High Stakes, Big Feelings: An Interview with Romance Author Kennedy Ryan

Is there anything better than a well-crafted romance? Beautiful characters, heartfelt vulnerability… it’s no secret the romance genre has shot to the top of the sales charts, and Kennedy Ryan writes some of the best in the business. She’s the author of many emotionally-charged romances including Long Shot, The Kingmaker (the re-release will be available on May 23!), and, most recently, Before I Let Go, our April selection for Parnassus’ romance book club, Between the Covers. (If you’d like to stay up to date on Between the Covers selections and meetings, sign up for our newsletter!) Grab yourself a copy of Before I Let Go and enjoy this interview with Kennedy.

– Hannah Kerbs, Parnassus bookseller and co-host of Between the Covers romance book club

Kennedy Ryan

​Hannah Kerbs: Congratulations on yet another smash-hit of a novel, Before I Let Go! Truthfully, it was one of my very favorite books I read last year, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anybody with a pulse. How was your experience writing this book? Did your process differ at all for this (traditionally published) novel versus those you’ve self-published?

Kennedy Ryan: It was a great experience. A very personal one in many ways. I’d drafted the first version of this book about 15 years ago, but it is so different in its final iteration. Different character names, different title, written in first person instead of third. There was no therapy or healing in the original version. It was a shadow of what I hope this book became. My husband actually encouraged me to revisit the book because he had read it when I first wrote it. It was the first book I ever wrote, even before my debut published novel. I always joke that this book was waiting for me to grow up. It had all the hurt, but not the healing. I came back to it at the right time. I was diagnosed with depression while writing it, and though I don’t recommend writing a character with depression while fighting it yourself, my own mental health journey deeply informed the story. It was a difficult, but also a cathartic, process. So many readers say they feel Yasmen’s pain and her struggle and her joy; that it feels real and palpable. I know that wasn’t the case in the original version. I cannot overstate the empathy that came with navigating these issues myself in real time. As far as self-published v. traditional, my process didn’t differ much actually. I always rely heavily on interview and research, sensitivity readers, and that was much the same. Trad is a longer, slower process but I appreciated that time to give the story as many eyes and as much time as it took to make it the best it could be.

HK: Reading this book took me (and so many others!) on a profound emotional journey. I’ve long admired how elegantly you weave tough subjects into your romance stories. For Yasmen and Josiah specifically, how did you navigate that delicate balance between their hurts and their hopes?

KR: It was very intentional, the balance between their before and after. There was a lot of pain that happened before the story actually starts in chapter one. I wanted to give readers enough context of what had happened to destroy this family in the past, without having to walk through every detail on page. That would have made an already heavy story much more difficult. I provided glimpses of their past—the good and the bad—in their thoughts, and only had one chapter that was a full flashback, which was the “divorce” chapter. It was important for you to fully grasp what they had been through and who they had been before to really appreciate the growth it took for them to get their second chance. And we had her friends as comic relief and joy when things needed to be a little lighter. I wanted the joy and the poignancy to be balanced. To have that emotional connection, without it being as dark as it could have been.

HK: In the drafting process, it can be a challenging task to drill down to a character’s core, but Yasmen and Josiah are so well-realized, I could have sworn I was reading about real people! Was there a scene or two that was particularly key in unlocking their characters for you?

KR: Several scenes, but the ones that stand out are Josiah’s first therapy scene, which is also what leads into the divorce flashback. And also that first scene we get in his POV after the food truck event. From Yasmen’s POV, he seems terse and somewhat reserved. Once we get into his head, we realize he is lonely and floundering as he tried to figure out how to do life without the woman he always saw as his soulmate. And for Yasmen, I knew who she was immediately. I recognized so much of myself and other women I know in her. The need to achieve and manage and take care of others, sometimes to the neglect of yourself. To choose everybody else first. The
desperation to get better; not recognizing the depressed version of yourself. I think we get so much of that for Yasmen even in the first chapters, but one of her most character-defining scenes for me was when she is in the scene where her therapist asks when she’ll forgive herself and move on. Yasmen says write down today. That was crucial for me to understand to who she is and who she becomes throughout the story.

HK: I love your passion for writing – as mentioned in your author bio – empowering stories with women fully in charge of their destinies, featuring heroes who respect and cherish them as they do so. Why do you think it’s so important to write romances like that? What do you hope readers will get from reading your characters?

KR: I love readers seeing all that we as women are capable and deserving of. My heroines tend to be ambitious and aspirational, but also vulnerable and human. And seeing a partner who respects and loves a woman like that is important for many reasons. It’s interesting to me that some critics say romance gives women unreasonable expectations, when really most of these heroes are just being respectful and caring and acknowledging women’s agency and right to pleasure. Every partner you meet in real life won’t be the “swoony” book boyfriend, but they SHOULD respect you and consider you and make you feel cared for. That is not “the bar” or “the blueprint”. That is basic, and I think it’s healthy for women to look in our stories and see that as possible.

HK: Food is a major theme throughout the book and multiple key scenes are set in Grits, Yasmen and Josiah’s restaurant. There are even recipes in the back – yum! If you could design your perfect meal, what would it be?

KR: I’m so boring and not a foodie! LOL! Gimme a NY slice of pizza and a Diet Coke. I’m set.

HK: This novel is the start of a new series, the Skyland series. Can you tell us anything more about that and/or your current work in progress? When embarking on a new romance series, are you already thinking ahead to the next characters’ stories as you write scenes with them in the ensemble?

KR: The Skyland series is three parts. Before I Let Go is book 1, and Yasmen’s friend Soledad gets her story in book 2. I can say that it is a book about taking your power back and about deciding what you will and won’t stand for. It’s a little lighter than book 1. Maybe a little . . .spicier? LOL! Soledad and Hendrix and Yasmen’s friendship only deepens in this book, and we also expand to meet new characters from Soledad’s family. I have general ideas about the other characters’ stories as I’m writing the first one. Enough to tease the reader about what’s coming next. I have readers asking this or that about Soledad based on what they saw of her in Yasmen’s story. You met her in the first book, but you don’t KNOW her until she gets her moment in the spotlight. I hope you’ll really fall in love with her. Same for Hendrix, who gets the third book.

HK: As always, we like wrap things up with this question: what is your favorite thing about independent bookstores?

There is such a pure love for books and authors with independent bookstores. You are the grassroots, the ones with an ear closest to the ground. And I love the individualism; the expression of who the owners and teams are at each store. No one is ever exactly the same. No one champions our stories more!

Before I Let Go is available now. Are you interested in attending our romance book club meetings? Sign up for the Between the Covers newsletter!

Before I Let Go (Skyland) By Kennedy Ryan Cover Image