HelenKay Dimon must be one of the busiest people in romance. She won the RITA for Best Romantic Suspense at this year’s RWA convention, she just published The Protector, the last book in her Games People Play series, and she’s also president-elect of the RWA. We caught up with Dimon to talk about her goals as incoming president, the fate of the Golden Heart Contest and where the romance genre and community need to do better.
You just won a RITA for The Fixer! What was that moment like for you?
Unreal but fantastic. My category—romantic suspense—was so strong. My fellow finalist authors are really doing amazing work, writing great books. I spent the entire conference name-checking the other finalists, insisting they all deserved to win. I truly believed that and didn’t prepare a speech. I was sitting with friends, just enjoying the night, when my name was called. I’ve had time to reflect, and some of the shock has worn off, but I am still so grateful and honored. I loved writing The Fixer. I love working with my editor, May Chen, and with Avon. To have all of that come together in a RITA win is pretty amazing and special.
How do you think the diversity summit at this year’s RWA conference went? What new ideas or initiatives came out of it?
I’ll put on my President-Elect hat for this one. . . . In an effort to promote open and honest discussion during the Diversity Summit, RWA keeps the attendance to invitation-only and follows the Chatham House Rule. The Summit is an opportunity for industry professionals, members of the RWA Board, RWA’s Diversity Committee, authors in leadership roles and other individuals to come together to discuss inclusion. Those discussions lead to ideas that need time to be assessed, so I don’t have any initiatives to report right now from this year’s Summit, but a summary of the event will be released by RWA this week.
I also can report on an initiative that arose out of the 2017 Diversity Summit. In July, the RWA Board voted to fund up to two housing stipends for summer interns who are from traditionally marginalized groups to work in publishing houses with established romance publishing programs. The idea is to help offset the housing costs associated with living in places like New York City during an internship. With the stipend, publishing houses can look for interns outside of the usual local universities they recruit from to find interns. The stipend recognizes that representation is not just about authors. It’s about promoting diversity when it comes to the people in publishing with the power to acquire and work on books. It took a year to work out the feasibility of such a program and the details, but we are very excited about it.
There have been several high-profile books and authors over the last few years that seem to prove romance is changing for the better in terms of diversity and representation. But do you think books like The Kiss Quotient and An Extraordinary Union are representative of a more lasting change?
I would say all authors need to fight to make sure this is representative of lasting change. Diverse authors are talented and right there. They are not invisible. It’s time to end the thinking that publishing is only a career for people who look or love a certain way. For years the message has been that successful books by authors from traditionally marginalized groups were outliers. Their success was portrayed as something “special” and outside of the normal. The insulting message was then reinforced in cover art and by separating out books, especially those by black authors and LGBT+ romances, onto different shelves in bookstores. That was a huge disservice to authors, readers and the industry. My hope is that we are all more aware of the harm that outlier message sends, whether spoken or unspoken, and that the romance community can lead the way in doing better.
In May, RWA announced that it was reconsidering the Golden Heart Contest for unpublished manuscripts, and potentially ending it. Do you have any updates on that decision-making process you can share? And what led the organization to consider discontinuing the contest?
At the July meeting, the RWA Board voted to discontinue the Golden Heart after one final contest that will begin in fall 2018, with awards being given out at the conference in New York City in July 2019. The Golden Heart is an incredible and important part of RWA’s history. It helped to launch careers and bring unpublished authors together in invaluable support groups. It was also created when there was only one path to publishing—traditional publishing through New York publishing houses. As the industry changed, more people self-published and made other publishing choices, and fewer people were eligible for the contest. Over the last few years, different RWA Boards have made changes to try to highlight the contest and increase the benefits, but the number of people who entered continued to sharply decline. Decreasing interest, changes in the marketplace and the reality that the contest lost money every year for the last few years made continuing it impossible. One of the things I have promised the RWA Board members who will remain next year and the general RWA membership is that we will make figuring out what happens after the Golden Heart a priority.
If you could guarantee that one of your goals as incoming president would be accomplished, what would it be?
The RWA Board is made up of many talented, smart and dedicated members, so I don’t do anything on my own. I wouldn’t want to, because when the RWA Board is working at its best, it’s collaborative. I do have some power over the agenda and can say that my plan is to continue the forward momentum, working to ensure that RWA is open, meaningful and welcoming to all. That means honoring our commitment to our historically marginalized members and pushing to open as many doors as possible in publishing.
