How Talia Hibbert's own experiences with chronic pain inspired her latest romance heroine
Talia Hibbert is only 23 and she’s already written more than a dozen books.
While still at university, Hibbert inherited some money from her great-grandmother and used it to invest in her writing, embarking on a self-publishing journey. Now, after a stream of success, the already prolific romance writer is about to burst into traditional publishing with this fall’s Get a Life, Chloe Brown — and EW has an exclusive look a the adorable cover below. The romance follows about a chronically ill computer geek who devises a “Get a Life” list to help her live her life to the fullest after a near-death experience.
Chloe recruits Redford “Red” Morgan, her landlord and a tattooed, motorcycle-riding handyman, to help her cross off one major item on her list: “Do Something Bad.” The only trouble is Red, who secretly paints at night, can’t stand Chloe. Hibbert, who has been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, is a champion for inclusive romance, having written heroes and heroines of a multitude of races, ethnicities, shapes, sizes, and more. But there’s one group she’s almost never seen in the pages of romance — the chronically ill.
With Get a Life, Chloe Brown, she tackles chronic pain — something she has experience with firsthand — for the first time. “When I write more marginalized representation in my books, my first hope is always for people to see themselves reflected but then my second hope, hot on the heels of that, is that it will kind of act as a window read to people who aren’t affected that way and they will understand more and learn more and be empathetic,” she tells EW.
She hopes the novel will allow those with chronic illnesses to see the possibility of a happily-ever-after for themselves, but more crucially that her writing will help those on the outside understand more about those who suffer from chronic pain.
“The thing that really frustrates me is that people with chronic pain, in my opinion, are inherently incredibly tough because we are essentially suffering all the time and we’re still getting through it, coping, and we’re still here,” she says. “But what bothers me is that instead of seeing someone with chronic pain, noticing their life and all the things they can do and thinking ‘Wow, you’re doing the most, well done, go you!’ people think, ‘Oh well it can’t be that way.’ It is that bad. We are just more incredible than you comprehend.”
Get a Life, Chloe Brown hits shelves Nov. 5, but if you’re dying to know more about this book, it’s squee-inducing cover, and just why Hibbert is a force more incredible than you can comprehend (with the assistance of many cups of tea), read on after the artwork.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What inspired Get a Life, Chloe Brown?
TALIA HIBBERT: I had wanted to write a heroine who had healthcare issues that I could relate to because I have written a diabetic heroine in the past, but I’ve never written a heroine who dealt with chronic pain. [It’s] something you don’t often see in romance since it’s a very uplifting genre and people don’t seem to think that you can have an uplifting story with someone dealing with a condition like that. So first and foremost, definitely a desire to write a romantic comedy, a happy story where the heroine has issues and that doesn’t stop her getting a happy ending.
Your main character has chronic pain and you do as well. Why is that an experience you wanted to represent on the page, particularly in romance?
Chronic pain isn’t something a lot of people really know about. It’s missing from romance and from a lot of literature and popular culture. In romance, there’s an established trope of the wounded/in pain/unwell hero who is dealing with his manly ailments but you don’t really get that perspective in terms of a heroine. A heroine like Chloe who is dealing with chronic pain and coping with it that is not prevalent in romance as it could be, and hopefully, this will get us to a point towards changing that…I hope even though it’s fiction and it’s romance and it’s fun, it’s going to be informative for some people as well, and it will make people think a little bit about invisible illnesses and the other things that a lot of people are going through that they might not ever know about.
For you, as a writer, how does chronic pain affect you day to day?
Making things up, telling myself stories was a coping method for me when I first started dealing with chronic pain and because of that, even when it makes the physical act of writing difficult I’m still telling stories in my head and that feels like an escape. The thing that causes me the most trouble is sometimes I physically can’t write because of my hands. But most of the time if my pain is somewhere else in my body, I will do whatever I need to do to keep writing. I have written while I was lying flat on back. I write in bed, on the sofa, on the floor, propped up against the wall, whatever I need to do because writing is definitely an escape and a release and a way of managing and coping.
What do you think is the most misunderstood thing about people living with chronic pain?
It’s a societal idea that if you’re in pain you have to be either a screaming, useless mess to be worthy of sympathy or you’re not in pain enough. So that’s definitely the thing that bothers me the most.
