Sarah chats with author Alyssa Cole about her much-anticipated new book, An Extraordinary Union, an espionage romance set in the Civil War. They discuss the behind the scenes details of the cover development – and the cover is stunning, so it clearly all worked perfectly. They also talk about persevering through painful history, finding inspiration and comfort in how humans have overcome and pushed forward despite terrible obstacles, researching and writing about historical figures that many people don’t know about, and the real individuals who inspired different aspects of her characters. Plus, they have a lively conversation about Alyssa’s living abroad in Martinique, immigration, culture shock, language barriers, and feeling at ease in a community.
Sometimes the connection was uneven and there are some crackles in the audio – my apologies. Alyssa lives in the caribbean, so it was a long, long, very long distance recording!
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Here are the books we discuss in this podcast:
Links! Lots and lots of links!
- Congratulations to Alyssa Cole and all the 2017 RITA and Golden Heart finalists!
- Congratulations to Beverly Jenkins, frequent guest of the podcast, on her Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award.
- Beverly Jenkins’ podcast episodes include Episode 237: New Books and New Insights into History, and Episode 138: An Interview with Beverly Jenkins.
- Congratulations to Bea and Leah Koch, proprietors of The Ripped Bodice, on being named the 2017 Steffie Walker Booksellers of the Year!
- Bea and Leah have been guests of the podcast a few times as well – last week with Elyse, talking about The Bachelor in Episode 239: Leftover Meatloaf, in Episode 232: The First Year of The Ripped Bodice, and Episode 188: Box Cutters and Book Selling.
Alyssa also mentioned the following figures and events in history:
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This Episode's Music
This is from Caravan Palace, and the track is called “Queens.”
The podcast this week is brought to you by author Tracy Ewens, whose new book Exposure comes out March 28, 2017. Tracy knows you like romance, so she’d like you to know her latest contemporary romance has the following excellent pieces of catnip:
- A wildlife photographer heroine – Meg – who has recently moved back to San Francisco. She wants a life with more stability, where she can see her family more than once a year, and indulge in owning a toaster and using a full-sized tube of toothpaste.
- A famous hero with secrets! Westin is a famous actor known best for blockbuster movies in which he drives a menagerie of exceedingly fast cars. But West would kind of like his fifteen minutes of fame to be over: he misses his privacy, and in real life, he’s a terrible driver.
- A fake relationship! A media frenzy erupts after a very simple kiss on the cheek, and when they’re thrown together in public, Meg discovers the real person behind the photographs. West begins to wonder how he can live his real life without her in it.
Nothing is simple when it seems like the world is watching. You can pre-order/find Exposure wherever ebooks are sold. And thanks to Tracy Ewens for sponsoring this episode!
❤ Click to view the transcript ❤
Sarah Wendell: Hello, and welcome to episode number 240 of Smart Podcast, Trashy Books. I’m Sarah Wendell from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, and I have so many things to tell you. Oh. My. Gosh! Okay, first of all: this episode, I have an interview with Alyssa Cole. Yay! Now, this is a really fun conversation. We talk about her new book, An Extraordinary Union, which if you haven’t read it, you totally should. It is an espionage romance set during the Civil War. We talk about the details of the cover development, because the cover is truly stunning, as is the book behind the cover. We talk about persevering through painful history and finding inspiration and comfort in how humans have overcome and pushed forward despite really difficult obstacles. We talk about research, the historical figures that people don’t know about, and the real individuals who inspired different aspects of the characters in the book. Plus, we have a very lively conversation about Alyssa’s living abroad in Martinique, about immigration, culture shock, language barriers, and feeling at ease in a community.
So first, she lives in the Caribbean, so this was a very long-distance recording, and there is a little bit of crackling and uneven audio. I did my best to correct it, but I apologize if it is a little more difficult for you to understand some segments. I did my best.
Now, I have really cool news before I get to the sponsor and the music and the compliments, which are all awesome. I’m so excited about all this information! Okay, first of all – [breathes in] – deep breath – Alyssa was nominated for a RITA this year for Let Us Dream, so I get to talk to a RITA finalist. So exciting! Now, this was recorded before the announcements went out, but I’m still so very excited for her, so congratulations to Alyssa and to everyone who has been nominated for a RITA and a Golden Heart this year.
Plus, it was announced this week that Beverly Jenkins is the recipient of RWA’s Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award. I, I could not be more excited. I could just, I can’t even. I have no evens; only odds; so excited.
Then, then! There’s more. So much more, I’m going to hit my own sound box. Bea and Leah Koch from last week’s episode, the owners and proprietors of The Ripped Bodice, are the Steffie Walker Booksellers of the Year. Another award from RWA!
I am seriously so, so happy and so excited and so pleased to see people who are so brilliant in what they do get recognized for what they do, so my entire week has just been one big squee after another, and I had to share, because it’s amazing! Is there a word for when you’re super proud and super excited for someone because it just gives you so much joy to see their brilliance recognized? It’s not quite pride, and it’s not, it’s not quite kvelling, which is a Yiddish term, because, I mean, I had nothing to do with it. I’m just so excited! So I hope that you are excited too. Or you’ve probably hit the thirty second skip button and you’re wondering when I’m going to start yammering about other things.
And now it is time for me to yammer about other things. Are you ready? Okay.
I want to thank author Tracy Ewens for sponsoring this episode. Her new book Exposure comes out March 28th. Tracy knows that you like romance, and so she would like you to know that her latest contemporary has the following excellent pieces of catnip. Catnip the first: a wildlife photographer heroine, Meg, who has recently moved back to San Francisco. She wants a life with stability, she wants to see her family more than once a year, and she wants to indulge in really beautiful, long-term commitments like owning a toaster and a full-size tube of toothpaste. Catnip number two: a famous hero with secrets. Westin is a famous actor known best for blockbuster movies in which he drives a series of exceedingly fast cars. But West would kind of like his fifteen minutes of fame to be over with. He misses his privacy, and in real life he’s a terrible driver. And catnip number three: a fake relationship. A media frenzy erupts after a very simple kiss on the cheek, and when Meg and West are thrown together in public, Meg discovers that the real person behind the photographs is really interesting, and West begins to wonder how he can live his real life without her in it. Nothing is simple when it seems like the world is watching. You can find Exposure wherever eBooks are sold, and thanks very much to Tracy Ewens for sponsoring this episode.
