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Nikki Payne: On the Culture of Desire in Romance

Cultural anthropologist and author Nikki Payne discusses modernizing classic literature in her new romance novel, Pride and Protest.

By day, Nikki Payne is a curious tech anthropologist asking the right questions to deliver better digital services. By night, she dreams of ways to subvert canon literature. She’s a member of Smut U, a premium feminist writing collective, and is a cat lady with no cats. Find her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok.

Nikki Payne: On the Culture of Desire in Romance

Nikki Payne

In this post, Nikki discusses modernizing classic literature in her new romance novel, Pride and Protest, her experience publishing the novel, and more!

Name: Nikki Payne
Literary agent: Kim Lionetti
Book title: Pride and Protest
Publisher: Berkley
Release date: November 15, 2022
Genre/category: Romance
Elevator pitch for the book: Liza B—The Only DJ That Gives a Jam—wants to take her neighborhood back from the soulless property developer dropping unaffordable condos on every street corner in DC. But her planned protest at their corporate event takes a turn after she mistakes the smoldering hot CEO for the waitstaff. When they go toe-to-toe, the sparks fly. Liza wants Dorsey Fitzgerald out of her hood, but she’ll settle for getting him out of her head.

Nikki Payne: On the Culture of Desire in Romance

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What prompted you to write this book?

I started out as a massive reader. Like most of us, I was reading books way out of my league at a young age—Johanna Lindsey, Stephen King at 10 and 11 years old, and, of course, Jane Austen.

Later, as a cultural anthropologist, I studied aesthetics and power and taught a popular course entitled “Politics of Ugly” at the University of Pennsylvania. I’ve always been deeply interested in the cultural aspect of desirability. I read an article about romance that found that Black women and Asian men are the least responded to in dating apps. That Black women and Asian men carry less sexual capital in these digital cultures was an issue I wanted to counter in the least digital way possible: classical literature.

Classic heroes and heroines are often archetypes of desire. But gendered racial hierarchies of desirability are as socially constructed as other racial hierarchies. Seemingly personal preferences and choices in modern romance are profoundly shaped by larger social forces. In my mind, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy were archetypes of desirability.

So, in Pride and Protest, these characters are raced and gendered in the way they are in my story on purpose. Making Dorsey a hot Asian male savior and Liza a hot, Black, vulnerable, delicate woman in need of care is an act of reclamation.

How long did it take to go from idea to publication? And did the idea change during the process?

I had an accelerated path because I joined a pitch contest called PitchWars. I was able to revise my draft with amazing help and accelerate the revision process to ensure that it was ready to go out in front of agents.

Some elements of the story really changed. (I had a scene where Liza kidnaps someone!) However, the fundamental story stayed pretty solid throughout the process. From submission to PitchWars to having an agent was about six months!

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

I was surprised about every. single. step. of the way in my publishing career—from my agent relationship to my editor relationship to what it would feel like to be on sub to what it would actually mean to sell a book.

I was grateful to be empowered through my agent and publishing team. There are so many horror stories that you hear about writers not having any control over their creative endeavors. That hasn't been the case for me. With my agent and editor, it felt like a partnership.

Nikki Payne: On the Culture of Desire in Romance

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

I was surprised to constantly be bombarded with the conventions of the genre. I read a lot of romance. You think you know a genre in and out until you have to write one. In order for something to qualify as romance, a lot of conditions must be met, and my revision process consisted mostly of ensuring those important beats were happening. (And no one was getting kidnapped!)

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

I hope readers are able to connect with Jane Austen in new ways. Most people's relationship with Jane Austen stops after high school required reading. But I want them to think of what Jane Austen would say on Tik Tok or Twitter or Instagram—and engage with the text in surprising ways.

I like to call myself Jane Austen's sassy black friend as a play on that very common TV trope. Often in books and television, the “sassy Black friend” is allowed to transgress propriety and mores to speak to the simple truth of a situation. “You’re in love with the Boy, honey.”

Sassy black friend is a double agent though, speaking truth to power in a way that mainstream culture folks won’t recognize as critique. This is what Jane Austen does, sits slightly outside of the British upper class and just critiques everything she sees, mostly to hilarious effect. That was part of the reason I was so excited to make Liza a DJ, because she gets to be this pithy wordsmith.

If you could share one piece of advice with other writers, what would it be?

People will give you advice about what genre is dead and what tropes are dead all day. Don't write to the market. Write what you like because the market is a circle not a line and will bend toward certain conventions over and over.

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