An interview with Serena Bell

Yours to Keep coverSerena Bell’s debut novel, Yours to Keep, interested me because the heroine is an undocumented immigrant living in the United States. I know Serena on Twitter and asked if she’d talk with me her writing and the research behind it.

Yours to Keep is your first full-length novel. You have, however, published several well-received novellas. What was different for you about writing a novel as opposed to writing a novella?

I actually wrote Yours to Keep before I wrote either Ticket Home or After Midnight. And I wrote Yours to Keep with a  a blithe disregard for how hard it might be to write such a big book with so many characters. I just had this story I wanted to tell, this very tender love story, and I set out to do it. I will say that now that I’ve done both, I find it much easier to write novellas. I like the purity of the experience — being with just two characters, digging into their feelings for each other, probing the nature of the attraction, without distractions. But I also like the ensemble quality of a bigger book — getting to know all the elements that bear on the hero and heroine’s pasts and on how their love for each other evolves.

What do you like best about writing romance? Have you ever written any other sort of fiction?

I like so many things about writing romance that it’s hard to choose one. I like getting the chance to make a new best friend and fall in love again every time I work on a new book. I like being able to dig in deep and find out what makes two people tick. I like that romance allows for a real interior world, and that you can be explicit about emotion. And I am not going to lie to you, I love writing sex scenes.

I’ve written, but not published, quite a bit of “literary” fiction. I wrote a “literary” novel in college for my senior thesis, and I wrote several over the decade that followed. But I actually always wanted to write romance. When I was 12, I told my mother I wanted to be a romance writer. She’s always been very encouraging about my writing (she’s a novelist herself), but that was the one time I sensed disapproval. I don’t think my mother will ever be a romance fan, but now that I’m writing it, she reads my stuff, professes love for my stories, and in particular is a huge fan of Yours to Keep.

In Yours to Keep, the heroine, Ana Travares, is from the Dominican Republic. She has lived in the US since she was seven. Neither she nor her brother and sister, with whom she lives, have any form of legal identification. All are working adults who pay rent, utilities and a cell phone bill. How did you get interested in writing about the undocumented? 

I did a whole series of nonfiction articles for a newsletter read by teachers of English as a second language. As part of that, I wrote about immigration, both legal and illegal. Like you, I was shocked to realize how many undocumented immigrants live here, and how many of them have the skeleton of a normal life. Any of us could be living next door to an undocumented immigrant and not know it. I knew as I did my research for those articles that I needed to spend more time exploring this world, whether I did it in nonfiction or fiction. And when I decided to write a romance novel, it didn’t take me long to realize that I wanted my heroine to be undocumented.

It’s clear you did a great deal of research about the undocumented in America. Can you tell me a little bit about that process? Were you able to talk to people in Ana’s situation?

I did talk to a few people in Ana’s situation — or at least a few people I suspected were in her shoes; I never asked them explicitly. I learned the most by talking to advocates for immigrants, people like immigration lawyers, immigration reformers, and the administrators in school systems who are responsible for making sure that English language learners get a good education. They all had amazing, moving stories to tell, and many of those stories find a place in Yours to Keep.

Ana makes her living as a Spanish tutor and ESL instructor. In the beginning of the book she is being sexually harassed by a school administrator who is asking for sex in exchange for keeping Ana’s status a secret. Ana is rescued by Dr. Ethan Hansen, a pediatrician who is a widower and a frustrated single parent of an angry teenage son. Why did you make Ethan a widower?

Ana’s situation is challenging, and I didn’t want to give her a hero whose life was all sunshine and roses, whose only role would be to step in, sweep her off her feet, and make everything okay. I wanted Ana to be strong, to have made a great deal out of a very difficult life, and I wanted Ethan to recognize that about her, not only because he is perceptive, but also because he himself has known loss and grief and a sense of not-quite-belonging. The fact that Ethan’s wife is dead also sets up an important piece of the book — Ethan’s fear that if Ana is deported, he will have exposed his son, Theo, to the loss of yet another mother figure.

Ana and Ethan come from different worlds in more than one way. They come from different countries. Ana has no status in the eyes of the law; Ethan, as a professional white male, has more status than almost anyone. Ethan is educated; Ana is not. Ethan lives in a lovely home in a wealthy neighborhood; Ana and her family live in a small, rundown apartment in a poor part of town. In some ways, their set up reminded me of many a historical romance where the housemaid falls in love with the titled lord. Do you think that’s a fair analogy?

Yes. I deliberately echoed that trope. I wanted to write a contemporary romance that had the same tight constraints as those historicals in which stepping out of your social class, crossing lines, is genuinely dangerous. I wanted to evoke that sense of social peril.

It also turns out that it’s hard to write a realistic romance about immigration with a less conventional hero-heroine pairing. First of all, one of the things that ICSIS looks for when they decide whether to allow a couple to pursue marriage as a route to citizenship is whether the citizen member of the couple will be able to support the other member — because the last thing the US wants is to invite more citizens to join its welfare rolls and otherwise become a burden on the system.

Secondly, when ICSIS evaluates whether a marriage is for real, they look at whether the marriage is socially likely or whether it is more likely to have been contrived. Unfortunately—immigration lawyers tell me—ICSIS is more likely to be convinced by a marriage between an older man and a younger woman, a more successful man and a less successful woman, a white man and a Latina or black women, and any two people with similar religious backgrounds than by more unconventional pairings. So if Ana had fallen for someone less wealthy or less established, it would have been harder to write a realistic happily ever after. Of course, that wouldn’t have stopped me if I’d realized that that might be the more interesting story, but it is a reason that Ana’s story is actually more likely to turn out happily in real life than almost any other story I could have told.

