It’s 1862, and Elle Burns is not what she seems. Ostensibly a slave working in a Confederate senator’s Richmond home, she’s actually a plant gathering intel to aid the Union cause—when she encounters Malcolm McCall, another spy, a dashing Scotsman by way of Kentucky, who simultaneously infuriates and interests her.
So goes the setup for Alyssa Cole’s new historical romance novel, An Extraordinary Union. But the book ends with an author’s note, about how Cole, despite her love of historical romance, always doubted she’d write one, much less one set during the Civil War. But:
The more I learned about American history, the more I saw it as the staging ground for stories just as entertaining and epic as the Regency dukes and viscounts romance readers swoon for. I also saw the possibility of extending the tropes of the Civil Ware beyond “brother fighting brother” and “swooning Southern belle,” two categories that conveniently left out a whole swath of people, generally of a darker hue.
Of course, the Civil War has been a perennially popular staple of American popular fiction. It’s not just Gone With the Wind, either—think of the miniseries fodder of the 1980s and 90s, things like North and South, The Killer Angels, and Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. For years the romance genre, too, often turned to this particular chapter of American history. The last decade or two have brought a retreat from the era, but browse the right used bookstore and you’ll find an alarming number of plantations deployed as romanticized, unexamined backdrops.
Various novels might grant that slavery was the conflict’s cause, or peddle Lost Cause mythology to a greater or lesser degree, but with just a few prominent exceptions, almost all of them have perpetuated the notion that the story of the Civil War is one about white people. (Films, too.) In another generation, Cole’s dashing Pinkerton hero would’ve been paired not with Elle, but with Susie, a spoiled Southern belle who routinely takes her frustrations out on the book’s heroine. With projects like WGN America’s Underground, Cole’s lively novel—besides being an enjoyable romance full of adventure and extremely good lust—is therefore part of a long-overdue pushback against the way historical fiction portrays this seminal moment in American history.
I talked to Cole about how she decided to tackle the topic of the Civil War and navigating her characters’ happy endings, as well as checking in about her next series—the Reluctant Royals, set in the modern day, for which Prince Harry and Meghan Markle might as well be viral marketing.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
How did you come up with the idea to write An Extraordinary Union?
Alyssa Cole: Even though I’ve always loved reading historicals, I was like, I don’t think I’ll ever write historicals. And then I started reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog on The Atlantic, and he talks about a lot of different things, you know, like comic books and politics, but also history. I had always been a history buff, watching the History Channel and things like that, but he was talking about more like hidden American history and about things that aren’t quite common knowledge or that you don’t really learn in school, and I found all this stuff really cool. I was like, hm, this could be fun, to write historical romance about that. Partially because no matter what kind of romance I’m writing, I always like doing research and sneaking in research and facts.
But I was also like, okay, maybe I’ll try historical, but I’m going to stay away from the Civil War. I wanted to do a Revolutionary War story and eventually I would write Be Not Afraid, which was one of the first historicals I published. Then I got an idea for a Civil Rights-set story and that eventually became Let It Shine.
Long story short, I saw a call for a historical romance anthology, and I was like, oh, I’m writing historical romance, except the 1960s does not really count as historical as far as historical romance goes. And I was like, well, I guess I have to think of something further back in history to write, but I don’t want to do the Revolutionary War, because I’m going to do that story later.
Then I thought of this article I had read about Mary Bowser, an African American woman who had a photographic memory and was a spy in Jefferson Davis’s White House. It went from “I’m definitely not going to write anything set in the Civil War” to “I am going to write an interracial romance set in the Civil War because I hate myself! [laughs] Or I wanted to set up the biggest challenge, I don’t know.
I thought maybe it would work out, maybe it won’t work out—I’m not sure I can actually pull of this idea without being weird or without it turning into or being read as a fetishy thing or something creepy. I just started writing the characters and the story just kept flowing.
And that was how I went from saying I was never going to write a Civil War romance to getting totally invested into a Civil War series.
