From the mid ’90s through the early 2000s, there were scores of Black women romance novelists. Authors, ranging from Terry McMillan to Trisha R. Thomas, were allowing Black women to fall in love on the page, even as real life Black women were declared undesirable and unmarriageable. Their work was revolutionary, and much of it was adapted for screen, but since the early 2000s, major publishers have released few romance novels written by Black women with Black women protagonists. Outside of Ernessa Carter’s 2013 novel, The Awesome Girl’s Guide to Dating Extraordinary Men, and Denene Millner, Angela Burt-Murray, and Mitzi Miller’s 2006 hit, The Vow, Black women who love romance novels have had limited options.
With her forthcoming novel, The Wedding Date, first-time author Jasmine Guillory might be the Black woman who revitalizes the genre. The Wedding Date has a simple premise: Alexa, chief of staff to Berkeley, California’s mayor, unexpectedly meets Drew, a playboy doctor, in an elevator. Their chemistry is immediately electric, and leads Drew to invite Alexa to his ex-girlfriend’s wedding. From there, The Wedding Date takes readers on a rollercoaster ride as both Alexa and Drew work to figure out if their impromptu date can become something more.
The Wedding Date is a classic rom-com, and will surely satiate those who were raised on romance novels. Ahead of the book’s release, Guillory spoke to Bitch about making the transition from attorney to author, developing such relatable characters, and finding revolution in romance.
You’re a Stanford Law School graduate. There are many people who enter a field, and then want to pursue a passion. How did you make the transition from practicing law to writing novels?
I’d been a lawyer for eight years when I started writing. I did it because I realized I was missing a creative outlet in my life, and I was thinking about what that could be. I had some friends who were writers, and they were all very encouraging when I talked with them about writing. I’d taken no writing classes, but I’d read thousands of books throughout my life. A lot of reading helped me know what I love and what I dislike in books. I just started writing at that point. I built my writing around my work, so I would usually write late at night. Even now, I still write late at night because that’s when I’m used to writing.
The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory (Photo credit: Berkley)
I really enjoyed writing. It was really hard, but I enjoyed what I was doing, so I just kept going. I’d wrote one book that I tried to get an agent with and didn’t, but I got a lot of very encouraging rejections from agents. Then, I tried to write another book that I had a lot difficulty with. I took a little writing break, and afterward, I started writing The Wedding Date. I started looking for an agent after writing the book, doing a lot of revisions, sending it to some friends, and then doing more revisions.
What were your favorite romantic comedies growing up? Did they inspire you to write romance?
There were a lot. I grew up in a very John Hughes-era, so 16 Candles, obviously, even though it’s difficult to rewatch now because there’s a lot of terrible race stuff in that movie. I loved everything Molly Ringwald. I also love When Harry Met Sally, and can watch it on repeat for hours. It’s not so much that these movies inspired me to write romance, but helped me see a lot of fun things I could do with romantic tropes. It’s not just romance novels. All books hinge on some sort of trope, which is fun to play with. I like to see both how books and movies stick straight to romantic tropes, and also turn them on their head. It was good to see how romance movies have done this with people falling in love, breaking up, and coming back together.
The Wedding Date is a phenomenal book. I couldn’t put it down. What sparked the idea for a romance novel? Was writing romance something you always wanted to do?
I’ll take the second part of that question first: absolutely not. I started writing in my early-to-mid 30s. I’d always been a big reader, but I never really thought about writing. I had some friends who were writers, and I started talking tentatively to them about it. The first books I started writing were young adult books, and they all had romantic elements, but that’s not what I was focused on. Then, I was sick for a while, and I was reading a ton of romance novels. At first, I thought I loved reading romance, but I could never write one of those books. Then, I changed my mind [laughs]. The Wedding Date came to me gradually. I need to have an outline before I start writing, and I found that out the hard way. I started writing a book that I just had the idea for, and I rewrote the first-half of the book three times and could never finish it because I didn’t know what I was writing toward.
I came up with the outline for The Wedding Date, but I hadn’t thought about actually writing it until a friend of mine was doing National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). The day before it started, she texted me to ask if I wanted to do it with her. I thought about my outline, said okay, and then started writing The Wedding Date. I had so much fun writing this book that I was excited to keep going.
Alexa and Drew are such well-written and fleshed out characters. What inspired you to create these characters?
I wanted to read more about people like me and my friends. A lot of romance is historical, but a lot of contemporary romance is full of billionaires or small-town characters. I wanted books about people who live in cities, have jobs that they care about, and are single. I didn’t see lot of that. Obviously, one of the reasons I wrote The Wedding Date is because I wanted to see Black women reflected. I also wanted to see other people I identified with in romance. That’s what I was writing toward.
