Talia Hibbert has a finely tuned sense of how to balance social observation and swoon. With Act Your Age, Eve Brown, she outdoes herself with a hilarious slow-burn romance between Eve, a chaotic ray of sunshine, and orderly grump Jacob, both of whom are on the autism spectrum.
The Brown sisters come from a close-knit family and have a lot in common: All three are attractive, witty and smart. What distinguishes Eve from her sisters? What was different about writing from her perspective?
Chloe and Dani Brown are successful, professional women. Their insecurities are mainly social—can they have richer lives, can they deal with romance? They never doubt their ability to take the world by storm in other ways.
Eve, unlike her sisters, did poorly at school, and it’s always made her feel like a failure. Her talents don’t lie in traditionally respected areas, so she feels silly and useless. She questions her worth in every way possible. Of course, she’d never admit that, not even to herself. Her sisters are grumpy and cynical, but Eve keeps things light—because she’s the baby of the family, and because she doesn’t see herself as a “proper adult.” I had to balance her determinedly upbeat attitude with her inner monsters, and that’s a very vulnerable thing to write.
"He’s the kind of man who will judge you for your choice in curtains but not for your mental health. . ."
Can you tell us a bit about Eve's love interest, Jacob? What draws Eve to him, and why will readers love him?
Jacob is used to being rejected for his differences. He knows people will read him as cold or alien no matter what he does or how he feels, so he’s learned to reject them first. And possibly my favorite thing about him: He refuses to soften. He’s proud. That’s an important shield for someone moving through a world that devalues them—but it bites him in the butt when he meets someone who’s willing to see him as he really is.
He’s also very bitchy and sarcastic as hell, so his perspective was hilarious to write. He’s the kind of man who will judge you for your choice in curtains but not for your mental health, and I think readers will enjoy that. For her part, Eve reluctantly appreciates his humor. Even when they clash, she likes his rigidity because it’s true to who he is. So she kind of admires him against her will.
If you think about it, Eve and Jacob are the embodiment of chaos and order. What brings Eve and Jacob together, and what makes them work?
Jacob is uncompromising because he’s very high-strung. His thoughts won’t slow down. He notices everything. He physically cannot stop caring. Eve, on the other hand, knows how to be flexible, how to relax, how to forgive. That makes her someone Jacob can learn from, and at the same time, she learns how to stand up for herself by watching him refuse to bend.
But beneath those differences, they’re actually quite similar. They’re both respectful and sensitive where it matters; they’ll piss each other off, but they won’t cross certain lines. They both try really hard at everything they do. They both know the value of a home and a family, even if they learned those values in very different ways.
Most of all, they fascinate each other. Eve could never be as subtly cutting as Jacob. Jacob doesn’t know how Eve can bear to be so bold. Neither of them can look away.
There’s an interesting duality between Eve’s confidence and her awareness that the world doesn’t value her as she does herself. As a fat, dark-skinned Black woman, Eve doesn’t fit society’s preconceptions about beauty and was pigeonholed in villainous or comedic side-character roles when she attended a performing arts school. Why did you choose to confront these issues more directly than you have in other books?
The Brown sisters have a really loving, supportive family, so they’ve been raised in this microenvironment of absolute acceptance. (Also, they have a lot of money, which helps.) But obviously, they also live in the real world, so they’re very aware of all the ways they’re marginalized. Chloe and Dani find it relatively easy to ignore because, whenever they’re hurting, they can remember that loving world they have back home. It’s like a thin layer of insulation that makes all the difference. But Eve doesn’t have the same experience of home that they do. She knows her family loves her, but she also knows that she confuses and exasperates and sometimes disappoints them. Her insulation has holes.
On top of that, her life goals were, at one point, built around an industry that’s very image-conscious. When I was a kid, I was involved in performing arts, and they will tell you to your face, “You’re too fat for this, you’re too ugly for that.” So Eve’s hyperaware of how she’s perceived in a way her sisters aren’t. It makes sense that she’d think and talk about those issues more directly.
You’ve been open about the fact that, like Eve and Jacob, you are on the autism spectrum, but you’re representing different variations and aspects of autism with these two characters. Did you prepare in any special way to write this book?
