On Thursday, February 16, 2023, Word for Word, Southern New Hampshire University’s (SNHU) online literary series, proudly welcomed Alyssa Cole, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of romantic thrillers and more.
Her debut thriller, “When No One Is Watching,” won the 2021 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Paperback Original and the Strand Critics’ Award for Best Debut. Her Civil War-set espionage romance, “An Extraordinary Union,” was the American Library Association’s RUSA Best Romance for 2018. And her contemporary royal rom-com, “A Princess in Theory,” was one of the New York Times’s 100 notable books of 2018. Alyssa’s books have received critical acclaim from the New York Times, Library Journal, BuzzFeed, Kirkus, Booklist, Jezebel, Shondaland, Vulture, Book Riot, Entertainment Weekly and many more.
The following is an excerpted transcription of Alyssa’s interview, edited for the page:
Word for Word (W4W): Alyssa, I have lived for the last thirty years in New York City and the last ten in Brooklyn. Your novel “When No One Is Watching” is set in Brooklyn, and I have to say, you nailed it. Not just the setting but everything going on with gentrification. You obviously know the city very well. Do you live in Brooklyn?
Alyssa Cole (AC): I did live in Brooklyn. Right now, I live in Martinique, which is in the French Caribbean, and very different from living in Brooklyn. But after I graduated college, I moved to Brooklyn. I was born in the Bronx and grew up in New York City and Jersey City, which is just across the river. So, I tried to make the book, in part, a love letter to Brooklyn, but also addressing all the things that have been kind of scary that have been happening in Brooklyn.
W4W: So, I mentioned gentrification, but that is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the contemporary social issues explored in your novel. Racism, police brutality and the drug crisis, just off the top of my head. But there are also a lot of points in the novel where you pull events from history.
For example, your novel talks about something called Black America, which was a theme park that opened in Brooklyn around the end of the 19th century. A place where northern whites could go to kind of cosplay a whitewashed retcon of slavery. As your protagonist says, “history is fucking wild.” I’m curious about the fit between history and the thriller genre in this novel.
AC: I feel like this book was the culmination of several things. I’ve been writing romance novels since 2014. And my romance novels usually deal with some kind of social issue. I know people don’t often think of that when they think of romance novels. I’m not the only writer who does this, either. Many, many, many romance novels deal with social issues. And one of the things that I love about romance is that you can take these situations where, if you handed someone a history textbook, they might say, “you know, I don’t really feel like reading that right now.” But if you can take history, real history, and kind of sneak it into an exciting and fun story, for me, that’s fun to write.
I enjoy reading things like that as well. And I thought some of the romances I’ve written kind of border on suspense and thrillers, even though they lean more heavily into the romance genre. So, my romances have dealt with really heavy things. I have one series set during the Civil War, a book set during the Revolutionary War in New York and books that take place at various time points in American history. But because of the genre, I wasn’t able to fully delve into how atrocious so much of the stuff was that was going on. I didn’t want to completely overwhelm the reader with how horrible everything was.
With gentrification, as I was saying earlier, I grew up in the Bronx, in Jersey City, and then lived in Brooklyn as an adult. And I remembered every time I would go back, I’d be like, “oh, where is this… where is the video store?” Now there’s a giant building there. And it just started to feel increasingly like this wasn’t the place that I grew up in. And when I was living in Brooklyn, I was seeing it there as well in real-time.
W4W: I noticed that as well. It does complement the thriller genre very well, this gentrification. Because there are many times and moments, and I’m not going to give much away, but there are moments where the main character will go to her bodega, and it’s suddenly different. It’s changed. Everything’s white and almost medically “clean.” It’s eerie, in a way. And that tone, that feeling, that unsettlingness comes through in the thriller genre, almost in a “Stepford Wives” kind of way. Like things are being replaced. They’re somewhat familiar, but they’re not. And that unsettlingness carries through the book.
