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.
Her latest novel deals, as she says, with "what makes a man stray and desert his wife and family," although, like many writers of the most dramatic romance, her own was stable: she was married to her husband for fifty years and says the relationship was very happy. Riley's is a good story to read right now for a number of reasons: it's always heartening to hear about the persistent health of the romance industry as publishing struggles - and I for one like that it's forcing some people to take this much-maligned genre more seriously, even if only as a major financial player. Then too, those who watch this sort of thing have cottoned to the fact that romance themes echo cultural shifts, and as much as the solid sales of romances dealing in factually-based African-American history, we should look to the fact that an author of 91 is more than capable of making good numbers and finding a wide readership. Inspiring? Definitely - but let's also hope the indomitable Ms. Riley gives confidence to plenty of others, and is not a one-off.
Related: R.I.P. Elsie Washington