Alyssa Cole Pivots from Romance to a Gentrification Thriller

Posted by Cybil on September 1, 2020
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In Alyssa Cole’s unnerving social thriller When No One Is Watching, Sydney Green returns to Brooklyn after a traumatic breakup to find gentrification upending her childhood home.

Lifelong Black neighbors are disappearing, their homes bought by white couples obsessed with the area’s “rejuvenation.” Abdul’s bodega vanishes overnight—along with Abdul—replaced by a shiny shop stocking quinoa salad and kombucha. At night the ground feels like it’s shaking. And when the vulture-like realtor circling her sick mother’s house warns her, “You can’t stop change,” it sounds like a threat. 
 
On a historical tour of her neighborhood Sydney hears no mention of the area’s Black history, just its rich, white former residents. She decides to create her own tour, reluctantly accepting the help of a new white neighbor, Theo (“You can think of this work as reparations,” she tells him). As the pair uncover disturbing details about the area’s past, their suspicions grow that something far more sinister—and deadly—than “rejuvenation” is afoot.
 
Billed as a mix of Get Out and Rear Window, Cole’s thriller is a departure for the prolific award-winning author, known for her historical, sci-fi, and contemporary romance. But while the book is a horror story, it is also a keenly observed examination of gentrification and race in contemporary America that acknowledges the centuries of racial discrimination, oppression, and erasure that precede it.
 
Cole talked to Goodreads contributor Catherine Elsworth about her own experiences of gentrification, how writing the book helped her process the historical horrors she’s uncovered while researching her many books, and her hope that America can finally confront some of its “hardwired” bias and beliefs around race.
 

Goodreads: When No One Is Watching is so original and disturbing. Can you talk about the origins of the book and what spurred you to write a social thriller about gentrification and race?

Alyssa Cole: I’ve been wanting to write something about gentrification for a while. I touched on it in my contemporary romance A Duke by Default but then that went in a different direction. But I’ve been thinking about it because of my lived experiences, seeing how my neighborhood has changed, the neighborhoods I grew up in that my family still lives in but probably won’t be able to live in for much longer due to the fact that property taxes have skyrocketed.
 
I was born in the Bronx but when I was young we moved to Jersey City. Then I moved to Brooklyn after college so it was a dual thing, living in Brooklyn as someone who had not grown up there and then going to visit my family and seeing that neighborhood changing. I wanted to capture the horror of gentrification, this subtle horror every time you returned home and there was something so different from what was there before.
 
Also I write American historical romance set in various different time periods and I’ve done so much research for those books and also for books I haven’t written yet but want to write. So when you are writing about people from our generalized background, whether that’s Black, Asian, Latinx, or queer, you start to see things and I started to notice that in each time period I was researching there would be things that were just terrible, often state-sanctioned, government-sanctioned, and just so crushingly unfair but also illogical in a way, illogical outside of being racist.
 
So absorbing all of that over the years starts to make you feel a little crazy because you are reading all of this and you are seeing it start to manifest again in the present day and there’s this very disturbing sensation of like, OK, this has happened before and it’s cyclical and it happens again and again; is there anything that can be done to stop it? Also it seems like people forget each time it happens. So for me it was a way of reconciling all of these terrible things that have happened in American history and also things that we don’t get taught in school or in general life about American history that I enjoy putting into stories. It was a way of processing that, processing gentrification as it goes on and also discussing it in a thrilling and scary package for readers.

GR: Brooklyn tends to be seen as a hip, urban place but, as we discover in the book, it was also home to slave owners who then became bankers and exploited Black people that way. And at the book’s start Sydney discovers that a slavery theme park called Black America opened in Brooklyn in the late 1800s.

AC: Yeah, growing up in the New York area I remember all of this Revolutionary War stuff and it was interesting but for me there was no connection between my family and American history outside of slavery, which was often the only thing that we were taught even during Black History Month. I didn’t know that Black people fought in the Revolutionary War as well.
 
There was also this idea, which I talk about in the book, that in the South, the former confederacy, everyone is racist because that’s where slavery was and that’s where the bad things happened, but people in the North were open-minded because they fought against slavery. That is how we are taught about the Civil War. So I think that a lot of people who grow up in the North are never really confronted with slavery in that way.
 
I wanted to examine this unfounded assumption that the North had nothing to do with (slavery) and even afterward, with the slavery theme park, it was fascinating to me that people said, “Oh we have this great idea,” and enough people would agree and go and see it.
 
So it was just this weird thing that caught my attention, and could probably be an entire book in itself, and the book opens with Sydney talking about how it caught her attention because it’s one of those things that really puts into context race and the idea of slavery in the United States.