Now, I have some compliments to give out too!
To Anna N.: You probably think it’s the breeze, but all of those flowers that bob their heads at you, they’re actually nodding and saying to one another, “Yup, yeah, yup, that one’s awesome.”
And to Laura D.: A recent scientific survey has confirmed that nine out of eight sociologists are considering naming their positive discoveries about human nature after you.
Now, if you’re wondering what in the world I’m talking about, have a look at patreon.com/SmartBitches. If you are a fan of the show and would like to support what we do here, which is generally semi-professional mayhem about romance novels, you can support the show with a contribution of as little as one dollar a month, and every contribution makes a huge difference. And there are different reward levels, including artisan-crafted, locally sourced, solar-powered compliments, created with utter sincerity by yours truly. So if you’ve had a look at our Patreon, thank you, thank you, thank you!
Now, I will have links to all of the books that we’re talking about, plus some of the links to the announcements that I just mentioned in the intro and the things that Alyssa talks about in terms of history and real human figures who are super amazing that I didn’t know about until I read this book.
And of course the music you’re listening to is provided by Sassy Outwater, and I’ll tell you who this is and what they’re doing at the end of the episode.
But now, on with our long-distance connection and our interview with Alyssa Cole.
Alyssa Cole: So my name is Alyssa Cole. I write romance in different genres, and right now I, if you happen to hear any chickens, goats, cows, or other wildlife in the background, I live in the countryside now, so those things might join in, or my dogs or my cat. [Laughs]
Sarah: Background animals are always welcome. Like, always, always, always. So you have a new book coming out, and I’ve heard a lot a people talking about this book, so of course I’m going to ask you to talk about this book, because, well, obviously you wrote it, so you have to talk about it, which is, like, both the fun part and the hard part. It’s really hard to talk about it when it’s done, you know?
Alyssa: Yep. [Laughs]
Sarah: So could you tell people about your new book, An Extraordinary Union?
Alyssa: So, An Extraordinary Union is a, an espionage romance set during the Civil War in the United States. The heroine has a photographic memory, and she is a free Black woman living in the North who goes undercover as a slave in the South in order to gather information, and she meets an annoying but handsome – [laughs] – Pinkerton spy who is undercover as a Confederate in the same household. Sparks fly. It’s a little bit of, not enemies to lovers, because he from the beginning is like, yeah, this woman is awesome. But from, you know, obviously there are a lot of things going on that would keep them separate. There’s a war. He’s white.
Sarah: War gets in the way.
Alyssa: Yeah, you know, war against slavery. [Laughs] And so, and also her, she’s trying to focus on her mission and not be distracted by things like, you know, lust and possibly love. But they’re focused to work together when they start, they realize that some disparate things might actually be part of a larger Confederate plan that could, you know, destroy the Union.
Sarah: So you have espionage and two people who are ostensibly on the same side but coming at it from different directions, right?
Sarah: Do, is, is, is part of the conflict between them the very different methods they’re using? ‘Cause, I mean, Pinkertons could be royal assholes.
Alyssa: [Laughs] He’s a very self-assured kind of hero, and you know, he’s good at what he does. He’s used to working alone, and he’s also used to women kind of giving him whatever he wants?
Alyssa: I wasn’t, I wouldn’t – [laughs] – I wouldn’t exactly classify him as a rake, but he is a bit surpri- – part of his charm and part of his effectiveness as a spy is that people, men and women, are attracted, attracted to his magnetic personality, and then he meets this woman who is kind of like, oh, you’re not that cool.
Alyssa: And of course that, that piques his interest. So part of it is their different techniques, and also, she, she didn’t exactly get into spying because she found it exciting or anything like that. She’s trying to free her people; she’s trying to save the country. He’s trying to save the country as well, but she has to come at it from an angle of being looked down upon for being a woman, being looked down upon for being Black in America, and he – so there’s a little bit of, she doesn’t take him very seriously. She’s like, you use your charm. You’re allowed to use your charm. Like, using her charm wouldn’t exactly work out for her, even if she wanted to do that.
Alyssa: So there’s a bit of conflict of, some of their conflict is him realizing the privilege that allows him to work as he does?
Alyssa: And that forces her to take the position that she has to take in order to work for the, as a spy, so that’s some of their conflict.
Sarah: So I am always so impressed with espionage plots, because it’s, it’s a really tricky balance, because you as the writer know the, the thing. Like, you know the whole story and all the pieces. The characters don’t know, and the, and the reader doesn’t know, so you effectively have to trick two sets of people to make the espionage plot work –
Sarah: – which is really hard. Was that a challenge for you, because that’s sort of a new thing for you to write, right?
Alyssa: Yeah. So my first book was a romantic suspense, but a lot of it didn’t hinge on the, any kind of secret. It was more like the hero was keeping a secret from the heroine, but the reader was in on what was going on. This one was kind of difficult because, yes, I wanted, first, all of the things in the book are based on real historical events that passed. The hero and heroine are based on kind of a mixture of different Civil, actual Civil War spies, so to make sure that things were historically accurate for the most part and also that, but still not so obvious to the reader that they would say, oh, I, I know exactly what is going to happen. Like, in the first drafts, I wrote, like, as I wrote and rewrote, I really had to work hard to hopefully get a, a tension and the right amount of suspense for the readers. Yeah, I think that was, there were a lot of moving parts for this one – [laughs] – of trying to make sure I got things right, because I wanted there to be history, I wanted there to be the romance and, but, and also the espionage, and I tried to get a balance of, you know, I tried to find a balance that wouldn’t leave the reader feeling like, oh, well, that was good, but this kind of sucked, or, oh, I figured that out really early, or, oh, I knew that was going to happen, so hopefully that worked out.
