I’m known for asking a lot of questions. A lot of questions. Particularly of my author friends. And when I launched the Author Up Close series in 2019, my goal was to share some of their knowledge and wisdom with other writers. The series resonated with so many, I’ve decided to continue it in 2020. The information these authors share provides a unique inside look at the industry, what it often takes to break in, and helpful advice on how to handle the business on your own terms. Today’s Q&A with Regency and Historical Romance writer Vanessa Riley tackles all of that, and I’m delighted I had the opportunity to interview her.
I’ve been Facebook friends with Vanessa for years, but we only met in person when I moderated a panel discussion at the 2018 Decatur Book Festival. The panel, entitled Empowering Women with Romance: The Literature of Hope and Resistance, offered a modern, liberating take on the romance genre. One of the highlights was Vanessa sharing about the opposition she faced from some in the publishing industry regarding the viability of diverse regency stories. In my Q&A with her, she discusses how wrong these gatekeepers were, her sink or swim moment, and her recent print deal with William Morrow.
GW: You’ve got quite an interesting path-to-publishing story, particularly surrounding your serialized Christian regency saga, The Bargain. Will you share a little about what inspired you to write and publish that series yourself?
VR: My path is a little different. I’ve always been drawn to telling Regency Era stories. Faith is very important to me, so all my novels have those threads. I had been traditionally published in 2013 and acquired an agent, but no one thought there was an audience for diverse Regency stories. One look at the 10,000 to 20,000 free blacks living in London or any of England’s colonies, and you’ll see that the period is very diverse, but no traditional publisher wanted these, and I could no longer ignore the voices of those who looked like me, who lived and loved and found ways to survive.
I was at a crossroads. No publisher was going to take the risk to find this audience and prove me right. I had to do it. That was the genesis of The Bargain, a serialized tale featuring a proud African American maid who ends up sailing with her employer to the South African colony of Port Elizabeth. This was my sink or swim moment. I indie-published this novella and was surprised by the marketplace reaction. It sold over 1,000 copies in two weeks, with no advertisement or marketing other than a few posts on Twitter or Facebook. I’d proven there was a market for diverse Regencies. I also made folks hungry for more of this story. They wanted to know what happened to my characters Precious and Gareth. I had to hunker down and write. It was released in four serials because that was as fast as I could write.
GW: How did the success of the first book in that series change the trajectory of your publishing career?
VR: As writers, we all struggle to some degree with imposter syndrome. We worry if what we are doing will offer a reader something new, something entertaining. I want to entertain and take my readers to new places, but I want to do this in narratives that include characters who look like my ancestors. I’m here because they found love and made sure it survived. We need stories set in the past showing their hopes and strengths and dreams. The success of The Bargain took away some of my fear and doubt. It emboldened me to keep pushing and educating others that people of color existed in these times. Frankly, I have not looked back, though I still get nervous hitting send on a completed manuscript to my editor.
GW: I love that you’ve done extensive research into regency life and bring a historical truth to your fiction that many don’t realize exist, specifically surrounding the black presence in Europe during the regency era. Can you share a bit about that and why you’re driven to tell those stories in particular?
VR: Everyone is looking to find themselves. My family history is a wonderful blend of African, Caribbean, Irish, Muslim, and Hindi. The combination of this ancestry is a warm soup of journeys, of strength, and light. I’ve made it my mission to put stories in the world that showcase diversity and inclusion. Therefore, I do a lot of research to find those nuggets that will make my stories have depth and meaning so that it can inspire people today.
GW: You’ve just inked a great deal with the William Morrow agency. Please tell us about that story and how the deal came about.
VR: I have two print deals. Up next is a new Kensington series (Zebra Imprint) Rogues and Remarkable Women. As I look at all the Zebra Regencies on my shelves dating back to my high school years, this makes me so happy. The first book, A Duke, A Lady, And A Baby releases in trade, June of 2020. What happens when hapless male guardians attempt to rear babies while the Widow’s Grace, a secret society of widows determined to restore cheated women, infiltrate their households? Hopefully nothing less than pandemonium, romance, and happy-ever-afters for Caribbean Heiresses.
My second print deal is for historical fiction, Island Queen (William Morrow), a (2021) summer read. It follows the incredible true-life story of Dorothy “Doll” Kirwan Thomas who rises from enslavement to become the wealthiest woman in early 1800’s West Indies. She has an affair with a future English King and saves women of color from unfair taxation meant to demean and rob them of their resources. I have been researching Dorothy for over six years. I’m very excited to tell her story.
GW: What advice would you give a newbie writer who someday wants to be doing what you’re doing?
VR: I have two pieces of advice. First: Always seek to improve your craft. Do what you have to do to make your writing the best it can be, whether that is investing in classes, craft books, etc. Take the necessary steps. You are worth it. Your readers are worth it.
Second: Take risks. Take risks on your storytelling, on your steps to publication. Do things that help you move forward in your career and in growing an audience of delighted readers. It’s fine to be scared. It’s not fine to stand still.
GW: Many thanks to Vanessa for taking the time to answer my questions.
Vanessa Riley writes Regency romances and historical fiction featuring multi-cultural communities and powerful persons of color. Her award-winning series, Challenge of the Souls, Advertisements for Love, and The Bargain have attracted fans from around the world. With over twenty-titles in print, Vanessa’s hybrid publishing career spans self-published novels and novellas and traditional titles with Barbour, Entangled, Kensington (2020) and William Morrow (2021). You can learn more about Vanessa by visiting her on her site VanessaRiley.com .
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Over to you: Have you had a writer sink or swim moment, and if so, how did you handle it?