Alyssa Cole, author of When No One is Watching, and Dorothy Koomson, author of I Know What You’ve Done, discuss digging into neighborhood secrets, disappearances, and conspiracies in their unputdownable and best-selling thrillers. In conversation with John Vercher.
Watch the recording from this event and read the transcript below:
“From the first page of When No One Is Watching, I felt like I was right there in the gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood, filled with sharply etched characters and dialogue that zings. Then bam! I was knocked over by the momentum of an intense psychological thriller that doesn’t let go until the final page. This is a terrific read.” —Alafair Burke, New York Times-bestselling author
About Dorothy Koomson’s earlier novels: “Got our hearts racing, our minds boggling and us page-turning like there’s no tomorrow” —Heat, “Another brilliant, suspenseful read from a master storyteller” —Candis, “The suspense and drama was on another level. No one does it like Dorothy.” —Black Girls Book Club
JANE KULOW: Hello, and welcome to Shelf Life from the Virginia Festival of the Book. I’m Jane Kulow, director of the Virginia Center for the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities. Thanks for joining us. A couple of notes before I hand the program over to our speakers.
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Now I’m pleased to introduce today’s speakers.
Alyssa Cole is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of romance and thrillers, and her debut thriller, When No One Is Watching, won the 2021 Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award and the Audiobook Publishers Association Audie Award. When she’s not working, she can usually be found watching anime with her husband or wrangling their pets.
Dorothy Koomson, author of I Know What You’ve Done, is the award-winning author of fifteen novels, including the Sunday Times bestsellers My Best Friend’s Girl, The Ice Cream Girls, and Goodnight, Beautiful. Dorothy’s novels have been translated into more than thirty languages, and a TV adaptation based on The Ice Cream Girls was shown on the UK-based ITV1. Welcome, Dorothy.
And John Vercher is our moderator today. John is the Edgar Award–nominated and Crime Writers Association Dagger shortlisted author of Three-Fifths, the Agora Books launch title, for which to date rights have been sold in seven countries. His next novel, After the Lights Go Out, publishes in June 2022.
Alyssa, Dorothy, and John, thank you for joining us for Shelf Life. It’s all yours.
JOHN VERCHER: Thank you, Jane. Hello, Alyssa and Dorothy. Thank you very much for sitting down and talking with me for a little bit. I have just a few questions, so I’m not going to promise our viewers that they’re going to get a chance to get theirs answered. But what are you going to do?
So, I want to start with sort of a high-level question and then kind of get a little deeper into detail about some of the things about both of your terrific books. But I want to talk first about the obvious theme of neighbors and communities. So, we’re living in a period in our history right now where we’re looking at our neighbors probably a little closer than we ever have before, right? Like what signs are they putting in their front yard, or what are they saying on your neighborhood apps?
So, I wondered if both of you can talk about—maybe start with Alyssa—about why you chose to write about communities and more specifically about what lies beneath.
ALYSSA COLE: Well, I chose this because right now I actually don’t live in the US. I live in the Caribbean. And I moved to a new neighborhood. This wasn’t the primary thing, but it did get me to start thinking about neighborhoods and thinking about—for example, right before I moved, I lived in Brooklyn, in a neighborhood similar to Gifford Place. And I just started thinking more about the connections that we have with our neighbors and that we cultivate over either a lifetime—depending on how long you live in a neighborhood—or for the short periods that you live there.
Because I grew up in New York and New Jersey—you know, Jersey City across the river. And people often think of New York as this kind of like cold and cruel place where people don’t talk to each other, and everyone’s just trying to do their own thing, when it’s actually not. And neighborhoods in New York City can have the same level of interaction as a suburban neighborhood—often more. There are neighbors you can choose to ignore, but often you are linked to these people. Often, they’re from the same background as you, but often not as well. There are all these various links. Do you see them on your commute? Are they going to look out for your house and make sure that, if they see a weird person going in, that they say, “Hey, I saw someone casing your house.” Or all of these little things—everyday interactions. And then that’s before you get to being friends and family.
So, I think I always have been fascinated on some level with the interactions with neighbors in neighborhoods and how they affect people’s everyday lives. With this book, I was just kind of thinking about how that could take a very dark turn in some ways. And also thinking about how the neighborhoods where I grew up have changed so much and how, in a way, it was terrifying. Every time I would go home, there would be something different.
So just taking these everyday experiences with your neighbors but also the everyday horrors of living in proximity to people that you might not know or know as well as you think you do, like in Dorothy’s book. But also, just how that could be used—that could be a suspenseful and sometimes terrifying situation.
JOHN VERCHER: Dorothy?
