Authors Spotlight: ReShonda Tate Billingsley and Victoria Christopher “Friends & Foes”

 

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Victoria Christopher Murray / Contributed

Jasmine Larson Bush and Rachel Jackson Adams, the fictional church “first ladies” in the new book “Friends and Foes,” seem to be more foes than friends.

But the authors who created them — also ladies who go by three names — are in reality close friends who clearly love writing together. And they will be in Montgomery this week for a book signing.

“Friends and Foes” (Gallery Books, March 2013, $15) is the second book by the team of ReShonda Tate Billingsley and Victoria Christopher Murray, who were both established novelists when they teamed up for their first novel, “Sinners and Saints.”

Billingsley created Rachel, who was already an established character in a line of books. One of those books, “Let the Church Say Amen,” has been made into a TV movie, directed by Regina King. The movie is set to air on BET this fall, though a release date hasn’t been set.

And Murray’s character, Jasmine, also had her own line of books, including “A Sin and a Shame” and “Too Little Too Late.”

Both authors were with the publisher Simon and Schuster, but in different divisions. Billingsley’s publisher suggested she and Murray write a book together; they were already friends and fans of each other’s work, but they hadn’t thought of writing together.

Writing that way is definitely a challenge, Billingsley said. They challenge each other, and “that’s one of the things we love about it,” she added.

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ReShonda Tate Billingsley / Contributed

In “Friends and Foes,” Rachel Jackson Adams’ husband has won the coveted position of president in the American Baptist Coalition. Jasmine Larson Bush (whose husband is also a pastor and who also was a candidate for the top position) comes up with a scheme to one-up her archrival by promoting her charity on “Oprah.” Rachel decides to hijack Jasmine’s TV appearance, and in the mess that follows, neither ends up on the famed Oprah couch.

But in the midst of their scheming in Chicago, one of the heavy hitters within the American Baptist Coalition ends up dead — or maybe he’s just missing. Rachel is implicated in the man’s disappearance (oh, and he stole millions in drug money, and she’s on the hook for that, too). Jasmine has the chance to help her rival and get her out of trouble — but does she?

There’s plenty of back-and-forth scheming along the way, which has led to fans pledging allegiance to “Team Jasmine” or “Team Rachel.” And the authors do what they can to play up the rivalry on social media.

“We just love to see the fans engage as they pick sides,” Billingsley said.

“It was so easy to write together,” Murray said. “It was the most fun I’d ever had as a writer.”

The ladies live in different cities — Murray lives in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, and Billingsley lives in Houston. But they do all of their writing via email, in an interesting fashion. One writes a chapter as her character, then emails it to the other. Then the other picks up the story line and writes a chapter as her character. So the chapters alternate points of view between Rachel and Jasmine.

For “Friends and Foes,” they came up with a general idea of what the story was about, but they really didn’t have a specific plan for the plot.

“What was so great was that it was very organic, because we didn’t know where the story was going to go,” Murray said. “We were able to direct the story a certain way, but I never knew what ReShonda was going to write.”

Though the ladies had just a two-book contract, they’ve accepted a renewal for two more Rachel and Jasmine books. The ladies find inspirations for new storylines in all kinds of places.

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This past summer, Murray accompanied Billingsley to Billingsley’s hometown of Smackover, Ark. (yes, it’s an actual town.) Murray is, like Jasmine in the books, a New York City girl, so she was in for some very humorous culture shock.

“I got to see the one stoplight, the one grocery store. They tried to take me to dinner to the best hamburger place in the city, which is in a gas station, but I put my foot down and said, ‘we gotta go someplace else!’ I stayed in a Super 8 motel. Nobody, none of my friends, believed I was really in a Super 8.”

The experience will more than likely end up in another Rachel and Jasmine book, they say. And the two plan to make another trip back to Arkansas together.

“They were trying to get me to eat all kinds of foods that I call roadkill!” Murray said.

Billingsley’s Rachel is, as she is, “just a tad bit country,” she said. “I told her, a little squirrel never hurt anybody,” Billingsley joked.

It’s obvious that the two are fast friends,  and that the jabs are playful. Even though they write from their homes in different states, the collaboration is always easy, they say.

“I think because we love writing the stories so much, it doesn’t feel like work,” Billingsley said.

Murray agreed. “ReShonda and I are good friends anyway, so we talk to each other two or three times a day, so it’s like she’s here,” she said. “People know she’s my writing twin. She’s my writing soulmate.”

Written by
Allison Griffin
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