Happy August, all! I wanted to formally write a quick update about what has been going on with this space, and what you can expect going forward! If you’re not super interested in that – feel free to skip ahead for today’s content – an interview with debut author Penny Aimes, about her forthcoming Harlequin romance, For the Love of April French!
I started this blog in December of 2018, when I was a part time bookseller, full time PhD student, and when I was trapped in an abusive relationship that was keeping me pretty isolated from the world. I didn’t know it at the time, but because of that relationship, I was losing friendships and I didn’t have a lot of space to express myself. Thanks to support from my other (current) partner, and a couple of close and supportive friends who stuck by me, I was able to extricate myself from the relationship in early 2020. Suffice to say that a lot has happened since then… COVID notwithstanding. This blog has always been a space where I could share my insider knowledge and my Big Feels about what I was reading. It was a lifeline at the time, a place for me to build community, and my room of my own. I’m so proud of how this blog has grown over the years into something more than that… but it’s still also all of those things for me!
That said, my capacity to actually run the blog has diminished over time. I’m so grateful to have wonderful collaborators and to have experienced deep generosity from so many guests who have joined me in this space over the years! That said, in order to keep things consistent and sustainable, I’ve decided to dial down the expectations just slightly. Going forward, I will plan one blog post a month – because that’s a level that I can commit to, and execute well, with the support of my team! We’ll continue to host the same quality content that you’ve come to expect in this space… just a little less frequently.
Thank you so much for your ongoing support and understanding. Also, if you’re so inclined, something that is literally life-sustaining for me and my family are the little donations that I get through ko-fi to support this blog. If you’re able to toss a coin to your witch(er) to support this blog, please know that I am eternally grateful, and that it means the world!
FOR THE LOVE OF APRIL FRENCH, by Penny Aimes
Yall, as a polyamorous, queer, non-binary trans person, it is rare that I find myself reflected in books with prominent romance plotlines. I feel indebted to debut author Penny Aimes, acquiring editor Ronan Sadler, and the whole team at Harlequin’s Carina Adores imprint for giving me the first experience of genuine reflection I’ve ever felt reading a category romance novel. This is a book with a transfeminine protagonist written by a trans woman author. YES.
I read a lot of trans books, and I was really built up by early readers before this landed in my lap, and even so, I was blown away. Before I had even finished the book, it would be an understatement to say that I was impressed. Aimes’ ability to balance plot progression, dialogue, and scene setting is great; the book pulls off romance tropes in a fresh way that is super identity-driven and authentic, but that doesn’t lose the essence of a series romance; the writing is super efficient in the sense that on a line level it’s clean and interesting, but Aimes has a strong appreciation for plot progression in a book with a short page count.
For readers who might be sensitive to explicit content, this book does have a lot of sex in it – or at least, for someone (me, it’s me) who doesn’t read a tonne of category romance, it felt like it had a lot of sex in it – and CW for BDSM. But, for readers who might be sensitive to explicit content because you’ve never seen a book handle trans identity or trans bodies well in sexual contexts? Well, you might find yourself as validated as I felt reading these passages.
I am thrilled to host Penny Aimes in this space to talk about this fantastic book. It was an absolute delight to conduct the following interview, and I think that her answers are candid and beneficial for readers and authors alike. For the Love of April French will be released on August 24th, and is available for pre-order now!
Interview with Penny Aimes
1. This is your first novel length work! Can you talk a little bit about what your writing process and your goals have been, and what it’s like for you to see it become a published book from one of the biggest publishers in the world?
I’ve tried to write novels before–I’ve been a voracious lifelong reader and I think of myself as a creative person–but until this year I’d never tried romance and I found it a really congenial fit, with the result that APRIL FRENCH is the first of those many manuscripts I ever finished!
One thing I really enjoy about romance is the shifting between viewpoints; I’m a sprinter, not a marathon runner, and romance seems to naturally break up into a series of well-defined mini scenes–not even an end to end event, but simply expressing a single emotion or characterizing one element. I even played around with format when I got stuck, writing sections as transcripts of phone calls or purely narration without dialogue. Of course, my beta and editor made me go back and smooth those out later, but it helped keep moving. Slowing down is death in first drafts, at least for me! Better to write a pithy scene, wrap it, and switch POVs than get stalled.
My goal was really just to finish the book! I happened to do so right as Carina Pitch was happening, and I thought, “Why not?” — in another reality where the date was different, a MUCH less polished version of my book has been up on Kindle Unlimited for more than a year!
Working with Carina, and through them Harlequin and then through them, at a great remove, Harper Collins has been really wild. An interview in Entertainment Weekly or professional marketing direction really weren’t even on my radar when I started writing in the first couple months of the pandemic.
I’m so appreciative of the opportunity and for all the people who have contributed to this book’s journey, both from the publisher and from outside–my beta reader, Rebecca Fraimow, my wife, the many many authors on Twitter who have taken an interest, cross-promoted or just had conversations with me. I got a blurb–and a lot of kind advice and cheerful conversation–from Talia Hibbert, one of my all time favorites of the genre! It’s all so much more than I ever expected!
