Dolly R. Sickles

How to End a Love Story, screenwriter Yulin Kuang’s debut novel, is a contemporary romance that succeeds on every level, from her characters’ compelling emotional journey to the unique plotline to Kuang’s fresh authorial voice.

Helen Zhang is the successful author of a young adult series that’s been optioned for television. Her work targets readers the same age she was when her sister, Michelle, died by suicide. Helen’s life, as one would expect, is split between the before and the after.

Grant Shepard’s life broke along the exact same fault line. A handsome, affable homecoming king and football star who went to the same school as the Zhang sisters, he was out driving late the night Michelle ran in front of his car. In the 13 years since the incident, Grant’s become a successful, sought-after screenwriter in Los Angeles. Imagine his surprise when he’s asked to lead the writer’s room on Helen’s new show. And then imagine her surprise when he says yes.

Yulin Kuang is so much more than Emily Henry’s screenwriter.

A romance between two people on opposite ends of the same tragic event, How to End a Love Story is a mature, compelling and relatable story of healing that resists simplifying its characters at every turn. Helen’s Chinese American heritage is richly depicted, and it shapes the relationships she has with her family (her mother, in particular), but it is not her sole defining trait. And while Grant may struggle with panic attacks and feeling worthy of love, he also works to convince Helen that it’s OK to move on with her life. Their relationship develops at an organic, realistic pace: Helen must first come to terms with the fact that she’s working with Grant at all before she can come to grips with liking him and, eventually, loving him.

Kuang’s own experiences as a screenwriter shine through on every page. Her depictions of writer’s rooms and meetings with executives are lush, smart and visual, with each sentence packed full of insightful nuances and quiet moments of reflection. These are characters who have battled their demons and come out the other side, stronger than before. Were this a movie, it would be Oscar-worthy.

How to End a Love Story is a mature, compelling and relatable romance that resists simplifying its characters at every turn.
Interview by

She’s penned the upcoming film adaptation of Emily Henry’s beloved rom-com People We Meet on Vacation. She’s set to write and direct the movie version of another beloved Henry rom-com, Beach Read. But first, Yulin Kuang is going to release her own romance, How to End a Love Story, a sharp, poignant love story between Helen and Grant, two screenwriters linked by a terrible accident that happened when they were in high school. 

You’ve been working in Los Angeles as a screenwriter and director for years. How did you approach the shift from storytelling for the screen to storytelling for the page?
I wrote this book at a time when almost everything else I was working on was an adaptation of something, and I wanted to see if I had anything original left within me. I meant to write myself an original feature script to direct, but it was October and NaNoWriMo [National Novel Writing Month] was in the air. 

I used to write fan fiction (you’d have to go pretty far back to find it, two decades minimum) and I studied creative writing at Carnegie Mellon, so writing this book felt a bit like stepping into an alternate timeline where I picked books instead of TV/movies after graduation. 

From a craft perspective, I approached writing this novel as if I was directing the movie in the reader’s mind. The note I kept getting from my editor, Carrie Feron, was “What does it smell like?”—which I never think about in screenwriting! I ended up giving myself a diary exercise for a month where I’d spend a few lines describing the scents of places I’d been throughout the day.

“. . . you can’t write 90K+ words without putting something of yourself on the page.”

The story starts when Helen is reunited with Grant after joining the writers room for the TV adaptation of her young adult novels. Did any real-life experiences of your own inspire those moments? 
I created a short film called “I Ship It,” which turned into a web series, which then turned into a TV show that the CW canceled after airing two episodes in 2019. (You can now watch the show on the CBC Gem app in Canada and nowhere else. Looking back on that experience, I think I had a lot of ideas and passion, and not a lot of control over my instrument, as my piano teacher might say.

I was an incredibly young showrunner and I definitely felt such imposter syndrome throughout the process, which Helen feels too, in the book. I hired a number two, Ann Lewis Hamilton, who was much more experienced than me: She had worked on shows I loved growing up like “One Tree Hill” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” and she taught me a lot in terms of expectations in the writers room. I also developed a 27 Dresses pilot for ABC Studios with Aline Brosh McKenna, and I learned so much from her about how to interpret notes from producers and how to pitch a project and myself to a studio.

These are just two of the many, very smart women who’ve helped me in my career; I feel like I poured every bit of good advice I’ve received since graduation into this book. It felt less like inspiration from real life and more like a feverish scribbling down of all the industry wisdom I’d managed to acquire by 2021, lest I forget it the next time someone asked.

