Earlier this month, we paired Witchmark and Stormsong author C.L. Polk with Alyssa Cole, award-winning author of historical, contemporary, and sci-fi romance, for a chat about the intersections between science-fiction, fantasy, and romance as a genre. We knew that these two would have a lot to talk about, both regarding writing practices and the craft of two characters falling in love. What transpired was a lively, insightful conversation about bridging genre gaps, sex and consent, how relationships are part of worldbuilding, and the magic of love.
(The following has been lightly edited for clarity.)
C.L. Polk: OH LOOK A BLANK PAGE THAT’S NOT INTIMIDATING AT ALL. Okay. where do we start, then? I am not sure how to begin.
Alyssa Cole: I’m not sure either—I’m terrible with unstructured things.
Okay, so first I’m going to ask, since we’re talking about bridging the gap: what was your introduction to SFF and romance? Did you see them as two distinct genres and approach them that way? Because genre has always been a kind of hazy thing for me, and I didn’t really think of there even being a gap? If that makes sense. Obviously one exists, but I never considered formal separations of genre in a way, when I was reading as a kid, so I’d love to hear what it was like for you.
C.L. Polk: For me I think that separation was there at first—mostly because I was not really supposed to be reading the romance novels, but the SFF was okay (never mind that some of the things I just read were really kind of bizarre). But I got my own romance novels eventually and what I noticed was that in SFF stories, if there was a romance, it was sort of easy, or it felt like one more prize the hero got? Where in romance the focus on the relationship coming together and the steps forward and back were more satisfying. But there were people who were telling love stories in SFF that I loved, but the HEA (Happily Ever After) wasn’t there and it hurt. So I wanted everything, all at once.
I think the romance structure in an SFF environment is so much fun. Probably my favorite way to do it, and I love the worldbuilding you get to do and what it implies for how the romance gets handled. I was really paying attention to the world you set up in The AI Who Loved Me—I was getting the cyberpunk vibes really hard there, even though the characters weren’t techno mercenaries. And the scary part was that it wasn’t unthinkable that this scary corporate control of everything was something I could see happening—and I still got a really lovely romance even in what looked like a dystopia.
How do you bring these things together to create such satisfying stories?
AC: That’s so interesting! I grew up with SFF but I guess on the fringes of it. I read pretty much everything from a young age and my parents were pretty cool with me raiding their library. So it was Bobsy Twins, Stephen King, Anne Rice, Danielle Steele. I also was very into comics and manga, and reading SFF heavy manga, some of which had strong female leads and interesting romantic relationships. So in a way, it was similar to what you said: I saw romance in certain stories and I really wanted romance in all of my stories, and felt that was basically how every story should be. With SFF, I think romance is especially interesting/relevant because we are exploring all of these potential worlds, but for some reason love isn’t seen as something integral to those worlds, or rather love in which both (or all) of the people in the relationship live to see another day. This is getting very long, but this is to say that to me love and romance can be an integral part of worldbuilding—not necessary to every character because every person is not interested in romantic love. But I do think it’s a great way to reflect the way the world works—how people fall in love is a reflection of their societies.
In your series, you have these great elements of classic fantasy but with romance that is really integral to the plot and the growth of the world. Did you feel any pressure not to do that, to pull back, especially since the romances involve queer characters? And how do you feel these romances resonate readers—or how do you hope they will?
CP: I didn’t feel pressure at first. I was just coming off writing a few novel length, AU contemporary romance fanfics and I was still in that vibe where I wanted to write a story that centered on the romance and was part of the world I presented—I said “oo!” out loud when you said how people fall in love is a reflection of their societies, because of course that’s right and why didn’t I think of it?—and I really wanted to tell both kinds of stories at once. And then I started querying.
Let me say, though, that it wasn’t the queer romance people hesitated at. At all. Not once did I have someone say, you can’t have a romance with two men in a fantasy novel, no one will want it. What I heard was, “I don’t know if this is a fantasy novel or a romance novel, and it has to be one or the other.” But then I landed at Tor.com Publishing and my editor, Carl Engle-Laird, is forever on the side of Make it Gayer, so I felt very supported in what I was trying to do.
What I hope is that readers are as much captivated by the romantic tension as they are by the mystery and family drama tension, that “WHEN DO THEY KISS” is right up there with “WHO DID IT” and I have a feeling that is something all kinds of readers are happy to read, and maybe it’s a little refreshing to have romance in their fantasy.
I’m trying to figure out how to ask about how romance and SFF gets handled differently when the writer is coming at both from a different angle than the usual. I’m thinking about how your pop culture savvy contemporary royalty fantasy feels different for me when I’m reading—like Portia’s ADHD was something I knew about but had never seen handled in a way that expanded my understanding and made me feel seen.
How did you do that? Because I love Portia a lot.
