(Originally aired 2018/04/14 - listen here)
Heather Rose Jones: This month The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast is delighted to have Alyssa Cole as our guest.
Alyssa Cole: Hi, so happy to be here. [laughs]
H: Alyssa is a romance author specializing in historical stories featuring Black protagonists, including a very popular series set during the American Civil War. I see from her bibliography that she also writes contemporaries and at least one series that looks like dystopian science fiction. Alyssa's historicals range from the 16th century up to the 20th century, but the story that led me to beg her to come on the show is That Could Be Enough, one of a trio of linked novellas in a collection titled Hamilton’s Battalion inspired by the musical, Hamilton. Perhaps you could tell us something about the collection, how it came to be written and what inspired the story you contributed to it.
A: Sure. Hamilton’s Battalion was written along with two other authors, two amazing authors, Courtney Milan and Rose Lerner. Courtney is an amazing historical romance author and she also writes contemporary, and Rose is also an amazing historical romance author. We're all friends and I admire their work so much, and we all fell in love with Hamilton. If anyone follows Rose Lerner on Twitter or on Tumblr, they would have seen for a certain period she was talking about Hamilton a lot. She's super into historical research. And Courtney and I were talking, and I had previously done some anthologies focusing on Black American history, romance novellas with a few other authors. Courtney had done some anthologies before, and we were joking around one day and we were like, "Oh, we should do a Hamilton anthology." And then we were like, "Is this a joke? Maybe it's not a joke. And who else could we ask to be in it?" And then we were like, "Rose. Duh! [laughs] Who loves Hamilton more than anyone we know maybe?" So then we asked Rose and we came up with the basic idea that the stories would be linked by Hamilton’s Battalion, which is the name of the anthology itself. So we decided to have each story be somewhat related to Eliza Hamilton's interviews with the soldiers who served under Hamilton. That was just the basic guideline, and then later we decided that there would be a brief framework. But we didn't really go in depth with each other with what our stories would be about. We gave each other the basic blurb for each story, and kind of that's what I find so amazing. That in the end when all three stories were put together, they're kind of this beautiful mosaic of what it means to be American and who is American. And it's not like we sat down and said, "Okay, you're gonna write a male-male story. You're going to write a story about Jewish people..."
H: And they all have some aspect of marginalized identities. I wasn't sure whether that was part of the original plan or just came out of who you are as writers.
A: I think it just came out of who we are as writers. And also, I think what each of us got from Hamilton in a way, which is about the white Founding Fathers, but the play itself features a very diverse cast, diverse music, music drawn from different disciplines primarily hip hop. Each of us, I'm sure, was listening to that soundtrack so many times [laughs]. I actually got to go see Hamilton with Courtney, which was amazing. We basically were both just sitting there trying not to cry and scream. We were in the very last row of the theater. But it was still an amazing show no matter what seat you were in.
H: Yeah, I tell people that it is the only thing I have seen in the last decade that is better than the hype. [laughs]
A: I know! I was like, "Oh, man. What if it doesn't live up to the hype?" And yeah, it's surpassed it by far. So I think it's like somehow the feeling that the show inspired in us, each of us translated it in our own way and wove it into our stories. And so there are similarities in the tone and the characters being marginalized and things like that, but I think that's just because that was something that appealed to each of us on an individual level and then when the anthology came together, it just worked out really well.
H: Yes, and I understand. I have to confess I've only read your story in the collection, but I understand that the characters in each story get little shout-outs tying the whole thing together in the other stories.
A: Yes. After we were done with our original stories, we then kind of-- My story doesn't actually feature someone who was in Hamilton’s battalion. I previously wrote in another anthology, but it's now released as a standalone, a Revolutionary War-set story with a Black hero and a Black heroine. And that story is the heroine has run away. She's a slave who has run away, and she is now in a British camp because the British offered freedom to any enslaved people who had run away from their Patriot masters. The hero is a Black man who is also a slave who is fighting in his master's stead. In return, he will receive his freedom for that. And so they have different ideals and are trying to--They meet and he is captured and becomes a prisoner at the camp. They have their love story. And the heroine in That Could Be Enough is the granddaughter of that hero and heroine. The story is set up that she goes to the interview with Eliza Hamilton and her grandfather who eventually served under Hamilton. She goes to visit Eliza in his stead because he is not feeling great, and that's how she ends up meeting the other heroine of the story.
H: And the other heroine Mercy is serving as secretary for the interviews?
