I loved Alyssa Cole’s upcoming contemporary m/f romance release A Duke by Default, which comes out July 31! I am thrilled to share this interview with her where we discuss this wonderful book, which gave me so many feels.
A Bit About Alyssa
Alyssa Cole is an award-winning author of historical, contemporary, and SFF romance. Her Civil War-set espionage romance AN EXTRAORDINARY UNION was chosen as the RT Reviewers’ Choice Award’s Best Book of 2017 and the American Library Association’s RUSA Best Romance for 2018. She’s contributed to publications including Bustle, Shondaland, The Toast, Vulture, RT Book Reviews, and Heroes and Heartbreakers, and her books have received critical acclaim from The New York Times, Library Journal, BuzzFeed, Kirkus, Booklist, Jezebel, Vulture, Book Riot, Entertainment Weekly, and various other outlets. When she’s not working, she can usually be found watching anime with her husband or wrangling their menagerie of animals.
An Interview with Alyssa
What authors or books have you been reading lately that you would highly recommend?
I’ve been so swamped over the last few months that making time to read has been pretty difficult! I have managed to squeeze some books in though! Rebecca Roanhorse’s urban fantasy Trail of Lightning is incredible. I loved Farrah Rochon’s marriage-in-danger/rekindling-the-flame romance Cherish Me, and Mina V. Esguerra’s latest contemp, What Kind of Day.
If you have one, tell me about a book crush, book squish, or book friend?
My book crush is Cecilia Grant’s A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong. It is pretty much a perfect book, and should be read all year round.
What sparked A Duke by Default for you? What made you want to write this particular story?
Well, it first started a few years back when I saw an article about a modern Scottish swordsmith looking for an apprentice! I thought that set up could make for such a fun romance. And when I started working on this series, it was the perfect story for Portia’s character, who needed a setting outside of her everyday life to help her start seeing her own worth.
Tavish starts out grumpy to the point of being rather mean, in ways that hurt Portia and poke her soft spots. On the surface, he is kind of a jerk, but he turns out to have all this depth and complexity that continually unfold for the reader as the story evolves. How do you build this kind of characterization?
Well, like lots of readers, I love a grumpy hero (and a grumpy heroine too), but with Tav I wanted to examine what exactly is lovable about someone being kind of a jerk all the time, lol. I wanted him to be gruff and grumpy, for reasons that hopefully make sense as the book progresses, but also to realize when he’d overstepped and to be aware that his actions had repercussions.
It was a bit difficult to write sometimes because one aspect of Portia’s personality is that she is hypersensitive to criticism, even though she is super self-critical, but as it progressed I saw that Tav’s jerkiness actually allowed him be Portia’s champion, before she could be her own. He’s blunt enough to say, “Hey, knock it off,” when she’s getting down on herself.
I know a lot of people use self-deprecation as a shield, myself included, but when people do that around me now, I really try to point out “I know you are joking but also I’m going to point out that whatever self-deprecating thing you said isn’t actually true.” I’m probably kind of annoying, because I am annoyed when people do the same to me! But we need to be kind to ourselves, and sometimes we need a reminder of that. Tav is Portia’s gruff and handsome reminder, lol.
I really appreciated the self-acceptance arc around ADHD in the story; it felt very real, gave me so many feels, and resonated for me as a fellow self-diagnosed in adulthood neuroatypical person. (I’m autistic.) Can you talk a bit about writing that aspect of the story?
So, yeah. this part is a bit more personal. One of my best friends, Bree Bridges (half of writing duo Kit Rocha), started watching these HowToADHD videos on a youtube channel (similar to the one Portia’s sister sends her). She started talking about them and how they were helping her understand her ADHD better. Bree and I…share a similar wavelength, I guess is a good way of putting it. So when these videos were helping her, a lot of the things she mentioned were things that I realized I needed help with, too. And I came to realize that well, hm, maybe I do have ADHD. And even if I don’t, I sure do have many similar characteristics, so why not utilize these resources. I actually just got my self-diagnosis confirmed by my new therapist—today! after discussing it for a while!—and it’s a really emotional thing. I’d already kind of worked this out on the page, via Portia, but the realization that you aren’t fundamentally fucked up is really huge. That your brain works differently, and there are reasons behind this, and some things you can change with work and some things you can’t, but that there is nothing WRONG with you? That’s a lot to take in! And I wish I had known earlier. I wish I hadn’t spent a lot of my life feeling like I did everything wrong. But I, and a lot of people who feel similarly, overlook all of the good stuff we’re doing to focus on our faults. And I’m glad I know now and can stop focusing on the faults as much. And I hope that maybe other people who have felt similarly might pick this book up, and feel a connection to Portia, and know that they can stop focusing on their faults, too.
