The Idea Of You Author Couldn’t Sell Her Black Romance. So She Wrote White Characters Instead

Robinne Lee reads the audiobook for her own romance novel, The Idea Of You. The author has also been an actress for over 30 years (you may remember her from Deliver Us From Eva, Hitch, or the 50 Shades movie franchise) so it’s no surprise that it’s her voice bringing the words she wrote to life — but it’s still a little jarring to listen to her say the words “cunnilingus fly by” and “Mr. Campbell, this is a really nice dick,” just before I hop on Zoom for our interview.
When I tell Lee I’ve been listening to her narrate the book, she smiles. “So you're used to my Hayes Campbell voice,” she says, referring to the British accent she put on to embody Hayes, the 20-year-old boy band frontman who falls for Solène, a 40-year-old art gallery owner and mom of one of his biggest fans. She voices both her protagonists. “Don’t worry, I won't go into it, I won't make you blush,” she teases. Lee is no stranger to making readers blush.
The Idea Of You is a steamy, risqué page-turner that nails the provocativeness and passion of its premise. The novel was originally released in 2017 but gained new popularity when BookTok got a hold of it during the pandemic (and when the rumours swirled that Harry Styles was the book’s inspiration — Lee insists Hayes is based on multiple people). 
Photo: Manoli Figetakis/WireImage.
'The Idea Of You' author Robinne Lee.
The film adaptation (out today on Prime Video) stars Anne Hathaway and Nicholas Galitzine as Solène and Hayes, and while the movie may dull some of the book’s racier scenes — if you’re waiting for Hathaway to tell Galitzine he has a nice dick, you will be disappointed — it is still a highly entertaining romance that’s horny enough to entice fans of the book and charming enough to satisfy audiences new to the story. Plus, the boy band scenes (propped up nicely by songs written by a dude who fittingly used to write for One Direction) will have you squealing like Hayes Campbell is in your bedroom. And Hathaway’s Solène is less French than in the book but she’s just as sophisticated and sexy.
That was Lee’s main objective: to write about a 40-year-old woman owning her sexuality and whose prime wasn’t in her past, like so many other movies claim. She would know. Lee has been navigating Hollywood for decades as an actress and when the roles started dwindling and switching to over-the-hill caricatures, she wrote what she wanted to see. 
You may not have guessed that a Black woman was behind the buzziest (and very white) romance movie of the season, but Lee’s source material did indeed lay the foundation for a fun, pleasing romp of a movie — if you read the book first, consider it foreplay. Gabrielle Union also serves as a producer and she and Lee (who played sisters in Deliver Us From Eva!) prove that behind so much of Hollywood’s best shit, you’ll find Black women. Here, Lee talks about the “risk” of Hayes’ age, writing white characters as a Black woman, and the magic of boy bands. 
Unbothered: One of the biggest changes from the book to the film is Hayes's age, from 20 in the book to 24 on screen. Do you know why that decision was made?
Robinne Lee: Full disclosure, I was not involved at all in the making of the film or the production, so you’d have to talk to filmmakers about that. But I think one of the earlier conversations we had when I was still kind of in the loop was the fear that having him so young would scare viewers off. Interesting, because to me, [his age] made it more intriguing. It heightens the risk. It adds tension and gives the story more gravitas. But those are for readers, and readers are different from movie viewers. There's some overlap, obviously, but I think they didn't want to scare people off so they made him older.

"I just wanted to make a statement about the fact that we don't shrivel up and die at 40."