GR: The book has some telling examples of gentrification, such as the “prefab dive bar” that suddenly appears full of identical bearded white men. Yet they’re also disturbing. Was that how it felt, witnessing this type of change to your neighborhoods?

AC: I’ve lived everywhere in Brooklyn—Crown Heights and then an illegal apartment at the edge of Park Slope, and then Williamsburg, but not the expensive part, the part where you could see gentrification beginning to creep in and new buildings going up quickly. I used to walk around a lot and notice the changes when you pass from one neighborhood to another, the way you are perceived as you pass from one neighborhood to another, and how much you are seen as belonging or not belonging depending on the neighborhood and also in the areas where those neighborhoods overlap. So I kind of leaned into things that I saw in Brooklyn and also going back to visit my family.
 
There was a video store that we went to all the time when I was a kid and was responsible for so many of my ideas, where we got all the horror movies from and things that are partially responsible for helping me be able to form this book. And then the next time I went back there was a huge condominium with tennis courts on the roof, things we never even imagined.
 
As I was experiencing them I didn’t feel this deep dread but I really leaned into those brief moments of, Oh wow, all of this is changing. I could come back here in five months and this could all be different. It’s how, especially for someone who is already going through something, like Sydney in the book, how even those mundane or ordinary aspects of gentrification can become terrifying.

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GR: Sydney’s suffered a recent trauma and is now surrounded by disturbing happenings. I thought you captured her sense of fear and paranoia really well.

AC: I wanted to capture that anxiety and her mental health issues and this is something I think about in all of my work. In general in society there is this idea of the strong Black woman and you see it pretty much everywhere.
 
Often when people see a Black woman doing something that requires strength or bravery they tend to see that strength as a preexisting part of her and not the fact that she has to do it because no one is going to help her. They have whatever notion about her already, either that she’s strong enough to do it herself or they don’t particularly care what happens to her.
 
I wanted to explore the fact that Black women do deal with mental health issues, do deal with anxiety. Even though this is a thriller/horror book I wanted to lean into that idea too of what happens to someone who is having mental health issues and already knows that no one is likely to take her seriously and that even if she could afford to get help, she’s aware of the bad things that can happen to Black women who show that they aren’t strong enough.

GR: The book is also told from the perspective of Theo, who Sydney is quite suspicious of. How did you come up with his character?

AC: There are so many different ways of telling the gentrification story, depending on whose point of view you are telling it from. I chose Theo as Sydney’s partner in crime-solving because I thought for this particular story he needed to be white. Also, I feel like whiteness is not explicitly explored in fiction because it’s considered the norm. In many books people assume (whiteness) is preexisting world-building without going that deeply into it. So I wanted Theo there as someone who is new to the neighborhood and who sees the neighborhood from a different point of view.
 
I wanted to examine this guy who has used his whiteness in certain ways without thinking about it but who has also experienced some terrible things himself. As a result of that the way he interacts in relationships and with the world is a bit different, even if he’s not aware of it. (I wanted to examine) how his need for a sense of belonging that has never been met would intersect with Sydney’s specific need for belonging, even though they both have very different backgrounds. And I wanted someone who was an observer in his own way, who could see what was going on but also wouldn’t be the kind of person that Sydney would expect help from.   

GR: There isn’t usually much bloodshed in your books. What was it like tackling that aspect of a thriller? Was it something you’ve wanted to do for a while? I read that you were a fan of Stephen King books growing up.

AC: Yes, when I was a kid I read a lot of Stephen King, Anne Rice, Mary Higgins Clark. I was reading basically everything in my parents’ library, but I really loved horror. I’m actually a huge scaredy-cat now and have a hard time watching scary movies, but I grew up in the ’80s and I had an older sister and we would watch Nightmare on Elm Street and all these things that my parents would probably not have been cool with me watching.
 
One of the things that I really enjoyed about Stephen King’s books that I also love about romance is that generally there is a happy ending. The endings don’t always feel happy per se, and it’s the same in romance, but generally evil does not win at the end of the book. So it’s that same sensation of a happy ending.
 
For me it was really fun to be able to really lean into the tension and violence and horror aspects and also get to throw in those romantic elements and the moral ambiguity.
 
In some of my romance books there has been violence but I generally try not to get too deeply into specific violence or scenes of violence because there are often other things, like mental health issues. So for this I tried to balance the tension with actual onstage things and it was cathartic getting to not specifically have to focus on the relationship pushing the plot, and getting to lean into some of the darker elements.
 
I’ve been asked a lot recently about the differences between thriller and romance, but there actually isn’t that big of a difference. I mean there is and there isn’t, but in a romance you’re also kind of building a mystery and the mystery is how do these people fall in love in a way that we believe is best for them and will last.
 