DOROTHY KOOMSON: Yep. I absolutely agree with what Alyssa was saying. My book came from a slightly different angle. It was written during lockdown—our first lockdown. And it came about from like lying in bed. We were all in our houses constantly and being ill. And looking down the road, I realized I could see into my neighbors’ houses. And I just thought, wow, I have never noticed this before. And because everyone’s there, you kind of see what they’re up to, and you can imagine what they’re getting up to. Because like you say, you’re always there, and now you know what they’re up to. And it kind of interests you more because you are constantly there and seeing them. So, I kind of came up with the idea of writing a book about somebody who is basically spending all her time noting down what her neighbors get up to and what they’re doing. And then someone realizing that she knows their secrets, so they’re trying to kill her because of it. And it kind of grew from there.
Because, I mean, I’m not on my neighborhood watch—neighborhood app. Because just the thought of it is just terrifying. I mean, I like my neighbors. They’re all nice. And I keep saying that because I don’t want anyone to say that I’ve written about the people I live with and that I’ve been horrible because they’re all lovely. They’re all lovely. But I’m not part of the neighborhood apps thing, which I know is mostly, “Oh, such-and-such’s cat has gone missing.” But it could very easily—like in Alyssa’s book when the neighborhood’s chat—there’s always somebody who says something really off key, and then everyone else kind of piles on. And I really wanted to read the rest of the comments.
ALYSSA COLE: I should do like the extended cut of comments.
DOROTHY KOOMSON: You should.
JOHN VERCHER: Yeah, every time there was more, I was like, ah, come on.
DOROTHY KOOMSON: I wanted to click on it and go, “Come on.”
JOHN VERCHER: So, I’m glad you brought up the writing during lockdown. Because social media loves to have literary hot takes, and one of them I’ve seen before was I don’t want to read a pandemic book. I don’t want to read about something in the pandemic. But you created this very effective sense of like claustrophobia with your book. I was so glad that you had placed it in the pandemic, or after the first lockdown. So, I’m wondering. Did you ever second guess whether or not you were going to put it in that period? And how did you ultimately decide to write a novel that addressed what we’re currently going through?
DOROTHY KOOMSON: Well, I know lots of writers are sort of going through the dilemma of whether to mention it happened and stuff. And for me, because I always write books that are set in the present in our real lives—that’s always the backbone for whatever I write about—I just thought I can’t ignore it. I can’t pretend it didn’t happen. I mean, I don’t want to read about lockdown and all its glory, shall I say, rather than a negative word. But by the same token, I can’t pretend it didn’t happen. So, I know lots of people are setting their books in 2022, or they’re setting their books in 2018, whereas I’ve just thought I’m going to get it over with. I’m going to talk about it. But I never actually say the word pandemic or anything else. I kind of pretend almost that it happened, but we’re over it, and it’s—I mean, obviously it’s not quite over. But it’s kind of—it’s set afterwards. It mentions it. So now I can go forward, and in the next book I write I can kind of vaguely allude to it but not have to deal with it. Because I think most people are going to have to deal with it in some shape or form at some point. So, I’ve already ripped off the plaster, as it were, and I’ve done it.
And, yeah, it wasn’t easy. The decision just came from thinking I’d just get it over and done with. And part of the story is based on—it kind of works because of the situation we’re in and why it happens. Yeah, so I just thought I’d just do it. I’d just get on with it.
JOHN VERCHER: Was there any pushback from your publisher when you decided to do that?
DOROTHY KOOMSON: Oh, no. I’m very lucky. My publisher is really great. My editor is great. She just lets me do whatever I want. I don’t even have to send her bits of the book while I’m writing it. I just deliver the book, and then she reads it, and she says to me, “Oh, I love it.” Always, always, everybody says, “I love it.” But she always says this doesn’t work or that doesn’t work. And I go, okay, how dare you, and then I kind of change it. Because we all do that, don’t we? We all pretend that we’re really cool with it, but we go, “No, how dare you? I’m perfect.” And then you have to realize that you have to change it. So yeah.
So, I had no pushback. I haven’t had anybody really say anything negative about that aspect of the book. So, yes, I’ve been very fortunate I think in that respect.
ALYSSA COLE: I thought it was really—when I started reading it, I was like this is brilliant because it just ties so well into the story. And like John said, the claustrophobia and this thing that everyone kept being like absolutely not. You know, there was all this debate. And I thought you did such an amazing job of integrating it into the story without making it the story. But also, really using it for the tension and suspense of the book. And like just the atmosphere. So, I loved it.
DOROTHY KOOMSON: Well, thank you. Can I just say I loved your book as well. I have to say I did. I was lying in bed the other night sort of like with the phone light on, trying to read it and not waking my husband up. Which I don’t normally do. I usually just have the light on. I don’t care. But I sat there reading it by mobile phone light because it was so good, I had to finish it.
ALYSSA COLE: Thank you.
DOROTHY KOOMSON: Once I knew I wasn’t going to be completely—I mean, I was properly stressed.