Now that you’re an author yourself, will you approach future adaptations differently?
I’m currently working on an adaptation of Emily Henry’s Beach Read, which is about two authors who decide to switch genres for a summer. I’ve been joking with my producer Karina Rahardja that I’m a method director, and I had to go write a novel so I could understand these characters better. 

The main thing I’ve learned in the process is that it’s so very, very vulnerable to write a book! So if anything, I’m approaching any authors I potentially adapt in the future with the firsthand understanding that you can’t write 90K+ words without putting something of yourself on the page.

Book jacket image for How to End a Love Story by Yulin Kuang

Grant tries to find a character in Helen’s book he identifies with (he thinks he’s a “Bellamy, with a Phoebe rising”). Which character in the book do you most identify with? What characters from your other projects have you found pieces of yourself in?
I gave Helen all my insecurities and ambitions from when I was 18, and then asked myself how all those qualities would have aged if I’d lived the alternate timeline where I moved to New York after graduation and became a novelist instead of a screenwriter.

I didn’t particularly like myself back then, so the most compelling part of writing Helen was staring into that black mirror reflecting back the parts of me I’ve actively tried to grow away from, and to see what could have happened if I’d grown into them instead.

I gave Grant every attractive quality I’ve ever coveted as a working screenwriter; mainly, that he’s “good in a room,” which is something I really struggled with in the beginning, as an inside child who grew up extremely online and matured into a classic introvert. But my reps tell me “good in a room” is how I am described after general meetings, which is of course nice to hear!

In my other projects, I’m partial to Ella in “I Ship It” (the TV series) and the titular Irene of “Irene Lee, Girl Detective” (a short film on my YouTube channel that I’m still quite proud of). I love hungry, ambitious, obsessive women.

Do you really think that second kisses are a bigger deal than the first kiss? Why?
I’m pretty sure I wrote that line because of a specific plotline in “Dawson’s Creek,” season three episode 19 (one of the greatest episodes of television possibly ever???) with Joey and Pacey, where they had already kissed in an earlier episode, but the second kiss was what made it A Thing.

So maybe yes, as a viewer of How to End a Love Story’s fictional television program, second kisses are a bigger deal than first kisses!

But in real life, your mileage may vary.

“I love hungry, ambitious, obsessive women.”

Helen and Grant are linked through a tragedy that occurred when they were teenagers. Was that why you made Helen a successful YA writer?
I wanted to write someone who was a little mentally stuck in her senior year of high school, but was chafing against it as she was trying to grow as a person and an artist. YA felt like a natural fit for that journey, in the context of this story.

I have a much younger sister; the age gap between us is 14 years. I definitely felt some pressure to be a good role model for my sister, and I was very consciously avoiding themes that might feel too “adult” in my work for a long time as a result. 

If you watch any of my vlogs on my YouTube channel from the 2010s (haha please don’t), I think it’s very clear I’m speaking primarily to a YA audience on early BookTube, while also fully embracing the twee Tumblr culture of the era which manifested in me and my work as, how should we describe it . . . a pretty and sexless aesthetic? Does that feel accurate? I was so horny and so repressed, and the YA of it all definitely played a role: It meant I could talk about romance and fandom without worrying that my mother would die of shame or my sister couldn’t watch my vlogs or read the books I was recommending.

Anyway, I eventually got over that, and so did Helen.

Great novels don’t necessarily result in great movies. What do you think a book needs in order to translate well to the screen?
A good screenwriter and a great premise.

Read our starred review of ‘How to End a Love Story’ by Yulin Kuang.

What is it about Emily Henry’s work that you connect to? What is the easiest part of translating it to the screen, and what is the hardest part?
I’ve spent so much time trying to claw my way into the mind of Emily Henry, I sometimes wonder if she senses it. Emily, can you hear me right now?!

In seriousness, I first connected with Emily’s work because we both appear to be obsessed with romance, ’90s rom-coms and art with a meta component. I told Sarah MacLean all this when we first met over lunch, and she looked at me like I had missed something obvious, then said, “And grief, clearly.” I wonder if all writers writing after the pandemic are a little obsessed with grief, though.

The easiest part: Emily’s dialogue adapts like butter. The hardest part is finding visually compelling ways to show all that lovely interiority onscreen.

What’s next for you? Do you think you’ll stick with novels or go back to the screen? 
I have two more novels due in this book deal, so I will be chained to my laptop trying to squeeze blood from rocks for another 200K-ish words.

In the meantime, I have a couple projects in various stages of development on the screen side—one adaptation, one original. I like to be creatively nimble.

