By Danielle Wilkinson
We’re excited to talk to Elise Bryant today about One True Loves, her companion novel to Happily Ever Afters!
From the author of Happily Ever Afters comes another irresistible YA romantic comedy full of self-discovery and Black love—and a dreamy European cruise. Perfect for fans of Nicola Yoon, Jenny Han, and Stephanie Perkins, with crossover appeal for readers of Jasmine Guillory and Talia Hibbert romances.
Lenore Bennett has always been a force. A star artist and style icon at her high school, she’s a master in the subtle art of not giving a . . . well, you know what. But now that graduation is here, she’s a little less sure.
She’s heading to NYU in the fall with a scarlet U (for “undeclared”) written across her chest. Her parents always remind her that Black kids don’t have the luxury of figuring it out as they go—they have to be 110 percent prepared. But it’s a lot of pressure to be her ancestors’ wildest dreams when Lenore’s not even sure what her dreams are yet.
When her family embarks on a post-graduation Mediterranean cruise, her friend Tessa is sure Lenore’s in for a whirlwind romance. But Lenore knows that doesn’t happen to girls like her.
Then she meets Alex Lee. After their parents bond over the Cupid Shuffle, she ends up stuck with him for the remainder of the cruise. He’s a hopeless romantic and a golden boy with a ten-year plan. In short, he’s irritating as hell.
But as they get to know each other during the picturesque stops across Europe, Alex may be able to help Lenore find something else she’s been looking for, even if she doesn’t want to admit it to herself: love.
I feel like setting One True Loves on a cruise ship is very unique. How do you usually choose the settings for your stories? Did the plot come to you easily?
I wanted to write a vacation romance because I loved those growing up. I loved the Mary Kate and Ashley movies like Holiday in The Sun, Passport to Paris, all the vacation ones. I think there’s something very magical about going on vacation and feeling like anything can happen. And when I was growing up, I always liked to think “oh, maybe a cute boy will see me from across the room and fall in love with me.” I knew I wanted to do that because, also growing up, I never got to see Black girls in books or movies like that. They were maybe a sidekick, but they were never the main character of those kinds of stories. So, I knew I wanted to write something like that eventually. I also really love writing about family. I write romantic comedies, but the families are always very involved so I liked the idea of a cruise because then you’re all stuck there. Like, you can’t get away from each other or your problems and it really forces Lenore and her family to really recognize some things because they’re all trapped together in these little rooms.
The family dynamics were really compelling in this book. I was wondering, what does family mean to you, and how do you try to convey that with your themes and in your stories?
I think you can tell from my books, family is everything to me. I think especially when you’re a teenager, your friendships, romances, all of that is really important to you too, but your family is the most important thing. At least for me, family was the most significant part of my life. Family dynamics shape who you are and that as a result shapes whatever relationships you’ll have after that, such as your romantic relationships as a teenager, as an adult. So, I like showing how a person became who they are through their family.
Tessa wasn’t the most likable character, and that made it hard to root for her sometimes, while Lenore was someone you made us feel sympathetic towards right off the bat. What was your experience writing two very different main characters?
Tessa is very flawed, and I tried to make Lenore flawed and imperfect and messy too, just in a different way. Because I feel like Black girls are not often in books and movies and in real life are not given the privilege to be that way, to be imperfect or messy. I feel like Black girls from a very young age are taught that we can’t mess up, that we have to be perfect. We have to be seen as adults when we’re still kids. But my characters are still kids, you know? So through Tessa and then now through with Lenore, I wanted to show Black girls making mistakes because I feel like when Lenore makes mistakes over the course of this book and she’s not sure who she is or what she wants, and that’s her journey through the course of this book, figuring out who she wants to be. So, I wanted to show that both of these girls are still loved through it all, they still have a happy ending even though they’re not perfect characters.
Did you have a more challenging time writing Tessa versus Lenore? Or did you find their voices easily?
Tessa’s voice I found very easily because she’s just like me as a teenager. I was a very anxious, scared, and worried teenager who needed to learn how to take up space and learn the value of my voice. So, Tessa came very easily to me, and actually, Lenore came very easily to me also. One True Loves was the easiest book to write. It was hard at first because the world shut down right as I started writing OTLs. It was like my escape. It was a joy to come to this story through the spring and the summer because everything was a mess in the world. But I could come back to this happy joyful story with Black teenagers making fart jokes, having fun, and falling in love. Tessa’s head was hard to be in sometimes because of all she was struggling with but Lenore was fun. It was fun to figure out her voice and see the world through her perspective because she’s very sarcastic and snarky and that was very fun to write.
