February 2016

Beverly Jenkins

A pioneer in the romance genre
Interview by
Romance readers know that when the sun goes down and the lights dim, that’s when things really get interesting. It would seem that Beverly Jenkins, a veteran of the genre and a self-professed night owl, is inclined to agree.
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Romance readers know that when the sun goes down and the lights dim, that’s when things really get interesting. It would seem that Beverly Jenkins, a veteran of the genre and a self-professed night owl, is inclined to agree.

During an early morning phone interview with BookPage from her home just outside Detroit, Jenkins apologizes for her husky voice, confessing that she’s still waking up. “I work at night because when I started writing, I had a husband, two growing kids and a job,” she reveals. “The only time I had free was at night, so that’s when I worked. Now I do my best work between 10 p.m. and 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning.”

Jenkins is now in her 60s, but old habits die hard. Reflecting on her schedule, she muses that “it started out of necessity, but now it’s just what I do.”

In some ways, that statement also encapsulates Jenkins’ writing career. Since the 1994 publication of her first book, Night Song, which featured two African-American lovers in the 1800s, Jenkins has essentially single-handedly pioneered the African-American historical romance subgenre. 

Jenkins claims she did not begin writing romance with the goal of revolutionizing the industry, but she admits that the predominantly white romance genre she discovered as a girl in the 1960s never sat entirely right with her. “There were never any characters that looked like me or my sisters or my girlfriends,” she recalls. “Our stories needed to be told.” 

When asked why it’s so important for people of color to be represented in fiction, particularly historical romance, Jenkins doesn’t pull any punches. If you look at the demographics of this country, it’s getting browner and browner! To satisfy that market, you have to give people stories that represent them,” she states. “Our country has never been just black or white—it has always been a mixture of cultures. We have managed to whitewash history and cut out all the pieces of the quilt that belong to people of color, when they were the threads holding the quilt together.

For 30 years, Jenkins waited for someone to address this oversight. No one did. Finally, she realized, “If I’m not going to write these stories, then who is?” 

“If I’m not going to write these stories, then who is?” 

So she wrote her first love story, although she never intended to publish it. “There was very little, if any, African-American commercial fiction back then,” she says. “The general feeling was that we didn’t have the history or scope, and [black] writers didn’t have the skill to do it.”

For a while, Jenkins herself bought into the prevailing dogma, but, at the urging of a friend, she eventually reached out to Vivian Stephens, an African-American romance editor who went on to co-found the Romance Writers of America association. Together, they worked to get Jenkins’ book published. 

It was not a battle easily won.

“We kept getting told, ‘Great story! Great writing! But . . .’ Nobody wanted to step up and publish it. They kept saying there was no market, that black women don’t read—which is bullshit.”

As Jenkins reminisces about the prevailing sentiment at the time, there is no bitterness in her voice, only incredulity and a hint of knowing satisfaction that publishers could be so wrong. In the years since Avon took a chance on her, Jenkins has published over 30 novels, and her books have garnered her a legion of deeply devoted fans.

Forbidden is the first installment of a new trilogy and features a fair-skinned freedman named Rhine. He’s passing for white and running a saloon after the Civil War when he encounters the beautiful and fierce-willed Eddy, who owns nothing but a cookstove and dreams of opening a restaurant. Those familiar with Jenkins may remember that Rhine first appeared nearly two decades ago in the novel Through the Storm.

Jenkins had never intended for Rhine’s story to lapse for so long, but she says she simply “didn’t know where he was these last 17 years.” It was only recently that she saw reports of an archeological dig uncovering an African-American saloon in Nevada. That’s when she realized where Rhine had been hiding, and his story fell into place.

For her fans, the romance may be the beating heart of her stories, but for Jenkins, it’s all about the history itself. “The story for me has always been paramount, and the sex has been the icing on the cake—your reward for reading the history,” she says. “I want my readers to be learning something, even if they don’t realize it until after they’ve closed the book! Little by little, I’m trying to stitch all of those [forgotten] pieces back into the history quilt.”

It’s a job Jenkins feels privileged to perform, but she confesses she would welcome some company.

“I have this huge market of ladies—of all races—who are waiting to read more historicals. Hopefully someone else will come and take the genre forward,” she says. 

However, Jenkins isn’t resting on her laurels. In 2016 alone, she is aiming to release three books. It’s an immense amount of work, but she has no plans to slow down any time soon. “Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, I have got maybe another 20 years in me,” she chuckles.

Looking back at what she has accomplished in the last two decades, one can only imagine what new triumphs the next pair will hold. What is clear, however, is that in her pursuit to write about African-American history and piece together the quilt, Jenkins has woven herself into its very fabric.


This article was originally published in the February 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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By Beverly Jenkins
ISBN 9780062389008

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