Photo of Yulin Kuang by Sela Shiloni.

The writer and director behind the upcoming adaptations of Beach Read and People We Meet on Vacation is staking her own claim to romance greatness.

Falon Ballard’s sophomore novel, Just My Type, is a clever, upbeat rom-com that will leave a smile on readers’ faces and joy in their hearts.

Lana Parker is an expert dating and relationships columnist, but she’s also a serial monogamist who’s uninterested in (and perhaps incapable of) being single. Lana gets dumped by her latest boyfriend, rather than engaged to him, as Just My Type begins, but that’s not even the worst thing to happen to her that week. That honor belongs to the moment when Seth Carson, her high school boyfriend who is now a big-shot freelance journalist, takes an assignment from the website that publishes Lana’s column. Lana’s boss soon instructs the pair to write a dueling series of relationship articles in which Lana records her attempts to stay and enjoy being single and Seth tries to stop being a serial dater and instead become boyfriend material.

Since Seth is the one who got away, the assignment immediately proves difficult—in a delicious way—for Lana. Just My Type might have felt a bit less predictable if Ballard had flipped the gender stereotype, making Seth the one who needed to stop jumping into relationships and Lana the one who needed to learn to settle down. However, Just My Type is still a great showcase for Ballard’s talents: Her voice is fresh and flirty, her characters well developed (Lana’s unfailingly loyal, foulmouthed friend May is the kind of person we all need in our lives), and her pacing brisk and never boring. Romance readers—of all types—will be immensely entertained.

This second-chance romance between two journalists is an immensely fun showcase of author Falon Ballard’s talents.

Katee Robert returns with Radiant Sin, the fourth installment of her popular Dark Olympus series, which gives sexy updates to the classic love stories of Greek mythology. This time around, Robert uses the tale of Apollo and Cassandra as inspiration for a modern workplace romance.

In the original myth, Apollo was the god of prophecy (among many other things) and Cassandra was one of his priestesses whom he cursed: She would be able to predict the future, but no one would ever believe her. In Robert’s version of the story, Apollo is the spymaster of the isolated city of Olympus, as well as Cassandra’s boss. The pair go undercover as a couple to attend a weeklong house party in order to figure out what Minos, a mysterious new arrival in the city and the host of the gathering, is up to. 

A deliciously twisted plot of fake dating, sneaky intrigue and forced proximity unfolds. Cassandra and Apollo realize just how much their quirks (and kinks) complement each other, all while unpacking the class issues within their relationship that arise from their disparate backgrounds. While Radiant Sin is lighter on the love scenes than the preceding three books in the series, there’s still plenty of steam. And Robert cleverly peppers in details that anchor the myth-inspired story in the real world, such as broken elevators, traffic delays and office politics. 

While fans of Greek mythology will be tickled by Robert’s reinterpretation of Apollo and Cassandra, you need not be a classics expert to enjoy this sultry romance.

In her latest Dark Olympus romance, Katee Robert gives the myth of Apollo and Cassandra a sultry, modern spin.

Tessa Bailey, queen of the steamy rom-com, kicks off a new series set in Napa Valley with Secretly Yours. Grab a glass and settle in for an opposites-attract, grumpy-sunshine love story that’s as smooth and enjoyable as a good Pinot Noir.

As Secretly Yours begins, gardener Hallie Welch is feeling nostalgic, ruminating on Uncorked, the new wine shop in her small town that’s taking business away from the oldie but goody across the street, Corked. Hallie embarks on a one-woman attempt to save Corked but soon learns the hard way that day drinking should be done in moderation. Because in a wine-fueled haze, she writes a love letter to the object of her teenage self’s obsession, Julian Vos, who she happens to be working for over the summer. 

Why Tessa Bailey will never write a book without love scenes.

Now a professor at Stanford, Julian is supposedly on sabbatical, but he actually just traded his rigid school schedule for a rigid novel-writing schedule. He has no idea how to relax, but the beautiful gardener his mother hired is proving to be a distraction he didn’t anticipate.

Julian’s planning tendencies are the perfect foil to Hallie’s spontaneous ones, and Bailey peppers the story with funny demonstrations of their personalities. He irons his socks; she gardens from the heart. He’s all about order; she can’t avoid chaos. He’s buttoned up; she’s wide open. Bailey’s humor and optimism shine through her characters, making both Hallie and Julian compelling and interesting figures. And fans of epistolary romances will be particularly tickled by Bailey’s modern nod to the format. Hallie’s letter is brave and cathartic, and in the good-hearted world of a Tessa Bailey rom-com, such an action deserves to be rewarded with a happily ever after.

