[Take it away, Heather…]
I’m hooked on author P.J. Dean’s The Felig Chronicles (eXstasy Books) for a number of reasons *takes deep breath*: it’s a sci-fi romance series featuring an alien invasion, action-adventure, an interracial romance, a kick-ass POC heroine, a hero with a secret, a cool mom, and an ensemble cast of larger-than-life characters. The author’s style is like catnip to me and while I’m no stranger to alien invasion stories, something about this one feels unique—primarily because of the characters.
Upon meeting the author online, I discovered an equally intriguing personality behind the stories. P.J. Dean always has something interesting and insightful to say and I turn into a sponge whenever I read her blog posts and/or comments about books, SFR, publishing, diversity, you name it.
So with the release of Gambit, book five in the series, I seized the opportunity to once again embark on a conversation with P.J. Dean. And by conversation, I mean a no-holds-barred, put-it-all-out-there, doesn’t-pull-any-punches, “whoa!” kind of experience!
Heather: The Felig Chronicles features not only an interracial romance, but interspecies romance as well. Why do you think inspiration came to you for a sci-fi romance story instead of, say, any other genre?
P.J. Truthfully, inspiration for a sci-fi romance story didn’t come to me until I was thinking about what I wanted to focus on for my third book (which has turned into a series). In addition to sci-fi romance, the other genre I pen is historical romance without the usual, default leads. I continue to write them. But a few years back, I wanted to stretch my creative wings, and invent something totally my own, and not a straight up repeat of an existing scenario. Not to say that the historicals I’d written were. I just knew if I were going to attempt anything sci-fi, it had to have a flavor to it that I was not seeing in the pages of the SFR I’d been reading.
After some brainstorming I fixed on an alien invasion plot line. Yes, I know. Not original but I had some fresh ideas. I decided I was going to concentrate on writing about the after effects on the humans after an alien invasion, an alien invasion that was not like the regular brand. I wanted a cast of not-the usual suspects. People not seen regularly in a lot of sci-fi, or SFR, unless they were the stalwart, ethnic side kick who was the magical, brave, cardboard voice of reason. The type, who if even penned, traipsed across the page and became collateral damage soon after. And let us not forget the ethnic person, or person of a differing sexual orientation introduced as the hot-to-trottie. I wanted to see people my hue, reacting to situations like real human beings, not stand-ins for some blanket ideal.
I was saddened that in most SFR, the vision of “other” folk in the future and/or of them surviving a catastrophe was nil. I wanted to see a multi-faceted, African-American, female, main character who CARRIED the damned story! I wanted her to have an actual purpose instead of being a symbol. I mean as egalitarian and varied as characters in SFR were supposed to be, I still saw lots of stock persons in my reading material back in ‘09. That was when I got my epiphany, and the heroine, Faustina Marie “Tina” Cain, of The Felig Chronicles, was born.
I chose an African-American female lead for my book. As an African-American author, there was no way in hell I was going to center my series on a heroine who did not resemble me. I make no apologies for it. Sorry, folks. Call me myopic but I just was not going to make her Anglo and add to an already crowded field.
My girl, Tina Cain, is the result of my unabashed love for Mace, the take-no-ish, resourceful, African-American female lead from one of my favorite futuristic films, Strange Days. Angela Bassett plays the part to perfection. Mace is womanly, a badass, capable, vulnerable and very much in love with disgraced ex-cop Lenny, the character portrayed by Ralph Fiennes. I fashioned a lot of Tina on her.
She is not a bewildered teen imbued with supernatural powers. She is not the secret, half-human daughter of some entity. Tina is a grown, fully-realized, human woman with responsibilities, who rises to the occasion when s*** gets real. She is never one-dimensional and neither is her fellow Felig fighter/lover Nathaniel David Lowe. They meet at a low point in both of their lives and join forces. They surprise themselves, and each other in the course of their relationship. Their issues have issues, but they work them out even though the Felig are flitting around making life unbearable. They are made for each other. Even my secondary characters, including the aliens, have a backstory.
It’s my world and welcome to it!
Heather: I couldn’t agree more that more books featuring diverse protagonists with true narrative agency are sorely needed. There are times I’ve been shocked at how white (and whitewashed if we include worlds with “blended” races) the future looks when even real life provides evidence of diversity all over the globe. How do you think sci-fi romance is doing in terms of diversity currently?
P.J. The representation of the “other” in SFR has increased. But like all efforts, some authors do a good job with giving their creations a full portrait, and some are simply inserting characters of different ethnicities, or of different sexual orientations, or of different physical/emotional abilities into their books as “set decoration.” Most are aiming to get a share of the “multicultural” market.
