Julia Quinn had a Zoom seder in 2020 just like the rest of us, in case you were wondering. Born Julie Pottinger, the Bridgerton series author’s upbringing included such classic Jewish trappings as a bat mitzvah in a church that her synagogue was borrowing at the time. “One of my earliest spatial memories is of navigating the crowd at an Oneg Shabbat,” she tells me. “When you’re really small you can dart around people to get to the cookies!”
But when I ruminate on whether her Jewishness contributes to the emphasis on humor and family in her novels, she wonders if we’re reaching. Fair enough. Instead of nosing out the secret Jewish history of Bridgerton, she shows me the Lego lamb shank that her family built to add flair to their seder plate. She also admires my Lilith tote bag that reads “Abortion Access is a Jewish Value.” After all, she’s been marching for abortion rights since the 80s, which she says she realized when she found an old button on her bulletin board. “I don’t think we thought we were still going to be doing it,” she says.
It’s a rainy March afternoon in Seattle, and Downtown is crawling with writers attending AWP, a massive conference for MFA programs, so many that nearby coffee shops are out of java and pastries. It’s overwhelming, but at a quiet Starbucks just blocks away, Quinn, who it’s safe to say has outsold them all, is having a quiet apple cider in a black turtleneck. It’s a good moment to be one of the queens of romance, a genre that used to be the book world’s economic engine-slash-“ugly stepchild” in Quinn’s words. There’s a Romance column in the New York Times Book Review. Bigger sections in bookstores. New readers (like me) rushing in, and old readers letting out a “roar” Quinn says, upon seeing their genre on screen at long last. That roar would be for the Shondaland Bridgerton series on Netflix, the juggernaut that smashed streaming records to smithereens when it showed up during Covid’s first year, the #1 show in dozens of countries for weeks.
This spring, Quinn is preparing for the May release of Bridgerton TV spinoff/ prequel Queen Charlotte and the Queen Charlotte book she co-wrote with Shonda Rhimes herself (adapting Rhimes’ script into the novel form). “This is a transitional year for me,” she says. “I’m still figuring it all out.” She’s a new empty nester, a higher-profile name than before the show, and only a few years out from the loss of her father and sister in a tragic car accident.
Emerging from this period of transition and upheaval, she mentions a desire to use her platform to show support to causes she cares about, from feminism to LGBTQ rights, to lifting up other writers of romance and other genres. Why? Because everyone could use a slice of happily ever after (HEA, in romance reader terms).
I agree. I started reading romance novels in that first pandemic summer of 2020, one of thousands who found the familiar rhythms and emotional catharsis of genre fiction to be an antidote to life’s new uncertainty. Quinn’s books, most notably the eight-volume Bridgerton series, are funny, endearing and completely addictive. Their serial format with one book per Bridgerton sibling offers the comforting familiarity of the tween and teen series with which so many bookworms cut our reading teeth (Quinn says she loved the Bobbsey Twins and Sweet Dreams among others). Their author apparently shares her characters’ sense of humor and adventure: Quinn lights up when telling the story of her Covid vaccination. “I got vaccinated in a barn called the Bovine Pavilion at the Southwest Washington Fair,” she says. “It was the one place in the state with shots, so I called up my best friend and we drove through…”
She also has a simple theory to explain Bridgerton-mania: the power of the HEA. “We were all stuck at home, and it valued human connection,” she says. “It valued happiness as a laudable goal.”
The rest of us were in lockdown watching Bridgerton, but Quinn was in lockdown watching Bridgerton and seeing her own life change. The show’s racially diverse, pastel-saturated, not-quite-camp, not-quite-earnest aesthetic— not to mention the heat between virginal Daphne and the smoldering Duke of Hastings—was an irresistible formula for viewers. “The show exploded, and then the books started exploding and they ran out of them everywhere,” Quinn says. “My publisher had ordered extra copies. They were ready… for any normal thing.” In fact, the show made New York Times bestsellers of all eight books simultaneously, which at the time was a record for an adult fiction author. (Quinn wondered out loud if a male author in a different genre would have gotten some more media coverage for this feat.)
Quinn says that her favorite part of the TV show—after the addition of Golda Rosheuvel’s gossip fiend Queen Charlotte—is how faithful it has stayed to the conventions of romance, the genre she loves, the genre she visited used bookstores to read as a teen. Even with all the subplots and schemes that are TV staples, Bridgerton adheres to that format, with a new couple for each season. “If we keep following [last season’s couple] that means their happy ending didn’t stick!” Quinn says. And of course a series of balls, promenades and parties offering that couple a chance to gaze into each other’s eyes, and maybe sneak off to a back room.
If Season one’s explicit sex scenes, dueling and drama defined Bridgerton as a must-watch, it was Season Two, with its slow-burn gazes and hand-brushes, that drove my demographic—burned out pandemic moms—into a frenzy. Touched-out by our kids, not able to even show up at a coffee shop for a break, we longed for repartee, intrigue, for longing itself, as it turned out. Quinn’s second book The Viscount Who Loved Me, which is the basis for the season, brings in a particularly poignant exploration of trauma, a relevant theme in a world still undergoing one.
The second season was also revolutionary in another way, even beyond the first season’s color-conscious casting: the centering of Simone Ashley’s dark-skinned Indian heroine, Kate Sharma, as the princess archetype in a story of glamor, swirling dresses, romance and desire. It shouldn’t have felt absolutely groundbreaking for an American show, but it did.
The Bridgerton fandom has aired lots of feelings about the TV adaptation: on one hand, purists felt affronted by the casting and plot changes—and others called out the lack of diversity in the genre, and the books. Quinn defends the producers’ choices: “There’s already so many things in Regency Romance that are fantasies!” she says. To start with, “There weren’t that many young eligible dukes with nice teeth.” In other words, if you can suspend enough disbelief to enter this world, you can believe that characters aren’t white. Quinn once said she shied away from writing characters of color, citing Own Voices, or authors from marginalized backgrounds sharing backgrounds with their characters. But “it’s becoming more and more clear to me that everybody should have a chance to see themselves in the story,” she says. “I could always see myself in the story.”
Working with Rhimes’s scripts, to create a love story featuring Queen Charlotte, a Black woman, as she encounters her future husband King George (and provides the lightly-justified explanation for the multicultural universe), “was a wonderful writing experience for me,” she says. “I haven’t been blocked,” she explains of the effect of the family tragedy on her work. “I just didn’t feel like writing.” But she eagerly approached the meta project of working with screenplays that themselves riffed on her novels, adapt- ing them back to the novel form. “My dad was a screenwriter and he would have been fascinated by this project,” she adds, before recommending a memoir about grief she recently loved: What Bravery Looks Like by Laurel Braitman, the daughter of Jewish avocado farmers who lost her dad to cancer.
After the Queen Charlotte launch dies down, Quinn is scheduled for a library appearance in Ron DeSantis’s Florida, whose honorarium she will donate back to LGBTQ causes. She’s looking to turn it into a tour, with more stops. “I’ve realized I can use my greater soapbox to start supporting causes that are important to me,” she says. “I’m very fortunate. There are a lot of writers who can’t afford to alienate people, but I’m okay.”