Grace Porter is a different kind of protagonist: She’s an astronomer with a PhD, but she’s been unable to secure a permanent job in the field after training for more than 11 years. Her strict father, who she refers to as Colonel, has inflexibly high standards for Grace, but she’s struggling to meet them and figure out what will actually bring her joy. That’s primarily because Grace, who is also referred to as Porter, is accustomed to following everyone’s expectations for her life. “Follow your alarm. Follow your schedule. Follow your rubric. Follow your graduation plan,” she says about her situation. Grace’s tenacity is remarkable, but it’s also wearing her down. However, even as Grace buries her desires, they break through in odd ways: During a vacation with her chosen family in Las Vegas, Grace marries Yuki, a stranger she meets, but who she can’t remember the next morning.
As Grace embarks on a search to figure out who Yuki is and if their marriage has a shot, she hides her newfound marital status from her father for fear of disappointing him, and leans on her friends to pull her through one of the most uncertain times in her rigid life. “Maybe I don’t know what my best is anymore,” Grace muses. “Maybe my best is doing something completely reckless Colonel wouldn’t approve of. Something absurd and ridiculous and all mine. What if that’s my best?” So often, Black girls and women are pressured into the “be twice as good” approach to life, which leaves little room for error. Grace has conformed to that ideal for so long, but now she wants to be free—and Honey Girl takes her on a journey to figure out what freedom means to her. Bitch spoke with Honey Girl’s author, Morgan Rogers, about the biggest monsters Grace faces and how she overcomes them.
How did you develop the idea for Honey Girl? What prompted you to expand that idea into a book-length project?
I got my start in writing [through] reading fanfiction, so I’m very familiar with the [genre’s] tropes. I have my favorite tropes that I like to read and look for. So I kept throwing out all these ideas of things I wanted to write and I had all these works in progress. And I was like, why don’t I just write what I want to read? I love the married-in-Vegas trope. I love the idea of two people who don’t know each other having to make things work and figure out how they fit or if they fit. All I had was: A girl who’s maybe [pursuing] a master’s degree or a PhD [gets] married in Vegas to this girl who has a radio show in New York. I’m really not a plotter, so I didn’t have a lot planned out. Originally, I thought it could be a road trip novel, but as I started writing it, it did take the shape of what it ended up being.
Grace Porter is an interesting protagonist because she’s accustomed to following everyone’s expectations for her life. What was your approach to crafting her? What were her essential character traits?
I’m big on astronomy. Grace is a Virgo, so she’s always in her head. But she also finds comfort in routine because of her anxiety. There’s safety in that because that’s what she knows. So following her alarm and following her dad’s footsteps is her making the most of her situation and trying to be the best that she can be. That’s very comforting for her, but she finds out later that it’s also very limiting for her. I’ve found that as an anxious person, routines really can be very good and very bad in equal measure and that’s what she finds out [too]. Grace has to find things out for herself; she can’t just be told something. She has to live it, breathe it, and do it. So she has lived and breathed the expectations from her dad, her mom, and her professors at school, and she lived [them] day in and day out until she physically and mentally couldn’t anymore. That’s really familiar because what I ended up getting for Grace is this idea of Black excellence and how we feel like we have to be excellent. Where did this idea come from? Why can’t we just be happy and satisfied?
Grace has a really complicated, layered relationship with her father. He has high expectations for her and he encourages her to persevere, no matter what. At the same time, you humanize Colonel. He doesn’t seem like a villain. What was your approach to crafting their relationship?
I didn’t want to write this evil, awful, or cruel Black father. I also wanted to make him realistic because parents aren’t perfect. I had to figure out: Where did he come from? How did he get to where he is now? He’s a Black guy who grew up in the hood and was recruited into the army. We know that the military recruits Black and Brown kids very early out of these low-income places. It’s usually kids who don’t have the money or the resources to go to a college or technical school. So Colonel came from a situation where he didn’t have a lot of money and he knew his prospects were low. He made the best of the hand he was given. When he joined the army, he was like, I’m going to be the best person that I can be here. I’m going to be the best Colonel and make as many strides as I possibly can. That’s what got him through the very traumatic experience of [going to] war. [He has] a family, but [he’s] also on the frontlines of battles that really aren’t [his]. [He’s] dealing with all this mental trauma, physical trauma, and literally losing his leg, but he has to somehow keep going.
Like he tells Grace, “You have to keep going. Don’t let them see you stop smiling because that’s what they want.” He doesn’t know anything else or he hasn’t had the time or the room to learn anything else. So that’s what he puts on Grace without realizing that it’s very limiting [for her] and for him as well. It crafted him into this very rigid, inflexible person. That really wasn’t his fault, but he still hasn’t really come to terms with unpacking all of the trauma that he went through. So then he passes on this generational trauma to his daughter, and she’s shouldering all of his fears as well as her own. Grace figures out he’s just her father. He’s not God. He’s not perfect. He’s not the enemy. He’s just her dad and he did the best he could with what he had. It might not have been the best for her, but he tried and he never left her. That’s what she has to come to terms with.
Both Grace and Colonel consistently reference what it means to be a “Porter”—to persevere, grit your teeth through pain, and expect nothing less than the best. What does Grace’s journey reveal about what it really means to be a Porter?
It comes with expectation, so Grace learned through her dad that being a Porter [means] being very strong, rigid, and gritting [your teeth] through pain. But she had to figure out what [being a] Porter meant to her. She wants to please her dad and be the best person that she can be. He’s an idol for her, so she wants to be a Porter that he can be proud of. But the novel is really about figuring out that strong doesn’t have to mean ignoring your needs. It doesn’t mean gritting your teeth through pain. Strength can be admitting that you need help or admitting that something’s wrong. Perseverance doesn’t have to mean battling through all of these institutionalized barriers. Perseverance can mean doing what you can in a way that still makes you happy and doesn’t break you down. She figures out [she] can teach. [That she] can open this door for students to say, “This is a Black, lesbian astronomer. I can do this too.” Grace figures out there are many ways to be strong. There are many ways to persevere. There are many ways to be resilient.