And do not, do not, do not get me started on the lack of opportunity for writers of color, or LGBTQIA writers, or differently-abled writers to get their spin on SFR, or any romance genre, noticed, without some writers who are not part of any of those groups getting their thongs in a twist.
Oh, I have seen, I have seen, I have seen some things on Twitter! Phew! I don’t get into it or get it. There is room for visions seldom seen. Not a one of us is snatching that million-dollar contract from you insecure folks…Yet. Trust me. That takes getting NOTICED, and then having the OPPORTUNITY offered to you.
Heather: I’ve seen similar pushback regarding diversity and it’s extremely disconcerting. I would like to see SFR improve its diverse offerings as well. Respectful and inclusive diversity is more important to me than plausible science. I can suspend my disbelief for all kinds of fantastical science, but not for the white default.
It’s interesting that you raise the issue of opportunity. It reminds me of the story of how I learned about your work.
As a blogger, I discover all of my sci-fi romance reads online, and your series is no exception. A romance blog had run a post about diversity and I left a comment there begging for diverse SFR reads. You saw my comment and then let me know about The Felig Chronicles. For this reader, it was a match made in heaven.
I’m personally jazzed about how we met because it’s been a far richer experience for me than if I’d stumbled across the series on my own. What it means, though, is that you aren’t an author I discovered as a result of mainstream distribution or a traditional publisher’s marketing campaign. In fact, we connected so far outside the mainstream publishing system we might as well have been in another dimension! It was a meeting that depended not only on chance, but also on both of us being willing to reach out in the name of diversity.
On top of that, we’re both women connecting in the context of a niche genre, one that even romance publishers haven’t figured out how to market on a wide-scale basis.
All of which makes me wonder what our mutual experience means in terms of opportunity and visibility both for you as an author as well as your work. I don’t mind doing a lot of research to find sci-fi romance books, but on the other hand it doesn’t seem fair that you should have to rely so heavily on chance to find readers. You’re not alone, either—many women, especially POC authors, are in your shoes.
There’s an opportunity deficit at work here regarding marginalized authors. What do you think are some of the underlying causes?
P. J. First, let me say that it floors me every time I think about how you found my work. It was a totally random experience. Which is both exciting and sad. If I had not seen, and responded to, your comment on that blog, if I had not taken the chance, if you had not replied…Well, that sums up a lot of marginalized authors’ discovery path. Happenstance. No. I have not bought that vacation home in Fiji. I haven’t even looked at a picture of a vacation home in Fiji. I am not a household name, but I have run across my name on a blog on occasion. I write because I like it. Anything else that comes down the pike is extra.
Now about that opportunity deficit for marginalized authors. It’s such a multi-layered mess that many fail to comprehend it, or act like they fail to comprehend it. In fact, this very minute, I am sure the strings of countless violins are being played by white authors. So I’ll tell them this: change places with me, and see if you can stomach, let alone, clear, the hurdles that will be tossed in your way. I double dog dare you! For purposes of clarity, I’ll be speaking on the nonsense faced only by black authors of romance, as I cannot speak for romance writers who are differently-abled, or who are LGBTQIA and want their stories recognized. Except I’m certain they face the same obstacle course.
Black romance writers are not whiney, talentless hacks begging for special treatment. We are writers who happen to be black, who work our butts off to create good books. Are we owed an audience? No. But we are owed equal access when it comes to using the same paths white writers use in trying to establish an audience.
I am going to highlight a messy, open secret in romance publishing. On the surface, this diversity brouhaha looks like it’s about the addition of “different” main characters to romance books. Nuh-uh. Naw. That’s the okey doke. The reality is, and it’s two-fold so stay with me. It’s about WHO gets a shot at a contract writing these characters if one wants in on the Big 5’s world. You’re probably asking why would a black author even bother trying to get in that door? I ask why not? Personally, I do not see the Big 5 as the only game in town but others do. So why shouldn’t they want in?
Despite the success of some black authors (numbers that are terribly low compared to the slew of white ones doing well), publishing industry professionals still harbor the unwillingness to acknowledge, and accept, that black writers can write. And that more specifically, black writers might have something extra to add to a black character’s portrait in a “diverse” romance book that a white writer can’t. Now, I know that is ruffling the feathers of some white writers. So be it. No writer wants to be thought of as incapable, or as not having a handle on something. Some have written decent black characters; others have made me side-eye their books. The thing is, no matter how great the writer, no writer can write it all. But that’s not what traditional publishing thinks.