robinne lee
That's really interesting. When you were writing it, was there a consideration for you about scaring people off with this big of an age gap? 
RL: No. It’s so funny because somebody asked me about this last week, and I'd found a post-it that I have right above my desk that says something like, “Do not go lightly onto the blank page” or something to that degree. It's a Stephen King quote, and it's the idea that if you're gonna write, make it matter. No one wants to read everyday life. If you're gonna go to the blank page, give us something that we don't get in everyday life that we can kind of sink our teeth into and go along for the ride. And making him 20, which is legal, able to consent, and physically grown, was my way of heightening the risk, and giving the reader a little shock value. It's like, can she pull this off? What is he going to be like? What are they going to have in common? Is it going to work?
The stakes are higher.
RL: The stakes are higher! The stakes are high
As a reader, because Hayes is so young, you have to reckon with your own feelings while Solène is reckoning with hers. You’re thinking “I don’t know how I feel about this,” and she’s going through the same internal struggle. It works. It’s also very clear that you are making a commentary on aging and sexuality. What did you want to say about female desire past a certain age with Solène? 
RL: I was writing this just as I was turning 40. I've been an actress in television and film for 30 years now. I was seeing a shift in the roles that I was being considered for and even the way they were described. They were fewer and farther between but then I would get the breakdown [for a character] and it would say something like, “once attractive,” or “a good-looking woman who was hot in her youth but she's seen better days” or like “was attractive, but now tired.” [laughs] It was kind of like every woman at 40 can't just be attractive and a doctor or and a lawyer. No, no, no, you're past your prime, and we're going to put that in the actual description of your character. Whose idea was it that we all just fall off this cliff? I knew that I wasn't falling off a cliff myself. I didn't feel any less attractive than I did two or three years prior. In fact, I felt more attractive because I was no longer having babies. I didn't have an infant attached to me using me as food. I could wear my sexy dresses again, I could wear my heels again, I could go out with my girlfriends and have a great time, and I could be with my husband and have a wonderful time. I just wanted to make a statement about the fact that we don't shrivel up and die at 40. 
Photo: Courtesy of Amazon MGM Studios.
Nicholas Galitzine and Anne Hathaway in 'The Idea of You'
It’s sad because 40 is when most people are coming into their own, career-wise, for men and women. And they're coming into their power, and then they have agency and they're able to enjoy everything they've been building for the last few years. It's finally gelling. And yet, for men, you're on the rise and everything's wonderful and for women it’s like, oh, yeah, you're doing great at that, but it's too bad you're not really desirable anymore. So often we see relationships with a younger woman and an older man because their power is seen as continuing to accumulate and their desirability continues to grow as they get older. [For men], looks have nothing to do with it. It's all about the power. And so that's why it's fine for a 60-year-old man to date a 30-year-old woman, but we’re viewed as, well, your looks are fading, so what could [a younger man] possibly want with you? That was really painful to see, over and over again, in the media, TV shows and films and articles. Even when you read a fashion magazine, it was like, “what to wear at 20 versus 40” or “cover up your upper arms at a certain age” and I just wanted to rail against that and say we are out here, and we are completely as desirable at 30 as we were at 20, because now we have the knowledge, intelligence and experience that we did not have then.
Absolutely. And then I think there's another layer as a Black woman, and you've been in this industry for 30 years so you know that the stories are also different for Black women past a certain age. This is a white-fronted project with a Black woman producer in Gabrielle Union and, of course, you as the author of the source material. White directors and writers tell stories of other races all the time. Is there something to be said about allowing Black folks to make whatever they want, including work that doesn’t necessarily star Black people?
RL: It's really funny because there is this backlash against white authors writing for characters of colour. They don't know what they're doing, and don't have a sensitivity reader or someone they can consult. A lot of that is coming from white writers who don't have access or who haven't grown up with [people of colour], so they don't know them very well. They become these caricatures or stereotypes because they think, well, that's what I saw on TV or that movie or oh, that woman in my office is like that. But they don't really know them. I can write for characters I know and like. I have known white women my entire life. Some of my best friends are white women. My husband's a white man. I know white people really well. Obviously, they're not a monolith. But I know my girls from Westchester, I know my girls from Yale, I know my girlfriend's Columbia Law School, I know my girls from LA. I've got people, I have my Jewish girlfriends, I have my Waspy white friends. You're invested in their lives and their experiences and you have these genuine relationships that are 20, 30, 40 years old. I can write for someone like that just like I can write for a Black character or I can write for an Asian character if I've had those relationships. 
Also, and I think this applies to a lot of topics — like beauty for example — we’ve had to learn about white people. We know white people because the world is very well-versed in whiteness. It’s what we are taught.
RL: Yes, especially going to schools in America, the literature that we're taught. We come up reading all the same white literature for sure. I think younger Gen Z people are a little more progressive now and I know that at my kid's school, they're reading way more Black authors and Latinx authors and Asian American authors now than I ever did in grade school and high school because their schools are paying attention to that. Whereas when I grew up, I grew up in a very integrated community and I still wasn't reading a ton of Black authors. And a lot of Black authors I know have had the experiences that I've had, like growing up in a more integrated environment, or at least going to majority white colleges and having friends from there and these enduring friendships. If you know people really, really well, you can write them well, and it's not jarring on the page.

