November 05, 2019

Talia Hibbert

“I love everything about romance with a burning, ’80s-clinch-cover passion.”
Interview by

With Get a Life, Chloe Brown, her first traditionally published title, Talia Hibbert is about to ascend to a whole new level of literary stardom.

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If you follow romance authors and reviewers on Twitter, you probably already know who Talia Hibbert is. The self-published British writer’s books frequently receive glowing, heart-eyes reviews and entire threads of rapturous praise. But with Get a Life, Chloe Brown, her first traditionally published title, Hibbert is about to ascend to a whole new level of literary stardom. We talked to Hibbert about her favorite tropes, the importance of empathy and why her latest bad boy hero was inspired by the coziest of seasons.

In Get a Life, Chloe Brown, Chloe and Redford are attracted to each other off the bat, despite all the ways in which they annoy each other. Is this one of your favorite tropes? And are there any other tropes you love but haven’t explored yet in your own writing?
An initial flare of chemistry accompanied by a personality clash is definitely one of my favorite tropes. I love the idea of an attraction so powerful it exists in spite of common sense. Plus, I find it funny when characters are frustrated with themselves—you know, like, “Why the hell are you attracted to this waste of oxygen? What is wrong with you?!”

I adore tropes in general, so I could happily spend the rest of my life exploring them all. In particular, marriage of convenience has been on my mind a lot. It’s more common in historical romance, but I recently read Jodie Slaughter’s White Whiskey Bargain, which does an amazing job of handling the trope in a contemporary setting. That gave me all kinds of thoughts!

"I love the idea of an attraction so powerful it exists in spite of common sense."

Out of all of your characters, whom do you identify with the most?
This is a tricky question because a sprinkle of myself goes into everything I write. At the minute, I identify very strongly with Chloe because we have similar experiences and lifestyles. She’s a computer nerd, I’m a book nerd, we’re both socially awkward and we both deal with chronic pain. But I also identify with Ruth from my book A Girl Like Her. Ruth is autistic, like me, and writing her perspective felt so familiar and comfortable. She’s also an antisocial comic book nerd, so I guess the real answer here is: I identify with any character who doesn’t leave the house. LOL.

Where did you draw from to create both Chloe and Red? Was there a specific moment or source of inspiration for either of them?
Chloe popped into my mind fully formed, probably as a result of my own experiences. I have fibromyalgia, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and some other annoying stuff. I had these aspects of chronic illness and chronic pain that I wanted to share with the world, and she appeared as the perfect star for that story.

Then I worked on creating Red. At first, I was trying to build Chloe an ideal hero, but he never turned out right. I didn’t get anywhere with him until I realized—I have to stop creating him for Chloe and simply create him for himself. That’s when his character really started to work. I wrote Redford in autumn, and I think the rich colors, harsh weather and cozy comforts of the season inspired his personality and backstory.

How much from your own life, if any, did you draw experiences from for Chloe?
I drew from my physical experiences when it came to crafting Chloe. Knowing firsthand the kind of pain she might face and the things she might not be able to do—that took out the guesswork. I just had to think “Okay, if Chloe’s pain is at an eight right now, how is she going to interact with Red?” (Spoiler alert, the answer is: she’s going to give him a withering glare and hurry away.)

I also drew from my own life to create her family background. (Not the millionaire part, sadly, but the other stuff.) Chloe is from a Jamaican family, like my father. At the start of the book, she lives with her parents and grandparents, which is how we do things in my mother’s culture. It’s always fun, getting that on paper, because we can never have too much representation, right?

"I drew from my physical experiences when it came to crafting Chloe. Knowing firsthand the kind of pain she might face and the things she might not be able to do—that took out the guesswork."