I was going to ask to what extent it was based on real people, but it sounds like one specific person was your inspiration.
Mary Bowser, the character Elle is inspired by her, I guess. Mary herself, she had a different situation. Her former owner, who released her when her father died, was a Unionist in Virginia, and so she actually was with her, and that was how she ended up in Jefferson Davis’s White House. And obviously she was in a more dangerous situation than Elle, because she was in, basically, the White House of the Confederacy spying.
It was funny because even though it’s the truth, I was like, if I actually put her in the White House and then also had to put Jefferson Davis there and constantly have him around, that can draw people out of the story, when there are actual historical figures around at all times. If they make an appearance every now and then it’s fine, but if they’re there and you’re giving them personalities, that can be distracting. So I don’t really want her in an actual historical figure’s home but something that is dangerous and believable—and if she was in the White House, then I felt like anyone else’s home would be believable.
Malcolm is inspired by Timothy Webster, who was a Pinkerton Spy. He worked with Alan Pinkerton spying for the Union, and he traveled around the country and in the South ingratiating himself to Southerners who were plotting against the Union and a lot of times he would get in with people, totally mess up their plan and they would never even suspect him because they just assumed that he was another Southerner. He helped stop a plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. He was one of the Union’s greatest spies. He did not have a happy ending, unfortunately—that was also one of the other things, it’s nice that you can take all of these aspects of history and remix them a little bit and also give it a happy ending and a hopeful ending.
You weren’t sure you ever wanted to write a historical romance. What made you hesitate to jump in and try your hand at that genre?
So, you know, I’m black, and a lot of the kind of romance I write usually really tries to reflect reality and the reality of diverse people in society. And, you know, sometimes even with contemporaries, that can be frustrating. With history and especially American history it was like—and I think this is something that people think about before even buying an American historical romance with a character of color—is there going to be a happy ending and how can there be a happy ending? Things like that. As I studied history more and just, well, common sense—I’m here. There are so many people of color here. We all got here somehow. And I’m sure it wasn’t all misery for every single one of our families. So here in the United States, things weren’t always great—understatement!—but even in terrible times, people always manage to find some form of happiness and there are happy stories that can be found in real history.
So I started thinking, well, why wouldn’t I be able to make a romance set in any time period? There has always been instability, there have always been terrible things going on, but people have always found a way to find love and happiness and family in times like these.
My own thoughts were also formed by, in the same way that everyone else’s have been—you only think about the stories that have already been told. Subconsciously, you feel like maybe there’s a reason that there aren’t many of this kind of story. But then as you do more historical research and look around, you start to see, okay, well, there are reasons and it’s not because they’re not realistic and or that they can’t be done, it’s because pop culture—and especially with the Civil War—we have these single stories of what happened during that time period and who was around and who contributed and who didn’t.
One thing that also was helpful was with the internet, with social media, more and more research is coming out, and as more and more people are looking into and interested in American history and in multicultural American history, there’s been more research, and more research means more fodder for stories for me.
It does seem like the internet has expanded the narratives.
I think so. And I think it’s helpful in ways that we don’t even really think about. Even just a few years ago, when I put out my first historical with African-American people, Be Not Afraid. It was featuring a black hero and heroine, and the hero is fighting for America and the heroine has run away from her slave master and is fighting for the British and they’re both stubbornly insisting that they are right. Some of the first reviews that came out were like, well, I don’t understand why he would fight for America. And I can see that, but also, that’s just basic history, that in every armed conflict America has ever had there have been African American soldiers. But because it’s something that wasn’t shown very much outside of the movie Glory, maybe, for the Civil War, it seemed strange to people.
This is also why I always put author’s notes. They’re not even always super detailed. I try to think what are the things that people might not know. I put them also because I like sharing the things I’ve researched, because I find them interesting, obviously. But also because sometimes people are like, oh, I don’t think that could have happened. And then they can go to the author’s note.
