Robinne Lee, THE IDEA OF YOU

Robinne Lee, THE IDEA OF YOU

Actress and author Robinne Lee discusses the inspiration behind the May-December romance in her novel, The Idea of You, and how birthing her first child lead to birthing her first publication. She shares with Zibby the deep attachment she felt to her characters and the separation anxiety she experienced once the book was complete, highlighting the trauma that comes with letting go of a fictitious love.


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

Robinne Lee: Thank you for having me, Zibby. I’m very excited to be here.

Zibby: As I was just telling you, this is so fitting. Because of construction, I am sitting in my daughter’s room with her stuffed animals all around me. It’s Moms Don’t Have Time to Podcast today, but that’s okay.

Robinne: It’s beautiful wallpaper. I’m enjoying it.

Zibby: Thank you so much. I have to tell you, your book, The Idea of You, a friend of mine named Joyce Chang, who is awesome and used to be the editor of People magazine and is a good friend of a good friend and who I’ve known for a while, was like, “You have to read this book and have this author on your podcast.” Whenever people say that who I’m good friends with — actually, I shouldn’t admit this. When a good friend of mine is like, you have to have this book on, I take special care to read that book. Anyway, as soon as I started reading this, I was like, I get it.

Robinne: Thank Joyce for me.

Zibby: I will thank Joyce for you. Robinne, just tell listeners about The Idea of You and how you came up with this plot. Then I want to talk about your whole acting career and how all of this has intersected with this book.

Robinne: The Idea of You is a story of Solène Marchand who is a thirty-nine-year-old sophisticated divorcée here in Los Angeles. I’m in LA. She owns an art gallery with a partner. She’s got a twelve-year-old daughter who’s obsessed with this British boy band. She gets enlisted to take her daughter and a few friends to a meet-and-greet and concert for the band. At the meet-and-greet, one of the guys in the band kind of falls for Solène. He’s half her age. They embark on a bit of a tryst and very quickly becomes this very involved, genuine love story. Their relationship, as it flowers, it affects every aspect of her life in unexpected ways. That’s the story.

Zibby: I saw in your acknowledgments you credited your husband. Tell me about that.

Robinne: I did. It was about six years — seven? Oh, my gosh, I’m bad with math. Seven. It’s years seven ago. It was 2014. Seven years ago now, about. It was March of 2014. My kids were still quite small. My husband was away on business. I was home late one night surfing YouTube. I was just looking up random music acts. I came across this band with this guy in it with a beautiful, beautiful face, but obviously very young, but just ridiculously beautiful. I kind of went down a rabbit hole for an hour looking into everything about him and discovered that he occasionally dated older women. It just kind of planted the seed. When my husband came back from New York, we were at an event two nights after that. I told him, I was like, “I found the perfect guy. I’m thinking about leaving you and the two kids and just running off and finding him. He’s half my age and he’s in a band. How do you feel about that?” He laughed. He was like, “You are crazy, but that would make a great book.” The second he said it, I could see it from beginning to end. It all just fell into place for me. I’ve written all my life, mostly for myself and for pleasure. I’ve never had a story just play out in my head so clearly, so quickly, so specifically. I just saw it. I was like, that’s it. I could write this book. I could do it really well. I would really enjoy the process.

I said I could do it really well because I’d just turned forty. I was dealing with a lot of the baggage that comes along with — you should be able to enjoy turning forty. Now that I’m so far past that, forty is like, that was nothing. It was looming big for a very long time. I’m an actress here in Hollywood. I’ve been an actress for a quarter of a century now. Oh, my god, that sounds like a long time. I could see how the offers and the roles that I was being submitted for had changed drastically from my twenties and even my thirties. Once you hit forty, things just dry up. There’s fewer opportunities for really great roles that are outside of just the mom or just the neighbor, the neighbor’s wife, or the detective. Whatever it is, there were fewer and fewer opportunities. They were not as juicy and multilayered as I would have liked. I just feel like, god, Hollywood really throws us away at a certain age. They save the really good roles for the Nicole Kidmans and the Viola Davises and Angela Bassetts or Cate Blanchetts or whatever, great roles even on TV. That’s changed in the last seven years. I will say there have been some incredible female roles, older woman roles on TV. Seven years ago, there were so few. There were so few. Netflix wasn’t making their own content. Amazon wasn’t making its own content. Hulu did not exist. I was kind of angry. Not angry at the world, but at the business and just wanted to show that women still have a lot to give.

