Finding Gene Kelly, Interview By Sarah Gill.
We are very happy to welcome Torie Jean to The Reading Corner to discuss her upcoming release Finding Gene Kelly, out September 20th!
Evie O’Shea’s stale-as-a-day-old-baguette-life needs a shake-up. Enter Liam Kelly, her childhood best friend, and high school rival, clad in a Henley and equipped with toned forearms and eye crinkles that rival Gene Kelly himself.
At first, Evie is determined to keep her ultimate temptation at a distance while she flails wildly navigating life, love, and endometriosis on the banks of the Seine.
But when a family announcement shakes up Evie’s world weeks before her brother’s wedding, Evie seeks her rival Liam’s help to get through the wedding with some semblance of sanity intact.
Her request? Fake date.
Making a deal with the Devil always comes with a cost, though, and when Liam’s conditions which include elaborate backstories and practice dates, reignite passions her disease smothered long ago, Evie has to learn to fight for her dreams and break free from her life measured in ibuprofen pills and heating pad settings. Or else risk being alive but never truly living.
Hi Torie! Firstly, a huge congratulations on writing this touching and heart-warming book! I believe this has been quite the triumph for you, and all of your hard work has definitely paid off. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us today, I can’t wait to see your insight on some of these questions!
The themes discussed in Finding Gene Kelly go beyond romantic love. To me, a lot of it is actually about self-love, whether that be in the form of reducing imposter syndrome, looking after yourself or loving who you are. This is something that most people aren’t too great at, especially under the influence of social media or difficult family dynamics. Have you ended up teaching yourself anything about self-love when writing this novel, and if so how has this impacted the way you live your life now?
I was at a Katherine Center event once where she said something (far more eloquently than this summary) that was essentially we have a story we want to tell, but it’s usually something we need to teach ourselves too and I definitely think that was true with Finding Gene Kelly.
For me personally, finding a romantic partner was never really a thing I actually did? Okay, I know that sounds weird, but I started dating my husband when I was 15, I married him at 18, and we’ve been happily married for 12 years now. But ACCEPTING that love, especially after being diagnosed has been difficult at times. He’s never once made me doubt that he loves me, but I doubted why, often internally, constantly.
I remember there being a large amount of guilt after my diagnosis a few years ago too, which is when I really started getting into the meat of Evie’s story timeline-wise as well, and I do think you can see that bleed through to the story. So I do think a large part of this was reassuring myself, that if we had known everything when we got married, the intimacy struggles, the way a flare can destroy plans, the surgeries, the fertility complications, this happy marriage still would have been the outcome. He’d still have chosen me (yes, he says this verbally all the time, but I’m very good at bullying myself).
I’d love to say that yes, I definitely get it now, that I adore myself, and understand why some people love me in return, but the truth is, I still have my bad days. Days I convince myself I’m not worth the hassle, and honestly, it has everything to do with the extra hormones that endo pumps into my system, I swear. But it does help now to have a concrete in my face reminder of where my head is on the good days, and that most of the time, I understand that love really doesn’t care about my endo, it persists regardless. And I definitely try to keep the “give yourself the grace you give others” earworm close to my chest on those days. I think writing that line, in particular, was a cathartic moment for me.
So I think on the whole self-love journey, still learning, still working through all this, but FGK was definitely a good starting point for me.
At the very beginning of the book you talk about some of the triggers in the book that readers may be impacted by. You described writing the book as “entering the third dimension of hell” at times, especially as both you and the protagonist (Evie) live with endometriosis. Is it fair to say writing the book could sometimes be triggering for you? How did you recover or heal from this to ensure you could continue writing?
I think it would be very fair to say that writing this was particularly rough at times. I don’t cry easily with certain things (I mean other things, I’m like that pig is wearing tiny rainboots OMG and dissolve into a blubbering mess) but I found myself tearing up a few times writing this and having to recharge after (hello, Gene Kelly movies).
My best writing friend Jonny writes really emotional stuff and when I found myself struggling they gave me some of the best advice, “when something is too heavy, write a fart joke, you can delete it later.” I deleted so many fart jokes. So. Many. But it definitely helped me, and some days we just said, not this scene, not right now, if I knew I wasn’t in the right headspace, and we came back to it, and that was okay too.
