Amalie Howard debuts new cover and addresses 'doing the work' to write inclusive historical romance
Amalie Howard cannot get enough of '90s rom-coms.
Pretty Woman, 10 Things I Hate About You — you name it, she probably loves it. So when it came time to write her latest historical romance, she decided it might be fun to mash up the tropes and themes of the movies she adores with the world of Regency London.
The result is Always Be My Duchess, which hits shelves July 12 and will kick off a new series. The novel follows Lord Lysander Blackstone, the Duke of Montcroix, whose sole interest seems to be increasing his already sizable fortune after a series of betrayals have left him determined to stamp out any vulnerability.
Talented ballerina Miss Geneviève Valery is out of work after refusing to become a patron's mistress. But when she accidentally saves Lysander's life, he makes her an unexpected proposition: If she'll act as his fake fiancée, he'll give her enough money to start over. But of course, things get complicated when real feelings start to emerge.
Below, EW can exclusively reveal the cover for Always Be My Duchess (don't miss the nod to Pretty Woman's iconic red dress). We also called up to Howard to get the details on what inspired this story, her own love of dance, and how a controversy she found herself in last year has changed her writing.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where did you first get the idea for Always Be My Duchess?
AMALIE HOWARD: The idea for this series came out of this complete love of everything '90s rom-com movies. I'm a huge movie buff, and I was telling my agent one day and they were like, "Oh my God, wouldn't it be great if we had a historical romance series set with a retelling of these movies?" And that's how the original idea came about. For Always Be My Duchess, it's pretty much Jane Austen meets Pretty Woman. You have the iconic red dress, you've got like the woman down on her luck. There's no sex work in this book, but it does deal with female agency and the right of a woman to decide how she wants to use her body or the talents at her disposal to get what she wants out of life.
Some of your previous stories have been retellings or riffs on fairy tales, and this was described to me as Pretty Woman meets Center Stage. How much was Pretty Woman a direct inspiration? Were you rewatching it and then picking and choosing things that you definitely wanted to put your own spin on?
Absolutely. When you watch movies, there's certain things that appeal to you, whether it's thematic or something that just gives you a feeling. That's what I wanted to convey — the feeling of this woman who is so down on life, her luck. She's come from money but she doesn't have it anymore. And she has to make ends meet to look after her sister. She's a ballerina, so there's the tie-in to Center Stage, which I love because I did ballet for like nine years. I was never prima-ballerina-level, but it was a long time and I really enjoyed it. I wanted to put those elements together.
You've traditionally had photographic clinch covers, so this marks your first illustrated cover. What has that transition been like for you?
I love illustrated covers. They're clever and they're quirky. I like the fact that on this particular cover, there's the iconic red dress. Her face has this really cheeky expression, which I think really talks to the underlying agency of this whole book. She's like, "Yep, I'm going to get what I want, even if life throws curveballs at me." And then you have this duke who has this look on his face, and he's like, "I don't know what's happening — I'm being caught up in this tempest, whirlwind of a woman, and I wouldn't change a second of it." love the fact that it's illustrated just because I've never had one before. I know that in romance people are like, "Oh, I'm so sick of illustrated covers." I'm not. It's really cute.
Given what a hot topic illustrated covers are in romance, were there things you definitely wanted, or things you wanted to avoid?
Kudos to the Forever design team. I gave them ideas, because I think it's always good to be open about what your expectations are. Once you're clear on what you're looking for, there's nothing lost in translation. But for this one I basically said, "I'm hoping for a red dress." Just because that's iconic for Pretty Woman. Maybe some ballet shoes, which they didn't put in and I thought it would have made it too busy anyway. But the whole feel of it just works. The color scheme works. I love the font. It's really flirty, which is the direction we're going for.
Neve is a French ballerina, and you studied in France. How much did that inspire or influence your version of her character?
A lot. French Creole is in my ancestry. My mom's a French teacher. She's retired, but we spoke in French since I was really little. I went to school in France at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, which was really an exciting time for me. I lived in Paris. I try to go every couple years to revisit the places that I love, where I went to school, where I used to hang out. So I think it did translate quite a bit into just being a Francophile. I hope that comes through, because it is part of her, even though she's half-English. Her father's a viscount and her mother was a French opera dancer. So I hope it does come through, just that knowledge, because it brings something extra to the page when you have actual lived experience to contribute to a story.
You mentioned you studied ballet. Is dance a great passion of yours?
I love dance. I wish I was better. Every girl has this dream of being like a master. I was not a master. I was decent. It hurt. My body type wasn't perfect for a ballerina. The body image piece is a huge part of dance life. But it's better to be healthy than to be a certain way or certain shape or fit into this mold of what you [think you] should be. I loved it. I love the idea of it. I've seen almost every ballet movie, dance movie that there is to be seen. It's beautiful. With Neve's character, I hope that I brought that not just the nice things about it, being on the stage and dancing, but also the bad parts, like messed-up toes and feeling out of your body or feeling like you can't get a sequence of steps. Dance is a huge metaphor for this story.