Sarah: ‘Cause it’s a, it’s a –
Alyssa: But, yeah, espionage is really hard. [Laughs]
Sarah: It is! It’s a tall order, ‘cause you have espionage, cultural differences, racial differences. You have, you know, a war, a big one, no big deal. The attempt to eradicate the humanity of one of the major protagonists. You know, no –
Sarah: – really easy, light stuff to just sort of move around on a page. Totally simple, right? Yeah. Did you ever look at yourself while you were writing and be like, oh, my God, Past Self, what were you doing? You kidding me here?
Alyssa: Yeah –
Sarah: Do you really like it when you’re like, oh, yeah, I set this up for me to be really hard! I’m going to miserable for, like, three whole months!
Alyssa: I actually wrote the first draft of this a while ago, and it was maybe the second historical that I wrote? And it was one of those things where at first I was like, oh, I love historical romance, but I don’t think I’m ever going to write historical romance, because, you know, there’s a lot of, like, baggage for writing the kind of characters I want to write, but then as I did more and more historical research, I was like, I think I would really be able to work in romance into this, and I guess I like a challenge, and I said, okay, I’ll write historical romance, but I’m never going to write during the Civil War, because that would be, like, way too much to balance with romance, and then of course immediately it was like, oh, I have an idea. [Laughs]
Sarah: In the Civil War.
Alyssa: For a Civil War – [laughs] – for a Civil War historical. So, yeah, there was, there was a lot going on, and, like, while I was writing it, I really just tried to focus on the characters and the romance and setting them in that time and place, but there were, yeah, there were a lot of times where I was like, what, why did I do this? I said I wasn’t going to do this. Why did I do this?
Sarah: How excited were you when you saw the cover? Because this book is stunning. It is so beautiful.
Alyssa: Okay, I was, first, it was one of those things where, so my editor, editor is Esi Sogah at Kensington, and one day she just sent me an email –
Sarah: I love her. I love her –
Alyssa: She’s so awesome.
Sarah: – so. Much. She’s amazing. Anyway, I’mma shut up now. Tell me all the things.
Alyssa: [Laughs] She’s awesome and, like, so great to work with, but she, so she sent me an email, and she’s like, oh, here are some of the women we’re looking at for the cover, some of the models, and, like, attached were these, like, beautiful images of beautiful women, and I was like, I get a cover model? ‘Cause you know, I was used to the world of stock photos and – [laughs] – things like that. So I just, like, started crying, because I was just like, oh, wow, this is, like, you know, this is really happening. This is, one of these beautiful women is going to get to be Elle. And then when the cover came through, it was, like, so amazing and so – the art department is just amazing, and – one thing, though, is that I recently got the cover for book two, and it is incredible. Like, I am obviously biased; it’s my book. [Laughs] I’m biased, but, like, it’s liter-, it’s one of the most beautiful covers I’ve ever seen. I know that’s not, like, building up the hype too much, but – [laughs] – like, seriously, the cover, the art department is so great, and, yeah, every time I get something back from them it’s just like, wow, this is, this is amazing!
Sarah: I have a paper ARC in my house, because Kensington sent me a digital, and then they sent me a paper one. They actually sent it to my old address, and it was, it was one of the few packages that were forwarded, and I had to email Kensington. I’m like, this cannot happen again! I can’t miss books like this! Oh, my God! So it’s chilling in my house. People keep picking it up and going, what is this? Like, it’s not just that it’s a woman of color on the cover, but she’s walking through a door, she’s got her back three-quarters turned, she’s looking over her shoulder. It is so, it’s active. Like, you want to know, okay, where’s she going?
Sarah: What is she doing? It is so evocative. You, you pick it up, and you’re like, what is happening here? And that, that doesn’t happen with a lot –
Sarah: And that doesn’t happen with a lot of romance covers. Usually the “what the hell is happening here” is like, why is there a swan? Why is the horse watching them? How did his leg do that?
Sarah: Where is her backbone? Like, that, that’s usually the “what’s happening here” question –
Sarah: – that you get with a lot of covers. This one is like, whoa! It’s beautiful!
Alyssa: I really think that they, they really captured the – because there were so many, you know, routes that they could have gone. They could have chosen to put Malcolm on the cover, they could have made it a clinch cover, and, like, any of those could have worked out very well, but I feel like the, the design basically captures the mood of the story, and, like, yeah, like you said, it really kind of invites you to wonder what is happening in this book and what is the cover model, the heroine’s secret that – so I think they did a great job.
Sarah: They really did. So, you have to do a lot of historical research, ‘cause you’ve written medievals, you’ve written in the ‘60s, now you’re writing in the Civil War, you’ve written books set during immediate post Emancipation, you’ve written books set during the suffrage era. Where do you begin with your research? Do you now have a favorite time, or are you like, all right, there’s a lot of history, and I haven’t read it yet; next one is going to be Roman! Do you have a favorite time? Where do you begin with your research?
Alyssa: Most of my books come from learning about something and saying, this is freaking cool, and now I’m going to add some romance to this story. [Laughs] So I feel like there are, there are just so many cool things that have happened in history, and particularly in American history, that haven’t been covered in romance or just in history books in general. It’s kind of like a two, for me it’s two things. You get to talk about something that people don’t know very much about. I get, like, myself included, I get to learn more about something that I find really interesting, and then I get to add my favorite things, like romance and sexy times and stuff and, you know.
Sarah: Always good.