JOHN VERCHER: Yeah, that is a stressful book. So, Alyssa, I love how you skewered the sort of thinly veiled corporate speak of gentrification. Like emerging community. And you have brilliant descriptions like renovating as genetic inheritance. So, I wanted to know that when you decided to make this—or when you decided to write this, how much was based on what you already knew about the history of gentrification, and how much did you learn as part of the process? Because I thought I knew some about it, and then I read your book, and I felt like it was edutainment. Like I was getting educated and entertained at the same time. So, I’m curious about your research process and how much of this was new to you.
ALYSSA COLE: A good portion of it was new to me, but also a lot of it wasn’t. So, I write romance as well, and historical romance is some of what I write in romance. So, I’ve had books set in various time periods—mostly American historical romance with African American characters and characters from other marginalized backgrounds. So, researching—a bit like Sydney, researching during the Revolutionary War and then the years after and then Civil War and then the Civil Rights Movement. And just kind of seeing across history the ways in which oppression kind of manifested in the United States and the way it kind of resonates to now. And it’s one of those things that over the years of writing has kind of every time been like, okay, this clearly keeps happening.
So, as I was thinking about this thriller, I really—in a way, it was a kind of catharsis. Learning all these things, and of course things that don’t always go into the books. The other books, as you’re researching you see things, and you’re like, “What? Are you kidding me? Why would this even be necessary? It’s literally just cruelty.” So, kind of just seeing all these things.
One of the reasons I started writing historical romance, even though I never thought I would, was that I started learning these things that we were never taught in school and was just kind of annoyed. I think there’s a way—generally when I’m writing something, there’s a way to make a fun story, have some educational stuff just because I like doing research, and also then have kissing. So, kind of hit all of those bases that can make a story enjoyable for someone.
And so, for this with the research, I had like a lot of my research from the past that I either had specific things I remembered, or I went back and revisited. And then I also was just going down all of these different rabbit holes. At a certain point, I had just like hundreds of tabs open on all these browsers. It was a terrible research method because then one day my computer shut down and did not restore the tabs. Luckily, it was later in the book process. But I was like it always restores; it didn’t restore this time. It was probably like this is way too many tabs; I’m not doing this again.
So basically, it was just finding one thing and then seeing something mentioned and then googling that and then seeing what comes up for that and finding different resources, whether it was libraries, older books, research books, and books about gentrification.
And as far as gentrification, like I had mentioned a bit earlier, it was something that I had wanted to write about for a while but just hadn’t ever really found the right vehicle for it. Because it was something I was interested in, just seeing it happen where I grew up. And the good sides and the bad sides, and the bad sides often happening for the people who have lived there for a long time. And there’s this idea you buy a house, and that’s supposedly the American dream. And at this point with gentrification, at some point you just have to move because one way or another they will get you out of that house if they decide that the area is good.
So, I was just thinking about how this is just legal for the most part and so common and how it’s also horrifying. So, I kind of just tried to tap into that specific horror of like these are things that are literally happening all around us every day like everywhere. I hear from readers from all over the place—not some aspects of the book hopefully. But like the gentrification and changing of the neighborhood and people being forced out. Like this is what’s happening in my neighborhood. And honestly this is like—I’m not going to give any spoilers. But it’s kind of fascinating to see that it’s so pervasive everywhere and to what end.
So, yeah, I guess just for me being able to explore that in a way that I try to make it as entertaining as possible to help with the fact that some of the stuff is very dark and not fun to think about but also is a bit too realistic for some people.
JOHN VERCHER: Dorothy, are there parallels to that in that in the UK? Did you find that as you were reading?
DOROTHY KOOMSON: Absolutely. One area that has completely changed is Brixton, which was very much known as a Black area. And it’s very different now. Like there was a market, and the tube station was really dodgy. Around there, there’d be people trying to sell you stuff and trying to get your tube passes off you. And it’s all gone. It’s all been changed—really changed. Really changed. And there’s also other bits of London where I lived before, I moved to Brighton—because I live on the coast now. When I bought my flat there, it was not the best area. It was all right, and you’re surrounded by all different types of people. And now because it’s kind of easy access to London, my flat has—the price of it has shot up, and the area again has changed. It’s just very different. It’s not as—I don’t know—fun? And it’s not as normal. Because I like being surrounded by lots of different types of people and feeling like that you belong there. And you don’t feel out of place. And that means you can be surrounded by all sorts of different people—people from all different sorts of backgrounds, not just one particular background. But it’s kind of slowly changing all over.
