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In this episode of The Turn On, Erica and Kenrya talk to romance giant Alyssa Cole about the state of literary romance, the importance of asking for help and why we shouldn't have to prove we are deserving of love to get Black books published.
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Kenrya: Come here, get off.
Kenrya: Our guest today is Alyssa Cole, pronouns she and her. Alyssa is an award-winning author of critically-acclaimed historical, contemporary, and sci-fi romance and thrillers. Her royal rom-com, “A Princess in Theory,” was one of The New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2018. When she's not working, Alyssa can usually be found watching anime or wrangling her pets. Thank you so much for sitting down with us today, Alyssa.
Alyssa: Thanks for inviting me.
Erica: So, we just read your super-duper, mad official bio, but tell us, in your regular-ass words, what do you do?
Alyssa: I think my official title would be "island hermit." I write historical romance, sci-fi, contemporary, and I also have a thriller coming out next year that's a thriller with romantic elements.
Kenrya: How many books have you published since 2014?
Alyssa: I don't know.
Kenrya: I was trying to count and I kind of lost track, so I was thinking I would just ask.
Alyssa: After this year, I have three completed series. Off the Grid has three books, that's sci-fi. The Loyal League is historical Civil War fiction, and that has three books. Reluctant Royals is three books and two novellas. Then I also have, my first book is not in print anymore, I think, Eagle's Heart, which was a romantic suspense. Then I have a few novellas as well.
Kenrya: That's like at least 15.
Alyssa: Yeah, something around there.
Erica: Jesus Christ.
Kenrya: Right. That's inspiring, as someone who has written only five, I'm trying to get where you at.
Erica: Look, I'm just trying to journal every day.
Alyssa: I don't journal because-
Kenrya: It feels like work?
Kenrya: What did you want to be when you grew up?
Alyssa: Well, I always wanted to be a writer. I also wanted to be a comic book artist at some point when I was a kid, and now I've been trying to start drawing again, just because I used to really love it and I kind of stopped doing it because I figured, "Oh, if I'm never going to be good enough to do that," and then I started looking at when comic book artists post their drawings from when they were younger, and I was like, "Aw man, I should have…"
Kenrya: You're like, "I can do that."
Alyssa: "I should have kept trying." But also just because I enjoy it. I always wanted to be a writer. I also, at one point, wanted to be an Egyptologist, I think that's just, in ’90s, Egypt stuff was really big, hieroglyphs were really big.
Erica: So tell me you had the hieroglyphic necklace, with your name in hieroglyphs.
Alyssa: I had the hieroglyph stamp set, where you could stamp words-
Erica: I had that too. Book fair.
Kenrya: Yes, from the Scholastic Book Fair. I forgot about that.
Erica: So how did you settle on writing? You seem like you did have a varied career path past, how was writing what you settled on?
Alyssa: I always wanted to be a writer, but I didn't really know what being a writer was. My mom has this whole story that I've told before, it's a mom story, so I don't know if it's entirely true.
Kenrya: They like to embellish.
Alyssa: But basically that when I was a kid, when I was two, I would have my notebook that I needed to write in before bed, even though I didn't know how to write, I would draw pictures and have to tell my little stories. But I definitely remember starting to write when I was a kid, starting to write short stories. But, basically, I always liked writing and school. In grammar school and high school, I used to love doing the writing exercises and creative writing. In college, I majored in English, and I didn't know what I was going to do, I was just like, "Something will happen."
Alyssa: I did some creative writing, but it always seemed like something I would do at some point in the future, even though I had teachers that encouraged me and professors that encouraged me, they're like, "You should do something with this," and I was just like, "Yeah, maybe, one day." And then, at a certain point, I realized, "What am I waiting for?" It's actually because I started reading Literotica because I was looking for stories with Black women, and I found the Literotica site. And so I was reading stuff and I was kind of inspired, I was like, "These people are posting every week, they're really sticking to a schedule and getting their stories done." And so then I posted a few things on there, and then I, of course, stopped, I didn't finish the story. But then, eventually, I found out about National Novel Writing Month-
Alyssa: There were a few things that happened. I think, honestly, some of it is traceable to Twilight, too, in a weird way.
Kenrya: Yeah, because there was a huge fan-fic rush around that.
Alyssa: Yeah, and I didn't write fan-fic, I read some of it sometimes, but I wasn't even really big into it, but for some reason I felt like there was this thing in the air, like, "Romance, this is something accessible, people really can ..." I was reading about all the Twilight mania stuff and learning about fan-fic and stuff like that, and I was just like, "Okay, maybe I'll really give this a try this time."