Alyssa: So I don’t have a particularly favorite time period. I think I’m more interested in, like, the types of people that have existed in all of these time periods, which are kind of the, you know, people who fought back against or – not necessarily by being a badass or by literally fighting, but the different ways that people have resisted the terrible things going on during their particular time period, which, you know, can be very depressing, but one – [laughs] – one thing that has kind of gotten me through the past few weeks is, like, I’ve read so much, so many terrible things, like, that have happened throughout history, and I’m like, you know, all of these terrible things have happened, and we have persevered, we have overcome them, so hopefully, you know, that pattern will continue. It’s, you know, not always the most comforting thing when the world seems to be, like, burning around you, but I think humans are pretty great at getting rid of most of the bad guys, or at least pushing, when forces are pushing things back, at pushing the way forward again and again. And it’s frustrating because they shouldn’t have to, but one thing to hold onto that people do – [laughs] – if I’ve learned anything from my historical research.
Sarah: And it’s, it’s a really difficult kind of optimism, because on one hand you have to say, okay, this has happened before. We have overcome worse; we have survived worse.
Sarah: We are still here. I mean, basically, the, the, the foundation of most Jewish holidays is, they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.
Alyssa: Yeah. [Laughs]
Sarah: Unless we’re fasting ‘cause they tried to kill us, then we eat later, but basically, someone tried to kill us, it didn’t work, pass the food. You can, you can look at that and be like, we have survived so much worse, but on the other word, it must be –
Sarah: – so discouraging to be like, are we still doing this? Like, seriously? We’re going to do this again. I just read about, like, nine other times this happened. We’re going to do this again. Like –
Sarah: So you have to sort of balance this optimism between we’ve done this before –
Sarah: – we could do it again! And we have to do it again, damn it.
Alyssa: Yeah. So one thing that I’ve been thinking about, like, seeing all this is, like, there is that, the quote like, the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice?
Alyssa: And I don’t think that’s true. I think the arc of the moral universe is always actually bending toward fascism – [laughs] – okay, and the eternal struggle is actually the people who are bending it the other way.
Alyssa: It would be nice if it was always bending toward justice. [Laughs]
Sarah: It would be a lot easier.
Alyssa: Yeah, life would be way easier for the majority of the world, but, and, like, so that can sound kind of pessimistic, but – and it is kind of, it is, it is kind of horrible to think about. Okay, well, okay, we have to fight then. We have to fight again. But it’s kind of, it’s basically an eternal struggle because there will always be people who have their own self interest or who just actually don’t have their own self interest, just don’t want other people to have things or mindless hatred. So it doesn’t make it easier, exactly, but – [laughs] – it’s a way of thinking of, like – because I think right now things can feel overwhelming because it’s like this idea of, like, this stuff is unprecedented, it hasn’t happened before, and how are we going to, how are we going to fix this? And it can be fixed and will take a lot of work, and work that we shouldn’t have to do, and the people who have to do the most amount of work are generally the people who least need to be doing the work. But, you know –
Sarah: Unfortunately –
Alyssa: – it’s a, it’s like you said; it’s the – yeah – it’s the balance of optimistic pessimism or pessimistic, pessimistic optimism, which is generally my personality anyway, I guess? So – [laughs]
Sarah: Yep. And it’s not so much, is the glass half full or is the glass half empty? It’s okay, I have water; I can keep going.
Alyssa: [Laughs] Yes, that’s a great way of looking at it.
Sarah: So it, one thing I wanted to ask you about, because you look at history and how painful history can be, and especially Black history in America is very painful to read about, because it’s woefully undertaught. Like peop-, it’s –
Sarah: [Laughs] Beverly Jenkins once was saying, okay, so there’s this whole chapter in, about slavery, and then we all left the planet and came back for civil rights.
Alyssa: Yes. Yes! That’s a thing I’ve noticed too –
Alyssa: – because it’s like, yeah, slavery, the slaves were emancipated, and then suddenly in, like, 1964, everyone showed up, like, hey, guys, we’re here again. And I think, like, honestly I feel – [laughs] – I feel like there’s so, a lot of the stuff that’s happening now is that basically the same, not the same thing, but it’s within the same sphere of all of the things that people who wanted more diverse books and more diverse historicals were kind of fighting against, because the stuff happening right now is happening, like we said, it’s happened before, but many people don’t know anything about history. They don’t know anything about American history. They know only, like, the crappy stuff they were taught in school, and so now when this stuff happened, it’s like, how could this happen? And it’s like, that’s because you only had two pages about, like, you know, fasc-, you know, the com-, anti-communist movements and fascist movements in the US and, you know, all of the other horrible things, and especially with the way that history is taught now, with them trying to erase the things that were done to indigenous people, that were done to Black people, that were done to Jewish people. It’s like this kind of sanitization of history because people don’t want to face it, and I think, for me, I feel like that’s the biggest problem in American history is that people don’t want to face the bad parts, and in a way, that’s why kind of putting it in romance is a way, a kind of reckoning with that? It’s like, you can learn about the shitty things that your ancestors did, but also see that there’re people flourishing and having happy endings and, you know, still having lives. That’s why I think books like, you know, Beverly Jenkins’, Piper Huguley’s, and all of the people who are writing kind of – I won’t say they’re counter-narratives, but because they are historicals and they, they’re the same historical, but kind of just trying to draw attention to the stories that haven’t been told as much. I think those are pretty important.
Sarah: What are some of the things that you’ve learned that made you feel really happy or optimistic? Like, there are so many women who are unsung right now that nobody hears about, and then you read about them and you’re like, how are we not all talking about this one person who is so frigging amazing? Like, who are some of the people you’ve learned about where you want to, like, run outside and grab people and be like, I need to tell you about this person right now!?
Alyssa: [Laughs] Well, so the heroine that Elle’s based on, her name is Mary Bowser, and she was a, a free Black woman, and she worked, she went undercover in Jefferson Davis’s house, which is even, like, crazier than what happens in the book. She’s, like, in Jefferson Davis’s house as a spy, could be discovered at any moment.
Sarah: Piece of cake.
