Alyssa Cole on Why Her Romance Novels Are Always Political

Alyssa Cole. Photo: Courtesy of Harper Collins

The first two books in Alyssa Cole’s Loyal League series were two of the biggest things in romance in 2017. The heroines of both books are free black women in the Civil War, working in the South against the Confederacy. In those books, Cole shined a new light on what we may think of as a well-known period of American history, complicating simple narratives with stories inspired by true events, giving unsung heroines their hard-won happy endings. In all of her work, Cole uses romance to engage with the real world, proposing hope amid turmoil. Now, she’s breaking into rom-com territory with a new series, Reluctant Royals, which kicks off with A Princess in Theory. Here, our heroine is Ledi, an epidemiology Ph.D. student who finds herself inundated with spam mail telling her she’s the long-lost betrothed of Prince Thabiso of Thesolo. Except it turns out not to be spam. Ledi’s life is turned upside down and she’s swept off her feet, but as much as it’s secret-royalty wish fulfillment, nothing about Ledi’s story erases the hard truths of her real life. With her new book out today, we spoke to Cole about keeping her work political, princess stories, and parallels in her new novel to Black Panther’s Wakanda.

Most romance authors pick one subgenre or time period for their work, but you’ve run the gamut from postapocalyptic sci-fi to historical fiction, and now a contemporary series. What drives that exploration?
I’m interested in a lot of different things, and what what I’m interested in affects what I decide to write about. There is so much to draw from across the history of humankind — staying in one time period, or even one genre, [would be] boring. Focus is not my strongest point, so if I’m writing about something I really need to be interested in the subject.

Do you see your work as having through lines that aren’t defined by genre?
Obviously every book is about something different, but there’s always generally something political, there is generally some form of activism or involvement with the government or with programs to better the community.

In the author’s note at the end of An Extraordinary Union, you write that you always thought you would never write about the Civil War. Once you had braved that subject, which had been this big terrifying thing, how did you figure out what would be next?
Within a relatively short period of time from when I started becoming open to the idea of writing, I thought, Okay maybe I will try writing historical fiction, because there were things that I wanted to explore that not many authors in the mainstream — [beyond] Beverly Jenkins — were really writing about. There are just so many different facets of history that would be interesting. It was a slippery slope. It was like, Oh, maybe I can do 1960s; oh, maybe I can do Revolutionary War, and then kind of like slid right into, Well, okay, we can do the Civil War now.

Some ideas that have been germinating for a long time. With the princess books — I grew up a tomboy, but I still loved fairy tales and I still always wanted to see princesses that looked like me. Someone [recently] shared a screenshot from Let It Shine, which was [my 1960s] activism romance, and there’s a part where the heroine of that book says, “Well, black girls can’t be princesses.” Sometimes it’s like one book is answering, or is an echo of, something I thought about in a previous book.

Have recent politics, coupled with the intensity of writing about the Civil War, led you to want to write something that had a lighter tone?
That was a huge part of it. I love history, but [in research] you come across things that are so horrible, because humans can be extremely terrible. At a certain point it’s like, Okay, I would like to take a break from like the horribleness of man’s inhumanity to man and just write about princesses! [In A Princess in Theory] there are some allusions to modern politics, and their world isn’t perfect or anything, but it’s definitely much lighter than the midst of the American Civil War.

Ledi has a very difficult life in New York, but roughly the second half of the book takes place in Thesolo, a small and not-well-known African kingdom that for the most part is peaceful and very wealthy and technologically advanced. This is probably an artifact of timing, but as I was reading I kept thinking of Wakanda.
Yeah, the timing is a coincidence. I based a lot of the culture of the kingdom on the real African kingdom of Lesotho, but I am not African, I’m not from Lesotho or from any region nearby. I didn’t want to just take someone’s country and make it into this magical place. So I researched a lot of that culture [but] there are also aspects of other cultures from different African countries.

One of the things that I was thinking about was, with smaller countries it can be much easier to deploy different forms of technology and see how they play out. They can often be staging grounds. So things like the heated sidewalks [in a mountain town] came from trying to figure out if you had a place was small enough and wealthy enough and actually cared about its inhabitants, the environment, and things things like that, then how could this play out?

With all of the happy endings and wish-fulfillment elements in a romance, one of the things that grabs my heart the hardest is what you just said: the idea of a government that really cares about the people.
Part of that is my own inner wish fulfillment! But I also didn’t want [Prince] Thabiso to just be a playboy. I didn’t want to write someone who had to learn to care about people. In a kingdom this small and community-oriented, if people were starving, or anything like that, he wouldn’t be able to avoid it. So I wanted someone who is actually involved in the kingdom and wasn’t just cloistered away. And because of that, he felt a connection to [his] people and was trying to think of the best for them, even if he was occasionally a jerk in other areas.

Ledi is such an interesting character. I know your historical characters are often based on real people. Where did her story come from?
I made her a scientist because I worked in science — I was not a scientist, I worked at a science journal. So I was interested in science and in black women working in the field.

Sometimes you see those things where people are like, Don’t be a princess, be a scientist or Don’t give her a princess wand, give her a beaker, where it’s this dismissive attitude about princesses and like, I’m not going to launch like the princess defense squad, I obviously understand where it comes from. Girls were told they could only be princesses and they weren’t told to aspire to the same things that young boys were. But something that gets lost in that backlash is that not everyone was told they could be a princess. A very specific subset of women were generally the people that were thought of when the word “princess” was used. So I thought that it would be cool to have someone who works in science, is street smart and capable and doesn’t actually need a prince to sweep her off her feet.

What do you want your readers to come away with after they’ve read your books?
It’s hard to describe the feeling when you finish a good romance — you feel full of hope and that the world is full of possibilities. Even if everything felt really shitty when you first picked up the book, you’re like, Okay, the world itself does not change, but by reading this book I feel somewhat better. I feel better in myself and I feel like there is something good in the world. It can be like medicine for your spirit.

Side benefits: I would hope that if they’re reading historicals maybe they learned some random history minutiae that they didn’t know about and found interesting. But in general, I just want people to get a good, satisfied feeling. I guess feeling, and then learning, if they feel like learning, but the learning part is not required at all.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Alyssa Cole on Why Her Romance Novels Are Always Political