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.
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.
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.
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.
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.