Alyssa: There’s her. There are so many, I feel like there are so many women, and one of, this is one of the beautiful things about Tumblr and Twitter and the newer forms of social media is that that information just gets dispersed like that. People make, you know, a cute graphic or a cute drawing or something like that, but then these women who have never been given any attention suddenly are recognized for, you know, their contributions. I’m also kind of obsessed with Bessie Coleman, who was the first Black aviator, aviatrix. What-, whatever that –
Sarah: Isn’t that a great word? Aviatrix is, like, the best word!
Alyssa: And, like, basically, she wanted to be a, a pilot, but she wasn’t allowed to be in the United States, and one thing that I like, I, obviously I don’t know if this is true, but apparently one of her brothers told her, well, you can’t do that, and she basically said, watch me –
Alyssa: – and she learned how to, traveled to France, learned how to fly, because she was allowed to go to the aviation school there, then came back to the US, and so. I just really like that kind of spirit of you don’t, you, you’re not the boss of me. [Laughs]
Sarah: Yep. There’s a, there’s a lot of major achievements in history, I think, that have made because someone said to, usually, a woman, oh, you can’t do that.
Sarah: Yeah, I can. Yep.
Sarah: Well, it’s nice of you to say, so I’m going to go this way and go do that.
Sarah: I think there’s a, there’s a quote – I have a, I have a, a sort of a, it’s sort of like a screensaver; when I open a new tab on my browser there’s an image, and then there’s a quote, and the quote was something to the effect of, people who say it can’t be done are usually interrupted by people who are doing it. And I’m like, yeah, that’s kind of how history happens, and it happens to a lot of women, ‘cause it’s like, well, we’re just going to have to do whatever we want anyway, and you’re not going to know about it. Ha-ha!
Alyssa: Exactly, and, like, all of the – like, that’s why I’m so glad that Hidden Figures is getting such a great reception and people are watching the movie and then going to read the book, because it’s just a part of history that should have been a normal part of history, but, you know. You know – [laughs] – you know how history works. Like, those are the things that get cut because there’s not enough space, or whoever’s editing the book wasn’t particularly, or writing the history book wasn’t interested in showing that aspect, so I think it’s really great that people are learning about this and learning that, about, you know, people who were succeeding against the odds, because I know, like, one reason some people say they don’t want to read historicals with people of color or with LGBTQ people is that they say, like, oh, I don’t want it to be set, like, I, I read romance for a happy ending, and I don’t want, there’s too much stuff going on, but, like, you know, you wouldn’t be able to read any historical romance with a female character in it if that was the case, because things were not so great for women all around the world either.
Alyssa: But, you know, it’s just the preconceived notion of, like, I think part of that is rooted in thinking, well, these people weren’t doing anything but sitting around and being subjugated and oppre-, like, which, you know, they, people were being oppressed and subjugated, but they were also fighting back, and they were also living full and complete lives despite that, so I think it’s good, good for movies like this to, and books like that to show, well, a stronger sense of what life could, was like for people back then.
Alyssa: Not that it was so long ago. [Laughs]
Sarah: No. It was, like, you know, in the history of the world it’s like last week –
Sarah: – and then yesterday. So one of the things I also wanted to talk to you is that you – I, I would just like you to know, by the way, that I am wearing three shirts and a wool sweater –
Sarah: – ‘cause it’s like 38 degrees out, and you are in the Caribbean.
Alyssa: Yes. I’m wearing a T-shirt.
Sarah: Yes, and I’m going to try real hard not to be jealous. Real hard. It’s not going to work. So you live outside the US. You are a, you are effectively an, are you an immigrant, an expat? How do you refer to yourself? World-traveling badass?
Alyssa: I – I’m, I’m both, I guess. I guess expat, I usually think of, like, British people who have, like, overstayed their visa in some country.
Alyssa: [Laughs] And that, that’s usually what I think of when I think of expat, but it’s also hard for me to think of myself as an immigrant because we’re conditioned not to think of ourselves as immigrants, especially as Americans going. It’s like, oh, like, I’m blessing you with my presence as an American or as a British person or as a European person, but, yes, I’m an immigrant to another country.
Sarah: Mm-hmm. When did you move? And do you want to talk a little bit about that?
Alyssa: Well, I moved a little over two years ago. I got married, and my husband lived in Martinique, and so, because I can work remotely, I was like, okay, I’ll move there. Also because he’s a teacher, and I didn’t want his spirit to be crushed by the American education system –
Sarah: What a nice spouse you are!
Alyssa: [Laughs] So, yeah, so I moved two years ago, and that, you know, was like, oh, cool, I’m moving to an island, going to learn French. I thought I already knew a lot of French; I did not.
Alyssa: I learned very quickly that I did not. So, yeah, it’s been a really interesting two years, because it’s been – when I first moved here I met some people from mainland France – because Martinique is a part of France, while being its own, you know, island with its own – but people I met from France were like, oh, it’ll take, take, it took about two years for us to, like, get used to things here, so it’s like, I guess it will take, like, three to four years for me – [laughs] – for me to get used to things here, since they already are part of French culture and speak French, and they’re just adjusting to the island culture. I am adjusting to both things. But, you know, it has not always been easy. [Laughs]
Sarah: Culture shock is very hard.
Alyssa: There are things that make up for it, like beaches and, you know, husband and dogs.
Sarah: Wearing a T-shirt in January.