AC: All of this was always in the back of my mind, and I was trying to figure out how to put it into a story. And I actually began tinkering around with this idea in one of my romance novels set in Scotland. But there was all this other stuff going on, like the secret love child of a duke. So the gentrification storyline kind of fell to the wayside in that novel. It was something I was starting to explore in romance, and then it seemed to me to be a better fit for the thriller genre, where I could really lean into how disturbing, stressful and suspenseful it is to live through these situations in a really heightened way but also delve deeply into how ingrained a lot of these things are in American society.
W4W: When you begin writing a story, do you know which genre it will be? Do you say “I’m going to write a historical piece?” Or is it more that you discover something new and interesting and want to share that with readers?
AC: I often decide that it’s going to be a particular genre, a romance or romantic suspense or a thriller. But most of the time, my work ends up being a mash-up of genres. There will be one predominant genre. Like in this one, it’s a thriller, but there are also elements of horror, speculative fiction and historical.
In my romances, there will often be an element of mystery, even though it’s predominantly a contemporary Royalty romance fairy tale retelling. In my book “A Princess in Theory,” there’s a mysterious pandemic, unfortunately, a mysterious virus. The heroine is an epidemiology grad student. Even though on its surface, the novel is like “The Prince and the Pauper meets Cinderella,” that type of story, there was also an undercurrent of mystery, of what is this disease that’s happening in the country. I really enjoy adding elements from different genres.
I write sci-fi romance as well, with varying levels of in-depthness to the sci-fi elements. I have one story, “The AI Who Loved Me,” that started off like a funny story about a woman whose next-door neighbor turns out to be a hot artificial intelligence, but then it turned into a rom-com slash thriller, slash dystopian romance. I end up just putting in various elements of different genres in a way that hopefully readers still enjoy, even if it isn’t exactly what they were expecting when they picked up the book.
W4W: Right. I mean, ultimately, it’s about entertaining the reader and the audience, and mixing genres is one way to do that. I think a lot of our students here at Southern New Hampshire University like to explore the option of mixing genres. So, it’s meaningful for them to hear an author say, “Yeah, you can do that.” At the same time, I think students might still think that, well, Alyssa Cole can get away with mashing up genres or having different books in different genres. But what about first-time authors? Won’t publishers want new authors to be restricted to just one genre, at least at first?
AC: I think publishers are opening up more to the fact that people don’t need to just write one genre in order to maintain a reader following. The way I think about it is that readers, first of all, read you for your voice. They might pick you up for the genre that you’re in if they like reading that genre, but if they like your voice, they will try your other books. So many authors are now spreading their wings and writing all different genres.
W4W: I want to go back to something you mentioned earlier, that there are horror elements in “When No One Is Watching.” When I was reading this book, I was thinking a lot of “Get Out.” And I was thinking of “Lovecraft Country” and Tananarive Due’s work on Black horror. It seems to me that there is a common thread among a lot of writers of color, and not just in the thriller genre or the horror genre, but across a number of genres that nevertheless share certain horror-related elements in common. Can you address that?
AC: Yeah, I think that even if you go back to writings in the early 1900s, short stories from Black writers and early novels of that era, a lot of them, even if they aren’t specifically horror, have these horror and suspense elements. Thrillers and genre novels, in general, can really provide you with a way of exploring some of the things that within a community are terrifying and horrifying, but that might not always be widely known or understood outside of the community. They tap naturally into the sense that the world is out to get you, and this kind of paranoia, in many communities, is not paranoia.
W4W: That’s exactly what I was thinking as I read your book. I kept thinking of that old saying, “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”
AC: This book came out in September of 2020, which was after the summer of 2020, which was basically so many of the things that happen in the book kind of exploding. I mean, things that have always been happening in the US, but suddenly exploding on the news and into the mainstream, where people couldn’t really deny that it was happening. Jordan Peele and Tananarive Due, and “Lovecraft Country” were all in the same vein of exploring American history. I mean, you can take so many real things that happened in history, and they are literally the stuff of nightmares and horror movies.
W4W: There are elements of American history, especially as it relates to minorities and Black people, that are a horror story. There’s just no way around it. It’s not a horror story as a metaphor. It literally is a horror story.