Grace has created a very supportive friendship group with women who all have their own unique struggles, many of which revolve around mental health. Why was it important to show these people coming closer during their mental health challenges?
It was important because a lot of people are drawn together when they’re mentally ill. If you meet someone who understands, it’s like [connecting with] a kindred spirit that can see the world in the same way you do. That’s definitely what bonds Grace and Agnes. They both understand that their brains can be very terrible places, but they also have the capacity to be kind and good to themselves. Agnes wants Grace to realize that it’s okay to need help and to reach out, but you don’t get to take it out on other people or push [people] away. Agnes is the strongest proponent of that because she’s been at rock bottom. They meet her after she’s tried to kill herself, but she still tells Grace she doesn’t get to use that as a weapon against people who care about you.
Grace’s life plan is derailed by her decision to get married to someone she doesn’t know. Why did you choose marriage as the interruption?
Marriage is something she’s pushed off because it requires vulnerability, compromise, and so many things she felt like she didn’t have time for. She had her parent’s marriage [to look up to], but it didn’t work out. And then she’s had Colonel and her stepmom as an example of marriage, but they’re very private. So for Grace, marriage means opening herself up. She’s very focused on her career and busting through all of these barriers put in front of her. So she now has this other person that she has to figure out, open up to, and be vulnerable with. It’s very much an interruption because it was never something that she considered. Grace opens up to her friends because they’ve known her for so long, but Yuki meets her at what she considers her lowest point. That’s really what the interruption is: someone seeing her as she really is.
Yuki talks to Grace through her radio show, saying these otherworldly romantic things to her. Why was radio the medium you chose to convey Yuki’s fascination with Grace?
Honestly, I just thought it was very cool. I find Yuki to be a character who’s very eccentric. She does what she wants. She doesn’t really care about what’s [considered] cool. [When I was writing the book], I was listening to a lot of podcasts and it creates a kind of strange intimacy between you and the person you’re listening to because you can’t see the [rest of the] audience. They’re just talking to you through your phone. So I thought that the atmosphere that can be created through that environment was very interesting.
Yuki and Grace are so different on the surface, but they’re both searching for something or someone to keep them grounded. Why are they so drawn to each other, and what was your approach to crafting their relationship?
I didn’t want to write a book where they were fighting the marriage or looking for a way out because I feel like they’re both very lonely. They both have their friend groups that they’ve cultivated and they’re very close with, but the world feels much bigger than just their little families. For Grace, it’s the universe and space—everything she studied. For Yuki, it’s all these stories that she lived with for so long. Stories that her grandma told her and that she learned through school and through word of mouth. The world feels so much bigger than just them. So they try to find like-minded people and that’s why they were drawn to each other. They’re two people looking for intimacy and closeness who feel lonely. It’s much easier for Yuki with her radio show to reach out. She’s used to talking to people who are looking for the same thing as her and then she finds this beautiful girl in Vegas. And it’s like, I want to hold on to this. I want this feeling to last. I want to see how long we can do this. Both of them [are asking] “Can we make this work? Can we make this a good thing in the midst of all of the chaos going on around us?
Honey Girl takes Grace on a journey to figure out what freedom means to her.
Honey Girl is billed as a romance novel, but it’s really about Grace coming home to herself. What would you say Grace’s journey is ultimately about?
When I pitched the book to my agent and we were talking about submitting it to editors, I said it’s not a romance novel. It doesn’t really fit the beats and tropes in the romance genre. It’s first and foremost a coming-of-age [novel], even though those usually skew much younger in age. I’m younger than Grace. I’m 28, but it feels like a time where you can have this rebirth, grow, learn, and figure out who you want to be and where you want to go from here. So for Grace, it wouldn’t have worked with Yuki if she hadn’t [have] worked on herself, repaired the relationship with her father and her mom, and gone to therapy to figure out what’s going on with her. Grace’s journey is about her figuring out what she wants and then figuring out Yuki’s fit in that.
Monster is the theme for this issue. What would you say is the biggest monster Grace is facing?
The biggest monster Grace is facing in this book is self-awareness. That’s very scary for a lot of people. You have to have a lot of courage to be able to face that. A lot of times you can’t do it by yourself. Mental health [is another monster that she’s facing, as well as] being a Black queer woman in academia, a very white space. But that’s not her main problem. The biggest monster that she has to face is herself. She’s battling all kinds of things within her while trying to figure out the healthiest way to cope with [these issues] and find [her way] through them.
Your bio says that you write books for “queer girls who are looking for their place in the world.” Why is this mission so critical to your art?
As a queer person, I want to make queer art. I want to make books that queer people can find themselves in. I don’t think I’m going to make a universal queer book because there’s no such thing, but I want to put my experience into my characters. It’s so important because queerness is overlooked in the publishing industry. You shouldn’t have to search through all these lists to find books about people that are living an experience like [yours]. We aren’t represented well in publishing. I had mentors and people who opened the door for me to make my journey to publishing much easier than it usually is for [others]. So I want to be able to send the elevator back down or pay it forward. I can do that by making books that people are like, this feels like me or this feels like a story that I can find a piece of myself in. That’s what I feel like you should be doing as a writer. You don’t just write for yourself. You write for other people to relate, experience, feel, and then create if they want to.
This story has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.