Robinne Lee is the author of the new novel The Idea of You. In addition to writing, she is an actor who has appeared in a variety of films, including Hitch, Seven Pounds, Hotel for Dogs, and Fifty Shades Darker. She lives in Los Angeles.
Q: You write that a conversation between you and your husband led to the idea for this book. Can you describe how the book eventually took shape, and how you came up with your characters Solène and Hayes?
A: A few years ago, my husband was away on business and I was up late surfing music videos on YouTube when I came across the face of a boy I’d never seen in a band I’d never paid attention to, and it was so aesthetically perfect it took me by surprise. It was like…art.
I spent a good hour or so Googling and trying to figure out who this kid was and in doing so I discovered that he often dated older women, and so the seed was planted.
When my husband returned a couple of days later, I joked with him that I’d found the perfect guy and I was leaving him and our two kids, “oh, and by the way, he’s half my age.” My husband laughed, and then a moment later said, “You know, that would make a great book.”
He’d no sooner said it than I just knew. I could see it playing out so clearly in my head. I thought the story was rife with possibility.
Besides the obvious alluring aspects of what it could be like to date someone famous and beautiful and young and exciting, I wanted to fully explore the psychology of that kind of relationship. I wanted to delve into how our culture conditions us to believe that it’s verboten for women of a certain age to be attracted to younger men.
I wanted to write a novel that challenged certain myths: that female sexuality ceases to exist after we hit middle-age; that having kids makes us no longer sexually attractive or viable; that women at a certain point in their lives – the point where they should be at their strongest and most prolific – become invisible.
I wanted to look at what it is to be a mother and to have the onus of always putting someone else’s wants and needs before your own. What it means to sacrifice your own happiness and pleasure and freedom for your offspring’s.
All of that was compelling to me. I wanted to confront society’s codes about what it is women should or should not do, and how we should or should not feel.
And I wanted to do it with a story about two people who are in every way at the top of their game, but different. Who might seem completely mismatched on the outside but who connect in a very profound and real way.
Additionally, I wanted to take a hard look at fame and celebrity and how it affects people. How fandoms operate, and how their subjects – while revered and idolized – in many ways suffer at the hands of those who love them most. I think our culture has a way of romanticizing what it is to be famous, and I have seen firsthand, how damaging and suffocating it can be.
To me, it was a delicious combination. And because of my experiences as a woman, as a mother, as an actress, and as someone who’d worked in the music industry and with members of a highly popular boy band -- I once managed a group that was produced by one of the New Kids on the Block -- I felt like it was something I was uniquely qualified to write.
From the beginning, I had a very specific idea of who I wanted my protagonist to be. What kind of woman she was: sophisticated, elegant, smart, cultured.
I knew I wanted to put her in the art world, because it was a world I’d always been intrigued by but knew very little about and I welcomed the opportunity to learn something new.
I recalled being at an art fair in Aspen a year prior and spotting a woman about my age who was elegantly chic and understated and breathtakingly beautiful. The kind of woman you see and you think: “I want to know her story.” So, she was kind of who I had in mind when I began building Solène.
And almost immediately, I decided to make her French. I mean, few things sound more alluring than a French art dealer! I’m a huge Francophile. I used to live and work in Paris and am very familiar with the people and the culture. And I felt comfortable enough writing from that perspective.
And then I worked very hard on crafting a 20-year-old boy-bander who could hold her attention for more than five minutes. I needed him to be confident and charming and articulate and witty. I needed him to be creative and an artist. I wanted him to be self-assured and comfortable in his skin.
And then on top of all that, I needed him to be vulnerable and real, and believable as 20. And in doing so, I created a kind of romantic hero. A modern-day Mr. Darcy. And then, I fell in love with him.
Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: The book’s title was one of the last elements to come together. I’d originally had another title that my agent was not crazy about and so I spent a few months brainstorming, while I was incorporating his edits.
I found “The Idea of You” in the text itself. And to me it signifies two things. It’s a reference to Hayes’ celebrity and his concern with people confusing who he truly is as a person with the idea of who he is. Solène addresses falling in love with him vs. falling in love with the idea of him.
And it also speaks to how we, the public, glom on to celebrities and think we know them and adore them, when it’s really just an image that has been cultivated and marketed and fed to us. The theory that we worship the idea of these people without ever knowing them.
Q: It's interesting that your character Solène's family is originally from France, and there's been a lot of focus recently on the age difference between new French president Emmanuel Macron and his wife. Do you think there are different attitudes in the U.S. and France when the woman in a relationship is older than the man?
A: I think the French have always been more tolerant and had more progressive ideas about sex and sexuality than we have here in the United States.
I blame that on our puritanical roots. The French are much more comfortable with sex and viewing themselves as sexual beings. They are more comfortable with nudity and sexuality in their media. They are much more casual about taking lovers. They are at ease with PDA. They are just a more sensual people.
It’s part of why I chose that background for Solène. I wanted her to wrestle with having that kind of sexual freedom in her DNA but living in a more conservative country.
The age gap between President Macron and his wife is 25 years, which is only a year more than the gap between Donald Trump and Melania. So, the fact that we are even having this conversation is sad. And while the Macrons certainly raised eyebrows in France, I think a similar older woman/younger man political coupling would be positively scandalous in the U.S.
Q: How do acting and writing coexist for you?
A: As professions, it’s tricky. I’ve made a living for the better part of the past two decades as an actress, and writing was always what I did for myself for fun, in my downtime.
So even as I was writing this and completely consumed with the process, any time I got a call for an audition or work I had to drop everything and make that my priority.
And that was frustrating at times. I’d bring my laptop on sets and be writing in between scenes, and my head would be elsewhere, and it was not always easy to click it on and off.
But as an artist, acting has been tremendously helpful with my writing. As writers we pay very close attention to detail. We step into a new place and identify the sights, the sounds, the smells, and we make note of them for later use.
But actors learn to associate emotions with those observations. We call them sense memory and we rely on them to evoke a specific response, a behavior. Being able to bridge those two, to bring the emotion to the observation of detail is a skill that acting has given me.
Additionally, acting has given me an affinity for dialogue. For knowing what flows and what feels natural and organic. Where we pause, where we breathe. All those components factor in to creating realistic conversation.
And finally, years of studying playwrights, has made me very aware of meter and rhythm in my writing. I read my work out loud over and over again because I need it to sound aesthetically pleasing. I need it to sound like music. And those are all things I’ve learned from acting.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’ve been so consumed with promoting this book, and acting gigs that it’s been difficult to really throw myself into my next writing project. I’m developing a few different ideas at once and we’ll see which one pans out first.
But in the meantime I have a film coming out in the fall, Til Death Do Us Part. And I have Fifty Shades Freed coming out next Valentine’s Day. And I’m out there promoting the book as much as I can. And in between all that, I’m still being a mom to two school-aged children. And that takes up an awful lot of time.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: A note to your writers who are just starting out: you never know what will feed you and inspire you, so don’t be afraid to try it all. I have a BA in Psychology, and a law degree. I’ve worked in the music and the fashion industry, and for the past several years I’ve been an actress in theater, television, and film. All of those things came into play in the writing of The Idea of You.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb