By Maureen Lee Lenker
September 27, 2019 at 10:00 AM EDT
Courtesy Lucy Parker

Lucy Parker has always loved theater. So it’s not shocking that her popular London Celebrities book series kicked off its adventures in the West End, telling the tales of backstage romances and surprising connections between critics and actors (no comment on the ethics at play there). Her first book in the series, Act Like It, was inspired by watching a real-life recently broken-up celebrity couple pretend to be in love on television.

“I was thinking, that would be horrendously awkward, having to go to work every day and have to pretend you’re still happily in love with your ex,” she tells EW. “But how can I make it as truly, horrifically awkward as possible? That led naturally to thinking, if they were stage actors they’d be having to perform the same thing for a long time every night.”

Next up, Parker’s fifth novel in the series, Headliners, will move beyond the London theater-sphere and dip into the world of morning television. Fans of Parker’s will recognize her main character, however, with Sabrina, the sister of her last novel’s heroine, taking center stage. Sabrina, a TV presenter, gets paired with her rival and mortal enemy, Nick Davenport, with one chance to save their careers: rescuing a sinking morning show. After he exposed her family scandal on live TV, Sabrina is particularly peeved with Nick, but they’ve only got until Christmas Eve to boost ratings and keep their jobs.

The only trouble is that someone is determined for them to fail, meaning Nick and Sabrina have no choice but to work together to try to track down the saboteur. And the more time they spend together, the more they seem to have in common.

Headliners doesn’t hit shelves until Jan. 28, but EW can exclusively reveal the cover below. We also called up Parker to get the details on why she shifted gears from the theater world to morning television, what inspired her perfectly festive cover, and more.

Carina Press

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: We got to know Sabrina and Nick fairly well in The Austen Playbook. Did you know when you were writing that they were going to be your next couple, or did that emerge organically?
LUCY PARKER: Early into the book, I knew they were going to end up together, which is quite unusual for me because I do tend to think more naturally in terms of standalone stories than series writing. In the past I have just seen them as a secondary character, and then the book has come out and people have shown more interest in a particular character, and I’ve gone on to write about them. But with Sabrina and Nick, I did intend them to. But I’m not sure I totally thought that all the way through while I was writing The Austen Playbook.

This is an enemies-to-lovers tale, but Nick was — in Sabrina and Freddy’s eyes — a villain in the last book. Did you find it difficult to redeem him?
It was a little bit of a challenge, to be honest. I hadn’t thought it entirely through. Without spoiling anything, he did behave quite badly in The Austen Playbook. Obviously his actions there were viewed through the lens of Freddy’s perspective, and she doesn’t know Nick particularly well. Nor did she know everything that was unfolding in terms of the role he played in that book. So there was a little more to it than was seen in The Austen Playbook. But he did make the mistake in that book, and he did do something he shouldn’t have that hurt people. Certainly it brought things between him and Sabrina to a crisis point. But he knows that. And how they all deal with it is a big part of his emotional journey in Headliners. That comes into the book quite literally, that to Sabrina and Freddy he has been a bit of a villain. Obviously he’s not perfect, but he’s also not a villain. I’d probably go so far as to say he’s maybe my favorite hero in the series so far. Hopefully readers come to see the reasons why. [Sabrina and Nick have known each other] for a long time, but they haven’t truly known each other. What goes on is a stripping away of layers of the past and preconceptions of each other, and really coming to see each other in a way that I don’t know they would let anyone else see them.

This time you’re leaving theater behind to enter the world of morning television. What made you want to make that leap? And did you have to do a lot of new research?
My inspiration for it was watching a clip of two of my actual favorite British breakfast hosts. They’re constantly cracking each other up, and I saw a 20-minute clip reel of all the best moments from that show. They’re just constantly laughing together, and I love the dynamic between them so much. I remember tweeting something at the time when I was watching it about how I’d like to write a romance about two morning show hosts. I thought it would be a lot more fun if it was an enemies-to-lovers story with two rivals forced to work together for a common goal.… I did have to do quite a bit of research, but I do have several friends who are quite heavily involved in television production who were really helpful in that respect. A lot of it was quite fun research — excuses to watch real morning shows and read interviews with the presenters. I did watch vlogs on YouTube where people went onto the shows as guests and then film vlogs backstage, so you’d get the vibe of being a TV guest as well as the logistics of how the show works.