There were so many times where I just wanted Evie to trust her observations — that Liam wasn’t who she thought he was all of these years — but time after time her defence mechanisms kicked in, much to her own dismay. Do you feel that a lot of her feelings towards Liam were an accumulation of trauma surrounding her endometriosis and her mother’s judgements, or do you feel like Liam gave her plenty of reasons to be cautious about getting close to him?
I think it’s a bit of a combination, I think there was enough in her perceived view of their history for her to justify internally not getting close, but I think her hesitation stems more from her own experiences. When we meet Evie, she’s had to watch (somewhat passively and some very actively) as a lot of her lifelong dreams are stripped away from her, to the point that even her silly daydreams like dancing with Gene Kelly along the Seine are falling away to pain too, and I think she recognizes the danger in hope, because when you hope for something you’re setting yourself up for a bigger letdown in the end and I think she’s terrified of feeling that again, like she’s worked herself into this emotionless vessel almost as a defense mechanism to protect herself from her disease, and then all of a sudden Liam is making her feel things, and that’s alarming because feeling good things mean you can feel the bad too.
So yeah, I think when we run into her in Paris, her mental reserves for weathering a big letdown aren’t there and she knows it. She’s run down mentally as much as she is physically, and I think she’s hesitant to hope for anything anymore, even if all the signs are there for her because nothing has worked out for her, so why would this be any different?
There are such strong and beautiful descriptions of Paris throughout the book that hint you know the city really well. Obviously Paris is the City of Love, but was there another reason you decided to have much of book set here?
Honestly, it was a very selfish reason, but I just needed an escape. When I started writing my endometriosis had really isolated me. I was pretty bound to wherever my heating pad could reach, and then I had two surgeries in two years, and then I wasn’t just homebound, I was bedbound too.
I have a BA in French Humanities and Paris has always been at the core of that, and I studied there in college as well, so I had that pull already. But being able to revisit Paris, through books, my old photos, etc., was a really nice escape for me when I was so isolated geographically.
Evie and Liam both had the same strong female influence in their life growing up (Evie’s grandmother). How do you think this shaped them both as individuals and as a couple?
I think it’s a lot like my husband and me honestly. My Memere (French-Canadian rooted word for Grandmother, usually in the Northeast of the US) lived a few houses down from me and was a huge huge influence in my life, I usually spent breakfast, lunch, and dinner there, (and then promptly fell asleep because she was an amazing cook and I always ate way too much). When I started dating my husband, he spent a lot of time at her house too, and we both found safe harbor there.
He even went and had dinners with her while I was studying in Paris. I have a few notes in French from her from that time about how much she loves him, that I keep framed because it’s such an important part of our story, I think, and I can imagine Evie knowing Liam had that bond would be huge too. Especially after she’s passed, seeing the ways that they have connections, and carrying her memory along with her, that’s always been important in my own life, and I think that would grow Evie and Liam’s connection as well.
A lot of Nana’s “isms” were my Memere’s, but more so through demonstration, I don’t know that she verbalized them as much. But she showed me that love was something you gave to people freely without expectation of anything in return. That we’re supposed to help people, and make sure we keep our people close. And I think you see that too, through how when Evie’s walls are down, she loves her people, and how Liam is trying to give that out to the world too.
Where did the influence of old Hollywood come from and how did it become such an important theme throughout the book?
This definitely connects to the last bit, in that my love of old movies comes from my Memere. One of the first movies I remember watching was My Fair Lady with Audrey Hepburn, and Singin’ in the Rain with Gene Kelly followed pretty closely. Part of it slipped into the movie naturally, because Audrey did so many movies in Paris and I find it hard at times to separate the two. But also, when I became increasingly couch and bed bound over the last few years, I turned to Gene Kelly and Audrey Hepburn for serotonin.
I don’t know if I can explain it, but there’s something about the way that Gene Kelly dances, that just gives me the belly swoops. I can feel the smile slowly creeping across my face, and then I just get the warm and fuzzies. His voice too, which I would argue is highly underrated, just does things to my brain that I’m instantly okay with whatever is happening in my life. Curled up with a heating pad? The only prescription is more Gene Kelly IMO.
