See the cover for 'Queen Move' author Kennedy Ryan's next novel, Before I Let Go

The last two years have been hard on all of us, but for romance author Kennedy Ryan, it was an opportunity to turn her broken heart into art (to borrow a phrase from Carrie Fisher).

"This will sound really weird, but as I was writing this story, it became increasingly personal," Ryan tells EW. "I was diagnosed with depression while I was writing this book, and it was a very difficult book to write because I was navigating so much of what this character navigated as far as depression was concerned."

"I had to be very aggressive about my own mental health," she continues. "I felt like I was wearing the skin of this book. I don't think that I was diagnosed with depression because I was writing this book, but I do think, and it happens to me often, that what is happening in my life intersects with fiction in a way that I hope enriches the story and makes it more personal. I feel like maybe more than any book I've ever written that is the case with Before I Let Go."

But Before I Let Go, which hits shelves Nov. 15, isn't a memoir or literary fiction, it's a romance novel. Which mean there's plenty of joy to be found in its pages as well, and of course, a happy ending.

The novel follows divorced couple Yasmen and Josiah Wade, who saw their love and their marriage implode under the weight of one blow after another in their family lives. Yasmen wasn't ready for the myriad of ways in which her life fell apart, but now she's finding joy again and enjoying her new rhythm with Josiah, as they co-parent and run a business together.

But were they ever really ready to let go of all that they had? A stolen kiss leads to more, and suddenly, they find themselves facing the wounds that never really healed. But could they be even better together the second time around?

EW has your exclusive first look at the book's cover, which also marks Ryan's return to traditional publishing after years of immense success in the indie and self-publishing corners of the romance world.

We also called up Ryan to talk this transition period, why she loves second chance romance so much, her propensity for angst, and why she's the pickiest person in the world when it comes to her covers. Read more after the first look.

Before I Let Go
Credit: Grand Central Publishing

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You've seen such success in the indie and self-publishing worlds. Why turn to traditional publishing now?

KENNEDY RYAN: A lot of people have been asking me that, which is so funny because I started out traditionally publishing. They're actually through Forever, who's publishing Before I Let Go. I had a four part series, which was my debut series, and it was traditionally published. Then I started indie publishing after that. So it's really a return to traditional publishing. I just got excited about the possibility of reaching new buckets of readers. I have done indie publishing, of course, and then Queen Move I did a few years ago through a small press, which was dipping the toe into partnership with someone beyond myself. I was really, really pleased with the reception that Queen Move received, and the new pool of readers that I reached. I got excited about reaching a new group of readers that I might not reach on my own.

Tell us more about this book and what inspired it.

It's actually the first book I ever wrote. Even before my debut novel that I published with Forever. It was just languishing under my virtual bed. My husband actually asked me, "Did you ever do anything with that book you wrote about that divorced couple?" I had not thought about it. And as I revisited it, I just was like, I love these characters. This is a messy story. And I wrote it when I really didn't know what the conventions of romance were. It's a woman and her family, a divorced couple, not a marriage in crisis. Divorce. They've been divorced for a few years, and they have two children.

It takes place in Atlanta and Atlanta is a really special city to me. It's where I've spent most of my adult life. lived there for over 20 years. The series is called Skylands. It's a fictional "in town" community, similar to the one that I lived in when I lived in Atlanta. When you live in the city of Atlanta, there's downtown Atlanta, and there's this group of communities that surround it that are still considered the city of Atlanta. It's so charming yet cosmopolitan and very diverse and very progressive. It's almost my take on small towns, but it's not a small town. It's "in town." It's all the things I love about small town — a tight-knit knit community, where everybody knows each other. It is that sense of community, but it's a city setting. So, it's an in-town romance.

And what are some of the themes you'll be exploring?

It is a family that has experienced back-to-back catastrophic losses. A lot of people think, "Oh, Kennedy writes sad books." I don't think that I write sad books. I write real life books. And real life is not always easy. But the thing that I love is that I'm in control here. In real life, things don't always turn out right, but in my stories they do. It can be a hectic path to that, but you're going to end up in a good place. The thing that was really important to me with this book was that we're not meeting this family when they are in the throes of like grief. We are meeting this family when they're recovering. Yasmen has complicated grief, [which] is when it goes beyond a year or so. But we meet Yasmen when she's coming out of that season of her life and she's finding joy again. She has been very aggressive about taking her life back. There's a lot in this book about mental health.

Your work often tells the story of a second-chance romance. What appeals to you about that narrative of coming back together after a long time apart?