Now think about how good, solid, black writers feel who write romance. Good, solid black writers who cannot believe that they are so fortunate to be living in a time where the “multicultural” romance is doing big business and their spin on a love story with characters who resemble them might be considered, even accepted. A shoe-in, right? Woo-hoo! Diversity! Multiculturalism! Kumbayah! Then they get the news that their well-written submission was rejected for “not fitting what the house had in mind.” Or they uncover that mother of a gut-kick: the publisher has decided to go with an in-house writer who “really knows how to pen a black character” and it’s a white writer. Say what? Wait a minute. You just doubly insulted me by believing 1) I can’t write and 2) by proclaiming I do not know how to write a fictional version of “me.” That scenario plays out more than you know. It leads me to the conclusion that the publishing industry has ONE view of how a black character should be written, and that a white writer delivers that best. Oh my word. Block number one to opportunity. Blatant, in-your-face, block to opportunity. Tell me what white writer has encountered being told their white character isn’t “white enough.” I’ll wait.
Heather: Needless to say, you’re gonna be waiting a long time.
P.J. The Big 5 are not about including all voices. This smokescreen of inclusivity is about sovereignty and exclusion. I think of all the black, romance writers (including myself), who have been fed the following line, in some form, by a gatekeeper at a publishing house: “try harder, just write that great book and everyone will find it” yadda, yadda, yadda.” Stop! Just stop! I am sure not a single white author of any current recognition has ever been given that bit of condescending, vague, glib advice either. It boggles the mind.
The second opportunity path is discoverability and involves bloggers/book reviewers. Sorry but this next step to a black writer’s wider exposure is not an equal access ramp either. Except for book review blogs run by black female bloggers (bless you all!), few mainstream book review blogs post reviews of books by black authors. This is quantifiable by simply visiting any site on a regular basis. I do see m/m and f/f books reviewed on the majority of them. I suppose that fills a diversity quota. But consistent representation of black writers on the well-known ones with a huge number of visitors? Utterly depressing. One book a month does not cut it. Nope. A special spotlight during “Black History” month does not cut it either.
Heather: Right! Diversity is the norm in real life, not the exception. You know, kind of an ongoing thing. Unfortunately, the exclusionary tactics in publishing you referred to have extended to the blogosphere as well.
P.J. I understand these blogs have a die-hard core of followers who are in love with the chick-in-the-big-billowy-dress books (hey, I like ‘em too) but…It’s 2016! The readership is changing. Reflect that in your book review choices, bloggers! And please, please, please do not tell me that you are feverishly looking for such requests, but you don’t get them. Do you even look at a review request for a romance written by a black author with at least one black main character? Reviewing them matters. It matters a lot. It shows we do write. It shows we do exist. It shows you are serious, otherwise it’s all lip service.
Heather: Couldn’t agree more that a strategy change is in order. Waiting around for marginalized authors to contact them is one way bloggers participate in exclusionary tactics. It’s similar to a self-selection bias. Bloggers/reviewers who are committed to diversity will take a proactive approach and seek out marginalized authors where they are rather than expect those authors to initiate contact.
P.J. Personally, I’ve stopped submitting requests for reviews on my own. My brief foray was a waste of time. If I were to do it again, I’d try a NetGalley co-op. After endless submissions to blogs, I did get three requests OK’d by bloggers for reviews of a couple of my books. That was over two years ago! And you know what? I received no follow up from any of them. So, no, I do not expend my energy anymore. With this interest in the diverse, I thought submitting a review request for a historical, or an SFR, with non-default leads, and then having it OK’d would result in a review. But it didn’t. I did send a follow up email but received no reply. I chalked it up to the bloggers being busy.
My quick note of advice to black writers of romance going it alone when looking to get noticed on a mainstream blog, besides “Good luck!” – CHECK THEIR ARCHIVES! Scope it out before you go through all the trouble. If you find the only black writers reviewed are powerhouses Octavia Butler and Beverly Jenkins…keep it moving. Why? Because upon closer inspection they are probably the ONLY ones on there, and therefore, that blog feels it has fulfilled its civic duty. Do not bother to submit the request. It will be overlooked. My take is the bloggers know the taste of their blog’s readership and that taste is not anything you are offering.
The third path to wider exposure is the reader. Today’s book market is a readers’ market. They wield power. With everyone, and their dog, writing a book, they have tons to choose from. Time is short and so are book budgets. Romance books by black writers do not loom large on a mainstream reader’s list. We are just not in that reader’s purview. And if thought of at all, books written by us are last on the list and seen as “homework.”
Look, I’m the last one to tell someone what to do with their money, or what to read, but I do wonder where is that “colorblind” mainstream reader, who’s supposedly just looking for a good story? More lip service? All the good stories are not written by one “playlist” of authors. I see in the comments sections of romance blogs that readers hit reading slumps from time to time. Well maybe, just maybe, if you’d look beyond the ton and read something other than that 300th chick-in-the-big-billowy dress book, you might snap out of it!