And obviously, when I used to—in central London. I mean, it’s like a building site every time I go there. I don’t go there that often anymore. But it’s just like new buildings have shot up, and all the dodgy people and the people who I used to love seeing—you have names for them in your head—they’re kind of all gone. They’ve all disappeared. And that was the thing. That was what was so—the thing about it. The fact that these people just disappear, and that’s what was kind of really scary about Alyssa’s book. Is the whole fact that people just disappear. And you kind of don’t think about it until you actually start thinking about it. It’s like what did happen to them. They didn’t seem to have the means to kind of move on somewhere else, so where did they go?
JOHN VERCHER: Yeah, the Get Out comparison was pretty apt for Alyssa’s book. So, switching gears a little bit into sort of a craft conversation or a craft question—back to another literary hot take: prologues. There are plenty of hot takes about whether writers or readers want prologues, read prologues. And I think in both your books’ cases, if the case can be made for using them, they should read your books. Because immediately there’s tension, there’s voice, there’s all these things that pull you right in.
So, I’m wondering, both of you—maybe start with Dorothy—like what is it that you like about a prologue, and what do you make of this notion that some people think they’re unnecessary or that they skip reading?
DOROTHY KOOMSON: Well, I love a prologue. If you read all of my other books, as you can see behind me, they’re full of them. They’re full of prologues. I love them. When you write a book, you want people to keep reading, and you want to grab them as early as possible. And so, when I talk to people about writing, I always say make sure that the first three pages are so good that the person reading it won’t want to put it down, or they’ll want to buy it when they pick it up in the shop. And a prologue can allow you to kind of move something that’s really interesting and really kind of like, “Ah!” to the front of the book and to start it there. And I do it all the time.
And you know what? I think some people have too much time on their hands, and they clearly spend a lot of time worrying about what other people do. If you don’t want a prologue, don’t put it in your book. No one’s forcing you to. And by the same token, why are you telling other people how to write their books? Because it’s their book. It’s like if you want to come and write my book for me, fine. But you’re not, so get a grip is what I can say to that. I’m sorry, I know I sound really dismissive, but, oh.
ALYSSA COLE: No, no, no. I feel the same way.
JOHN VERCHER: No, I love it.
ALYSSA COLE: I have very strong feelings about the prologue discussion because, similar to Dorothy, I’m like mind your own business. Why do you care what we’re doing? And this idea that it’s not necessary is just bizarre to me because every book has a different necessity. So, if you’re trying to just say that there’s absolutely no situation in which a prologue works, that to me feels like super reductionist and not actually understanding about the creative process of writing. Even though people saying it are usually trying to sound like very, like, “Literature doesn’t need a prologue.” And I don’t know. I just find it very strange that people bring it up again and again. And I feel like often people just kind of get these ideas. You know, people dislike what they dislike. But it will be something that is like so broad that I’m like how can you know that you dislike it in every instance? Like people will say I don’t like prologues, I don’t like first person. These things that are just one factor of a book that are completely different depending on who is writing the book.
So maybe you read a book from a person, and you didn’t like their prologue, and you read a book from another person, and you didn’t like the way they used first person or third person. And then you’re just like, “I don’t like this in any of my books.” And that is—there are literally millions of books. I’m sure there’s one instance in the world where you’ll read a prologue, and you’ll enjoy it. So, I think, yeah, maybe loosen up. Or just skip it. You don’t have to tell anyone.
DOROTHY KOOMSON: That’s the other thing. You don’t have to read it. You literally don’t have to read it. People get very funny about the whole writing process. It literally is—I’ve sat down and written a book and decided I’m going to put a prologue on it—I quite fancy one. And someone has gone, “You can’t do that, Dorothy. How dare you? It’s not literary.” Who are you, you know?
JOHN VERCHER: I’ve always felt that there was a gatekeeping aspect to that too. It feels like it limits who is a good writer and what they can do and what you can’t do.
ALYSSA COLE: It’s just very strange. And I feel like for me those kinds of statements always have the opposite effect. They’re usually made to show some kind of authority or a higher understanding, when really to me it just makes the person seem like they actually don’t know what they’re talking about and are just trying to get attention or something.
DOROTHY KOOMSON: Trying to deflect from the fact that they haven’t read that many books and they don’t understand a lot of books. That’s the other thing. The types of books that I write and that I like to read that aren’t as good as literary books, you know? Like I say, just don’t write one if you don’t—just skip it or find another book without a prologue. But good luck with that because you’re missing out on so much good stuff.
JOHN VERCHER: You both brought up first person, and you both wrote in first person for these two books. And I love that you also both sort of introduced a little bit of unreliability in both of our narrators. And either one of you or both of you sort of talk about that choice to use first person and the unreliability. Did you ever consider doing third person? Was it always a first person type of idea? Let’s start with Alyssa. Kind of what was your process with that?
ALYSSA COLE: For this project, I felt first person would be good because I really wanted to ground the reader in Sydney’s experience and Thea’s experience and also really show how different they were as characters. That can be done in third person as well, but for me it just felt like it made sense for them, and that’s kind of how it came to me.
