I was immediately drawn to the cover of Olivia Dade’s new romance novel, Spoiler Alert. It features a classic romance “clinch,” which is to say the protagonists embracing, but the heroine would never have appeared on any of the romances that I grew up reading. She’s unquestionably beautiful and also unquestionably fat, rendered so that there’s a little dip halfway up the curve of her ample rear. I’ve stared at one of those same dips in my own mirror so many times, smoothing fabric over it, evaluating it critically.
The premise of Spoiler Alert is, quite frankly, delightful. It’s the final season of a blockbuster TV adaptation of a bestselling fantasy series, and the two guys adapting it have completely botched the job, to such an extent that many of their stars are pissed. But, jumping off from the inspiration offered by Game of Thrones, Dade has her screwed-up TV adaptation taking its source material from a feminist epic fantasy retelling of the Aeneid, Guardians of the Gates. One of the stars—a handsome blonde named Marcus Caster-Rupp—is in fact secretly posting fanfiction on the side. When he publicly asks out a fan getting fatphobic online harassment in response to a cosplay photo posted on Twitter—a gesture of support—he learns that April is in fact one of his dearest friends online. April, for her part, has been working up the courage to ask Book!AeneasWouldNever to meet for real, and basically only meets up with Marcus out of curiosity. Things proceed to get complicated.
The book, too, is full of Guardians of the Gates fanfiction that remixes, reimagines, and recombines elements of all those source materials; the result is charming and funny and imaginative. I spoke to Dade about fan fiction, the craft of writing a fat romance heroine, and the Aeneid—and revealed to her my misspent youth essentially writing Aeneid fanfic for Latin Club. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for length, clarity, and, frankly, excessive Aeneid excitement on my part.
JEZEBEL: I watched a talk you did, and I laughed to see you hold up at least two older romances that I also bought because they had bigger heroines. It seems to me that we might have parallel experiences of having read romance for a long time, but also have had complicated feelings about how the bodies of the heroines were depicted and how fat people were depicted in the genre. Could you talk a little bit about that experience?
OLIVIA DADE: First of all, I want to know which ones we have in common!
One specifically is, I believe, Whole Lotta Love, by Justine Davis. Where she has the really sexy voice.
Yeah, and the whole conflict is that she doesn’t quite believe that he’d be into her, essentially, and that he does not acknowledge that he is into her for a while, because she looks so different from his usual interests. It was carefully done, but it still wasn’t quite what I want.
I’m a lifelong romance reader, and I’m also a lifelong fat person. For a long time, I really didn’t see anyone who looked the way I looked on the page—and I was someone who desperately needed to hear that a happy ending and that to be loved was possible for someone who looked like me. And it wasn’t usually there. Over time—like you did, evidently—I started gathering the few and far between examples of books that did have particularly heroines who were fat. But most of the time, as you said, it was not necessarily a painless experience to see myself on the page, even when I did, those few times. I think the first time I remember seeing a heroine who at least in theory was supposed to be was Jude Deveraux’s Wishes.
[Involuntarily loud and frustrated noise]
Which is a very telling sound you’ve just made, Kelly!
It’s just such a mixed bag! Some of the moments are so beautiful, where he sees her and loves her, but some of that book is just like, what are you doing?
I mean, in a lot of these books, the intent is there, and I suspect that if these authors took the opportunity and took the chance to actually write a fat heroine, it tells me this is also something that they maybe addressed in their own life. I suspect that some of the issues you see on the page in the representation—as is true today, I think—are perhaps issues that the authors themselves may have struggled with. I know that’s true for me. My depiction of fatness has also changed over time with my own grappling with my body and with fatness.
I was so gratified that he was just super into her [in Wishes], the way that she looked. He had no compunction—although if I remember correctly, they had to make it clear that his mom had been an opera singer who was fat, too, to sort of explain away how he could possibly be attracted to her. Then they specify her weight, if I’m remembering correctly, and everyone had made this huge deal about how big she was and everyone was being so mean to her because she was just huge. It was so much less than what I weighed, I just sort of cackled. If she is supposed to be so incredibly fat that everyone is going to be miserable to her about it, then wow. Then, of course, she becomes magically thin. It just seemed to me there were a lot of interesting choices.
Once I got a Kindle and I started looking up ebooks—where there was a plethora suddenly available of what were often termed BBW, Big Beautiful Woman series—I thought maybe that would be a lot better. But even a lot of current fat rep seems so constrained. A lot of these theoretically BBW series, they always specify that, you know, she’s 14 or 16 or maybe an 18, but nothing beyond that, as if that beyond that there be dragons.
