When Mildred Riley writes a romance set in the Harlem Rensaissance, she doesn't have to look back as far as other members of the profession: the popular writer is 91, in only the second decade of her career.
A career nurse who'd spent much of her 40-year professional life in psychiatric units, Riley turned to creative writing class as a hobby. And when she started writing historical fiction, although her plots were often charged - her first novel, Yamilla, is based on the story she remembers her grandmother telling, of a woman brought from Africa in slavery - she did so, she says, not as a political statement. "I wanted to write about people who look like me," she says.
Originally, according to an interview in the Taunton Gazette, a publisher turned her down, saying "black people don't read." But 20 years on, Riley and a host of successful African-American romance writers have had the last laugh. Despite attitudes like that of the racist piblisher, the 80s, when Riley started writing, was a fertile time for African-American romance. Authors like Elsie Washington and Rochelle Alers transformed "urban" niche fiction into a wider world of romantic fiction that included upwardly-mobile characters and plot-lines that resembled those of the typically affluent world of traditional romantic fiction. A boom in historicals followed soon thereafter. Since 1990, Riley has written 15 romances, with heroines ranging from women working in the 19th century whaling industry to contmeporary Iraq war wives.