Alyssa: So then I ended up doing National Novel Writing Month, using a couple of the chapters from the stuff I had started on Literotica, and then ended up finishing that, and that was the first book I had that eventually got published later, which was called Eagle's Heart and was about a Brooklyn teacher and an Albanian CIA agent. So then, after that, I joined my local RWA chapter, I don't want to get into RWA right now, but-
Kenrya: Oh, we'll talk about that.
Alyssa: But my local chapter. And then I started getting into more things. I had a friend who was a librarian, and I started going to events, there were starting to be more romance events, in Brooklyn at least, where I was living at the time, at Word Bookstore. So I started just seeing that this was a real thing I could do, romance specifically. I liked all kinds of books, but I think I always liked the happy ending and happily ever after, especially because, even when I was a kid, the stuff I would write could sometimes get very dark, so knowing that there's going to be a happily ever after no matter what, no matter how dark the story gets, like everything I write now isn't really like that, and I just like the good feeling you get when you finish reading a romance, so I gravitated toward that.
Alyssa: And then I met people, started doing anthologies, self-pub anthologies, with historical fiction featuring characters from marginalized backgrounds. And then, little by little, things just started to come together. My first series got picked up because I did a Twitter pitch, where you pitch the book, and it was like 140 characters back then, so that was how “Off the Grid” got picked up by Karina. I mean I was also getting rejected a lot at that point too-
Kenrya: That's the way.
Alyssa: I'm only mentioning the good parts that are happening, but my other stuff was getting rejected, and the things that eventually got published were getting rejected by everyone else. So one thing I always tell people is: you only need one person-
Kenrya: To say yes.
Alyssa: One person to believe in the book. And, for me, it always seemed like, even after I got an agent, everyone was like, "No. No, can't connect." But then, the last person, it only takes one person. Rejection sucks, but, at the end of the day, every editor is not the reader or the person for your book, so as long as you find one person eventually ... Then I just started writing more and more, and eventually I started writing full-time a couple of years ago.
Kenrya: Your books are really set everywhere, like from modern-day New York City, to Civil War-era Virginia, you have protagonists who spy, who create inclusive online communities, who discover that they're royalty. What pushes you to dip into so many different areas, and where do you draw your inspiration?
Alyssa: I don't know, I think I just get interested in different things and then I want to write about it. I get a lot of ... see something on the news. For example, Princess in Theory, part of it was because it was during the time when Nigerian spam mail was really in the news all the time and, even at my job, I was getting spam mail all the time, saying, "You could win this" or "You can get this money" or mail order brides and stuff like that. Most of it just starts as what-if, "What if this spam mail saying that you're betrothed to an African prince is actually real?" A Duke by Default was actually based on I saw an article about a modern-day swordsman in Attenborough who was looking for an apprentice, and I was like, "That would make a great romance," and I actually got to talk to him and interview him before I wrote “A Duke by Default.” So there is a real Sword Bae, I don't talk about him because I don't want anyone bothering him or I don't think he really is ready for all of Romancelandia-
Kenrya: The attention, right.
Alyssa: But maybe one day he'll want to step into the spotlight. But there are still modern-day sword makers in Attenborough. But it's basically just like what-if, I get random ideas in all different kinds of things, based on what I'm reading, what I'm watching, and then take it from there. Off the Grid was around the time when prepping started to get really popular because everyone was worried about the end of the world in 2012, which seems like so long ago. So, yeah, just taking things from the world around me and getting ideas about "But then what if two people fall in love?"
Kenrya: Right, in the middle of all of that.
Alyssa: Yeah, like the Civil War, but kissing, which was not easy to sell, people were-
Kenrya: I bet.
Erica: But going back to “Can't Escape Love,” what do you want readers to take away from it?
Alyssa: I think just the idea of following your dream, finding people who support you or who, in some way, help make you able to achieve your dream. I don't know if that sentence just made sense because I said it quite of brain-dead from being on deadline. Also, just the fact that, in all of my stories, and especially in The Reluctant Royal series, the fact that happily ever afters are for everyone. Any particular disability, neurodivergency, trauma, or anything that people might hold against you in the real world that we live in, unfortunately, is no impediment to stopping you from being worthy of love or deserving love, and love that isn't contingent on you suffering for it or not being able to just have a fluffy romantic comedy, happily ever after.
Kenrya: Yes. That's what’s up. And it kind of leads to our next question, this idea of making sure that everyone is included and able to see themselves. So, for those who don't know, there's a lot going on in the world of romance right now, when it comes to equity and real inclusion for writers of color, and you, my dear, have been instrumental in calling out racism in places like Romance Writes of America, RWA, that really seem hellbent on keeping Romancelandia white. My question for you is: what do you think needs to shift in this industry right now?