I loved how in HEA and One True Loves you subverted romantic tropes. For example, during the first meeting with Lenore and her love interest Alex, without giving any spoilers, I died laughing because Lenore was just not on board with the typical tropes we expect characters to go along with. Was that purposeful and do you plan to subvert more romantic tropes in future stories?
I love romance novels. I love tropes. And so, I think it’s so fun to make them happen in a certain way. But then it’s also fun to subvert them because I think we, as readers, go into books expecting certain things to happen and it’s a comfort when they happen but I like to change things around a little bit. I love the fake dating trope, it’s one of my favorite tropes to read, but if some guy I didn’t know came up to me and asked me to pretend to date him I’d be like, no way! So, Lenore, who hates romance novel stuff, would never have gone along with it. I definitely wanted to subvert that. Also, with HEA I tried to subvert a lot of tropes with the love interests. There’s this boy who seems to have walked straight out of a YA romance novel who Tessa thought was supposed to be her person but the person she actually ends up with is nothing like a romance novel lead. They don’t have a swoony meet cute; instead, they have a very awkward meet-cute. Yeah, I will continue to play around with tropes because it’s just fun for me as a writer and I hope it’s fun for readers too.
One of the big conflicts in the book is that Lenore needs to figure out what she wants to major in because her parents had a conversation with her saying how as Black people, we can’t afford to be as indecisive as our white counterparts and that really hit me hard. I wanted to know why you felt it was important to incorporate that into the story and if you felt a little lost after high school or after college and how you dealt with that?
I definitely took that journey and that struggle that Lenore goes on from my own experience. My dad wanted us to not just succeed, but exceed all expectations in life. There was definitely a pressure I felt really on. I understood where he was coming from, though. He worked really hard to give me and my siblings the best life possible. He grew up in poverty, in the segregated South and so he definitely wanted what was best for us. And I think that’s something that a lot of Black people can relate to wanting to, making all of your parents’ sacrifices worth it, just, you know, to succeed in the way they want us to. This is on the back of the book too. Lenore talks about this idea of being your ancestor’s wildest dreams and how it’s so empowering, but it’s also a lot of pressure when you don’t know what your own dreams are yet, or who you want to be, or what your identity is. You want to make your parents proud. You want to make their sacrifices worth it, but that’s hard when you’re still developing and navigating who you are. I’ve heard from early readers, readers who have immigrant parents, who tell me they can relate to that.
What do you want people to take away from this book?
Something I’m still learning even in my thirties is that it’s okay to follow your joy and what makes you happy versus what other people think that you should do or what you need to do to make other people impressed or proud. It’s okay to live a life that makes you happy, even if other people might not understand that even if it’s your own family who doesn’t understand it. And I think the greatest way to honor our families who have worked so hard to give us these wonderful lives, to be happy, because that is the greatest privilege of all, to live a happy life.
Could you tell us a little bit about your next book?
My third book is called Reggie and Delilah’s Year of Falling. It comes out in January 2023 and it follows Reggie, who is a Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Master, and then Delilah, who is the lead singer of a punk band. They fall in love over a series of missed connections and chance meetings during the holidays over the course of one year. So the book starts on New Year’s Eve and it ends on New Year’s Eve the year after. One of the characters from One True Loves is in it, I’ll let readers find out who that is. I just finished the first draft and I sent it to my editor. We’re working on it some more and it was very hard to write, but I’m very proud of it.
Elise Bryant is the author of Happily Ever Afters and the forthcoming One True Loves. She was born and raised in Southern California. For many years, Elise had the joy of working as a special education teacher, and now she spends her days writing swoony love stories and eating dessert. She lives with her husband and two daughters in Long Beach.
Danielle Wilkinson is a 20-something aspiring author from Atlanta who has always loved the feeling of getting lost in a good story. In 2021, her blog Danielle The Writer was selected as The Write Life’s 100 Best Websites For Writers. She also started her first business the same year, where she teaches new and aspiring authors how to dominate on Instagram so they can grow a community of loyal fans. When she’s not working or writing, you can find her reading with a cup of tea, listening to podcasts, trying to take the perfect photo for her Instagram, or fangirling over K-Pop videos.