2. Full transparency, I usually caution my authors against writing POV characters who occupy a marginalized identity that they do not share. In romance, this is really hard, because of the strict format restrictions of a traditional romance novel. If you want to have diverse representation in your book at all, you almost don’t have a choice except to include them as a POV character. That said, the book was so thoughtful about trans representation that I imagine you were just as thoughtful in your approach to representing a Black character on the page, and I would be interested to know how you went about navigating that, and what kinds of tools you used to ensure the representation was accurate and responsible.
This is a question I anticipated and thought about a LOT. By the time I really engaged with the romance community on Twitter, I had written a rough first draft of the book, and that was where I began to encounter the advice against writing POV characters outside of your experience. It was a new thought to me–I was more used to advice encouraging authors to create more diverse worlds–but the justice of the perspective clicked with me right away.
At the same time, I have a lot of reservations about how this advice intersects with trans representation, because we are so underrepresented in romance at the current moment; without non-transfeminine authors there would be exactly four category romance novels with trans heroines, as far as I know–and three of those came out this summer!. I personally have seen great trans rep from cis authors, and I think there should absolutely be trans women in books by cis people–but there will always be topics and feelings that they haven’t experienced and should probably steer clear of, which means there is always a need for those more authentic voices.
I really hope and encourage that we can make space for Black trans women in romance; there are only a few transfems in the genre right now, and all of the ones I know of are white. But it was really that that made me decide to go ahead with the story and try my best. I knew I’d have to accept responsibility for my screw ups and acknowledge that there would be some stuff a Black author would have done better! But it seemed like, for now, if it was going to be done at all it was up to me and my tiny cohort.
I spent a lot of time thinking about Dennis’s community and his arc, drawing from my Black friends and colleagues as well as conversations in the romance community itself. I also worked with a sensitivity reader from Salt and Sage books (https://www.saltandsagebooks.com/profiles/lynn-brown/) who gave me some great encouragement–she really gave me the courage to dig into Dennis’s family–and asked some great questions that really helped me crack his storyline.
The two specific things I engaged with from that feedback were: how does Dennis feel being the Black person in the room, just as April is always the trans person in the room? And how is Dennis seeking and establishing community as a Black person in his new environment? These themes not only helped round out Dennis’s character and arc, they really established some resonances that feed into why Dennis can empathize with April, and why he’s been an advocate for Jason before now. It put April and Dennis on parallel paths–April has a strong community but needs to reach for romantic love, Dennis falls for April immediately but needs to put down roots to really be ready for her.
My editor John Jacobson also contributed a lot in content edits, highlighting some needles we wanted to thread carefully and helping me work them out, particularly with regard to April’s crisis moment late in the book–being afraid of your boyfriend getting angry at you hits different with a Black protagonist! My trust in John to walk the walk after seeing them supporting and advocating for Black authors really helped build the trust that they could help me get it right.
I’ll also admit I cheated somewhat, by making Dennis new in town and coming from a very white city and industry. Dennis’s childhood is also in an area very similar to where I grew up. He’s almost starting from scratch, and a lot of Dennis’s community-building and relationships with other Black folks, while they’re a big part of his character arc, live off-screen. It’s unfortunate but I knew I couldn’t write it authentically. That’s definitely something a Black author could have done better!
It’s a topic I think about a lot, especially because I want to continue writing stories about April’s friends. One of them, Beth, is Black and nonbinary, two identities I don’t share. Do I leave them as the only one who doesn’t find love because it’s not my lane? Do I take the risk? Neither solution feels totally right.
As a side-bar, a lot of my favorite romances were written by Black women, from Beverly Jenkins to Rebekah Weatherspoon to Talia Hibbert, and they have been some of my best advocates and friends in the community too. The positive feedback fhas meant the world to me and helped me feel confident publishing this book.
In some ways, the core fantasy of mf romance and especially mf BDSM is, what if there was a man you could actually trust (to tie you up)? The first two books of the Beards and Bondage series and the Ravenswood and Brown Sisters book really take this further–what if there was a white man you could actually trust? I think that’s why those books really resonate with me, and the core idea of APRIL FRENCH was always, what if there was a cis man you could actually trust?
Of course, making that cis man Black changed the equation; it created vulnerabilities and commonalities between them that really became core to the relationship.
3. Romance is such a niche genre, one that is often looked down upon despite its massive popularity, and the readers of the genre are SO voracious. What was it that drew you to writing a romance book, as opposed to other genres? What do you hope the response from readers will be to this book?
I’ve always loved genre books of all stripes–I love the inherent promise in a genre title, and the fact that even in a book that is only average, you’re guaranteed that one thing you came for, whether it’s spaceships or dragons or a happily ever after. But romance was the one genre I had always stayed away from, because it felt like too much of an admission of the secret femininity I was hiding. And while I had a ton of nerdy female friends, for a while they were in that phase of reading everything but romance too, because science fiction and fantasy are seen as more “serious.”
