Working at a job that requires near-constant attention to the news in 2017, pretty much all that’s keeping my head screwed on straight is routinely sitting down and racing through a romance novel or two. Or five.
One I particularly enjoyed this summer was Hate to Want You, the first in a new trilogy from author Alisha Rai, an absorbing family saga that’s wonderfully soapy in the plot details and emotionally real in the execution. Nicholas and Livvy grew up together in upstate New York, their grandfathers co-founders of a thriving grocery store chain, and became each other’s first loves. But then the families fell out in spectacularly acrimonious fashion. They broke up, Livvy moved off, and they agreed to annual assignations on the same night every year. The novel opens as she’s just returned to town—much to the dismay of Nicholas’s family. The sequel, Wrong to Need You, is due out in November.
Rai herself is one of many avowedly feminist romance authors integrating their politics into their work. She’s written one fun, funny, hot, sex positive book after another, and her protagonists famously include a woman billionaire with a penchant for throwing orgies. She’s also an outspoken advocate for inclusion in publishing, and Hate to Want You is a wonderful testament to the power of a broader range of experiences, perspectives, and backgrounds in the genre. (Same with Wrong to Need You, which I’ve gotten a peek at via galley.) The diverse cast of characters faithfully represents the world as it exists, which is still entirely too rare across the pop cultural landscape.
Also it is angsty, angsty, angsty, in the best way possible.
We talked about writing romance in a tough time and how she keeps writing happy endings, the digital revolution in publishing—for which she had a front-row seat, as someone who published on her own, with a digital indie, and now at one of the big New York imprints, Avon—and inclusion. Also Cellino and Barnes. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.
JEZEBEL: The plot of Hate to Want You—a family business gone bad—to me felt very familiar if you grew up in a mid-size town around people who had family businesses and watched one go sideways. That’s a pretty common story, unfortunately.
ALISHA RAI: It really is, when two families are intertwined in business or two people are intertwined in business, if something goes sour—I’m from western New York, and there’s a law firm there called Cellino and Barnes.
Oh god, Cellino and Barnes!
Have you heard of it?
Oh yes, I’m following the Cellino and Barnes controversy very closely.
I am following it more closely than any human who is not involved in Cellino and Barnes at all should be following it. But it’s kind of like that, right? You’re like—whoa, what happened there? Something must have happened to break up Cellino and Barnes. When it happened, everyone I went to high school with was like, what chance is there for any of us if Cellino and Barnes can’t make it?
How do you go from being so intertwined to being nothing to each other? It’s like a marriage. It’s a divorce.
In the book, your main character Livvy is dealing with depression. It felt very realistically handled and the way she discussed it with her partner—it was romantic and tied up with the story in an organic way. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you went about creating that aspect of her character and treating the subject in a way that felt sensitive and realistic.
My heroines are always kind of set in my head. And I was like, she’s going to have depression and she’s going to be doing her best to manage it and she’s going to come back to this town to help herself as best she can. Probably all my books, themes are that imperfection is beautiful and that even if you think you’re not all perfect and polished and with a bow tied on top, you can still be beloved and you can still carry on with your life and do everything everybody should get the opportunity to do.
I do have depressive episodes and stuff, so I had some basis with my own mental state to draw on. But I wanted to make sure that I treated it as sensitively as I could, because it is just such a reality for so many people. And especially when we have times of stress and hardship, people have not just depression but situational depression. And we’ve had a rough year! It’s been a tough time for a lot of people.
That was something that I was like, I can’t really compromise on. I don’t want her cured by love or sex or anything like that. I want to make it clear that this is a chronic condition and she is going to have moments where she feels like she’s in despair or feels like everything is crashing down on her, and I want her to know those moments aren’t going to define her. That they’re just moments. They’re not her. And that she deserves to be loved despite those moments. That was really important to me and hopefully I carried that across. I think it’s a message that a lot of people need right now. It’s a message that I need right now! So I hope it rings a chord for people.
I think a lot of times people have this perception of romance as being unrealistic happy sunshine land, and I think that at its best it doesn’t sweep away reality. As a genre it’s perfectly capable of talking about subjects like depression.
Absolutely. Actually, I dated this guy a while ago—great guy, loved him. He was very scientific. He was very logical, very pragmatic. He was absolutely tickled by the fact that I wrote romance. At one point he said, why romance? What do you love about it? And I gave him the usual rundown that we give romance outsiders—you know—the whole thesis defense of it. And then I said, you know what? At the end of the day, what I love is the black moment. That is a genre staple, to have this moment where everything seems like it cannot be fixed and the ending’s gonna be sad. And then what happens is that it’s gone. You overcome it. Every book is like a mini manifesto. Especially for people with depression, to tell them, here’s some hope. Here’s some hope it’s going to get better. This is just your black moment, it will improve. And that’s when I think he understood. And that’s when I was like, oh, this is why I love romance. It’s that moment.
People think of romance as this happy, wonderful place, but I think of it as, you figure out how to get to the happy place. And sometimes the path isn’t always clean and it’s not always easy and even at the end sometimes the questions aren’t all answered and everything’s not tied up in a bow and that’s okay too because that’s life.