AC: I think works like this can be cathartic. You know, like romance, horror generally has an ending where the good guys win, and the bad guys don’t. The same in thrillers and mysteries as well. So, ok, we have this format, but we can subvert it to explore these things that don’t often get spoken about or that people don’t want to talk about. That is, they get spoken about, but in the sense of, “oh well, that was in the past, and it’s not happening now.”
W4W: Right. It brings to mind that famous Faulkner quote, “the past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.” I mean, like that grotesque theme park in the novel. You read about that and think, well, that’s impossible. How could something like that ever happen? Or at least it would never happen today.
And yet there are all these restored Antebellum plantations throughout this country that are more or less theme parks. People have weddings and celebrations there. I mean, I think it’s so important to grapple with that in fiction. And I really admire you for doing so in a way that’s honest and also accessible because it’s not a dry history. It’s something that’s going to suck people in and make them want to read. Let me segue into another question from the audience, which is how much of a book is preplanned, and how much develops as you write?
AC: It depends on the book. When I first started writing, I was a plantser, meaning I basically had an idea, and then I would just write and see how it turned out, which often means you then have to go back and fix all of the continuity errors and stuff later. Which you have to do anyway, but you have to do it more. And then, I started trying to be more organized. But trying to be more organized and plot everything didn’t quite work for me. So, I’m somewhere in between a plantser and a plotter.
W4W: A plantser?
AC: Yeah, a plantser. I know certain scenes that I want to hit. I also know what I want the ending to be. And I have ideas of certain scenes leading up to that. I do try to plot things out, basically. But it changes when I write. That’s why I try not to outline too hard and spend too much time on it, because, even when I do, the story ends up changing as I’m writing, or the character reveals something that then changes the course of the story, or I come across some research that changes what is possible within the bounds of the story, or some interesting thing that I think would really work better than what I originally had planned.
So, I think that’s just going to vary from person to person. Some people write 10,000-word outlines before they start writing. But I think finding what works for you and allows you to be comfortable as you start working on your story is probably the best thing. So, trying out a variety of different things and see what feels comfortable for you as a writer. And knowing it might change as you go along.
W4W: How do you know how far to push a tense scene when you’re writing it? Like, when do you know to pull back to keep readers at the edge of their seats? How do you know what’s enough and what’s too much?
AC: I think this is actually a skill that I really learned in romance writing. Because romance writing has certain conventions. When readers pick up a romance, there’s a couple. And the one thing they know about this couple is that they’re going to be together at the end of the book. And you then have to spend the entire book making readers doubt that there is going to be a happily ever after, even though they know there’s going to be a happily ever after. They bought the book specifically because they want the happily ever after. So you kind of have to, similar to a mystery, you have to learn when to lay clues, when to kind of tease the reader, make them think something’s going to happen… but no, not yet.
So I think it’s really just kind of feeling that out as you go along. And often in revisions, you go back, and you’re like, “ok, no, that’s too much right now.” But for me, a lot of it is by feel. I have to go back and reread, and then I can just say, “ok, this doesn’t feel right.” And I think one of the things that is helpful or one of the reasons why I edit like that, or why I think about the story like that, is that I read a lot as a kid. I mean, throughout my life, I just read a lot, read a lot, consumed a lot of TV shows and movies. And I think this is something that’s important to writers.
AC: Because generally, there’s this substructure, the bones of the genre that everyone builds their story on. And there are the beats of the genre. And when you read enough, you start to internalize them. It’s like when you’re watching a TV show, and then suddenly something happens. And you’re like, “wait, wait. Why did that happen?” And you get pissed off. You’re like, “that shouldn’t have happened right now.” And you don’t know exactly why it shouldn’t have happened there. But you know that it’s wrong and that you don’t like it. And this is not about style or anything like that.
