In Conversation with Harper Bliss and Caroline Manchoulas
By Andrew Ashley
“It is possible to suffer from lesbian romance burnout.”
“We’re a high-functioning co-dependent unit,” said best-selling lesbian author Harper Bliss in a recent conversation. “You could say we’re couplepreneurs,” added Caroline Manchoulas, Harper’s wife and, given the subject matter of their next endeavour, almost literally her partner in crime.
The conversation was taking place over a bottle of bubbles to celebrate the 16th anniversary of Harper and Caroline’s first date – one of the three significant dates they observe each year: meeting, dating and marrying. The tone may have been deceptively lighthearted but the pair have evolved a seriously professional approach to living, working and writing together. An approach that will stand them in good stead as they move into a new genre with their next project, a classic murder mystery with a contemporary Hong Kong twist.
Their modus operandi has been developed and refined over the last few years, as Ladylit Publishing has become widely known and the novels of Harper Bliss have claimed a permanent place in Amazon’s Lesbian Romance section. New titles average around 4,000 ebook sales in the first month, climbing more or less automatically to the top of the chart. This tends to boost sales of the other books, making Harper Bliss one of the biggest names in lesbian romance and erotica.
The routine is well established: Harper creates the first draft while Caroline is responsible for the second – frequently with extensive changes. The couple didn’t mince words when they described how this works in practice. After Harper declared that “My first drafts are often pretty shitty,” Caroline admitted that her redrafting had become much more invasive as she had grown in confidence. “Harper no longer complains when I break up those really long-winded sentences.”
These are the words of people who are clearly very comfortable not just living together but working and organizing their professional lives together too. Harper became very thoughtful when asked how they’ve managed it so successfully. “It may be easier for lesbians to do this,” she mused, “and we’ve been used to working and doing stuff together for a long time.”
“There was occasionally a little bit of tension at the beginning,” added Caroline, “but nothing insurmountable.”
There are boundaries. Each partner has her own tasks and way of working. Harper needs privacy when she writes and has her own study where she secludes herself for her morning-only writing sessions. As Caroline said, “It’s a very collaborative process but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re always working together or even at the same time.”
It’s evidently working for them but the pair are realistic about their undoubted success. They’re in a leading position in a niche market but the pool of potential readers is limited compared to that for more general works. Harper and Caroline would like to reach a larger audience, so they’ve been planning to take their writing in a new direction. They’ve considered various possibilities, including espionage stories, but have settled on a crime thriller for their first venture into a new genre.
Reaching more readers isn’t the only reason for the move. “It is possible to suffer from lesbian romance burnout,” said Harper. “I’ve been thinking that I should move out of my comfort zone and do something else.” But her devoted fans needn’t worry about the supply of Harper Bliss stories drying up. “It’s not an either/or situation. I’m going to carry on writing lesbian romance and erotica, even while we’re working on the new project.”
Plans for the first crime story are already well advanced. The pair have selected a new – and gender-neutral – pen name, to distinguish the next phase of their work from the existing Harper Bliss canon. And the book is starting to take shape. It will be set in Hong Kong and will feature a lesbian detective. “But it won’t be marketed as a lesbian story,” said Caroline. “Yes, there’ll be a lesbian character but that’s not the main point.”
Perhaps more significantly, the new venture will usher in different ways of working, with the joint authors collaborating more closely than ever before – though as Caroline emphasized, “It’s a process, not a radical change.” They’ll plan the story together and then each will be responsible for different characters.
This approach should suit both partners as they have complementary skills. Harper tends to be less concerned with creating a detailed outline before starting work and is more excited by fleshing out her characters, while Caroline feels that she needs a definite storyline. “I have less experience of writing so I want to have the plot worked out before I start,” she said. “It’s not a problem as I am more organized.”
“And you’re pretty good at plotting too …” added Harper.
Becoming crime fiction writers isn’t the only major change on the horizon for Harper and Caroline. They can plot stories, create characters and publish bestsellers anywhere in the world so they’ve decided to join the growing band of digital nomads – people who are connected to their work by electronic devices rather than geography.
With typical thoroughness, the next stage of their lives has been meticulously planned. After a Christmas and New Year vacation in France, Portugal and Belgium, the budding nomads will leave Hong Kong in January for Australia and New Zealand’s South Island. The next stop will be Chiang Mai in Thailand, then summer will be spent in Europe and autumn in Canada.
“We’ll mostly be staying in Airbnb,” said Harper. “We’ll try to balance cheap and expensive accommodation but after paying Hong Kong rent for so long, everything seems cheap by comparison.” The pair did a trial run in Brisbane in September, which gave them some useful ideas on how to make their new lifestyle work. “We have a well-established routine,” said Caroline, “and we’re planning to spend long enough in each place to get on with our work so we’ll need a dedicated work space wherever we stay.”
“But there’ll still be plenty of time to do some exploring,” added Harper.
The pair should make good nomads. “We’re used to travelling light and we’ve already cleaned out our closets,” Caroline said. So Ladylit and Harper Bliss are on the move. But wherever they find themselves, there’ll still be a steady stream of new books.