Another thing I thought was cool was how it felt like the world I live in, in that it was diverse and it wasn’t an issue, in the sense there had to be a plot around the fact that this is a multicultural group of people. There are things that are involved with that but it’s not an “issue” book. How did you approach that aspect of the book as you were writing? Did you actively think about it?
I think it was mostly organic. You look around the community—and I’ve lived in so many different places. I’ve lived in mostly white communities and I’ve lived in small towns and I’ve lived in huge metropolises. So, in my eyes, we’re all just sort of here. It wouldn’t occur to me to be like, I’m going to create this multicultural group of people, because that’s just people. I look at my friend group and that’s just what my friend group looks like.
Hopefully my books reflect that reality, because I think the easiest way to get jerked out of any book is when the reader goes, but wait, that’s not my world. The world building is broken. And in contemporary romances, there’s still world building. You have to create a world that looks like the world we live in. And sometimes that’s even harder, because there’s no room for error.
So, yeah, I think mostly it was organic. I knew I wanted the friendship between Nicholas and Livvy’s grandfather to be rooted in—her grandfather was imprisoned in Japanese internment camps because he was Japanese American and Nicholas’s grandfather was their family’s friend. They held a lot of their possessions for them while they were interned, which was sort of a common thing, to be like, here are my non-Japanese American friends, please just hold our possessions or as much as you can for us. I wanted that deep, deep bond. Everything just sort of sprang out from there.
The second book, Wrong to Need You, actually was very surreal to write, because the heroine is Muslim. She’s Pakistani American. And the hero is the grandson of a Japanese internment camp survivor. And I was actually writing it right when all the Muslim ban stuff was happening. I did not intend it to be that topical, but it was something that definitely influenced the book.
The second book is not an issue book at all, but it is layered in there and I’m proud of that part of it. They’re meant to be contemporary romance, and this is contemporary life for a lot of people right now.
Sometimes you read some books and you’re like, What’s going on in this town? It feels off if there’s only white people. It feels weird!
It feels weird, and also, that’s just not how the world works. And I think when people read so many books like that—I’ve had people say to me, well, I can’t really write people of color because I write small town romances or whatever. I can’t do it because I write historical romances and it wouldn’t be historically accurate. Why would you think that? Because people have built up an alternate reality in their brains that’s based on a lot of terrible historical accounts and stuff like that that have been written by the oppressors. But then it gets perpetuated. It’s going to be a never-ending cycle. And we have to start breaking that cycle.
I think it’s really important to depict the world as it is. I read a stat that romance readers, like 70 percent of them start when they get into their teens or something like that. I know I have a lot of young readers. I don’t really market myself to young readers because that would be weird because of what I write, but I’m always very cognizant of the fact that, okay, young people are reading this. Their brains aren’t fully formed yet. Not to say they’re dumb or anything, but they’re still figuring out how the world works, and if you have a 15, 16, 17, 20, 22-year-old reading books where people of color, Jewish people or whatever marginalized people in any way are treated as oddities and maybe they don’t live in an area where they see these people day to day, they’re going to have a warped view of what the world is like. Then they’re going to be the ones in 10 years going, well, it’s not historically accurate. And perpetuating these myths that we’ve been told all of our lives.
It’s a very heavy weight. When I started thinking about the kids I was like, ahhhh, I don’t want this responsibility! But we all have this responsibility. If you create media in any form, I don’t care if you’re a bestselling New York Times author or if you’re publishing on Kindle Unlimited or whatever, you have a responsibility to this generation and the one after it to create stuff that is real. That is rooted somehow in reality.
And on a craft level, a novelist once told me, you never want your reader to put your book down. The less opportunities you give somebody to say, “This is not how the world works,” the better it is. So, if nothing else, if these kids don’t sway you, think about it from the purely mercenary point of view. You never want to give people a reason to stop reading your book. Especially something as silly as characterization or setting. That should be your number one goal as an author, to hone those two things.
You mentioned Kindle Unlimited. Over the course of your career, you’ve published a lot of different ways—self, digital indie, and now you’re with one of the big New York houses, with Avon. What that’s been like? I think people have a lot of stereotypes about what self-published romance is, or the relationship of self-publishing to mainstream publishing. Could you just talk a little bit about how you started out where you started out and how you’ve ended up where you’ve ended?
I have to get in my rocking chair now. I’m pretty young, but I’m a digital grandma in a lot of ways.
My first book was published in 2009. It was Glutton for Pleasure. Digital was just taking off big time, and they were just starting to get the legitimacy. I missed the really terrible days, but a lot of traditionally published authors were very skeptical of e-publishers. And I was with one of the most successful ones. I digitally published for a few years and I was there during some of the more successful years, and it was a lucrative option for a lot of authors. It permitted them to quit their day jobs, stay at home and write, and it was very good for a lot of people. For me, it paid for my apartment. It had a lot of benefits that I couldn’t get through traditional publishing. Traditional publishing for me was not really open at the time. People talk now about how hard it is for women of color, but at the time, I was trying to publish erotic romance with a woman of color lead—I had a lot of things going against me at the time. I couldn’t have walked up to a publisher or an agent and said, “Here’s my book! Let’s get it going.”
