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Author Kennedy Ryan Talks Winning Prestigious Romance Novel Award

Kennedy Ryan
Kennedy Ryan
Kennedy Ryan won a 2019 RITA Award for "The Long Shot," becoming the first African American to win this top, national romance novel award.

Charlotte resident Kennedy Ryan has written 16 romance novels over the past six years and many of them are self-published. They're not your usual love stories, but tackle issues such as domestic violence, child custody and Native American rights, to name a few.

This year, Ryan received the top romance novel prize, the RITA Award, for her novel "Long Shot." It's a story that, in addition to the romance element, focuses on various aspects of professional basketball, domestic violence and class distinctions.

Ryan is the first African American writer to receive a RITA, even though a black woman, Vivian Stephens, was an editor who was one of the huge influences in founding that organization. But no black person had ever won a RITA in 37 years.

Gwendolyn Glenn: Now the RITA is the top award?

Kennedy Ryan: It is. It's the equivalent of an Oscar. And there were a lot of people saying the reason no black person has ever won this award is because they don't enter. And I was like, "Well, that's not true." But then I had never entered. 

Glenn: Were you surprised when you won? 

Ryan: Oh, good grief. I was about to tell you, I really entered on principle because I was like, "How can you say that the reason no black author has ever won when you've never entered?" I had no expectation that my book would win. Because for one thing, in 37 years when it's never happened, for someone who looks like you, you don't just think it's gonna be me.Well, I didn't think that. And when they called my name, the room just erupted. There was this sense of just finally. And it was so moving because all of these black authors started coming into the aisle and hugging me and tears running down their faces. And there was a sense of, "We did it!" 

Glenn: Well, congratulations. And this was "Long Shot." It's a series that you're writing. Just give a brief summary of what this book is about.

Kennedy Ryan

Ryan: It's a love story. It addresses issues of domestic violence and domestic abuse in professional sports. I had seen the Ray Rice video, which, of course, a lot of people have seen. It was so disturbing to me and I felt such indignation.

Glenn: And remind people who Ray Rice is?

Ryan: Ray Rice is a football player and he had a confrontation with his then-girlfriend, fiancé, in the elevator. He hit her and she was unconscious and he dragged her out of the elevator and it was captured.

And I just kept watching it. And then what I watched after that was how we as a culture really grappled with how to feel about her. And then her story really got lost in his.

In this story, "Long Shot," it is a very, very strong woman. She lands in a relationship that is abusive. I started writing the story and I realized I had a lot of bias about it, that I had a lot of judgment for women who were in situations of domestic abuse. And for the next few months, I interviewed survivors of domestic abuse, shelter workers, social workers -- really to understand better the psychology of it. And I took all of that into that book.

Glenn: Why did you want to be a romance writer?

Ryan: When I started reading romance, it was just kind of an escape. But also, I saw romance as somewhere where women were completely at the center. Their goals, their dreams, their pleasure was at the center. And for me, I tend to write marginalized women at the center of my stories. Black women, Hispanic women, Asian women. I just wrote two books featuring Native American heroines because what I saw a lot, especially in traditional publishing, is you did not see women of color at the center of romance.

Ryan's journey as a published author is different from many writers in that her first pitch of a story idea to a major publisher, the Hachette Group, led to a four-book deal. After they were published, Ryan turned down additional offers and opted for the self-publishing route. 

Glenn: A lot of people would have killed to have a deal with a bonafide publishing company, yes? So why did you switch?

Ryan: I'm also a control freak. When you are self-publishing, you are in complete control, but you're also completely responsible. So the covers, the editing, the schedules, the promo -- all of that is on you. And I'm someone who really enjoys that. But also a larger share of the profits are yours, let's say 20% or less with a book deal. When I self-publish, I get to keep 70%. I think the real key with self-publishing is making sure that the same level of excellence and competence that you would see when you are publishing with a traditional publisher, you're making sure that you're incorporating that when you're self-publishing too. 

Glenn: And you have editors?

Ryan: Oh yeah. I hire editors and I hire proofreaders, beta readers. So, very aggressive process because I want to make sure that at in the end it will be indistinguishable from something that was traditionally published, as far as the quality of it.

Glenn: Well, thank you so much for being with us today and talking about your career. Thank you. Kennedy Ryan is a romance author and also the first African American to win the RITA Award, the Oscar of romance writing.