Black History Month – An Interview with Alyssa Cole; On Writing Different Genres, Balancing Power and Romance, and Her New Graphic Novel

Our Friend is Here! is a guest feature at The Quiet Pond, where authors, creatives, and fellow readers, are invited to ‘visit’ the Pond! In Our Friend is Here! guest posts, our visitors (as their very own unique character!) have a friendly conversation about anything related to books or being a reader — and become friends with Xiaolong and friends.

Our Friend is Here: Black History Month Edition is a month-long event at The Quiet Pond during the month of February, where Black authors are invited to celebrate being Black and Black books! Find the introduction post for Black History Month here.

Alyssa Cole is a force to be reckoned with. Alyssa has published over thirty books across her author career, most notably her Reluctant Royals romance series about Black women who find love in royal places, her mystery-thriller, When No One is Watching, and more recently, her Runaway Royals series. All in all, Alyssa has written fabulous inclusive books in historical romance, science-fiction, and thriller/mystery.

My personal favorite is A Duke by Default from the Reluctant Royals series, where Portia attempts at an apprenticeship with a swordsman and meets Tavish, who is struggling to run his family’s armory with his brother. Portia has ADHD, and I so appreciated her reflection about her experience as a neurodivergent Black woman.

For our final post for Black History Month at the Pond for 2021, we have privilege of having Alyssa herself visit us at the Pond! She visits us as a wonderful capybara, wearing a golden yellow headscarf! I am so excited to share with you all the interview that I did with Alyssa, and I am delighted to warmly welcome Alyssa to the Pond.

How to Catch a Queen by Alyssa Cole

When Shanti Mohapi weds the king of Njaza, her dream of becoming a queen finally comes true. But it’s nothing like she imagined. Shanti and her husband may share an immediate and powerful attraction, but her subjects see her as an outsider, and everything she was taught about being the perfect wife goes disastrously wrong.

A king must rule with an iron fist, and newly crowned King Sanyu was born perfectly fitted for the gauntlet, even if he wishes he weren’t. He agrees to take a wife as is required of him, though he doesn’t expect to actually fall in love. Even more vexing? His beguiling new queen seems to have the answers to his country’s problems—except no one will listen to her.

By day, they lead separate lives. By night, she wears the crown, and he bows to her demands in matters of politics and passion. When turmoil erupts in their kingdom and their marriage, Shanti goes on the run, and Sanyu must learn whether he has what it takes both to lead his people and to catch his queen.

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Author Interview: Alyssa Cole

Joce: Hi Alyssa! Thank you for joining us at the Pond, and welcome! We are so excited to have you here to celebrate Black History Month. Can you please tell us about yourself?

Alyssa: Hi! Thanks for having me! I’m a Black American author of romance (historical, contemporary,and sci-fi), thrillers, and a few other things, currently living in the French Antilles. 

Joce: You have such a versatile repertoire of books, spanning multiple genres and subgenres including SFF, contemporary romance, historical romance, and mystery/thriller. In your experience, what are some similarities and differences (if any) in how Black authors have been treated in publishing between genres?

Alyssa: Hm, most of my books are under the romance umbrella, so most of my experience has been within romance publishing. I’d say overall in publishing, no matter the genre, Black authors are underpaid and undermarketed (with occasional exceptions). They are often treated as afterthought or an anomaly, in part because of the belief that Black people don’t read books and that readers (i.e., white people) don’t want to read books about Black people. Those mentalities are starting to change, though you can find interviews from forty years ago (and thirty years ago, and twenty years ago, and five years ago…) with Black authors saying the same exact thing, so hopefully this change will just become the norm this time.

Joce: There are aspects of power, and politics that underlie a lot of your plot lines, but in When No One Is Watching, they are particularly emphasized in the narrative that centers gentrification. In what ways do you think this story finds its home in the mystery and thriller genre?

Alyssa: While there is a romantic subplot in When No One Is Watching, it works best as a thriller because the driving story question is not “will Sydney and Theo’s relationship survive this terrifying situation?” it’s “will Sydney and her neighborhood survive his terrifying situation?”. And I think in this genre, I was able to fully lean into the small and large ways power differentials ripple through a community, widening gulfs in wealth, accessibility, and peace of mind.

Joce: Your Reluctant Royals series is full of modern day fairytales and I felt like I was a little girl again reading about royalty when I made my way through the series. With royal characters comes, again, potential imbalance of power and politics. How did you balance these aspects with the happily ever afters?

Alyssa: Well, one foundational pillar of the Reluctant Royals and Runaway Royals series are grounded firmly in the fact that being a royal is a job, a thankless one that you can’t clock out of, often had no choice in taking on, and leaves you with no privacy and little autonomy. The other foundational pillar is that the royals in question care deeply about their communities and other people and are, in their various ways, trying to do the best they can with the power they have. So the fantasy of these books is not (just) wealth and power and celebrity, but more that people with power over thousands or millions of other lives are invested in using that power for good. That they care more about others than themselves. That when they make mistakes, they are willing to learn from them. So the power differential between the couple is often counterbalanced by how each person uses, or gives away, the power they have.

