During Bookstore Romance Day on August 21, Jeff hosted a conversation with debut authors Penny Aimes and Verity Lowell. Penny and Verity discuss their novels—For the Love of April French and Meet Me in Madrid, what led them to writing romance, and their favorite tropes. We also find out about some of their favorite authors and how those authors influenced the stories they tell.
Big Gay Fiction Podcast is part of the Frolic Podcast Network. Find many more outstanding podcasts at frolic.media/podcasts!
Here are the things we talk about in this episode. Please note, these links include affiliate links for which we may make a small commission at no extra cost to you should you make a purchase. These links are current at the time the episode premieres, however links are subject to change.
- The Lights on Knockbridge Lane by Roan Parrish on Amazon | Kobo | Libro.fm
- Big Gay Fiction Fest website
- Penny Aimes and Verity Lowell Interview
- For the Love of April French by Penny Aimes on Amazon | Kobo
- Meet Me in Madrid by Verity Lowell on Amazon | Kobo | Libro.fm
- Toni Morrison on Amazon | Kobo | Libro.fm
- Adriana Herrera on Amazon | Kobo | Libro.fm
- Alyssa Cole on Amazon | Kobo | Libro.fm
- Rebekah Weatherspoon on Amazon | Kobo | Libro.fm
- Talia Hibbert on Amazon | Kobo | Libro.fm
- Through the Inferno by Jessi Noelle on Amazon | Kobo
- The Calyx Charm by May Peterson on Amazon | Kobo
- Fake It by Lily Seabrooke on Amazon
- The Companion by EE Ottoman on Amazon | Kobo
- Drag Me Up Gods by R.M. Virtues on Amazon
- Keep Me Close by R.M. Virtues on Amazon
- Meet Cute Diary by Emery Lee on Amazon | Kobo | Libro.fm
- Dreamers series by Adriana Herrera on Amazon | Kobo | Libro.fm
- The Fling by Rebekah Weatherspoon on Amazon | Kobo
- Vampire Sorority Sisters by Rebekah Weatherspoon on Amazon | Kobo
- Alyssa Cole on Amazon | Kobo | Libro.fm
- That Could be Enough by Alyssa Cole on Amazon | Kobo
- Beverly Jenkins on Amazon | Kobo | Libro.fm
- Henry James on Amazon | Kobo | Libro.fm
- E.M. Forster on Amazon | Kobo | Libro.fm
- Radclyffe on Amazon | Kobo
- E.J. Noyes on Amazon | Kobo | Libro.fm
- Real Life by Brandon Taylor on Amazon | Kobo | Libro.fm
- Beards and Bondage series by Rebekah Weatherspoon on Amazon | Kobo
- The Fit series by Rebekah Weatherspoon on Amazon | Kobo
- Rafe by Rebekah Weatherspoon on Amazon | Kobo | Libro.fm
- Ravenswood by Talia Hibbert on Amazon | Kobo
- The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris on Amazon | Kobo | Libro.fm
- Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters on Amazon | Kobo | Libro.fm
- Big Gay Fiction Podcast on Patreon.com
- Big Gay Fiction Podcast patrons on BGFP website
- Libro.fm website (use this link to receive your Big Gay Fiction Podcast special offer)
- Frolic Podcast Network website
This transcript was made possible by our community on Patreon. You can get information on how to join them at patreon.com/biggayfictionpodcast.
Jeff: Coming up on this episode, authors Penny Aimes and Verity Lowell are here to talk about their debut novels.
Will: Welcome to episode 345 of the Big Gay Fiction Podcast, the show for avid readers and passionate fans of gay romance fiction. I’m Will and with me as always is my co-host and husband, Jeff.
Jeff: Hello, rainbow romance readers it’s great to have you back for another episode of the podcast.
Will: Before we get into this week show, I want to thank everyone who sent me well wishes on my birthday. I want to assure you that I did in fact read them all, even though I spent the day 100% offline. I didn’t turn on my computer. I didn’t look at my social media on my phone. I just took the whole day to read a book. And I loved it.
And it was a book that had me feeling extra festive on my birthday cause it just so happens to be the title that we have picked for next month’s book club. But we’re not going to talk about that now.
We want to remind you that “The Lights on Knockbridge Lane” by Roan Parrish is the book club selection for the month of November. And it’s about a single dad named Adam who wants to make this holiday extra special for his young daughter. And if that means accepting the help of their handsome and reclusive next door neighbor so be it.
The book club episode featuring our discussion of “Lights on Knockbridge Lane” is available as a preview for our Patreon subscribers right now. And our in-depth discussion of this book will drop into the regular podcast feed on Thursday, November 25th. So there’s still plenty of time to read this amazing book. We hope that you’ll give it a try and join us at the end of the month.
And one last reminder, the Big Gay Fiction Fest will be happening on Saturday, December 4th. Fiction Fest is the free online reader event created especially for fans of gay romance fiction and in the spirit of the season, we’ll be concentrating on the latest holiday romance reads.
