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Eliza Anderson, Deseret News

While ‘Bridgerton’ makes waves, this Latter-day Saint author writes romance her own way

Romance novels without explicit sex might sound impossible. But they’re out there — and, dare I say, more romantic?

SHARE While ‘Bridgerton’ makes waves, this Latter-day Saint author writes romance her own way
SHARE While ‘Bridgerton’ makes waves, this Latter-day Saint author writes romance her own way

Courtney Willis is not a well-known author. And she’ll be the first to admit it — when I initially approached her about an interview, she called herself “small beans” and almost declined.

But Willis is part of an interesting, and perhaps necessary, surge of writers. While “Bridgerton,” full of interpreted history and bodice-ripping, is one of the most streamed shows on Netflix, there’s a group of authors carving out a space for sweet, “closed-door” romances.

Yes, we’re talking about the romance genre. And yes, Willis is a romance author. But she keeps it clean. Every bodice in Willis’ stories remains intact. And if there’s ripping of any kind, it happens strictly behind closed doors.

What is a ‘closed-door romance’?

Where does the term “closed-door romance” come from? “It’s highly debated,” Willis tells me during our Zoom call. She’s an acquaintance — we went on the same travel abroad program to the U.K. in college.

Willis is sitting in her Florida home, wearing a T-shirt that lists all the popular book tropes. “Completely unintentional,” she says, laughing.

When chatting about the term “closed-door romance.” Willis admits that it can be “a difficult line to ride.”

“People don’t want to say that sex is dirty, but (traditional romance novelists) sometimes use the term ‘sweet’ when closed-door writers are trying to keep the word for our own little bubble of clean,” Willis explains.

So what is a closed-door romance? Imagine all the traditional components of a romance novel: lingering touches, exchanged glances, maybe a few stolen kisses and some passionate embraces. And then? “Then the door closes,” Willis says.

There’s no nudity, sex or sexual situations. It might be implied, but readers won’t read about it.

Some might find the idea of romance novels without sex unfathomable, and even impossible to write, but Willis says it actually makes her job a lot easier. “I think I’m reaching readers’ needs that way. So they don’t have to worry, ‘oh my gosh, am I going to come across graphic, explicit stuff?’”

From ‘The Work and the Glory’ to Regency romance

So far, Willis has self-published five novellas and five novels, with plenty more on the way. Surprisingly, her passion for romance didn’t start with classics like “Romancing the Stone” or “Titanic.” It came from somewhere unexpected: “The Work and the Glory” series.

As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Willis was introduced to “The Work and the Glory” novels by her parents at a young age. “I became obsessed,” Willis says. “... There was a smattering of romance throughout the story.”

Willis began to dive into church history. As she continued through the book series, and in her research, Willis thought to herself, “I can do something like this.”

But Willis didn’t write her first romance novel until college. She spent a few months studying abroad in the U.K. in 2013. “It was an amazing trip,” she says. “Just being in those places where so much history took place.”

Willis spent time exploring British historical sites, including Chatsworth House, the estate used as Pemberley House in the 2005 film version of “Pride and Prejudice.”

“When we walked around (Chatsworth), I thought about how a relationship would blossom here,” Willis says. “How can I incorporate that in a book? How can I encapsulate everything I’m seeing and capture that feeling?”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Willis wrote her first Regency romance after her trip to the U.K. But it’s yet to see the light of day — it needs heavy revisions, according to Willis. But she plans on revisiting it eventually.

While Willis’ first novel was set in Regency England, her time living in Utah, after she graduated, sparked her imagination. She’s written an unfinished series of Western romance novels based in Utah, entitled the “Little Creek” series.

Being from Florida, Willis found the dry heat and rugged mountains of Utah “unfamiliar.”

“At first it was difficult for me to be in Utah,” Willis explains. “I really had to find beauty in the moment and find things that made me happy. I went driving in the mountains, looking for places where I could explore the beauty.”

Willis found herself exploring places like Big Cottonwood Canyon, Cache Valley and Park City, and learning about Utah’s history. She remembers a specific trip to the Park City Museum, where she learned about the mining town.

“That’s not a typical story — the mining history of a place,” Willis said. “So I was inspired by that and the beauty of that area. It got my brain rolling into a story about a town like that, with people like miners and cowboys and dairy farmers, and all the other types of people.”

Willis’ “Little Creek” series has three books so far: “The Miner’s Bride,” “The Cowboy’s Girl” and “The Widow’s Hope.”

