Frolic Book Recommendation and Interview: Damien by J. Kenner

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I’m thrilled to welcome J. Kenner, aka Julie, to Frolic to talk about her latest contemporary romance, Damien (Stark Saga #6). If you are a fan of this series – and you should be – this book is an absolute must-read because, for the first time ever, Julie wrote in Damien Stark’s point of view. I couldn’t wait to read it, and it was all I hoped it would be and more.

About Damien:

I am Damien Stark. From the outside, I have a perfect life. A billionaire with a beautiful family. But if you could see inside my head, you’d know I’m as f-ed up as a person can be. Now more than ever.

I’m driven, relentless, and successful, but all of that means nothing without my wife and daughters. They’re my entire world, and I failed them. Now I can barely look at them without drowning in an abyss of self-recrimination.

Only one thing keeps me sane—losing myself in my wife’s silken caresses where I can pour all my pain into the one thing I know I can give her. Pleasure.

But the threats against my family are real, and I won’t let anything happen to them ever again. I’ll do whatever it takes to keep them safe—pay any price, embrace any darkness. They are mine.

I am Damien Stark. Do you want to see inside my head? Careful what you wish for. 

Interview with J. Kenner

Mary: Welcome to Frolic, Julie! I am so excited to talk with you about Damien. I just finished it and couldn’t put it down. It was so fun to read Damien Stark’s point of view. What made you decide to write a book in his voice?

Julie: Thanks so much for having me!!!

Well, to be honest, originally, I wasn’t going to ever do it. The thing about Release Me and the other two books in the original trilogy, were that they were gothic. My intention was to write a book with an almost Rebecca-esque feel. An erotic romance, sure. And since it was a romance, readers could be confident of the HEA. BUT I wanted that dangerous quality in Damien. I wanted the reader to wonder about the darkness that might be lurking in the guy and just what was going on in his world that might be dangerous … or dangerous to Nikki.

But then the trilogy exploded into a saga. At that point, it wasn’t so much about the danger (by that point readers knew him well, and so did Nikki!) but about the fact that I really enjoyed writing in Nikki’s point of view, and I loved the convention of seeing this incredibly powerful man only through her eyes.

I even spoke with Liz Berry (one of the owners of Evil Eye, the company that published Damien) about that. Years ago, she read an advance copy of Release Me and reached out to me, so not only have we been friends for years, but she’s been a Stark fan from the beginning. A few years ago, I told her that I didn’t think I could ever get into his head because it would destroy that mystery. At the time, she agreed. (This was before Anchor Me; the fourth full-length novel came out).

Later, though, as the story of Nikki and Damien continued to grow and turned into a saga, I had an epiphany. I was driving Interstate 10 across the country one day and listening to the Outlander series in Audible. (An aside: I’ve read and listened to that series multiple times; I adore it. But what a time commitment, LOL!). Anyway, as I was driving, it occurred to me that Jamie and Claire’s story shifted from a romance story arc to a saga-type arc over the course of the books, and that without formally intending the same, Nikki & Damien was becoming the Stark Saga.

This was at about the point of Anchor Me, but before its actual publication. Which raised an interesting question: what should I do formally. End it with Anchor Me, or plan to continue?

I wanted to continue, but I’ve always told my fans that I won’t write a Nikki & Damien book unless I have a story (those conversations were in the context of discussing novellas and readers wanting more stories).  Folks enjoy spending time with the characters, but I have to be sure and bring the readers a story that has depth. That is an emotional ride with twists and turns. So at that point, I had to think about whether I could continue with these characters as a saga and still bring that experience to readers. I think I’ve been successful, and I hope readers agree! To do that, though, I knew I had to expand the view that readers have of their world. And to do that, I’d have to get into Damien’s head. That was key, because I could only take the world so far filtered through Nikki.

A day or so later I was at a conference in Austin with Elisabeth Naughton and Darcy Burke, and as authors do, we talked. And talked. And talked. And talked some more. (Seriously, we write so much and live in our heads that when we get together in small groups, most of us can talk til daybreak. Fun Author Facts.)