AC: Okay, first: “WHEN DO THEY KISS” is right up there with “WHO DID IT”—this really nails something that I think is really a misunderstanding about what romance even is. All romance is a mystery! And the mystery will always be solved—that’s the HEA! I was recently talking about this when explaining why romance writers are very good at tracking down clues and noting inconsistencies in real world situations as well. And I think in your books, which are fantasy political thrillers in a way, the romances are a strand in the web the characters are caught in. I don’t think we need to redefine romance or anything because people shouldn’t look down on it even if they do think it’s “just” love or “just” emotion, but people often forget how powerful love and emotion is and how much that enhances and doesn’t detract from a story (since I guess people sometimes think romance in SFF is gratuitous).
But as for Portia, she was actually the result of me saying “I want to write a heroine who is a fuck up—just like me!” for years. Not clumsy, or quirky, but who is actually a mess. As I started writing Portia, I was also starting to understand that I had ADHD—that the story wasn’t about someone who is a fuck-up, but is about someone who thinks they are because they have no frame of reference for their own behavior outside of the fact that it disappoints other people and isn’t “logical.”
I’m also thinking about how romance and SFF is affected by where the writer is coming from…hm. I think this goes to the question of what is outdated, or what is cliche, or necessary or unnecessary in SFF and in romance, and how where the writer is coming from affects that. I think all of my books come from a place of “What do I want to read, as a reader, that I haven’t seen myself in?” in a way. Or people like me, like my friends and family.
Do you feel that way at all? When writing SFF romance specifically?
CP: I have had these moments where I think, “I want to read a story that talks about this, and I want to see it handled by a character who is different from the usual because—” and then it sinks in that I’m telling myself a story that I need to write down, because it’s making me happy and it’s making me mad all at the same time, and that if I want to read the story, it’s probably something in me that I want to see expressed. I wanted to write Stormsong because I wanted to see a story about someone who finally saw, undeniably, that the system she upheld was doing terrible things and wanted to stop them—but I also felt like I needed to talk about how hard it is to break away from people who aren’t good for you because you spent your whole life wanting their approval. So that was a little bit me, wrapped up in a package of not-me-at-all.
I’ve been edging closer and closer to writing more work that centers on the experiences I’ve had, the experiences of the people close to me, but so far I’ve been afraid of exposing myself. Though that exposure happens anyway, doesn’t it? And sometimes, I think that I’m just being a chicken for not digging in more, but baby steps.
I’m thinking about the waves of change in SFF and in romance. When I write stories, I’m often engaged in working out what I want to highlight and what I want to see changed in the genres I love. Like I no longer want to read stories with intimacy that don’t make sure that everyone is on board with physical closeness. I want to read more stories that have a protagonist who is different from the assumed default without the story being centered on that difference—I want to see all kinds of protagonists have adventures and happy lives. I think I can write some of these stories, but some I’m looking for from other writers who can bring their experiences to their stories in ways that satisfy them. …I’m trying to run this into a question and I’m stuck.
AC: It’s okay. I did actually want to talk about that aspect of Stormsong—it’s something that resonated with me in Witchmark as well. The idea of how you deal with both people and systems that are harmful to you but you also love, and how you can work to make change, and there are places you will succeed and bring everything crashing down, and there are places where you will just have to deal with extreme disappointment. And the kind of overwhelming anxiety caused by trying to fix something you didn’t break, with the tools that people who did break it have handed to you. Did you consciously think about these aspects as you wrote? (Like you said, we often don’t think about what we’re putting on the page and where it comes from within us.) And also, was there something about Avia and Grace that you thought best exemplified the story you needed to tell in Stormsong? I think romance can be such a great contrast to societal change in a world, so can you talk a bit about how that fits in?
CP: With Avia and Grace, I had this idea of Grace watching Avia across dozens or parties, and there’s a feeling where she wishes that she could break out of her role the way Avia did—and that Grace admires Avia for walking away from all the comforts of wealth and class to do what she wanted to do. She’s too scared to do it for herself. There’s too much riding on her to rebel, even if she secretly wonders what her life would be like if she hadn’t been raised to be a leader from childhood. And then Avia walks into her life and not only has she survived the scandal of defying her family, here she is in her new job and her new life, with exactly the kind of questions that could knock down every house of cards Grace is trying to keep intact while she “fixes things.”
That part I did on purpose. Miles’ love for Grace, even though she was part of the system that made him want to run away from it all was something that I wanted to show, but there were pieces there that only became clear after writing both books. Miles needed to have his own life, and this time, he succeeded in showing her what was wrong. But when Grace tries to gently change things, it just won’t work. She has to pull them down, just like Miles did.
But with Avia—Grace acts because she doesn’t just want Avia to be her girlfriend, but because she wants to be the kind of person Avia has become. She wants to transform too—and she looks to the people she loves around her for guidance. Part of Grace’s problem was isolation—she didn’t have people to support her and back her thinking something different than the family line, and part of her story is recognizing that she has people.
