October 27, 2020

Olivia Dade and Rebekah Weatherspoon

Fat positivity, fandom and fame-adjacency
BookPage spoke to Olivia Dade and Rebekah Weatherspoon about their literary inspirations, the joys of fan fiction and fighting for fat positivity in romance.
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In their new books, Olivia Dade and Rebekah Weatherspoon take on the celebrity romance, reveling in its fizzy escapism and dissecting the perils of public image in equal measure. Much of the social commentary in Dade’s Spoiler Alert and Weatherspoon’s If the Boot Fits comes from the fact that both of their heroines are fat. Being catapulted into fame due to their famous beaus is thus far more complicated than it would be for a heroine whose body hewed closer to our society’s restrictive beauty standards. BookPage spoke to Dade and Weatherspoon about their literary inspirations, the joys of fan fiction and fighting for fat positivity in romance.

Both Spoiler Alert and If the Boot Fits complicate the celebrity dating a non-famous person trope—April and Amanda are big, beautiful and smart women dating men who are part of an industry that generally neglects or is hostile to those who don’t fit a narrow mold. Can you talk about what inspired you, and how you approached writing a new twist on this familiar story?

Dade: For me, the part of the story I conceived first involved the star of a blockbuster show anonymously writing fan fiction critical of that show and falling in love with his online, also-anonymous BFF. Since I wanted to play out that story as realistically as possible, I couldn’t pair him with another star also writing anonymous fan fiction. One was enough! So I went with a non-famous love interest. The one thing I knew about their dynamic from the beginning: I didn’t want her to be overawed or intimidated by his fame. That lack of fear—that upending of expectations—was part of what made the story fun for me to write, and it also added one less complication to an already-complex story.

Weatherspoon: If the Boot Fits is part of a fairytale retelling trilogy, so a Cinderella story was always a part of the plan. Cinderella, at its core, is a story about a woman who rises out of poverty and neglect to be with a literal prince. Since the Pleasants were already involved in the film industry, Amanda’s role as an assistant seemed obvious. I made her fat because I always include fat characters in my series.

What are some of the books you’ve read that have done the trope of a celebrity dating a non-famous person particularly well in the past?

Dade: When I read this interview question, I looked at my bookshelf for romances that paired celebrities with non-famous love interests, and I didn’t find any. This surprised me, because I instinctively felt as if I’d read that trope many, many times before. Finally, I realized why: old-school historical romances. I grew up reading countless traditional Regencies in which dukes—handsome, wealthy, well-known pillars of the ton—fell in love with spinsters, wallflowers, governesses, bluestockings and lady's companions, many of whom had little or no social standing or wealth of their own. Those stories weren’t about regular people falling in love with celebrities, exactly, but the dynamic wasn’t entirely different, either, and I suspect I unconsciously drew from that deep well when writing Spoiler Alert.

"Writing fan fiction definitely drove me toward the desire to be paid for my words and my time." —Rebekah Weatherspoon

Representation matters. But more than that, the quality and content of that representation matters as well. It’s a particularly fraught and unresolved concept when it comes to body size and image in romance. Have the discussions on this topic within the romance community influenced what you write versus your own personal experience and perspectives?

Weatherspoon: Not really. I’ve always written body diversity in my stories, including weight and will continue to do so.

 

Dade: Over decades of being both fat and a romance reader, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why and how the few depictions of fat characters I was able to find hurt me. Because in most instances, they did hurt me—and once I started writing fat characters myself, I didn't want to replicate that harm. I would say that the way I write fat characters is more influenced by that decadeslong contemplation than by discussion about fat representation within Romancelandia. That said, my convictions have been sharpened by such discussion, and I’ve become more aware of my own shortcomings through the work and words of people like Corey Alexander. I haven’t always gotten my fat repesentation right, in part because I’m still working through my own history of disordered eating, but I hope none of my books currently for sale would hurt readers the way I’ve been hurt in the past. If that’s true, insightful critics of the genre like Corey should get a good chunk of the credit.

What are some of your favorite fat or plus-size characters in fiction?

Weatherspoon: Phyllis Bourne’s Taste for Temptation, If the Dress Fits by Carla de Guzman, Such a Pretty Face by Gabrielle Goldsby, His Until Midnight by Reese Ryan and basically everything by Katrina Jackson. She always includes fat Black women in her romances and those women are having the time of their fat lives.

Both of you also write fan fiction. How did that influence you as writers? Which fandoms have been important to you?