If I write follow-up books to Yours to Keep, like Ricky’s (Ana’s brother) story, I’ll make different choices, turn convention more on its head, and that will be part of the fun for me.

Ethan is a superb doctor. Not only does he offer excellent care and appropriate assurance to the families in his practice, he is able to make diagnoses that many would not see. In Yours to Keep, Ethan is determined to figure out what’s wrong with one of his patients, a young girl who has bewildering symptoms. Do you have a background in medicine?

No. But I have a pediatrician sister, and she was endlessly helpful with writing this book. Research is very important to me. I like doing it, and when I put details in a book, I want them to be right, or at least deeply plausible. I was told by another pediatrician reader that she loved the accuracy of the medical parts of the book, and that meant a lot to me.

Your book made me think about the myriad freedoms and rights that come with citizenship. One right that struck me after reading your book is how (comparatively) less afraid I’d be if pulled over for speeding. Ana, who doesn’t have a drivers license, is terrified of encountering the police. What right do you think US citizens take the most for granted?

Probably the biggest ones have to do with money. We take for granted that we can have credit extended to us, that we can bank, that we can apply for assistance if we get into trouble—unemployment, welfare, financial aid. And of course, we take for granted that we can apply for — if not necessarily get — any job we want. But I was also very struck, learning about the experience of kids who are undocumented, by how much we take for granted our ability to move around — in cars, in airplanes, on skateboards. Anna points out that Theo’s risk-taking on his skateboard wouldn’t have been possible for her nephews, because attracting the attention of the police officer is a dangerous act for the child of undocumented immigrants.

Ana’s story ends happily. I wasn’t so sure about the future for her brother and sister. Do you see either of them ever finding the security that Ana does?

This was a very tricky thing for me. I wanted to give them some security and to leave the reader with an optimistic feeling about their futures, but the truth is that it’s going to be much harder for both of them. Even once Ana becomes a citizen, she won’t be in a position to petition for them. Essentially, their only way out is the same as hers, marriage. And as I’ve said, Ricky would have quite a tough time convincing ICSIS to accept any marriage he might actually want to enter into. That said, I’ve personally never shied away from a challenge, and if I decide to write Ricky’s story, I’m sure as heck going to find a credible way to give him a happily ever after.

What’s next for you?

My first Blaze, Still So Hot! comes out in paperback on December 17 and as an e-book on January 1. As you might expect from something with the Blaze brand on it, Still So Hot! is a very different book from Yours to Keep. It’s a Caribbean romp, a very sexy story about a dating coach who’s planning to spend the weekend helping her prize client find the perfect man on the beaches of St. Bart’s. Instead, she has to unravel the shenanigans caused when her client picks up, en route, Elisa’s ex-best friend and the only man she ever loved.

Then, in June, my next single title book, Hold On Tight, releases from Loveswept. The hero of Hold on Tight is a soldier who was injured in Afghanistan, then comes home to discover that he’s the father of an eight-year-old boy conceived with a girl he briefly, and rather disastrously, dated right before going off to basic training. He gets roped into babysitting for his son, and his efforts to avoid being lassoed into a ready-made family get rapidly complicated by his chronic, irresistible attraction to the mother of his child. You’ll recognize this as a secret baby book, and my intention is to preserve the best parts of the secret baby trope, and turn all the others upside down.

Thanks for chatting with me.

You’re welcome! My pleasure!

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7 Responses to “An interview with Serena Bell”

  1. CD says:

    This looks amazing. As a child of refugee parents, it’s great to see a romance that tackles those thorny issues of migration and legal existence. This book has gone right up to the top of my TBR mountain!

    What I found even more fascinating about this interview was the brief mention of the complicated intersection between race, class, nationality and sex. So whereas I completely understand the argument for a more conventional pairing, I would be INSANELY excited by a potential Ricky book….

  2. LeeF says:

    So often people say ” I want something different”. This sounds like it would be a book worth trying.

  3. Serena Bell says:

    Thanks to you guys for stopping by. Very pleased, CD, to be at the top of your TBR mountain. And I’d love to write a Ricky book. It’s very near the top of my TBW mountain. :-)

  4. Rosario says:

    I’ve had this on my wish list since the first time I heard of it. I was interested in it both because it’s something different and because I’m an immigrant myself. After reading the interview, my wanting to read it is not just about the subject matter, but about the thoughtfulness and understanding that seem to have gone into it. I’ve preordered it, and I can’t wait!

    • Serena Bell says:

      Thanks so much, Rosario! I really appreciate that, and I’m thrilled to have you as a reader. I hope you enjoy it as much as I’ve loved researching it and writing it.

  5. I echo Rosario’s comments about the thoughtfulness and understanding that Serena has put into the writing of her novel. I’m a British author, and the situation of undocumented immigrants in the UK is one that I’ve been thinking of exploring as a writer, although from a different angle to Serena’s. It’s a subject that needs to be brought to the forefront of people’s attention, and I admire Serena for tackling it in such a considered way. I’m looking forward to reading Yours to Keep. Thanks for a great interview.

    • Serena Bell says:

      Thanks so much, Helena! I look forward to having you as a reader. And I wish you the best with your project–keep in touch if you do end up going forward with it!

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