It’s similar to when kids use tracing paper to trace over drawings that they like. And eventually, they move on to drawing their own things. But they first got the muscle memory by tracing on tracing paper. That’s what reading and watching other people’s stories does for writers. Internalizing those structures allows you to say, “ok, this thing that feels off is because they didn’t hit this plot point.” They didn’t have this revelation. And so when I’m writing, I have my outline. I can say, “ok did I hit the first plot point?” Maybe I need to add something else here because it doesn’t feel like right, or this seems too much information at the beginning. The way I write is this kind of constant revising, oh, no, this needs to change, this needs to change, this needs to change, which is also why outlining doesn’t always work.
W4W: I’m curious how that folded into this particular novel. The narrative includes two points of view. There’s Sidney, a young Black woman who’s returned to her mother’s house at a time when this pharmaceutical company is trying to take over the neighborhood. And then you have Theo, a white man from a poor, dysfunctional background who moves into the neighborhood with his rich and, I don’t think I’m giving too much away here, very racist girlfriend.
Ultimately, this is Sidney’s story. But Theo plays a large part in it as well. I’m curious about why it was necessary for you to give Theo his own POV in this narrative. Was it something that came to fruition as you were writing, or was it planned all along?
AC: It was planned. I generally like a dual POV narrative in romance or thrillers because it’s fun to see what people think they know and what they definitely don’t know. I like being able to play off of the way different people perceive things. Theo’s background shaped how he perceives the world and how he perceives himself perceiving the world. Sidney’s background shapes how she perceives the world. And I thought that would be a great contrast. I really enjoy all of the ways you can play around with that and create a more immersive experience for the reader by giving both points of view.
And for this story of gentrification, I thought it would be interesting to have the woman who grew up in the neighborhood and left and then came back, and then someone who has just moved into the neighborhood around the same time. They are getting a taste of the same things going on but are perceiving them differently until they both start getting on the same track.
W4W: Right. As the novel progresses, the two narratives come closer and closer together, which is a cool technique. The two alternating POVs that slowly and then more and more quickly converge… it really helps to escalate tension. What I really want to know is, when is the movie coming out? There’s got to be interest in filming this.
AC: There is interest. There’s the possibility. I haven’t heard anything in a while.
W4W: It seems like a natural. Sometimes you read a book, and you’re just like, what are they thinking? Why isn’t Hollywood all over this property?
AC: Hopefully, something will come of it.
W4W: You mentioned romance and how important that genre has been to your career. You began as a romance writer. There’s always a strong element of romance in your work. And I think a lot of people came to you through romance first and maybe even still think of you primarily as a romance writer or at least in the context of romances. You were also involved in the dust-ups over at the Romance Writers of America, in which that organization just spectacularly shot itself in the foot again and again and again; just mind-blowing. [For more on this controversy, start here.]
AC: It’s really unfortunate because they were such an important organization and really just imploded out of pettiness and racism. It was a very American implosion, unfortunately. Although I must say, well deserved on their part.
W4W: What else is there out there for BIPOC writers and allies who are interested in romance? Where can they go? Has the RWA reformed itself?
AC: To my knowledge, they have not. And there has not been anything that replaced it. If you write sci-fi romance, you can join the Sci-fi Writers of America. For thrillers, there’s Crime Writers of Color as well as Thriller Writers of America, and Mystery Writers of America. But Crime Writers of Color and Sisters in Crime, which is women who write mysteries and thrillers, are two organizations that could be useful for that. For anyone who writes romance, I would recommend checking out your local romance group.
There are local RWA groups that used to be part of RWA but are disaffiliated and are no longer part of RWA but still offer workshops, guidance, and stuff like that. I would recommend those. And also doing events like National Novel Writing Month, where you can meet other writers online or in person and find people who might want to do a critique group with you. But unfortunately, I can’t recommend RWA right now just because I haven’t heard anything that insinuated they had gotten their act together. But that’s something that people can look into because I’m not completely up to date about it. But in any case, I think maybe starting smaller, local and finding online places, if there’s nothing local to you, could be helpful.
W4W: OK, thank you, Alyssa. That was wonderful. You can learn more about Alyssa Cole at her website, Alyssacole.com. You can also follow her on Twitter @Alyssacolelit.