A: Yes. She's a maid who is a free Black woman who is working as a servant in Eliza Hamilton's house, and she can read and write so she is also serving as a secretary in helping with the monumental task of interviewing all these people, compiling all of this information about Hamilton.
H: I want to talk a bit about some of the background research you did. Now obviously, you've written in this era before. But I loved the detailed feel of New York City at that time and your sense for the neighborhoods and the street life. You wanna talk about how you go about researching it, historic periods?
A: Sure. For this book, there were a few books that were extremely helpful. I am going to pull them up on my Kindle now. One, for example, is called Root and Branch: African Americans in New York and East Jersey. It's by Graham Russell Gao Hodges. But there are several books and also several dissertations and research papers about African Americans in colonial New York and also African American women in colonial New York, and women during this time period. I tried to access lots of- If I could find paintings or descriptions, firsthand descriptions of people living in New York. And when I found something in the book that was interesting, I would try to see if there was a note for it and see if I could track down the original information. Like if it was a description from a letter or something of that sort. Part of it was imagination, but part of it was trying to-- And I grew up in New York, so to me this was also a little bit of a love letter to New York because I don't live there anymore. So when I do write about it in my stories, I try to add those little details that would make it feel real for people and for the characters. As far as the research, like trying to get first-hand accounts and just going through all these stories and just the day-to-day activities and then thinking, "Okay, well, if they were doing these activities then there would be these kinds of establishments." Also just from growing up in New York and going to South Street Seaport every weekend where the cobblestone streets and many of the structures are from colonial times that have been preserved or reproductions or... I've always kind of had in the background of my mind the experience and love for colonial New York. Because when you're a kid, it's like, "Oh, cool, the streets are different here and all of the houses look different." And then as you get older you realize, "Oh, okay, there's a lot of history here." My parents were very into taking us to museums and stuff like that. We would go to, for example, the South Street Seaport. You can get on the ships and raise the sails and learn about shipping in colonial times. I didn't retain all of that information that we got on the tours [laughter]. But the basic feel and setting, there are some things that somewhere in the back of my imagination I can draw from some actual experience of walking down these cobblestone streets and seeing what those squat brick buildings look like.
A: It's research but also just growing up in the New York area.
H: One of the things I love about New York City is that you can just turn a corner and then sitting there right between a couple of modern skyscrapers, there's a Federalist building just sitting there still surviving.
A: Yes! Yes! [laughs]
H: It's like little Easter eggs all over the place. [Alyssa laughs] So one of the things I loved about the relationship between Mercy and Andromeda in your characters in That Could Be Enough was how grounded it was in the mores of the time. Mercy had some previous bad experiences in relationships with women who couldn't imagine that sort of relationship being permanent or enduring, but the characters didn't have modern views about same-sex love. They didn't have modern psychological anxieties about it. How did you approach developing that part of the story, and was it a challenge to research?
A: It was a bit of a challenge to research. One source I drew up from was the book, Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America. It's by Rachel Hope Cleves. That book gave a lot of helpful information about kind of how these things were perceived. The overall story follows one woman who was a lesbian and her relationships which were often seen as friendships then sometimes when other people discovered they were more than friendships, they were discouraged or she wasn't allowed to see the women anymore or sometimes women were just like, "Well, I'm moving on with my life." Basically, it's about how eventually when she did meet the woman that she would spend the rest of her life with, they were accepted by their community. That really rang a bell maybe, because I feel like a lot of what I write about when I'm writing historical romances about marginalized people, there's always this kind of idea that-- Well, you can't write a romance about that because how would they be happy? How would they have a happily ever after? And how would they live in this world that was basically designed to be cruel to them? But I think that people forget--when they think about the world, they often forget that the world is made up of small communities or communities small and large rather. And some people can go their entire lives without leaving their community. Or even if they do leave their community and they can come back. And part of their happiness in life particularly I guess in this time period was whether or not you were accepted by your community. And there's this idea that any type of difference was not accepted, but this isn't historically accurate. There's something that me and Courtney were talking about, there's historical average and historical accuracy. On average, people from marginalized groups could be expected to be treated poorly. But that doesn't mean that no one lived happily or no one lived in a community where they were able to live freely and were accepted and have friends and family who were fine. So--
H: Yeah. I think a lot of modern readers simply don't grasp that gender relations were different in the past. That because societies were often very gender-segregated, the idea of two people of the same sex having a close lifelong companionship was utterly normal. And--
A: Yes. [laughs] I researched Boston marriages, which is basically what you were describing. You know, women who would live together and be lifelong friends and work together oftentimes. And it wasn't seen as anything strange. They weren't harassed or anything for that. Because, like you were saying, there was a difference. It wasn't odd.