Tessa Bailey’s Secretly Yours is a good-hearted rom-com that sparkles with humor and optimism.

Lana Ferguson makes her debut with The Nanny, a heartfelt, mature and thoughtful contemporary romance between the titular nanny and the single father she works for.

Cassie Evans thought she’d moved on from her OnlyFans days, but with a pending eviction following the loss of her job at a children’s hospital, it seems like her only option is to fall back on what she knows will pay the bills. So she’s thrilled when she lands a position as a live-in nanny instead—not because she’s ashamed of her former work, but because she closed her OnlyFans account after falling for a client who got cold feet before they met up in person.

That client is none other than Cassie’s new boss, sexy executive chef and single dad Aiden Reid, who has no idea who Cassie is when he hires her as a nanny for his 9-year-old daughter, Sophie. Cassie and Aiden have an immediate and increasingly distracting attraction to each other, but they don’t put two and two together right away. However, as they spend time together and get to know each other, they begin to suspect the other’s identity. Their chemistry sizzles hotter than a kitchen flash fire, but Aiden’s and Cassie’s statuses as employer and employee (living under the same roof, no less) obviously complicate the decision to potentially act on their feelings. Plus, once Cassie realizes who Aiden really is, she must sort through her lingering feelings of rejection and insecurity.

Everything about The Nanny is enjoyable: the plot, the pacing, the compelling characters and especially Ferguson’s wise and funny voice. It’s also extremely refreshing to see sex-positive characters who approach intimacy with maturity. Aiden doesn’t shame Cassie for her work on OnlyFans, and she doesn’t shame him for engaging with it. If you’re a fan of dirty talk and slow-burning chemistry, you’ll love The Nanny.

Fans of slow-burning chemistry and dirty talk will love The Nanny, a thoughtful romance between the titular nanny and the single father she works for.

Flirty and modern, Just as You Are by Camille Kellogg is a sapphic retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

Liz Baker is an occasionally impulsive yet organized Leo who loves her friends, enjoys her job and sees the bright side of almost any situation. She’s even got a positive outlook on the news that the queer magazine where she works, The Nether Fields, is about to shut down. After four years of writing sex and relationship advice articles, she’s looking forward to starting the novel she’s always wanted to write. But there’s a big downside, too: Liz and her three roommates face is that they all work at The Nether Fields, and the possibility of all four of them finding new employment and paying their bills is slim, to say the least. Fortunately, a pair of wealthy lesbians swoop in at the eleventh hour to save the day.

Daria Fitzgerald is a reserved, no-nonsense businessperson with a keen mind to match her sharp suits. She’s the complete opposite of her fellow investor in The Nether Fields, Bailey Cox, whose open, friendly personality and enthusiastic outlook put many of the staffers at ease. But Daria is unimpressed by Liz’s laundry-day get-up of cargo pants and a cardigan, confident that Liz’s personal style reflects a lazy professional ethic. Oh, how wrong she is.

Like Austen, Kellogg makes astute observations about social class, bias and the strength to be found in friendships. She cannily updates the biological Bennet sisters into the found family of Liz and her roommates but maintains the classic opposites-attract dynamic of the original novel: Reserved and clearly wealthy, Daria immediately butts heads with bold, practical and working-class Liz. Their journey to understanding is worth the chatty and introspective ride, and Austen fans will appreciate Kellogg’s clever changes to the beloved source material.

Camille Kellogg’s Just as You Are is a chatty and introspective queer spin on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

Funny You Should Ask author Elissa Sussman returns with another second-chance celebrity romance, Once More With Feeling. It’s an angsty enemies-to-lovers tale about former teen pop idols who blame each other for the implosion of their careers.

Told in dual timelines, just like Funny You Should Ask, the story rotates between the pop star heyday and later, more dignified Broadway periods of Kathleen Rosenberg and Cal Kirby. Cal was once a member of America’s hottest boy band, CrushZone, and Kathleen was Katee Rose, a dazzling pop superstar. They were glittery gods at the top of their field, until they had a one-night stand that changed the trajectory of their lives. More than a decade later, Kathleen has found comfort in the relative obscurity of New York City, but she can’t turn down the opportunity to star in a show directed by Cal, who traded stadium tours for a life backstage.