By the end of the convo, I was pretty confident that not only was it doable, but that it was a good idea.  So late that night, while Elisabeth was watching Spartacus on the hotel’s streaming service and Darcy was being diligent and working (or possibly watching comedy shows on her laptop, ‘cause she’s sneaky that way), I called up Liz Berry, who I mentioned earlier. Since we’d both originally thought No Way In Damien’s Head, and I was doing a complete 180, I wanted her thoughts. I walked her through it, including the fact that Lost With Me would be an in-point into the saga and then I’d get into Damien’s head in the next (then-untitled) book. She thought it was great. In fact, she thought it was such a great idea that Evil Eye ended up being the publisher of Damien, which in a V-8 moment we realized was the perfect title!

Now the Starks can continue their journey, and as they do, readers can get the story from both Nikki and Damien!

Wow. That was a long answer for a pretty simple question!

Mary: Was it difficult to write Damien?

Julie: Yes and no. Once I actually sat my rear in my chair and started writing, his voice flowed. And I did write the first chapter of the book as the very first words on my lovely blank page. And I don’t think it got revised much at all. Which means that first flashback of when he saw Nikki at the pageant in Dallas is “Damien raw” – seriously, it’s me channeling him, LOL. But once that voice was in my head and the ball got rolling, the words flowed and it was a joy to write him (even though – minor spoiler – the circumstances surrounding the plot, were emotionally difficult for him!)

Until that point (i.e., butt in chair, fingers on keys) I’ll admit to being a little nervous. After all, there’ve been a gazillion books and we’ve never been in his head, so I knew reader expectations would be high. Can you say performance anxiety?

(But, as I said, once I actually started it was delicious!)

Mary: What inspired you to first write Damien and Nikki’s romance?

Julie: Honestly? I was broke. I’d just borrowed from my retirement account to pay bills when … well, let me start at the beginning:

I’ve told this story many times aloud as part of inspirational “don’t give up” speeches, but this may be the first time I’ve told it in print; I’m not sure.

At any rate, the quick and dirty story is that I had just come off publishing with Bantam a series of deliciously sexy paranormal romances that I loved, that my editor loved, that the Powers That Be loved, that critics loved, that readers who actually read loved … but sales were dismal. Unfortunately, my publisher had not only bought the first three books at auction, but they’d also bought the next three books for a little bit higher amount even before book one—When Blood Calls—was released.

So there I was with meh sales on a series and at the end of a contract. My editor and her immediate boss both made clear that while they believed in the series, they couldn’t offer a new contract in that world. Basically, except for a small Harlequin contract, I was out of work. (And since at that point I was the primary support for our family of four, that was a bit stressful!)

They said they’d be happy to see something else, so I wrote up a magical realism proposal, very women’s fiction, light on the romance, big on the small town. Loved it. (Still do.). They loved it. They said they were going to make an offer.

Then publishers started closing lines (this was 2012) and that possibility was nixed. Color me frantic. I actually pulled money out of my retirement to live on … and then my wonderful Bantam editor called and asked if I’d like to write a book for them “like Fifty Shades.” I was hesitant at first—called my friends and told them how much I enjoyed writing the sweeter magical realism. They reminded me that I’d been writing sexy books since my first and asked, practically, if I liked eating.

I realized I am in fact fond of paying my bills and food, and agreed. 

The next problem was that I didn’t want them to tell me the story they wanted. They assured me they just wanted it “like Fifty” – beyond that, the ball was in my court. I didn’t confess to them that I hadn’t read Fifty, and didn’t intend to lest I internalize things from it. (I read it after I finished my book, though!) I figured that was okay since I knew the basic trope.

So I set out to define my characters. I wanted a hero who was strong and controlling. I wanted him to be self-made in a somewhat unusual way, and ended up meeting Damien in my head after thinking along the lines of athletes who used their competitive winnings as a jumping off point.

