The novelist Alyssa Cole was born and raised in the Bronx and raised in Jersey City. She therefore knows how areas can change as long-time residents are evicted and wealthier newcomers arrive.
"All of a sudden there is a huge apartment building and things that were marked as landmarks have suddenly disappeared or turned into a trendy new bar," she said in an interview.
Gentrification plays a central role in the plot of her new book “When Nobody is Watching”, which will be released on Tuesday. Next up is Sydney, a black Brooklyn woman who decides to offer historical tours of her beloved, rapidly changing neighborhood after watching an uninformed guide gloss over his African American roots. She reluctantly brings up Theo, a white man who recently moved in across the street, as a research fellow. But when people disappear, they become embroiled in a nefarious conspiracy that threatens the neighborhood.
Cole is best known for her romances, including the Loyal League and Reluctant Royals series, but When No One Is Watching is a thriller, a first for her. "I wanted the characters to be morally grayer where I could explore some darker areas," she said. She wanted to write too, without expecting a happy ending.
She talked about moving away from her usual genre, how the story affects her writing, what she loves about romance, and why she thinks some conspiracy theories have a moment. These are edited and compressed excerpts from the conversation.
What was the inspiration behind this book?
There are several layers. I write historical romances that take place in different periods in American history. But as I explore all of these different periods, there is always anti-blackness. There are always unbelievable forms of oppression, so cruel that they are ridiculous. This book and Sydney's tour were a way to process that.
I'm not like, "I'm here to teach you." I want to write a good story that is fun and either romantic or scary, but there is a bit of anger behind all of that – that we have all this story that we weren't taught that really makes it clear why things are like this as they are now. why people are protesting right now, why cops feel encouraged to do what they are doing right now.
Much of the book is eerily prescient of our present moment, and protests are breaking out across the country. How does it feel to read these scenes now?
It was difficult to be honest because of course you have to do the press tour, you have to talk about these things. And as you do so, watch people get killed as you scroll through Twitter.
One aspect of the book is "Oh yes, it's a conspiracy book," but it's not because most situations are inspired by real things. So it was bizarre to be honest and I had to get a little bit away from a lot of things. I think a lot of people are experiencing this right now and cannot process everything that is happening.
You mentioned conspiracy theories, and I found it interesting that you mentioned Illuminati by name a few times in the book. One theme in the book was questioning reality – who is believed and who is not. What did you want to demonstrate about the truths that we believe and do not believe?
We all have the family member who sends Illuminati videos on group chat. Especially within the black community, there can be a robust situation in conspiracy theory because so much wild stuff has been done to us. At some point I can understand why people believe the Illuminati are doing these things.
I argued with people of all kinds during Covid because they said, "You can't tell them you're sick because they'll come and take you and test you." On one side it says, "Look, please tell people if you're sick."
On the other hand, I completely understand why you would believe that. How many cases have there been evidence of testing on black communities? Of course there will be conspiracy theories, and among those conspiracy theories, there is the crux of the truth that tests were conducted in black communities. Why shouldn't they believe that this is a possibility?
You usually write romance. Why did you decide to try a new form?
When I write romance, I lean more on the good. In any romance, you sometimes have to make the reader feel bad too, but you lean on certain beats that make the reader happy, hopeful, and excited. It was fun to lean into things that would make the reader anxious because I was scared while writing. I could explore the kind of things that can be done in the story by focusing on this list of emotions as opposed to romantic emotions.
Towards the end of 2019, you told the story of Courtney Milan Treatment within the Romance Writers of Americaand shortly after Organization type implodes. Are you still busy
I don't have the energy for it right now. It was such a great and unnecessary betrayal that I don't know when I would trust this organization or any other organization again. I know there are a lot of people out there trying to change things, but for a lot of people it felt similar to 2016 except for the baseline betrayal.
I know they are trying to change and I wish them all the best, but personally, I am still not quite over what happened.
"When nobody is watching" is told of Theo, a white man, and Sydney, a black woman. What did you hope readers would get from each perspective?
I wanted to spiral around Sydney and see what was going on. And I wanted to show Theo who is an OK guy in general. He sees himself as non-racist in some ways and would not be friends with racists, but neither does he see black people or black communities or think outside of his preconceptions. I wanted to show him that he wasn't paying attention all the time, even though he thought it was him. Because I really think whites at some level don't see blacks or people from other marginalized groups.
That's why people protest on the street. This is why more and more people are trying to be allies because they realize that all of these things happened right in front of their face and they really didn't even notice it.
Elderly people are really respected in the book as vessels of information, and I think it reflects an oral tradition that is present in many churches, whose voices are often left out of history. Did you grow up with an oral tradition?
Often times, the family will not talk about the bad things that happened unless something really makes them talk about them. Many of our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles have so many stories that we have never heard them. We hear a fraction, but there are also some who would probably never tell you because they don't want to share something so terrible with you, because it is traumatic. Or if they tell you, they will never talk about it again, and there is an understanding that you will never ask about it again.
So there is an oral tradition and then there is the spontaneous oral tradition that you have to be in the right place at the right time or you will never know what happened in your family.
I thought of how sometimes people had relatives who went to war and they never knew they were involved in certain situations. And I think for a lot of marginalized people they were in some ways at war in America without having to leave the place where they were born.