This virtual book festival is 100% online, so you can enjoy your favorite authors talking about their newest releases, all from the comfort of your own home. Jeff and I will be there, of course, serving as hosts. And a few of the authors joining us will be Lucy Lennox, Annabeth Albert, Garrett Leigh and Charlie Novak.
We hope that you can join us for all of the fun on Saturday, December 4th. To reserve your free spot, simply go to biggayfictionfest.com.
Jeff: Yes we certainly hope everyone joins us for the Big Gay Fiction Fest it should really be a wonderful time to get into the holiday spirit with some really great authors.
And I have to say about your birthday. I so much loved watching the wonderful day that you had just reading and really being unplugged that I just might do that for my birthday next year, because. I could use that same kind of relaxation, I think.
And now under this really excellent conversation that we have. Bookstore romance day was back on August 21st. And I had the pleasure of hosting authors Penny Aimes and Verity Lowell for an event with Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca, New York.
Penny’s debut novel “For the Love of April French” is one of “Entertainment Weekly’s” best romances for summer 2021. And just a few weeks ago in episode 334, you heard Lisa from The Novel Approach rave about this book. Now Verity’s novel “Meet Me in Madrid,” which just came out at the end of October, got a great notice from “Publisher’s Weekly” as they said, “it combines blazing hot eroticism with tender romance.”
In our discussion, we find out about their books, representation in romance for trans characters and queer characters of color, their favorite tropes and some of the authors who inspire them.
Penny Aimes and Verity Lowell Conversation
Jeff: Thank you very much for having us and happy bookstore romance day everybody. Really happy to be talking about romance today. Both of our authors here are having their debuts. And so I’d like for you both to talk about what these romance stories are about, and Penny we’ll start off with you.
Penny: “For the Love of April French” is a story about a trans woman who is active in a local kink community but has gotten used to being an afterthought, the mom friend in the group, the one who looks after other people and who people occasionally play with, but who doesn’t… nobody ever falls in love with. And then someone does.
She has to deal with reorienting herself to that concept, and he has to adjust to the idea of being in love with a trans woman and being a dominant, working with the trans woman and the sensitivities that he has to learn to do that properly. There’s some secrets and there’s some hot sex and things like that. That’s basically it.
Jeff: Secrets and hot sex. I mean, those two go so well in romance.
Penny: Unfortunately I didn’t put a description in front of me, so I’m freestyling a little bit, but that’s basically it.
Jeff: And then Verity, “Meet Me In Madrid.” Tell us a little bit about that one.
Verity: That one is a story of two queer of color, women, who are unexpectedly reunited during a blizzard in Madrid where Charlotte, who is a museum courier is temporarily stuck and plans an assignation with Adrianna who is on sabbatical doing research there. Who has to invite Charlotte to her apartment, given the storm. And They decided to wait it out there. And, one day turns into two turns into three, and suddenly they are contemplating a long distance relationship because even back at home, one’s based in LA and one is based in New England. So it’s partly about how to negotiate the two-body problem as it’s called in the academy that we know some of us so well.
Jeff: I hear forced proximity in there for at least part of the book, and that is one of my cat nips. Is forced proximity, especially in a snow storm. And then you put it in Madrid.
Now, as I mentioned, for both of you, these are your debut novels, and I’m curious why romance for both of you.
Verity: I think, as many interviews right now, people who are debuting are saying this is a COVID novel, or this is a COVID book. And certainly this was a COVID book for me. But it’s also a Black Lives Matter book. It’s a reckoning with race and the legacies of slavery book. It’s being in a really culturally significant, but fraught moment and wanting to somehow deal with that, frankly myself, but also to write the kind of story.
And I think, you know, I always go to Toni Morrison, as many people do. Like when you don’t find the book that you want. You may have to write that book. I wanted to read a book about queer women of color in a professional situation who still have a happy ending despite everything all of us really are dealing with.
So I chose romance because of our beloved happily ever after. And I didn’t want to write something that would be considered as under a genre that didn’t require that because I wanted to have the excuse if you will, to go through the difficulties and end on a high note.
Jeff: And, Penny, for you?
Penny: That’s a great quote obviously. And it definitely applies for me. I’ve been getting into romance in the last few years. I’ve always loved genre books. I love that genre is a book that comes with a promise. Reading is a big investment of time and the promise, even if this book is mediocre, you’re going to get some elves. You’re going to get a spaceship or you’re going to get people kissing.
And I love that about the genre books. I’ve grown up, I’ve read genre books of all kinds, except for romance, which as a trans woman in the closet, I didn’t feel comfortable publicly consuming. And so in the last few years, since I’ve come out I’ve really consumed a lot of romance. And I discovered that the world of trans women in romance is quite small. And it came to mind that I might have to write one.
When the pandemic started again, it is a bit of a COVID story. And when the pandemic started, I just couldn’t stand anything where the stakes were the fate of the world or someone’s life or anything like that. I just couldn’t do it. And I just read nothing but romance and whatever you put in and that’s what you’re going to get out. And I just read nothing but romance every day for six months. And then I sat down and started to write a romance novel about a trans woman. And so this sort of, that’s why it happened.
