Two Union spies fall in love during a dangerous mission to thwart the Confederacy in our Romance Top Pick for April, An Extraordinary Union. Author Alyssa Cole has written a number of historical romances in other eras, but had determined to never set a novel in the Civil War. She talked to us about what made her change her mind, what it's like to switch between writing historical and contemporary romance and more!
Describe your latest novel in one sentence.
A freed black woman with a photographic memory goes undercover as a slave in a Confederate senator’s home, where she meets a rakish fellow Union spy who grates her nerves, aides her cause and steals her heart. TL;DR version: Nevertheless, she persisted.
Because Elle has an eidetic memory, she frequently quotes or remembers passages from books she’s read. How did you pick out these quotations and determine which authors would be Elle’s favorites? Is there any overlap between what she enjoys and literature you like?
Although I do enjoy some of the literature Elle references, I looked through books that would have been available and/or popular during her lifetime, and searched for passages I thought would have resonated with the character. Because she remembers everything, there was a lot of material to work with!
You write in so many genres! Do you find there’s a difference in how you write depending on which genre you’re working in?
I think the biggest difference is, of course, the vocabulary and setting of the book, which I try to fit to the era in which the book is set. Sometimes when I’m bouncing between contemporary and historical, I’ll realize my contemporary characters are speaking like my historical characters, and then I have to recalibrate. I think no matter the subgenre, I try to focus on characters I find compelling and the romance that drives their stories.
You’ve written several other historical romances but had determined to not write a book set in the Civil War. What changed your mind?
Actually, and I had totally forgotten this, but An Extraordinary Union was the first historical romance I ever completed! I’ve always been a history buff and loved historical romance, but I had been resisting writing historicals because I didn’t want to deal with all of the horrible aspects of America’s past (this is a very typical American trait, you may have noticed). But I became a regular reader of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog at The Atlantic and fell in love with American history—particularly the untold stories.
In mid-2013, I had the idea to pull together an anthology of Revolutionary War romances featuring Americans whose stories are often neglected in history books, which eventually became For Love and Liberty (and my novella Be Not Afraid). I also wrote the first two chapters of a story that would eventually become my Civil Rights activist romance, Let It Shine. But I was definitely not going to set anything in the Civil War period . . . and then NaNoWriMo 2013 rolled around. The month before, I saw a call for a historical novella and 1960s America, the setting of Let It Shine, was beyond the cut-off point. Then I remembered Mary Bowser, the Civil War spy who Elle is based on, and “Definitely no Civil War” seemed a bit too hasty. Elle and Malcolm’s story took off from there.
Elle is an incredible heroine. What do you admire most about her?
I admire her bravery. One of the things that struck me the most in the accounts I read of Black-American Civil War spies was the bravery it must have taken to risk everything for a country that had done so wrong by them. Espionage and the situations it entails are harrowing, but I think it takes a special kind of bravery to believe fiercely in a country that has given you every reason not to.
Elle and Malcolm are both based on real historical figures. Where did you first hear about them and what about these people inspired you?
I’m pretty sure I first heard about Mary Bowser on Coates’ blog. I believe I came across Timothy Webster, who meshed well with the idea I already had for Malcolm, while researching Pinkertons. While Elle and Malcolm are fictional, the inspiration I drew from Mary and Timothy was their bravery, ingenuity and dedication to the American ideal.
You split your time between the Caribbean and NYC, and love to travel. What is your favorite place you’ve discovered recently?
Lately, because I live in the Caribbean for the most part, I’ve actually discovered some new places in America while visiting family and attending conventions. My most recent place that I really enjoyed was San Diego, which was warm and lovely. My impression of the city was probably aided by the fact that I rented an amazing tiny house while I was there!
What’s next for you?
Right now I’m finishing up Book 2 of The Loyal League series, A Hope Divided, which follows Malcolm’s brother Ewan. I’m also working on the second book of my Reluctant Royals series with Avon, which is launching in 2018. I’m really excited about this series, which is fun contemporary romance. And I’m also shining up my novella for Hamilton’s Battalion, an anthology I’m working on with Rose Lerner and Courtney Milan that will be out later this year.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of An Extraordinary Union.
Author photo credit Katana Photography.