Many of your books feature interracial couples. Can you talk a bit about the reception of that?
I started writing interracial romance because my partner is white, so I already had some idea how these stories might be received. I’ve had negative responses from neo-Nazis and eugenicists, but since they’re neo-Nazis and eugenicists, I can’t say I cared. On the other hand, I get positive responses for the wrong reasons—especially when I write black heroines with white heroes. People send me glowing emails about how the white hero allowed them to open their mind and appreciate the black heroine’s beauty. It’s like . . . thanks for letting me know you thought we were ugly last week, hope you’re proud of your superficial growth! LOL.

But on the whole, the reception is overwhelmingly positive—in a good way. At the end of the day, my readers are wonderful people who value diverse representation. I know they’ll be just as supportive when I publish more black romances, too, which is nice.

What are the differences, if any, in the reception of your work in the U.S. and in the U.K.?
My U.K. readers are just as supportive as my U.S. ones—but I have way more U.S. readers. Way more. I’m in more libraries and bookshops over there, too. Of course, that might be because most British bookshops are allergic to romance novels.

There are definite stylistic differences between U.S. and U.K. romance. Like May Sage and Charlotte Stein, I’m a British author who writes U.S.-influenced genre romance, and that could be why my books get more attention in the U.S. than they do at home. It might also have something to do with my backlist being self-published. I think U.S. readers and booksellers are more open to that than U.K. ones are. So we’ll have to see what happens with Get a Life, Chloe Brown, which is my first traditionally published book.

Either way, I’m eternally grateful that North American readers offer me so much support, because without them I might not have a job. So, thanks guys. Please keep that up. No pressure.

Do you have a particularly favorite scene in any of your books?
There’s a scene in Get a Life, Chloe Brown that might be my favorite of all time. I don’t want to spoil it, so I’ll just say that it’s the first cat scene, and I absolutely love it. Aside from that, I always think back to a scene in my book The Princess Trap where the hero is explaining something to the heroine, while the heroine calmly considers the logistics of throwing an ornament at his head.

Chloe’s grandmother, Gigi, is such a fun character. What inspired her character and what was your favorite thing about writing her?
When I was growing up, my paternal grandmother and maternal great-grandmother were close friends. They were both super glamorous, both had backgrounds in fashion design, both experienced being working single mothers—and they loved to party. Gigi is a combination of them, from her style and shameless attitude, to her constant support and creative endearments. I love that she’s a wildcard who doesn’t fit ageist, sexist ideas of how a grandmother should behave. I also love her subtle, stealthy manner of caring for her granddaughters. She’s secretly a ferocious mama bear, but she hides it so cleverly, no one really notices.

What does a normal day of writing look like for you?
When I’m in the process of writing a book, the characters completely hijack my brain. I can’t do anything without them offering helpful story suggestions, which I then have to write down on whatever’s closest. So as soon as I wake up, ideas start flowing. I usually stay in bed for a while and make notes on my phone. Actually, I’ve written whole scenes on my phone before even getting up to brush my teeth, which is always nice.

Once I’m done, I’ll get up, get dressed, get some breakfast, maybe do some physical therapy. I used to skip all that and get straight to working, but now I’m practicing this whole “self-care” thing, so . . . appropriate nutrition it is!

I get to my desk around nine, and then I write, write, write. I don’t stop until lunch, which is usually one o’clock. I take an hour to cook and watch TV or do some reading. Then I go back to my desk. If I’ve already hit my word count for the day, I’ll do some admin stuff, then finish early. But if I’ve had a slow morning or there’s a scene I’m struggling with, I’ll write some more.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Yes! It’s literally my lifelong dream.

What part of this book was the hardest to write?
Red and Chloe have a major argument toward the end of the book, and my editor and I had to fiddle with it so much. I wanted both characters to be justifiably hurt, and to pull away from each other, but I didn’t want either of them to say or do anything too terrible. They’re soft! They’re sweet! They love each other! In the end, it was about digging deep into painful aspects of their past—which I hated, because I prefer everything to be all hearts and rainbows. But it had to be done.

What is the easiest thing about writing?
For me, it changes with every book. Sometimes the characters appear fully formed, sometimes plot points present themselves in an orderly fashion, sometimes the dialogue and description really flow. But only one thing can go well at a time. That’s the rule.

