Author and screenwriter Paul Rudnick joins Zibby to talk about his latest novel, Playing the Palace. Paul shares why he wanted to write a gay romance novel rather than a coming out story, how the changing dynamics of the royal family launched by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle helped inspire this book, and what the significance of IHOP is to both him and his characters.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Paul. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Playing the Palace.

Paul Rudnick: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: So many people, by the way, recommended your book to me. I hope you know that there’s all sorts of buzz going around this book. Everyone’s like, have you read it yet? Have you read it yet? Just store that away.

Paul: Now I’m especially glad I’m here today.

Zibby: I see why because it’s so great. It’s so fun. It’s so immersive. The main character is hilarious. I love him so much.

Paul: Thank you. I’m so glad.

Zibby: It’s great to find such a self-deprecating — he’s so down on himself. I’m blanking on his name. What is his name?

Paul: Carter.

Zibby: Carter is so down on himself. He’s always feeling the worst. What is anyone doing with me? I’m going to fail this. It’s just so great to see him triumph. It’s amazing, the underdog story, if you will, with a sense of humor. It was just great. I loved it.

Paul: Thank you. That makes me very happy.

Zibby: Why don’t you tell listeners a little about what the book’s about and how you came up the story idea?

Paul: After everything we’ve all been through for the past year and the past many years before that, I wanted a complete, all-out romantic comedy, the most giddy, delicious escape. I’ve been thinking for actually quite some time about a royal romance. I’d had the title maybe twenty years ago, Playing the Palace. I wasn’t sure where this story should land until I came up with Carter Ogden who is a very lonely New York event planner with roommates. He’s been dumped time and again. He just is about as low as you can get. Then one day, as can only happen in Manhattan, he manages to meet Prince Edgar, the Crown Prince of England. They fall hopelessly and passionately in love against some of the largest imaginable obstacles, which is what I loved writing. The core of the book is pretty much the moment when Carter decides he’s going to take the Crown Prince of England to Piscataway, New Jersey, as his plus-one at his sister’s wedding. I’m a Jewish guy from New Jersey. I thought, what would that be like? It’s, I hope, a real celebration of romance and love and everything we’re yearning for beneath our masks.

Zibby: I was surprised, by the way, at how cool his sister Abby was with having the Crown Prince be in the audience, if you will, for her wedding unexpectedly, because he hadn’t told her, and that she was like, “This is awesome.” She just loved it. It was great.

Paul: She used much more foul language than you just did. I thank you for tidying that up.

Zibby: I was debating if I should say that or not. I tidied that up.

Paul: I love Abby too because she’s both a surgeon and someone who speaks her mind at every possible opportunity. I just always admire people with that kind of exuberant confidence, people who are very happy to tell you what to live, who to marry, and what to wear. She is so protective and supportive of her brother. In the book, you find out why they’ve bonded so deeply.

Zibby: It’s great. Yet there’s so much heart too. It’s a not a frivolous read. You get into some real stuff. Here’s this one paragraph I really liked that Carter said. Actually, I’ll read the previous line too because it’s hilarious. “I briefly considered tutoring people in poverty-stricken countries on creating Wonder Woman-themed bat mitzvah centerpieces as a form of Associate Event Architects Without Borders.” Oh, my gosh. Then you said, “What I needed was something I’d never confided to anyone, not even my dearest friends and family members, because it was such an impossible and yearned-for wish, something that I wanted so badly it made me believe I had a soul. I wanted this one thing with such certainty that I knew it was more than a journal entry doodle or a childhood fantasy which I needed to outgrow. It was who I was.”

Paul: I’m so glad you picked that. Carter is somebody who has so many secret dreams. He thinks he’s just reached that point in his life, he’s about to turn thirty, where he thinks maybe this is all out of reach. Suddenly, there are possibilities, which can be quite terrifying. Carter backs away quite a bit. Prince Edgar, wonderfully, they sort of draw each other out. They make each other’s futures become possible. I wanted it to have some real underpinnings. Also, it’s a story about people of very different social status. There couldn’t be a larger gap between these two guys. In many ways, it also made me think about Meghan and Harry, the idea of such an unlikely romance and how sometimes those are the very best. Those are the ones that I think the rest of the world tends to invest in because they can see themselves. Oh, my god, there is the slightest dreamy possibility that that could happen to me.

Zibby: It’s true. I feel like especially with the royals, everybody wonders. It’s an impossible dream. What is it like for them to live? What if? They’ll have to get married. I remember this when Prince William’s oldest son was born. It was right when my third child was born. I was like, maybe they’ll meet and fall in love. Who knows? What if? Why not her?

Paul: Yeah. You should keep thinking that way.

Zibby: You never know.

Paul: Exactly. Keep holding up the cover of People magazine to your children.

