This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Many people know that you write romance—you are, as you like to say, a proud romance writer—but we don't all know why you write romance. Fill us in a bit...
I've always loved a good love story. I mean, even when there was nothing in the mass media that reflected who I am and, you know, my cousins, and parents, and those people at church who had been married for 50 years and were still holding hands going to the car afterward. So I was basically just writing it for me and sort of stumbled into the publishing world.
Was the publishing world ready for you?
When I started, the market was basically closed to African American romance writers. I received enough rejections to probably paper my house and yours! And most of the letters said "Great writing, but..."
The "but" had to do with what we're talking about right here, because in publishing's eyes, a 19th century story concerning African Americans should have dealt with slavery. So here I come with a story about a Buffalo soldier. This is my first book, Night Song, which is still in print. It's the story of a Buffalo soldier and Oberlin-educated schoolteacher in an all-Black town on the plains of Kansas in the 1880s. And they're like, what are we supposed to do with this? You know, there was no box for that!
One editor wanted Night Song anyway—but did Marketing know what to do with it? How were they gonna sell this oddball (to their minds) story?
I had to put a very, very detailed bib list in the backs of my earlier books to answer the questions that I was getting in the run up to publication: Did Black people really do this? And to also give my readers a place to start if they wanted to delve further into the history. I mean, shared history is good, but if you don't share it with everybody, there's not much value in that.
This must have been quite the experience to try to sell Black history to people who didn't seem to know very much about it.
Well, and not only the Black history, but to sell Black love.
If you look at the history right after slavery—the Black men who walked for months, for miles, across states and plantations looking for their wives—that love was real. But because it's not something else that's pictured in the mainstream movies and all of that, people had a hard time believing it, let alone wanting to publish it.
Would it be fair to say, though there are still not boatloads of people of color in publishing, and Black people specifically, some things have changed?
There's a lot more African and African American women, women of color, all identities, really, now writing romance. And that's one of the great things about the genre. It's starting to reflect the country.
And maybe given all that's going on right now, people are more receptive to the genre?
I mean, if we look at places like Twitter, especially during this pandemic, you'll find that people are grabbing romance. It's a literature of hope and it's comforting. And these are women-centered stories, which we don't get a lot in history and in literature. I think people are more comfortable now with women-centered stories than they used to be. We're all about consent. And a lot of the romance writers are feminists.
Still, some people within and outside the publishing industry sneer at romance...
Things have changed in the last 30 years, so I'm hopeful. And plus, we sell more books than anybody else. Romances are the largest piece of the publishing pie! We keep the lights on so that they can take the chance on that so-called "literary" literature.
Does it bother you that there's still this division between romance and "literature?"
At the Miami Book Fair years ago, I was on the shuttle that was taking authors back and forth between the hotel and the event. A woman was sitting next to me and she says, "Well, what do you write?" And I said, "romance." And she sort of turned her nose up and said, "Well, I write literature."
I sort of looked at her and I said, "How many books do you have in print? And what's your print run?" And then, you know, she really didn't want to talk. So I told her, "Honey, maybe you need to start writing romance!"
What kinds of reactions do you get when you're on book tour—back when there were book tours?
The reaction has just been amazing from the beginning. Especially with my third book, Indigo, which highlights a very, very dark-skinned woman. Women were weeping at the signings because they had never been centered in a story like that before. Booksellers were crying. Everybody's crying. I'm crying!
To see themselves on the page when they'd never seen themselves on the page before—it's life-affirming, life-changing. And the thing they're most proud of? It's the history. To be able to say 'We were more than slaves,' and sharing that history with their grandkids. I'm on my fourth generation of readers now, and it's been an amazing ride.
And it's not over yet, right?