H: There wasn't an assumption that such relationships were sexual even if they were.
A: Yes, exactly. If people got caught engaging in sexual behavior, that's something different. And again, it was often treated harshly and it was against the law in many places. But again, it depends on the community of people. Even if people think that, they don't particularly care because it's not their business. Or they say, "Hey, as long as it's not hurting me, what's the big deal?" Yeah, sometimes there are very modern ideas of acceptance. Because I feel like we even all had uncles or aunts who didn't explicitly say that they were gay or lesbian. And the family didn't particularly say it but everyone kind of knew. It was just like, "Okay. Well, that's how it is." No one bothered them or talked badly about them. I saw something, the MedievalPOC, which is a site that kind of draws attention to the fact that there have always been people of color in the world. And a lot of it--
H: Yeah, she is an absolutely fabulous researcher and in fact, I dedicated my third novel to her. [Heather and Alyssa laugh]
A: Yes, the research that she does has been so incredibly helpful to so many people. But the other day she tweeted, she shared something. Another person who unfortunately I cannot remember their name retweeted, "And it's called the Tiffany problem."
H: Uh-huh. Yeah.
A: Which is basically that if you had a medieval book and you had someone named Tiffany, people would be like, "What the hell? This is so anachronistic. Why is she named Tiffany?" When in fact Tiffany was a name that existed at that time and it was I think an alternate name to Theofany? But--
H: Theofania, yeah. [Alyssa laughs]
A: So, yeah. So the Tiffany problem I think can apply to so many historicals or basically all historicals with marginalized people who were not miserable and being crapped on and beaten and treated terribly because anytime that happens, people are like, "Oh, was that really going on during that time period?" And the thing that I always kind of go to, or my two go-to responses are; number one, people will happily read a male female romance with two cis white leads where the woman is doing all kinds of, you know, traveling the world or going into Almack’s, or a servant girl talking back to a duke and things like that that are fun to read about but in real life obviously could happen. But historically average, the servant girl who talked back to a duke would not end up being his wife. She would be kicked out or worse. So--[laughs]
H: Yeah, one of the rules I have to remember for myself is never hold my queer historical characters to a higher standard than the straight white ones. [Heather and Alyssa laugh]
A: Yes, I think that would be a good rule for everyone because-- And I think it is hard because we have generally been given-- since we had so much of the same, not the same stories because obviously every romance is different, but kind of overall the same character types which have generally been white and straight. So seeing anyone else in those roles can be jarring. I think it's changing. I think it's slowly changing in people. Even just over the past five years, you can see the change and how receptive people are to these things. And I don't just mean the people who are featured in the book, I think more people are broadening their horizons as they read and saying, "Oh, well, I don't have to read only books that feature people that look like me or who I have always been told could have a happy ending." So hopefully, not slowly. Hopefully, quickly it becomes more accepted.
H: That leads nicely into my next question. As far as I've been able to track down, That Could Be Enough appears to be the only story you've written about a relationship between two women. Do you see yourself tackling another same-sex romance in the future?
A: Yes, I do. Actually, I do have a contemporary one planned for this year likely around Christmas time or early 2019. Because in my contemporary romance coming out--When is that, next week? A Princess in Theory, it's royalty romance. The prince's assistant is a lesbian and she is non-binary. Her thing is that she's a dandy. I don't know if you've seen the African dandies who--And they're called sapeurs if it's a Francophone country. So she usually dresses in men's clothing. And the background of this book, she is kind of having her own romance that doesn't work out. But she will be having her own novella where she gets her happily ever after.
H: Aw, that's sweet. I was noticing your bio says that in addition to being a romance writer, you're a science editor. So how originally did history come into the equation in your life? Has it always been a love of yours? Was there something particular that started you down the road of writing historicals?
A: I was a huge nerd as a child [laughs]. The typical always-reading-a-book. I would get so absorbed in a book that someone could be screaming in my ear and I would not hear them at all. I also was really into the History channel. This is when they used to actually show historical documentaries. Now, I think they show a lot of alien shows and stuff. [laughs] This is when they were having actual historical documentaries, like a lot about World War Two. I think this was when.
