Talia Hibbert is growing bolder in her love for romance. "I take so much pride in telling these stories," she earnestly shares towards the end of the interview, before adding, "and because of the support of readers who have told me what these books mean to them, I have become much more open about the things that I really care about." The young romance author is steadily building her own romcom universe of sexy and diverse novels, featuring often misunderstood, passionate and unwittingly funny characters of colour. We caught up with her to discuss her writing journey, character building and the spicy sex scenes that have become a staple of her work.
There's a list of all your books on your website, which breaks them down into the eras in your writing journey. I wonder how you feel like your writing has changed through the eras?
When I first started out, it was about finding my voice and learning what I was passionate about. The start was about narrowing it down to the kinds of stories that not only spoke to me the most, but that I do best. So, a lot of experimenting, trying new things, and really honing in on what makes my writing special and what makes for the reading experience that my readers want. I think there's been a definite change, and I think that I'm still changing. I'm always trying to figure out better ways to communicate what I want to communicate and to develop my stories so that every book is better than the last. That's the goal.
How do you craft your characters?
So, I always start with my main characters, and then the side characters and the world around them is sort of created to serve whatever their story needs. I see characters as puzzle pieces that I need to slot in not just with their love interest, but with their family and friends and everyone else in their world. So, like I said, I start with the main characters, and it tends to be what dynamic or experience is speaking to me at the minute that I want to explore and convey to my audience. And then from then on, I try to immerse myself in the characters as if they're a real person. When I was younger, I used to be into acting and theatre and sometimes it feels a bit like acting, but you're just writing it down.
Which characters have you had the most fun immersing yourself into?
Gosh, it was really fun writing Act your age, Eve Brown actually, because writing romcom characters is so fun. You can just make them so wacky and ridiculous and I feel like I got bolder with that as I moved through the series. By the time I got to the final book, it was just so much fun sitting down everyday thinking, okay, what ridiculous thing are they going to do?
The diversity in your books comes through in your characters' defining traits as well as nuances like a silk scarf when they're sleeping or mention of “inshallah.” I wonder if having minority identities yourself has influenced that quality in your writing?
I think definitely because when you are a minority and you're reading a book and you get that thrill of seeing something about yourself that you usually don't see, you know how important it is. And it can be a minor thing like you said. Reading romance novels and having access to them via the library in my very white small town meant that I read all these books where it was like “her pearlescent skin,” and “he ran his fingers through her hair,” and I would be sat there thinking, “well, not my skin, not my hair.” You learn firsthand how these small, regular details can speak to a unique individual or a shared experience that a lot of us don't get to see, but would love to see.
A staple of your books is the steamy sex scenes. The first time I read a sex scene in a book with a black woman was not too long ago. Do you remember the first time you experienced that in a book? Can you tell me a little bit about it?
So my first experience was when I was too young to be reading the book that I was reading. I was at the library and saw Nalini Singh. I saw her name on the book and thought, ‘well, that's a brown person’s name so I'm gonna pick it up.' But then I was trying to read it and the book was too smart for me, so I put it away, which is funny, because now she's one of my absolute favourite authors. It was written in the stars. But the next instance was many years after with a Rebecca Weatherspoon book. I searched on Amazon for books with black heroines, because I was like, 'enough is enough.' I'm tired of this. So I was specifically looking and I found her and I also found Theodora Taylor. And for both of them, it was just explicitly on the page that the heroine was black. She had brown skin and in one of them, she had weave and then braids in another, which was exciting because those are things that I could have been.
The other fun thing is the different kinds of sexual interests that your characters have. They’re all very specific. You have a 12inch, purple dildo in one book, and character with a control kink in another and it makes perfect sense for the story. Talk to me a little about that.
So, I obviously love a good sex scene. But I think that the sex scenes for me should only be there as part of the whole story. I've read some romance novels that don't have sex scenes, or don't have open door sex scenes and that's completely fine because that fits in with the story. And conversely, in my books, the sex is part of the story and so for that reason, it has to be an extension of the characters' personalities, and it has to reflect the connection between them. So I'm glad that you said that it feels specific, because that's really what I want. Like it's these specific people having their specific kind of sex together.
Romance is often associated with fantasy or escapism, but a lot of your characters go through real hardship that is sometimes traumatic. Why did you make that choice in your work?
