New York State of Mind: Where Did Nico Come From?
Hey, there. It's been a while, I know. Sorry about the radio silence. This summer and fall have been crazy busy, with the release of Legally Ours, the third and final book of my Spitfire Trilogy, and also the first book of a new series, titled Bad Idea.
Hot, yes? That cover model. Ummmmm. On top of that, I'm going back to school, keeping my day job, raising three kids, and basically never sleeping.
I'm excited, though. I'm excited about this new book because instead of recycling more tropes we've all read before, I took a leap of faith and wrote a story that's really close to my heart. Bad Idea reads at first like a typical bad boy meets rich girl in the city story. And it kind of is. Nico Soltero, otherwise known as The Hottest Man of my Dreams, is a part-Puerto Rican mutt from Hell's Kitchen, a twenty-six-year-old FedEx worker whose life is going nowhere. He meets Layla Barros, a student from an affluent family who's attending NYU and working part-time at an office on Nico's delivery route. Sparks fly. Drama ensues.
But. The star of this story isn't really just Layla and Nico; it's New York City. Not the flashy, cool New York you see in TV shows or books about asshole billionaires. It's the New York of 2002-2003, the New York of my youth, the New York I know intimately and love with all my heart.
People who know me will probably read this book and think that I am Layla. And while there are things that overlap, I'm not her. I'm not half-Brazilian (although members of my family are). I'm not the only child of a plastic surgeon and a housewife from Pasadena (I have five siblings, and my parents are from Oregon). I did not fall in love with a beautiful Puerto Rican man carrying the world on his big, broad, lickable shoulders. Seriously. If Nico was a real dude, do you think I would be in Seattle right now?
But I want to say a bit about the research and knowledge that went into Bad Idea. I took a risk here, choosing to write about a few communities I love and admire, but wasn't born into. It's scary to write about cultural perspectives that are not your own, particularly since in romance, you run the risk of writing characters as sexualized objects. You run the risk of offending people who do identify as a part of those communities, which is NEVER, EVER something I would want to do.
But, as so many writers have pointed out, avoiding characters of color not only contributes to an ongoing problem of whitewashing in the romance community, it also shuts down all sorts of possibilities for good stories. See, I may be white, but the life I lead is full of so much diversity. I married a man from Hawaii, I am raising multiracial children. I have devoted my academic life to studying the history of racial identity in this country. I have lived in New York, Boston, San Diego, Rio de Janeiro, Paris, and Seattle, and NEVER have I lived a life where I was only ever surrounded by white people. How can I write homogenous stories if that's not the life I actually live?
So I decided to take on this challenge. And because authenticity is really important to me, nearly every place and character written in these books has some thread of truth. I actually lived in Dominican City for a while (Nico's neighborhood). I had several friends who also lived there and in some of the few remaining housing projects in Hell's Kitchen. I learned to speak Spanish well enough to pick up some of the slang terms. However, this was all a very long time ago, so I also did a LOT of research.
I've been watching videos and stalking people on Instagram and reading books and reaching out to people (some within this beautiful book community) who can claim membership in the Puerto Rican diaspora in New York or the larger Brazilian community in the U.S. This is an ongoing process, and it's possible you'll see slight changes in updated versions of the book. It's taking me back to that crazy time in my life, but it's also taking me forward. I'm learning so much.
I hope this care and attention comes through, because you see, this is the New York I fell in love with. It's gritty and mixed. It's choppy and will break your heart. It's vibrant and colorful and full of tastes and smells and sights and sounds that are sometimes nice and sometimes awful and somehow always very beautiful.
One last note on the book:
If you haven't read Bad Idea, first of all, what are you waiting for? I want to know what you think! Then come back here and keep reading, because you're going to see some spoilers:
I've had a few readers pipe up that Puerto Ricans are citizens and therefore, Nico's mother shouldn't be illegal, as she is in the book. I know this, although it's unfortunate how many Americans do not and seem to want to think about Puerto Rico as "other." I do not not want to be a part of that problem, which is one reason why I chose to make my main character Puerto Rican in particular.
Just a reminder: Nico's mother is one of many Cubans who sought sanctuary in Puerto Rican at the beginning of the Castro regime. Although she was brought up in Puerto Rico and raised in a Puerto Rican family, she is not an American citizen. Her story is unique and will come out eventually. And while yes, the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 should have made it easy for her to naturalize, I'm just going to ask you to please trust me here. If you've read my other books, you know I weave a tangled, tangled web with my characters. These facts are important, and will come up in the next book. That's all I'm going to say.