H: Yeah, that's back when we called it “the ‘H’ in History Channel was for Hitler.” [Alyssa laughs]
A: Yeah. I haven't written any World War Two stuff but the History Channel is very informative and me being obsessed with war-time conflicts. I loved reading books with history in them. And one of the first romance type books that I loved and that I know I definitely imprinted on [laughs] has shown itself in-- Sometimes when I see the pattern of things I've written, I'm like, "Oh." Especially the Revolutionary War romance, I think I was nine when I first read it. It was in my fourth grade classroom's library. The book is called Ann of the Wild Rose Inn by Jennifer Armstrong, and it is a middle grade romance book. I don't even know if that exists anymore. [Heather and Alyssa laugh] I think they would just be called YA now.
A: The series is the Wild Rose Inn, and l think it follows one inn in Marblehead, Massachusetts and the girls who lived there in different time periods.
H: Oh, I loved series like that when I was a kid. That was how I learned so much of my history. [Alyssa laughs]
A: Yeah, it was super formative. The romance is between Ann whose family owns the Wild Rose Inn and whose brother is into treason against the crown. [Heather laughs] She falls for a guy she sees at the beach and then he picks up his coat- "No, no. He's a British soldier!"
H: Of course.
A: He's Irish... and things work out in the end.
A: [laughs] That was a very formative book for me. Then when I was older, I always loved romance stories and romantic movies. And when I really got into romance novels, I actually started with my mom's Jennifer Crusies that I really loved. When I was younger, I read Danielle Steel and Anne Rice and stuff like that that aren't romance. Then I got into Judith McNaught and- Why am I blanking on her name? Judith McNaught--Julie Garwood. Judith McNaught and Julie Garwood. And just went down a historical rabbit hole. Eventually, I started getting more into- I had stopped reading as much nonfiction, but I started getting into Ta-Nehisi Coates had a blog on The Atlantic.
A: He talks about a wide variety of things, basically whatever he was interested in, and I got into it cuz I saw when he was talking about a comic book or something. And I was like, "Oh, cool." I just kind of would read it every day, and he started talking about history. And I was like, "Oh, this is an amazing thing!" He was talking about stuff that he had never learned, but it was also stuff that most of us had never learned. This is also around when I was first starting to seriously write romance and I loved historicals. I had always kind of been like, "Well, I can't really write historicals because slavery and people being assholes to other members of the human race." But when I started reading and finding stuff about history and then I would go and find other books about it and do more research about it, I was like, "Oh, okay. Maybe I will write it. I think there's a way it can be done where the bad stuff is addressed but also that is not the only thing that the characters experience, or negative things were not the only things the characters experience. And where marginalized people are able to find happiness because obviously they did because I'm here, my friends are here, and it's possible.
H: Yeah, we don't have to ignore all of the awful things in history but there was always some happiness to find, people found ways to be happy.
A: Yeah. And when I think about that, I think about-- Because I don't live in the US right now even though I do follow everything closely, most of my friends and family live there. It's only been three and a half years or so since I moved. When I see these news reports and all of this terrible stuff in the news, shootings and conspiracies and all of these things... If someone came back even right now, let's say like 50 years from now, someone just picks up the newspaper or scrolls through an archived Twitter feed of current events, they would say, "Wow, this time period was terrible. [laughs] People couldn't leave their houses without fear of getting shot, and women were going through horrible things and being subjugated, and Muslims are being barred from entering the country, and women are having their reproductive rights taken away. You know?
H: Yeah. Yeah.
A: These are the bold strokes of the time period. These are what will stand out years from now. But that doesn't mean that people aren't having fun, aren't living their lives and going to work and finding romance and having weddings and having children and living happily in the midst of all of these things that years from now will seem incomprehensible. [laughs]
H: Yeah. I was wondering if you had any upcoming projects that you'd like to tell the listeners about. I know you mentioned you have a novel coming out soon. What was it, A Princess in Theory?
A: Yes, that's coming out on February 26th.
H: If people wanted to follow you on social media, where would you suggest they find you?
A: I am on Twitter, that's where I usually am. My name is @AlyssaColeLit. I am on Instagram under the same name. And if you like pictures of chickens and dogs, [Heather and Alyssa laugh] you should check it out. I am also on Facebook. I'm not usually on Facebook but I am there and I do check in from time to time.
H: Okay, I'll put that information in the show notes for people to find it. Thank you so much Alyssa for being a guest on The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast.
A: Oh, and thank you for having me!
A series of interviews with authors of historically-based fiction featuring queer women.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Links to Alyssa Cole Online