Chatting Romance with Anna Burke, Avery Brooks, and Jenn Alexander

Ever wondered what writers talk about when they get together on a GoogleDoc? I recently sat down with my fellow Bywater authors Avery Brooks and Jenn Alexander to talk about our experiences writing sapphic romance. This is the result.

What was it like writing your first romance novel?

Anna: Spindrift is my first contemporary romance novel. Thorn and Nottingham are also romances, but not in the same way, and it was a genre leap for me. The first thing I realized was that writing romance was fun. I fell head over heels in love with the characters in Spindrift and their world, and I knew I was hooked.

Avery: Intense yet freeing. My background as an evolutionary biologist is in scientific writing, which is pretty much the antithesis of creative writing. So it was really freeing and fun to write a story without constantly needing to worry about citations and facts. It was intense because a lot of the experience was new to me so I learned a lot, met some fairly monumental deadlines (thanks procrastination), and pushed through tough spots to make sure the novel made it to fruition.   

Jenn: The first romance novel that I ever wrote was one that I wrote for National Novel Writing Month in 2007. It’s one that I have no intention of ever publishing, but I had so much fun writing it, and I have been hooked on writing lesbian romance novels ever since. That was the first time that I ever thought I could do this. The story was a mess, but I realized that I had a fairly good sense of how to structure a romance novel and how to write compelling characters and conflict. When I read my first draft of The Song of the Sea I sat back and thought ‘Hey, this is something I enjoy reading,’ and I knew that I wanted to polish it for publication.

Why romance novels are more than “just fluff”:

Anna: I always laugh when someone disparages romance novels or other “genre fiction,” because it shows a total lack of understanding of what stories do. Stories teach us how other people live. They show us other worlds, other ways of being, and, most importantly, stories teach us empathy. Research shows that people who read are more empathetic than people who don’t, and we can all agree that this world needs more empathy. And what better way than books where love takes center stage?

Avery: It’s interesting that the highest-grossing book genre could be considered fluff by some. I think the days of Fabio gracing the covers of romance books probably didn’t help combat the ‘fluff’ characterization. However, there are incredibly talented writers in this genre who are masters of complex character depiction and strong storylines. Particularly in women-loving-women (wlw) romances, I’ve read many novels where the characters stay with you and the story impacts you in a profound way, and I think that is the mark of a strong novel, no matter the genre. Romance novels of today, in my opinion, are much more complex stories that tackle a variety of themes so I would encourage anyone to read some before they shun the genre. 

Jenn: Romance is often categorized as fluff because of the feel good scenes that are inherent in the genre. Romance novels have sweet scenes intended to make readers swoon a little. They promise a happily-ever-after, or at least a happily-for-now ending. However, romance novels still require story arcs that include conflict and character growth. Romance novels may leave the reader feeling happy and hopeful, but that doesn’t mean the journey to get there is easy. The conflict and character growth can offer really profound ideas about how to be human in relation to others: how to trust, how to build connections, how to recover from past traumas, how to let someone else in, and how to love. I think the messages and themes found in romance novels are often really important.

How romance as a genre can be used to tell so many different kinds of stories:

Anna: When I sit down with a romance novel, I want to fall in love. Like the protagonists, I want to be swept up in a love story, and I don’t particularly care if that love story takes place between time-travelling spies, or the owner of a coffee shop and a lawyer. I’m along for the ride. Because of that, as a reader I’m willing to travel with them, and because we get to know these characters so intimately, we learn. Most of my randomly accrued knowledge comes from books. Stories tell us who we are and give us the words to define ourselves. When it comes to romance, we’re still living in a time where queer relationships are rarely represented in mainstream media. Occasionally in the wlw community, I’ll hear someone say that the genre is saturated. I disagree–it won’t be saturated until every trope has been employed and subverted in the quantities produced by mainstream media. It won’t be saturated until every aspect of the ways we live and love are represented, and since those ways change all the time, there will always be a need. I’m excited to watch romance evolve with us, because there’s so much more to explore.

Avery: There is an expectation and a guarantee of a happily ever after for a book to be a romance. But that’s all that is guaranteed. Romance as a genre can be very broad and that gives authors the freedom to explore different types of stories and perspectives within the genre. I’m a strong believer that love makes every story better, no matter the genre. It makes the characters more vulnerable and allows the readers to connect with them on an emotional level. As more new authors express their take on romance novels, the more we see different perspectives represented. But we still have a lot of room to grow in representation, diversity, and inclusion in general, and especially in wlw novels. Things are always changing, particularly in how we define ourselves and our relationships and the technology involved in our lives. I look forward to seeing how writers of different generations create different storylines within the romance genre so that more people see themselves reflected in those stories. 

Jenn: Romance novels guarantee a happily-ever-after, and I think because of that guarantee, readers may be more inclined to trust romance authors to tell what would otherwise be really difficult stories. The Song of the Sea, for instance, tackles grief following the loss of a child. That implicit guarantee of a happy ending promises the reader that even if the book is sad, that it will be somehow positive or uplifting at its core. People think of romance as being really formulaic, but I think you can make love the lens through which you look at anything, and it means the possibilities for romance novels are endless.  


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