As for Nikki, I knew I wanted a really smart woman who was also pretty, but not movie star gorgeous. I wanted girl next door. The kind of girl you’d see in a beauty pageant (which is how that came about). That is, in fact, the basis for her maiden name, Fairchild. And Damien is Stark because the word means cold and hard. (I’d originally spelled it with a c in order to be less obvious, but changed it within a day!) That’s how I wanted her to see him until she got under the surface. (I didn’t think about Ironman and I hadn’t heard of Game of Thrones at the time. Apparently, I’m in good company with that last name).

Then I had to dive into the situation and the story. I wrote a short blurb for my editor that first night.  Just sort of emptied my head onto the paper letting these characters tell it.  This is what I sent her:

Damien Starck knows power.  Body. Mind. Money.

In his entire adult life nothing he’s wanted has slipped out of his grasp.  And there’s nothing that he’s wanted more than Nichole Fairchild.  To sink inside her, to claim her.  To possess her, wholly and complete. 

And Damien’s not a man who takes no for an answer.

From her very first pageant at age five, Southern belle Nikki Fairchild’s understood that it’s not her anyone sees.  It’s just her body and picture perfect face.  Now that she’s got a real job in Los Angeles, though, she’s determined to make her way in the world by virtue of her mind. Not her tits. Not her cheekbones. Not her body.

But when she meets Damien at an art opening, Nikki’s determination falters.  There’s no denying the arousal in his eyes–and as much as she wishes she could toss her champagne in his face and tell him to go to hell, she can’t help but imagine what those strong hands would feel like stroking her arms, caressing her breasts, making her come…

And when he makes her a scandalous offer, Nikki can only hope that she’ll be able to keep her head, even while Damien’s touch breaks her into a million little pieces.

As soon as those words went from my head to my fingers to my computer screen, I knew I had  to write these people. They fascinated me and inspired me. I shot the blurb to my editor, terrified she’d say I had to go back to the drawing board. Thankfully she loved it, and asked me to keep going and write a full synopsis. I wrote it by the next day. Twenty pages single spaced. And by the time I was finished, I realized that though I love all my books, I’d never been as inspired by a romance before. I had to dive into Nikki and Damien.

Mary: The Stark Saga is an epic series. Did you have any idea that it would be as many books at is? What kept you coming back to it?

Julie: I didn’t! As I mentioned above, the slide into saga just sort of happened. Originally, Nikki and Damien’s story was just going to be one book. But it was doing well in foreign pre-sales on a synopsis and three chapters, so I was asked to expand it into a trilogy (which worked out great because I had a lot of plot!). I did love writing them and wanted to continue, but at the time, my team at Random House thought the next best move was a new world, so I wrote the Most Wanted series (which I love and which is definitely up to the level of heat and emotional turmoil and damaged characters as the Stark books!).

 

As I was diving into Wanted, fans were asking for more Nikki and Damien, especially since Complete Me ended on a proposal, not a wedding.

So we decided that I’d write a novella about the wedding and introducing Evan, the hero from Wanted. Which was ridiculously fun.

But after that, I wanted to write the honeymoon, too. After all, these are sexy books, and the honeymoon would surely be sexy ….

After that, I was ready to go back to what I now call Stark World. Bantam still didn’t want more Nikki and Damien, but what I came up with was just as awesome. I realized that Damien had a secret, unknown half-brother (who knew, right?) and the, “Stark International” trilogy featuring Jackson Steele and Damien’s assistant, Sylvia, was born.

By adding in that component, the world really grew. But more than that, I was able to introduce Jackson before his full book in another Nikki & Damien novella.

Then, when I wrote my most edgy and taboo trilogy, The Dirtiest Trilogy. The hero there, Dallas Sykes, appears in the Stark International books and also in a Nikki & Damien novella.

So because of those follow-up and tie-in books, the world grew organically and before I knew it there were a lot of novellas.

When I went indie, I wanted to write Nikki and Damien in longer form, and wanted to add a domestic element to their lives. And that was how Anchor Me came about.  And the rest I’ve already talked about!

Mary: Which of the books in the series has been the most challenging to write and why? Which was the easiest?