 "If Solène was a Black woman showing up with this guy who's half her age and white, it would have been a whole thing."

robinne lee
But on the other hand, there’s the argument that if we don’t tell our stories, who will? Or if we don’t centre ourselves in stories, who will? Did you think of that at all when you were crafting this story?
RL: My experience going to the world, as a Black woman, is different. The way the world responds to you is different. When I write for a Black character, my point of view is completely different. The world reacts to her differently. If Solène was a Black woman showing up with this guy who's half her age and white, it would have been a whole thing. Plus, she's got a daughter and that would have been even more drama and tension than I wanted to deal with [in this story]. But also, full disclosure, I spent six years writing a book prior to writing this book. Right before The Idea of You [I wrote a book] that I could not sell. It was a Black protagonist. There was a white love interest. And one of the responses I got from an editor at that time was, “Oh, well, no, we already have an interracial relationship that we're putting out this year.”
Oh, we’ve all heard that one.
RL. Yeah! So when I thought about this book, I was like, Okay, I'm gonna sell this book. Nothing's gonna keep me back. If I have to make two white characters, I'm going to make them two white characters, but I'm going to make them very personal and specific to me. I live in Paris. I've lived in France before and I have a huge affinity for French culture. I've always been fascinated by French women. So I knew [the protagonist] was going to be French. She grew up in the States, but she had that upbringing and her mom and her aura are very French. 
I understand that. You did what you felt you needed to do. 
RL: Right.
Hayes is the lead singer of a boy band and I read that you were inspired to write this story after watching one perform. I grew up on boy bands and still get a thrill and joy from seeing them. For you, what’s so special about boy bands and specifically how they connect to girls and women? 
RL: I'm a little older than you. My obsession was Duran Duran. They were not a boy band, per se, but they were five cute boys from England. And the book, well, August Moon are five really good-looking guys from England. Duran Duran are considerably older than me but I was 13 and there was nothing more incredible to me than them. I've been chasing that. And then fast forward a few years, shortly after graduating from college, I'd started a management company with a girlfriend of mine and we were managing a singing group and we got one of the New Kids on the Block to produce our group. So I got to know them. And they were still kind of at the height of their fame. So I got to see the inner machinations, between the group, but also what it's like to live in that bubble, like the chaos and the fandom and not knowing what people's intentions are and why they're trying to get close to you. They keep their entourage around them to keep them feeling secure. There was a lot I was exposed to. I kept a journal and I wrote a lot down, but I forgot about it until I was writing this book. There's always been a boy band appeal. I've seen New Kids on the Block in concert. I've seen Duran Duran in concert. I've seen New Edition. I've seen NSYNC. I've seen Backstreet Boys. 
One Direction?
RL: I have never seen One Direction.
I wasn’t going to ask you about Harry Styles because I know you’re sick of that question by now and as a reader, I don’t really care who the inspiration for this character is. 
RL: ​​That’s what it felt like for me. [The inspiration] was a lot of different things. It was more of the experiences that I'd had and wanted to create for this character than any one person inspiring the story. It was just very much like, how can I show this woman coming into her own but in a sexy way that's unexpected, that we're not used to seeing, that's gonna be enticing and dramatic.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 
The Idea Of You is available to stream on Prime Video starting May 2.
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