What I can’t explain is why this is the book I finished. I’ve tried to write books all through my life. Always genre are always different genres. I’ve tried mysteries and science fiction and fantasy, and this is the one, this is the one that happened and something about the rhythm and the perspectives that really made it right for me. So that seems to be who I am. I am a romance author.
Jeff: Congratulations, welcome to the family.
And you’ve both put essentially parts of yourselves in these books. Penny, as a trans woman, Verity as a queer woman of color. How important was that for you to represent yourselves and possibly not something else or another type of character rather?
Penny: I think it’s interesting because there’s certainly a lot of me in April, but there’s really a lot of me in Dennis as well, April’s love interest. And I think part of that comes from the fact that my experience of trying to be a man was being very insecure being someone who is worried about how people are going to perceive you and about, about carrying that correctly. And even though I wanted to write Dennis as, an alpha male dominant type for the narrative that I was creating, I don’t know how to write somebody like that.
And so the minute Dennis appeared on the page and started to have inferiority. He started to have insecurities. He started to have scars, and he started to have mistakes that he was trying to overcome. He ended up having quite a lot of my experiences.
One of the dedications of the book is to my best friend who, very similar to what happens to Dennis in the book where he is crashed and burned a relationship in Seattle. And his best friend shows up with a moving truck and it’s You’re coming with me to Austin cause you’ve, you need someone to save you right now.
And that happens to Dennis. And that happened to me when I was living in New Rochelle. And I gave that to him. And April has other things about me and the two of them coming together, it’s really a mix of those things in my life. Meeting each other and forgive each other and learning to live with each other.
It was super important to me to get that in there. And to talk about those things that I knew really well. I think it goes to that, write what you know, and it doesn’t mean that the people in your books should have the same job you do, although April does have the same job I do, because again, I know how to write about that. But it’s not just that, you write about emotions that you know, write about experiences that you know about how it feels to be afraid in that situation, about how it feels to get felt up by the TSA, how it feels to want so desperately to convey to someone that you’re not that you are a danger to them, even though your gender or every other signifiers about you make them feel like you are.
They were, the things I know how to talk about. The things I know how to write about in a way that’s convincing. And I mean, I think when there are things in the book that are less convincing, that’s where I’m making it up a little bit. And so I wanted to keep the things that I knew well front and center.
Jeff: And for Verity where do you kind of across with your characters in “Meet Me In Madrid?”
Verity: I think it’s a representation question as you set it up. Which is very much on the minds of many people in publishing. It should be on everybody’s minds, of course, always.
So the idea of writing somebody like me. You know, well, yes, I’m a queer woman of color, but I’m not every queer woman of color. Are my characters me just because of that? No. Did I write myself into them as you said? Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think Penny saying, which resonates with me quite a bit, like experiences. Experiences you’ve had that are transferrable in some way to your character, that shaped your character.
And for me just generally being a queer woman of color in the academy, like the last time I think they did the numbers. I think something like 5% of all PhDs in this country are people of color. And in my field it’s overwhelmingly, you know, when they are there they’re cis het and male.
And I think a lot of the experiences that I’ve had informed these characters, but they aren’t me. As I said before, I want to read about people in these situations, and I think the representation question that comes up where we write these many people in romance, Adriana Herrera and Alyssa Cole and Rebekah Weatherspoon, lots of people have been writing about the experience of white supremacy or bigotry or bias or transphobia or homophobia in various ways, but still romance.
I think I wanted a romance where people experienced these difficulties and it was still life and it was still sexy and it was still hot and it wasn’t a downer. And I think, yeah, it is a downer, but that’s okay because the happily ever after is happier for me when I acknowledge that these difficulties have happened.
So I guess, I just, I did write myself in, but I tried to write to a broader experience that I think is common with not just queer women of color, but anybody who’s experienced bias in a majority white, majority straight, majority cis, whatever kind of environment where they’re marginalized.
Penny: I think one thing that you’re saying brings to mind Verity is because these are debut novels for us. And I particularly have this experience because it’s a very small niche of trans women in romance. It’s very hard to separate people’s perception of, oh, this is you and this is this character.
Because, I mean, Talia Hibbert has written, for instance, one of my favorites, has written, at least 12 different black women who are the heroines of her novels. And they can’t all be Talia Hibbert. They’re each different from each other yet I’m sure each of them has a piece of her. And the problem is that there are so few trans heroines who are out there, and certainly I have just the one, that you can’t point to and be like I’m really more of an April and less of a Melissa, because there is no Melissa.
One thing that comes to mind with what we were talking about, putting your own experiences into it, is one thing that can be great is thinking about putting your experiences into someone and then thinking about what if I was a different kind of person? What if I had handled that differently? And I think, looking at that April is a lot like me, but April’s kinder than I am. April is as nice every day as I am on my best day, which is why she becomes the mom friend and kind of gets pushed into the corner.