Dade: I’ve read an endless amount of fan fiction in the last year and a half, but I don’t write any. The main fandom I follow and in which I’ve immersed myself is the Jaime Lannister/Brienne of Tarth pairing; it boasts some absolutely spectacular writers. For many of those authors, I would pay good money to buy their work in print, but it’s all free. That still amazes me, to be honest.

Weatherspoon: I mostly wrote Twilight fan fiction. I haven’t dabbled in the drabbles in years though. Writing fan fiction definitely drove me toward the desire to be paid for my words and my time.

Spoiler Alert has been called a love letter to fandom; it goes deep into that world, from fan fiction to cosplay and more. Olivia, what made you want to delve into this topic?

Dade: During that year and a half when I essentially read nothing but Braime fan fiction, the vast creativity of that fandom stunned me—how they take a story and a set of characters and harness their talents and dedication toward that story and those characters to create something entirely new within a cradle of familiarity. They’ve filled in canon with stories that enrich the text and bring greater depth to the characters. They’ve formed online communities bursting with camaraderie and enthusiasm and support. They’ve worked on their craft, and they’ve made each other laugh and cry, and—and they’re incredible. Just incredible.

They love Jaime and Brienne, and that love has bloomed in a million creative ways, for the enjoyment of all. Like any community, there are issues and problems, because of course there are, and I tried to address that too. But their work has brought me such joy, and so Spoiler Alert is a tribute to them. I hope it reads that way.

Olivia, my sources (Twitter) show that you have some things in common with April: 1) You love fanfic; 2) you have a rock collection, and April studies rock formation. Is April’s story a particularly personal one for you? Tell us about her and why you decided to make her a soil scientist/geologist.

Dade: The fandom elements in this book were definitely inspired by my total immersion in Braime fan fiction over the past year and a half. In my previous books, I mostly gave my characters jobs I’d previously held myself (teacher, librarian, etc.). But for Spoiler Alert, I was trying to be more ambitious, as I said, so I gave my main characters professions that would involve much more research on my part. April is a geologist because one of my good friends is a geologist, and I knew my friend would willingly and patiently walk me through what her work entails. I’m sure my love of rocks played a role, but my inherent desire to avoid unnecessary extra work played a larger one.

How does writing for a major traditional publisher differ from writing independently in terms of content or the process? How do you decide what you want to work on independently and which stories you want to tell within the traditional publishing world?

Dade: When conceiving of stories I want to shop to publishers, I try to come up with higher-concept premises featuring more inherent drama or conflict, or ones where the stakes are higher. Otherwise, I have a tendency to tell quieter stories, and those are the ones I usually self-publish. I think readers appreciate both types of books, and they both have a place in our genre, but publishers tend to acquire one and not the other.

Weatherspoon: [It comes down to] bills mostly, they need to be paid and on time. The story depends on the publisher I’m trying to work with. Working independently gives me certain kinds of freedoms, like setting my own release dates, but you take on more pressure because everything is on you, from hiring an editor to scheduling all promo.

Dade: Traditional publishing offers me resources and reach I simply don’t have on my own. Optimally, I’d love to keep publishing both ways, at least for now.

Rebekah, cowboys are a staple of romance, but that niche has been a bit more segregated than some others. What kind of reception have you had for the Cowboys of California series?

Weatherspoon: I am definitely not an author you should be reading if the idea of Black cowboys bothers you, so I haven’t bothered myself with the segregated portions of publishing. I’ve seen a lot of new readers who enjoy cowboy romances pick up A Cowboy to Remember and that’s wonderful.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of If the Boot Fits.


Olivia, you’re juggling multiple types of storytelling and also managing dark and light elements with April and Marcus’ relationship and their pasts in Spoiler Alert. What process did you use to work them out and were there any big changes along the way?

Dade: The interstitials between chapters—where I introduced elements like fan fiction snippets, script excerpts, fandom direct messages, etc., and accordingly varied my writing style, verb tense and so on, depending on the ostensible “author”—were mostly written after the main story was drafted, which I think helped me keep my voice consistent within the actual chapters. I had a blast writing those interstitials, because I got to play the authorial version of dress-up.

Making certain the book remained light enough to be honestly called a rom-com took a little thought. I tried to counterbalance the more serious elements of the story through those interstitials, which provide some straightforward comedy, and also through the secondary characters in the story. Alex (Marcus’s BFF) and the cast chats especially helped in that regard. 