And I think I generally think of every character as an unreliable narrator. All of us are unreliable narrators. But I think it’s like really fun to play around with and insert in ways people’s different perceptions. Each character will have a different perception of what’s happening. Their past experiences will lead them to think of something immediately or completely miss something because it’s not something they would even pay attention to. And then you add in things like is there a current—are they even trusting their own perception of the world at the time? Are they having any mental health issues? Are they stressed? Are they sleeping? So, I feel like with first person, there’s a—as long as you—and it takes a while. Sometimes it can take a while to really nail down the voice for first person. I think that’s like the hardest thing. Because when it’s first person, it’s really like someone is telling you—someone is telling you a story. And if you don’t like how they’re telling the story, then the book is not going to work for you.
So, I think trying to establish a strong voice that makes the reader want to hear what the characters are saying is one of the most important things. And then like playing around with that, with unreliability. Because what one person sees, the other person didn’t see. And what one person knows—and maybe if they’re telling a story, sometimes you mention something, and sometimes you leave something out. Or sometimes you don’t think of something until later.
So, I feel like with a thriller, there are just so many fun ways you can use both first person and just like the general unreliability of humans to up the stakes and surprise the reader.
DOROTHY KOOMSON: I really like—I mean, most of my books are in the first person or they’ll have first person and then third person. There is a couple of passages written in third person by the policeman Dunston. Just because I didn’t feel as much connection to him as I did with the other characters who were all in first person. And I say that, and I want to kind of qualify that by meaning I wanted you to have—the reader to have an outside view of him and who he was rather than an internal view of him. You still got to see what he was thinking. But also, this sort of like—his actions and how he kind of got involved in the situation that he’s in. I just felt more comfortable—it just seemed more right. It seemed right that I was writing about Dunston in the third person.
But first person—yeah, it’s great fun. It feels like I’m being that person. So, I can say the things that they would say and do the things that they would do. So, yeah, I really—I enjoy writing in first person. I enjoyed being all these different people. I mean, obviously my husband doesn’t enjoy it because I start taking on that person’s traits. He’s like, “Okay, who are you being today then? Am I still living with the crazy lady who wants to stab a piece of broccoli through my eye or something?”
But, yeah, I find it really liberating almost because I do get to be another person almost when I’m typing—telling that person’s story. And as Alyssa said, you do have a very different view of the world, and you do have a very different take on the same situations.
In my book The Ice Cream Girls, it’s written in first person from two perspectives—two women who were accused of teenagers of the same crime. And I wrote their stories sort of separately, so there are two versions of the same scenes and how they saw it and how it was completely different from their perspectives. Because when I was being Serena, I hated Poppy, and she was the worst person in the world. And I was like I hate her. And then when it came to being Poppy, it was like Serena is a silly cow, and I hate her. So, I loved the freedom of being able to sort of be unreliable but also kind of—I mean, you know. Obviously, there’s a distance there because you know what the rest of the story is and what else is happening. But, yeah, I really enjoy it, and I find it kind of liberating. So, all the people who have something to say about it, I don’t care. I enjoy it. I’m really juvenile sometimes, aren’t I? Sorry.
JOHN VERCHER: I’m kind of curious personally. I don’t know if you can answer this without spoiling it. Was there a reason you wanted readers to have some distance from Dunston? Or is that going to spoil something if you tell us why?
DOROTHY KOOMSON: It might spoil it a bit because there’s a couple of things that wouldn’t have been as ahh moments if you were watching the whole—seeing the story from inside his head, I think.
JOHN VERCHER: Good point. Alyssa, you brought up mental health when you were talking about first person, and that was one thing I really wanted to talk to you both about. You both don’t shy away from the discussion of mental health for two of your protagonists in these books. And I mean, we’re watching it right now in the news. People are policing Simone Biles for her—taking agency and putting herself first. So, I wonder was that a very intentional choice by both of you to bring out mental health particularly for Black women in this book and talk about why that was important for you in these books. Alyssa?
ALYSSA COLE: For me, it was extremely intentional. And it was because I have mental health issues myself. So many people do. And Black women especially—I mean, I don’t think it’s taken seriously for anyone, to be honest. Unfortunately. But in Black women especially, there is this kind of real inability to believe that. There has been this construct of the strong Black woman. The strong Black woman and the angry Black woman. And both of those cancel out the sad Black woman or the Black woman who is going through some things and could use some support.
So, I think for me, it was very intentional to kind of show how Sydney has gone through things already, is currently going through things, how it’s impacting her mental health, and how she actually feels so isolated, even though I think along the way hopefully the reader sees that she wasn’t. But because she is so used to no one caring about her mental health or her struggles, she kind of isolates herself in some of the situations.