Alyssa: But, so it is interesting, and it’s also interesting just thinking of, this is an ac-, a very big acclimation for me, and I wanted to move, so just thinking of the life of an immigrant who is moving for, you know, because there’s a war in their country or just for a chance at something better, just imagining, like, people, the things that they’re going through. Because, I mean, I had a pretty, I, you know, my husband was already here and had been living here. I had things, a relatively, it could’ve been a relatively easy entry, but, you know, things like language barriers and culture shock and – so the culture shock was much harder than you would think. You’re like, yeah, I’m going to move an island and, like, just, like, do island things, and people who live on an island are the same as anywhere else. They all go to work every day. I have to go to work every day, which is in my house, so it’s not like I’m, like, on the beach with a daiquiri while doing my editing. [Laughs] So, like, it was, it was interesting seeing, like, the reality of things and, like, while it’s obviously a great place to live, it’s just interesting getting – and you’re like, yay, I’m not going to have to commute every – like, one of my most hated things about living in New York was the commute and being shoved, packed onto a subway train and – but it’s actually, I do miss it in a weird way, because you don’t realize how much interaction you get out of a subway ride. Even when it sucks, you’re constantly communicating with people. You are, you know, you move out of the way because someone needs to step off of the train and you smile at each other, or you don’t smile at each other, and you’re like, that guy’s a jerk, and you go tell your coworkers about it later. Or, you know, like, someone drops something, and you pick it up, or, like, you go to the, the bodega that you get your coffee from every morning. Things like that are all actually part of the commute too, as well as the annoying parts, and then, so when you move to a different culture, like, you know, there are not bodegas that make egg sandwiches here, which is probably the worst part. [Laughs] So you, you, it’s like the things that you don’t quite expect that can be the things you miss the most, and also just, like, the little interact-, like, people interact differently. And, like, because even here, like, one thing’s like, one thing I always get confused about is, like, there’s this thing of, like, people saying hi to each other. [Laughs] Which can become this whole –
Sarah: And they make eye contact! And, and then you have a conversation! Like, it takes you twenty-five minutes to go down the street, right?
Alyssa: It, well, it can vary, because, like, okay, so when I first moved here I was not used to saying hi to strangers all the time. Like, in my neighborhood that I lived in in Bed-Stuy, like, I would say hi to my neighbors who were in front of their houses and talk, stop and talk to them because I had gotten to know them, but here, like, you would just pass someone in the street and then they say hi, and it’s like, oh, you know, bon soir, bon soir. Okay, oh, that’s the other thing. [Laughs] Bon jour, hello, good day, whatever. Here, you never know if someone’s going to say bon jour or bon soir. Bon soir is good night, but some people start saying it after one p.m. here, so –
Sarah: Good afternoon, right.
Alyssa: – it becomes this whole weird thing where you say, bon jour, and then someone says, bon soir, and then you’re like, wait, am I wrong? Then the next time you see someone you say, bon soir; they say, bon jour.
Alyssa: Wait, no! And then, yeah, and the thing with people saying hi to each other, like, you pass someone on the street, and, like, I had a couple times where people said hi, where I was just, like, deep in thought or walking around, you know, walking the dog or not paying attention, and someone said, hello, I didn’t realize they were talking to me, and then I got kind of like a, oh, you, you know, you’re being rude because you didn’t respond.
Sarah: Oh! Oh, no!
Alyssa: Okay, so then I see other people, and I make sure I do the bon jour! And then they just completely ignore more or look at me like I’m a freak – [laughs] – and don’t respond. So it’s like I still don’t have this part nailed down of, like, figuring out when do you say hi? You don’t always say hi, apparently, because some people don’t respond or look at you like you’re crazy if you do. So just figuring out, like, even those little things of what do you – so you, then I’m walking down the street, and I see someone coming, it’s like this moment of panic, like, do I have to say hi?
Alyssa: What if I, like – the smallest thing, when you go into a different culture, can become, like, you’re learning, you’re learning everything all over again, and the smallest thing can become, like, anxiety inducing.
Sarah: And, and leaving the house is exhausting, because –
Alyssa: Oh, yes. [Laughs]
Sarah: – not only – I mean, on one hand, you’re a writer, so you’re already sort of isolated in your own imagination and you work at home –
Sarah: – and then you’re also isolated by culture and language, and that can be really, really alienating, so, you know, you, you leave the house, and it’s like, okay, I’ve got to boot up the other-language part of my brain, and I’ve got to remember to use that other part of my brain when my brain and I have been hanging out thinking in English and things have been great! So you’ve got to boot up the other part of your brain and, and just, you get ready to leave the house, and, and because the, the, the, sort of the, the pathways of language aren’t automatic, you have to think about every single thing you say. You have to think about –
Sarah: – every word you’re going to say. You have to be like, okay, this is what I say here, and this is – and it’s, it’s, it’s exhausting! Like, it’s mentally and physically tiring.
Alyssa: And also the things you learn to say in class are not really what people say, so, like, it’s really frustrating. It’s like, oh, oh, this is what you’re supposed to say when you meet someone, and then you meet people, and they say something to you, and you’re like, what did they just say? Because they’re not using textbook French; they’re using the real French that people speak. So, yeah, it gets, it gets very exhausting, but, you know. Definitely glad that I have the opportunity to do it, but learning a language is, like, very, like, there have been times that I had a tutor and, like, sometimes after we were done I would say, my brain hurts.
Alyssa: Like, I can feel my brain right now, and it, it doesn’t feel great.
Sarah: I had the same experience, ‘cause I learned Spanish in total immersion as an exchange student, and I had a tutor, and I remember thinking after learning the subjunctive, which is basically the would te-, the would tense.
Sarah: Would, would, maybe, imper-, subjective and imperfect and futures –
Alyssa: Yeah, yeah.
Sarah: I was just like, brain no word now. Brain, brain done?
Sarah: No. No wording. Cannot word. When you are working, do you at times catch yourself thinking in French? Are you incorporating things into your works in pro-, like, your work in progress? Is that affecting – is where you’re living and what you’re learning affecting your writing at all?
Alyssa: I think so. Like, it’s funny. I wrote book two and three of Off the Grid, Signal Boost and Mixed Signals, like, right after – basically, I moved here, and I had the deadline for the two books, which was super fun, I’m sure you can imagine. And both of, like, in retrospect, both of them are about people leaving their families – [laughs] – and, like, going to this, you know, strange place and having to make lives for themselves? So I was like, oh, okay. Those are those things that you don’t particularly put into the story on purpose, but, like, where, though, they were definitely informed by the stuff I was going through –
Alyssa: – after, just after moving.
