Julie Koca doesn't traffic in cliches of the "throbbing manhood" sort. Her first book, a contemporary romance called Just the Sexiest Man Alive—published this month by Berkley Books under her nom de plume "Julie James"—features no brooding Fabios, no heaving bosoms, no goofy anatomic euphemisms. (In fact the pedestrian penis shows up on the second page.) Still, as she's learned in her transition from attorney to screenwriter to novelist, there's no escaping stereotypes entirely.
Now 33, Koca began her first film script five years ago, when she was a trial lawyer in the Chicago office of Sidley Austin. It wasn't career dissatisfaction that sparked her efforts; on the contrary, she loved her job. She just wanted to write out an idea for a romantic comedy that she'd been carrying around in her head for a while—the story of a gorgeous, sharp-tongued lawyer whose boss forces her to help a womanizing but good-at-heart movie star prepare for a role. Her courtroom-honed ear for language, she hoped, would help her re-create the saucy verbal sparks of the vintage battle-of-the-sexes movies she loved, like His Girl Friday and The Philadelphia Story.
First, though, she had to figure out what she was doing. "I got one book on how to write screenplays," she says. "I was writing it in my spare time, which means 10 PM to 3 AM. Finished it, had no idea if it was any good, didn't know anyone in Hollywood. I just started querying agents. Now people tell me, 'That never works. You have to know somebody.'"
But it worked for her. Within a year she'd landed an agent, an option for her screenplay, The Andrews Project, and an introduction to the LA film industry. "People have all these stereotypes about Hollywood, and you think, 'Maybe they're not really true.' And you get out there, and, no, they really are all true," she says. For instance: Upon reading her second script, a psychological thriller, a producer told her, "Julie, we love this. We're making this movie. We just have a few very, very minor changes. We need to change the murderer." Koca obliged.
With two optioned screenplays under her belt and support from her husband, also a lawyer, Koca quit Sidley Austin in 2005 to write full-time. (While she was at it, she had a baby—their son was born in 2007.) She's since had three more scripts optioned, though so far all of her options have expired without the works making it to the big screen. Still, the experience has served Koca well. When her agent suggested in 2003 that she turn The Andrews Project into a novel, she used her new firsthand knowledge of the Hollywood scene to help her rewrite it as Just the Sexiest Man Alive. In an echo of Koca's screenplay, the heroine, unimpressed with the hero's celebrity, spurns his attentions even as she secretly yearns for him. And of course he finds himself inexorably drawn to the only woman who's ever turned him down. As Koca is fond of saying, "High jinks ensue."
But not that kind of high jinks. The two don't get it on until the book's conclusion—after they're engaged, no less—and when they do, the event is relayed in distinctly nonthrobbing detail. ("When they finally made it to the bedroom, she was naughty there, too.") It wasn't a moral decision, Koca says, but a literary one. Having the cagey heroine jump into bed too soon "would have been contrary to her character." But she promises more steaminess in her next book, Practice Makes Perfect, another lawyer-centric contemporary romance that's due out in March. "It does have a sex scene, the first one I ever wrote," she says. "I just got a bottle of wine and said, 'All right. Gonna try this.'"
It's all part of the learning curve—after all, Koca didn't even know Just the Sexiest Man Alive would be marketed as a romance until after it had been accepted for publication. She'd assumed it would be classified as chick lit. "I maybe had some negative connotations associated with" the romance genre, she admits, "which I've learned are not true. I realized that the market is both broader and better than I thought it was."
It helped, too, to find out that according to the Romance Writers of America, romances are a $1 billion-plus industry, with more market share than even religion/inspirational titles. "Once I saw how large the industry was, then the logical, pragmatic part of me said, 'Great, call it one of those.'"v
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Just the Sexiest Man AliveJulie JamesBerkley Sensation, $7.99