Most people face first loves, cheating and breakups at some point, but only a small cadre of people have to deal with them as publicly as Cal and Kathleen did, and Sussman cleverly shows how news cycles and the glare of the spotlight amplified their experiences. Kathleen wears her anger about her fall from grace like a shroud, and the story and romance resolve before she can really get out of her own way. Her willingness to mire in self-pity may test the patience of some readers. However, Kathleen and Cal’s evolution as a couple is refreshingly complex. The chemistry that has always bubbled under the surface during their interactions is more present than ever when they’re reunited, but they’re older and have even more at stake now. This is a story of reckoning, of revisiting the mistakes and knee-jerk reactions of youth and facing them with the help of time and maturity.

Elissa Sussman returns with another dual timeline celebrity romance that explores the pressure cooker of fame and the gift of growing older and wise.

Lana Harper continues to enchant the hearts of readers with the fourth book in her Witches of Thistle Grove series, In Charm’s Way. These supernatural rom-coms are always enjoyable and fun, but this latest installment has some darker, broodier moments, too. 

Delilah Harlow is still reeling from the oblivion charm cast on her at the end of book three (Back in a Spell), and her healing journey takes her down a dark path. She’s lost memories and her sharp mind has been dulled, forcing her to turn to her paranormal community for help. But relying on others makes you vulnerable, which Delilah can’t abide, so she casts a dangerous blood spell to harness her power and bring forth its healing capabilities. What she didn’t account for was how the spell would make her a magnet for a hoard of dangerous monsters.

Fortunately, there’s Catriona Quinn, monster hunter. She’s half-human and half-fae, an expert in her field and a member of the Shadow Court, which helps hold the evil, violent side of the paranormal at bay. She’s like Buffy the Vampire Slayer with a morally gray and beguiling core. Sassy and headstrong, confident and reckless, Catriona catches Delilah’s attention in the sexiest, most distracting way possible. Just distracting enough, in fact, to help Delilah get out of her head.

Harper creates a remarkably intimate experience for the reader by keeping them rooted in Delilah’s perspective as she works through her mental trauma. She’s angry about the things that were taken from her, and rightfully so, but her experience has shifted her personality in such a way that she’s able to lean into the rage and use it to heal herself. 

The characters are well developed, the dialogue is snappy and the plot is fast-paced and engaging in the supremely satisfying and entertaining In Charm’s Way.

Lana Harper’s latest paranormal romance, In Charm’s Way, movingly explores mental trauma (via an oblivion charm, naturally).

Some things are always in style: a little black dress, a great pair of jeans, hoop earrings and rom-coms. As charming as the classic cinematic love stories of the 1980s and ’90s, The Rom-Com Agenda by Jayne Denker is a paean to the genre.

Leah Keegan was her foster mother’s caretaker for a year before the older woman died. She’s quiet by nature, a loner by circumstance and a hopeless romantic. When she witnesses the failed marriage proposal of her friend Eli Masterson to Victoria, a woman he’s only dated for four months, Leah recognizes the bereft heart of a kindred spirit.

But while Leah’s response to her situation is to put on her big girl panties and try to move forward, Eli wallows in his misery and becomes stagnate. His whole identity, it seems, was dependent on an improbable future with a woman who never loved him. But thanks to nostalgic rom-coms, his gal pals have the solution: a makeover!

This cute friends-to-lovers romance can be a bit predictable, especially when it comes to Eli, who believes he’ll only be appealing to Victoria after changing everything about himself in order to become the ideal rom-com leading man. Meanwhile, his inability (and, really, unwillingness) to move on hampers his ability to pursue his budding attraction to Leah. As he works through the regimen his friends concoct, naturally based on a cadre of classic films, he slowly discovers that the woman he truly loves is right in front of him. 

It is actually Leah who is the true beneficiary of the rom-com agenda. Over the course of the project, she evolves into a more confident woman, one who overcomes the belief that she is unlovable to recognize that she deserves to be appreciated just as she is. It’s not only a lesson everybody needs to understand, but the cathartic reason people read romance in the first place.

Jayne Denker’s The Rom-Com Agenda is an adorable friends-to-lovers romance that celebrates the life lessons rom-coms provide.
Interview by

Kennedy Ryan’s emotional new romance honors the work that a successful relationship requires with the story of Yasmen and Josiah, a divorced couple who fight their way back to each other after the loss of their child drives them apart.

This book explores weighty themes of mental health, second chances and redemption. Was there anything challenging about tackling material like this within the romance genre? What were the benefits?
I think over the years, my brand has become “explores weighty themes,” LOL. I lean into real and raw and believe that, sometimes, love shines brightest when it’s tested. In real life, we don’t fall in love in a bubble-wrapped dream. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy a good swoon and pure escape like the next girl. I do, but we also fall in love while losing jobs, facing health crises or even working through depression and grief. Love takes place in the context of real life.