Alyssa: Right now, I think there definitely needs to be more people of color. That is changing a lot, I mean compared to a few years ago, but I still don't think we've reached a point of anywhere near where we need to be, especially compared to the demographics of the U.S. and also the world. I think there needs to be more queer romance, more lesbian romance, more bisexual romance. M/M is a whole separate category, it's not super represented in traditional publishing. Right now, I'm not talking about traditional publishing, which not everyone wants to be trad-pub, but, for me, I see it as a normalizing factor.
Kenrya: When folks can be traditionally published?
Alyssa: Yeah. The same way, for example, when you see a commercial with a gay couple or you see a commercial with a lesbian commercial, it's out there, showing the world that it's normal, because it is, and just also allowing people to feel included. And I don't even like the word "included" because included is that shitty-ass RWA cover, with the white woman-
Kenrya: Oh, helping the Black woman?
Alyssa: Pulling the Black woman up the mountain.
Kenrya: Did you see the remix that somebody did with her pushing her down when she fell and her shoe flew off? I died.
Alyssa: That was amazing. And this is the problem with talking about diversity/inclusion is that it makes white, straight people the baseline, and it's like why?
Kenrya: Right, why is that we should be aspiring to be in your club?
Alyssa: Yeah. For me, and like I said, I grew up in Jersey City, most of the people around me were not white, and so it's always ... I mean I'm American, so I understand racism and all that, and it's not even like that, with some kind of utopia without racism just because there weren't that many white people, but the idea that this is something strange or something that needs to be taken slowly, I don't know, it's just weird to me, I'm like, "This is what the world is like, why do we have to act like we need to only go ahead in small doses?" So, I think there needs to definitely be more queer people. Right now, one thing I've been thinking about a lot lately is I do not think there are any trans trad-pub romance authors. There's no reason for this.
Kenrya: Right. Especially people of color, because we've been looking for folks for the show.
Alyssa: I know there are people who are self-pubbing or who have been published by smaller presses. For me, at this point, I don't see any reason why there ... and sometimes people are like, "Well, did they submit? Do they submit their books?" Number one, yes; but even if they didn't, editors are fully capable and all the time go out and reach out to people and say, "Hey, I've read something from you, would you be interested in writing…"
Kenrya: Literally how it works.
Alyssa: "So-and-so kind of book?" So, for me right now, I don't see any excuse, and I think that needs to change amazingly as fast as possible. We literally just want people from all marginalized backgrounds who are romance writers, literally just want to write love stories with happily ever afters, and we can't do that without having to assert the fact that we are fucking human beings and worthy of love. A lot of the time I'm able to, I guess, just not deal with that because you can't really deal with that all of the time, but it's absurd, like why do we have to fight to write a story where someone falls in love?
Alyssa: I mean most racism, all racism, bigotry, when you really get on the face of it, is absurd, but for me particularly, the fact that you have to fight to write a story where ... Most people look down on romance in general, obviously we don't, but you can't even, just without any problem, write a story with two people who meet and fall in love and whatever happens in your particular romance, you have to become a freaking activist to write a love story, and it's ridiculous. With RWA, with everything going on in the world, RWA, I honestly don't know what the fuck they're doing.
Kenrya: They don't either, except for being racist.
Alyssa: It seems, to me, to be a backlash, it's just the microcosm of the United States of what's going on, and all over the world, to be honest, where there has been a period of growth of more diversity and people from different backgrounds, and then people being like, "You know what? No, fuck this. I would rather burn the whole shit down"-
Kenrya: "Than let you in."
Alyssa: For me, just thinking about how much money they've lost, how much money they've lost in the past two weeks-
Kenrya: Mm-hmm (affirmative), from people not renewing their memberships, yeah, canceling.
Alyssa: They canceled the RITAs, so they're going to have to refund all that money, everyone is pulling out of the nationals, and conferences are how most of these organizations make a good chunk of their money.
Kenrya: And folks are now refusing to speak, like we saw Beverly Jenkins is like, "Nah, son, not doing it."
Kenrya: They did this to themselves.
Alyssa: And it's getting all this press. But the main thing for me, at this point, I'm like, "Fuck them," but also they have all of this money, they have all of this infrastructure, and for me, that's the biggest thing, and especially given what I write, like with the historicals and some of the things I've been working on, the idea that things get built either by people from marginalized backgrounds, RWA was started by a Black woman, they get built by people from marginalized backgrounds or multicultural groups, and eventually the marginalized people get pushed out and then the white, straight people are left with all of the money, all of the infrastructure, The marginalized people have to start again and hope that it doesn't happen at the next organization, the next town, the next whatever.
