Foreword Reviews

LGBTQ+ romance legend R. L. Merrill has done it again with the next book in her Summer of Hush series: Brains and Brawn

Brains and Brawn banner

The series follows the metalcore band Hush as they take on the highs and lows of the last traveling Warped Tour, all while grieving the death of a longtime bandmate and friend. All centered around the same summer, this volume focuses on the band’s drummer, Brains, who meets soon-to-be-retired Navy corpsman Paul in a collision with fate—and an unsteady festival tent. Paul is a single father with his own crosses to bear, and, as he helps Brains through his recovery, they both find their budding relationship is healing more than just physical wounds.

Intrigued by this simmering romance—and its rock-‘n’-roll setting—we dove into the pit with R. L. Merrill for an interview. We think you’ll find her answers hit all the right notes.

Fate brought them together. It will take trust, honesty, and hope to keep them together. Order Today Brains and Brawn Summer of Hush Book Two

A metalcore band on the last traveling Warped Tour is an intriguing premise to build a series around; what drew you to that setting and those characters?

My daughter dragged me to the Warped Tour date at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, CA, when she was in middle school, and I was pleasantly surprised. There was a large cross-section of musical acts, YouTube stars, alternative entertainers, and a whole crew of artists and nonprofit organizations. A group called TEI sponsored workshops with the musicians and YouTube stars so kids could buy an extra ticket and go to a small-group session with their heroes. Over the years we went to sessions featuring Bryan Stars on becoming a YouTube star, Ash Costello discussing the pitfalls of being a woman in a male-dominated field, and Chris Motionless talking about self-esteem and the importance of music to mental health. I loved the egalitarian aspect of the tour where the bands find out that morning what time they’re performing, and there are no traditional headliners. I was bummed I hadn’t been going all along. I’ve been to four shows and I’m grateful for the experiences. I miss it now that it’s over.

I wanted to take my readers along for the ride and focus on a band on tour while channeling the magic of this particular festival that meant so much to so many for years. I took musical inspiration from the bands who have performed at Warped and created a combination of real and imagined artists to provide the musical backdrop for the series. I went to the 25th-anniversary show in Mountain View, which was a special two-day event, and I spent time talking to the musicians, artists, and nonprofit volunteers about their experiences. They were all very sad to see Warped end and hoped someone would come along and keep the magic alive. Then COVID happened, which has taken a massive hit on the music industry. Now we’re all just anxiously awaiting the day it will be safe for us to all rock out together again.

Your Summer of Hush series has an interesting setup: the series (so far, at least) is set within the same summer, but each title focuses on different characters and relationships surrounding the band. How did you settle on this structure for the series? What unique challenges does this structure present in the crafting of the series?

Summer of Hush, a 2019 Foreword Indies Finalist, introduced the band Hush, and Brains and Brawn takes us further backstage after the band experiences a tragedy. My original plan was to try to hit some of the favorite romance tropes (secret identity, age gap/opposites attract, for example, in the first two books) while on the last cross-country Warped Tour and introduce readers to some great music along the way. Book three is in progress and I plan to write at least one more book in the series after that. I’ll also be introducing members of the band Backdrop Silhouette in the next book, which will broaden the cast of characters!

The challenge has been the overlapping events and POV. I’ve only attempted to show the same event from different POVs once before (in the Haunted series) and this series also requires me to keep all of the dates on tour straight. For someone who is mainly a pantser, it’s been quite a challenge, but I love it and I can’t wait to stage dive back into the pit with these characters.

“…exactly what a good romance should be.“ BookLife Prize Brains and Brawn Summer of Hush Book Two Learn More

On top of the heartwarming romance, Brains and Brawn also deals with themes of grief, mental health, and the difficulty surrounding parenting new adults, creating a realistic, bittersweet blend that’s something of a signature of your novels. How do you approach striking that balance?

When I started writing, I wanted to tell stories that reflected my reality. I’ve been an educator for twenty-seven years, and for nine of those years I was a school counselor. The majority of my career has been in alternative education and I’ve also worked in the police department as an advocate for victims of domestic violence. I’ve met some incredibly strong people along the way who have shared their personal battles with me, and they’ve inspired me to work hard to make their voices heard. I want folks who are going through difficult times to see hope on the other side of whatever they’re going through, that once they get through their struggles, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. All of my stories are about hope. Some of the things I’ve written about have been influenced by my own experiences and some are my love letters to my friends and family members who I admire. As a parent of older teens, Paul’s experiences were definitely taken out of my personal playbook. And the grief? How better to handle my own sorrow over the loss of my musical heroes than to honor them in a story full of hope, love, and rock ‘n’ roll?

Given the setting of the novel, music plays an integral part in the story, and lots of bands are mentioned as characters take part in Warped Tour. Do these bands reflect your personal music taste? Was music an integral part of your writing process as well?

Oh yes. I’ve been a music fan since birth, and my tastes range from the Motown and 70s rock radio of my youth, to the alternative I loved in high school, and to the metal and hard rock I fell in love with in college. In 2008 my husband bought me my first SiriusXM radio and I was obsessed with Octane. Today’s hard rock and heavy metal artists are incredible! There are so many bands working hard out there touring and making amazing music. My daughter was a big emo kid in middle school (she’s not anymore, which is sad for me. I lost my concert buddy when she hit high school) and I went from cringing over the screaming to appreciating the emotion and passion in the music of bands like Motionless in White, The Amity Affliction, Escape the Fate, and Falling in Reverse. It was fun to fall in love with rock bands all over again, and these guys—with their open attitudes about their sexuality, their love of makeup, and their outrageous performances and videos—all inspired the fictional bands on tour with Hush. I’m also a dancer from way back, so my playlists also contain everything from disco to K-pop. There’s something for everyone in my stories. I have playlists on Spotify for most books, and you can follow me there @rlmerrillauthor. I also have a page on my website dedicated to the Summer of Hush series with lots of musical nuggets and blog posts from both book tours.

Can you share with us any further plans for the series? What about any other projects you’re working on currently?

I hope to finish book three in the series later this year, but the pandemic has certainly affected my writing muse. I’m currently working on a queer supernatural suspense story involving a cult, a vampire, and a grad student out to discover the link between the two. My next releases will be a M/M gothic horror story inspired by Edgar Allan Poe called The House Will Fall and it will be part of the Haunts and Hellions anthology from HorrorAddicts.net Press, and I will also be contributing a contemporary F/F romance to the Love Is All charity anthology this June called Love and Pride. It’s set in my Bolder Breed Studios series, and fans of the Summer of Hush series will discover some Easter eggs and sneak peeks at future stories. I have more releases planned for the second half of 2021 as well, so stay tuned for more rock ‘n’ romance…

“…considerable skill and style.“ BookLife Prize Brains and Brawn Summer of Hush Book Two Learn More

Danielle Ballantyne

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