Writing Yasmen, a character who is recovering from depression, was very challenging. Creating on-page resonance for those who’ve battled depression meant going to tough, dark places, but also reflecting the joy of healing. I consulted with several therapists and even employed a few as accuracy readers to ensure that this story felt real and true.

One of the benefits has been hearing from early readers that several of them are actually seeking therapy they’ve been delaying for, in some cases, years. Impact is a primary metric for success to me, so that feels like such a huge win and like the time and care it took to create this story was definitely worth it.

“I wanted to write a love story that on the surface, at first glance, feels a bit hopeless.”

How did it feel to work on a story about redemption and second chances during what has been such a difficult handful of years, both on a grand scale due to the COVID-19 pandemic and for you personally?
It was incredibly challenging. Before I Let Go was the third book I wrote during the pandemic. I had my annual checkup right before COVID hit, and my doctor expressed concern that I had several early indicators for depression. I’m a special needs mom and a writer who has deadlines through 2025, so I’m used to a low hum of stress running through my life and didn’t think much of it.

Pandemic conditions, though, exacerbated those early symptoms and made my home, like so many others, part prison, part pressure cooker. I remember finishing the second book I wrote during the pandemic, Reel, and just feeling “I can’t do that again. It will be a long time before I can write again.” And it was a long time before I was capable of writing again. You hear all the time about listening to your body because it will shut down if you don’t take care of it, but I never understood how debilitating depression and neglecting your mental health could be until I couldn’t get out of bed. Until I couldn’t make it through a day, sometimes through an hour, without crying. Until I was having panic attacks regularly. There was no room for creativity because I honestly was just trying to survive.

It took finding the right therapist (tried three!) and the right medication for me to start feeling better. Once I could even approach this story, I realized I had all this personal experience to draw from. There was this intersection of my life and Yasmen’s that—though I would have skipped that whole season of my life if I could have—I hope infused the story with a certain empathy, compassion and authenticity because so much of it came from my lived experience.

Before I Let Go jacket

How do you approach sensitive topics like the ones included in Before I Let Go, both in thinking about your readers’ experiences but also in how you take care of yourself as a writer?
I’m a lot better at taking care of the reader than I am at taking care of myself. My background is in journalism, so when people ask if I’m a plotter or pantser, I say neither. I kind of go out and find the story, usually through extensive interviews and research. I’m somewhat Hippocratic in my approach to sensitive topics: First, do no harm. That means accuracy readers, whom I compensate, and beta readers whom I trust to be ruthlessly honest with me. I’m pretty exacting and exhaustive when it comes to my sources and research when writing. I try to take just as much care with the experience the reader will have reading the story as I took while writing it.

My books can be tough, and I’ve gotten a lot better about content warnings than I used to be. When I first started self-publishing years ago, no one was really doing content warnings, but it has slowly risen to the forefront and I now understand why they are essential for readers.

As far as taking care of myself . . . I’m learning to do that better. My creative process is incredibly immersive, and when you deal with tough subjects the way I do, it can take its toll. I think my creative process is almost the equivalent of method acting. I often act out dialogue, which means I’m yelling at myself alone in my office when my characters are fighting. I find myself crying after interviews with subjects who’ve lived some of the tough experiences I write about. I’ve had bald spots by the time I finished books because of how invested I become and how anxious some of it makes me.

Many of my friends dive right into the next book once they finish one. I can’t do that. I try to build in a good amount of time between projects to recover. I used to feel guilty about that, but Becca Syme, an amazing writing coach, refers to the style I use to write and recover as the phoenix: these very concentrated bouts of intense energy and output, followed by extended periods of rest and recovery where you just don’t do it. I’ve stopped comparing my content, my process and what it takes for me to do it effectively to anyone else. Not comparing yourself to other people is one of the best ways to take care of yourself, in my experience. Iyanla Vanzant calls comparison an act of violence against the self. That’s a guiding thought for me, and it frees me up to do whatever works for me, not anyone else.

“This isn’t just a second-chance romance, it is a rebuilding . . .”