At forty, you can just come into your own. I think it’s when you’re hitting your peak of your power and a woman in business or whatever that is that the world kind of tells you that you’re no longer viable. You’re no longer — I don’t want to say a bad word. You’re no longer desirable. You become invisible. I wanted to show what that was and what that felt like. I wanted to do it by this woman coming out of a divorce. She’s three years out of a divorce. She finds this guy who reawakens her and her sexuality and who she is and her identity. I wanted to explore all of that. I just thought I could do it and have fun with it. Right out of college I’d started a company with a girlfriend of mine in New York. We were managing singing groups. One of our groups was an all-girls group. We were produced by one of the New Kids on the Block. They were just past the height of their fame, at the height of their fame and then coming down. I got to know them and see what their lives were like when they were still quite famous. They’re famous now. I don’t know how many years they took off. Eight, twelve, whatever it was.

Back in the nineties, they were still massive, successful, and huge fandom. To see what it was like to be caught up with them at that point in time was really eye-opening. I thought, oh, I know what this is. I could write a boy band. I just need to research and see what boy bands’ lives are like today and what shows are doing and what are the big talk shows and publicity and what tours look like. I know what that energy is. I know what the energy is like being a girl experiencing it because I used to be obsessed with Duran Duran. I know what it’s like to be in a stadium filled with screaming girls and feeling like this is the most incredible thing that’s ever happened to me. I also know what it’s like to look at it as a forty-year-old woman and assess what — you don’t get caught up in the magic in that way, but you can still be attracted to them in that way. That, I figured, let’s go and explore it. That’s what I did.

Zibby: Did you have as much fun as you thought you would?

Robinne: Absolutely. I had a lot of fun, but it was also way more of an emotional toll than I ever expected. I felt like I’ve lived this relationship and I went on this journey with this woman. I was living it in real time. Are we doing this assuming that your readers have read it? Can I talk about the ending, or can I not talk about the ending of the book?

Zibby: It’s up to you. Some people are just finding out about the book, I would imagine. Some have read it and want to know more. It’s up to you.

Robinne: I’m not going to give away too much about the end. About three months out when I knew it was ending and I knew my time with them was coming to an end, I was really depressed. I would cry every day. I’d cry writing. I’d have to stop, close my laptop, and just curl up in a ball and cry for an hour and then start again, or twenty minutes or whatever it was. It was really emotional for me. I’d gotten so close to them and attached to them. I felt so connected with them. I felt for the year and a half, year and three months that I was writing this, they were living in my head. There were three of us in my brain. Knowing that I was going to have to push two of them out and be like, “That’s it. We’re done. I’m done with the two of you. You have to go now,” was really, really hard, way more than I’d ever experienced writing anything prior and way more than I’d expected and that I even thought I could handle at times. I really felt like, I’m going crazy. I’m going crazy. These people are living in my head. Maybe this is some form of schizophrenia or something. I wasn’t sure what it was. A hallucination? I heard their voices so clearly. It was so specific. At the same time, I didn’t want to lose them because I knew that that was part of the magic. I felt like I could write for them because they were so clear to me. As a writer, you’re . Am I insane? Am I going crazy? Am I hallucinating? Is this what they talk about as finding — oh, my goodness, I’m going to forget her name now. Elizabeth. She wrote Eat Pray Love.

Zibby: Gilbert.

Robinne: Gilbert. Thank you. She has this incredible TED talk about what genius is and how we talk about people today as being geniuses like it’s someone that you are, but in the past, it was something that you owned or something you held onto. She talks about finding your genie and how it could just be in the wind, and you just grab it. You hold onto it. You’re writing. You’re using it. Then you let it go, and it’s gone. You can’t get it back, that kind of paralysis when you feel like, oh, my gosh, what if I can never get it back? I really felt I had this genie at that point. I didn’t want to lose it no matter what it was. I was like, I’m not going to go to therapy for this just yet. I don’t want to lose these voices. It was a lot more emotional than I expected.