A lot of times with the reader, and I get it because as a reader I feel it too, you just want them together. All I want is for them to be together. But when I'm in the chair and I'm writing, there's more that I want for them than just to be together. There's something I want for them as individuals too. A lot of times when I'm writing these stories, I create scenarios where these people have these amazing connections, but they are in some way unformed. I like to see them go off in their own direction and earn a sense of wholeness and personal integrity, and a sense of their own selves and independence before they come back together. When they come back together, they're coming back together with their own wholeness. It's not like, "I'm finding my other half." It's like, "I'm whole and this person has gone off and become whole and become the best version of themselves they can be at this stage of their lives." They pursue their dreams and their own ambitions; they've figured out a lot about themselves. I love to see women who are contained. Not like they don't meet anyone, but in a sense of — I have forged my own path and I figured out what I want in my life and I know what my dreams are my goals and it's not wrapped up in a man. It's not determined by a man. I have figured this path out for myself. When I find a partner, we decide that we're going to walk this together, but he still has his dreams. I still have my dreams. I have my own ambitions. I have my own sense of self. I like to see women established in that and then when they find a relationship, that's amazing, but it didn't complete me.

You are also the queen of angst. Why does that heaviness and that tormenting of your characters appeal to you?

Healing is a big theme for me — bouncing back and triumph in the face of adversity. Maybe some of it is because of how my own personal life has played out and how my own relationship has played out. Sometimes I feel like love shines brightest when it's tried. For a long time my own life felt like a crucible, and my own family has experienced a lot of difficulty. My husband and I have had to love one another and support one another through adversity. The pure things are the pure things. The real things are what remain and everything else burns away. My experience in love and in marriage and in partnership is that when things are tough that's sometimes when love shines brighter, and that's when all of the artifice and the superfluous burn away, and only what's left is real. And there's some things that you only learn through difficult circumstances. That's not to say I always want to put characters through difficult circumstances, but from my experience as an adult, there's all these amazing things that you can learn by observing other people, by reading, by listening to podcasts, but there's some things that you learn about yourself only in the context of difficult circumstances or adversity. I like to see the mettle of characters. I want them to have joy, of course, but I like to see what characters are made of.

You always do extensive research. What were some rabbit holes you fell down with this one?

I'm always at a certain point like, "Ok, you've got to stop." My background is journalism and I used to do a lot of freelance writing and interviews. Interview is something that I lean really, really hard into. I interviewed about seven moms who went through something very similar to what my heroine went through. And a few couples that actually ended up divorcing in the context of what happened to this family. I did do a lot of research on grief. I came across this study on grief done by a neurologists. They postulated that when you experience catastrophic personal loss of a loved one, the brain looks like it does when there's traumatic brain injury. A lot of the same responses happen with traumatic brain injury as happen when you have this incredible catastrophic loss that sends you into a season of grief, like forgetting basic information, like where you live or addresses or people's names. There's this cloud that comes in — and certain areas of your brain start to overcompensate. It started painting parallels between grief and neuroplasticity, and how we think of grief as a negative thing. But that grief is actually a protective process that gives us space to heal and to acclimate to a world where someone who was there is not anymore. I don't think of grief as a linear process. We talk about grief at times in stages, but I don't think it's that linear. And I did lots of research with therapists. I had therapists as beta readers.

How different was the process of securing your cover from how you go about it for an indie or self-published book?

One thing I think is the same with every cover I do is that the whole team hates me by the end of it. [laughs] I'm just so particular about covers. It definitely is different because when I'm doing something as an indie author, I have complete control. That's one of the things that I most appreciate about self-publishing — is the control that it allows you and the flexibility that it allows you. Coming back into traditional publishing, it does take some getting used to, the fact that you're working with a team of people. I was very fortunate that the team at Forever and Hachette really listened to me. And I listened to them, and it was a lot of collaboration.

Within that, what was on your wishlist for this cover then?

I love the illustrated covers, but I knew that a lot of readers just wouldn't buy that from me. The team and I agree that we didn't think that an illustrated cover was necessarily on brand for me and for a lot of the topics that I deal with in a very real way. We wanted something that felt different from a lot that we've seen in romance lately. I wanted it to be very clearly a Black woman on the cover. This is a Black love story, where both love interests are Black. I wanted that to be very clear on the cover. I wanted some brightness to it. I wanted it to feel vibrant. Yasmen has been through a lot but she is in a season of joy. There is a friendship at the core of this book, which I really love creating these girl-ships. There's three women at the center of this story and they are empowering each other. They laugh a lot. There's a lot of humor in this book, which I don't think that I'm known for. There's a lot of humor and laughter and joy in the book. So, I wanted there to be elements of vibrancy that conveyed that.

If you had to choose three words, to sum up the book what would they be?

Mature. Spicy. Joy.

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