Yasmen and Josiah’s relationship buckles under grief, but the nature of their dual romantic and business partnership doesn’t allow them space to work through their shared trauma. What drew you to this topic as an author? What is it about “public grief” that can make it especially difficult to navigate? 
I wanted to write a love story that on the surface, at first glance, feels a bit hopeless. They’ve already divorced. They’re both in the process of moving on. They’ve settled into new rhythms for running their business and raising their children together. Yet, there is a lot left unsaid and unresolved between them. Their love is still so palpable, and other people see it. The first time, neither of them created space to work through their hurt and loss together. There were missed opportunities and mishandled issues that destroyed their relationship. This isn’t just a second-chance romance, it is a rebuilding; sorting through rubble to figure out what’s salvageable but also finding new materials, sturdier stuff discovered through therapy and transparency and renewed commitment. 

As far as public grief, at one point in the book when Yasmen is breaking down a bit in a drugstore, she refers to it as a “violent vulnerability.” I think that’s accurate for some of us when our control slips. It’s happened to me before; holding on by a thread that snaps at the worst possible time. And you feel assaulted by all these emotions against which there is suddenly no defense. I’ve had some people be very kind when that has happened. I think because we walk around with our public masks and our armor, no one wants those to fall away in front of others. So when you encounter someone falling apart, you recognize just how many layers of control those tears had to break through to surface for everyone to see. And hopefully, we empathize when it happens.

What were some of the impacts of mental health on a marriage that you wanted to depict through Yasmen and Josiah’s relationship? What was important to you to convey as you wrote?
I always resist the idea that love conquers all, that it fixes everything. That may sound funny coming from a romance writer, but the romance I write leans into the realities of life and really makes no attempt to escape them. This story, as much as anything I’ve ever written, embraces that. These two people, who loved each other so very much, had a lot to work through on their own. I’m not saying they or anyone else has to divorce to do that, but for this story and the decisions this couple made, time apart reformed them into people who could be happy and healthy together.

With Yasmen’s journey, I wanted to convey the importance of putting yourself first. Women—moms and wives especially—often put everyone before themselves. I wanted this to be about a woman who esteems her personal, emotional and mental well-being above all else. For her, choosing herself becomes a matter of survival. As she and her partner mature, heal and discover what they need as individuals, they come back together. I’m glad in my story, the love was still there waiting for them. 

Read our review of ‘Before I Let Go’ by Kennedy Ryan.

What was the original germ of this story for you, and did any parts of the finished product surprise you?
It depends on what provokes me to tell the story. The story often starts with indignation, feminine rage—ya know, the usual. 🙂 I was watching a pipeline protest while writing the All the King’s Men series, which is about two best friends, one Yavapai-Apache and one Black, who start a political consulting firm to elect leaders who will support their beliefs. And they fall in love with the most amazing guys along the way, who respect and cherish them for who they are.

Most of my books are story first: I start thinking about who is the most natural fit for a scenario, or maybe contrarily, who would be the worst fit for this scenario to make it even more interesting, and the character begins to form. The original germ of Before I Let Go was just a happily ever after gone wrong. We rarely see what happens after The End. This was an HEA that didn’t hold up, and I wanted to restore it against all odds.

What surprised me about the story was how very complex Josiah’s journey was. He’s a Black man who desperately needs a safe space to unpack grief and trauma from his past but has been culturally conditioned to not admit it. I wanted to address how stigmatized mental illness/difficulties are for everyone, but especially in the Black community and especially for Black men. I didn’t even realize how much depth was in his character at first. There is quite a bit of on-page therapy in this romance, and it felt like the therapist was uncovering things I didn’t know about Josiah before we got into each session. Almost like there were things the character was hiding from me until we were in a safe space. 

You started out as a traditionally published author, then self-published your last several titles and are now back in traditional publishing. What has that journey been like? What led you to start self-publishing your work, and why did you decide the time was right to return to traditional publishing?
I’m a control freak. I enjoy the process of creating not just the story but the whole experience: the cover, the marketing, the audiobook. I enjoy influencing it all. I started traditionally publishing years ago because I honestly didn’t know another way. Self-publishing was just taking off. Not that many were doing it at the time. I wrote a story and pitched my first finished novel to an agent and an editor at a writer’s conference “for practice.” Go figure, they both signed me. It happened really fast for me, and I don’t regret my path. I learned a lot about myself from those early releases.

I soon realized I wanted to stretch my wings, test my creativity, my judgment and my business instincts in a way that self-publishing afforded me. I’ve built my career primarily through self-publishing but want to expand it through diverse distribution. I released Queen Move, which became an instant USA Today bestseller and has been optioned for television, though a small press, and now I’m partnering with a large publisher to send Before I Let Go out into the world. I’m a hybrid author who is always looking for new pockets of readers. Some of those places I can reach on my own, and some I’ll reach partnering with someone else. I’ve embraced that as part of my business strategy. It’s all my brand. It’s all my name and my integrity as a storyteller. I want readers to know that no matter where they find my work, it will be consistently mine.

