As our readers know, the Bookish team adores Alyssa Cole. We swoon for her contemporary Reluctant Royal series, and we have heart eyes for her historical Loyal League trilogy. The latter comes to a close this winter with An Unconditional Freedom, a novel about a black Union spy and an Afro-Latinx double agent who learn to work together and fall in love along the way. To celebrate its release we chatted with Cole about the book’s hero and heroine, the challenges Cole faced writing this concluding volume, and how Black Panther helped inspire her.
Psst: We’re giving away two signed sets of the entire Loyal League series here!
Bookish: The covers in this series are absolutely stunning. How involved are you in the cover design process?
Alyssa Cole: For this series, I actually haven’t had that much input on the covers! It’s all Kris Noble, who is incredibly talented and always seems to know just what mood to evoke. I helped choose the model and gave some ideas, but Kris took it from there and made these beautiful covers.
Bookish: The Loyal League series began with Elle Burns a character who was inspired by Mary Bowser, a real life African American spy. Were any of the characters in An Unconditional Freedom inspired by real people?
AC: Daniel is somewhat inspired by Solomon Northup, author of Twelve Years A Slave. I just kept thinking about how a person deals with that kind of trauma—that kind of betrayal. How do you come back from it? Janeta is inspired, very loosely, by Loreta Janeta Velázquez, a Cuban spy for the Confederacy who was neither Afro-Latinx nor repentant about her involvement with the Rebels.
Bookish: Throughout the novel readers see how trauma, both subtle and severe, impacts mental health. Our hero Daniel suffers from what readers will recognize as PTSD and depression in the aftermath of being captured. How did you go about writing these experiences which Daniel himself doesn’t fully understand?
AC: Some of it is personal experience. Other parts I researched, then I tried to think about how the effects of PTSD would manifest in Daniel specifically, given his story. I was fed up with the “and then they were free” way we’re often taught about enslaved people, with little to no thought given to the psychological ramifications of being in such an extremely traumatizing situation. This narrative has changed a lot, obviously, as more historians and people interested in history produce work related to enslaved people’s trauma, though there is also a corresponding pushback in history books that minimize the slave trade.
Bookish: Throughout the novel both Daniel and Janeta dismiss their own pain and experiences because they believe they have suffered less than others. Why was this an important theme for you to include in this book?
AC: Well, I think many people use that rationalization. On the one hand, it’s true! Other people were suffering more than they were. On the other, this kind of logic can become just another way of beating yourself down instead of acknowledging the pain of others. I included it mostly because it seemed to introduce a kind of dissonance that these characters would have to deal with.
Bookish: Daniel is a character who is overcome with anger—both at himself and the world around him—and determined to get revenge. What was the process like of writing a character who believes he has nothing to lose?
AC: It was both very freeing and also very challenging. I was very angry myself while writing, so it was cathartic on some level! At a certain point I did get stuck, though—this is a romance. I wanted Daniel to have his happily ever after, but he had so many things to deal with, and love doesn’t solve everything. I kept asking myself “How do I give him a happy ending when I am writing about a country that is still not worthy of people like him?”
As I was writing, I began to see how well Daniel and Janeta complemented each other. On some level, they’re both dealing with different forms of betrayal—one by country and one by family. They are both forced to reset to their belief systems, and they help each other through that. And when I eventually found that path to happily ever after for him and Janeta, it was also very cathartic.
Bookish: In this book you explicitly say love is not a magical cure for life’s problems and that acting out of love doesn’t automatically mean you’re doing the right thing. What are the challenges of writing a love story where love itself isn’t romanticized?
AC: I once listened to a podcast called On Being where someone named Alain de Botton was being interviewed. He talked about how one of the major problems in relationships is the feeling of betrayal when the person you love doesn’t understand you, and how we often have this idea that love means complete understanding. That really resonated with me, so that’s always in the back of my mind when I write, as well as the idea that love is a choice, and love can be hard work! I like the idea that love is not about finding the perfect match, but the person who makes the choice to understand and love (or at least tolerate) your imperfections as well.
Bookish: Daniel and Janeta keep secrets from each other, but they share a moment in a library when they finally come clean and Janeta realizes she likes the person she’s become over the course of their journey. The setting felt particularly poignant to me. What was the significance of the setting to you?
AC: I actually didn’t want the focus to be the books. An Extraordinary Union and A Hope Divided both had protagonists who were very much book lovers, which was part of their bond. I felt like Daniel and Janeta were in a different place, where the knowledge they needed actually couldn’t come from any of the books in that library, in part because the people they could learn those truths from weren’t even allowed to be taught to read or write in much of the country at the time. This was, of course, a vague feeling in the back of my mind while writing that I’ve had to give some more thought to now.
Bookish: Your author’s note acknowledges how difficult this book was to write as our country struggles with some of the same issues that Daniel and Janeta face. Both the rage and helplessness that many of us feel at this moment in history are present in the novel. In those difficult moments, how did you channel those emotions into creative work?
AC: I had to write this book much more slowly, because it was honestly draining! I didn’t feel like I was channeling much at all. But when I was finally able to finish it, I felt like maybe I’d been able to pull it off. Hopefully other people think so.
Bookish: You thank movie director Ryan Coogler for helping you to break your writer’s block. What’s the story there?
AC: Haha, well, during the time when I was ABSOLUTELY stuck on the ending, I went and saw Black Panther, which I of course loved. It resonated with me because A Princess in Theory shares some similar themes and it featured women at the center of the story, but also because of Erik Killmonger’s storyline as a man consumed by the need for revenge. Like Daniel, he too felt betrayed by his country. Though the endings for him and for Daniel are not at all similar, thinking about his behavior and seeing where it led helped me find my way to the ending of the book, which had kind of been shrouded in fog.
Bookish: This is the last book in the trilogy. What feeling do you hope to leave readers with when they finish An Unconditional Freedom?
AC: Well, first and foremost the happy feeling when you finish a romance novel you’ve enjoyed, but also hope, because we need it right now!
Alyssa Cole is an award-winning author of historical, contemporary romance, and SFF romance. She’s contributed to publications including Shondaland, The Toast, Vulture, RT Book Reviews, and Heroes and Heartbreakers, and her books have received critical acclaim from Library Journal, Kirkus, Booklist, Jezebel, Vulture, Book Riot, Entertainment Weekly, and various other outlets. When she’s not working, she can often be found watching anime with her husband or wrangling their menagerie of animals. Visit her at www.alyssacole.com.