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Chaotic Bisexuals hit the gym in Jennifer Dugan's latest novel

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Jennifer Dugan — Photo by Amber Hooper
Jennifer Dugan — Photo by Amber Hooper

Jennifer Dugan has become famous for her YA novels featuring "chaotic Bisexual teens," but this spring she is branching out into new territory and writing about chaotic Bisexual adults.

Dugan's brand-new novel, Love at First Set, features the classic shenanigans, awkward situations, and humorous faux pas fans have come to expect from the author of Hot Dog Girl and Melt With You, but this time she's raising the stakes for a (slightly) more mature audience.

Warning: adult content (sort of)
Dugan did not intend to write an adult novel at first, but as the pandemic wore on, she couldn't get the ironic idea of inspiring a runaway bride out of her head.

"I started thinking about this unspoken rule, where if you're out and you go to a bar, and there's this crying girl, you hype them up," she said. "You're like, 'He's the worst!' or whatever they need from you to make them feel good. What if you accidentally did that to a bride, and she turned into a runaway bride?"

The idea of an unwitting bar patron ruining a thoroughly planned wedding kept returning to Dugan, but she soon realized that the premise was unlike anything she'd ever published.

"I realized there is no way I can make this work for young adults. I tried to play with it, and I was like, maybe it's prom? But the stakes weren't the same. That's when I realized I [had] to make this jump into writing an adult rom-com," she said.

Image courtesy of Avon  

A love letter to the gym
She had plenty of time to expand on her runaway bride idea as the novel became a creative quarantine project.

"It was written during the COVID shutdowns in the early days. I was daydreaming about when I used to go out and when I used to go to the gym all the time," Dugan explained. "At the time, I had been going to the gym. I was at this great inclusive gym that made everybody feel so welcome. I missed it. This was a love letter to that."

Love at First Set centers around the tumultuous protagonist, Lizzie, who dreams of opening a gym as inclusive as Dugan's real-life sanctuary. "That's Lizzie's quest, to make a gym where no matter your ability or reason for being there, you can feel good about being there. You feel like you belong," she said. "A lot of it was daydreaming about getting out of this little nook where I did all my writing back in the early days of the pandemic."

While she did do some research via Instagram "fitspo" influencers, most of the gym scenes are inspired by Dugan's experiences as a weightlifter.

"I love lifting weights. I like to deadlift. It's my favorite. It just makes me feel super strong and badass," she said. "I have some lifting scenes [where] Lizzie talks about how strong is still sexy. I think [people often] expect women to look or act a certain way, and she's like, 'Strong is still sexy, strong is beautiful, muscles are beautiful. Bodies are beautiful in general.'"

Some of the main takeaways Dugan hopes readers lift from the book are body positivity and a healthy relationship with fitness. "I wanted to show that someone like Lizzie can be passionate about fitness and opening her gym, but it's just one passion of hers," she explained.

"I wanted to show that you can find an inclusive place [to work out]. If you're part of a gym full of lunkheads who make you uncomfortable, go somewhere else. These places do exist. Also, muscles are beautiful, and you can lean into traditionally 'masculine' things and maintain your femininity. It doesn't make you less of a woman."

Leaning into the mayhem
Dugan hopes her book can help readers embrace their imperfections and lean into the mayhem.

"I write romances for messy, imperfect people," she said, "so I hope people recognize that and recognize that [despite] having faults and flaws, you still deserve love, you still deserve happily-ever-after."

"You may not be perfect, and it may not be a storybook romance. There are still ups and downs, trauma and mistakes, but if your heart is good, you can get there."

Dugan's style of charming yet messy characters has become a staple of her work. "I think that's my brand. If you've ever read any of my previous books, I think you know that's what you'll get when a reader picks up my books," she said with a smile. "I love hearing them described [as chaotic] — that fits. It especially fits Lizzie, who is our POV character. She's full of bad ideas, she's doing her best, but you know she's a mess."

One challenge Dugan faced in writing chaotic adult characters instead of her usual teen heroines was understanding how living a topsy-turvy life as an adult can make mistakes feel more permanent.

"In YA, one of the things I love is that the stakes always feel like life or death, but you have your whole life ahead of you," she said. "You can come back from mistakes when you're a teenager. As an adult, your mistakes can have lifelong impacts."

"Immediately, even though I'm writing a rom-com, the stakes are still higher, and you're dealing with grown-up things. Cara leaving someone at the altar has ramifications. They're living together, building a life together. She does a hard reset and leaves her cushy job, her cushy life, and everything. The stakes feel higher when you're writing as an adult."

Written by a professional chaotic Bisexual
Dugan's characters are unique because they often do the exact opposite of what a reasonable person in their situation would. "There's a gap between what you would think of as an ideal response and their response," she said.

When brainstorming how to transcribe her messy coming-of-age themes into an adult novel, Dugan realized that many Queer adults experience delayed adolescence.

"There's a lot of ridiculous reactions and decision-making. A lot of times, you do see that with people who realize they're Bisexual later in life. They're going through this second adolescence, where they get to experience everything, so you don't have this cut-and-dry wisdom," she said.

Dugan also believes that by nature, Bisexual characters are prone to levels of chaos that others don't experience. "The act of being Bisexual and being attracted to multiple genders puts you in this chaotic state [and] a lot of times the LGBTQ community has mixed feelings about Bisexuality. People will either think you're 'too Gay' or 'not Gay enough.'"

Love at First Set creates an ideal recipe for Bisexual chaos: a runaway bride discovering her sexuality, a gym enthusiast with big dreams and bigger muscles, and a scheming best frenemy.

"All of that blends into this perfect storm, where you have these people who are feeling big emotions and not making the best decisions, but they are decisions where, if you're in their shoes, you can see how it makes sense," she explained. "They're not always the most thought out. As someone who has been a lifelong chaotic Bisexual, that's how I operate. I'm like, 'Maybe there was a calmer way to do it, but I like my way better.'"

Writing an adult love story also meant Dugan needed to consider other factors YA protagonists don't usually have to deal with. "A theme we're dealing with is financial insecurity, which Lizzie has dealt with her entire life. It's something that Cara, our love interest, has never had to deal with," she explained.

"Cara has always done everything right, so embracing her sexuality is very new, and that second adolescence fits her character very well. For Lizzie, it's more of trying to figure out how to survive without having been given the right tools and basics, so [she's] going to make mistakes. Writing for adults was different because the stakes are a lot higher."

What's next?
Writing adult characters was a fun challenge for Dugan, and she plans on continuing that in some of her upcoming novels. Her next adult work will hopefully hit the shelves sometime in late 2024. She says it will also be a romance and set in a barn.

Her fans don't have to worry about waiting until 2024 to read more of her work, though. Her next book, Last Girl Standing, will be released this August.

"That is also Sapphic, but it is in no way a romance. I want people to know it gets very dark, so heed content warnings on that," she said.

Following that is Full Shift, a Sapphic werewolf graphic novel slated for August 2024.

"I have a lot of things on the horizon," Dugan said. "They're all Sapphic across categories, and they're all romances — aside from the psychological thriller in August."

In the meantime, for anyone looking for a little romance and a lot of humor, as spring heats up, Love at First Set is the perfect exercise.

Love at First Set will be available on May 23, 2023. Pre-orders are open now and include a free print.