And I’ve, had that happen to me in certain roles, but it isn’t something that’s happened to me in my general life cause I’m not as nice as she is. I’m not as willing to be pushed into the corner. And that was something that you think about with these characters is what if this happened to me, I’m thinking about this in other stories that I’m in the middle of writing now, what if this happen to me and I just wasn’t afraid what anyone thought? What if I was that kind of person? What would I say? What kind of joke would I make about getting my balls chopped off? Or, what you know, or what if my insecurities were so much stronger and I just couldn’t react? And so you take those experiences and you bend them through the prism of difference.
Jeff: I think, with the books that both of you have written to the diversification that is trying to happen in romance in kind of fits and starts and here and there, broadening the stories and really showing that everybody can have a happily ever after can find themselves in the books.
I know talking with a number of authors on the podcast, it’s always been and it comes to write what you know to that. I wanted to write this book because I didn’t see myself in the romances anywhere. It sounds like for both of you, that was a really important component to put into these debut novels. And to be a part of that diversification. How far do you think the industry still has to go with that?
Verity: Forever. I think we’ll never be as with anything in critical race theory. I mean, you acknowledge gender studies, et cetera. Like we’ll never be there. We just have to keep trying.
But I think we have to, to my mind anyway, like we have a tremendous way to go. I mean, I’m getting back to what you were just saying, Jeff, which is so true about not seeing yourself, but it’s also like I’m really trying and, you know, trying. I don’t think I achieved it in the way that I someday hope to, but I’m trying to suggest that there are multiple, even within blackness, there are many blacknesses, even within queerness, there are many queernesses.
So I think part of how far we have to go in publishing and everywhere is just like getting to a point where that’s, we don’t have to bear like Penny doesn’t have to be all trans people. I don’t have to be all queer women of color, all black feminists, all whatever. I don’t have to be all of that. I can just be some of it. My characters can be some of it.
So I think we just have to get more people writing this stuff. Not necessarily just out of our own experience, but that would help. And I also think we need as readers, frankly, because I’m reading everything. Like Penny said, I came late to romance, but now I read it like crazy, but I think readers, I would hope we can be more generous ourselves in thinking well, okay. That’s not exactly what I thought I was going to get when I knew this was going to be X, Y and Z, but it’s something that’s interesting, so I think there needs to be more generosity on the reader’s part, as well as the publishing worlds part.
Penny: One thing that I’ll say optimistically about diversification is this is a debut novel and books happen slowly, especially when they’re traditionally published.
And as I said, in a discussion earlier, I wrote this book, when I was 36 and I’m 38 now that it’s coming out. And when I wrote this book, there were about six romance novels with trans heroines that I would be willing to recommend. The rest of them were, I read them, but I wouldn’t tell someone else to read them.
I read them cause they were there, but I didn’t feel great about them. There were about six of them and only one of them was written by a trans woman. The rest were written either by cis women or by transmisogyny exempt non binary people.
And so in the time that I’ve been working on publishing this book in the last year, six more have come out. They’re all written by trans women. And three of them are written, or they’re all written by trans people. And three of them are written by trans women. May Peterson, Lily Seabrooke, they are both established queer romance authors, but they’ve only ever written cis characters. They wrote their first trans women. They are trans women themselves, but they did it. They put themselves out there for the first time.
And I’m going to name check also, Jessi Noelle. Until these three books came out within six weeks of each other, she had the only trans woman heroine written by a trans woman out there for years. Jessi Noelle “Through the Inferno.”
And then in the last six weeks, May’s “The Calyx Charm” came out, Lily Seabrooke put out “Fake It” just a few days ago. And in a few more days my book will be out For the Love of April French.” And, I went from being in the desert to just this sudden bloom of all these other books come out and the other ones “The Companion” by EE Ottoman, who’s a trans man, who wrote a really great three-way relationship between all trans people, two trans women and a trans man.
And then R.M. Virtues wrote two books within six months with trans goddesses as the leads. So he’s a real one, and this is just amazing. I started out for marketing purposes talking about trans girl summer.
And it was really just me and May, but I wanted to acknowledge that we both had our books and then suddenly everybody else showed up too. And I was, It’s been fantastic. I mean, obviously there’s still a long way to go and I hope there’s another thousand of these books and I hope I write a hundred of them.
But, I really feel blessed that my book is coming, not just on its own, but in a wave of trans women showing up in romance. I’m so psyched about it. It’s so great because they are different. You like, oh, I don’t really want kink in my story. It’s okay, then maybe you want to read about a trans witch who saves the world because May’s got you covered on that.
Oh, do you like goddess? Do you like mythological retellings, we’ll check out a trans Persephone, check out a trans Aphrodite. You’ve really got those choices and in different types of characters. It’s just lovely and I want more of that.
If you want to read a book about a which you’ve got a hundred choices. Right now, if you want to read a book about a trans witch, you’ve just got May’s book. I want there to be 99 other trans witches standing next to Violetta and you can really get picky about it, but I’m super psyched that we’re even here because it’s changing.
Verity: It’s changing.