So, I kind of just wanted to—in addition to the gentrification and the other aspects of the story—talk about how Black women are often made to feel that they have to do everything themselves, including take care of their own mental health. And sometimes they are successful, and sometimes they are not. And I just feel like in mainstream media especially, that’s changing now in recent years. But we were always the sidekick or the comic relief or some other terrible things. And I just feel like centering—showing the mental health struggles that some Black women deal with is just some time—you know, for Black women I wanted them to say, hey, yeah, we have mental health issues too, and that can be part of a story too without being the entire story.
Because it’s an everyday thing for many people. And also, we deserve to have these kinds of stories told about us, where we’re not—I don’t want to give any spoilers—but also to kind of show Black women I see you, and there are other people who see you. But also, to show other people like we are literally not superheroes. Yeah, you can see it playing out with Simone Biles, with Naomi Osaka. In so many different cases, you’re just expected to either be super strong or to shut up. And there’s not much—I guess in general pop culture and society, there isn’t much desire to hear anything from you in between that.
DOROTHY KOOMSON: Yeah, you almost have to be perfect, or they don’t want to know. With Rae in particular in my book, she has health anxiety, so she’s always—and I think a lot of people do, a lot particularly Black women, and are not taken seriously. And that’s the other thing. You go to the doctors about a problem, and you have to go several times. In England obviously at the moment—and I say at the moment because we know what’s going, what’s coming to our world—you don’t have to pay to see your normal GP. But I’m thinking of a couple of health issues that I’ve had that I’ve had to literally go and pay somebody to be able to take me seriously.
And the first time I did that, I was sitting there while he told me all about the books he’d written and basically dismissed me as being a bit busy. And I was like, so I’ve paid for this nonsense. And then it took another five years before somebody would take me seriously about my health problems. And it was a health problem that’s common for Black people and particularly Black women. But no one wanted to know. Yeah, and so I did put that almost purposefully in the book, in I Know What You’ve Done—that Rae has health anxiety and she’s worried constantly about her husband or her children falling ill and then not being able to do anything about it. Yeah, because it’s a reality for a lot of us.
And Alyssa’s right. Everyone talks the good talk—the be kind and look after each other and all this business about mental health issues. And it’s all there. We have all these hashtags, and we have all these people doing videos and talking about it. But when it comes down to it, people dismiss it. People say the most appalling things. And particularly if you’re a Black person, they feel they have license to do it and attribute what you’re saying—you’re actually saying this is the problem I have, and they go, “Oh, it’s because you’re not winning. Oh, it’s because you weren’t this and that.” And it’s like, no. I’ve literally killed myself to get to where I am, and I can’t do it anymore. I need a break. I need a break. And when you’re a Black woman particularly, when you’re a person who’s constantly having to work to keep yourself on an even keel or to keep yourself being able to pay your bills or just to like get up in the morning, the idea that there’s one more thing that you’ve got to do—sometimes it’s just too much. And you’re not allowed to do that, and it really feels like you’re not allowed to say, “I can’t do this today. I can’t do this tomorrow. I just want to break.” Without a whole load of criticism coming down on you.
And it makes me sad, and it also makes me really, really mad. But obviously I can’t say that because I don’t want to be the angry Black woman. I don’t want to be the strong Black woman. I just want to be me, just exist. But apparently that’s not allowed. I have to fit into this box. And what Alyssa was saying about traditionally Black women—we have these roles in fiction particularly.
When I was writing my books, one of the reasons why I wanted to write my books and I wrote my books is because I wanted the world—but particularly Black women—to see that we could be the hero. We could be the romantic lead. We could be the kooky girl. We can be a bit silly. We can be ridiculous. We can be nasty. We don’t have to be the sassy best friend, the aggressive antagonist, the sexually promiscuous so-and-so. We can be whole, round human beings. And it’s difficult to kind of get people to see us like that.
And I’m going to stop talking now because I just realized I’m talking too much.
ALYSSA COLE: No, I was agreeing with everything.
JOHN VERCHER: Yeah.
ALYSSA COLE: And I just wanted to add that this year I literally was like—remember Shonda Rhimes had the Year of Yes, and I remember when that came out, and I was like, yes, I’m going to do the year of yes. This year for me I was like this is the year of no. I am learning to say no and hopefully to stop feeling guilty about it afterwards. Because like Dorothy said, people will just kill you. They will not care. Because it’s a real inability to just see other people, but also I think there is a cultural background to believing that Black women can just do anything and can just keep working and working and are happy to do it.
Yeah, if anyone here is watching and people keep asking you to do stuff and you are tired, just say no. You don’t have to tell them why. I can’t. No is a complete sentence. I appreciate you asking, but no. It is the year of no. Also, we’re all exhausted. We’re in a pandemic. All of us are like having—compartmentalizing who knows how many various breakdowns from like—we all live in different places. But confinement and all the other stressors of living through a pandemic. It is okay to say no. It is fine. People will—they’ll live. They’ll go on.
