In the first edition of our brand new Sweet Spot column, Heidi Cullinan talks to author, Vanessa Riley, about her inspiration, writing and latest book, The Bewildered Bride.
Hi, everyone! Heidi Cullinan here, starting what will be a monthly column talking about books and authors I’ve discovered I think you might enjoy. As much as possible, I’ll be talking to those authors in an in-depth interview. We’ll dish about their projects current and future, the books they love, and any and everything that comes up along the way.
Today I’m so very pleased to introduce as the debut author to this series, Vanessa Riley, author of The Bewildered Bride. Vanessa writes Regency and historical romances of dazzling multi-culture communities with powerful persons of color.
A little more about The Bewildered Bride:
Years after a brutal attack killed his wife, Ruth, and sold him to the British Navy, the Baron of Wycliff has returned to exact revenge. In the midst of his plans, he discovers his wife is alive.
Now Wycliff wants nothing short of annihilation of his enemies and Ruth's surrender in his arms.
Vanessa is a lovely, charming, woman of delightful breadth who writes brilliant books full of heart and emotion which sit like faceted jewels in your hand. Every book is beautiful and engaging and full of her unique, compelling voice. The Bewildered Bride, though caught hold of my heart and wouldn’t let go. I’m so excited to discuss it with her here today.
Thanks Heidi for having me. I’ve been looking forward to this chat.
I’m a little at a loss for words as to how to start this because The Bewildered Bride absolutely blew me away and left me stunned, in all the best ways. You and Piper Huguley can both do this to me in a way nobody else can. So forgive me as I flounder to appear articulate.
I appreciated so many things about this book, but one of my favorites about this series in general is the view of a Regency middle class. I’ve read Regency middle class before, but I can tick the titles off on my fingers. It’s so refreshing to read something other than a duke. I’m a fair hand at history, but these middle class romances, set in historical England, France, the United States, all make me feel like I’m peeking into the pages of history I most want to see, which I can never learn enough of. What did you enjoy learning about the most as you researched this--and as a companion question, what did you already know you enjoyed highlighting in a romance novel?
I loved learning about debtor’s prison and impressment. These were two horrible facets of English life that I’m glad are no longer around. I reveled in showing the merchant class as it was, whole and progressive. They possessed vibrant lives within their communities--socializing, having dinner parties, and even balls. It was interesting to articulate how these families viewed life, nobility, and social standings. They understood their power, their limitations, and the sacrifices needed to protect their families and to get ahead.
I also wondered about your influences, literary and otherwise. Your writing has me so curious.
My mother stressed that we read the classics. I am a Shakespeare lover and a fan of the ancient poets, like Homer. I’ve been told I have a rhythmic, ethereal feel to my words. I blame a great education and my mama.
Getting into The Bewildered Bride specifically...okay, this is where I’m going to flail a bit because it’s been a few days and I’m still having so many feelings. When the book started with the hero and heroine married and deeply committed, I thought, okay, there’s going to be something seismic coming my way. Vanessa, I wasn’t ready! My heart broke and hoped with them both, even when I was the one fully in the know and could see their path back together. I was invested in every way. As a writer, I’m able to applaud your bold, unconventional setup and plot, but as a reader, I’m simply swept away. Did you know the book was going to go like this from word go?
No. I rewrote this book several times. One version had the story start in the time-frame where the last book, The Butterfly Bride, ended. You met Ruth with the biddy knitters, her mother’s gossiping friends. It didn’t feel right. It didn’t show Ruth’s passion. It didn’t show the stakes. To not see how much in love Ruth and Adam were and how they were separated, wouldn’t explain how much Ruth had changed or Adam’s need for revenge. So I went there, showing the love and the pain.
I don’t believe in setting off triggers or exploiting Black pain, but I had to focus on that moment of separation. I painted the emotions, but I wanted my readers to feel safe. A Vanessa Riley novel will not dwell in violence. I intend to keep the reader as safe as possible. My goal is for the emotion to carry you through each scene. You are Adam or Ruth. Some scenes are hard, but as the old saying goes, there is a victory on the other side of through.
Ruth is such an incredible character. I struggle to find proper adjectives for her. To call her strong feels such an undersell. Resilient doesn’t feel bright and hopeful enough. Grit is all wrong. She is, in every way, a survivor, but it was the breadth and depth of her character, how she had weakness and strength at once, how she kept her sense of self even as she let that self morph into what she needed to be--I was so in love. Completely and utterly in love. Adam never stood a chance, and neither did I.
Ruth saw her love die. She knew how precious life was and how everything can change in a minute. So she rested in her gratitude. Gratitude became her strength. Adam had fallen completely in love with Ruth and deeply mourned her memory for four years. He stewed in guilt for causing her suffering. She was his other half. He had no choice but to win her back.
