Plus: The RITA award winner debuts two book covers.

By Maureen Lee Lenker
October 03, 2019 at 10:00 AM EDT
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Kennedy Ryan

Kennedy Ryan is an inspiration to a lot of people.

As the first black author to win a coveted RITA Award from Romance Writers of America, Ryan has achieved a dream generations of women didn’t know they’d ever see come to pass. Yet for her, the victory is bittersweet.

As she tells EW, “It is bittersweet because I know there are talented women who have written worthy stories in [RWA’s] 37-year history. When they announced my name, it really was so shocking for me — the way the room exploded. All of these black authors poured into the aisle as I was going up on stage. They had tears streaming down their face. It was a sense of we did it. It was so much bigger than my book, and so much bigger than me. I felt the weight of it.”

(Though Ryan won her award first that night, she broke the barrier alongside author M. Malone, who won for Romance Novella.)

While Ryan is out here kicking down doors in the romance industry, she also has plenty of inspirations of her own. In publishing, she cites women like Beverly Jenkins and Sandra Kitt, authors who have been turning out romantic hits since the 1980s and ’90s. She’s not shy about declaring that she stands on the shoulders of giants. And then there are the women in other media who are directly inspiring her work and her storytelling — namely Shonda Rhimes and Ava DuVernay.

“Shonda Rhimes, there are aspects of my career I have modeled after her,” Ryan says. “Her and Ava DuVernay are two storytellers who are giants to me. To see a black storyteller who is given the agency and the space to create stories that everyone can relate to and become immensely popular, it was inspiring to me and became a blueprint for how I approached a lot of what I do. Writing diversely, but also writing widely — I saw that in Shonda Rhimes.”

So much so that Ryan’s next releases, the All the King’s Men duet, which EW can exclusively reveal the covers for below, were inspired by Rhimes’ hit series Scandal. The first novel, The Kingmaker (Oct. 28), begins an epic love story between political activist Lennix Hunter and power player Maxim Cade, and the story concludes in The Rebel King (Nov. 18).

Ahead of the books’ fall debuts, EW called up Ryan to discuss her RITA win, what fuels her heavier plotlines, and why interviewing is a crucial part of her writing process. Check out her striking covers and read more below.

Kennedy Ryan
Kennedy Ryan

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It’s been a few months since your historic RITA win. Has your perspective changed at all now that you’ve had some time to marinate in the victory?
KENNEDY RYAN: When I write, I write on a mission. There is something very specific that’s propelling me to tell a story, and a theme that goes through most of my work is that I am all about centering marginalized people. All of these people who have been at the edges of traditional and mainstream romance, I write to put them at the center. What did shift for me was understanding the importance of that, and the breadth of it. Authors who have been in the game for 20, 25 years coming up to me and saying thank you — if you’re not humbled by that, there’s something wrong with you. One of them came to me and said, “I didn’t want to die before I see a black president, and I didn’t want to die before I see a black woman win the RITA, and you gave that to me tonight.” It’s just humbling. You want to continue to do that great work. You want to be representative. But also, I want to be very clear with people that I don’t feel I am exceptional. It’s a cop-out to say, “This book won because it’s so exceptional.” What I want people to hear is we had so many exceptional books written by black women before that never got in this space because of systemic bias.

What is the All the King’s Men duet about?
It centers on a Yavapai Apache woman, a Native American woman from an Apache tribe based in western Arizona. She’s the heroine. [The hero is] a green-energy mogul whose father owns an oil company. Early on in the book, there’s a pipeline protest. There’s a cultural immediacy to a lot of my work, and usually it’s because I see something and feel like we should be talking about it more. I was watching everything that was going on with the DAPL protest — I saw that a lot of the water protectors are teenagers. The Native American youth really are on the front line of protests. They articulate that it’s a sacred connection — that protest is a way to connect in a sacred way to generations from before and to some of the traditions that have been lost. Where they first meet is at a pipeline protest, where she is one of these water protectors who’s on the front line of protesting the natural gas pipeline that his father’s company is laying on sacred burial ground. That’s how the book starts; it’s across many years.

You said Scandal was an inspiration to you. How did it influence this story?
As soon as people hear politics, they assume it’s going to be divisive. I’m like, “Think Scandal,” you know? We all want that. [The heroine and her best friend] start a political consulting firm that focuses specifically on putting in power candidates who will champion the cause of marginalized people. They’re like the gladiators [of this world].

Given that political aspect, how much of the story is inspired by current events? Will we see much reference to today’s politics in the narrative?
There is a fine line I walk between being a clarion voice in what feels like a very muddy landscape because a lot of times what we do is politicize things that are actually issues of humanity. It’s a cop-out to see something you know is a moral offense and because it has become polemicized, you feel the liberty to [label it]. When I wrote this book, I didn’t set out to be controversial. I don’t want people to read any of the early things about this book and think, “Well, I’m a Republican so this book isn’t for me,” because that’s not it at all. There are some things that are issues of humanity and issues of injustice.