DOROTHY KOOMSON: But also, we didn’t just have a pandemic. We had all that stuff that happened.
ALYSSA COLE: Yeah, the political.
DOROTHY KOOMSON: That was just on top of everything. It was just too much. I swear I was so exhausted by it all. And I’m still exhausted now by it all because it’s not like it’s gone away. It’s still there. But we knew it was all there. It was all there, but everyone else could see it suddenly, and you’re like but I’ve been telling you this for years.
JOHN VERCHER: Exactly. This is nothing new.
ALYSSA COLE: That’s the other thing. It’s not even like just the pandemic. It’s like multiple, various worldwide large-scale, stressful, traumatic events.
JOHN VERCHER: Just stacked on top of another.
ALYSSA COLE: So, yeah, be kind to yourself. Say no to other people. It’s okay.
DOROTHY KOOMSON: I’m going to say that you said that to me now, so I’m going to stop saying it.
JOHN VERCHER: So, we can blame it on Alyssa.
ALYSSA COLE: I’ll write out a note and post it. Everyone can just pass it on.
DOROTHY KOOMSON: Yeah. Do that.
JOHN VERCHER: So, I know we’re close on time, but you brought up—this whole idea of saying no kind of brought up one other question that I had for both of you because I love the characterization in your novels, particularly of Sydney and of Rae. And one of the things that I noticed about them, when I was thinking about it after I’d finished is that for a good portion of the book things are happening to them. But without spoilers, at a pivotal point they both take action. And again, I think with this discussion of mental health and feeling empowered to say no, was that also a very intentional choice on both of your parts? And sort of what was behind that choice. So, let’s start with Dorothy this time.
DOROTHY KOOMSON: I think a lot of my books are like that, especially my emotional thrillers—my later books. They are– things happen–the person finds themselves in this situation, and they have to find a way out of it. Particularly with Rae, it was a weird one for her because she’s in a situation where someone has given her this dossier of what everybody around her is doing. And then suddenly she finds out all this stuff that she doesn’t want to know like such-and-such has got a very strange relationship with their dog, and such-and-such has an obsession with bins. And those are like the little things, and then she finds out that her other neighbor—that he’s very, very dodgy, and he’s doing very odd things. And she kind of—she can’t help being in that situation because now it’s kind of being thrust upon her. Only because she’s seen her husband’s name in this book, and she needs to know what her husband has been up to.
So yeah, I think for most of my books there is this sort of thing—such-and-such happens, and then you get to a point where you’re like, you know what, I’ve got to rise up. But they are at very different points usually, and they are for very different reasons. I don’t write formulaic books, before anybody starts thinking, well, I won’t bother with Koomson’s books anymore. They’re not like that at all.
But, yeah, it’s like life, isn’t it sometimes? When all the stuff was happening with the pandemic and everything else that came with it, I thought, you know what, I have to do something positive. So, one of the things I did was I started a thing with my friend. We started a business, which was like a book box, where we feature a Black author every quarter, and then we have three or four products from Black-owned businesses so that we could help elevate and get out to the wider world these Black-owned businesses and Black authors. And that was my way of kind of going this is all happening to me, so I need to do something to change that—to make it a positive thing. And obviously it’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of work, but I do feel like it was the right thing to do. And it was, like Rae, I want to do something. I want to change the situation. And so that was—I suppose, like I say, most of my books and most of my life—when bad things happen, I try and find a way to not make lemonade—because to be honest, lemonade from lemons is not good unless you put a ton of sugar in. Just try and make something drinkable or good from it.
JOHN VERCHER: Alyssa?
ALYSSA COLE: I’m sorry, I’m totally blanking on the question.
DOROTHY KOOMSON: I’ve talked so much you’ve forgotten the question.
ALYSSA COLE: No, no, no. I do this often. That’s also partially why I moderate a lot of stuff. Because I’m like I have the questions on a list. I can look at them.
JOHN VERCHER: We were talking about characters having things happen to them and then at a pivotal point making things happen for them.
DOROTHY KOOMSON: Sorry, sorry.
ALYSSA COLE: No, no, no. It was not because you talked too long. Yeah, for me it was in a way intentional because, like I said—like much of this book was—I wasn’t explicitly thinking it when I started writing it, but it did become a kind of catharsis for me to write it. Because just like a brief story of the last historical romance that I wrote was called An Unconditional Freedom. And it was like a very heavy book. It was about a man who was free, and then he was sold into slavery, and then he becomes part of this secret society of Black people during the Civil War. And in the other books, the people were a little—there were dark things, but they were a little more upbeat. And his book is—he’s like I’m going to kill Jefferson Davis. And it’s like a trip to kill Jefferson Davis with his love interest, who is a double agent.