Julie: Release Me was the easiest because, as I said above, I was fully inspired. But more than that, I had no expectations and nothing to lose. That little one-book contract was a life-raft. And as I clung to it, I just wanted to write an awesome book.

Complete Me (book 3) was the hardest because Claim Me had hit number two on the NYT list, the series had hit number 1 in several international markets, and I really, really, really didn’t want to disappoint readers who needed a kickass ending to the trilogy (at that time, there were no novellas or other books planned). So there was a lot of pressure. Thank goodness I used to be a lawyer at some really high-powered firms! I don’t crumple under pressure! (And yes, Complete Me hit #2 as well. #1 was David Balducci. I figure I was in good company! And yes, it might be slightly pathetic that I still remember that!)

Anchor Me was also hard, but for a different reason. {Spoilers: In that book, Nikki has a miscarriage. And although I had as perfect a pregnancy as a woman can have, I was constantly terrified that I’d lose my baby, to the point of being almost hypochondriacal with regard to every little twinge. So those scenes were really hard for me. As a side note, while I didn’t have a miscarriage, Nikki and Damien’s adoption of Lara is mirrored on me and my husband’s adoption of our second daughter from China, also from the special needs program, though my now-teenager had a cleft palate, not Lara’s extra toes. So I also have one biological and one adopted child. And, yes, I did that on purpose in honor of my kids.}

Mary: Nikki’s struggle with self-harm through cutting is a prominent storyline throughout the books. What inspired you to incorporate this difficult subject matter? I think many readers appreciate the way in which you present it realistically, seriously and compassionately.

Julie: This is a little spoiler-y, too, but only for readers who haven’t read Release Me yet.

I guess Nikki inspired me. I wanted her to be strong … yet fragile. Beautiful, yet scarred. On a deeper level, I wanted her to need the way the pain grounded her, because so much of that would later mirror the way she needed the potentially dangerous man she was about to meet. All of that led naturally to realizing that her fragility was reflected in her cutting. At the same time, though, that “weakness” saved her, since the act helped her survive the life she had with her mother, and also created the scars that ended a hated pageant career. 

I’ve been very gratified by the way readers who have cut have responded. It’s nice to know that I’ve been able to portray Nikki in a realistic way. I’ve never cut, but I was anorexic, so I have some degree of empathy and understanding that I could draw upon, in addition to research.

Mary: Damien and Nikki have two daughters. Any more babies on the horizon for them?

Julie: LOL! I think they have their hands full at the moment. And {sorta spoiler: because of her condition, they wouldn’t try to get pregnant. Still! You never know.  Anne was a surprise, after all!}

Mary: What is different about writing a romance with a couple who have been together for a long time?

Julie: Well, for me, the romance is the courtship. The “romance” is the story of getting to the HEA. So that was pretty much done after Complete Me. Or Have Me if we want to go with the honeymoon.

At this point, I think readers know the HEA isn’t going anywhere. I’m not going to have Nikki think Damien’s cheating (we all know he wouldn’t) or have her get angsty because they had a three-way and she’s feeling insecure (we all know they wouldn’t). So at this point it isn’t a question of “will they make it” but “how will they grow as a couple and family together.” It’s not so much a “romance” anymore as it is a “romantic” saga. And just like in a marriage, you have to keep nurturing it. A lot of times, that’s really where the story is. The romance is the fairy tale part. The part after the HEA is the real life work…but often times that’s where it really gets interesting!

Mary: I feel like Nikki and Damien’s sexual relationship gets hotter and hotter. *fans self* Has it been a goal of yours to keep the flame alive between them?

Julie: Oh, I’m glad that’s your reaction! Yes, it really has. The original trilogy was always intended to be erotic romance. So on the one hand, I don’t want to disappoint readers. Nikki and Damien may not push the kink line quite as much these days, but that’s because they’re in a different emotional place, but the sex is still very hot, very powerful, and very emotional. But there’s more to it than just not wanting to disappoint readers who expect steam. The simple fact is that these two people are extremely sexual as a couple. Sex—and, yes, rough, wild, demanding sex–is part and parcel of their emotional connection, and that hasn’t changed at all. 

