Christina Hobbs was home recovering from surgery when she started quietly writing a smutty Twilight-inspired fanfiction. Though it had more than 2 million online views, she eventually took it down, but her secret came out when she was in the process of finding a publisher for her original fiction just as 50 Shades of Grey, which had its genesis in the same Twilight fanfiction community, hit the mainstream. Now, more than three years and much revision later, the erotic novel Beautiful Bastard, co-written with Lauren Billings, is on the New York Times best-seller list, and an original sequel is due this year.
Why did you start writing sexy fanfiction?
I was home recovering from surgery, and bored, and was searching out writing communities and stumbled across the Twilight fanfiction one. I was just reading stories, and I thought, “It would be really funny to do, you know, XYZ,” and just started writing. I never in my wildest dreams imagined that anybody was going to pay attention at all. It was just something funny I was doing—maybe a little rebellious, because the characters are just kind of nuts. It was originally called “The Office”—obviously not a lot of original thought went into that. It had about 2 million reads by the time I took it down.
I really came into writing late in life. The things that are so great about fandoms is that I didn’t know that I had stories to tell until I found this community of women that were writing and reading each other’s stories just for the love of doing it. I was so lucky to find that. I’d never written anything creatively just for fun. And it shows when you read the original.
What was the Twilight fanfiction community like?
Early on, most people were writing AU, which is alternate universe. Most of the stories actually contained parts of the Twilight world—they were vampires. Maybe they were writing missing scenes from sections, or something they wanted something expanded upon. When I was starting writing, there was something new that was starting to happen where it was all human—people essentially just used the names of the characters. [Edward] was a bartender, or a fireman, or a CEO.
50 Shades of Grey author E.L. James started in the same fanfiction community. Did she base her trilogy off of yours?
I don’t know if she ever even read mine. But that’s what stories started to become—it was a little bit of this and a little bit of that. She did a really genius thing and took the things that were really popular and created a story out of it.
Why did you take “The Office” down?
We were doing a charity called The Fandom Gives Back. It benefited Alex’s Lemonade Stand, which raises money to help pediatric cancer research. And it became hugely successful and got the attention of some media—people at the time were media-hungry for crazy Twilight fans. CNN wanted to talk to us, and it kind of freaked us out a little. We made the collective decision to take our stories down until after it was over. We wanted the focus to be on that we were raising money for children’s cancer, not on the fact that we wrote relatively smutty fanfiction. Once mine was down, it was just kind of a release.
But now the whole world knows about your once-secret project. What’s that like?
For people to know the strangest, silliest thing I’ve ever done is really weird. You can’t take yourself too seriously, and you have to take it for what it’s worth. Yep, this is what I wrote, and it’s really smutty and really silly, and you’re either going to like it or you’re not.
How did you find your writing partner, Lauren Billings?
She wrote AU, so she had a really big vampire story, another retelling of Breaking Dawn. We met at Comic-Con in 2009 and just clicked. And we decided to write a one-shot together, just for fun, and it was really popular and it was really fun, and we realized how much we enjoyed writing together. We wrote a book, and we got an agent. The thing about young-adult books or anything is that it’s all about timing. It’s about what’s popular at that time. We were out on submission, and then all of this other stuff started happening at the same time. We have one that’s with our agent now, and one that we’re in the process of doing some revisions on.
Why did you return to “The Office”?
I think it was the day that 50 Shades sold for whatever it was that it sold for. I called [our agent] because I thought she was going to think I’d been keeping a secret from her. I just didn’t think that the two worlds would ever meet. I mean, who would’ve thought that the biggest thing at the time would’ve started in the same community that I wrote in? So I called her, and it felt like a little bit of a confession, but she was great. I kept getting approached by people wanting to publish it, and then I started to hear about copycats. Kind of the final straw was that I started getting all of these new followers on Twitter who were saying how much they loved “The Office,” and I didn’t understand where they were coming from. Somebody had posted it on a One Direction fansite with different names, and I had a really hard time getting it down. So that’s when I was like, “Maybe we should look at this again.”
What was the revision process like?
It was the first thing that I ever wrote, so it was pretty cringe-y. There was a lot of stuff that I couldn’t even bear to look at. I sent it to Lauren and said, “Change stuff, cut stuff, gut it, make it your own, and then let’s look at what’s left.” It came back at a fraction of the word count it was before, and then we just built and added on from there. We revised it for about three months. We really wanted to make sure that it was different enough; we didn’t want to just find and replace names. We ran it through [an online plagiarism checker] and it was at 19 or 20 percent the same.
Is it tough to co-write something?
We’re really really lucky that we get along so well. One of the things that fandom does is give you a really thick skin. You can’t write something and have your feelings hurt if they don’t like it. You don’t want someone to critique your work and just tell you you’re amazing. That doesn’t help. And so, if we don’t like something, we talk about it and make it work. Even if we weren’t writing together, we would still be best friends. Google Docs is great, because we can get in there and see each other’s stuff. The more stuff we write together, the better we get at writing together. Beautiful Stranger, I started writing Max and she started writing Sarah, because it’s alternating. But by the end, you really couldn’t tell who wrote what—you get a scene in your head, and they just take it over. Then our young-adult book is third person, but still told in alternating.
Is erotica the death of literature?
Obviously, Beautiful Bastard is not Tolstoy. It’s just supposed to be fun. If people can walk away from it after two hours and they had fun and laughed, then we feel like we did our job. We had a ton of fun writing these books. We understand every reaction. We understand when people say, “This is just ridiculous.” Because it is—it does not take itself seriously. We understand when people get upset who’ve been querying [agents] and writing, and these stories sell. It is frustrating, and we totally get that. We’ve been on the side of rejection before, and we know how hard it is to query. That’s why we tell anyone just to keep writing. You just never know what’s going to strike a chord with an agent or a publishing house or a reader.
The cover of Beautiful Bastard looks nothing like 50 Shades of Grey.
Our cover is sort of a blessing and a curse, because you might not know what you’re getting yourself into, especially if it’s shelved in fiction. The original cover was just a photograph of a shirtless guy, and we wrote like this dissertation about what we felt like our cover should be. They had said, “We’re really trying to steer away from the 50 Shades of Grey cover because that’s worn itself out,” which it had. We wanted something that had a brand. And they listened to us. I can’t believe they listened to us.
What’s next for you and Lauren?
The second book is done. The second book is completely original—when Simon & Schuster bought two books from us, we didn’t even have an idea for a second book. We wanted to do a stand-alone, and so we basically just took that world and some of the characters in it. The second book, Beautiful Stranger, Chloe and Bennett [the main characters from Beautiful Bastard] are in it, but it’s not their story. I think people are growing tired of sequels and cliffhangers and trilogies.
What are your young-adult books like—no erotic elements, I presume?
Sublime is out on submission. It’s so different than our adult. I would say it’s like Ghost meets Flatliners. It’s about this boy who falls in love with a ghost. He falls into a lake and has this out-of-body experience and then becomes obsessed with it—seeing hypothermia as a sport. We have our fingers crossed that it sells, we love it so much.