I mean, and I should say, I think I love that you took us to a positive place because I think, you know, we are both Carina Adores authors and I think I can’t speak for Penny’s experience, but I think first of all, Carina has done an amazing job at, these books have been around, obviously we wrote them a while ago, so they were ahead of the curve in a lot of ways in, reaching out to us and wanting our books to be part of their collection, their stable. And I think some publishers are really getting it. And once we see ourselves getting published, it does tend to generate people writing.
So I do think progress has been made for sure. And I also think that, I want there to be more editors and agents of color, queer editors and agents of color, absolutely. But I have also had a agents and editors of color, not be interested in what I’m doing and I’ve had non-BIPOC, non-queer people be interested in what I’m doing. So again, it’s a kind of generosity, I think, towards each other, but I want to second, what Penny’s saying I think it’s changed tremendously in two years for the better.
Penny: John Jamison is my editor and May’s editor and, they are a trans feminine non-binary and gosh, I mean, I feel great about my book. I don’t know how great John must feel about being responsible for two of the four novels with trans fem heroines out there, and within six weeks of each other, they just, transformed the landscape basically.
I think even just one person or a small group of people working to better these things. And I don’t want to be all sunshine and roses, but I think it shows that just a few people with good intentions and the willingness to burn capital and make things happen can really turn things around.
And, the independent authors who are putting these books out there, not knowing if there’s a market for them. For someone to submit a novel and be like, oh, I think this is like a, “For The Love of April French” meets “Meet Cute Diary” or whatever like that’s wild. But it also means, you’re opening the way you’re clearing the path for those stories.
Verity: Shout out to Carrie Buckley. Got to do it since you did it
Penny: Carrie Buckley, Ronan Sadler, all the folks there are, it’s a small group of people who are just, single-handedly getting these books out there and much appreciation for that.
Jeff: Yeah, as a reader and a voracious reader, because of what we do on the podcast, it’s been really wonderful seeing what Carina has been doing and then making Carina Adores just over a year ago because the Carina line, I mean, that’s where Adriana Herrera’s “Dreamer” series came up through, which is an extraordinary series of books.
And then to introduce Adores that has so much representation across the queer spectrum, but also, persons of color and characters of color showing up in there. It’s been really great to see that diversification and Penny you mentioned “Meet Cute Diary.” We’ve also seen this the summer in particular. It’s been like the summer of amazing trans character representation in YA, including bi trans people and trans people of color. It’s been amazing.
Penny: Yeah, and I know I’ve seen, Emery’s has talked about not wanting to be constantly, name-checked as representation of just wanting to write a story about a trans person that isn’t educational or isn’t, any of that thing. And I think that’s great, I think that’s a really good point.
And I’ll say that, you know, I don’t think that you’re going to learn a lot in concrete terms reading my book. I hope you learn emotionally about what it’s like in the shoes of a trans person, but I very consciously was like, I’m not going to slow down. I’m not going to explain what Spiro is. I’m not going to explain, what surgeries are what. April makes a point to explain one surgery just in terms of having sex. But other than that, we like, it’s fast forward. Like you keep up.
And I mean, I’ve read books about beekeepers in 17th century, England and I don’t know anything about beekeeping, but, you know, I kept up. I assume, and if I didn’t get it, I assumed it wasn’t important enough that they explained it. And I just, went along for the ride. And it’s just like this isn’t here to make you educated about trans issues. This is here to be a cute romance story where some people fall in love and trans people get to do that too.
We get to ride the roller coaster too. And I hope it does it, it reveals our humanity a little bit. At the end of the day, I’m writing it for other trans women. And I hope that it works for everybody.
Verity: Yeah, it’s interesting to hear you say who you’re writing for. Cause I think that too is a related sort of arm of this question is, who’s your audience. And are you allowed to write to your audience and do you, is that really what’s in your mind? And I mean, I think, yeah, I’m writing to queer women of color or queer black women, queer brown women. I’m writing to academics, I’m writing to, I mean, truly, I’m writing to people who take feminism and critical race theory seriously.
And as Penny was saying, I mean, there’s stuff in my book that, is gesturing towards some authors and some concepts that, maybe are not familiar to people, but I hope that they will then look them up I mean, I’m a teacher, so I guess maybe I do want to be a little educational in the sense that there’s a whole world of other black and brown stuff out there that I’m referencing that’s not the usual straight romance stuff. And I’m doing that on purpose. I want people to think, I don’t know what that is, but I’m going to find out.
Jeff: I think that’s an important element that romance can bring too, right? Is that you get exposure to a life that you don’t know. So maybe you’re going to go find out a little bit more about it.
Penny: Absolutely. When we were picking the cover for this book, one of the things I said is, it’s very specific in that, April is a woman who’s very beautiful, but she’s also visibly trans and that but there makes it sound like a contradiction between those two things.
But I don’t mean it that way. I just mean that in terms of like our traditional expectations, that women who are, who know they’re visibly trans and if people can tell when you’re out in public, you’re insecure about that. But April, is in fact, a beautiful woman and she just happens to be trans and it’s something people can see. It’s stamped on her face, but it doesn’t stop her from being beautiful.