I do think there’s certainly progress in it, and there’s room for own voices complicated stories that are going to include insecurities and vulnerabilities. I just wish that there were more available stories that were about more than that. Spoiler Alert is the most I’ve probably talked about fatness and fat shaming in any of my books. I have thought about that for a long time, because a lot of what some readers have responded to in some of my previous stories is that fatness is not a main part of the plot or a main part of the story. But I also have things I want to say about fat shaming, and I really wanted to show fat shaming in a friendship and familial context and to see that be countered on the page. There were books that I’d read over the years with fat characters where their families were pretty awful to them—in the name of love—but harmful, and on the page, never really countered. The journey is of self acceptance by the heroine (because it pretty much is always the female MC) learning to accept and love themselves despite that. And that’s a valid message.
But the hurtful messages being sent by the friends and family were just never, that I saw, really countered on the page. It was just sort of accepted: Well, they mean well, they’re your family, so what are you going to do? Just love yourself anyway. And that was not really quite enough for me. I wanted to see on the page someone confront well-meaning, well-intentioned fat shaming and concern trolling over fatness and have it be on there in a complicated way that reflected that it’s not OK. Just because someone loves you does not mean that they have free reign to hurt you in that way.
I’ve thought a lot about how so many books are about that self-acceptance theme, and I get frustrated about how often the conversation is centered around that. I think your book handled this really well, where April is really confident and she does love herself but she is trying to navigate this world that can be very unfriendly. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you approached that tension.
I mean, everyone’s experience of fatness is different. Obviously, it’s an intersectional experience, and even for other cis white ladies like me, it’s gonna be different from person to person. I know that my experiences, I have not experienced some of the things that April talks about in her love life, lovers expressing disappointment in her body or wanting her to change her body, even if they want her to continue to share her body with them. It’s not something that I have experienced, for luck or for whatever reason, but I know that it happens.
So my goal was to try to be realistic about some of the challenges that I’ve seen in my experience and friends’ experiences of being a fat person in the world, but I was pretty determined that it would not be self-loathing. That was not a story that I wanted to tell. I certainly think it’s a valid experience. April’s mom is sort of an example of that, where that’s internalized, and in her case, she hasn’t really worked through it. A lot of books, as you noted, that is the main journey through the book, working through internalized fatphobia.
The limits beyond which I would not go was, I would have April occasionally have vulnerabilities, because she’s not inhuman, but that she was not going to loathe herself or her body. And I was not going to have Marcus, the hero, in any way question his attraction to her or qualify his attraction to her or to be surprised by his attraction to her because of her size, because I don’t think you need to say that his mom was an opera singer. You don’t need to explain it. Attraction is attraction. It doesn’t need to be explained away, as if being attracted to someone who is fat is unnatural and has to have an explanation for it in a way that you wouldn’t need if someone were thin.
And the scenes that included fat-shaming, I didn’t want to write… misery porn. I mean, I did not want to drag it out to the point where it could be harmful or hurtful to readers. So even at the beginning, the scene where she’s getting some trolls because of her cosplay photo, I originally had a little bit more in there, just a couple more lines, and I cut them. Because I was like, you know what? You just get in there, make the point that people can be ugly online because of size and then get out of that, because there is no need for me to expound upon that.
I’ve never been a fanfic reader, partly because it seems so huge how do you even start. But I got a lot of real joy out of the riffs on various tropes and the sections of sample fanfic for the community, partly because I can tell the inspiration was Game of Thrones but I really loved that you moved it to the Aeneid. I really cannot tell you how delighted I was at the idea of “Game of Thrones but if the Aeneid” and the fandom that would grow up around that.
I’m a former Latin student. [laughs]
About a year ago, I was planning this out and—God, it feels like a lifetime ago, now!—I stayed at a hotel about an hour away for like three nights, just to sort of get the story together in my head, which I’d never done before, like a mini retreat. And I remember calling up my friend Margrete Martin, who is a geologist, who was my source for information about geology. And I remember being like—do mind obscenity?
Okay! I was just like: What the fuck was I thinking? I realized I’ve gotta come up with a plausible book series that you could see potentially being a bestseller and then come up with a TV series which would be based on it, but not the same. And then come up with fanfic that’s going to twist that, and then have that layered on top of the actual universe in which my characters live. I don’t usually have this many moving parts! I don’t know what I was thinking!
But actually, it was a blast. I loved writing the fake fanfic, especially since I got to vary my writing voice. I did different tenses, I did first person, which I never do, and I got to use all the dialog tags I don’t let myself use. Like, “‘blah, blah, blah,’ she sighed.” I got to use “she shouted” and all these things that I can’t let myself do that I got to do because it was supposed to be work that’s not published. I had a great time.