But my friends were outgrowing that mentality and diving into reading whatever they wanted, and I was newly out to myself as a trans woman, and I really gave myself permission to immerse myself in romance. Romance entered my rotation, but just as one type of book among many… and then the pandemic happened!
So what really drove me writing a romance novel was that I had been consuming nothing but romance novels for weeks! When the pandemic started, I suddenly could NOT stomach anything with world-ending stakes; my wife and I were watching several superhero shows and mysteries that I couldn’t stand to watch any more.
And as I’ve found all my life, as I filled myself up with certain tropes and ideas, my own takes and concepts and what-ifs began to come together into a book. But this time… I actually finished it!
One of my key motivations with writing this book was, of course, the paucity of books by and about trans feminine people. I hope trans readers see themselves in this book, that keen beautiful sense of recognition of your feelings in someone else that romance gives us better than anything else–and I hope cis readers have those same feelings, in one way or another, and recognize April as a woman with all the pains and fears and joys of any woman, plus an opportunity to learn about the unique experience of transness.
(Or–one unique experience of transness. My motivation in writing this book was driven by scarcity, but I’m so overjoyed to be part of a recent wave that has doubled the number of published category romances with trans heroines, and to share the summer with established transfem authors like May Peterson and Lily Seabrooke. The more books we have, the less each book bears the load to be THE book for all trans women.)
3. Talk to me about the trans representation in this book. I can only speak from my personal experience, but especially from an intimacy point of view, this was one of the most accurate portrayals of a trans MC I’ve ever read, but in addition, you have non-binary characters, other trans characters, diverse queer representation – it’s awesome. Why did you choose to make that a focus of this novel, and what was it like?
There’s very, very little left of it now, but the very original inspiration for April and Dennis were as the Jane/Bingley analogs in a trans Pride and Prejudice, where all of the Bennetts were trans women. So she always came with a posse. April’s investment and “Mama April” role at the bar were inspired, also, by my experiences on a kink discord where I became a moderator and a den mother for a lot of young and wild trans girls. So I always knew Frankie’s would be a queer hub, and then I just had to show that.
It was great to have conversations at different levels of ‘getting it’ and with different perspectives–early on, Dennis, for instance, doesn’t realize that Aerith is agender or that Max is trans-masc. He just thinks they’re androgynous and baby-faced, respectively. But April knows them better.
I think sense-of-place is so important in romance, and Frankie’s is the most important place in this book, so getting really into the bones of the community and population there was critical. Some of that community are more expert than others with queer experiences, but all of them have good intentions. Romance is all about wish fulfillment!
The idealized kink club has been done before, of course; May Sage’s Kings of the Tower series has a great example, combined with the “what if billionaires used their power for good?” trope; but in Frankie’s I wanted to do something a little less glamorous, a little more neighborhood bar. Kink and queerness are both things that are outside the norm, but are really so very down-to-earth and normal for the people who live in them.
That ties back to the representation question, because part of that same idea is making the population of the bar diverse in a very mundane way. For instance, there’s a deaf woman in a very minor role at Frankie’s–not out of any esoteric idea of scoring points for diversity, but because Austin is home to the Texas School for the Deaf, and you often see people signing to each other in public places here. I don’t make any special claim to be able to represent those marginalizations, but I know that they are part of the world, and a setting without them doesn’t look or sound real. If you really pay attention to the communities around you, diversity is everywhere–homogeneity is what’s artificial!
4. If an educator was going to teach your book in a college creative writing class, for example, what do you hope students would take away from that experience? Similarly, what do you wish you could tell educators or booksellers who are going to choose this book to put in a reader’s hands?
I am actually so, so honored to be able to say that fellow author Ali Williams is going to use FOR THE LOVE OF APRIL FRENCH as part of her Romancing the Discourse online course on looking at romance through an academic lens. I’ll be part of the Kink as Liberation unit.
What I hope people take away from this book, or are expecting from this book, is a rich fantasy with some very gritty truth at the bottom. I don’t think many trans women get a devoted millionaire like Dennis, more’s the pity. But this is how, to the best of my ability, I imagine a trans woman (this particular trans woman) reacting to that scenario. The wish fulfillment is fun and lovely and cathartic, I hope, but what I hope people learn from is the beating heart underneath it. The fears and ghosts that haunt us, and the dreams we keep safe in our hearts and don’t dare tell anyone.
More than anything, I wrote this book for other trans women, and I hope they feel known and seen; I hope they recognize themselves. But I hope that anyone who reads the story can recognize some piece of themselves in April.
And if nothing else, I hope it’s another bright happy-ever-after someone can use to shield themselves against the world, and I hope that they remember that that joy can come from and belong to a trans woman as much as any other.
Finally: as always when we feature a non-Black author on BBB, author Penny Aimes was asked to recommend a book by a Black author. She wanted to shout out the Gods of Hunger series by R. M. Virtues, which feature transfeminine characters.
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