I have to tell you, the healing/acceptance speech her mother gave her toward the end of the novel made me sit down and cry. With a past of my own that shares a few shades of Ruth’s, I didn’t know how much I needed to hear that until I read it. Those were some powerful words about self-acceptance despite violence done to us.
Heidi, I am touched. A woman’s voice and truth are so important. Ruth represents the women in my life who’ve endured everything and survived. As she learns to own her truth, she still needs help. Her mother with whom she’s had a difficult relationship understood what it meant to suffer but how to go forward. She was the imperfect vessel, to deliver the message to Ruth about strength and beauty beyond ashes.
Adam was also a remarkable character. I loved him even for his foibles, for his impulses, but above all I love the way he loved Ruthy. To be loved and cherished by someone with that kind of intensity! That’s what romance is all about. I’m in love with him too, honestly. They’re both incredible characters.
Adam has two blind spots, his belief that he’s always right and his love for Ruth. He makes choices, sometimes the wrong choices to justify his need to protect the people around him. Yet, no one can question his love for Ruth. He will do what it takes to win her. He will be whatever she needs—friend, lover, shield, or sword.
I also, though, really cherish Ruth’s whole family. Even when things were a little strained with Ruth and her mother at first, I could feel her mother’s love for her daughter, trying to help her redirect her life. Her father’s quieter, protective love. And Ester, who pushed and resisted, but out of love. They really echo around me, having finished.
The Croomes are a complex family. They love hard, but they also fight hard. As much as Mrs. Bennet is a symptom of her time and experiences, so is Mrs. Croome. She wants her daughters married but also wants them happy and strong.
I already said your work reminded me of Piper Huguley, and though she sets her historicals in another country, I feel the shades of Beverly Jenkins in your work as well. This one in particular had echoes of Forbidden, not in plot but in these rich, powerful characters bending a sometimes unforgiving world to make themselves a happy ever after.
I am very touched at the comparisons. These are women I respect very much. I love their work. Too many readings of Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer, Octavia Butler, and a ton of Zebra Imprint books have drawn me to telling stories set in other worlds, so to speak, like England, the West Indies, and South Africa. People of color existed in many places and in all timelines. Sometimes our stories involve enslavement, but that is not the only facet of our story. Like Huguley and Jenkins, I write about passionate people finding their HEAs who rise above all their difficulties to own their futures.
The world in which the Croomes live is challenging. There are dangers, but there’s also joy and beauty. They’re not struggling for means or even for their freedom, but they are struggling to own their peace and to live their full value. I think that is something everyone can identify with and feel.
I know readers are always looking for more authors: who would you like to recommend they check out, especially authors you feel people don’t know about but should?
I’m going to recommend, Cheris Hodges and Deborah Fletcher Mello. These are contemporary authors who write fast-paced romances with great suspense. Belle Calhoune, Sharina Harris, Carolyn Hector Hall, and Kathy Douglas do wonderful jobs at showcasing a woman’s journey in empowering romances. Lenora Bell and Erica Monroe write Regencies that go beyond the glittery ballrooms. Lastly, put on your radar, Denny Bryce. Her first historical novel, Wild Women and the Blues, a jazz age novel, will release in 2020/2021. She has a powerful voice. Her storytelling is gripping.
Thank you again so much for sitting down for this interview! What do you have coming up next that you’d like to highlight before we go?
Up next for me is my new Kensington series (Zebra Imprint) Rogues and Remarkable Women. What happens when hapless male guardians attempt to rear babies while the Widow's Grace, a secret society of widows determined to restore cheated women, infiltrate their households? Hopefully nothing less than pandemonium, romance, and happy-ever-afters. Look for the first book, A Duke, A Lady, And A Baby in July of 2020. For historical fiction fans, Island Queen (William Morrow) will be a wonderful (2021) summer read. It follows the incredible true-life story of Dorothy "Doll" Kirwan Thomas who rises from enslavement to become the wealthiest woman in early 1800's West Indies. She has an affair with a future English King and saves women of color from unfair taxation meant to demean and rob them of their resources. I'm very excited to tell her story.
Excellent—will look forward to these! Take care, and good luck in your writing endeavors!
Heidi's latest release is the final book in the Copper Point: Medical series, The Doctor's Orders. You can find out more about our new editor at heidicullinan.com and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Have you read The Bewildered Bride or any of Vanessa's other books? Who would you like to see Heidi interviewing in a future The Sweet Spot column? Let us know in the comments and on the social media discussion of this article using #SweetSpot.