An Interview with Multi-Published Historical Fiction Author Vanessa Riley

Vanessa Riley is an award-winning author of historical fiction and historical romance, showcasing the hidden histories of women of color and emphasizing strong sisterhoods and dazzling multicultural communities. With more than 20 novels in print, her stories pull at the heartstrings, elicit a few laughs, and share insights into the history of Black and Brown people during the Georgian, Regency, and Victorian eras.

A fellow resident of the state of Georgia, Vanessa is also a close friend. We’ve known each other for more than five years and frequently chat about any number of topics, but a lot of our chatter is about the latest ebbs and flows of publishing. Today, however, I wanted to talk about her—so, hang on for some surprises and insights I know you’ll appreciate. So, let’s go!

Back in the day when Vanessa and I hit the writers’ conference trail regularly, one of our last trips was in June of 2019. We attended the Historical Novel Society’s (HNS) conference in National Harbor.

Denny: What is the best money you’ve spent on your writing?

VanessaThe best money I’ve ever spent on my writing career was $20. I attended the 2019 HNS conference to meet with editors from traditional publishers. The contribution was $20 for an appointment. Attending a conference is often a significant financial commitment from registration, to hotel reservations, to transportation. I had to be convinced to ante up an additional $20 for an appointment with an editor. I figured the add-on fee meant an author was super serious or such. I felt it was a bridge too far (for my pocketbook). But that twenty dollars changed my life. I pitched the book of my heart to an editor from William Morrow, and a few months later, my agent and the editor finalized the deal for Island Queen. The book will release in July of 2021.

Denny: Tell us about Island Queen.

Vanessa: Island Queen is my first historical fiction novel. It is based on the life of Dorothy Kirwan Thomas, an enslaved woman who become one of the wealthiest women in the West Indies. She bought her freedom and that of her family’s and led a dynamic life, owning property, traveling extensively between the Caribbean and England, she also was a mistress to Prince William Henry the future King William IV. However, Dorothy’s also successfully came up with a strategy to save the women of the Commonwealth of Demerara from unfair taxation.

Denny: Island Queen will be your first biographical fiction, but you also have more than twenty-five published historical romances, including a new series with Kensington Publishing. 

Vanessa: My latest book (and the second book in the Rogues and Remarkable Women series) is An Earl, The Girl, and A Toddler. The newly ascended Earl of Ashbrook has been living a quiet life on the surface, but he is the legal champion for the secret society called the Widow’s Grace. And though he values being able to help these women who have been cheated by society, he wants to accomplish more. Too many people are looking into the Widow’s Grace exploits, putting political pressure on Ashbrook. He also is a single father who wants to provide a safe and beautiful world for his toddler daughter, Hope. Of course, Ashbrook meets his match in Jemina St Maur, an amnesiac. 

Denny: Why did you decide to write it?

Vanessa: I watched the movie First Wives Club and thought they need guidance from a wiser woman. When thinking about the plight of widows during the Regency, forgotten women who had to start over, the concept for my historical romance was a flashing light. So, the heart of this series is women banding together to save each other, and thus, The Widow’s Grace was formed. Throw in the film, Three Men and a Baby, and you have Rom-Com worthy high-jinx.

Denny: What advice do you have for people interested in writing historical fiction?

Vanessa: Research. Much of what is accepted as common knowledge of the Regency comes from modern adaptations of Heyer. This can paint a very white, very wealthy, a very nothing-but-lavish-balls-and-gowns picture. The Regency period was very rich in diversity, diversity of races, and wealth. Many men and women of all races strove to be more than their economic status. Research will help you see a truer picture and birth new stories

Denny: What is something readers would be surprised to know about you? (Besides her Stanford University Ph.D.:)

Vanessa: I’m not sure. I think most people don’t know my father was from Port of Spain, Trinidad. This man left the beauty of the island, like the lush Queen’s Park Savannah, to come to New York City. There he met a southern lady with a funny last name, Riley, who attended Columbia, a first-generation collegiate pursuit for her family. Love at first sight.

Denny: Tell me about a book that changed your life and why. 

Vanessa: Maya Angelou’s Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas. It’s part of her autobiographical series, dealing with her struggles to raise her son and find love. Hearing the rhythm in her words grips my heart every time I hear a passage.

A huge thank you to Vanessa for joining us today at The Debutante Ball’s blog!


Author: Denny S. Bryce

Denny S. Bryce is an award-winning author and three-time RWA Golden Heart® finalist, including twice for WILD WOMEN AND THE BLUES, her debut historical fiction novel coming on March 30, 2021. She also writes book reviews for NPR Books, entertainment articles for FROLIC Media, and debut author video interviews for A Mighty Blaze.

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