I blended together lots of friends of mine to create Alexa and Drew. Those friends have lived lives kind of like theirs. They care about their jobs and they work a lot, but they also also go out for margaritas with their friends on Tuesday nights. Those were the kinds of people I wanted to create.
I can’t recall the last time I read a romance novel written by a Black woman with a Black woman protagonist that was released by a mainstream publisher. What was the process for writing and selling The Wedding Date? Did you encounter any obstacles because of the book’s genre?
I didn’t have an agent before The Wedding Date, and publishing is a very white industry, so the bulk of the agents I reached out to were white women. I talked frankly to them about being able to sell my book when they’re not Black women. I had good conversations with all of the agents I talked to, but I really liked that my agent didn’t try to pretend that she was “down.” She talked about moving to New York and being an outsider, and that was something that she also liked about the characters in my book. We had a good conversation, and she knew what I most cared about in a publishing house.
There wasn’t any point when I felt like there was a race-related sticking point, which was great. My editor is also a woman of color; she’s Asian. While she was editing The Wedding Date, she asked me to push harder on some of the book’s race-related elements. I wrote more about race in the first draft then I would have 10 years ago, but I was still a little tentative about it.
A lot of people write with an ideal reader in mind. My ideal reader is one of my friends, who’s a woman of color, so I knew she’d get a lot of small things that I did. I’m glad my editor wanted me to go deeper on some of the conversations that Alexa and Drew have [about race]. It’s also interesting because I wrote the book in 2015, which feels like a kinder and gentler world, but I did the edits last year, so I pushed more on race than I would have in 2015 because the world has gotten worse in many ways over past the two years.
As I read the book, I saw it visually. Is adapting The Wedding Date for screen something you’d want to happen?
Sure, that would be wonderful! I have a pretty realistic view of whether or not that’s going to happen. Aside from the race-related stuff, romantic comedies are not a big deal in Hollywood anymore, which is a shame. I grew up watching rom-coms. I love them and a lot of women love them, so why aren’t we seeing more of those? I also think there need to be more movies geared toward women. As we see, when movies like that comes out, they get huge responses because we can identify with them. Adapting The Wedding Date would be amazing, but I’m not holding my breath [laughs].
What advice would you give to other women who are looking for creative outlets and are trying to make room for it in their busy lives?
I hate the “if I can do it, you can do it” advice because I don’t know what’s in a woman’s life. I could do it because I don’t have children. I could write because I only had one job. I didn’t have to work a second job to survive. I’d say find the time when you think that you can blank out a few hours, and just stick to that time. It doesn’t have to be every day. It could be three times a week. Block it out on your calendar. Don’t let anyone take that from you. Be religious about using that time for whatever your creative outlet is. In the beginning, getting going is the hardest part because you don’t know what you’re doing and you’re thinking “why am I even doing this? Nobody cares.” But forcing yourself into that habit is really helpful and keeps you going.
It was also really helpful for me to see that a lot of people really do care. Women of color, especially, are hungry for stories and art by and for other women of color. It’s always inspiring for me to read other books by women of color and see how much it affects me. That’s when I think “maybe I can do this for someone else.” That’s something that keeps me going. This summer, I was working on my second book, and it was during all of the stuff in Charlottesville. I thought, “Why I am sitting here writing romance novels? That’s stupid. I should be out there in the streets. I’m a lawyer. Why am I not using my law degree to help work on this?
Then, I read a romance novel by a Black woman, and it made me feel so inspired. I felt better about the world. Reading the book felt revolutionary. We all need to find ways to help us keep going. That might be different for everyone, but reading other books by women of color has helped.
What other romance novels have you read recently that you would recommend?
I would recommend An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole because I love her books. An Extraordinary Union is the first book in a series that’s set in the Civil War, and it’s about a free Black woman who goes undercover as a slave. It’s amazing. Alisha Rai’s book are so good. She’s another woman of color who writes amazing and deep romance novels about people and families. I think family plays such a big role in the people we turn out to be. I also love Tessa Dare. All of her books are just a delight. Reading them is just like sitting at home, eating a nice, big brownie and smiling to yourself.
What comes next for you after The Wedding Date? Do you plan to go back to writing YA?
The next book I’m writing is The Proposal, and it’s about Carlos, Drew’s best friend in The Wedding Date. It’s set in Los Angeles, and I’m really excited for people to get a chance to read his story. I always think about going to YA, but I don’t have any current plans to write it right now. I still read a lot of YA and love it, so I’m not ruling anything out. We’ll see.