And I think that became in my head a little bit of a metaphor of the story of that, like April’s a woman and she’s a woman who’s having an experience that is beautiful, which is falling in love. And yes, she is a trans woman and so she’s, it’s happening to her in a way that is particularly trans, but it isn’t completely unrecognizable. It is very similar in fact, and I hope that people look at it and I’m like, oh, wow, yeah. That’s just, that is just like me, except I’m insecure about, this thing that I can’t control and April’s insecure about her shoulders.
Jeff: The covers are interesting for both of your books. I think too, because you just pointed out a little bit about April and then I think Verity, you have, what to me looks like just a wonderful romcom cover with your illustrated cover and Carina’s been doing such amazing covers for these books. And it sounds like Penny, you’re very happy with, the “April French” cover.
Penny: Oh, sure.
Jeff: Tell us a little bit about the “Meet Me in Madrid” cover and how that came together.
Verity: Thank you. Yes. I love this cover. And I wanted that sexy, travel-y, retro vibe a little bit that I think they really found. What happens when you’re abroad, and as I’ve said, I think travel is such a metaphor for romance that you don’t know where you’re going, and then you get there and it’s confusing. And, I wanted that sort of feeling of yeah the old, not pulp fiction exactly, but that moment when these illustrated covers were just so fun. And I mean, despite all this stuff that I’m saying about like race and bias and all of that, I mean, this is a light rom-com.
It’s a fun story and it’s a tender story and it’s a sexy story. And I didn’t want it to, personally, I didn’t want it to pin the characters into set identities in a way that photograph models might do. I love Penny’s cover a lot. But I wanted it to be a little more, because this is about women who are… one is Charlotte is Creole, she’s from New Orleans and she’s dealing with brownness and blackness and Adrianna is Afro-Cuban and she’s from Chicago and they, with within their blackness are different colors and that’s sort of part of the way that they’re operating in the world.
I want us to be able to, readers, I hope to be able to imagine them partly in the ways that they want to. So I love working with the press on this. And I hope people like it. I like that there’s a cat on the balcony, which is not actually in the book, but speaks to me very vividly.
Jeff: Penny took the opportunity to name off some books that she really enjoys. Verity for you, what are some of your favorite romance novels, and maybe something that in those inspires the stories that you’re telling?
Verity: I have to say, I mean, Rebekah Weatherspoon’s queer stuff, I think is just unparalleled. And I think “The Fling” was one of the first, which is older for her, one of the first and it’s erotica in some people’s minds. Which is fine, but I think it’s a romance novel. and “The Vampire Sorority Sisters”, my God, that honestly, those books, I thought this is for me, not just reading, but, yeah. If I could do that. So I’m, I am very inspired by her.
And I think Alyssa Cole’s queer stuff has also been really interesting and somewhat formative from me to. This, the historical, “That Would be Enough,” that novella as part of her 19th century series is great, I think. It’s a little tricky because I super admire Beverly Jenkins as anybody writing romance, especially of color romance, does.
But I don’t read it as something that’s directly relevant in some ways to what I’m doing. I just enjoy it. The weird thing about me is since I did come to romance a little late and I am soaking it up like crazy, but I read Henry James and I read E.M. Forster and I read novelists who write stories about complex stuff.
I don’t stick just to romance. I know it’s that’s dangerous to say to some people, but I read other things. And I will say I read some kind of old school stuff that I love. Radclyffe. Interesting to read Radclyffe and see what has happened in the trajectory of those gazillion novels that were so crucial to people at the beginning, you know, of sort of les fic. So E.J. Noyes.
I mean, there are lots of people, but I really, if I, yeah, the two that right now that I’m really into are Rebekah and Alyssa and also Brandon Taylor, not a romance writer. But a novelist who wrote a book about a queer black PhD student called “Real Life,” which is tremendous. And I, learned a lot from people writing about queer black and brown characters in tragic situations to though mine is happy.
Penny: Sorry to jump back in, but oh, Rebekah Weatherspoon, I’ve got to jump on that train. It’s very interesting for her books, especially if you want to look at what are the inspirations for my books, what is the closest direct inspirations, her “Beard and Bondage” books and “The Fit” trilogy are, especially “Fit,” are it. And I realized at some point that all my favorite romance novels were by black women and I sat down and I was like, and specifically I really enjoyed the novels by Rebekah and also by Talia Hibbert, where you have a black woman and a white man. “Rafe” for instance, and I think about that and I was like why that, why does that appeal to me? As a white trans woman, why is that? Like, why are those the books that I see myself in the most?
And I realized, and this is something that comes out very much in “April French,” is that it’s about taking that essential fantasy of m/f romance and especially kink romance and sharpening the edge even a little bit more of saying I think the essential fantasy of m/f romance and really of all romance is what if there was somebody you could trust? Like loving someone puts you in so much danger, but what if there was someone you could trust? What if there was someone who was worth it?
