In On Location, a rom-com by Sarah Echavarre Smith, Alia Dunn finally has the green light as showrunner on her own travel series: showcasing the national parks of Utah. It’s a professional dream come true and a personal tribute to her late apong, from whom she gained a love of travel as a child.
It’s almost enough to make her forget how she had the perfect first date after a meet cute on the subway with a guy named Drew — who then immediately ghosted her — until he shows up on her crew. When the big wigs demand she cast a D-list reality star with a penchant for edibles (and a fraught relationship with clothing) as host, Alia has to manage more than her feelings about working with Drew to make the shoot a success.
On Location is a fun and steamy romp, and it’s also about what it means to be a leader, a friend and a partner — under pressure and in a beautiful location. Thanks to Sarah for chatting with me by email and for reminding me I need more rom-coms in my life!
Sara Shukla: First, I love the location of this fictional travel series shoot: national parks in Utah. What’s your connection there? I felt like you got so many details right. The banter about four percent beer made me giggle—I’ve had that conversation.
Sarah Echavarre Smith: Oh I’m so happy you liked the setting! It’s definitely a bit unconventional to set a sexy romcom in the middle-of-nowhere Utah. I love hiking, and Utah is one of my favorite places to hike; the scenery is breathtaking and the landscape is unlike any other place I’ve visited. I’ve taken a handful of hiking trips to southern Utah over the years and hit up all of the national parks and a few state parks, and I’ve always wanted to write a book set there.
I wrote On Location in 2020, when I was stuck at home after having to cancel all the trips I had planned. Writing scenes set in the places where I’ve visited was a fun way of getting away during a time when it wasn’t safe to travel. Oh gosh, that beer conversation in the book! That was definitely based on some real life discussions about the quality of Utah-brewed beer, LOL.
This novel is as much about power, and how Alia navigates it as a young female professional, as it is about another kind of tension. (To be clear, there is plenty of both!) As showrunner she’s trying to assert her autonomy, and you balance that with the romance of having a guy come to the rescue in some ways, but I thought of Ali Wong’s “Always Be My Maybe,” when Randall Park holds her purse at the end. He’s not there to take over; he’s there to boost what she can do herself. I’d love to hear more about what that kind of HEA (“happily ever after”) means to you.
I love that you brought up “Always Be My Maybe” because I LOVE that movie so much! The dynamic between Marcus and Sasha definitely gives me Alia and Drew vibes. Alia is a strong, capable and tenacious person who doesn’t need anyone to come to her rescue, but at the same time, even the strongest person will have moments where they’re feeling dismissed and/or mistreated. They need support in those painful moments and to be advocated for. Just because you’re strong doesn’t mean you’re immune to getting hurt. And I think Drew is very aware of that. He steps up when he notices that Alia is nearing her breaking point dealing with all the stresses of spearheading a TV series. When he sees her enduring the sexist treatment from network executives and other frustrations, he finds ways to help support her and even stands up for her.
But he’s not perfect, of course, and there are moments when he as a privileged man misreads or misunderstands situations that hurt Alia’s feelings. And when that happens, he takes accountability for that and apologizes, then figures out what steps he can take to be better. All of that plays into the kind of HEAs I try to craft for my stories. I don’t think characters need to be perfect or handle every situation perfectly. They can mess up, and as long as they are willing to apologize and be better and show up for their love interest time and time again, that’s what matters.
And that’s exactly the journey that Alia and Drew take in On Location. They’re both VERY messy at times in how they express themselves and handle conflict. But throughout the story, they say sorry to each other, they learn how to be more open and vulnerable with one another as they navigate their relationship. To me, characters don’t have to be perfect to earn their HEAs, they just have to be genuine.
I watched a handful of rom-cons with my daughter last winter in the pandemic doldrums, and while I will always love them, some don’t age super well. What do you think contemporary rom-coms or romance novels are doing right these days? Or maybe just what are they doing differently?