Zibby: Although, I don’t know that I wish that on my daughter. I don’t know if it’s something anymore to really aspire to. I grew up with the Princess Diana giant coffee table books that I would read every night before bed and that whole time of really idolizing the palace life. Whereas now, I feel like we’ve all seen the underbelly, if you will.

Paul: Oh, my god, yes.

Zibby: Back in the day, it was quite different. I won’t push my daughter too hard.

Paul: Although, I think you make a good point. Also, Princess Diana was one of the first royals, especially in our lifetimes, who used her celebrity and her influence to do an awful lot of good in the world. That’s something that Carter and Prince Edgar share, that sense of, no, it’s no longer enough to just be rich and royal. How can you turn that into a force for good? I remember when Princess Diana visited AIDS patients, when she made a point of showing up. I think Meghan and Harry seem to be following in that tradition. It’s impressive. You think, yeah, that’s a prince and princess we could believe in.

Zibby: Yes. I love, by the way, that at their first date, Carter and Prince Edgar, it’s so funny when he said, you can call me Ed, or Eddie or something like that. You were like, no, no, no, he’s not an Ed. He’s not an Eddie. They sat down to this super formal meal at whatever fine dining, super posh private room, and Carter’s like, let’s go to IHOP. I feel like you need to do some massive collaboration with that chain. Have you talked to them about doing that?

Paul: I am waiting because I happen to be an enormous IHOP fan. When I was growing up in Jersey, anytime my family went to IHOP, it was a major occasion. It was a big treat. One of the things that bonded my long-time partner and I is that we visit IHOPs all across the country. Although, I have always been a little confused, even though it stands for International House of Pancakes, I haven’t come across any in other countries. There’s a goal. That is my dream, for IHOP to maybe name a Rooty Tooty Fresh ‘N Fruity special after me. That was the first place we went when the lockdown was slightly lifting. IHOP was very good about social distancing and wiping everything down with a limited menu. I thought, okay, IHOP is here for us.

Zibby: That’s so funny. When I was in graduate school, there was an IHOP nearby. That’s where I got to know my ex-husband. We would go to IHOP all the time. It was open all the — it was just great. I love IHOPs. I love pancakes. Favorite food, by the way.

Paul: IHOP and Carvel, actually. I feel like I’m proving I’m from New Jersey. IHOP, interestingly, is a destination for families and often for criminals because it’s open late. You can meet all sorts of people at an IHOP.

Zibby: Yes, but very good. The sticky syrup, you just got it all. You nailed it. Yes, Carvel as well. We have Fudgie at all of our birthdays, Fudgie the Whale, a staple.

Paul: For Father’s Day.

Zibby: Now you don’t even have to order anything. You can just go in. Anyway, I know you have a big background in screenwriting. I loved In & Out, by the way. I watched that right when it came out and everything. This, of course, feels very visual. It feels to me a lot like Notting Hill where you have this cast of characters. They all band together. There’s this dramatic ending. It just kind of reminded me of that in particular. What’s it like writing fiction as a novel as opposed to screenwriting? Do you see this one ending up on the screen as well?

Paul: I’m so glad you mentioned Notting Hill because that was the kind of movie I wanted to reflect in this novel. It was also about someone, because it’s a regular guy, a guy who runs a bookshop, who falls in love with one of the world’s biggest movie stars. I love the idea of a romance in that kind of spotlight. That’s different from equals. It entails all sorts of challenges that most of us don’t have to deal with. I love screenwriting, but it’s a very different discipline. I’ve learned through trial and error to usually let the material decide where it wants to land. I’d be delighted to have Playing the Palace become a movie. I think it was when I heard it in Carter’s voice, which is something that can only really exist on a page, that was when it all came together for me. It certainly has a visual element. Especially anytime you’re entering Buckingham Palace, suddenly, that’s what we’re looking at. I always enjoyed leapfrogging between the stage, movies. Look at your beautiful dog.

Zibby: Sorry, she’s my podcast companion. She’s always here.

Paul: That’s so great. Screenwriting certainly has informed my work and helped me with dialogue, especially because it makes you edit. It makes you aware of how sometimes the visual can do what five pages of dialogue has to accomplish in a book or on stage. I’ve been very weary of making sure, okay, no, this wants to be a book, and take advantage of that.

Zibby: Interesting. Carter did have such a great — it’s such a unique voice. It was really fun, very confessional in a way, you have the way he talks. What was it like writing this? Did you write it during COVID? I know you said that it was the antidote to that kind of fear, to have an escape in this book. When did you start writing it? What was that process like?

