Kennedy Ryan gets mainstream book deal and Peacock TV adaptation The author's high-emotional-stakes romances are about to reach a wider audience, with a five-book deal and an upcoming TV adaptation. Ryan says her "happily ever after" has been "hard-won."

Kennedy Ryan's romances are coming for your heartstrings

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A MART├ŹNEZ, HOST:

Most romance books have at least one thing in common - a happily ever after. But there aren't too many that deal with topics such as Indigenous land rights and domestic abuse in the sports world along the way. Author Kennedy Ryan's novels are different like that, and her romances are poised to reach a wider audience. A mainstream publisher is reissuing five of her previously self-published titles starting later this month, and a TV series based on another one of her books is now in development. NPR's Chloe Veltman has more.

CHLOE VELTMAN, BYLINE: Kennedy Ryan's love stories are packed with friendship and spicy sex, but the impulse that drives her to write them is darker.

KENNEDY RYAN: My books come from indignation, from female rage.

VELTMAN: Often it'll be something in the news that grabs the author's attention, like the incident that inspired her award-winning novel "Long Shot..."

RYAN: A football player knocked his then-girlfriend out in the elevator, and it went viral.

VELTMAN: ...Or footage of the 2016 Dakota pipeline protest, which kickstarted "The Kingmaker," a book exploring climate change and Indigenous land rights. It's the first of five previously self-published Ryan titles about to be reissued by Bloom Books.

RYAN: So many people are saying that climate change is not real. And I wanted to see a hero who was passionate about it. I just hadn't seen that in romance.

VELTMAN: The author spins out this intense, real-life source material into fictions full of joy and angst. Bestselling romance author Jasmine Guillory says the hard-won happy ending is what makes Ryan's book so bingeable.

JASMINE GUILLORY: Readers love to know that they're going to go through some hard times, but they're going to really appreciate it in the end.

(CROSSTALK)

HIMEKO DE GUZMAN: She pulls on my heartstrings. I end up crying every time I read her.

VELTMAN: Himeko de Guzman is standing in a long line under the hot sun, patiently waiting to meet Ryan, one of her favorite authors, at the 2023 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.

DE GUZMAN: I've read her "Hook Shot" series, "The Rebel King," "Queen Move."

VELTMAN: But quite a few of the people standing in line haven't read any of Ryan's books yet. They're here through word of mouth, like de Guzman's friend, Tiffiny Hargrave.

TIFFINY HARGRAVE: I don't know what I'm getting into, but I'm sure it's going to be great.

VELTMAN: In addition to autographing books and giving out hugs in her grass-green dress and gold floral earrings. Ryan spends quite a bit of time warning new readers like Hargrave about what to expect.

RYAN: There is content warnings right here...

HARGRAVE: OK.

DE GUZMAN: ...Just in case you need them.

VELTMAN: Beyond taking readers on a hot-blooded emotional journey, Ryan stands out because she's unafraid to bend the rules of the genre. So says Jennifer Procop, romance critic and co-host of the popular weekly podcast "Fated Mates" of Ryan's 2022 novel "Before I Let Go." Currently being adapted for TV, the novel focuses on a couple that's gotten divorced.

JENNIFER PROCOP: Marriage in trouble is the trope that we have in romance, right? But like, marriage is over - that is not a trope we have in romance, really. And so there is something to be said for admiring someone who really can break a romance rule and make us still buy it.

VELTMAN: Divorce isn't something Ryan has dealt with in her own life. The writer says she and her husband have been married for 26 years.

RYAN: People ask, how do you write these amazing heroes who are so compassionate and kind? And it comes from having those kinds of men in my life. And my husband is chief in that.

VELTMAN: Bestselling romance novelist Sarah McLean is the other co-host of the "Fated Mates" podcast. She says Ryan writes so compellingly on topics outside of her own experience because she approaches her task like she's an investigative journalist.

SARAH MCLEAN: I don't know that I have ever met a romance writer who does, book for a book, the amount of research and character work that Kennedy does.

VELTMAN: Take the case of her tempestuous novel, "The Kingmaker," in which a Native American activist and the heir to a giant fossil-fuel corporation fall madly in love. Ryan says her research involved speaking with several Indigenous women. Andrea LeBeau is a member of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation in Arizona. She was among those Ryan connected with via Facebook.

ANDREA LEBEAU: I rarely see Native American heroes or heroines in romance books, so I was equal parts exhilarated and scared, to be honest, because there's a lot of harm that could be done with writing a culture that's not your own.

VELTMAN: Ryan's background is different from the Indigenous heroine in "The Kingmaker." She's Black, was brought up by church pastors in North Carolina and has mostly lived in big urban centers like San Diego and Atlanta. LeBeau says she shared her experiences of reservation life with the novelist and provided feedback on the manuscript.

LEBEAU: I wanted her to get it right as closely as she could without overstepping.

VELTMAN: Like LeBeau, Ryan, who's 50, didn't see her own identity reflected in the romance space when she was growing up in the 1980s and '90s.

RYAN: The thing about romance at that point - it was so white cishet. There weren't a lot of options that were diverse.

VELTMAN: On top of that, she had to keep her interest in the genre under wraps. Ryan says her mom wouldn't allow romance books inside the house.

RYAN: And I would hide them under my mattress, and I would tuck them in the back of my closet. And that went on for years.

VELTMAN: Ryan says she let her romance habit go for a while, but in her 30s, she found her way back to it when she hit a rough patch in her life. She was feeling overwhelmed, juggling public relations and journalism gigs, running an autism nonprofit and parenting an autistic son.

RYAN: I needed something kind of for myself.

VELTMAN: She started reading romance again and then decided to give writing it a try.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And the RITA for best contemporary romance long goes to "Long Shot" by Kennedy Ryan.

(CHEERING)

VELTMAN: In 2019, Ryan made history as the first Black author to win one of the most prestigious romance awards. In her acceptance speech, she didn't shy away from talking about the romance industry's long-standing diversity problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RYAN: It's 37 years waiting for someone who looked like me to stand here.

(CHEERING)

VELTMAN: Veteran romance writer Beverly Jenkins was in the audience for the occasion.

BEVERLY JENKINS: Very, very proud of her that night.

VELTMAN: Jenkins is a trailblazer herself, one of the first Black romance authors to find mainstream success back in the mid-1990s. Jenkins says Ryan's win was a small step towards the greater inclusivity we're seeing in romance publishing today.

JENKINS: You got writers who are writing queer. You have got South Asian heroes and heroines. You have men writing, trans people writing. But, of course, the industry can do more.

VELTMAN: According to data from publishing industry tracker Circana BookScan, the top white romance authors still sell hundreds of thousands more print copies than their bestselling nonwhite counterparts. But sales of Ryan's books and other titles by diverse authors have grown exponentially over the past few years owing to mainstream interest in the romance genre and a demand for greater diversity among younger readers. Kennedy Ryan says things are changing in her life for the better.

RYAN: My little pod is my husband, my son and me, and for so long it felt like us against the world. And now it's feeling like the world is for us, you know?

VELTMAN: She says it's like her own hard-won happily ever after.

Chloe Veltman, NPR News.

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