Alyssa Cole’s work has always had two common threads: a social conscience and a central love story. That combination remains in her debut thriller, When No One Is Watching, as Sydney, a Black Brooklynite, begins to suspect that the gentrification of her neighborhood may be the result of a sinister conspiracy.
What made you want to write about gentrification?
I’ve wanted to write about it for years, in part because real estate and home ownership—who gets to own and who gets to keep what they own—is one of the major forces in American society and the results of the ways in which those forces are guided are often overlooked or attributed to other sources. Everywhere I’ve lived as an adult, I’ve seen the effects of gentrification. One of my first memories of moving to Brooklyn after college was seeing a Black man on the stoop, holding his child and arguing with his landlord, asking where he was supposed to go if he couldn’t afford the rent there. My parents own a home that they’ve put 20 years into but have to sell it due to the absolutely unfathomable increase in property taxes. So, this is specifically personal to me, but it’s also something that is unfair and pisses me off in general which is often a factor for why I decide to write certain things. (Note: I just received a forwarded email from my father, in which one of his friends asked if I had written When No One Is Watching. His reply answers your question too, lol: “Yes she is the author of the book. The book covers one of her interests, gentrification in Brooklyn.”)
When No One Is Watching blends social realism and a strong social justice critique with elements of fantasy and horror. Why did you want to tell the story in this way?
It was a way of processing the emotions I’ve experienced while writing historical romances set in America, and researching and seeing all of the horrible, flat-out evil things done to Black, Indigenous, Asian . . . basically all nonwhite people. Things that were evil in the time they were done were known to be evil, despite what people try to tell you, and were done anyway in the names of white supremacy and profit. There’s a cyclical nature to these things. Fantasy and horror can be a way of grappling with these kinds of overwhelming topics, just as romance can. But also: The things that have been done in America in the name of profit are literal horror stories.
"The things that happen in the book are based on things I’ve experienced, my family has experienced, my friends have experienced, my community has experienced."
There’s a scene in which a recent white transplant to the neighborhood threatens to call the police on Sydney for making her feel “unsafe,” weaponizing her privilege in a way that’s eerily familiar. Did you have anything particular in mind when you were writing this scene?
Amy Cooper threatening a Black bird-watcher with police just to flex her own power; learning that Breonna Taylor was possibly killed because of a warrant executed in the name of gentrifying her historically Black neighborhood; EVERYTHING going on in the news right now—all of that has been a lot. A LOT. The things that happen in the book are based on things I’ve experienced, my family has experienced, my friends have experienced, my community has experienced and things I’ve seen pop up again and again during my years of research. As to Amy Cooper, several of my works, notably my Civil War romances An Extraordinary Union and A Hope Divided, explore how white womanhood has been used as a weapon. It’s something that we see play out every day on social media, with these videos of the “Karens” (a term I don’t like because it cordons these people off into a specific group of evil white woman, when they are just normal people doing what is normal for them in situations where they want to maintain control).
Sydney finds her greatest ally in Theo, who candidly describes himself as a “mediocre white man.” Did you ever consider making Theo Black or multiracial? Or was he always white in your mind?
I’ll be honest that when I was working on this, I didn’t feel like writing a sympathetic white main character at all. I didn’t want anyone who readers might cling to as a white savior. However, though the book is about gentrification, it’s also about whiteness, and I thought that Theo needed to be there to interrogate his own whiteness in a way that many people don’t seem to do. We’re seeing this right now with many white people who, due to an aversion to looking at the reality of things for other people, are just now horrified at what’s been going on forever. Living in a world with so much injustice and only just now realizing how bad it is shows that there has been a kind of walking around with blinders on, but on a societal level. So yes, I did consider making Theo Black or a non-Black person of color, but in the end whiteness works best for this specific story. I also wanted him to be an outsider, not only to the neighborhood but also to the idea of critical thinking about race and how it affects communities. I’ve had so many ideas over the years about how to tell the story of gentrification from the perspectives of Black characters and characters of color. I still want to tell and read those stories, because this kind of injustice is so immense and so central to America that you can come at it from hundreds of angles and have a fresh story every time.
You’ve talked about dealing with burnout and depression and how romance can provide a boost in those times. If you’re willing to talk about that, what are some of the books that made a positive impact on you in the past? What book has made an impact on you this year?
Yes! Some of my favorite recent reads are Wolf Rain and Alpha Night from Nalini Singh, the latest two books in her Psy-Changeling Trinity series. Both of these books, in my reading of them, deal with recovering from psychological trauma, emotional overload and depression through a sci-fi/paranormal romance angle. Rebekah Weatherspoon’s Xeni and Harbor were both sexy, hilarious and emotionally edifying. Courtney Milan’s Hold Me (contemporary) and The Suffragette Scandal (historical) and honestly pretty much everything she’s written. Beverly Jenkins’s Destiny series, and also pretty much everything she’s written! Lucy Parker’s Act Like It (contemporary romance with grumpy hero), and Cecilia Grant’s A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong (historical, and though it’s a bit on the nose since the word is in the title—a perfect romance). For spec-fic romance, Kit Rocha’s Beyond series and their upcoming Mercenary Librarians series starting with Deal With the Devil. For short stories/novellas, I’d recommend Katrina Jackson’s Layover and Nia Forrester’s Resistance (about a couple who meet during the current ongoing protests), as well as their full-length works!
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of When No One Is Watching.
What other books would you recommend for readers who love When No One is Watching?
I’d recommend Victoria Helen Stone’s Jane Doe, about a sociopath trying to get revenge on the man who hurt someone she cared about. Nalini Singh’s A Madness of Sunshine, a super atmospheric thriller set in a tiny New Zealand town where a girl has gone missing. Steph Cha’s Your House Will Pay, about a Black-American and Korean-American family in L.A. dealing with the reverberations of a gunshot decades earlier. Two upcoming thrillers people should check out are Rachel Howzell Hall’s And Now She’s Gone, which is full of twists and turns that make for a thrilling read, and Tiffany Jackson’s Grown, which tackles what happens when a teen girl is suspected of killing a famous older singer who’d drawn her into his web.
What’s next for you? Do you have a dream project that you have left to tackle or a writing goal yet to achieve?
Next up after When No One Is Watching is the first in my Runaway Royals series, How To Catch A Queen. It’s about an arranged marriage with a time limit, a kingdom trapped by the trauma of colonialism and a married couple falling for each other and trying to save their kingdom. It’s a play on the Bluebeard fairytale and the laird-takes-a wife trope, with an African highland king.
One of my dream projects is comics writing, which I’ve done a little of and I’m working on a proposal for a project now (I wanted to be a comic book artist when I was younger and love that medium). But I’d also love to write more audio scripts and also try my hand at a screenplay. And also to get back to short fictions and . . . I have so many ideas. It’s overwhelming, lol. So I guess my goal is to be able to write as many of those ideas as I can, in the medium that best suits them, with the time I have. And to show Black women being loved and appreciated in all of those mediums.
Author photo © Alyssa Cole.