And I love mythology! Once I came up with the idea, I was into it, and I thought to myself, should I actually write this? And I’m like: no.
Here I should confess that I was in the Latin Club in high school, and we made t-shirts dedicated to the top ten reasons Aeneus’s best friend, Achates, is the best friend ever, which was basically us doing fanfic about our AP Latin coursework. I love the idea of how mad people would get about the differences between the poem and the books, and the books and the show, and the poem and the show.
If you still have this t-shirt, I totally want to see a picture of it.
I mean, these fake books that I made, people have been mad, because I meant it to be an overtly feminist retelling, but then the TV show bascially would reverse a lot of that.
Now I’m imagining all the furious blogs we would have written about the TV show. I’m just picturing the Guardians of the Gates tag on Jezebel being pages and pages of angry blogs.
I mean, because, you know, Cupid does have the lead arrows that could make you fall out of love and be repulsed by someone. I’m like, well, what if you did that to Dido, instead, so she can go back to being a ruler. Because also, I like happy endings! But then I was like, yeah, of course the TV show would screw her over, make her a bunny-boiling madwoman, because ambitious women, of course, are unstable and evil. Anyway, I had a lot of fun with that, once I finally came up with an idea.
I also enjoyed that the big climax of the book was at a convention because again, I would go to DragonCon every year as a teenager with my sister and one of the fellow Latin Club t-shirt conspirators. I really would have been a big part of the Guardians of the Gates contingent. But also, I was a Brianne and Jaime shipper when I was like 14!
Oh yes, yes. A thousand percent. The whole series, at least the two books that I’ve written, it’s not about Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, literally—he’s happily married and I don’t think he’s secretly shy or dyslexic. But the whole thing was very influenced by, I spent like a year reading nothing but Braime fanfic.
They did them so dirty in that TV show and I’m still mad about it.
Oh, God, it just was so pointless! And the character development at the end just made no sense. Oh, it was so bad.
And to bring it back to what we were talking about at the beginning, that relationship meant so much to me as a teenager, reading those books, because it was so rare to see somebody like Brienne. And he didn’t even give us the payoff! Just the tantalizing possibility of that payoff, I was so into that, because that seemed so rare and so magical. And then I got my payoff of it as an adult and was like, well, fuck you guys! [laughing]
Exactly! Obviously, I think that’s a large part of the appeal for me. Although I will say the fandom also has—Kelly, if you ever want to read a curated list, there are some that, I swear, if these people are not professional writers, they should be. I’m not just saying like, oh, it’s fun! Although some of it is, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But like some of this stuff, it’s some of the best things I’ve read, period.
But yes, I was attracted, of course, to the fandom in part because she is not traditionally attractive. Even though she’s not fat in the books, I am certain that that was a large part of the draw for me. But yes, if you are part of the Braime fandom, there are a loooot of references in the book.
I truly love the cover art for it. You know what I love? First of all, it’s just very cute. Second of all, I love that she’s like, absolutely, unquestionably, canonically fat. And I also love—you know how she kind of has that little dip in her butt?
The dip in her butt is very meaningful to me as a longtime romance reader! I love that it’s not perfectly round.
I mean, I cried when I saw it. The first version they sent me, the only real difference for her, for April, is that I made her waist a little bit bigger, because her waist for me was too nipped. Because often even when you do have fat heroines on the cover, often they’re always really, really hourglass. And that’s going to be even less that for my next book. Hopefully they can pull it off for the next book, too, for Lauren’s book. But yeah, I want the fact that she had rolls and that her butt is dimpled and that it’s not smooth, that it’s basically a more realistic detail. That was actually one thing I asked for, and I was able to suggest Leni Kauffman for my cover artist, who is a godess. She’s so good. The fact that she is unmistakably fat and beautiful. And with some illustrated covers—very lovely illustrated covers with fat characters!—it’s so undetailed that it’s representation, but I wanted something that was more detailed and realistic. So that I could see myself a little more clearly in it. Right? And the fact that she has the dip in her butt, the fact that it’s not smooth, I’ve said before in other interviews, her butt is my favorite part of the cover. And her upper arms! For other people, they’ve said that it’s that she shows her upper arms, and her upper arms aren’t thin.
I just love that she’s so beautiful and so unquestionably fat.