Add in the selective, deceptive practice of tagging/labeling books and the segregation of books in bookstores…You have the perfect storm of deliberate hindrance coupled with indifference.
Heather: What solutions would you propose for increasing publishing/marketing opportunities for authors who have been sidelined?
P. J. Traditional Publishers? Well, as far as the Big 5 is concerned, unless the thinking of those in charge changes, nothing will change. If the industry was genuine in its purpose, it would have moved forward years ago. This discussion has been going on for ages. I believe it starts with the editor. If a black romance writer’s manuscript makes it to an editor’s desk, and the editor likes it, but it does not fit a preconceived mold, fight for it! Stop trying to cram a round peg into a square hole. Accept it because it’s good, not because it fits house rules.
Bloggers/Reviewers? This is touchy territory. Owners run their blogs as they see fit. They are theirs, be they hobbies, or livelihoods. They can review all genres or skew toward a specific one. One can’t force them to review a book; one can criticize their performance. Depending upon their specialty, they all review the biggies in traditional romance publishing, and that odd indie making lots of noise. They talk about the books their visitors want them to. They will not admit it but their book recs put authors’ names out there. The only way I see a marginalized writer possibly getting a chance at a review on any of them is if the writer finds, and joins, a NetGalley co-op. Bloggers/reviewers use it, and similar services, to acquire books for review.
Readers? The ultimate wild card. They have a symbiotic relationship with bloggers as a number of them rely on their favorite blogs for book recs. Many will not buy a book unless the blogger they trust gives it a nod. On occasion readers have made an off-the-beaten-path book stand out by talking about it. But truly, I have no idea what makes a mainstream reader buy a book. But I do know what will make the mainstream reader avoid one. A book with a cover adorned by non-white people. Specifically, a black female. Go google it. I do not make this stuff up. Why else would a publisher go out of its way to “whitewash” covers, if not for the reader/potential buyer? And I’m not talking about slapping a redhead on the cover when the story inside is about a blonde. I’m talking about the outright erasure of the non-white heroine. I am talking about the unambiguously “other” heroine on the page, morphing into a white woman, or an ethnically-ambiguous, wavy-haired, tanned woman on the cover. Oopsie! So an easily identifiable, ethnic heroine on the cover upsets a reader? Must be the result of decades of conditioning. Funny, all those tempest-tossed, tawny-tressed, pale heiresses perched on steeds on all those covers of the historicals I’ve read never bothered me. I must have really been into the story inside.
Heather: It’s tragically ironic that many PoC readers have learned to identify with white characters since the dawn of modern publishing (because otherwise they’d have little to read/watch) and that many white readers, even today, struggle to identify with PoC characters. In fact, white readers seem to be able to identify more with alien and vampire characters than PoC ones! If not 2016, I wonder which year will serve as the wakeup call for white readers?
P.J. Heather, marginalized authors are in a fight to stay on the scene. It’s clear that traditional publishing wants to be all, and to regulate all. Marginalized authors, bent on being with a Big 5 publisher, should continue to beat on the doors until they open wide. I place my hope in the small press and in self-publishing though. The small press does an excellent job in bringing fresh, original books to readers. They are open to works not appreciated by the traditional publishing pro. Self-publishing is a viable option. Rates run from next-to-nothing to hundreds of dollars to create a book. The project is under the writer’s total control.
Marketing? I have no idea what would work for black authors. With the atmosphere a tad inhospitable, I cannot imagine what a black author could do to draw mainstream readers who have made it clear they are not interested. A disinterest fostered by a publishing industry known for showing disrespect and dismissiveness, on the whole, toward the efforts of black romance writers. A disinterest fostered by a publishing industry, which has gone on record, and called said efforts, inferior. How does one fight that? How does one fight that as disgusting as it is? I fight by continuing to write and get published because I refuse to be silenced.
Thank you, Heather for this opportunity, for your “discovery” of The Felig Chronicles, for loving the series, and for your unflagging support. I’d like to close with this thought. Bestsellers, awards, a career, etc. are not achieved through good writing alone. One has to have access to a playing field that will view a manuscript without racial bias. Once published the book should have a shot at discoverability like any other book by any other author. It should not have to swim against a current of bulls**t. And yes, it’s got to get reviewed. Those are the pathways to getting noticed, to getting read, to competing for awards, and to getting a stab at becoming a bestseller. Trying harder and just writing that great book will not do it, black writer. That editor lied to you.
* * *
I hope my epic interview with P.J. Dean was as good for you as it was for me!
If you’re interested in The Felig Chronicles, the series is best read in order:
- The Felig Chronicles
- Something Else Wicked
For more information about P.J. Dean, follow her on Twitter: @pjdeanwriter. Thanks for reading!