Alongside my own experience of ASD, most of my friends are autistic or they have ADHD. (I personally believe there’s a lot of overlap.) And then there’s the fact that my mother is a teacher who specializes in behavioral needs. So when I was preparing to write this book and I was mentally building these characters, I sat down and wrote everything I already knew about being autistic and about the ways autistic people are treated. Then I tried to ask myself questions that kind of . . . exposed the things I didn’t know, the things I’d never had to think about.
After that, I spoke with my friends about the characters. It was great getting insight from other people, because I knew I wanted my main characters to be different from each other—or rather, to experience autism differently. And once the book was done, I worked with a sensitivity reader, too. Because like I said, autism is different for everyone, and I’d written characters who weren’t necessarily like me, so I wanted to make sure I wasn’t being a dick about it.
"The characters don’t instantly understand each other just because they’re both autistic. They do have similarities, but they have to discover those similarities the same way they’d discover anything else about each other."
More broadly, are there any particular considerations—good, bad or neutral—that are unique to telling a romance between two characters on the spectrum?
I think my autism informs everything I write. It takes genuine effort to write characters who don’t come off as autistic. My first explicitly autistic character was Ruth in A Girl Like Her, but actually, Ruth’s entire family has ASD—she’s just the only one who’s diagnosed. The characters don’t know that; I know that. (Then I got comments from autistic readers asking if that was the case, which made me very happy.) It’s kind of the same thing with the Brown Sisters series.
This book is the first time I’ve written both leads as autistic, and it was very satisfying because it’s a pairing that makes sense to me. It also reflects the relationship I’m in personally. However, I don’t think it was necessarily a unique romance writing experience. The characters don’t instantly understand each other just because they’re both autistic. They do have similarities, but they have to discover those similarities the same way they’d discover anything else about each other.
The one thing I’d say was unique was writing their similar experience of the world. They’re not treated the same: Jacob is a white man with a diagnosis, while Eve is a Black woman, and that’s a large part of why she isn’t diagnosed. That’s also why Eve has been forced to mask more and is better at socially masking than Jacob.
But they both have this feeling of being out of step, of being purposefully misunderstood (it does feel purposeful, even if it’s not!) and of consistently misunderstanding. That experience has shaped them in different ways, and it was fun to show those different ways while acknowledging they shared a root.
How do the books you want to read differ from the books you want to write? Or is there no difference for you?
It’s 50-50. I do try to write the kinds of books I love to read. Warm and funny and hot, that’s my goal, so I feel inspired when I read authors like Danielle Allen or Mia Sosa. But I also enjoy super complicated stories with very high stakes. I love mysteries like the ones K.J. Charles weaves into her books, or adventures like the ones in a lot of Beverly Jenkins’ novels.
With “Virgin River” and “Bridgerton” on Netflix, there’s been a lot of buzz about taking romance from the page to the screen. Is there a novel or series of yours that you’d most like to see adapted?
I think the Brown Sisters series would work very well on screen because they’re so . . . rom-com-y, for want of a better word. The Princess Trap would probably make a good adaptation, too. There’s a fake engagement and an evil royal family and so on. Very soapy. (I love soapy.)
Did the COVID-19 pandemic change your reading habits? What were some of the books that helped get you through this incredibly challenging year?
Before the pandemic, I would read whenever I had free time and a good book. These days, I read in gluts of please-help-me-escape desperation, interspersed with lengthy periods of listless, bookless apathy. I’m also much slower now, and I struggle to remember what I’ve read. But I definitely remember Courtney Milan’s The Duke Who Didn’t, which came out last year. It was a cozy historical rom-com delight, and I felt like it woke me up.
Get a Life, Chloe Brown was many readers’ first introduction to your writing, but you have a whole body of work you self-published. How does this work compare to the Brown Sisters trilogy, and where do you recommend readers start who want to dive into your backlist?
The Brown Sisters series was the first time I consciously set out to write a rom-com, so I suppose the main difference is that my other books aren’t as hooky or light. There’s still a ton of banter and sarcasm, but the stories don’t have those classic rom-com tropes. They do, however, have tons of classic romance tropes, like friends-to-lovers or only-one-bed. They also have a lot of mental health representation, a lot of family dynamics and a lot of sex. For readers who like more domestic, cozy stories, I would recommend starting with the Ravenswood series. For readers who like a bit more angst, try Work for It.
Author photo by Ed Chappell UK.