Alyssa: For me, that was one of the things that really messed with my head because it's like this is just the cycle, and how do we get past this? I'm trying to stay optimistic. Because I was at the RWA conference this past summer, and I've gone to the last four or five and, for me, this was the one that really felt there were a lot of authors of color, there were a lot more queer authors, there were a lot more people who were deciding to give romance, RWA a chance and to see if they could be a part of this community, and it actually felt more like a community. I'm sure that things happened, but, overall, the sense was "We're moving forward."
Alyssa: For me, I was telling my friend, I was like, "There were enough Black women that I wasn't able to nod at every Black woman I saw." And there were all different kinds of people. The RITA ceremony was a celebration of the diversity, the people who built RWA, and I think that's probably what really set them off because that was at the end of July, and then this actually started in August because Courtney received the initial complaint in August. The situation happened, I guess, in August, around that time, but the fact that they actually pushed this complaint through, I feel like is not unrelated to the fact that it was just after the most diverse and inclusive conference that they'd ever had.
Kenrya: And just to give our listeners a little bit of context, that complaint was basically these two white women complained that Courtney was calling them out for their racism. I think the question that comes to mind right now is: it's clear that there need to be more Black women and other people of color writing in this genre, what advice do you have specifically for Black women who want to do what you do?
Alyssa: I would say the hardest thing is not getting dejected. Rejection sucks, it happens a lot, even when you're not Black and you don't have other marginalization stacked onto it, then you add those on and it gets even harder. So, I think sometimes you're going to want to give up. There have been times when people thought I was on top of the world and I was like, "Fuck this, I'm done with this." It's a hard business, and it's especially hard when, like I said, you feel like you always have to be kind of on your guard and defending your humanity to a certain extent. But I would say: write what you want to write. Keep pitching agents, keep pitching editors, talk to editors.
Alyssa: One thing I have noticed is that Black women are less likely to reach out ... I'm trying to think of how to say this. I've had random white women come up to me and ask me for favors, people I do not know, and they feel confident enough to walk up to me and be like, "I wrote this book," and that's fine, but I feel like we have been conditioned not to ask for things, not to ask for help, to assume that people won't help us because, sadly, on some level, it's true. But I think to just not be afraid for people to hear "no"; obviously, there's a line to be crossed where you could start being like, "Weird." But not to be afraid to, if you want to know something, ask someone; they might not tell you or they might not be able to tell you, but you can ask and find out. If you want to pitch someone ...
Alyssa: I think a lot of people who have been in the industry for a long time, at a certain point, were a bit traumatized because rejection sucks and people were getting mostly rejected by traditional publishing. So, I think it's hard to say, "Just keep trying," because that's not very helpful when you feel like crap and someone told you they can't relate to your character. In a way, it's kind of part of what you have to do. I was telling someone that, for me, I get rejected a lot, but I have a lot of those ideas, some of those ideas don't get rejected; the rest of them, eventually sometimes they pop up in other stories.
Alyssa: For example, “The AI Who Loved Me,” which was my Audible Original, it started out, part of it was a story about a hot robot guy, a project that didn't go anywhere. I also had a YA, I wrote a whole proposal and everything, a futuristic, dystopian thing, everyone was like, "No, this isn't working," so that didn't go anywhere. But then when I had to think of what I wanted to pitch for the Audible Original, it kind of had these pieces for something that didn't work alone, but when I mashed them together, ended up working really well together. So, even though when you work hard on something and it gets rejected, sometimes that's something that is going to be a stepping stone to something even better in the future, or a different kind of project, or maybe it's going to be useful to you in some other way.
Alyssa: But I think a lot of it is, I don't want to say "Don't be afraid" because it makes sense to be afraid of being hurt again and again, but maybe try to think about each pitch and each possible rejection as something that could lead to something in the future. For example, I work with my editor, Erika Tsang, at Avon, and she rejected the first book I sent her. She was like, "Maybe send me something in the future," and I was like, "She's probably just saying that, she's just saying that to be nice," but then I sent her something and it worked, she liked the next thing I sent her. So, also don't assume that one rejection means that that person doesn't want anything from you ever.
Alyssa: The same thing with my first agent, I had sent her something and she was like, "No, this doesn't work for me, send me something else," and then the next time I sent her something, it worked for her, it was something she thought she could sell. So, sometimes you're going to be rejected multiple times by the same person, which-
Kenrya: And just keep going until it works.