We are writing in a time when you never know what will happen for a story. If it resonates with the right people at the right time and in the right way, it may not matter who is distributing it; it can go further than you ever imagined. So I focus on writing great stories I’m proud of and seeing who finds them.

What’s your favorite trope to read? To write?
I love a good widow book. That sounds morbid, but I do love reading widows. And if the husband’s best friend was secretly pining for her all this time, even better. That sounds bad, huh?

To write . . . second chance, for sure. I think most of my books are second chance. I like love stories that stretch over time; to see how these people change and grow through the years. How they are “ready” for each other in a way that maybe they weren’t the first time around.

What are you reading and loving right now?
I recently read Honey and Spice by Bolu Babalola, and all I want is to be a Black Brit on a college campus now. It was brilliant and modern and heartfelt and slow-burny. 10 out of 10 recommend. Already thirsty for the sequel. I also loved The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes by Cat Sebastian and A Lady for a Duke by Alexis Hall. Half-Blown Rose by Leesa Cross-Smith is fantastic, but brace your heart for a bit of a nonconventional HEA. It puts you in the mind of Robinne Lee’s The Idea of You (which is essential reading to me), but it’s more of a love story, not a typical HEA romance.

Photo of Kennedy Ryan by Perrywinkle Photography.

The author shows the work required for a happily ever after in Before I Let Go, an emotional second-chance romance.

Love is hard. And when trauma is added to the mix, the partner you adore can struggle to be the partner you need.

Kennedy Ryan’s latest contemporary romance, Before I Let Go, is dedicated to the “strong girls . . . hustlers . . . [and] superwomen,” all of which could be used to describe heroine Yasmen Wade. Yasmen built a charmed and idyllic life with Josiah, her college sweetheart-turned-husband. Partners in life and in business, the two ran a successful restaurant together. But their happiness came to a screeching halt when their third child was stillborn, which was only the start of a series of heartbreaks. In the emotional aftermath, Yasmen’s grief became paralyzing. She sought mental health counseling, but Josiah was unwilling to seek therapy with her. Yasmen had to battle the darkness alone, which created a rift between her and her husband. Rather than taking refuge in each other, as “Team Wade” had done for nearly two decades, they divorced. However, their hearts never truly let go.

For Kennedy Ryan, love isn’t easy—that’s what makes it so precious.

This is a story of resilience, redemption and second chances; it’s heavy but hopeful. With meticulously detailed prose, Ryan creates characters who are deeply relatable, so compelling and lushly drawn that they feel like old friends. Yasmen and Josiah’s story serves as a reminder that the best things in life are worth fighting for, and that a successful relationship requires more than simply loving each other. Before I Let Go is an ode to supporting the emotional needs of your partner and learning to be gentle with yourself.

Kennedy Ryan’s Before I Let Go is a heavy but hopeful second-chance romance that follows a divorced couple who find their way back to each other.

Erin Sterling’s witchy new rom-com, The Kiss Curse, is the much anticipated sequel to last year’s equally charming The Ex Hex

When Vivi Jones broke the hex she put on her now-husband, Rhys Penhallow, she affected his family’s ancestral power—power that just happens to infuse her hometown of Graves Glen, Georgia. Ever since, things have been out of whack, and Vivi’s cousin, Gwyn, has noticed her own powers are waning. Rhys’ brother Wells has spent years diligently bearing the enormous responsibility of being part of their illustrious family. When he learns of the weakening magic in Graves Glen, he steps up to solve the problem.

As one of the top witches in town, Gwyn takes it upon herself to figure out what’s going on. Wells and Gwyn are opposites in culture and personality—Wells puts duty above all else, whereas Gwyn thinks of rules as suggestions for other people—so when they share a surprising kiss early on in the novel, they insist it must have something to do with the town’s fluctuating magic. These witches should know better. 

The Kiss Curse is sexy and fun, fast paced and joyful. In Sterling’s supernatural realm, down-to-earth magic is as common as grand feats of wizardry. She peppers in smart, clever world building details, and every sentence is packed with substantive description and imagination. This kiss is definitely worth the curse, a sexy rom-com with just the right amount of sorcery.

Erin Sterling's much anticipated sequel to The Ex Hex is a sexy rom-com with just the right amount of sorcery.

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