prior to this happening. So I had this idea to write this book about a woman who finds this dog, and I wanted it to be a book about grief. While we were in submissions, I told my agent, “What do you think about me going back in time two years and writing Kristen and Josh’s love story, so we can live through the events that make Sloan the person she is in her book?” So that’s what I did.

There was a certain timeline in Sloan’s book — something really big happens on the two-year anniversary of Brandon’s accident and then something really big happens on the two-year anniversary of his death — so I knew that I had to replicate that timeline in The Friend Zone. Sloan’s book is about complicated grief. It picks up two years later, and she’s very much still broken. She never went to grief counseling. You never really move on from something like that, but you move forward, and she’s not moving forward. It wasn’t really until I sat down and wrote the author’s note that I realized that what I was doing was I was saving my friend. This was an exercise for me to try and do all of the things I wish I could’ve seen my friend do that she never did — where she decides to live again, where she makes a concerted effort to find herself again, where she decides she’s going to pursue joy and seek happiness, and all of those things I do for Sloan in this book because I couldn’t do that for my friend at the time. She’s fine now. She’s doing fabulous. It’s been like 15 years since her husband’s passing.

So can we expect this to be as angsty and heavy as parts of The Friend Zone?
This is definitely a light summer read, not like the other one. Jason is 100 percent bearded Chris Evans in my book. They have the cutest meet-cute in this book. She steals his dog basically. Sloan will be very okay. She has a beautiful love story, and I don’t kill anyone in the second book, so there’s a lot of depth in it and there’s a lot of humor, but nothing horribly tragic happens. Sloan isn’t as angsty as Kristen either. Kristen is a hard pill to swallow. If you didn’t want to strangle Kristen at some point in the book, then you didn’t really meet Kristen. And you’ll never feel like that with Sloan because she’s such a different person.

Jason is a musician whose star is on the rise. How did you decide you wanted your hero to be creative and in the world of fame, rather than a super normal , i.e. not famous, person like Kristen and Josh?
All of my men are soft boys. And Jason is no different. Jason grew up in the tiny Minnesota town of Ely. He is a very down to earth, extremely grounded person who’s only achieved success in his career over the last two years. Incidentally, he got famous when his video of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” went viral, and that’s the video Sloan watches at the end of The Friend Zone. I liked the idea that he was there with her bringing her comfort in her darkest hour, even if she didn’t know it yet. So he’s really new to this fame thing. He’s not your typical rock star. And when he meets Sloan, he’s not really looking for someone. Of course, neither is she. It was really important to me that her recovery wasn’t because she had a man in her life. Sloan has a man in her life because she’s okay.

The book is called the Happy Ever After Playlist and your hero is a musician, so will you be having a corresponding playlist in your author’s note or on social media or anything of that nature?
Every chapter has a song that correlates with [it], and the song is appropriate for the chapter in tone, lyrics, and title. I took a ton of time going through these songs. It’s truly an appropriate playlist for the book. Some of the songs are fictional because some of them are Jason’s songs.

Will we continue to see some of Kristen and Josh and other The Friend Zone characters?
Oh yeah, a ton. More Kristen than Josh because that’s her best friend. When I actually wrote The Friend Zone, I felt like it was going to be just bonus material for The Happy Ever After Playlist. I didn’t really think it was going to be its own book and then it just sort of became its own book, but Kristen was always a very strong character. She’s got that slapstick shock humor, and she’s always messing with Sloan. Over the two years that Sloan is in deep grief over Brandon’s loss, Kristen doesn’t get to mess with her. As soon as Sloan starts coming out and being herself again, Kristen gets to f— with her again so she’s really happy about that. We’ll see more Stuntman Mike in the book. There’s a lot of fun Easter eggs I put in both books. Like in the karaoke chapter in The Friend Zone, Kristen notes there’s a poorly sung Lola Simone song. Lola Simone is the villain in [this next book] — she’s a famous rock star.

You have now made the jump from being a very successful business owner/baker to being a best-selling author. How did that journey start for you? What made you want to go from being creative in the kitchen to being creative on the page?
I always liked reading. I used to blow through books when I was like 8. I was always a huge reader, and I took creative writing all through high school. Writing has always been something I’ve enjoyed but only recently, like in the last 2-3 years, have I actually found the time to write. I started by writing this really horrible YA romance. It was so awful. I can’t even look at it now. I never want to see it again. When I like something, I get very laser-focused with it. I really liked decorating cakes, so I watched a ton of videos and I watched all the shows. I am super obsessive, but it means that I get really, really, really good at whatever that thing is that I happen to be obsessed about. When the baking thing started, I would try 30 different strawberry cupcake recipes over the course of two days until I got the perfect one, and I did side-by-side taste tests. I just applied that to my writing.

What’s on your own happy ever after playlist?
Maybe “The Only Exception” by Paramore. I love that song. It is a beautiful song. And that’s so my husband. He’s just the only exception. He’s the best. There’s a lot of Paramore in the soundtrack for the book. And then maybe a Smiths song because I just love the Smiths — like, old school Smiths.

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