You try to find this sweet spot to really show why these people fit together so well and to make the reader feel really good, and to also make the reader feel really bad at the moment when they think that the love is not going to work out. So with this I guess we find the spots that are like the most anxiety inducing instead of the most lovey-dovey feeling inducing, and it’s a similar thing: what is going to freak the reader out instead of what is going to make them feel good. So that was fun.

I did freak myself out during the writing. Some of it I was like Why am I doing this? If I were just reading this book I would hate myself right now. So it was fun and it was stressful writing it, as I’ve heard it’s stressful reading it, so I guess that worked out in the end.

GR: There have been some interesting coincidences with your books, for example A Princess in Theory (in which an epidemiology grad student discovers she’s engaged to the Prince of Thesolo, a Wakanda-like, technologically advanced African kingdom) came out the same month as Black Panther. Then A Duke by Default (about the relationship between a Scottish Duke and a Black American woman) was released just after Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding. Now When No One Is Watching arrives amid what appears to be America’s biggest reckoning with race relations in a generation. What has it been like witnessing this?

AC: It’s been really strange. I’m glad the reckoning is happening and I hope something comes of it, but it’s been bizarre. Especially when a couple of weeks ago I read an article about Breonna Taylor, the woman who was killed by police in her home in the middle of the night after a no-knock warrant, saying that apparently there has been a spate of no-knock warrants in this area and it is tied to efforts to gentrify the area.
 
Obviously a lot of what I’m writing is pulled from history. It’s pulled from what is going on in the world. But then a lot of times, especially with things where I leaned into the most cynical version of how something could play out, it then (turns out to be) reality.
 
On one level as I was writing the book I was like, no this doesn’t particularly feel like a conspiracy theory because I know that these terrible things happen all the time and even probably the worst thing I’m writing has happened in some form somewhere. Seeing it play out has been wild but also seeing the response and seeing people marching every day for months now has also been really heartening. I wish that people didn’t have to do this because I feel like if police departments and state and city governments said, “Hey, yeah, police shouldn’t be killing and beating people for no reason, and we need to work on stopping that,” the protests would stop. So there’s this really stubborn resistance, which is why I think this kind of thing has been happening forever in America. I’m hoping that this is the beginning of the end of it. We’ll see what happens but I just feel now it’s impossible to ignore what’s going on.
 
I do think it’s similar to the 1960s civil rights movement. People are beginning to be, like, “Wait a minute, they are beating all of these people up because they are asking them not to beat people up? This doesn’t make any sense. Maybe I need to look into this more.” And hopefully more people are able to see what’s going on and join in pushing back against it. So yeah, it has been very wild and does start to feel a bit strange after a while. I feel like I need to write a kittens and puppies book next where nothing bad happens and everything bad in the world is magically solved by 2021.

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GR: The book has been compared to Get Out and Rear Window. Were those films both influences?

AC: Yeah, they were influences. I feel like (when you are) writing any kind of social thriller, especially involving Black people, Jordan Peele is a huge influence. So there are Get Out vibes. But I think we maybe grew up with some of the same horror influences so for me, Hitchcock, of course, but also movies like The People Under the Stairs, Tales from the Hood, Black horror from the ’90s. I also tried to lean into Ira Levin, with Rosemary’s Baby.
 
So Jordan Peele was a huge influence in part just by helping to revive this genre and setting the current modern-day standard for the impacts people are striving to have and what is possible.
 
Right now, I will admit I have not watched Us yet. Like I said I’m a huge scaredy-cat. Nia DaCosta’s Candyman is coming out and I want to see it so badly and I’m like, Maybe if I watch it at 8 a.m  it will be OK. And Misha Green’s Lovecraft Country—I think both of those are produced by Jordan Peele. So I’m going to have to start reacclimating myself to horror because there is so much good stuff coming out.

GR: You’ve said that growing up you didn’t find much representation of yourself in the books you read. Do you feel like the situation is generally better now or improving?

AC: It’s definitely improving. I’m careful to make it clear that I always had some books that represented me, because sometimes I think the people who paved the way tend to get erased in the contemporary conversation. So there were some but not in a lot of genres like sci fi, romance and horror. And obviously there was no comparison to how many white characters there were or books by white authors.
 
I do think that’s changing and I hope that maybe everything’s connected to what’s going on, and more people who decided to read outside of what they normally would and have picked up books by Black authors will be, “Oh, OK, it’s a book. I like it. I’ll read more of it.”
 