Erica: It's not a "No," it's just a "Not right now."
Alyssa: Which seems counterproductive because sometimes people say "Not right now," and they're lying, it's hard to figure out, but sometimes you just have to hope that they're not lying and see what happens, because sometimes they really are like, "Okay, I'm not going to be able to sell this." But it's hard when you are a Black romance writer or you are from another marginalized group because that's the same excuse that's used to keep us out or to say, "We're not going to be able to sell this."
Alyssa: In a way, publishing kind of is a gaslighting industry, where you have to just have faith in yourself, and that faith is not always going to be there, you're going to have low times, you're going to have days or weeks or months where you're like, "Why am I even doing this?" or "Why am I putting myself through this?"
Alyssa: But I think, in the end, keep trying is all that you can do, and don't be afraid to pitch your weird ideas. If you can, have critique partners, beta readers, people who you can build a community with who are at the same stage as you, and who you can relate to and also grow together. I would say read and see what's doing well, but that, honestly, is only part of it because you don't really want to write the same thing as what's doing well.
Erica: Yeah, you want to fill your own gap.
Alyssa: So read what you like, read what you like and see what that makes you want to write.
Erica: All right.
Kenrya: What's next for you?
Alyssa: Next, right now, next year, the spinoff series from Reluctant Royals, which is Runaway Royals, the first book is “How to Catch a Queen.” If you've read “A Prince on Paper,” the couple in that book, they make an appearance in that book, and it's a couple who are already married and who had an arranged marriage, but their marriage comes with a marriage trial, so they can ... It's hard to explain right now because of my brain leaking out of my ears, but basically it's a couple with an arranged marriage and she has trained for her entire life to be a queen, she really wants to be a queen, for her own personal reasons. This character, the heroine showed up at the end of “A Princess in Theory,” she was briefly there as the woman who his parents brought in to be his fiancé, when they didn't approve of Naledi. She's there literally for like a couple of pages, but I was like, "She kind of had a messed up cameo in that book," so I wanted to give her a happily ever after too.
Kenrya: Aw, I love that.
Erica: You're doing right by your characters.
Kenrya: Yeah. Does that come out in 2020 or does that come out in 2021?
Alyssa: In 2020.
Alyssa: And then I have a thriller coming out in September, which is a gentrification thriller, called “Erased,” and it's basically a woman who has recently moved back to her Brooklyn neighborhood, and her neighbors are all starting to move away, everything is changing, and she decides to make a walking tour. She does a walking tour and they only talk about the rich white people who lived there in the past, so she decides to make her own walking tour, and ends up getting an assistant, one of the new neighbors who has moved in, and they start to possibly discover a conspiracy behind the gentrification of the neighborhood.
Kenrya: This sounds like real life.
Alyssa: Honestly, when I was writing it, I was like, "None of this is really that crazy."
Kenrya: For folks who want to find you and to keep up with what you have going on next so that they can get those books, where can they find you?
Alyssa: You can find me on my website at AlyssaCole.com. I'm on Twitter and Instagram as @AlyssaColeLit, L-I-T. And I also am restarting my newsletter, and it's going to be based on Girls with Glasses, which is the website in “Can't Escape Love,” and the first one is launching on January 10th, and hopefully will be out about every two weeks.
Kenrya: That's dope. And folks can subscribe to that via your website?
Alyssa: Yes, once I add the link. Good reminder.
Kenrya: That is awesome. Well we're so glad you talked to us today, we are huge fans and have read several of your books, so we're really excited that we got to share one of your books on the show this season and that we got to talk to you, so thank you for that.
Alyssa: No, thank you for having me.
Kenrya: Well, that's it for this week's episode of The Turn On. Bye.
Erica: This episode was produced by us, Erica and Kenrya, and edited by B'Lystic. The theme song is from Brazy. We want to hear from y'all, send your book recommendations and all the burning sex and related questions you want us to answer to TheTurnOnPodcast@gmail.com. And please subscribe to this show on your favorite podcast app, follow us on Twitter, @TheTurnOnPod, and Instagram, @TheTurnOnPodcast, and find links to our books, transcripts, guest info, and other fun stuff at TheTurnOnPodcast.com. And, remember, The Turn On is now a part of the Frolic Podcast Network. You can find more shows you love at Frolic.Media/Podcast. Thanks for joining us, and we'll see you soon, holla.
The Turn On
The Turn On is a podcast for Black people who want to get off. To open their minds. To learn. To be part of a community. To show that we love and fuck too, and it doesn't have to be political or scandalous or dirty. Unless we want it to be.