So the answer is, it became an important theme, because again, I’m selfish, and for all the hard themes included, I needed to balance it out with the things that make me ridiculously happy so I could escape into them.
I also liked the juxtaposition of the old Hollywood dreaming to where Evie is, and I really wanted to give her a story that felt like an old Hollywood romance (I hope some people find that) because I wanted to balance her reality with something just gorgeous and dream-like, because I want people with endo or a chronic illness to really understand and feel like that magic isn’t gone from their life, as draining as these things can feel sometimes. Daydreams are still out there and worth pursuing.
I initially thought Evie and Liam’s fake relationship would be a disaster waiting to happen (pessimistic, I know), but their first kiss was everything a romance fan could dream of and only made me want them to get together more and more. Did you ever consider making the fake relationship go terribly wrong, or was it always a means for them to get closer to each other?
First off, thank you so much for loving their first kiss because that scene was one of those scenes that was rewritten a million times because I couldn’t quite get it right, but I am really pleased with where it finally ended.
I mean, I feel like it did go *terribly wrong* in some ways, haha, but there have been other drafts where it maybe blew up in their face a bit, but Liam’s always been a stubborn character in his feelings, and I’ve never wanted to torment him *too much* because he’s a cinnamon roll that deserves all the wonderful things, so I think it was always going to need to progress like it did. Especially if I wanted a certain scene in there (her birthday) because there’s no way that could happen under any other circumstance than where they were in their relationship at that time, and I really really wanted that scene.
Throughout the writing of this book, you had such a large support system from what I have read in the acknowledgements. How crucial were these people to this 5-year journey?
Oh gosh, I feel like I could write a whole other book on this, how’s your tea? Is it hot enough? Are you comfy?
Okay, so short answer, my support system was EVERYTHING on this journey.
It started with two people. My husband, and my very dear friend Maria, (name sound familiar?). When I was diagnosed with my disease, the way it had progressed it was suggested that if it was possible in my situation working full-time was probably not something I should do anymore. Now, I was thankfully in a situation where that was possible, my husband has a great job, and I recognize that’s not a reality for so so so many people with endometriosis, and I really wish there was something that we could do about that, but I’ll come off the soapbox for now. I had just finished my Masters for my dream job, so this news was more than disheartening and I was definitely having an identity crisis because for most of my twenties I had gone to college and worked full-time, I didn’t know who I was without doing something.
One night, my husband sat down with me and said something along the lines of “you have the chance to do something, anything you’ve ever wanted, and not a lot of people get that, I think that’s pretty cool. What’s something you’ve always wanted to do but have been too busy to try? Whatever it is let’s do it.” And when I really sat with that, I’d always penned stories in little notebooks for fun, and I knew writing was the answer.
My friend Maria too, wrote a book around that time and I told her I’d always wanted to write one. When her book came out she sent me a copy (it’s in Swedish, but I can just tell it’s the best book ever written) and said “your turn.” I clacked out the first pages of the first draft of what became Finding Gene Kelly the next day.
Beyond that, because I really don’t want people to have cold tea at the end of reading this, my writing friends have been critical. I honestly have a very fragile, very delicate writing-ego, so I kind of feel like Tinker Bell at times, like I need the validation, applause and attention, to have the courage to keep pursuing this (is that healthy? Probably not, but I’m all about being as honest as possible with this whole thing too, because it doesn’t help anyone to sugarcoat and pretend like I have any of this together). So I know for a fact this story wouldn’t be out in the world without their constant affirmations that my voice is solid, my writing is good, or just screaming about my story in beta reads too.
And then my real-life friends, I cannot tell you how much they overwhelm me with their kindness and support every day. After my surgeries they fill our fridges with food, they’re the first people to yell about my book at people, and they’re just great examples of what good friends to people who are chronically ill look like.
For me, someone who had little knowledge on endometriosis, this book was such an eye-opener and really helped me understand the day-to-day living with it. What do you hope others like me can learn about endometriosis from your book?
