By Maureen Lee Lenker
December 15, 2020 at 09:00 AM EST
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Credit: Andrea Scher

Jasmine Guillory has had a whirlwind few years.

After breaking out with her 2018 debut novel, The Wedding Date, she quickly became a rom-com darling, earning a coveted spot as a Hello Sunshine book club selection and becoming a semi-frequent guest on books segments on the Today show. Since then, she's released four more books in the ever-expanding world her fans have dubbed the Guillory-verse.

In 2021, she'll back for more with While We Were Dating, which hits shelves in July. The story follows Ben, who readers will recognize as Theo's fun-loving brother from The Wedding Party. Ben has never been much for serious relationships, not when he's so focused on his advertising job. But when he lands a huge ad campaign featuring movie star Anna Gardiner, he finds it increasingly difficult to keep things purely professional. As Ben helps Anna with a family emergency, they connect on a new level, opening the door to turn their relationship into something more for the benefit of the Hollywood spotlight. But can it ever become playing for keeps?

EW can exclusively debut the cover for While We Were Dating, which Guillory reveals will be the last in this unofficial series. Below, she dishes on what it's like to write a contemporary love story in the midst of a global pandemic, which romance authors got her through 2020, and more.

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ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: While We Were Dating is a Hollywood story. You've done royalty, politics, the cooking and fitness worlds — what inspired you to dive into show business?

JASMINE GUILLORY: Partly it was that I hadn't done it before. I went through a few different ideas for this book. This was about how to match two people right. I had wanted to write a book about Ben, who is a character from a previous book. And I was really thinking about, who would be a good match for him? Who is someone who would challenge him and who he would challenge?

Can you tell us a bit more about the plot and how the book fits into the Guillory-verse?

This is probably going to be the last book of the arc of that universe. It was a fun way to close that out. Ben is a character who, like many of the characters that I end up writing a book about, I did not really intend to write a book about him once I wrote him, and then he was just so much fun that I was excited to dive into a story about Ben. Ben is an advertising executive, he is working on this pitch for a big advertising campaign, and Anna is the movie star who leads the campaign. That's how they end up meeting. She sits in on all of the pitches and is very charmed by Ben, and advocates for him and his team to get it. That's really how their relationship begins.

You often take inspiration for at least characters' physicality from actors and other real people. Was that the case here, with Anna especially?

Not at all, actually. I wrote the entirety of this book during a pandemic, and this book really evolved a lot. I had the basic beginning of the book down a while ago, but the book itself changed a lot in the course of writing it. Partly because I had a lot of emotions while writing this book. A lot of things evolved as I thought through what they would care about, and the things that they love about their life, and the things that give them stress about it at the same time. Those were all of the things that really inspired this book.

What was it like to write an entire book during this pandemic?

I got an author-in-residence at a writing retreat. The day that we got to the retreat was basically the day the whole world fell apart. My plan had been to start working on this book there; I was going to get the outline down and then really start writing in earnest in April. But I was like, "I can't do anything now." I couldn't even think about writing for like two months. I told my agent I think once a month for three months, "I'm not going to turn this book in on time." And she was like, "Okay!" I couldn't conceive of the idea of writing an actual whole book while we were in the middle of all of this. But then I needed to escape from the current world that we live in. So I just started writing. I wrote this book in a very different way than I have all of my others. I did not push myself to write a certain number of words every day. I let myself keep writing a little bit every day, and then see where it took me. It became the thing I would get up in the morning to do. I turned myself over to writing the book. It was really the thing that put a fire in me every day. I really fell in love with this book and these characters during the course of writing it. Honestly, when I turned it in, I felt kind of bereft, like, "Oh God, what am I going to do now?" What do you do in a pandemic when you're not obsessed with writing a book? Maybe I'm just going to have to cook elaborate things now.

This is set in a COVID-free Hollywood, but you do write contemporary stories. Would you ever write one set during 2020 as it is was?

I really thought about that a lot. Because that was actually one of the things that held me back from starting at the beginning. Because I was like, "How do I write a book about contemporary life when we're going through this right now?" I decided that I had to write in the after, which like, okay, I am putting down on the page that there will be a world again when people can hang out in bars together and flirt. I think there is a way that I could write about the pandemic, but it would be a long time from now. Because it has to end. I write books with happy endings; there has to be a happy ending. Obviously, for many people in this world, there's not going to be happy endings, but we have to end it and I have to go through my emotions about what happened in order to put something on the page. I would have to have some distance from it. This is not to say that I won't ever write about, it just won't be for a while.

This cover is gorgeous, with its palm trees and twinkly stars. It looks like a movie poster. How did it come to be?

Usually when we're in the course of figuring out the cover, it's before I send the book in. I just sent in word vomit, like, "These are the fun things about the book. " I was like, it's very California, and then they came up with the palm trees. The original dress was different because I tinkered with certain things. There's a little bit of stuff that's in the text. But for instance, for the cover of The Wedding Party, originally when I wrote what the bridesmaids dresses looked liked and I picked a color for them. Then they came back with the gold dress on the cover, and I was like, "Never mind, I don't care!"

The thing that really forges the bond between Anna and Ben is the closeness they develop after he helps her through a family emergency. You're very close with your family and openly post about emotional experiences you've had on social media. Did that come from your own life?

Both Ben and Anna are really close to their families, in different ways. That is something that comes up in the book for both of them. So yes, absolutely. It's not the same story as my family, but that that feeling of closeness, that feeling of relationship, absolutely comes from how I feel about my family and what happens if there's an emergency — who calls who and all of that stuff. Not the exact things, but the emotions are definitely tied to real life.

Reading has been a challenge for many this year, but who were some writers who inspired you or got you through?

It's been so hard this year. One book that I love that I'm thrilled has gotten a lot of press is The Boyfriend Project, by Farrah Rochon. Farrah has just been a delight and a wonderful source of inspiration for me. She is one of the first Black romance writers that I read. I've loved her books for a long time, but it's been a real thrill to get to see so many people fall in love with her writing because of The Boyfriend Project and then see, this is always one of my thrills as a reader, when you read a book by someone and then you're like, "And they've written so much more?!" I've got to see a lot of other people have that experience. So that has really been a big delight for me this year. Another book that I really loved this year was A Taste of Sage, by Yaffa F. Santos. I just loved that book, and I feel like it hasn't gotten as much attention as it should. It's a delightful romance about two cooks in New York City. There's a little bit of magic in there, and how they fall in love through food. It was just such a fun, magical book.

Speaking of which, you're known for your descriptions of food. What can we look forward to in While We Were Dating?

There are a number of key moments at In-N-Out. But it's less food-centered. There are a few key moments that are based around restaurants. Maybe some of that was my desire to be inside a restaurant again.

Lastly, this book is set in Hollywood… Any updates on that front for your work?

Hello Sunshine has the rights to the first three books. [Guillory revealed via text after this interview that Hello Sunshine has also optioned Royal Holiday.] So that's very exciting. They are working on things. I think everything is slower because of COVID. But they have been making some progress. So let's keep our fingers crossed. They just seem really passionate about the books, and I'm really excited about them.

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