2021 Debuts author Alison Cochrun is flying high these days. Her debut novel, The Charm Offensive, released last week to great praise. The book garnered a starred review from Booklist and Bookpage, and Library Journal said “this novel shines, especially for readers underrepresented or underappreciated in mainstream romance.” Always a sucker for a good love story, I devoured the ARC I received from Alison and bought a copy for myself. (And I’ll probably buy a few more copies for some romance readers I know and love.) On Alison’s website, the tagline reads “Your home for fluffy queer romance,” but The Charm Offensive proves she writes more than just fluff. When Alison isn’t writing, she’s inspiring high schoolers, “crafting perfect travel itineraries, hate-watching reality dating shows,” doing interviews, and more. I appreciate the time she took to answer a few questions.
Christina: Congrats on your debut novel! You’ve described The Charm Offensive as “first and foremost a romantic comedy that celebrates queer love and queer joy, with the happily ever after guaranteed.” As you know, the book is so much more than that. Did you go into writing the novel as just a rom-com, or had you planned for it to be more? What inspired you to write the story?
Alison: I’m a long-suffering fan of The Bachelor franchise and all reality dating shows, honestly, and the idea for The Charm Offensive came out of a strange daydream in which I wondered what would happen if someone like me went on The Bachelor. And I arrived at the obvious answer: someone like me would never go on The Bachelor. At the time (this was June 2019), I was closeted, I was struggling with untreated mental health issues, to say nothing of the fact that I do not look like a reality dating show contestant. But I started playing around with the question of under what circumstances would someone like me end up on one of these shows? The character Charlie Winshaw and the concept of Charm came out of that question. I think I had this idea on a Wednesday and started writing on a Thursday, and the first draft of the book poured out of me in six days. So to answer your question: I didn’t really plan for this book to be anything. I sort of just wrote it from this weird, true place I didn’t know existed inside of me, and this is what came out. Looking at the first draft on the page, the parts of the story that spoke to me most were related to the navigation of mental health and the exploration of sexuality, so those were the parts of the story I nurtured most in revision.
Christina: Mental health awareness is something you’re passionate about. When did the issue become important to you? What do you hope readers will take away from your work with respect to mental health awareness?
Alison: Mental health became important to me around age nine, when I experienced my first bout of serious depression, but growing up, I didn’t always have the tools to talk about my struggles with mental health, and it also felt like something I wasn’t allowed to discuss. Going to therapy was a dirty secret, and I remember the first time I told my friends I had a therapist my senior year of high school, they mocked me behind my back. (2005 was a different time.) Even though conversations about mental health and mental illness are more common now, there is still stigmatization, and we don’t always see these common, normal experiences reflected in romance. In terms of what I want readers to take away from the book . . . I want readers who struggle with anxiety and depression to know they’re not alone, and if they need help, I hope they reach out to someone. My queer therapist is the best thing that’s ever happened to me! I also hope all readers will walk away from this book knowing they’re deserving of a happily ever after, in whatever form they want it.
Christina: Frolic Media published your article “Now is the Perfect Time for a Queer Star of The Bachelor Franchise” in May. I would love to see this! What are the chances of it happening? What’s keeping it from happening?
Alison: I want to say yes. The idealist in me wants to believe people (and television shows) are capable of recognizing past mistakes, apologizing, and growing. Yet every season, I come crawling back to the show hoping this will be the season they do better, and I am often disappointed. The changes they’ve made has been so incremental, and it’s often in response to controversy So it’s hard to imagine the show making space for queer stories right now. In a recent Bustle article written by Lily Herman, in talking about The Bachelor, she said the show doesn’t know which audience it’s courting. And I think that’s at the core of what prevents the franchise from honoring queerness within its narratives. It’s suffering from an identity crisis in terms of figuring out whether it wants to continue catering to the conservative fan base that wants the status quo—the same love story the show’s been selling for twenty years—or if it wants to accurately and honestly reflect the experiences of modern love. I think if the show can’t reconcile this tension, it might be time for them to call it quits.
Christina: Your characters leap from the page. Do you use character sketches in your writing process? How do you manage to flesh out such believable, complex characters? Is there something about Dev and Charlie that readers don’t know about?
Alison: First of all—thank you! Since I wrote this book’s first draft so quickly, I didn’t do any character sketches or planning. Charlie and Dev sort of emerged as these fully-formed nerds with such clear personalities and voices. I think it helps that I gave these characters a lot of myself, so it was easy to get a handle on who they are as people. And there are so many things readers don’t know about Charlie and Dev! When you go through numerous rounds of revision, things end up on the cutting room floor. Plus, you have to know more of a character’s backstory than you will ever have time to incorporate into a book. For example, Dev started dating his first boyfriend when they slow-danced together to “Part of Your World” at the eighth grade dance. And as a kid, Charlie had one of those vinyl Disney-themed tents (his was 101 Dalmatians), and he practically lived in that tent as a kid because he found the tight space comforting.
Christina: Your next book, Kiss Her Once for Me, is a twist on the “fake engagement to the boss” trope. The Charm Offensive tackles a trope too. What is it about tropes and making them your own that appeals to you? Is there a trope you probably would never tackle?
Alison: I think for me, part of the appeal of the romance genre is knowing what to expect going into the reading experience. The happily-ever-after is guaranteed, and for my anxiety-brain, I find so much comfort in that. I think tropes work the same way. There’s something fun about going into a book knowing you’re going to find an old friend like the enemies-to-lovers trope or the sunshine-grump trope. Plus, I love seeing how different authors reimagine these time-honored tropes. And for me, I love getting to do that reimagining around a queer lens. As for tropes I probably won’t play around with . . . most of my future planned projects are sapphic romances, so I think I can safely say they won’t include the “accidental pregnancy” trope. (Plus, that trope has always stressed me out.)
Christina: You’re pretty active on Instagram, and in a recent post you mentioned, “Reading outside my own experiences is one way I’m working toward being an ally for all members of our LGBTQIA+ community.” What are some other ways your readers (or anyone) can join you in being allies?
Alison: Listening has been one of the most powerful tools for me in confronting my own implicit biases and expanding my empathy and understanding, and I try to do this by following queer creators and activists. Reading is always such a beautiful exercise in empathy, so I encourage readers to support LGBTQIA+ writers, and trans writers in particular, especially given the assaults against trans people in our country right now. If you have the money buy books by trans authors, and if you have a platform, amplify trans voices!
Christina: In this life, you’re on a quest for the best happy hour nachos. So I have to ask, what constitutes delicious nachos to you? What do Dev’s favorite nachos include? What about Charlie’s?
Alison: For me, delicious nachos are all about the chip-to-cheese ratio, the sour cream, and the guacamole (though technically, I’m vegan and can only eat one of those things). Dev’s favorite nachos would be the messiest ones possible, and he would unapologetically end up with them all over his face. Dev’s nachos would have the fake nacho cheese you get at sporting events and so many toppings, the chips would sag under their weight and get soggy. Charlie is vegan and gluten-free, so his nachos would likely be homemade with soyrizo and vegan cheese, and he would definitely eat them with a fork.
Thanks to Alison for agreeing to this interview! If you know of an author who’d like to be featured in an interview (or you are an author who would like to be featured), feel free to leave a comment or email me via my contact page.