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Local romance writer trades satin sheets for satanic mysteries (buffy mentions)

Jeff Salamon

Saturday 17 June 2006, by Webmaster

The high concept behind Julie Kenner’s series of "Demon" books - last summer’s "Carpe Demon" was the first, the brand-new "California Demon" is the second - can be summed up in one Hollywood-ready pitch sentence: Buffy the Vampire Slayer grows up and becomes a soccer mom.

But Kenner says that when she was writing "Carpe Demon," the Buffy parallel never even occurred to her.

"I was trying to think of a romance novel to pitch to my editor, and I wanted to do something paranormal," Kenner explains while sitting in the Down the Alley Bistro in Georgetown, not far from her home. "I was thinking of an idea where I had some demon hunters - I was picturing guys in black capes. At the same time I really wanted to write ’women’s fiction’ - I was a new mom and I thought it would be great fun to write a story about a suburban soccer mom. And somehow in the course of brainstorming I changed my demon hunter to a suburban soccer mom and it all just came together.

"This is actually kind of embarrassing because I get kind of tunnel vision when I’m writing, but I actually watch ’Buffy’ - I love the show, I think it’s a hoot. But it never even occurred to me that was what I was doing." Kenner says it wasn’t until someone wrote a cover blurb for "Carpe Demon" pointing out the Buffy parallels that she recognized the obvious.

This is a little tough to believe. Kenner is no dummy, and every time someone addresses "Carpe Demon" heroine Kate Connor as "Hunter" it’s difficult not to think of one of the "Buffy" vampires, fangs exposed, addressing Sarah Michelle Gellar as "Slayer."

But whatever her provenance, Kate Connor is a likable and funny narrator and Kenner, who recently moved with her husband, daughter and three cats from Austin to Georgetown, has the hectic details of modern-day suburban life down pat. (Though you’d think one of the copy editors at Berkley would have pointed out that Kate’s car is an "Infiniti," not an "Infinity.")

Kenner’s also no slouch at constructing a mystery. I had a pretty good idea all along who was the bad guy in "Carpe Demon," but I couldn’t figure out how he was the bad guy. Kenner wrapped it all up in a way that made her look smart and me feel dumb.

You can see why the book caught the eye of director Chris Columbus’ 1492 Pictures studio. Last year, 1492 bought the movie rights to the Kate Connor character, and a "Carpe Demon" screenplay is currently in development.

All of this is pretty heady for an LBJ High School grad (known at the time as Julie Beck) who went to the University of Texas and then law school at Baylor and, until 2004, was practicing general litigation at a downtown Austin law firm and writing romance novels in her spare time. Kenner’s debut, February 2000’s "Nobody Does It Better," was published by industry leader Harlequin’s Temptation imprint - as was her third book, "Reckless" (October 2000); her fifth book, "Intimate Fantasy" (July 2001); her ninth book, "Undercover Lovers" (September 2002) and her 16th book, "Stolen Kisses" (April 2004). Kenner, in short, writes a lot. In fact, she isn’t sure how many books she’s written over the past seven years. My rough count, including novellas, is 24, which sounded "about right" to her.

That’s a breakneck production schedule, but Kenner rejects the widely held notion that romance novels are based on a cookie-cutter formula.

"They’re really not," she says. "I’ve written romances that are mystery-based, that are suspense-based. I have one that’s a farcical, James Bond kind of story. I have a series of superhero romances. There are historical romances, there are romances that deal with things like alcoholism and death in the family - there’s a whole range of stories that are frequently told in romance novels these days. They’re not the kind of bodice-rippers that people tend to think of when they think of romance. It’s a shame that people have that impression. Look at the books that are classics - so many of them are romances. Jane Austen was essentially a romance writer."

Still, Kenner is broadening her aspirations. Her recent "Play. Win. Survive" trilogy - "The Givenchy Code" appeared last year, "The Manolo Matrix" this past February - combines the chick-lit and thriller genres. The "Demon" books and her forthcoming young adult novel "The Good Ghoul’s Guide to Getting Even" (which is set in Austin) dabble in the supernatural.

At the same time, Kenner is slowing down her writing schedule and reducing her output of pure romance novels to one every 18 months. And she’s moving up the publishing world totem pole. Her most recent books have appeared as trade paperbacks, rather than in the cheaper mass market format. Presumably, she’ll eventually advance to hardcover status, though she doesn’t know when that will happen.

Mostly she’s focused on her family (she and her husband are in the midst of adopting a girl from China), her work (the late July deadline for her next book has just been moved up to late June) and wondering what Hollywood’s going to do to Kate Connor (Kenner thinks Diane Lane would make a perfect Kate, but she really doesn’t have a say in the matter).