Readers looking for an emotional and captivating love story will everything they’re looking for in Talia Hibbert’s Work for It. The novel follows Olu Keynes, a Londoner struggling with depression. Olu volunteers to help with a small town’s elderflower harvest to clear his head and along the way finds himself falling for Griffin Everett, the farm’s production manager. We were lucky enough to chat with Hibbert about her latest romance. Here, she talks about the importance of community, the relationship between consent and mental health, and why this book might be her favorite she’s written.
Bookish: Olu first appears in your book Bad for the Boss. You sat with his story for almost two years. What made you decide that now was the right time to write this book?
Talia Hibbert: I have to admit, I didn’t intend for the wait to be so long!
The series Olu first appears in (Just for Him) kind of died off when I got distracted by a different series entirely (Ravenswood). I was still settling into myself as a writer, and discovered a love for quieter domestic romances that didn’t suit the vibe of the Just for Him series. So those characters were abandoned for a while. Sorry, guys!
That’s why Work for It ended up being set in a tiny village, despite Olu being a glamorous jet-setter from London. I had to shove him into my newfound niche somehow. He enjoyed it, though.
Another reason for the timing is my maturity as a writer and my trust in my own voice. I started drafting Olu’s story at the beginning of 2019, but it took a lot of time and experimentation to get things right. I’ve written about mental health before, but Olu’s struggles required particularly delicate handling–especially because I wanted to balance those elements with humor and lightheartedness.
So, I think the short answer to your question is: Growth! Growth made this the right time.
Bookish: As you mention, you’ve written about characters struggling with their mental health, like Olu is in this book. Was there any aspect of living with depression that you hadn’t explored before that you were looking to with Olu’s story?
TH: I’ve written many characters who accept themselves and manage their mental health quite well. But in Work for It, I was dealing with a character who’s internalized harmful ideas about mental health in general, and about himself in particular. Olu knows he has depression. He knows there’s nothing wrong with that. He knows he should take his medication and talk to someone. But the scars of his upbringing burn away logic and leave him with nothing but fear.
I am strongly against the idea that we have some moral duty to “help ourselves.” Sometimes people can’t help themselves, and that doesn’t make them bad or lazy or deserving of whatever they struggle with. The fact is, it’s not easy to do the things you should–especially when your own brain chemistry is getting in your way.
Imagine someone dug two, identical holes, threw you in one, and threw Anthony Joshua (6’6 heavyweight boxer and disgracefully gorgeous human) in the other. If Anthony Joshua clambered out while you had to be rescued by firefighters, would that make him morally better than you? Or is he just blessed with the attributes that make it easy to get out of holes?
I believe that, when it comes to mental health, society and community are key forms of management. We all have a responsibility toward each other–both the people we love and our fellow human beings in general. I watch my family and friends, and they watch me. If I notice a neighbor isn’t leaving the house, I knock on their door. Similarly, Olu’s found family and friends look out for him. Their love and support can’t heal him, but it can nudge him in increments toward making the right choices. That’s what I wanted to show with this book.
Bookish: Consent is something Olu and Griffin engage with in ways big and small. It’s present in the bedroom, but also in small moments of kissing and holding hands. How do you see the relationship between consent and mental health in this book?
TH: Struggling with your mental health can challenge or damage your sense of identity. But consent, in my opinion, reinforces identity and personhood. When someone asks for your consent to do something–physical or otherwise–it confirms the fact that you deserve power over your life and body. On the flip side, when consent is disregarded, that trauma can make you feel small or detached from yourself.
Consent is the most basic form of respect. But in Work for It, because of the characters’ struggles, it has the added effect of building them up in a world that’s torn them down.
Bookish: The way you talk about your experiences with autistic spectrum disorder calls to mind a lot of Griffin’s feelings in the novel: not fitting in, not picking up on social cues, observing others’ behavior to understand them. Do you see him as being on the spectrum?
TH: I do. I have a habit of writing autistic characters without diagnoses because I believe a lot of people on the spectrum don’t have diagnoses. That’s connected to the pervading stereotype of the white, (cis) male autistic person who excels at science or mathematics. Those of us who don’t fit the mould–like Griff, who struggles academically–are easily overlooked or written off. Society tries to shove anyone atypical under the carpet or into a box, but we’re here and irrepressible, so, uh… suck it.
Bookish: Griffin has a talent for making cordials with different combinations of fruit. If you were to design a cordial that represented each of the heroes, what would their flavors be?
TH: Ooooh, I love this question! I think Olu would be something with ginger because he’s sharp and intense, but, y’know, tasty. He’d have a mellow twist, too, like peaches. Griff, on the other hand, would be sweet but subtle. Maybe elderflower and pear.
Bookish: Olu hesitates to call himself a writer even though he writes quite often. Were any of his thoughts inspired by your own experiences when you started writing?
TH: Actually, Olu and I really differ here. For me, writing is the one thing I know I can do.
Growing up, it was like: Okay, I can’t talk to people. I can’t make friends. I can’t follow practical instructions. But I can write the hell out of this assignment, THEREFORE I DEFINITELY HAVE VALUE! [Insert nervous smile.]
Bookish: In your acknowledgements, you share that writing this book turned you “into a weepy mess for weeks at a time.” In those moments, did you step back or try to channel those emotions into the novel?
TH: I’m terrible at discussing emotions. I mean, I’m quite good with the emotions of fictional characters, but my own?! They’re a mystery I don’t care enough to solve.
Usually, I cry, then realize I’m sad, or smile, then realize I’m happy. So when I was writing Work for It, I’d type until I noticed the whole “crying” thing. Then I’d go and blow my nose or whatever, and come back to the story. My family would be like “Oh my God, are you okay?” And I’d be like, “Yes. Disregard this completely.” These tears aren’t mine, Officer, I’m holding them for a (fictional) friend.
I didn’t mean to channel any of my feelings, but I suppose I must have. They probably flavor the book. I should put that on the cover, right? Authentically salty with the author’s tears!
Bookish: In your author’s note, you mention that this might be your favorite project ever. What sets this story apart for you?
TH: With every book I write, I learn a little more about what I do and don’t truly love to create. By this point in my career, I’ve realised I’m not a naturally thrilling, plot-driven writer like some of my faves. That can make me feel inadequate.
But when I finally hit my groove with Work for It, I was basically writing my id. I think I was so caught up in making the internal motivations and the emotions ‘right,’ I forgot to be self-conscious about the plot points and tropes I used. So there’s a scene where the characters just lie in bed and talk all day, and a scene where Griff bandages Olu’s ribs. They go to work and flirt, then they go home and do wonderfully dirty things to each other.
It’s quiet. It’s soft. It’s like a hug. I often feel (self-inflicted) pressure to liven up or complicate the things I write, but with this book, I didn’t let myself–not once. It’s just two people falling epically in love as they go about their lives. And I honestly adored every second of it; even the hard parts.
Talia Hibbert is a Black British author who lives in a bedroom full of books. Supposedly, there is a world beyond that room, but she has yet to drum up enough interest to investigate. She writes steamy, diverse romance because she believes that people of marginalised identities need honest and positive representation. Her interests include makeup, junk food, and unnecessary sarcasm.