You choose to refer to Chloe specifically as fat. Can you tell me more about the importance of using that word and normalizing it or trying to remove stigma from it?
This is kind of difficult for me to talk about extensively because I have been fat, but I am not the minute, so I never want to overstep. But the fact of the matter is that negative representation of fat women is something that hurts people deeply constantly. It’s so pervasive and it leaves people with lifelong scars, mental health issues, eating disorders, [and] all of that affects their body and their physical health. Because of that, it’s always been really, really important to me that I represent diverse body types in my romance to show that all different kinds of people can be attractive and all different kinds of people deserve happy endings. Chloe is a fat woman and that’s a positive thing. It’s important to me that it’s said explicitly and in a positive way rather than, “Oh you can’t use that word because it’s a bad word and it’s a bad thing to be.” It’s not, so that’s why that was important to me.
In the past, you’ve called your books “dirty British romance.” What makes them British – other than your identity as a British person?
In romance, I feel like there is a trope in terms of Britishness and British heroes where they’re rakish lads or they’re very posh and dashing. My books are authentic and more diverse, not just racially, but in all contexts, representation of what it means to be British and different British people. They deal with class a lot, which I feel like the British treatment and experience of class is very unique and particular and often disturbing. I like playing with that. Also, it’s just small things that feel very familiar to me that don’t pop up in American books like the constant drinking of tea or the using of tea as a shield or prop to solve all of your problems.
Chloe’s “Get a Life” list kickstarts the plot here. Have you ever made a similar list? What do you think the value is of things like bucket lists, to-do lists, New Year’s resolutions, etc.?
I’m incredibly lazy so I would never make a list like Chloe’s. I could probably do with getting a life myself, but I just don’t have the energy [Laughs]… The reason why I wanted to give Chloe a list was because, for one thing, she’s a very organized person and a list seems like the kind of thing she would love. But also because I wanted a way to articulate the fact that a lot of unwell or disabled people feel like there’s [something] especially wrong with the way they are and like they need to change. I wanted to show her feeling like that without putting it entirely on her illness and show her overcoming that and deciding to be her own person and value what she wants and needs rather than who she thinks she should be.
How much input did you have on the cover design?
I’m actually not a very visual person and I’m very bad about designing things, but my editor said, “If you have any covers that you like the look of or the style, let me know. If there are any specific things you want me to include on the cover, any vibes or color combinations, let me know, and the way the characters look, let me know.” So I went away and made a book report and I had a little PDF folder with different pages of inspiration images, collages, color combinations. They took it very seriously, which I really appreciated, and they produced this cover which captured exactly what I wanted in terms of representing Chloe and Red, and exactly what I wanted in terms of the color and the uplifting feel and the art style.
What were some of those inspirations? We’ve seen this explosion of illustrated covers in romance over the last year or so — is that’s something you were keen on?
Yeah. I love the illustrated covers. I really enjoyed The Hating Game by Sally Thorne and the reason I bought it in the first place was because I saw the cute little cartoon cover and was like, “Oh this reminds me of back in the day when everything was very chick lit and you could read all these fun books with bubbly heroines.” It took me back, but it was even better because it was pure romance. I was very on board with them. [People are] being stealth tricked into reading romance and they read it and they’re like, “Whoa, this is actually good.” And I’m like, “Yeah, duh. You’re one of us now.”
You’ve said before that you see writing romance as an act of resistance and something you did because you were inspired by your grandmother. Could you elaborate on that and why you feel that way?
Romance is obviously a genre that relies on happy endings. Who does and doesn’t deserve a happy ending and what they have to do to get there is a very controversial topic in our society. Inherently we see people as either better than or less than people. or more deserving or less deserving of happiness. Who you choose to star in your romance novels and the happy ending that you give them and the love that you show them being worthy of can be very political. Especially because I write about black women. Black women are often dehumanized and shown as unworthy of love, unworthy of care and delicacy – we’re presented as the ones who care for everyone else, so I do think it’s very political and an act of resistance to center black women and femininity in romance novels. It’s the same way in any form of representation that I choose, like the fact that Chloe is chronically ill, and she gets a happy ending. That’s not really something we’re told that we deserve. [We’re worry] we’ll be a burden on a relationship or people aren’t going to understand it, so showing that’s not true and giving Chloe a happy ending is inherently political.