Rebekah, you did quite a bit of research about Black Hollywood for If the Boot Fits. How did that come to play in the story?

Weatherspoon: I worked in film and television production for 10 years, so most of my additional research informed how I crafted the Pleasants’ matriarch, Leona Lovell, who has been in the industry for decades.

Sam and Amanda in If the Boot Fits are coming from pretty different places in their careers. She’s a struggling writer/assistant; he’s a star. She’s middle class, and he’s Hollywood royalty. What makes them work so well?

Weatherspoon: They are both kind, caring people with a similar sense of humor. They like to make each other laugh and they both bloom when they are honest with each other in tough conversations.

A lot of romances focus on found family, but in If the Boot Fits, Sam’s tight-knit biological family plays a central role. Why was that particularly important here? Is there any chance we’ll get to see his grandparents’ love story?

Weatherspoon: When I sold the trilogy, the plan was to write three brothers and not just three friends or co-workers, so the family aspect was built in and I filled out the supporting characters from there. I have no plans to write Miss Leona and Gerald Sr.’s story. If the series continues, Lilah Pleasant would be the next main character.

Olivia, you've made presentations for chapters of RWA and YouTube videos on the subject of fat representation in romance. What are some of your chief concerns?

Dade: My primary concern, always, is that vulnerable readers—who may be struggling with disordered eating or body-image issues—not be hurt. Like it or not, our words have power, and they can both harm and hearten people. Depictions of fatness that equate it with ugliness, greed, laziness or evil cause harm, and so does dehumanizing language (“blubber,” “elephantine,” etc.) used to describe that fatness. An endless parade of self-loathing fat characters, or fat characters determined to lose weight, drives home the same message: If you’re fat, you should feel shame about it. There is something wrong with you, and you should try to fix it. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t evil or self-loathing fat people, or that fat people on diets don’t exist or shouldn’t be in books, but they also shouldn’t be almost the only fat people we see on the page.

Spoiler Alert is more explicit in dealing with the issue of fat shaming in our culture than your previous books. Why was that important to tackle that in this book?

Dade: I chose to make fatness a more critical element in Spoiler Alert, as you say. I did so because, first, fat people have a wide range of experiences. For some, their body size really is a minor part of their lives. For others, though, fatness will inform their experiences in the world in major, unavoidable ways. I wanted at least one of my books to acknowledge the latter group, but in a way that still didn’t harm readers. Hopefully I succeeded. Second, I’ve read too many books where characters were fat-shamed by family members and loved ones, and no pushback against that ever occurred in the story. To me, the implicit message seemed to be: If you want a family and loved ones, you just have to accept that this sort of behavior will happen, however painful it may be. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. In fact, I think that’s a harmful message when repeated often enough.

So one of my goals in Spoiler Alert was to show April setting boundaries on page with a loved one in response to fat-shaming. She doesn’t have to learn to love herself as she is. She already does. What she does need to do is find the courage to say, in service to her own mental health and well-being: “You’re hurting me, and it’s harming our relationship. If you don’t stop, that relationship may not survive.”


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Spoiler Alert.


What’s next for Marcus’ “Gods of the Gates” crew, and for Olivia Dade beyond that?

Dade: My next book for Avon, Slow Burn, features Alex, Marcus’s reckless, loyal, chatty, charming and highly annoying co-star and best friend. In short, he’s a delightful asshole. Because of his perceived misbehavior, the “Gods of the Gates” showrunners have assigned him a minder to keep him out of trouble: Lauren Clegg, who’s serious, steady, working on her BHE (Big Hag Energy) and—according to Alex—“improbably short.” Even apart from her fatness, she’s considered unattractive by conventional beauty standards. And that was important to me—April is fat and gorgeous; Lauren is fat and not-so-gorgeous; both women can and will be loved.

Slow Burn has some of the best dialogue I’ve ever written, and I think—I hope—readers will fall in love with both Lauren and Alex. I certainly did.

Rebekah, what fairy tale are you taking on for Sam’s brother Jesse’s story? And can you talk a little about his love interest?

Weatherspoon: Jesse’s story will be a "Beauty and the Beast" retelling. His love interest is Lily-Grace, a former classmate he hasn’t seen since the eighth grade. She gives him a run for his money.

Get the Books

Spoiler Alert

Spoiler Alert

By Olivia Dade
Avon
ISBN 9780063005549
If the Boot Fits

If the Boot Fits

Dafina
ISBN 9781496725417

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