Thank you so much! So, while this book was written first and foremost for people with endometriosis, or people who are chronically ill that can connect to Evie, I do hope as you stated that people without endometriosis come away knowing a little bit more about what it’s like to live with the disease.
Endometriosis is sometimes nicknamed “the most common disease you’ve never heard of.” It’s actually as common as diabetes or asthma, and while everyone with endo experiences it differently and at varying degrees of pain, it seems like from my conversations and interactions in the community, most of Evie’s story seems to be pretty common throughout. So that means that the chance of someone in your life, and mine, etc. has the disease and feels like this is pretty high, even if you don’t know who it is, yet. And trust me, I had so many friends that have the disease that I didn’t know had it until I wrote this book because a lot of the things that it affects are things that as a society we’ve deemed as taboo, so no one ever talks about it. And that’s a problem, because the disease can be very isolating, and it’s actually an aspect of it that we can control and make better.
So I hope there’s an awareness that becomes heightened for sure, about the general existence of a disease that is considered one of the top 20 most painful conditions in the world, right up there with broken bones, kidney stones, and heart attacks. And I also hope that people take away maybe a bit of how to meet people with chronic illnesses where they are? I think one of the hardest things living with a chronic illness is navigating the “chronic” aspect of it. I think a lot of people can be uncomfortable with that, I think as a society we love hope and try to find that in situations, and I think sometimes with a chronic illness you have to reformat how you view hope, and bright sides.
Like I have this disease, it’s terrible, painful, I hate it, it sucks, I’d love a cure, but it’s not trending well for that, but in my existence with it, I’ve made some of the best friends I could ask for, I’ve written a freakin’ book, which is so so so cool! It’s okay if something in my life sucks. My life doesn’t. No, I’m never going to have that dream job I went to college for, but I’m in a good place, even with my terrible awful disease, so I promise, I can still find my sunshine, but it’s not in a feel better, or a new workout program etc. we fix what we can with it of course, but it’s not going away. Let’s cope with that reality together.
Also, selfish answer. Please stop asking people if they’re expecting or when they’re due, seriously, endo belly makes me look like I’m five months pregnant, I get it, but it’d be cool if I weren’t put in that awkward position anymore. Thanks.
Are there any books within the genre or with similar messages to Finding Gene Kelly that you would recommend?
It’s honestly really hard for me to read while I’m writing/editing, and I need to do a much better job at carving out time for this in the future, because I’m so so so so behind on my TBR (like I have an spreadsheet because it’s so overwhelming.) Personally, the first book I read with chronic illness rep was Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert, who is my all-time favorite author, her voice is immaculate, and her rep of pain in that book was so relatable. I haven’t read Chloe Liese yet, but I know that so many trusted voices adore her and her Bergman Brothers series in particular.
My dear friend Megan Cousins released a book this year too called The Curveball that has own voices PCOS rep in it. And then I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out, that one of my favorite Bookstagrammers has made this gorgeous chronically ill spreadsheet, her handle is _chronicallybookish. You can find the spreadsheet in her links, it’s loaded with hundreds of books and she has it organized for genre and age group, notes the disability, and also if it’s own voices or not, so I’d definitely recommend checking that out!
And lastly, where can people get their hands on Finding Gene Kelly?
Signed, personalized copies are available for purchase through Blue Willow Bookshop but paperback copies of Finding Gene Kelly can be purchased, as far as I’ve seen, basically wherever books are sold—as long as you order online. The ebook is available through Amazon, and it’ll also be on Kindle Unlimited starting on September 20th as well.
Please, please, please read the TW/CW at the beginning of the book, or pinned on my Instagram page (@authortoriejean) before reading, and as always be kind to yourself first!
Torie Jean’s favorite memory growing up is the way her Memere’s fingers flew over the keys of her two-tier electric organ, playing songs like “Singin’ in the Rain”, “I’ve Got Rhythm”, and “What a Wonderful World”. Her undying love and affection for the magic and charm of Gene Kelly and Audrey Hepburn followed her from childhood, to a seventh grade book report on a Gene Kelly biography, to studying abroad in Paris and finding “the den of thinking men.”
Torie’s Instagram: @authortoriejean
Torie’s Website: https://www.toriejean.com/
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