"There Are People Who Find Black People Solving Crime Unbelievable": An Interview With Alyssa Cole
Chatting with the prolific writer about gentrification, anti-Black racism, and her thriller debut, When No One Is Watching.
Alyssa Cole's forthcoming novel, When No One Is Watching, looks at gentrification and the erasure of Black history in Brooklyn. After a rough divorce, protagonist Sydney returns to the Brooklyn neighborhood she grew up in, only to find it changing rapidly. And when she decides to put together her own Brooklyn tour, she starts to suspect something more sinister than gentrification is responsible for the seeming disappearance of her Black neighbors. You can read the first chapter here.
We chatted with Cole via email about shifting genres, confronting white supremacy, and revealing injustice in publishing and beyond.
What inspired When No One Is Watching?
Alyssa Cole: When No One Is Watching is inspired by the real-life gentrification I witnessed over a lifetime in NYC and New Jersey, and also by the extensive historical research I've done over the last decade — first for personal reasons and then for my historical romances, which are set in eras ranging from the Battle of Brooklyn to the Freedom Rides. As I researched, it became apparent to me that if the arc of the moral universe does bend toward justice, that isn't its natural inclination. It's only from the hard work of people fighting against the forces of greed and white supremacy that was laid into the foundation of America. This book is an exploration of how maddening it can be to discover injustice and feel that no one will believe you — or if they do believe you, they won't care, which is the reality of Black people and most marginalized groups in America.
Have you seen your own neighborhood change?
I'm not from Brooklyn but was born in the Bronx, grew up across the river in Jersey, and then moved to Brooklyn after college and spent much of my adult life there. I've lived in multiple neighborhoods in Brooklyn — on the edges of those already gentrified and in the middle of those just beginning to feel the shift, and I've also seen the shift in the neighborhood where I grew up. Like in the book, I've seen changes like condos going up, new stores and restaurants, and shifts in the demographics in the neighborhood. Of course no one expects a neighborhood or place to stay the same, but with these changes comes a cost — for example, people who bought a home and thought they'd achieved the American dream suddenly having their property taxes jacked up.
It became apparent to me that if the arc of the moral universe does bend toward justice, that isn't its natural inclination.
How did the experience of writing a thriller differ from writing a romance?
Hm, well, my romances often have a bit of darkness about them (the "meet-cute" in at least two of my books — Be Not Afraid, a Revolutionary War romance novella, and Radio Silence, a speculative fiction romance — have taken place over a dead body), but I got to delve a little deeper into it in a thriller. And all of my romances have a bit of mystery to them, but something I've been thinking about a lot is that all romance writers are mystery writers. This is why it's hard to get anything by Romancelandia on social media. People outside of romance believe that our main genre rule — the "happily ever after" ending — is some kind of cliché that makes the books easier to write, and that couldn't be further from the truth!
At the outset of every romance, the reader knows the characters will get together at the end of the book, and yet you as the author have to truly make them (a) invested in this couple getting together and (b) completely convinced that it might not work out, while also balancing all of the emotions that come with the various kinds of relationships. Romance writers know how to lay down clues and surprise you with twists and highs and lows like nobody's business. So the main difference was, at various beats, choosing to bring anxiety and fear to the forefront instead of the good-romance-novel-tingles and romantic tension.
When No One Is Watching touches on issues that are at the forefront of current conversations around race and oppression in the US, especially against Black communities — themes like gentrification, whitewashing, capitalism. (I've seen the book described as "Rear Window meets Get Out.") Can you talk a bit about exploring these themes in your writing, especially in a genre that has been so white for so long?
Well, these are themes I've explored for most of my writing career, and in a way this book is a way of processing how, through writing romance and now thrillers, I was exposed to how deeply ingrained white supremacy is in the American imagination as well as in its institutions. There are people who find the idea of Black people in love unbelievable, of Black people solving crime unbelievable, who seem to think people from marginalized groups are nonplayer characters who just wait around for something to happen to them. And the themes explored in this book are simply reality — seeing the protests and uprisings across the country lately for issues that are raised in this book has been very surreal but not surprising. There's a line in the book where Sydney says "nothing stays buried in this city," and that's true of America, too. You can't pave over injustice and pretend everything is fine.
In many ways, it does seem like the protests since George Floyd's death have spurred a wave of cultural shifts and public reckonings — some more substantial than others. What has it been like, especially as a Black writer, to see this really sudden moment of acknowledgment, after, as you mention, a long history of America either not believing or not caring about Black Americans' experiences of racism?
Even if everyone starts helping in that moment, your ears are still ringing from your ignored screams.
It's disorienting for sure, and a bit overwhelming — the idea that there was, like, a death and trauma tipping point to make people realize you exist. While it's heartening to see that people are becoming aware of your surroundings it's kind of like...someone stepping on your foot during an interminable subway commute and not noticing as you shout and try to pull your foot away; then, when the pain has almost become unbearable, they look down and realize you're in agony, and everyone around you suddenly notices, too. Even if everyone starts helping in that moment, your ears are still ringing from your ignored screams.
Are you hopeful about the future of the publishing industry?
I'm hopeful that things will get better because Black writers have been out here writing amazing books, and more readers are going to realize that as they read through books they've purchased to show support. And hopefully people in publishing will reconsider things that were just considered common knowledge — like who reads books by Black authors, what the comps for these books are, and what the sales potential for these books are. Acquisitions are great, but editors actually aren't the final word and all levels of publishing need to reassess.
Any new projects you can talk about?
Yes! My next release after When No One Is Watching is How to Catch a Queen, the first in the Runaway Royals series. Like my Reluctant Royals series, it's a fairy tale with a modern twist — this one is inspired by Bluebeard, without all the murder. It's an arranged marriage story with a woman who's determined to be a queen (and to change the world for the better), marrying a king who is trapped in the figurative tower of his kingdom's isolationist policies. Kind of a second-chance romance for an already married couple who don't really know one another, plus an exploration of the idea of good governance and knowing what you deserve in relationships both personal and political.
What are some of your favorite thrillers?
Oooh, well, I grew up reading Mary Higgins Clark and Walter Mosley, but some of my recent faves have been Rachel Howzell Hall's Detective Elouise Norton series (the first book is Land of Shadows), Victoria Helen Stone's Jane Doe, and Nalini Singh's A Madness of Sunshine. I also just got S.A. Cosby's Blacktop Wasteland, which just came out, and I can't wait to dive in. ●