It's really important to me that my characters go through realistic struggles, because, like you said, romance is kind of escapist, but I find it to be a very hopeful genre. I myself read it to feel positive about the world; I think a lot of other people do as well. So, I think it's beneficial for a reader who is going through or who has gone through things like my characters go through to see that you can have those experiences and still have the fantastic happily ever after.
Another common element in a lot of your couples is that they often find themselves in morally ambiguous dynamics with a power imbalance, but the story still turns out sweet. An exploitative contract for instance, or an employer-employee dynamic. Tell me a little about how you toe that line.
I think that romance has a long and fabulous tradition of taking things that are technically wrong or terrible, and turning them into a lovely romantic story. And I think one reason why that happens is because in real life, things don't always happen the way they should. Sometimes you get into situations that are kind of terrible and unfortunately, in real life, they often end badly. But we all have this secret fantasy, right? That one day you could make bad choices or end up in a bad situation, and it would still work out. And I think there's kind of a healing element that those kinds of stories can have. And for me, if I am writing something like that, it's important to me that no matter the situations the characters find themselves in, or the bad choices that they do make, they still have this inner core of caring about each other. Because in order for them to end up together, happily at the end, they do have to genuinely like and respect each other, as well as you know, have affection and desire for each other. And that's what I try to keep in mind.
Have you got a writing process?
Yes and it does change. I feel like it changes depending on where I am as a person in my life and also, depending on what sort of book I'm writing. But a few things have remained very similar. For example, I love to go on walks, especially listening to music, to sort of plan my next scene because as I'm walking, I can really forget what's around me and get lost in the cinematic scene that's unfolding in my mind. I know that if I'm stuck on something, it always helps me to write it by hand, rather than type. I know that after I write a first draft, but before I show it to an editor, I always have to go over it again. I would never show anyone my actual first draft, I would be so ashamed. And finally, I think, once I get past sort of the halfway point in the book, from that point on, I'm convinced that it's horrible, and then I sort of just have to go through the motions while thinking this is a terrible book, and everyone's going to hate it. But I've come this far, so I have to finish it. And only when the book is finished, and I'm proofreading will I be like, Oh!
Do you read other books when you're writing?
I do. Yeah. I like to re-read books when I'm writing. I think it’s because it sort of takes less imaginative energy. I don't read new books when I'm writing because when I read a new book, and I get really into it, I feel like it can influence my voice and sort of muddy the waters a bit.
What other authors do you go back to?
Oh, let's see. So Nalini Singh. I love Alexis Hall. I love KJ Charles. I love Tia Williams. I love Sally Thorne. I read a lot of romance essentially.
What other forms of art do you draw inspiration from apart from books?
So I love TV. Things like Brooklyn99. I really like comedy because I love writing banter and I find that the banter in comedy TV shows is always really natural and funny. I also really love music, a lot of the time when I listen to songs or albums, I'll be like, this is basically a whole story. Not necessarily the lyrics, but like the vibe, the energy of it.
How often do you write?
Okay, so I'm supposed to write four days a week. Sometimes, like, for example, this week, it's Thursday and I've been writing today, but it's the first time this week so I’m behind. But if I'm being good, I write four days a week.
What do you do when you're not writing?
I read a lot. I bake, mostly because I like to eat. I play netball. And I spend a lot of time with my family.
What's it been like promoting your recent YA book "Highly Suspicious and Unfairly Cute"
Oh, gosh, it's been really interesting. I love kids. And I have a lot of kids in my family so I was excited to write something that some of them would actually be able to read. And similarly, I've been able to speak to book clubs in schools, and younger people. And it's just been so much fun. And I've found that surprisingly, these kids are so creative with their interpretation of things and their perspective on the world. And I've really valued being able to talk to them.
What has writing, romance writing in particular, done for you?
That's such a fun question. You know, I've always loved romance and I've always loved books, and I've always felt very strongly about happy stories and stories about emotion. And unfortunately, those things aren't necessarily valued or taken seriously in society. I've found that since I have started writing romance, because I have so much pride in telling these stories, and because of the support of readers who have told me what these books mean to them, I have become much more bold and open about the things that I really care about and enjoy. Sort of like the pinkification of my life. Pink is my favourite colour and if you say that, for some reason people react so strangely, but I'm like, no, I think it is the best. And so is romance.