For me, the thing that has become more clear over time is that people are getting more used to the idea, and I think it’s because of sites like Medieval POC, who does so much great work with just showing that people of color have always been around, which is an obvious thing when you think about it, but people really do need visual aids sometimes. Here’s a painting from the 15th century. Here is a poem from whatever era.
So even if people aren’t specifically going and seeking these things out, if they’re on Twitter or they’re on Tumblr or any social media site and someone in their timeline decides to share something, even if they don’t decide to stop and look at it, they’ve scrolled by it and they see that it’s there. So somewhere in their brain they’re like, okay, now I know that this is something that is possible or historically accurate. Even for people who don’t particularly read it, it is very hard for anyone to believe anymore that there were no black people or no Asian people at any given time period in any country.
It’s interesting too because there’s this feedback loop where it becomes hard to write historical fiction or historical romance about people of color, because people don’t see people of color depicted in historical fiction or historical romance.
And that’s also partly why I wanted to do it, too. I mean, I just always wanted to be a writer. And I really enjoyed reading historical romances, but anytime there was a black character or a non-white character in historical romance, they were never the hero or heroine. They were either a servant or a slave or someone with some terrible backstory or a kung fu master or something like that. And I do think it’s really important to have those stories for people to read. I mean, for everyone. Number one, for representation, because I just try to think what my life would have been like if I’d picked up a Beverly Jenkins book when I was a kid.
I know there are some people who always were like, I never thought I could be in those stories. I never particularly had that problem—I was always like, okay, I am going to have to write those stories if I want to see them. Like, they used to like have these short stories in the Enquirer and those newsstand magazines with little romance stories in them, and in addition to writing my own little short stories when I was a kid, I would also like take white out and cross out the descriptions of people being white and change it. I’m also an editor now which is also why I find this funny. [Laughs] But I would go in and insert the changes to make them black or something else, so then the story was a little more relevant for me, I guess.
But I think it’s important for people to have those representations. And even though I write romance I do think of it as representation for all ages, because I started reading adult books when I was pretty young and I know most romance readers start at a relatively young age. And I also think it’s important for non-black or non-Asian or non-whatever the characters are to exist, to get a breadth of different experiences and to see other people.
One of the reasons I really enjoy writing romance is because I feel like everyone should see that they are worthy of love and deserving of love and capable of being the hero and heroines who fall in love without it having to be some horrible love story, where in a love story someone can die and something terrible can happen at the end instead of a happy ending.
You know that people have always formed loving relationships and negotiated with reality to carve out their own happy endings such as they can. But also you know the history of that era. How did you, as a writer, sit down to negotiate that tension?
There are some Civil War stories and there are some interracial stories set during that time period, but they’re often very, um, fetish-y. And focusing a lot on the interracial aspect, but from a perspective of “this is taboo” and that’s what makes it so exciting for them. So I always tried to keep in mind that, for different characters it would be different, but for these particular characters, this is not really a fun situation. Malcolm didn’t want to fall in love with anyone. Elle definitely did not want to fall in love with a white guy. I always tried to keep in mind that they weren’t going into this as some fun taboo thing.
And also always trying to keep in mind the power imbalance between them, and I tried to have them both acknowledge that. Even in some contemporary romances, I don’t particularly enjoy when I read a romance and there’s a very clear power imbalance to me, the reader, and the characters are acting like it doesn’t exist. I just end up putting the book down because there’s this huge elephant in the room and either they’re acting like it’s a normal part of the relationship or it’s some kind of taboo. When I’m reading I enjoy, if there’s a situation like that, when it’s addressed and handled as best they can in the situation. It took a lot of tweaking to get Malcolm where he was—I didn’t want him to be constantly beating himself up but I also wanted him to understand as best he could her situation and her situation relative to him. Even if he thought she was amazing, how the rest of the world would view her and how the rest of the world could treat her if things didn’t work out between them.