In light of industry changes, I believe RWA needs to re-evaluate what it offers all of its members—unpublished, traditionally published, self-published, hybrid published, those switching between groups and those trying to find their way back into publishing. That includes a need for discussions about programs and benefits, as well as making a commitment to figure out what comes after the Golden Heart Contest now that it is ending. We have a lot of work ahead of us, but my presidential year will be my sixth year on the RWA Board, and I’m hoping it will be the most productive one yet.
What is something you think romance writers and fans would be surprised to learn or don’t quite understand about how RWA functions?
Probably how much time, resources, planning and work goes on behind the scenes. RWA is lucky to have an extraordinary and dedicated staff that keeps everything running. As for the RWA Board, every decision is weighed, discussed and assessed. Change might take longer than people would like, but generally that’s because we’re dealing with approximately 10,000 members with 10,000 different careers and needs. It’s detailed and time-consuming work, but it should be. When we make a change, we don’t want to make the wrong one.
The romance community has really embraced self-publishing and eBooks. Why do you think the other literary genres are still holding out?
Romance tends to be on the forefront of changes in publishing. The genre is made up of so many smart business people. When they found it difficult to get the price of their books where they wanted, or to publish the type of books they wanted, they found a way to get the books into the hands of their dedicated fans. Maybe it’s because romance authors hear the “When will you write a real book?” nonsense all the time. We have thicker skin. We’re willing to take chances and not worry about what people outside the genre think. Honestly, I think other genres could take a lesson.
Suzanne Brockmann’s Lifetime Achievement Award speech this year basically lit Twitter on fire. While the reaction was largely positive, there was some criticism of her calls for greater diversity in romance and support of the Democratic Party in the midterm elections this fall. Why do you think there can be such a resistance to romance authors taking explicitly political stances, or even advocating for greater representation in their own genre?
This is me, speaking purely as an author and not as the President-Elect of RWA or on behalf of RWA, because this issue is very important to me on a personal level. For so long authors, not just romance authors, have been told not to be political online. The advice relates to branding and is about not upsetting some readers. I understand why the advice is out there, but it’s just not relevant or realistic in today’s world, to the extent it ever really was. The advice ignores the fact that writing romance is in many ways an inherently political act. Women in charge of their lives, finances, futures and sexuality? Unfortunately, that’s considered bold to some, but romance has been spreading that message for years. What we, as a community, have not been so great about is recognizing that some of our fellow members are hitting roadblocks due to ethnicity, disabilities, sexual preferences and other issues. I hope there is a greater awareness now and a better understanding that fighting for all romance authors is right and needed. I’m happy that people are standing up, that Suzanne Brockmann and Sonali Dev and other speakers issued a challenge for us to do better. I think we need to listen.
You’re about to publish The Protector, the fourth book in your Games People Play series. Will this be the final book? And what would you like to write in your next series?
The Protector is the final book in the Games People Play series. I have loved writing about these couples and solving the cold case in each book. I am working on my new series, which will also be published by Avon starting in summer 2019. It’s a character-driven romantic suspense series set on a fictional island in Washington State where people go when they want to start over. I’m unraveling the first book right now and generally making the lives of the hero and heroine very difficult, which is the fun part.
What recent reads would you give a (metaphorical) presidential stamp of approval?
You might be sorry you asked. I literally could spend pages writing about the books I’ve recently bought and those I’ve already read and loved. To save some space, I’ll tell you about some of the romance authors I’m loving right now who I think you should try: Alyssa Cole, Jill Shalvis, Beverly Jenkins, Scarlett Cole, Jayne Ann Krentz (an all-time favorite), Rebekah Weatherspoon, Vivian Arend, Courtney Milan, Alisha Rai, Lauren Dane, Mia Sosa, Kit Rocha, Farrah Rochon, Alexis Hall, Sarah MacLean, Jackie Lau, Damon Suede, Reese Ryan, Priscilla Oliveras, Tessa Dare, Sonali Dev, Laura Griffin . . . should I keep going? But if you want book titles, the last two romances I read and recommend are The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang and The Naked Truth by Vi Keeland.