Sarah: And dystopia is a form of, of creating isolation.
Sarah: It’s just a scary isolation.
Alyssa: Yeah. And the French, I have been incorporating it a little bit into, there’s a, French plays a minor role in something going on in A Hope Divided, which is the second book of the Civil War series? But I was like, you know, if I’m learning this – [laughs] – I, I might as well, like, you know, throw it in and have it be, play a role in this story. I mean, I didn’t go and just – it does play a role, a part in the heroine’s narrative. But, yeah, I do think it, I think the language itself, but also the focus can be how people learn and how that learning affects them. I think that’s always something that I’ve thought about or that has played a role in basically all of my books in some way is the, how learning particular things or being forced to learn particular things or having particular skills be useful to people has always kind of been part of my books anyway, but I think I really do pay attention more – when I’m thinking about characters now, I think about, ooh, I do think about language a lot, and also with the Civil War books, because, you know, the different dialects that people speak and how those are perceived or, or how they are, what they mean for the people speaking them and even just, like, regional dialects, because I’ve also had to think about my own accent, which I didn’t particularly think I had an accent? Like, sometimes I swallow certain consonants, which you can’t really do when you’re pronouncing French, so it’s also, you know, learning of, I try not to focus too much on those, like, things, but it is something that I keep in mind, I think, when creating characters now or when having them interact with one another, is the way language can influence certain things. So Marlie, who’s the heroine of the second book, is half Black and half white, and so her perception, well, she thinks of herself as Black. Her per-, like, her perceptions and interactions of white people are different in some ways than Elle’s because she is biracial, so it’s interesting, and, like, just even that, I think, is somewhat influenced by being in Martinique, because it’s a majority Black population, and people have a different perception of what Black is. You know, they don’t think they’re not Black, but they don’t have to think about it in exactly the same way that you, a, a Black person in America has to think about it? There are all kinds of, you know, there, it was a colonized country, so, you know, their people, it does share that aspect with America, but there’s just a different – and obviously an outsider here, so I don’t know particularly what – [laughs] – what people who were born and raised here feel, but, like, for me there’s a difference.
Alyssa: Like, you know, when I go into a store, no one is following me around to make sure I’m stealing anything. [Laughs] Stuff like that. So it’s like, it’s like those little – and that’s, I guess, another, that’s one of the interesting aspects of, like, I didn’t realize how anxious I was in the US?
Alyssa: Because of racial stuff, until I came here, and I was like, oh, I don’t have to, like, feel weird if I need to take something out of my bag while I’m in a store. Like, this person on the sidewalk doesn’t think I’m going to, like, snatch their purse when I walk by them. Like, it’s not like a utopia here or anything, but it is a very different way of interacting with the world when you, there’s a lot less – there’s more stress from the language stuff and stuff like that, but there is less stress of, like, microagressions caused by race. [Laughs]
Sarah: So I always ask this question: so I want to know what books you’re reading that you’re excited about and you want to tell people about.
Alyssa: Okay. I am going to open my Kindle app. My year has been very busy so far, so I don’t have a, a huge number of books – [laughs] – but some books that I’ve read since 2017 started: one book that I really enjoyed was To Find You by Cerece Rennie Murphy.
Alyssa: And it’s a really interesting – it said that it was a time travel book, but it’s actually more of, like, a reincarnated souls type book?
Alyssa: It starts in ancient Ghana, then it goes to colonial India, and then it goes to, I think, a little bit futuristic US, and Ghana too, and it’s kind of like, the stories are connected by the fact that they’re the same souls, even though they’re different people in different time periods.
Alyssa: And it’s just really well written and, like, a really interesting concept, and it was the first book I read this year, and I really loved it.
I just finished Moonrise, and I’m reading Moonlight by Ines Johnson, and these are kind of like paranormal romance, kind of inspired by ‘90s movies? So Moonrise is kind of like a, a witch/werewolf story inspired by While You Were Sleeping.
Alyssa: And Moonlight is a werewolf romance inspired by A Walk in the Clouds, the Keanu Reeves movie?
Alyssa: [Laughs] So I’m, I, I love both of those movies. I don’t know if I should admit to loving A Walk in the Clouds, but –
Alyssa: – you know, like, Young Alyssa watched that movie a lot. So I –
Sarah: No shame. Never shame.
Alyssa: [Laughs] So, and, and I just, I’m really enjoying the concept and also, you know, getting a paranormal fix because I haven’t read so much of it recently. I’m in the middle of reading Moonlight now and enjoying that. So I also, I have not started it yet, but I am really excited to start Hardcore by Dakota Gray, which is the, the third book in her Filth series. The first book was Perv –
Alyssa: – which I loved. It was, like, one of my favorite books of last year, and it follows one of his friends, the, the hero of the first book. One of his friends, who is also kind of a jerky dude.
Alyssa: Finding, you know, finding the woman who brings him to his knees, so I’m really excited about that one.
I started reading Driven to Distraction by Olivia Dade, and it’s, like – [laughs] – I’m really enjoying that. It’s, the heroine drives the Bookmobile for the library. The series is Lovestruck Librarians. So the heroine is the Bookmobile, like, a potty-mouthed – [laughs] – potty-mouthed Bookmobile librarian, and the hero is the IT guy that is supposed to help her fix the problems that, the connectivity problems that the Bookmobile is having, and they have a, you know, kind of hate – this would be enemies to lovers, I guess, but it’s kind of like they’re enemies because they know if they gave into anything else they would progress to something more, and neither of them want that.
Alyssa: And also I’m reading Farrah Rochon’s Chase Me and also really enjoying that too. In that book, the heroine, they are coworkers with benefits, and the hero is trying to take things to the next level. The heroine is not really, wants to keep things as they are and, but then she has to invite him on a cruise with her family because she needs a date, and, you know, he decides to take that opportunity to try to make things real between them.
Alyssa: But, yeah, so far I’m really loving it, and I’m loving the banter between the two and the, the hero and the heroine, and also the relationship between the heroine and her best friend is also really awesome.