Zibby: Then what happened when you got to the last page?

Robinne: I was very relived and very happy and very satisfied with what I’d written, but I cried, I would say, every day for about eighteen months.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh.

Robinne: For a long time.

Zibby: Robinne.

Robinne: It was really, really rough. It took a long time for me to separate from them and be like, okay, I can go on. I can do other things. I don’t have to be obsessed with them now. They’re not living in my head. They’re not a part of me. They’ll have their own lives outside of me. I can do other things. It was very difficult to separate. Then of course, the book comes out and everyone’s like, are you doing a sequel? When are you doing a sequel? I was like, I can’t let those people back into my head just yet. I have to heal. I will go crazy. They will have to commit me. I really felt like I was losing my mind. I felt very haunted by them, by him especially, by the Hayes character. I felt very haunted by him for a long time. It’s been very tricky separating and trying to create art without them.

Zibby: It’s like you’re having separation anxiety from the characters. Have you had anxiety in other areas? Does this make sense in overall anxiety? Is this completely left field?

Robinne: I’m not normally an anxious person. Definitely since COVID, it’s kicked in. In the beginning months of COVID, my anxiety was crazy. I ended up having high blood pressure diagnosed right before the release of the book. I could feel it. I could feel my heart racing. I’m on medication for that now. Both of my parents had it. It was in my family. I was going to get it eventually. I definitely timed it with the release of this book. The stress and the anxiety that I felt with the releasing of this novel was definitely what kicked it into gear for me. I’m a hundred percent certain that’s what did it.

Zibby: Not to say I’m not surprised because this is a unique attachment to characters — not unique, but the extent of your attachment to them is on one end of a spectrum that I feel like a lot of people are on. Your characters, in reading them, feel so real. It’s almost not surprising to me because you get so invested in their — it’s like the alternate life. It’s going to all these amazing places you wish you could go to and this beautiful villa in the South of France. How amazing would that be? It’s like the life you don’t live. It’s almost like you’re not really just saying goodbye to the characters. You’re saying goodbye to the fantasy, to the life you didn’t live, which is hard.

Robinne: Right. Most of those places, I’ve been to, but not in that way.

Zibby: You’re not living them right this second. I have to tell you — maybe I shouldn’t even. I actually got divorced and then I remarried someone younger than me who’s not as young. He’s only six years younger, but it feels like a lot younger when you have kids and all that. I did go from being married for over a decade to all of a sudden having this very —

Robinne: — Whisked off your feet again.

Zibby: Whisked off my feet again with this very confident younger man. I was like, oh, my gosh, with children. Similar to Solène, not in the same thing, but I feel like I had a piece of that in my own life. I was reading this like, oh, my gosh.

Robinne: I think it’s a really unique, incredible experience, extraordinary experience to fall in love. I think it only happens a few times in one’s life. For me, it definitely happened twice at least, including my husband, someone before my husband and then my husband. There was a sadness thinking, oh, I’ll never have this again, this magic. It’s not like you fall in love with your husband all over again every single day. You love him, but it’s not that kind of swept off your feet like everything is a surprise and everything is new and full of wonder. Someone told me, that’ll change. You’ll have it again when you have babies. I was like, it’s not going to be the same. It definitely is a high when you have a baby, that first year or so, and just discovering every little thing about them. We were talking about kids before this. When I had my daughter who’s now twelve and I knew she was going to be our last, I held onto every moment of it. I remember thinking, this is the last time I’ll ever fall in love this way. This is the last time. That’s it. That’s my whole life. That was a very sad thing. Assuming my husband and I stay together, this is it. I’ll never have that feeling.

Writing this book, I definitely fell in love with this character in the way that it felt when I first met my husband, in the way that it felt when I first met my boyfriend who was my first real love. I never imagined that could happen again, and through fiction. It was really surprising. Letting go of that too, it was really like a breakup. I’m losing this guy. That’s it. Our relationship is over. It’s been this incredible whirlwind. I’m going to cry. It was really hard to say goodbye. I don’t know that it’ll happen again. It’s kind of magic. I feel like I put so much into him. The idea of putting so much into another male character in that kind of situation, I just can’t even visualize it. I don’t know that I want to write another story like this. I feel like I wrote one really good love story. I want to explore other things before I come back to doing another love story.