I think there’s a conscious effort nowadays to prioritize consent in romance and rom-coms, which I’m so, so happy to see. For so long consent was ambiguous or even ignored, which was so upsetting to me. It can perpetuate dangerous expectations when it comes to sex and sexual violence. But now I feel like there’s a push both from authors and readers to make sure that during sexual/romantic scenes, it’s not just consent that’s established, but enthusiastic consent — to make it 1000% clear that the characters involved in this scene are hot for each other and absolutely want to be with each other.
That’s huge to me because, again, historically that wasn’t always the case. And I think as authors and writers putting out entertainment and other content into the world, we have a responsibility to perpetuate healthy, responsible expectations, and enthusiastic consent is one of them.
I also think in the last few years there’s been a push to give authors and writers from diverse/marginalized backgrounds more opportunities to share their stories. For so long publishing and writing has been dominated by straight white men, and it’s encouraging to see more diverse and marginalized authors. We still have a long way to go though.
I tore through this book in the first two days my kids went back to school. I even took it to their soccer practice, and, ahem, it made the time fly. Is a quick and fun escape something you think about?
Oh yay! That’s honestly the best compliment, when someone says they read my book quickly. (*heart eyes emoji*) And yes, absolutely! Honestly, one of my biggest goals as an author is to make people happy with my books. I want to write books that are fun, relatable and quick to read. I want readers to finish my book with a smile on their face, feeling lighter and more joyful. Life can be heavy and draining at times, and I want my books to be a pleasant escape from all of that.
Whenever I read rom-coms, I remember how writing, like reading, should be fun. The banter, the humor, the tension — it reminds me not to take writing too seriously, to get out of my own way and let the good stuff get onto the page. Did you have fun writing this book? What do you look to for inspiration or energy when you write?
I had an absolute blast writing On Location! I had the best time coming up with the fun and ridiculous scenarios that happen in the book. And I love, love, love writing steamy scenes. Writing has always made me feel happy and whole and I can’t imagine any other job bringing me this much joy.
I find inspo everywhere! From other romance books and movies to songs to super strange places — like overhearing strangers’ conversations, random YouTube videos, TikTok and Instagram, haha. I think I just have a really active imagination, and it must just be the way my brain is wired, but ideas pop into my head pretty regularly. I’m fortunate that I haven’t yet experienced burnout *knock on wood*!
I just read this essay in The Cut about why the sex scenes in Sally Rooney’s novels are so good, and this stood out to me as both true and also not limited to Rooney:
“The idea of seeking truth in our romances, of demanding what we want and even getting it, is appealing, especially in an era of f***boys and confusing, middling hook-ups and semi-relationships.”
If this is what we sometimes want as readers, there are so so many books out there. They don’t have bucket hats (thank goodness), but they’re worth checking out. This is one of them! What are some of your favorite potential gateway romance novels, for those of us who might be less initiated?
Oh wow! I’m so honored you think that about On Location, thank you!! Oh gosh, I have sooo many great gateway romances I could give you. Here are a few of my faves:
The Hating Game by Sally Thorne (amazing enemies-to-lovers office romance)
A Girl Like You by Gemma Burgess (the most perfect contemporary British romcom ever written IMO with a dynamite friends-to-lovers trope)
There With You by Samantha Young (super steamy romantic suspense)
A Good Night’s Sleep by Stefanie Simpson (hot and angsty enemy neighbors-to-lovers romance with excellent kink rep)
Not Suitable For Work by Skye McDonald (fun and sexy work rivals romance)
Wrong Bed, Right Brother by Rebecca Brooks (steamy mistaken identity romance)
Sarah Smith is a copywriter-turned-author who wants to make the world a lovelier place, one kissing story at a time. Her love of romance began when she was eight and she discovered her auntie’s stash of romance novels. She’s been hooked ever since. When she’s not writing, you can find her hiking, eating chocolate, and perfecting her lumpia recipe. She lives in Bend, Oregon, with her husband and adorable cat Salem.