Last year, with the book that became The Princess Stakes, you came under fire from a blogger/reviewer for the book's depiction of colonialism and slavery. You since revised the book and released it at a postponed date. How did that experience change or impact your writing?
You touched on a really important word there, and that's "impact." As creatives, we have to be super-conscious of intent versus impact. The world is a very broad, very diverse place, with many different cultures, traditions, and worldviews. I'm still learning what it's like to live in my own brown skin in groups of people that aren't like me. A little bit on my background: I grew up in an ex-sugar colonial island. We actually only obtained our independence from Britain in 1962. So that wasn't really that long ago. The races there were majority races, so I wasn't part of a marginalized racial group. The way that I grew up was very different. Until I came to the United States to go to college, that was only when I became aware of a very different racial dynamic of Black and white culture.
In the book, the criticism that I received was I used the word "plantation," which, yes, it's a very harmful word given the trauma of the past. As a BIPOC person, I never want to cause harm to other BIPOc people. So my publisher delayed the release so that I could do the work, because that's the point of it, right? If something is harmful or problematic, it's important to listen and to do the work.
In terms of shaping my writing, I'm just very careful about words and word use or word choice because just because I grew up somewhere that was different, and have a completely different worldview of something, doesn't mean that it might not impact someone else. In terms of my own identity, it was a hard time because I felt like I just wasn't seen. Obviously Twitter's not a place where there's a lot of nuance. I couldn't say, "Hey, I'm sorry. This is where I was coming from." I don't want to cause harm to my readers. I love my readers. But at the same time, how much do you want to sanitize history? Here's an example, with my heroine, some criticism came up about her and colorism. She's biracial, and she's based on a real-life Sikh princess who existed in Queen Victoria's court. She was her goddaughter. And she faced huge amounts of racism in the court. I wanted to showcase that, because even if you're a different marginalized group or if you're a different skin color or you're not able-bodied or you're just not mainstream, then you still deserve love. I'm in an interracial marriage myself. A lot of that I put on the page from my own lived experience because I'm biracial as well. But everyone's going to read through their own lens. The most important thing is if you're something you've done or created or written causes harm, then it's your responsibility to listen and to do the work. I think that's what I did with my publisher. I hope I did the work.
Because it was such a personal story for you, did the criticism feel particularly invalidating or challenging?
Asolutely. I was afraid to say, "This is my lived experience. This is who I am. Should I not be this person in my brown skin? Am I brown enough? Am I Indian enough for you?" I'm of Indian, Middle Eastern, and French Creole descent. That's how the Caribbean is. We're just a huge melting pot of different races because of colonialism. Abolition happened 30 years before it did in the United States, so we had a lot more mixing of races. We had people who were ex-slaves and ex-indentured laborers trying to build lives out of the ashes of the past, which we did. Look at something called Carnival, which comes from a French [word that] means the burning of the sugarcane. It's a symbol of slavery and the atrocities that happened and colonialism and oppression. But the people who lived there took that and made it something to celebrate, made it something triumphant for them. I grew up with that mentality. It's hard because there's not a lot of other Caribbean authors. I know like three. If you have people who are looking at me saying, "You're desi," and I'm like, "Well, I'm not desi. I don't know what that means." I'm of Indian descent, but I grew up in the Caribbean, which is completely different to being an Indian in England or in India or in the U.S.
Anything that is making romance more thoughtful and inclusive is a good thing, but do you feel there is even more pressure, maybe even an unfair amount, on authors of color to get it right?
I 100 percent agree that there's a lot of pressure on BIPOC as well as marginalized communities to defend our history, our credentials, and legitimacy when we put ourselves on the page. People question whether we're brave enough to do it, whether we're good enough to do it, and that's hard. That's a hard battle to fight. But I think the more stories that are published, the more different views of the world and different cultures and different traditions that we get to see, the better it'll be for everyone. I do kind feel there's a little bit of a double standard. Especially with social media, there's little room for nuance or thoughtful discussion. But what's going to shift the tide is the publication of more stories, more voices. I can only write from my own lived experience as a Caribbean-born West Indian woman.
What do you love about writing historical romance, whether it's in spite of or maybe even because of those challenges?
The thing that I love about writing historical romance is being able to write for readers who are reading through a modern lens. You want to bridge that gap between the two a little bit to make it more accessible. I love writing in the time period of history, the Regency period or the Victorian period, to show that women, even though feminism is an anachronistic term, did have agency. They did have smarts. They did have skills. They did say nope to the patriarchy, and they were like, "We're going to get what we want, within the rules that we live in." Being able to show on the page how you can beat adversity or take control of your life and get what you want, that's a powerful message, especially for modern readers reading historical stories about intrepid women.
What are three words to describe Always Be My Duchess?
Frothy, romantic, and… impulsive.