[The heroine] is very true to her traditions and her culture. She speaks frankly on the kleptocratic history of this nation. People generally know we did Native Americans wrong. They will hear a heroine who is very comfortable and conversant in actual history and articulates that. For some people, that feels confrontational. It shouldn’t. It’s just true. I wouldn’t say that it’s this highly political book; it is a book that does not back down from what actually happened. It’s very much about truth. Guilt, especially in the context of where we are as a nation, is useless. I want us all to feel responsible for the future, and we can’t really be good stewards of the future if we don’t know and recognize what’s happened in the past. I honestly was terrified to write this book.

What is your research process like, particularly for a heroine with this highly specific cultural background?
I interviewed 10 Native American women over the course of four months. No writing, only research. Only personal accounts. The same as any other cultural group, Native Americans are not monolithic. At least a third of those I was interviewing were from the particular tribe I selected for my heroine. I hired sensitivity readers from that cultural background to beta-read both books for me. That’s the process I have gone through to be respectful and responsible. It’s not that I don’t think people should write beyond their experience. But if you don’t deep-dive consult with someone who has lived that experience, it’s the height of arrogance. It’s irresponsible, and it’s probably going to be harmful. People talk about sensitivity reading and they confine it to race. I was listening to a podcast with Alyssa Cole, and she called it accuracy reading. It is sensitivity reading, for sure, but it’s also accuracy reading because you want to portray this in a way that is as true to real life experience as possible and that’s respectful.

It seems like your background as a journalist is essential to your writing process.
People always ask me, “Why do you interview?” My background is journalism. That’s my default, is to not assume I know the story. I feel like I have to go get the story, if that makes sense. Every time I sit down, I think, “What don’t I know about this person? Where will I find that information?” For me, [making underrepresented people the heroes and heroines] is always the win. Whether it’s a black woman, a Hispanic woman, an other-abled woman — for someone to say, “I feel seen. When I read your stories, I see myself when I don’t in a lot of other stories.”

Your RITA-winning book, Long Shot, tackled domestic abuse. Can we expect that same level of heaviness in this duet? And if so, why is that intense subject matter something you keep coming back to?
I don’t think it’s the same level of pain as Long Shot. That book it its own brand of raw. But there’s an emotional arc — if anybody ever tells you Kennedy Ryan wrote a rom-com, you know they’re lying. [People accuse me of writing women’s fiction.] I write stories that center powerful women, and they get a happily-ever-after. Whatever you want to call centering powerful women who end up happy, that’s what I write. It’s always going to have a happily-ever-after. I guarantee you that, but I don’t say it’s going to be easy.

What I enjoy is the hard-won happily-ever-after. I like to see love under pressure. As humans, we shine brightest under pressure. That’s how my own love story has gone — when we were in the darkest times, we clung to each other. We learned so much about each other. We loved each other most deeply when we were in pain. I just feel like true love and true happiness is something we should fight for — I don’t take it for granted. [But I also don’t want] the message of my book to be this woman would not be happy if she had not found this man. That’s why sometimes you’ll have these gaps. This one has one too. Readers are going to say, “Why was she apart from him?” Because she’s building her career. She’s living her life. She’s figuring out who she is. She’s finding out how to be happy with herself, and then, when she is ready, she engages in that relationship. She’s mentally happy. She’s emotionally whole. There’s an integrity to who she is as a person. Sometimes we don’t see that as much in romance, and it’s what I want to perpetuate.

These covers are very striking. What inspired the crisp, clean look?
The word that came to me is power. I really play with what power really is in the book and how it’s abused and all that. [I was aiming for] a rumpled elegance. Those are buzzwords that my designer and I [locked onto]. We have a whole Pinterest board. You know really powerful, elegant people at a party? What I wanted was to see them when they come home from the party with their cufflinks off. That is a visual representation of their authenticity, their own vulnerability. What I wanted is the space between a public persona and who you really are. Seeing people who are really well put together in public behind the scenes. It’s power in repose.

There’s an ongoing discussion about illustrated covers and the challenges of finding diverse cover models or stock images. Is this something you have come up against?
It was very important to me that my cover reflects diversity. It’s an Anglo-centric concept of beauty. If they see a black person on a cover, they assume the story is not for them. It’s the same mistaken philosophy that someone won’t be able to relate to something because a black person wrote it, and they’re not black. Which is ridiculous. I’ve grown up my whole entire life reading magazines that feature white people and watching shows that feature white people, and I never thought, “Well I can’t relate to this because I’m not white.” Being an author of color in a mainstream publishing landscape can be exhausting. There are things we have to negotiate and consider that nobody else would think twice about. I am willing to swim upstream. But it can be exhausting. It does feel hard sometimes, but it’s worth it. I’m not going to stop trying.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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