And m/f romance is like, what if there was a man you could trust? Like we know what men do, and we know what men are like. What if there was a man you could trust? And, “Rafe” is what if there was a white man you can trust with your kids and who would take care of you and wouldn’t want to take your job away from you, but would just want to be your cheerleader and take care of you? What if that happened? That’s a crazy fantasy, but what if it happened? And if it was wonderful?
Or, in the kinky books, what if there was a white man who could trust so much that he could tie you up and he would only ever do good things for you? That is a wild fantasy. And I realized as a trans woman, what I’m seeing there is what if there was a cis man that you could trust to do that? And that’s, who Dennis is in my book Dennis is the cis man that you can trust. That is very hard to find. But that’s who Dennis is. Dennis is the cis man that you can trust that can do all these things.
April’s journey is like, you’re not. There isn’t. He doesn’t exist and you’re going to get tired of me and you’re going to move on and it’s not even your fault, but I’m not going to get invested and get hurt. And he’s like, I am. I am the one you can trust. I am the one who’s going to show up and I’m gonna prove it to you, and that’s the journey.
Those stories by Rebekah were the foundation of that, I think as well as Talia Hibbert’s “Ravenswood” books a big part of that as well. Women who are injured by their communities and have withdrawn a little bit, and the men who convinced them to open back up.
Verity: I should mentioned “The Other Black Girl”, which I have not finished, but I’m almost through Zakiya Dalila Harris’s book. It’s hard not to read books like that in real life, and think about them while writing about characters who are going to have a delightful, beautiful, loving, sexy culmination, but have shared so much of the difficult stuff that comes up in those other books. So that’s just another one that came to mind for me.
Penny: I think that’s something that as a writer, I’ve always, I’m softhearted and tenderhearted. And if I watch a movie or read a book that has a bad ending, I can’t go to bed until I make up the happy ending.
Verity: I know right! Yeah!
Jeff: Me too, yeah.
Penny: And he’s definitely going to die, but wait a minute then seal team six comes down to the window and they save him and everything’s great. And he goes home and he gets the dog. I’m hearing.
Verity: It’s beautiful. Yeah, exactly.
Penny: Now, I can go to bed. So being able to do that in a romance novel of okay what if that happened? But it was okay. My wife right now is reading “Detransition, Baby” and she’s talking to me about it and I’m like, I can’t. I want to support another trans writer and it sounds really good, but it would break my friggin heart. Like I would just cry for weeks. I can’t do it. That is definitely a part of my story is, making happy endings where maybe they probably wouldn’t be in real life.
Verity: Yeah, I love this thing that you’re talking about because I think that’s been true for me too. What if there were two queer women of color academics. First of all, who actually period, in a way. But in our history, which is what they’re in, and what if it’s May, December and they had a shot, but they didn’t take advantage of it because of how difficult grad school can be. Then what if they’d met again? And that’s, I love that because I think that’s how we get to these endings. What I really hope and what I’m feeling writing this stuff is that maybe we’re modeling in some way a what if that can come true?
Which sounds as me that’s, I’m not nice either Penny. So for me, that’s like super sweet, saccharine almost. I feel it now. Romance has gotten into me and I now feel like what if I’m writing things that are modeling ways of being with each other that could end beautifully. I really second that the potential that romance contains for different ways of loving.
Penny: What, if you could live like a romance hero?
Verity: What if?
Penny: What if you were the kind of partner that you want to see in your stories, and if you both do that then you get to have your romance novel.
Jeff: As somebody who’s consumed gay romance for quite a while that’s exactly what drew me to it. I wanted to see those happy endings in books instead of, what used to be out there, which was the constant tragedy that could befall the gay character in any number of books or that they couldn’t have the happy. So I love what you’re saying there about, modeling what things could and should look like for people getting their happies and being with the right hero and being with somebody, as you said Penny, being able to trust. To know that it was going to be okay. That’s what romance is to me.
Penny: I think pointing back to the diversification question, you also have like I said, in that sort of tiny microcosm of novels out there, it was important to me to write a trans heroine who hadn’t been sexually assulted, because even in romance novels, which are relatively light, that’s a frequent thing that you see. And the reason you see it is because it does happen quite a lot. That’s no knock on the novels that do show that because it’s real, but I didn’t want any part of that in my book.
And I think again, that diversification is so important because if you want a novel that cuts a little closer to the bone, that’s great. But if you also want a novel that’s a little fluffier, that’s out there too. And having both of those in the world is so important and so great.
Jeff: Moving a little bit on the fluffier side of things. I want to talk about tropes for just a second cause tropes are really the heart of romance at the end of the day. What tropes aide do you like to read the most and then, because it might be different, what do you like to write in tropes.
Verity: I love tropes. I mean, I never knew I loved tropes until I started getting into romance, but I love it. I love that, you know, as Penny said at the beginning you know what you’re getting with genre and we have to then hang our stories on these expectations. And that’s a really nice constraint I’m finding in the writing.