Zibby: You don’t have to do another love story. I’m not going to force you.

Robinne: Thank you.

Zibby: It’s okay. This one is great. The idea that we always have to be constantly creating more and more, to have one amazing love story and to be able to have characters so vivid and take the reader on this complete ride emotionally and physically — the other night, I was reading some of this. I’m in the middle of one of the scenes when they’re about — I don’t want to give anything — a very physically intense scene. I’m halfway through it. My eyes are wide staring. Next thing you know, my son is like, “Come upstairs. I need you right now.” I’m like, no! I was like, let me just get to the end of this. I’m right in the middle. I felt like I was right in the middle of it, which of course was ridiculous. Really, I was just in my crazy house with kids everywhere. The ability of fiction to transport obviously you as the writer of it and as the reader —

Robinne: — Even writing it, I had moments like that. There was the time they first make love in — I won’t say where in case I give anyone away. That love scene took two or three days to write, two days to write. I don’t remember. A couple days to write. I remember I’d write some dialogue in the morning. I’d get it out. Then I’d have to go and take my kid to school or whatever and remove myself from that hotel room and him and whatever. I remember being like, do not move. I’m coming right back. I’m going to take the kid. I’ll be right back. Don’t go anywhere. No one move. No one go anywhere. Nothing. Don’t touch each other. I’ll be right back. It’s so all-consuming.

Zibby: You even put that in the book too when Isabelle calls right in the middle of that scene. She has to say, stay right there.

Robinne: It’s exactly like, what is this kid? Where did I get these kids from? Why are they demanding things of me? I’m having the time of my life.

Zibby: Yet you have to pick up the phone at all because, you know, kids. I read that this was in development. Now I’m wondering if you’re reluctant to develop this into film because of all of the emotional baggage of the characters. What’s the latest on that?

Robinne: It’s in development. I don’t have as much say in it as I would like to have. At some point, I feel like you birth a book. It’s your book. It’s always going to be your book. Hollywood takes it and they make it what they want to make it. I have to kind of be like, go with God. They’re not mine. In that formation, they’re not my people anymore. They’re not. It’s something else entirely. We’ll see. I think that’s the plight of the author unless you have so much control. I don’t know. We’ll see. You just hope you’re pleasantly surprised.

Zibby: It’s funny because even on Twitter somebody who was tweeting both of us yesterday about it put the Harry Styles GIF or whatever. Everybody is going to interrupt this book and have their own Hayes in their heads already. That’s not how I pictured him at all because he’s so tall. I just had a different — not like Benedict Cumberbatch, but a taller British man vibe. Anyway, whatever. When you’re reading it, it’s one thing. Then when somebody else gives a form to it, you have to —

Robinne: — Exactly. They’re never going to cast someone who’s going to make every single reader happy. You have to let it go. The Hayes in your head from the book can exist in your head from the book. The Hayes in the movie can be the Hayes in the movie. There you go. The Hayes in the TV show spinoff, I don’t know.

Zibby: I would be interested because it’s such a great story and also to reconnect with the characters as opposed to just having the book to read again and again. It’s pretty awesome. You should feel really good about it. I’m sure you do.

Robinne: Thank you so much.

Zibby: Pretty amazing. I know you’re not writing another love story. I totally get where your head’s at. Do you still write for you? I can’t imagine that after all that you would stop.

Robinne: No, I stopped writing for me, which is really, really hard. I’m trying to. You try to kid yourself. This is just for me. Don’t think too much about it. You can’t. I feel like once you’ve published and your words are out there in the world — I have not spoken to any writers personally who can do it successfully and just let out all the noise. I’d love to hear their pointers. I’m sure there’s some who can. I have all these little people on my shoulder now. It used to be just my parents. What are my parents going to say? I can share this with you. I’ve written a lot of stuff for myself. There have been love stories before. There have been sex scenes prior. I was like, I’m never ever going to publish any of that stuff because if my parents know I know anything about sex, they’re going to disown me. It literally was when I was pushing out my first child and my mom was in the room along with my sister and my husband, and as I was pushing I thought, oh, my god, she now knows I’ve had sex. This means I can write now. I can try to publish. It was really that moment of pushing out my son Alexander that it was this, I can write and publish books now because obviously…

Zibby: Cat’s out of the bag.