Mary: If The Stark Saga was optioned for a movie or TV series, do you have anyone in mind to play Nikki and Damien?

Julie: I really don’t! I just don’t think that way. No one out there in the world truly matches the characters in my head. That being said, back in the day, Ian Somerhalder was my pick for Damien when folks asked. And Kate Upton has that “girl next door beauty” look with which I picture Nikki. I’ve got some irons in the fire at the moment, though, so hopefully I’ll be thinking much harder about that question in a few months .

I will say that the model on the cover of Damien (who is an awesome guy) comes as close in photos to looking like the Damien in my head of anyone I’ve ever seen.

Mary: You have extremely devoted, die-hard fans of the Starks. Is there a series that you’re are fangirl of?

Julie: YES! I’m a huge fangirl of the In Death series by J.D. Robb. I honestly don’t fangirl over authors and celebrities. I worked in LA as an attorney and represented/met /deposed a lot of celebs during those years, and so I tend not to go ga-ga. But I signed years ago with Nora Roberts (who is J.D. Robb, for those who don’t know), and I pretty much babbled like an idiot when I asked her to sign her latest Eve & Roarke book. (And just signing two people down from her was epic.)

Mary:  What’s next?

Julie: I’m glad you asked

One nice thing about having a saga now is that I can use the Nikki and Damien books to introduce characters appearing in other series. 

I have a new series – Stark Security – launching in March. Standalone romances, super-sexy, with a hint of suspense. And chock-full of the deep sensuality, serious heat, and damaged characters that I so love writing.  Book one is Shattered With You and it features Quincy, who originally appeared in the Dirtiest Trilogy, then popped into Please Me, Lost With Me, & Damien.

These books are connected, but each is a true stand-alone romance – and available for preorder!

About the Stark Security series:

Charismatic. Dangerous. Sexy as hell.

Meet the men of Stark Security.

Stark Security, a high-end, high-tech, no-holds barred security firm founded by billionaire Damien Stark and security specialist Ryan Hunter has one mission: Do whatever it takes to protect the innocent. Only the best in the business are good enough for Stark Security.

Men with dangerous skills. 

Men with something to prove. 

Brilliant, charismatic, sexy as hell, they have no time for softness—they work hard and they play harder. They’ll take any risk to get the job done. 

But what they won’t do is lose their hearts.

Shattered With You

Broken With You

Ruined With You

Julie: Actually, I have a non-Stark release later this month, Sexy Little Sinner, book 3 in my hero-only first person point of view Blackwell-Lyon series of lighter contemporary romances is releasing on January 28! I absolutely adore these books!

About J. Kenner

Kenner (aka Julie Kenner) is the New York Times, USA Today, Publishers Weekly, Wall Street Journal and #1 International bestselling author of over one hundred novels, novellas and short stories in a variety of genres.

Though known primarily for her award-winning and internationally bestselling romances (including the Stark and Most Wanted series) that have reached as high as #2 on the New York Times bestseller list and #1 internationally, JK has been writing full time for over a decade in a variety of genres including paranormal and contemporary romance, “chicklit” suspense, urban fantasy, and paranormal mommy lit. 

JK has been praised by Publishers Weekly as an author with a “flair for dialogue and eccentric characterizations” and by RT Bookclub for having “cornered the market on sinfully attractive, dominant antiheroes and the women who swoon for them.” A six time finalist for Romance Writers of America’s prestigious RITA award, JK took home a RITA trophy in 2014 for her novel, Claim Me (book 2 of her Stark Trilogy) and again in 2017 for her novel, Wicked Dirty.

In her previous career as an attorney, JK worked as a clerk on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, and practiced primarily civil, entertainment and First Amendment litigation in Los Angeles and Irvine, California, as well as in Austin, Texas. She currently lives in Central Texas, with her husband, two daughters, and two rather spastic cats.

Find out more about Julie and her books at juliekenner.com.

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