I adored the way the shifts in Tavish and Portia’s relationship were mirrored in the titles Portia got. It was a lovely way to talk about how they were navigating so many different roles and the ways they tried to draw clean lines but boundaries kept being messy. I really appreciated the way the story held that messiness and engaged with it. What motivated you to make that such a central part of the romance arc?
Haha, that was something that just kind of happened naturally as the story progressed. Two people who aren’t super keen on talking about their feelings just grasping for terms they are familiar with that, alone, have no emotional significance, but for them come to mean something else entirely.
Consent is complex in this story, especially given the boss/apprentice relationship, and I appreciated how the story held that complex reality. Can you tell me more about consent in your writing, and how you navigate the complexities of it?
Sure! I’m generally always thinking about consent in my writing, especially given some of the historicals I write. With this modern boss/apprentice relationship, I wanted to make it very clear that everything happening was consensual, but still also kind of messed up and something that could end very badly. I always try to weigh the power dynamics in any given couple I’m writing (and platonic relationships as well!), and to balance as best I can, and to understand that even accounting for my balancing, generally one of them will hold more societal power. And they have to acknowledge this on some level for the relationship to work for me, and for me to have a strong foundation to build their future on.
I loved the way the story engaged with anti-immigrant bigotry. Can you talk a bit about writing this aspect of the story, and why you decided to include it?
So when I sold this series, I thought it would be my escape from the heavier politics of the Loyal League, but all books are political really, and when writing about people with power over the lives of others I think you need to be real clear about where they stand. A Princess in Theory touches a bit on how an anti-science government affects things, and also what good governance could look like (as modeled by Thesolo). I was speaking with someone, I think Jaime Greene for Vulture, and we discussed how that was part of the aspirational fantasy too, given current circumstances—a leader who cared about the well-being of his people.
As I was writing this book set in Scotland, I was thinking about Brexit, and the influx of displaced people in Europe, and of course this mirrors the current immigration crisis in the US. Tavish is biracial, and he comes from a family with several cultural heritages, including his mom being a Chilean refugee. In a way he represents so many modern people, who are citizens of one country, but whose future was made possible because their parents moved—sometimes not by choice—to make a better life for them.
My paternal grandparents emigrated from the West Indies to England (part of the Windrush generation who have been in the news recently for having their rights denied and citizenship revoked) and then to America, then eventually made the reverse voyage. I’m the child of an immigrant, though my dad was born in what some people see as a “desirable” country, as most people emigrating to the US from the UK are white. I am also an immigrant, living outside of the US (though I get to call myself an “expat” because white people from the US and UK decided they didn’t like the word immigrant, I guess). And growing up in the Bronx and Jersey City, a good portion of my friends were the children of immigrants.
I’ve just been thinking a lot about the lack of empathy and humanity when it comes to discussing people fleeing war and disaster, or even just in search of a better life, and with Tavish I was thinking about how it would feel to be given the power to do something about that.
What’s next on the horizon for you, and for this series?
Next up after this I have a short SFF romance in the Best Women’s Erotica of the Year, Volume 4 anthology, out in November. A surprise secret project that I am SUPER EXCITED about but can’t mention yet (maybe I will be able to by the time this goes live) will also be out in November. In February 2019, the third Loyal League book, An Unconditional Freedom, will be released, and the third Reluctant Royals book, A Prince on Paper, will be out in April! In that book Prince Johan, who is a cinnamon roll, and Nya, who is a sweet tart, get into classic romantic comedy hijinks with a twist, including a fake engagement. I’ve really enjoyed writing those two, who are dealing with heavy family issues but just so adorable together.
More About A Duke by Default
Award-winning author Alyssa Cole’s Reluctant Royals series continues with a woman on a quest to be the heroine of her own story and the duke in shining armor she rescues along the way
New York City socialite and perpetual hot mess Portia Hobbs is tired of disappointing her family, friends, and—most importantly—herself. An apprenticeship with a struggling swordmaker in Scotland is a chance to use her expertise and discover what she’s capable of. Turns out she excels at aggravating her gruff silver fox boss…when she’s not having inappropriate fantasies about his sexy Scottish burr.
Tavish McKenzie doesn’t need a rich, spoiled American telling him how to run his armory…even if she is infuriatingly good at it. Tav tries to rebuff his apprentice, and his attraction to her, but when Portia accidentally discovers that he’s the secret son of a duke, rough-around-the-edges Tav becomes her newest makeover project.
Forging metal into weapons and armor is one thing, but when desire burns out of control and the media spotlight gets too hot to bear, can a commoner turned duke and his posh apprentice find lasting love?
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