Robinne: He’s crowning. It used to be like, what are they going to say? That was kind of it. Now it’s, what my agent’s going to think? What’s my publisher? What’s an editor? What are any publishers going to think? What are publicity people going to think, and bloggers, and these readers, and readers who love this but wanted this, and readers who loved this part but didn’t want that? It’s not just me. I really wish I could get back to the space where I could not hear all that stuff and just hear my own voice. It’s hard.

Zibby: Here’s an assignment I’ll give you if you want to accept it, which you don’t have to. I have this new Medium publication called Moms Don’t Have Time to Write. I think you should write about what you were talking about with saying goodbye to your characters and the trauma of letting go.

Robinne: I’m writing this down. I’m taking notes.

Zibby: I think you should do it, the trauma of letting go of a fictious love. That is powerful. It’s unique. It’s awesome. I would totally read an essay. It talks about you as a writer. I think you should tap into that feeling of sadness and loss because that’s really what it is. You had to lose somebody you were so close to. Yet it was fiction. I think you should write about that. Just write a thousand words.

Robinne: Okay. Maybe I’ll do that.

Zibby: Nobody is going to really read it. It’s a small publication, so you can test your wings. I think it would be good for you to write. Send it to me. We’ll see. What do you think? Think about it. Put it in the back of your head.

Robinne: I’m already thinking about it.

Zibby: Okay. Put it in the back. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Robinne: Don’t listen to anything I just said. Write for yourself. No, seriously, when I was writing, I wasn’t sure who would connect with this. I knew that I connected with it. It was so important to me to get this out. I loved it so much. Every word I wrote, I loved it so much. I really feel like it’s important that you write what you want to write and you fall in love with what you’re writing and you think only about your own happiness when you’re writing. I think if you’re writing for an audience or you’re writing thinking, a market or who will buy this or how it will be — I didn’t even have a genre. I remember I first workshopped it in my writer’s group when it was — I workshopped it at different stages, one chapter, two chapters, four chapters, and then when it was finally complete. After four chapters, a girlfriend said, “This is great, but you know, in romance novels, there’s two or three love scenes that are soup to nuts. The other things are kind of vague. You start here and then you stop.” I was like, “What are you talking about? This isn’t a romance novel.” She’s like, “Oh, it’s not?” I was like, “No.” At that point, I didn’t really read romance novels. I’ve read a bunch since because I have a lot of friends now who are authors who write romance novels. I was like, “I don’t read romance novels. I don’t know what the formula is.” She was like, “What kind of book is it?” I was like, “It’s a woman’s story.” She’s like, “So it’s kind of women’s fiction?” I was like, “I guess.” She’s like, “Well, her life has got to be messier.” I was like, “What?” She’s like, “She’s got to be like, more things just crazy.” I wasn’t even thinking about a formula for any genre specifically. I was just writing one woman’s story. She’s got this life. On the outside, it looks great. For the most part, she’s in control. This guy comes into her life and turns everything upside down in a good way and then not a good way. She survives.

Zibby: It’s great. Thank you for this book which obviously transported you and also transported me, not just emotionally, but to all the amazing places in the book, as I said. Really, it’s exactly what I needed to read after a year of quarantine and no travel. Even LA, I used to be in LA all the time and now we haven’t been in over a year. Back at and Saint-Tropez and all these places, it just was amazing, a life that none of us are leading right now. I know it didn’t just come out, but it’s a really good book for now and for whenever.

Robinne: Thank you so much. I appreciate that.

Zibby: No problem. Thank you so much, Robinne. I hope that you write even just a little, even a couple hundred —

Robinne: — I am. I’m writing. I’m working on something now. It’s just taking much longer than I ever thought it would take, but sometimes that happens.

Zibby: Take your time.

Robinne: Taking my time.

Zibby: Thank you. I’m so glad to have connected with you.

Robinne: Thank you so much. Take care.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Robinne Lee, THE IDEA OF YOU

THE IDEA OF YOU by Robinne Lee

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