Walking into the first day of their introductory English class in the spring of 1994 taught by the late Nell Holtzclaw, Ilona and Andrew Gordon ’04 had no idea this freshman course at Western Carolina University would be the start of their life as husband-and-wife bestselling authors.
The Gordons, who write under the pseudonym Ilona Andrews, have co-authored 27 books including several bestselling series, the number one New York Times bestselling urban fantasy of Kate Daniel, several other series and short works.
The stories the Gordons write are fiction of course, but their love story that started in Cullowhee nearly three decades ago is very real.
Andrew grew up in the Caney Fork community. He was in the Navy and was set to be released from duty before the start of classes in fall 1993, but his deployment lasted until after the start of the semester, so he had to wait until spring to enroll at WCU.
Ilona, originally from Russia, graduated from Rabun-Gap Nacoochee School in the fall of 1993 and began her college courses at WCU in spring 1994.
“I remember going to a play on campus one evening with a group of friends and they let me know a guy was staring at me from a few rows back and I told them I think he is in my English class,” Ilona said. “After the play, he came up and asked if he could walk me back to my residence hall. The ironic part was the play was a PSA on dating violence prevention and here was this guy from class asking to walk with me in the dark.”
After spending some time together in their friend group, Andrew decided to ask Ilona out on a date.
“All of us in the class had gotten to be good friends at this point and they were very curious about why I was hanging around after class,” Andrew said. “They quickly figured out I was not waiting to talk with Mrs. Holtzclaw, but to ask Ilona on a date.”
By the end of the semester, they were a couple and planning their future. But as many young couples do when starting out, the Gordons faced some hardships and had to make some tough decisions.
“I was still working on my history degree through my GI bill, but we were struggling financially, so I decided to re-enlist in the armed forces, this time in the army,” Andrew said. “I knew this was the best decision for our young family and even though I was only six credits shy of graduating, it was a choice I had to make.”
Andrew ended up spending four years in the army. Once finished with his service, he enrolled in courses online through Southwestern Community College and earned the credits needed to receive his bachelor’s degree from WCU.
During Andrew’s deployment, Ilona rediscovered one of her favorite hobbies – writing. She started writing short stories, then decided to try and get her novel she’d been working on published.
“I never intended to be a writer. I wanted to be a scientist,” Ilona said. “Rejection after rejection, I did not give up. I got a grammar book, took the feedback I received and worked with Andrew on story ideas.”
After a few years of setbacks and life changes, the Gordons had an agent and were on the path to becoming bestselling novelists.
“I took what I learned in Mrs. Holtzclaw’s course and put it to use,” Ilona said. “She was instrumental in the foundation of developing my writing skills, Andrew’s too. That foundation, along with the editor’s feedback, helped us develop our writing style.”
Now residing in Texas, the bestselling authors said that WCU will always hold a special place in their hearts.