Joce: One of my favorite things about this series is the levity, and I laughed out loud multiple times (which is hard – it’s very hard to make me laugh when I’m reading!). How do you make humor translate so well to readers?

Alyssa: Thank you! I’m always so happy when people tell me my books make me laugh. I’m a cold of the 80s and 90s, and I absolutely loved comedy, especially stand up comedy and sketch comedy shows. In Living Color, Saturday Night Live, Kids in The Hall, and countless stand up comedy specials, among other things! So I think watching those things non-stop helped me to understand comedic timing. But there is also an overlap in comedic timing, romantic timing, and suspenseful timing–the build up of tension and the release!

Joce: I feel like your Off the Grid post-apocalyptic/dystopian series feel very present in our current pandemic climate, and could particularly hit home for those of us who enjoy picking up dystopian fiction when living through times like this! How would you contextualize your particular dystopian world when thinking about our current societal state?

Alyssa: Well, I think we are honestly living through a similar kind of dystopia in the Off The Grid series (though there was one inciting incident in the book and in reality we are dealing with a virus, climate change, infrastructure failure, and white supremacist coup, etc): a threat that seems like something we should have been able to handle that instead kills a staggering number of people due to governmental incompetence and human selfishness. Being cut off from friends and family and isolated from our communities. That’s the bleak aspect. But there has also been the community-led aide for friends and strangers alike; scientists joining forces to try to solve the problems; and a strengthening of the understanding, for many people, that not everyone is good, but there are enough good people to change the world for the better.

Joce: One of my favorite stories ever is Anastasia and I screamed when I heard that you were writing a queer Anastasia retelling (out May 25, 2021). Can you please tell us more about How to Find a Princess, the next book in The Runaway Royals series?

Alyssa: Ah! The heroines are my favorite kind of pairing, which is order muppet and chaos muppet. Makeda Hicks is just trying to lead a stable life after a childhood ruined by her mother’s obsession with their supposed royal lineage. She’s a people pleasing goody two shoes who is always doing the most for other people (to the point of exasperation) and nothing for herself. Beznaria Chetchevaliere is an investigator from the World Federation of Monarchists who has personal reasons for wanting to find the long lost heir to the throne when her Mediterranean island country decides to launch a search as a way of drawing in more tourists. So basically: two women with very strong personal motivation for their own clashing personal goals, plus ‘lady knight and her princess vibes” doing hijinks in Atlantic City and then they get on a cargo ship and do hijinks at sea!

Joce: Let’s move into some book recommendations… I think our readers would love recommendations for novels in each genre/subgenre you write, by a Black author! 

Alyssa: Make A Scene, Mimi Grace (romantic comedy); The Hitman, Katrina Jackson (erotic romantic suspense); Wild Rain, Beverly Jenkins (historical); Legendborn, Tracy Deonn (YA contemp fantasy + history); If the Boot Fits, Rebekah Weatherspoon (contemp romance Cinderella retelling); The Sound of Stars, Alechia Dow (YA SFF); And Now She’s Gone, Rachel Howzell Hall (thriller); Key To Your Heart, Necole Ryse (mystery);  The Conductors, Nicole Glover (historical mystery/magic)

CW: Congratulations on your newly announced graphic novel, Reject Squad, written by you and illustrated by ONeill Jones! I know you probably cannot share much right now, but can you tell us about how this graphic novel came to be? 

Alyssa: In the Reluctant Royals novella Can’t Escape Love the hero and heroine, Reggie and Gus, bond over an anime called Reject Squad Ultra!! The anime is a shonen-style Sleeping Beauty fantasy romance story set at a military school–and it was entirely made up. That novella was so fun for me–writing a heroine who, like me, deeply loved manga, anime, and comics, AND also creating the anime she would be obsessed with! Of course as I as writing, I started wishing  the anime was real, and when the book came out lots of people asked if it would be a comic so I wasn’t the only one who felt that way!

During the release, I’d commissioned a few artists, some of which was Reggie and Gus cosplaying as Phil and Aurora. One of the artists I commissioned was OneillJones, whose work I had seen on social media and instantly fallen in love with. Months later, while I was still figuring out how to make the comic a reality, I decided to commission her again to make a comic short for my readers (and myself tbh). But she did such an AMAZING job (character design! Line work! GRAYSCALE!) with the short that it seemed like a waste not to see if we couldn’t make something more than a few pages happen. With the help of our agents, Reject Squad Ultra!!! has now become a reality!

About the Author

Alyssa Cole is a New York Times and USA Today Bestselling author of romance (historical, contemporary, and sci-fi) and thrillers. Her Civil War-set espionage romance An Extraordinary Union was the American Library Association’s RUSA Best Romance for 2018, and A Princess in Theory was one of the New York Times’ 100 Notable Books of 2018. She’s contributed to publications including Bustle, Shondaland, The Toast, Vulture, RT Book Reviews, and Heroes and Heartbreakers, and her books have received critical acclaim from The New York Times, Library Journal, BuzzFeed, Kirkus, Booklist, Jezebel, Vulture, Book Riot, Entertainment Weekly, and various other outlets. When she’s not working, she can usually be found watching anime or wrangling her pets.

She is represented by Lucienne Diver at The Knight Agency.

Find Alyssa on: Website | Twitter

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