So, I was satisfied with the end of the book, but I couldn’t change history. Because then it would become historical fantasy. And especially writing that with everything that was going on in politics in the United States in 2018 when it was finished, it was just like a lot.
So, with this book, I was like, okay, I am dealing with historical stuff, but the book is set in the present, and I get to control what happens. And I feel like I need this, and I feel like other people need this. Like other readers need this—Black readers, Black women. But readers from any kind of background where you have just been kind of—like we said, we’ve just been having this buildup of all of these terrible things, especially over the last years. Even before the pandemic started. So, kind of this need for—I was like I want to write a thriller where terrible things are happening but also just like have characters where you can get some sense of dread. Have a little bit of a boost or a sense of like—I’m not saying people need to live vicariously through certain scenes, but also just like not the actual actions but the—a lot of my books in various ways are fantasies of justice or of being able to change systems that are unfair. So, I feel like in this sense, in the book Sidney taking ownership of her own life is for thriller readers or any readers kind of a cathartic moment and something—
And like Dorothy, I also think I’m a bit similar like trying to do things. My thing that I started during the pandemic was I was doing a series of panels like this with authors because all of the bookstore events were closed. I started with a bookstore, Loyalty Books, which is a bookstore in D.C. And it would just be like romance authors who had new releases and talking up their releases and making sure that people were aware that books were coming out. And also, a place for people to hang out and not talk about the pandemic and just have something nice happen every couple of weeks or once a month.
So, I think, yeah, the idea of being stuck in a terrible situation and not having things happen to you automatically just brings this sense of what can you do to change that and what can you do to make it better in some way. And like Dorothy said, not lemonade or lemonade with a lot of sugar, but what can you do to make something better even in a small way.
JOHN VERCHER: That’s great. Those are both great answers. Real quick, what’s next for you two? Because I know we’re short on time. But what’s coming next?
DOROTHY KOOMSON: I’m writing book eighteen, and I’ve got the idea. Haven’t got the title, but I’ve got the idea, and it’s going to get there. It’s going to be good. I think it’s going to be good. I’m going to have fun with it. It’s going to be my ultimate—I mean, one of my favorite things about being a writer is that you get to get revenge on everybody who upsets you. So, I’ve got a lot of paybacks for this book.
ALYSSA COLE: I’m looking forward to that. Me, I am currently doing revising and being sad about edits to my first graphic novel, which is going to be super fun. So, in my contemporary royalty series, there’s a novella. The characters bond over a fake anime I made for the book called Reject Squad Ultra. And of course, I described it as I was writing it. I was like, man, this would be cool if this was real. And then some people were like, “Is that going to be like a real thing? Like a comic?” And I was like I hope so, and then—
JOHN VERCHER: That’s amazing.
ALYSSA COLE: I commissioned someone to make art for when the book was released, Erin O’Neill Jones, who is an amazing artist. And at the time, I was like I really love her art. And then a couple of years later it’s like, “Do you do comic books?” And she had started doing comic books, so we like—and again, it started as, okay, I’m just going to make like a few pages. It’ll be fun for readers. And then I saw what she did, and I was like, look, we have to do something. There’s no way I can just like—her skill as an artist is just amazing. But anyway, yes. So, I’m working on the script, which is like the easiest part, and then will be sending it to her to draw that. It’s been a really fun project so far but like also as a lifelong nerd it’s like my dream project, I guess.
DOROTHY KOOMSON: It’s like you and me are like the same person, Alyssa, sometimes. The things that—I mean, I haven’t written pure romance like you have, but I do like a lot of romance. And, yeah, thrillers and graphic novels. I’m so jealous of that, actually. I’m going to have to think of one now.
ALYSSA COLE: Yeah, you should do one.
JOHN VERCHER: That’s incredible.
DOROTHY KOOMSON: What are you doing next, John?
JOHN VERCHER: I am also working on a comic idea—sort of pitching it around at the moment. And then got After the Lights Go Out coming out next year with Soho. And also, another big project I can’t quite talk about yet, but it’ll be exciting hopefully. I’ll make sure you two are the first to know.
All right, so I better wrap up because they’re probably going to get mad at me. I could talk to you two all day.
DOROTHY KOOMSON: I told you I talk too much.
JOHN VERCHER: This has been amazing. I hope you guys had fun. I had a lot of fun. But thank you to both of you so much and for everybody that tuned in, please consider—I’m not even going to say consider—just buy their books if you haven’t already from your local bookseller or through the links on VaBook.org. And you can also check out future virtual events and watch past events from Virginia Festival of the Book at VaBook.org. Thank you very much, everyone. This was a lot of fun. Talk to you soon.
ALYSSA COLE: Bye, everyone. Thank you.
DOROTHY KOOMSON: Bye.
JOHN VERCHER: Take care.