I love gay for you. I love May, December a lot, or age gap. I didn’t think I liked forced proximity, but then I wrote it. So I do like it. And enemies to lovers of course. Friends to lovers. again, I didn’t think I liked fake relationship, but I’m working on one now and I’m loving that. I mean, I do, those are the core ones. I think if I had to pick one, honestly age gap is maybe my very favorite.
Jeff: And, Penny.
Penny: Oh. Number one with a bullet, the grumpy one is soft for the sweet one. You know, we all need our little Roy Kent in our lives. And that’s gotta be at the top.
I like fake romance and people pretending. It takes a real skill to write. I’m trying to write one too actually but it takes real skill to write that level of self-deception that is transparent to the audience, but they don’t seem like an idiot. Like obviously they’re a little bit of an idiot, but they don’t seem like completely incompetent that they haven’t figured it out yet. But it can be great to play with. And even more than that, more than like fake relationship exactly, I like, and this is in “April French,” friends with benefits or like this isn’t a big deal.
This is key in “April French” of like we aren’t lovers, we’re not in love with each other. We’re just having fun. And that’s fine. We’ll both be fine when we walk away and they’re not going to be fine, they’re going to lose their minds. And you know that, but they don’t get it.
They’re like, we’re totally above board and communicating clearly about expectations and this is not going anywhere serious. But then also I think about you in my house and having kids with you. But that doesn’t mean anything. I like that one.
What else do I really, like to see? I love it, when one person is super on board. I think you gotta have somebody who’s on board because otherwise, how is it going to work. And I like it when the other person then has to dig themselves out of the hole because they got themselves in trouble.
I love a good Darcy proposal. A proposal that is you feel like, oh I’m doing it. I’m telling him how I feel. And all you do is insult them. Then you have to do like a gesture to make up for your gesture because of how stupid you were. I like that you see that sometimes.
Jeff: Those were all awesome. Totally hard to find a trope that’s not really fun to play with.
Verity: I mean it’s almost like, I want to choose the ones that I think I don’t like, which is what’s happened and make myself write about them because you realize they’re challenging and fun in ways that you don’t know until you’re doing the writing and fake relationship. Yeah. I mean, just to try to deal with, I think, to try to find something when you’re not writing historical, which I love, there are more plausible, fake relationship situations at least there that way in 18th century regency and early 19th century regency stuff. And when contemporary with fake relationship, this is challenging, what’s the reader going to buy? Some of them are harder and I I’m excited to read more and write more of the hard ones.
Jeff: I liked that you challenge with those hard ones. I had never thought of that, but that sounds fun to see if you can write the ones you don’t like a lot and see what happens
What’s coming up next for each of you after these books come out if there’s anything you could talk about. Penny?
Penny: I’m working on another novel. It’s a novel with two of April’s trans friends falling in love with each other. So it’s a T for T novel. And it is a fake relationship about giving moral support and coming out to your family and then panicking and telling them that this is your girlfriend, and you’re super straight and normal and nothing weird is happening at all.
And then I have a short story coming out around Christmas time for Harlequin it’s a quick little one, but it’s been consuming me the last week. So that’s where my mind is, about one of the bartenders at the kink club in “April French” and falling in love with another bartender who is kind of a lumberjack-y, super masc, gay man.
Jeff: Oh, awesome. You’re doing Christmas. I love a good Christmas book. That’s its own little sub genre for me is the whole holiday book thing. Verity, how about for you?
Verity: I have a couple of balls in the air, which my agent won’t let me reveal, but both within romance and actually without romance too. But I can say that I’m working on a, another romance that is within the, it’s not the same characters, yet necessarily, but it’s within the sort of academic realm, but in a very different place, in very different situations. That’s what I’m about right now.
Jeff: Fantastic. Good stuff to look forward to there.
Will: This episode’s transcript has been brought to you by our community on Patreon. If you’d like to read the conversation for yourself, simply head on over to the show notes page for this episode at biggayfictionpodcast.com. And, as always, the show notes page also has links to everything that we’ve talked about in this episode.
Jeff: Many things to Buffalo Street Books, as well as to Penny and Verity for allowing us to bring this conversation to you. I love the discussion so much, especially around the always important topic of bringing diverse voices and characters to romance. I certainly look forward to what these authors come out with next, following on such acclaimed debuts.
Will: All right, I think that’ll do it for now. Coming up next on Monday in episode 346 author Jenn Burke is going to join us and she’s going to be talking about the latest book in her “Ashes and Dust” series.
Jeff: I am so happy to finally be on the Jenn Burke bandwagon after having her books recommended to me so often. I love the first book in “Ashes and Dust,” and I’m very much looking forward to talking with Jenn about “House on Fire,” which comes out on November 16th.
Will: On behalf of Jeff and myself we want to thank you so much for listening, and we hope that you’ll join us again soon for more discussions about the kind of stories that we all love, the big gay fiction kind. Until then keep turning those pages and keep reading.
Big Gay Fiction Podcast is part of the Frolic Podcast Network. Find more shows you’ll love at frolic.media/podcasts. Production assistance by Tyson Greenan. Original theme music by Daryl Banner.