There now have been all these Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings books coming out, talking about their love affair. And it’s like, you know, he owned her! He owned her. And these books never really address that in a way that isn’t strange. They just make it seem like, oh, he happened to own her but also he loved her. You can’t really talk about his love for her without the fact that he literally had her life in his hands, he had the lives of their children in his hands. Even if she loved him in her own way, there was always the fact that he owned her, and so many of these books try to ignore that because they feel like love overcomes that or something. But it definitely doesn’t and it makes it much more complicated. That’s a huge pet peeve of mine, so I always try to find the balance between what they wanted for themselves, what society dictated for them, and just making sure that things didn’t push too far one way or the other and that the characters were as realistic as I could manage dealing with their particular situation.
To go back to the idea of the role historical fiction and historical romance play in our awareness, I think sometimes, people treat historical fiction like it’s less powerful than it is. I think that people are just like, oh, we’re all having a good time here, but something like Gone with the Wind is a hugely important text in the history of the way we think about history and it actually played this very negative role in the way people think about the Civil War. And it’s like, this stuff is not to be trifled with, right?
Yeah. I know a lot of people love Gone with the Wind. I will be completely honest—I’ve never watched Gone with the Wind, even though it was on TBS like every other day. I’ve never read Gone with the Wind. But it’s one of those things that I feel like I’ve absorbed by pop culture osmosis, which goes to your point of how dangerous it is. I know everything that happens in the book, I’ve seen all the pivotal scenes, and I know that most people who are fans of it see Scarlett as this really tough, strong woman, and she’s always talked about as this strong heroine. And I’m just like, okay, that’s cool but... I don’t think I would really relate to her. So. Not that I can’t relate to different characters. You grow up in Western society, you read about mostly white characters probably doing things that you would not have been doing if you were alive at that time. You know, it wouldn’t be the same for me as like reading a Jane Austen book and falling in love with those characters. It’s a bit too close to home.
Susie’s character was kind of an exploration of this idea of the southern belle, which also comes up in book two and might come up again in other books in the series. It’s such a strong idea in American pop culture, the southern belle and the big hoop skirts. I guess that’s kind of our American aristocracy. But when you do research, you just read so many disturbing accounts. Obviously, the time period is full of them. It’s one of those things that I didn’t set out to do but doing all the research and how everything came together, in the end I wanted to show how she was complicit in everything that was going on and was benefitting from everything that was going on, but she was also kind of ruined by the society that she was in. If she was somewhere else, she maybe would have been a nice person, or she maybe could had an entirely different life. But she was raised in a society that told her she should always get what she wants and she needs to be perfect and always land the perfect man.
So I wanted to explore the more caustic and perhaps more realistic, when you read historical accounts, idea of what a southern belle is.
So what are you working on that’s not historical romance? I know you like to do different genres.
Apart from the “Loyal League” series, I’m actually doing a royal series with Avon, which is coming out next year. I’m super excited for that because it’s fun and there is a bit of serious stuff and there’s some angst but it’s mostly fun. I won’t say a romantic comedy, but in my mind, as I’m writing them I’m like, what is the romantic comedy movie that I would want to see in this situation?
The series is the “Reluctant Royals.” The first book follows a woman getting her masters in epidemiology. She’s an orphan and has always done everything for herself and is working several jobs. She starts getting these really annoying, what she thinks are Nigerian spam mails saying that she is the betrothed of the prince of a kingdom that she’s never heard of. So she’s really stressed out about her thesis and about money and her job, but it turns out, of course, that she is the betrothed of the prince of a small African kingdom. And he is coming to New York to do princely things and he ends up going to meet her and there is a misunderstanding, so she thinks that he is some guy who is supposed to work at her restaurant and he goes with it to see what she’s like.
So it’s a comedy of errors mixed with a royalty comedy mixed with guy next door. I guess you could describe it as Coming to America meets The Princess Diaries, but for adults.
Has the advent of Meghan Markle inspired you at all?
Okay—listen. I’m not going to say anything, but maybe I should write a book about a romance author who becomes a millionaire.