Yes. That was my number one thing, when they had me write something. I was like, I want there to be no mistaking this. Not that she could potentially be a size 14. Like, I want her to be fat. And Leni, there are certain illustrators who I think would not know what to do with that, because for them, fat bodies are perhaps more mutually exclusive with beauty. Leni, she can see beauty, I think, in any type of body. She’s just wonderful. I requested her and they showed me her first sketch and that’s when I contacted her myself and said, please, do my self-published books.
The only thing that I did was say, make her waist a little bit bigger, and I wanted more of the armor-y, metallic accents on him. Other than that, I’m like, this is exactly what a wanted—in a clinch! A sort of old-school romance clinch, except she doesn’t really look like most of the old school romance heroines. I loved it. I love that cover so much.
It’s really pure pleasure for me, because it’s something that I wanted too and just never really found. I mean, even the Whole Lotta Love cover, she’s gorgeous. She looks like Emme from Fashion Emergency, back in the day, but she’s maybe like a size 14, 16. She’s gorgeous, but would I call her fat? I don’t know. And I wanted there to be no question.
One thing that that I have enjoyed about reading your books is how different all the heroines are. You’ve written many books about fat heroines, but their experiences of that are all so different, and it’s so varied. And like you said, in some ways, Spoiler Alert is the most direct you’ve ever read about it. I like that, you know, you managed to represent such a broad variety of experiences because everybody’s experience of it is different.
That’s deliberate on my part. Also, I try really hard to have different types of fat bodies, because I think that the fat bodies we typically see in romance when we do see them are all hourglass. Lauren’s book coming up, she’s short and super round and doesn’t have big boobs and is not pretty. She’s deliberately not pretty. And I wanted to be clear that it’s not only acceptable to be fat when you’re pretty. You can be loved and desired even if you’re fat and not traditionally pretty. Obviously, the hero is going to find a lot to love and desire about her. But she is still not traditionally pretty in the way that I portrayed April.
I felt like Spoiler Alert, there are a lot of books I wrote where fatness was not a huge part of it, but I felt like I’d earned the opportunity to actually talk some about fatness. And, again, I was like, this is my biggest audience. Avon is behind this book. I’m not going to throw away my shot. There are things I wanted to say, I was like, this is where I need to say. And a lot of the stuff about fatness in Spoiler Alert is very personal to me. So I was taking the opportunity to do it. But I’m glad that it comes across that I’m trying to give a varied experience of fatness, where for some characters it plays very little role in their life, while in others it’s going to play a bigger role.
I try not to read reviews, but I do know there were some reviews that didn’t like the way I addressed fatness in the book. It felt like it was too big of a topic and so forth, and I get it. No representation is going to be loved by everyone. And the hope is that I’ve given enough examples of different types of representation of fatness that even if this one is not what you’re looking for, then hopefully there can be another that will bring you the joy that I wanted to bring. That’s the goal, anyway.
One thing I wanted to ask about: Does this have any bearing on the way you think about writing a love scene specifically?
I think my goal when writing a love scene with a fat character—and I’m hoping, by the way, that a near-future hero that I write will be fat, too. Largely because, in Marvel, I found fat Thor very hot?
Oh my God, same! He looked great!
I want to cuddle—well, do other things to fat Thor. So I totally want to write a hero who looks like fat Thor.
When I’m writing love scenes, my goal there is to not try to allay fatness, in the sense that, when its from his perspective, if he is describing her body, it would not be necessarily the same way you would describe a thin body, because they’re not gonna look the same. But to be clear in that perspective that he appreciates that. To use terms where it’s clear that the things that he’s seeing are not a turnoff in any way. He finds them desirable and beautiful, not despite her being fat, but just because she is who she is, that her body and who she is as a person are desirable and he sees them clearly. It’s not because she’s fat, it’s not despite her fatness. It’s because she is who she is. So when I’m writing the scenes, I try to be clear that she might have rolls or stretch marks or all those things, but I try to describe them, not the way that they’re a pejorative or given negative weight. They’re just factual. Stretchmarks by themselves, there’s nothing good or bad about them. They just exist. And you can find them charming or you could just not care about them one way or the other, but they don’t have to be somehow a flaw. So that’s my goal in writing those scenes, is to clearly describe a fat body, but not have the sides of that fatness ever be construed as flaws?
I try to be realistic about—I don’t specify size, because I want women in a range of sizes to be able to see themselves in my characters. But I definitely perceive them as like, the hero could not carry her to bed. She is of a size that they’re not going to have sex up against the wall with his supporting her weight. So Ikeep that in mind, too, and make sure that it’s realistic to someone who is large enough that there are certain things that probably are not going to happen. But there is a lot of other things that can happen! And do in my books. Very fun things. [laughs]