I think just people picking up books by Black authors, seeing that they are well-written, seeing that they like them, then hopefully this can become normalized. It doesn’t have to be a big thing. Just buy a book, read it, get over the bias hardwired into it—I can only speak about America really, but there’s some really deeply rooted beliefs about Black people and reading and writing that infiltrate the literary world. So on the one hand someone can be like, Toni Morrison is the most amazing writer who’s ever lived, and also somewhere in the back of their mind is the idea that Black people don’t read or don’t have great writing skills.
 
I can go down a whole rabbit hole, like in the book, the idea that Black people don’t read but yet there were laws passed specifically to forbid them from reading, to punish them for reading. And then if you get into the ’60s, Black bookstores were targeted by the FBI during Cointelpro to shut them down because they were considered places where dangerous organizing could take place. Then you wonder where do these ideas that Black people don’t read come from?
 
As you can see this is how my conspiracy theory brain works. But it’s not a conspiracy theory. These are things that need to be confronted so that when people have these ideas that they might not even know they have, because they are so in the soil of American and Western thinking, they can address them: Have I ever thought this? Where did this thought come from? OK, at some point this was introduced into my subconscious, but now I’m aware of it and can confront it.

GR: What’s your average writing day like, because you’re incredibly prolific and write about three books a year.

AC: I honestly have no idea because they all blend into each other! I actually don’t write every day. I have ADHD, I have focus issues, so when I write it’s often a lot of research and then super unhealthy, mad-dash writing most of the book, and then going back and editing afterward.
 
So I am working on trying to have a set, non-frenzied writing schedule, which would be a routine and not what I call Deadline Landslide. We’ll see what happens.

GR: What are some books that you’ve recently read and loved or are excited to read?

AC: A book I read recently and loved was Legendborn by Tracy Deonn. It’s YA contemporary fantasy and blends Arthurian legend and Southern history.
 
I’m really excited to read The Conductors by Nicole Glover, which is set in post–Civil War Philadelphia and about a married couple—the wife was a conductor on the Underground Railroad. So it’s like historical mystery with magic.
 
I loved Rebekah Weatherspoon’s Harborwhich is contemporary romance with a bit of romantic suspense, and it’s a polyamorous romance. And Farrah Rochon’s The Boyfriend Project.

And the last one I’ll recommend is Olivia Waite’s The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows, which is an F/F romance between two women. It’s a historical romance but there’s also political stuff of the time, an epistolary romance element, and Olivia Waite is just a great writer.

GR: One final question: Has anyone approached you to buy the film rights for When No One Is Watching?

AC: I believe the rights have been taken, yes. So hopefully one day there will be a movie.


 

Alyssa Cole’s When No One Is Watching will be published in the U.S. on September 1. Be sure to add it to your Want to Read shelf!

Comments Showing 1-8 of 8 (8 new)

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message 1: by Angelina (new)

Angelina Going to read it ASAP


message 2: by Maureen (new)

Maureen Grigsby Listening to it right now on audio and LOVING it!


Jessica (BlogEared Books) I just finished this book about an hour ago and it is amazing. It should be required reading


message 4: by Catherine (new)

Catherine Moore It sounds like a good read, but i'm worried that it's going to be more demonization of anyone, especially Caucasians, who wish to make a city brighter, better. I'm completely against the ruining of a city with bringing in nothing but Mcmansions that nobody can afford to buy and forcing the original occupants out, but trying to make your community better for all cant be cast in the same light as money hungry Mayors and Housing builders that destroy rather than build.


message 5: by Catherine (new)

Catherine Moore Reading the reviews from Amazon, it appears this book is filled with utter garbage foul language throughout. That sucks, as the book sounds like an amazing read, but i just cant do excessive vulgarity.


message 6: by harry cohen (new)

harry cohen I wanted to read this. I skimmed a copy at a B&N recently and all I kept coming across was lecturing. I didn't buy it then, but I still might. B&N had the book in romance, which will be a deal breaker for some. I would shelve it in fiction.


message 7: by ladietz (new)

ladietz I tried, but I just couldn't get into this book.


message 8: by Jes (new)

Jes Really loved this one! Great slow build thriller and a great education. I learned so much about how real estate laws (like redlining) and rezoning have been used historically and in the present day to prevent black home ownership and destroy thriving black communities. And for those of you like Catherine above who are 'worried' that a book by a black woman talking frankly about the history of and impact of gentrification is 'demonizing white people' - one of the main characters is white, did move in as part of the gentrification wave, and illustrates really well how you can have no ill intent and still be part of the destruction of a community. Gentrification isn't about renewing and rebuilding *your* community, it is specifically about white people moving into non-white communities and completely reshaping them to their own needs and desires and pushing out the community that already existed.


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