Can you define romance in your own words?
The romance genre is about respecting the power of emotion. Society brands emotion as inefficient or “feminine” (God forbid anything be feminine), but really, feelings are like water: They can heal, they can destroy, they can change the face of the earth. And they often do. Romance harnesses the power of emotion without shame, using it to transform characters and wrench visceral reactions from readers.

"Romance harnesses the power of emotion without shame, using it to transform characters and wrench visceral reactions from readers."

You portray mental health struggles in such a realistic way. How do you go about translating something like anxiety or lingering trauma to the page?
When I’m putting mental health on the page, I always come from a place of personal experience. But I haven’t experienced everything ever (obviously!) so if it’s a struggle that’s not my own, I start with research. Then, armed with understanding, I look for similar threads of experience in my life, and try to weave them together. Combining someone else’s truth with a ribbon of my own emotions helps me get it on paper.

I guess that’s a fancy, long-winded way of saying empathy. I just try to focus on empathy.

What does representation mean to you, especially in the romance genre?
Representation in romance means accepting, then celebrating, the fact that difference is normal. To do that, we have to carve out space for the voices of marginalized people, because underrepresentation can’t be fixed unless you actively do the work.

For example, publishing a few chronically ill heroines isn’t enough: We need countless books about chronically ill people, all from different authors, all with different conditions and backgrounds and tropes and heat levels, until they become as run-of-the-mill as books about healthy people. That’s representation.

What are ways that people can support more diverse romances?
Read them! Research like The Ripped Bodice’s annual diversity report shows that traditional publishers are not giving authors of color, for example, as much space to succeed as they give white authors. If we self-publish, we face higher production costs for things like cover images and promotional images that represent our characters. So if we’re given an opportunity, or we take a chance, and no one buys our books . . . we stop writing, because we’re busy working elsewhere to pay the bills.

Of course, it’s not readers’ responsibility to keep anyone in a job, and it’s also not as easy as saying, “Buy more of these books.” The real trouble is that diverse romance gets less support (from mainstream influencers, from publishers, from everyone!), and therefore fewer readers. You can change that by fighting their bias. If you follow websites like wocinromance.com, podcasts like The Turn On, blogs like Love in Panels—all resources with a commitment to inclusion—you’ll be exposed to more diverse content. And, once you’re aware of all these books that weren’t on your radar before, you’ll naturally read more of them. Because they’re amazing.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
I follow a lot of authors online, and the most common advice I see is to ignore writing advice that doesn’t resonate with you. I really love that, because it’s so easy to feel shamed or impostery if you don’t follow the same method as someone else. So I suppose this is communal advice: Do what works for you.

Consent is, of course, a requirement for sex and physical touch. Your characters show a deep understanding of this. Can you talk a bit about this?
When it comes to consent, society gaslights us all. From the media, to cultural perceptions, to the actual law, it’s always about dismissing the importance of consent. So, with my books, I like to do the opposite. My main characters treat consent as the bare minimum because that’s what good people should do. I suppose I’m adding my voice to a chorus that’s been shouting for a while: This is how things should be. Don’t listen to anyone else, don’t let them bullshit you. Anything less than this is wrong.

Is there anything you haven’t written about yet that you’d like to explore in future books?
So much! I love everything about romance with a burning, ’80s-clinch-cover passion. Every time I read something brilliant it’s like, “Oh my God, I need to write this. I need to play in this sandbox.” One thing that’s been on my mind recently is half-siblings. I have a lot of half-siblings and I think it’s a powerful and interesting relationship, something that would make a great theme or basis for a series. I’ve also been thinking about tropes around survival—like, love interests who go through something together, then have to deal with that survival bond and a romantic bond. Finally, I would love to write more paranormal romance. Everything, basically!

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Get a Life, Chloe Brown.

Author photo by Ed Chappell.

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