Sarah: Oh, I love that! I love that so much. I just finished Lauren Dane’s second book in her Diablo Lake series. It’s, first was Diablo Lake: Moonstruck, and then number two is Diablo Lake: Protected, and you kind of have to read book one and then book two to get the sort of over-arcing story that’s taking place, but in book two –
Sarah: – the, part of the foundation of the series is the friendship between the women, and by the end of book two, they’re each involved with werewolves from two rival family packs who have longstanding bad blood between them in this small town, but the, the friendship between them, it changes the dynamic of the men’s relationships, and I love it. Like, usually you see all the guys are friends, and the women sort of show up here and there –
Sarah: – but they don’t really get to know each other. Here, the men have to settle their crap because it’s important to their women to, the women that they care about to maintain their friendship. It’s so interesting!
Alyssa: Yeah, I always love a story, the series that are, stories in series that are, you know, based in the female friendship?
Sarah: Oh, yes. This is why I love Shelly Laurenston.
Alyssa: Oh, wait! I wanted to talk about something I forgot to talk about, which is the immigration, the immigration as Let Us Dream. The hero in that book is an illegal immigrant. He was an Indian, a South Asian sailor who jumped ship in New York and thought he would be able to naturalize, but then the Asiatic Barred Zone Act of 1917 passes, meaning that people from India, Pakistan – basically, Asian people were not allowed to nat-, become citizens of the United States, and that, you know, lasted until the fif-, late ‘50s or the ‘60s?
Alyssa: So it’s just, that’s one of the interesting things I learned while researching that has unfortunately become, it was something that I hoped would not be repeated in American history, but it’s, like, even very recently we have had these kind of terrible, this, immigration decisions, and, like, that particular act was the first legislation that was barred at keeping particular people out instead of just regulating people coming in?
Alyssa: So, yeah. That’s just one of those things that when, you know, sometimes you write about something and you say, oh, yeah, that was a terrible part of American history, and thank goodness we don’t do that anymore, and then unfortunately –
Sarah: Oh, guess what! We’re doing it again.
Alyssa: – reality barges in. It’s like, hey!
Alyssa: Guess what! You thought that was over? But, yeah, so that’s also one of those things that, that it’s like, there have been these terrible things before, but people spent, people fought against them, and now, with the ability to mobilize on Twitter and Facebook social media to mobilize people around the country and around the world, hopefully it will be more quickly resolved than the Asiatic Barred Zone Act was.
Sarah: I hope. I hate to be pessimistic, but the more things change –
Sarah: – and the more we don’t know about history, the more likely we are to redo the same things because we don’t know how it worked out last time.
Alyssa: Yeah, and it’s, it’s not, and it’s also, I think, there is, most of this stuff is motivated by fear?
Alyssa: And, like, I know people say that, and they say, like, oh, you should empathize. Like, I don’t empathize with that at all? [Laughs]
Alyssa: Not at all. Because, because the fear that it’s related to is fear of things that have already been done to other people –
Alyssa: – usually by the people who are afraid, but I do feel like there is a very kind of deeper psychological thing for these fears that really have, are unwarranted but keeping popping up over and over again. Like, they have to come from somewhere, and they’re not coming from reality.
Sarah: And that is it for this week’s episode. I want to thank Alyssa Cole and extend my congratulations again. I hope you enjoyed this interview as much as I did.
I also want to thank Tracy Ewens for sponsoring this episode. Her new book Exposure comes out, or came out, rather, on March 28th, and it’s full of contemporary catnip that you will definitely want to know about. Catnip first: a wildlife photographer heroine. She’s recently moved back to San Francisco because after traveling in pursuit of wildlife to photograph, she wants to be near her family. She wants a life with stability. She wants to own a toaster and use a full-size tube of toothpaste. You know, priorities! Catnip piece number two: a famous hero who has secrets. Westin is a famous actor best known for blockbuster movies where he drives a whole bunch of cars exceptionally quickly. But he would actually kind of like his fifteen minutes of fame to be over because he misses his privacy, and he’d really rather not anyone find out that he’s a terrible driver. And piece of catnip three: a fake relationship. I know many of you, that’s your favorite kind in a romance. A media frenzy erupts after a very simple kiss on the cheek, and when Meg and West are thrown together in public more often, Meg discovers the real person behind all the photographs, and West begins to wonder how he’s going to live his real life without her in it. Nothing is simple when it comes to love, especially when the world is watching. You can find Exposure wherever eBooks are sold, and huge, enormous, big thanks to Tracy Ewens for sponsoring this episode.
If you are a subscriber to the podcast and you’ve told a friend about it or you’ve left a review in one of the various podcast review locations, I want to say thank you! Thank you for listening and hanging out with us. If you are looking for more information about how you can support the show, have a look at patreon.com/SmartBitches. I am exceedingly grateful for all of your monthly pledges and your support and the number of people who’ve emailed me and said, I just found your podcast, and it’s so great. That’s the best! So thank you very much!
The music you are listening to is provided by Sassy Outwater. You can find her on Twitter @SassyOutwater. This is Caravan Palace, and most appropriately, this track is called “Queens.” You can find this particular song and a whole bunch of others on their two-album set, Caravan Palace and Panic, available on Amazon and iTunes and wherever you buy your fine music. You can find Caravan Palace on their Facebook page and on their website. I will, of course, have links to both.
I will have links to all of the books that we discussed, as well as links to some of the pieces of history and the historical figures we talked about as well.
And if you would like to email me or make suggestions or ask questions, you can always contact me at [email protected].
Future podcasts will include me talking with many other people about really cool things. I have so many episodes ready to air, and I’m so excited about every single one of them.
But on behalf of Alyssa Cole and myself and everyone here, we want to wish you the very best of reading. Have a great weekend!
This podcast transcript was handcrafted with meticulous skill by Garlic Knitter. Many thanks.