So digital really was an opportunity for me, because they were willing to take risks, and at the time, they considered us risks. It was like almost a niche. It was so frustrating. And it still sort of is.
But it was good for me. I loved it. And I kept publishing with them for a while and then a few years later the self-publishing boom came up. And the same thing happened. It was a cycle. It was amazing. Digital publishing had just gotten to the point where, okay, fine, it’s eligible for RITAs. Okay, fine, you can come to the conference. It was just getting that veneer of respectability. And then self-publishing came along and the same thing happened. People made tons of money. They quit their day jobs. It suddenly boomed like crazy. Publishers started to take note of it. They snatched up a bunch of erotic romance authors. Fifty Shades was happening around the same time. It was insane. 2012 was really weird.
And so I was like, well, let me try this, and I enjoyed a lot of aspects of it. It was nice to have control. And I think this is what a lot of women of color authors found—it was nice to be able to experiment and do the things that publishers told us would never sell. For me, there’s this idea that in romance, just putting the heroine on the cover probably won’t sell the book, because they want the man. So I was like, well, let me just try it. So with my Pleasure series, I put the heroine front and center, because I was like, people love my heroines. That’s what I’m known for. Let me put a sexy woman on this cover, let me put a sexy woman on that cover, let’s see what happens. People loved it. Those are my most successful books. I repackaged them in a way I was told would never work and they worked great. So I think for a lot of things, self publishing and digital publishing were really just fantastic for experimentation. And especially for women of color. It gave us opportunities and freedom that we couldn’t get, because nobody was picking us up.
And now I’m with Avon, of course. Which has been a great experience so far. Erica Tsang is my editor and she had read me and sought me out, which was a wonderful thing.
It really was a wild west for a quite some time. And it was great to be in that wild west, to see publishing change so rapidly. In romance we were just right at the forefront of every technological advancement. And I’ll keep self publishing and stuff, that hasn’t changed. But it’s nice to diversify and it’s nice to sort of see a new audience and to have the experience. Because I think it really does make you a better business woman. It makes you a better writer. And this is a business. It’s not just the writing aspect. You do have to know about packaging and stuff, even if you’re with a publisher you should know something about it.
I was going to ask whether you thought getting your start that way helped shape your style. I was thinking of Akira, the heroine of Gentleman in the Streets, a.k.a. your female billionaire who likes to throw sex parties. That’s not necessarily something you would have seen in a book in 2008! Self-publishing seems to have allowed a certain amount of experimentation that has been good for the genre, it seems to me as a reader.
Oh absolutely. And that’s probably not a book I would have pitched Avon, either. And it did develop my style, because I could write things that I was like, oh, this might push a button, or this might sort of edge toward a boundary, but maybe they’ll like it! And we’ll try it. And I could afford to do that a little bit. I didn’t have a set deadline from someone, I wasn’t under contract. It was just me in my room writing and that was kind of cool. It is cool to be like, well, just write what’s in your heart and we’ll figure out how to market it later.
How do you write romance when the world is such a mess? It’s hard even everyday blogging. How do you write something like these books when it’s just a barrage of nightmarish news?
It’s hard! Look, it’s hard to create anything in this time. The fact that anyone can draw a picture or write a book or make a movie right now is like—whoa. Congratulations. Congratulations on getting up out of bed in the morning. It’s a hard world right now to do anything. To go to work is difficult even if you’re not in the arts. I know accountants who wake up every morning crying right now. It is difficult, no doubt. And there were definitely times in this past year, especially when you’re writing stuff that feels like it’s so on the pulse, it’s almost impossible.
When I first conceived these books I was like, they’re going to be funny, they won’t be too high angst. And then I started writing and I was like, I don’t know how to do anything but angst right now. I’m going to ramp up the angst. And luckily Avon was fine with that.
But it’s a challenge. Somebody asked me just, practically, how do you do it, how do you sit down? I don’t really know. I trick my brain, I try to reward myself. The practicalities of it are really hard. When I was working on the past book and doing page proofs for Hate to Want You and working on Wrong to Need You and everything was falling apart, I said to one of my friends, I don’t know how to do this. I cannot write a happy ending. The world is going to hell in a hand basket. Who even knows if America will be around when these books are released? Honestly, what does it matter anymore? And she said to me, all that despair that you’re feeling right now is what someone else is feeling right now. And romance novels refill the world’s well of hope. That’s what they do. And so when you write a romance, you are putting that hope out there. You are refilling someone’s well of hope. And so I was like, well… now you’ve made me feel like a superhero.
When you put it that way….
Yeah, when you put it that way, I guess I have no choice but to stop whining and finish my book.
And especially with Hate to Want You, I mean, the number of people who have already reached out to me and said, you know I have depression or I identified with this or I struggle a lot and this is a bright spot or the message was really great, that honestly makes me want to write more. That makes me feel like, okay, it was worth it then. It wasn’t just a silly book, it wasn’t just something that nobody will read, it’s something that maybe helped someone else create, or sit down and write, or draw a picture, or go be an accountant. It’s something that refills hope. And I think we need that.