Believe it or not, romance is still going strong

You might not see that many romance novels at your local grocery store nowadays, so it’s easy to assume that the romance genre is dying out. But romance novels are still going strong — and they’re evolving.

According to Penguin Random House, romance novel sales were up 50% in 2021. And a new breed of rom-com novels, minus classic misogynistic tropes and full of progressive heroines, are becoming more popular.

Closed-door romances have a place in this romance resurgence, too. “There’s a whole realm and spectrum of clean, sweet, closed-door (romances),” Willis says. “I love seeing that grow and seeing readers appreciate it and wanting it to expand.”

As for why Willis chooses to write romance, it’s pretty simple. “I’m just a hopeless romantic.”

“I love seeing people coming together for the better and change each other and bring joy to the other person’s life without intending to,” Willis continues.

Willis sees romance as an opportunity to give her characters development and depth. “In all of my books, each character has a flaw. There’s a lie they believe about themselves that they need to overcome. There’s a lot of introspection and learning from the other person.”

But as a closed-door romance novelist, Willis faces a unique challenge: capturing the sparks, and the passion, without sex scenes. But she doesn’t see it as a challenge. “It’s fun,” Willis tells me.

Willis cites one of her Regency romances, “Playing the Scoundrel,” as an example. In it, heroine Emma Follett turns the head of infamous rake Henry Godwin and decides to, essentially, play him.

“There’s a lot of tension, riding that line of closed-door while maintaining nonexplicit steam and passion,” Willis explains. “It’s not about pushing the limits and seeing how far you can go, but it’s about writing a good story and staying true to the characters.”

The lack of sex scenes, and the focus on tension, gives room for something that has been historically overlooked in all forms of entertainment — the female gaze.

In an article entitled “How Do We Define the Female Gaze in 2018?”, Vulture says this: “What is the female gaze, then? It’s emotional and intimate. It sees people as people. It seeks to empathize rather than to objectify.”

The female gaze isn’t about just sex. It isn’t about chiseled abs, perfect hair and a square jaw. It’s about intimacy: tender moments, soft touches and the emotional investment that comes from falling in love.

If you’re looking for an example of the female gaze, TikTok is a particular fan of the famous “Mr. Darcy hand-flex scene” in the 2005 version of “Pride and Prejudice.”

“The female gaze, and that kind of moment, is really important,” Willis says. “Especially if there’s no sex involved.” 

Why are we still so enamored with romance novels?

Admittedly, I am not a connoisseur of the romance genre. So as I began to learn more about the genre, I was surprised that there is still such a demand for romance novels.

Less people are getting married. According to Pew Research Center, 38% of adults between the ages of 25 to 54 are single. In 1990, it was 29%. So why, when we as a society are becoming less marriage-focused, are people still reading romance novels?

While I am not a romance genre expert, I am, as always, willing to throw in my two cents: modern audiences enjoy a romantic slow burn — the buildup of to two people coming together. Sure, we know it’s going to happen, but watching two people fall genuinely in love is a delight.

As I continued to delve into the world of closed-door romance, I inevitably thought of “Bridgerton.” More specifically, the differences between the first and second seasons.

The highly-anticipated first season of “Bridgerton” was littered with explicit sex scenes. But the second season of the show was, in comparison, much more subdued. Yes, there were still sex scenes between the two main characters. But they don’t have sex until the seventh episode — with only one more explicit scene after that.

Instead, the second season chose to focus on the slow burn. The pining between the two leads created tension. It created sparks, romance, passion and all the other things that closed-door romances focus on. (But please don’t get me wrong: “Bridgerton” is not a closed-door romance).

And it allowed for much more character development between the two leads. By the time they come together, they are both changed for the better.

For the record, Willis agrees. “I didn’t love either (season of ‘Bridgerton’), but there was a lot more character and relationship development in the second season because it didn’t have (as many sex scenes).”

What’s more romantic than seeing two people come together, against all odds? You don’t need sex for a good love story — you need authentic emotional intimacy.

As for what’s next for Willis? “I’m still a baby author,” she admits. She’s got another book in the works: a historical romantic twist on “The Parent Trap.”

“Growing up, it was hard to find the exact genre I wanted to read,” Willis tells me. “I’m trying to meet that need for younger me and for other readers out there who might be like me and are looking for a very specific kind of romance.”

Perhaps Willis and other closed-door romance writers have tapped into the most compelling part of romance: the act of falling in love itself, and the tension, uncertainty and emotional depth that comes along with the ride.