This cover is so gorgeous, and it’s giving me some major Last Christmas vibes. How involved were you in the design process and the direction this took?
I wanted something that was very romantic and wintry, without anything overtly Christmasy, and I really think they nailed it. I found the image of this background, and it was an example of the atmosphere and the vibe that I thought was really amazing, like with the gorgeous lights, which is applicable to several scenes in the book. Actually, they used the exact one, which was neat. I wasn’t expecting that. There’s palpable happiness coming from the cover, so I think it’s one of, if not my most, favorite cover in the series so far.

This is also your first in this series to have a Christmas setting. Was that fun to write?
I would say it’s set during December rather than being fully December-themed. The story begins in October and the last chapter takes place during the summer. Primarily, it’s set during December. For Sabrina and Nick, Christmas Eve is their deadline to salvage the breakfast show or find themselves out of work, basically. They are doing holiday-related things some days on the show, not every day. The setting is very much London at Christmastime, with all of the gorgeousness that entails, but the focus is on their changing relationship and the goal itself of saving the show. It’s kind of when you have a lot on at Christmas and are focused on work and try to fit in bits and pieces of festive activities, but you’re kind of taken by surprise when Christmas suddenly arrives.

Your last novel had a mystery element with Freddy uncovering family secrets, and this seems to have the same with Nick and Sabrina partnering to find a saboteur. What inspires you to include that mystery element? And what comes first, the central romance or the mystery?
I read a lot of mystery. I feel like if I’m not reading romance, I’m quite likely to be reading something like classic mystery fiction, which I love. I’m also a huge fan of romances that do work in a bit of mystery. So the setting in The Austen Playbook was the slightly decrepit country estate, and the action centered around a whodunnit play, so that seemed the ideal book to introduce a mystery element. I would really like to write more books in the future along a similar line. Headliners and The Austen Playbook are probably the two books in the series that are the most closely connected, but they’re quite different in tone and structure. The mystery element was very heavily worked into the plot of The Austen Playbook, whereas Headliners the romance is very differently central. Things don’t go to plan for the characters right from the beginning, thanks to the saboteur. Basically everything is collecting around them, they’ve no choice but to form an alliance. They’re similar enough in personality that once they set their eyes on the goal, they want to achieve it, but they’re having none of it, these attempts to bring them down. So it brings the focus quite strongly onto the romance.

Since Sabrina is Freddy’s sister, will we get more of her and Griff and learn more about the Carlton family and their unfolding drama?
The timeline of Headliners, it coincides with the epilogue of The Austen Playbook. You don’t need to have read The Austen Playbook first; I try to write all the books in the series to work as standalones. But for anyone who has read The Austen Playbook, you will see the fallout from that book being dealt with in Headliners. Sabrina’s relationship with her father is a core part of her emotional arc in this book, and The Austen Playbook, you saw Freddy’s relationship with her father and how that has started to break down over her career. You also saw there was still a bond between Freddy and her father regardless, that maybe didn’t exist in the same way between Sabrina and her dad. There’s not a lot of mention in The Austen Playbook of the mother who died when Freddy was a baby, but as the older sister, [Sabrina] remembers their mother. She loved her mother and she’s always had a difficult relationship with her father. Sometimes when you don’t have a relationship with someone in your family that you would like to, it can take a while to come to terms with it. Where Sabrina is concerned, the person who gets that, and the person it turns out she can turn to that in respect, is Nick.

Nick is a black hero. Can you tell us about whether you used a sensitivity reader and what that process was like?
Yeah, I did use a sensitivity reader — a friend whose family comes from a British Guyanese background like Nick. He was fantastic and invaluable while I was writing the book. He also very kindly allowed me to base Nick’s grandparents in the book on his own, who are just wonderful people. I tried to capture just a little bit of their love and joy on the page. London is an amazing, vibrant, diverse city, like the world is. And that should be reflected in everything we read. I’m very aware, though, that the impact of any story beyond the covers of a book, they’re not just marks on a page, they do have lots of power. They have the potential to assert influence, and the last thing I’d want to do in any situation is cause harm, so I don’t approach writing any character lightly. And I certainly don’t approach writing a character with a different background and experiences than my own lightly.

This is your fifth book in the series. Do you have a planned ending point, or will you keep writing these stories as long as they keep coming to you?
I do have near-to-immediate-future plans for books outside the series, but I would happily keep writing within the series as well. I feel like as a general theme London theater encompasses an endless amount of environments, so there’s quite a lot of scope there. I definitely want to do a novella for Charlie, Griff’s younger brother in The Austen Playbook. He was quite a popular character. He has a role in Headliners, but I’d like to see him have his own.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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