Paul: I started writing it actually a few years earlier, but I did all the final editing and the final galleys during the lockdown, which was such a blessing, if a pandemic can ever be said to have an upside. The pandemic actually, I realized, kind of made all of us assume the way a writer usually lives, which is alone in your room. What I loved was being able to escape into this world of a certain glamour, a certain freedom, a wild amount of passion. It was just what I needed. I’d be line editing and go through every sentence. I’d be so happy. Then I’d look up and realize, oh, right, COVID. My mask is sitting on the desk. My surgical gloves are sitting over here. This is a very different time. It was a great balance for me. I thought, good, I hope I can share this with readers, that sense of, yep, you’re going to have a great time.

Zibby: We should also discuss, this isn’t just Notting Hill. It’s not just the class differences or the fame levels. This is two men who are in love. That doesn’t often get central casting in a movie, so to speak. Having the whole relationship focus on this romance, tell me about that and deciding to have that be the central feature.

Paul: I didn’t want to write a coming-out story. I think those are very valid. There are plenty of books about prejudice, about the enormous rejection that gay people can sometimes face. I thought, we need other stories as well, joyous stories. I know so many openly and very happy gay people. I thought, yeah, that’s the world I want to explore. Then I thought, let’s have the two guys being gay a complete given. You think, the royal family has been around forever. There are so many members. You know there are some LGBTQ people in there somewhere. I thought, let’s imagine that one of them had come out fearlessly and happily and said, if I’m going to represent my country, they need to know who I really am, and take it from there. I loved trusting the reader that way. I remember when I was working on In & Out, the studio was very nervous about it. How would it play in different parts of the country? They found, no, this is a universal language. People, in fact, are also very eager for fresh stories, for a story they haven’t heard a million times before.

It was really fun to say, what would that look like? also because I think Prince Edger has an additionally layer of responsibility because he has to not only represent the royal family, but he becomes a gay figurehead. That’s not easy. He’s going to be criticized from every place on the political spectrum. There will be people who feel he’s not gay enough. He’s not gay in the correct manner. He’s too gay. I thought, that’s something that only the first guy has to deal with, or the first woman. I think we’re starting now with Meghan and Harry, with our First Gentleman married to Kamala, there are new roles, with Chasten and Pete. I love watching how the world adjusts and realizes, to a great degree, what were we ever nervous about? These are wonderful couples in love just like everybody else, sometimes even more so. I think that’s also at the core of the book. When you’re that out there on every level, when you’re representing the English people, gay people, everyone, it’s great to have a partner. A support system is so important. I’m gay. I love writing about gay lives in a way that says, nope, this is for everyone.

Zibby: Poor Edgar has had a lot on his plate in addition to all of that, in addition to having to be a figurehead of a nation and a sexuality and everything. He’s gone through a lot of loss himself and really has to figure out how to cope with that on a day-to-day basis, even his special, favorite room in his house and the old nursery and the memories that he carries with him. That sense of loss and longing is also, unfortunately, super timely as well.

Paul: One thing I so admired about Harry was when he was so open about experiencing depression and about allowing himself to go into therapy. You think of the tragedy he’s known since he was a small child. That’s very brave. The royal family was usually very private about any of those concerns. I think he realized, no, this is, again, a way I can use my position in the world to help other people and to remove a certain stigma from issues surrounding mental health. I wanted Edgar to be somebody who had a lot of damage. I think it’s also why when we meet his grandmother, Queen Catherine, she seems very .

Zibby: Hilarious. Oh, my gosh, what a character.

Paul: Carter meets her, but he thinks, maybe I’ll be presented properly and formally. Of course, no, he runs into her at two AM in the palace kitchen when he’s stealing snacks in his sweats. Everything goes wrong. You eventually realize that Catherine isn’t just the toughest cookie on earth, she’s so protective of her grandson. She so wants only the best for him. She knows that, okay, this is a guy who’s experienced way more than his share of tragedy. She doesn’t want that to continue. There are all sorts of facets to that relationship as well. Edgar, it’s also the difficulty of dealing with personal trauma in a spotlight with the internet breathing over your shoulder twenty-four/seven. That’s not something that the rest of us have to deal with quite as much. I wanted to create a character who dealt with it, for the most part, very well, who understood his privilege, understood his responsibilities, and tried desperately not to let it drive him crazy.

Zibby: Wow. I’m sure you don’t, but I hope you bring these characters back in some way, shape, or form. I know it tied up with such a neat bow at the end. It was so well-done. I would love to see what it’s like next. What happens next? What if they decide to have a child? I don’t know. I just feel like you should keep these guys going.

Oh, are you still there? I guess Paul had to go. Anyway, I was recommending to him that I think he should keep his characters going. They are amazing. The book was fantastic. I’m sorry we didn’t get to hear if he’s working on anything new. I’m sorry he didn’t get to add any advice. I loved chatting with him about Playing the Palace. Thank you to Paul for joining. Thank you all for listening. Bye.



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