If Grace had friends like The International Friend Emporium Chat, she would have had a different story. So would Miles, actually—he isolated himself too. Speaking of things we don’t realize we’re putting on the page. I’m actually thinking about the web of friendships in the Reluctant Royals—about how there’s such strong connections that not even moving all over the world snapped them, and how wonderful those connections are—that the friendships in the series are so important and don’t get sidelined in favor of the romance. That’s something you did deliberately, I’m sure, but was there anything in it that surprised you?
AC: Friendship in romance has always been super important to me, in part because I see them as just as important as romantic relationships so, if I have room in the story, I always try to flesh those out as their own relationship arc. Writing the friendships in Reluctant Royals was super fun (and in fact I literally am also incorporating them into the spinoff series too, but I need to not go overboard with the secondary characters). But I think the friendships are important, like the romances, for what they show about the character’s needs and what they lack, in a way? In an established friendship, how are they handling it? Can it survive a move around the world? If they are lonely, how do they become friends with new people? How do they treat their friends vs the people they’re dating, and do they see the people they’re dating as friends? Also, you then want to write stories about everyone in the books! And I think this is actually something that non-romantic SFF and romance have some overlap on. People enjoy reading about groups of friends being ridiculous together and ragtag bands of buddies exist in all kinds of romance!
So thinking about how romance/love is incorporated in SFF—do you see it as a form of magic? I always kind of think of it as a kind of magical thing, even in contemporary romance! That two people with countless emotional issues and reasons to keep walking can come together and find love and manage not to drive each other away seems like some kind of alchemy. I know you thought about that to some level, especially with the effect that Tristan could have had on Miles, but did you think of it at all when crafting the more mundane aspects of romance?
CP: Actually I did spend a lot of time thinking that I couldn’t make the romance between them work because Tristan’s power would be a huge obstacle—but that made it more important to Tristan to not use his power to manipulate or impress Miles. That he wanted the feeling between them—that pull to connect with each other on multiple levels that I think is the alchemy of romance—to be on Miles’ terms. That if it was going to happen, it was going to be Miles’ call, and that’s the only way it could be. He never says that outright, though. I try to show it by the way he treats Miles and also how he never used his glamour abilities (except for that one time when he scared Grace to death.)
But for me, you can try to break down the story of two (or more) people falling in love with each other and it for me feels like there’s something more there than just ‘Oh no, they’re hot’ and perfectly sound and logical reasons why someone would make a good partner. Something I can’t really name, but it has to be there for me to get invested. And that’s for all romances in all genres. There’s this element that goes beyond attraction and chemistry and good reasons that makes me wave my hands around and say, “you know, that thing!” A kind of magic? Yes. And now I’m thinking about Love Experiment romance because I’m trying to define what I can’t define.
I know (and can’t wait for) the runaway royals are coming up next for you. And a thriller I’m looking forward to. Do you have anything you can tell me about coming up that is on the SFF side of romance?
AC: Love Experiment romance is definitely something I want in my eyeballs immediately! For SFF romance, I’ll be working to the sequel to The AI Who Loved Me next—it’s going to be a fun SFF take on the forced proximity trope, so I’m looking forward to it! And what about you? Do you have anything you can share with us about upcoming projects?
CP: The Love Experiment book I was thinking about in particular was Beginner’s Guide: Love and Other Chemical Reactions by Six de los Reyes. The heroine designs an experiment with logical criteria for an ideal partner and then follows her hypothesis into romance. As for stuff I have coming up, there’s Soulstar, the third book in the Kingston Cycle—that’s Robin’s story. It should be coming out in 2021, in the spring. And I have a different book in a different world, The Midnight Bargain, coming out sometime this fall. And then after that I am not sure which story will be the next one. I have a couple of ideas but I’m holding off on starting one one until later in the year.
C. L. Polk wrote her first story in grade school and still hasn’t learned any better. After spending years in strange occupations and wandering western Canada, she settled in southern Alberta with her rescue dog Otis. She has a fondness for knitting, bicycles, and single estate coffee. Polk has had short stories published in Baen’s Universe and Gothic.net, and contributed to the web serial Shadow Unit, and spends too much time on Twitter. Her first novel is Witchmark.
Alyssa Cole is an award-winning author of historical, contemporary, and sci-fi romance. Her romantic comedy A Princess in Theory is a New York Times notable book for 2018. Her Civil War-set espionage romance An Extraordinary Union was the American Library Association’s RUSA Best Romance for 2018, and also the RT Book Reviews Reviewer’s Choice Award Book of the Year. She’s contributed to publications including Bustle, Shondaland, The Toast, Vulture, and others, and her books have received critical acclaim from The New York Times, Library Journal, Kirkus, Booklist, Jezebel, Vulture, Book Riot, Entertainment Weekly, and various other outlets. When she’s not working, she can generally be found watching anime with her husband or wrangling their menagerie of animals.