In my household we often watch Say Yes to the Dress as background noise when writing or messing about on the Internet. This seems obvious. Romance writers, of course, we watch Say Yes to the Dress. Retrograde genre and retrograde show, right? Wrong.
The fact is, amid some sweet stories and fashion worth talking about, Say Yes to the Dress freaks me out. Badly. Because my childhood — which I often liken to Pride & Prejudice with different dresses — means I come from a world where women were raised to disappear. Not because of any sort of religious belief that constrains so many women in conservative American life, but because of New York Society’s fantasy of itself. Women are trained to be accomplished so they can be chosen by extremely wealthy, successful, and likely older men to live a life of luxury, formidable charity work, and carrying on the family name. Baby bonuses were a thing in the world I grew up in, and it’s confusing, constantly, to be the assertive queer product of a single-sex education which is supposed to produce anything but me. And yet here we are!
All of this has often made writing romance very strange. My sense of women’s lives is deeply polarized, made up of the world I rejected and the life I have. Most women in America aren’t living either of these lives. Erin certainly isn’t.
In fact, my and Erin’s backgrounds are so wildly different, we often have to ask each other really odd things as we work on a manuscript. What does a wedding feel like if not the prize you get for being a good girl? Why don’t couples sit together at a formal table seating? Why do you keep describing the bathrooms like this; is that important if you live in a house? What do you mean, you’ve always felt like a person, don’t you know you’re not? Of course you’re a person, how is this a question, I don’t understand?
Really. Every one of those. My upbringing was really wacky. Sometimes my day-job intersects with it, and Erin’s gotten emails from me on work trips because I’ve been in a panic due to being the only woman in a room who was neither the wife of an important man or a princess of the blood. I should have been, you know. The first one at least.
When we first started writing together, Erin and I didn’t spend a lot of energy on why were were writing stories about men. We were because we wanted to, because they were what we knew how to write, because my introduction to my queerness was all though men and felt like home. These were simply the stories we had and needed to tell.
But we kept writing women at their margins — brash, constrained, exhausted, furious, free. And we kept loving them, even as we sometimes got emails from readers letting us know they preferred their romances about men not to contain women.
And slowly but surely, I started to get a sense of what the admonition “you can do and be anything when you grow up” would mean to someone for whom it wasn’t hinged on the wealth, support, and access a man of a certain sort could provide. Equally slowly but surely, Erin began see the way my childhood did not represent a world from which she was exempt — people say things to women all the time about who and what and how we’re supposed to be. The suggestion is, generally, that we’re supposed to disappear, ensure that the women around us also disappear, and feel like we’re virtuous through the pains of these vanishing acts. Yikes!
All of this feeling — both good and bad — has both created and come out of the books we’ll be releasing in this year. Still queer, still peculiar, but now about the lives and burdens of men trying their not-always-good-enough best and women who have learned to use their constraint like a knife until they get the HEA they want and deserve, regardless of the social consequences. We feel pretty great about this somewhat accidental timing and the way it syncs with an American political landscape that seems to want to make my toxic childhood an idealized norm.
Romance is a feminist genre because it’s women writing what women want to read. But this year our romances are also about feminism — in the home (The Art of Three), on the political stage (A Queen from the North), and in the workplace (our yet to be titled Ys book).
In The Art of Three, our heroine Nerea has a famous husband, nosy neighbors, and a blossoming career as a painter. But too much of her life is often consumed by lovely men who need to be reminded that people can’t belong to other people and that women should not be forced to be primary parents… or parents at all.
In A Queen from the North, our heroine Amelia was raised to make a good marriage to a scion of a reasonable family. When she winds up engaged to the Prince of Wales she faces political backlash and sexist advice, she and her future husband conspire to use the brutality of women’s lives to change the political balance in a not-so-United-Kingdom forever.
In the united Ys book, our heroine Elizabeth evades a New England political marriage and wifely duty to have an affair with her much older boss. He suspects he knows her from a previous life when her choice not to do her duty caused cities to drown. Elizabeth suspects he’s crazy, but the one thing she’s sure of is that he’s got the story of their past all wrong.
Two of these books (The Art of Three and the Ys book) have bisexual heroes. A Queen from the North features a genderqueer teenager who serves as the prince’s court witch (and who will get her own book later). All three books additionally have supporting queer characters. And demisexuality is a big thing in the Ys book.
But, overwhelmingly, other than the innate queerness of us and our stories, the thing that unifies these three books is the belief that every act of control women face makes us stronger and that we each have access to magic even in non-magical contexts. Magic, after all, is just naming a thing and making it so.
Romance novels are feminist. Not just because they make women happy, although that’s enough. But because they are secret spells, carried out in coded language right in the open. While many might dismiss them as the frivolity of our kind, romance novels remind women to know they deserve love, recognize that they are people, ask for and receive what the want, and change their worlds — through far more than endurance.