For a brief period, Talia Hibbert thought she was going to be a lawyer. Now, a little over three years since graduating from the University of Leicester in her native U.K., Hibbert, 24, is a bestselling author about to see her 18th novel published.
Act Your Age, Eve Brown (Avon, Mar. 2021) follows a woman who is described in the book as “a certified hot mess” with purple hair. After she botches an interview for a head chef job at a charming B&B, she winds up in a fender bender with the B&B’s owner. The crash leaves Jacob Wayne with a broken arm and only worsens his staff shortage. He’s forced to hire Eve, and he begins to discover that the more time they spend together, the more he likes having her around.
The novel is the third book Hibbert’s published with a major house, after making her name self-publishing. Big house or no house, her output is impressive.
Speaking from Nottinghamshire, where she lives, Hibbert is wearing a powder blue T-shirt, a black cardigan, and tiny Saturn-shaped earrings. She describes the beginning of her writing career as a leap of faith: “I was starting my final year at university, and I was thinking about how by the end of that year I would have to sort out a job.” She’s on the autism spectrum and was faced with daunting questions about her future. She says she knew it would be hard to get a job because of her autism. “People think you’re unreliable or they don’t want to deal with the red tape.”
The answer presented itself in self-publishing romance novels. Around the time of her graduation, Hibbert’s great-grandmother passed away. “She was very important to me and she played a big role in my life,” Hibbert says. “She’s always been very inspirational to me. She left me some money. It wasn’t a huge amount, but it was definitely the most money that I’ve ever had at one time.”
Until that moment, writing had felt, Hibbert says, like a “pie-in-the-sky dream.” She was struck by anxiety and doubt but gave herself a year to make things work.
“When I first started writing, I was publishing so fast because I really needed this to work,” Hibbert notes. “Either this needed to be viable or I was going to have to do something else. I was so desperate to get it off the ground, and that desperation was really feeding my creativity. I’m lucky, because it could have been very stifling. I have never been as productive as I was that year. I probably never will be again.”
Hibbert’s first novel was self-published for the simple reason that she didn’t consider another route. She says she assumed traditional publishing wasn’t an avenue open to her.
Romance publishing has had a long history of marginalizing BIPOC writers. In the 37-year history of the RITA Awards (the onetime Oscars of romance writing), only two Black women won top honors. In 2019, Kennedy Ryan’s Long Shot won in the Contemporary Romance: Long category; that same year, best novella went to Bad Blood by M. Malone. Both were self-published. Under fire over issues surrounding bias and a lack of transparency about how RITA winners had been selected, the Romance Writers of America (which administers the honors) retired the awards in 2020.
“I knew I would have to work twice as hard to have a chance,” Hibbert says. Her success in the indie romance space opened the door to the traditional publishing world. After a literary agent approached her, she says she was “freaking out.” She asked a friend what to do, and her friend set up a call with her own agent. That phone call changed Hibbert’s career. She signed with her friend’s agent instead.
Nearly a year after self-publishing her first book and signing with Courtney Miller-Callihan, Hibbert landed a three-book deal with Avon at auction. Act Your Age, Eve Brown is the third book in the Brown Sisters series and heavily features two things Hibbert is passionate about: tropes and diversity.
“I love tropes where the characters already know each other,” Hibbert says. “Friends to lovers. Enemies to lovers. That kind of familiarity, and the development and change of the relationship.”
Hibbert also loves placing her characters in forced proximity, putting the hero and heroine in a situation where they can’t escape each other. Take, for example, the setup for her November release, Wrapped Up in You, which follows two friends who are snowed in together for Christmas (along with 27 cats).
A longtime lover of romance novels, Hibbert says Julia Quinn’s Splendid began her obsession with the genre. She read it when she was 12 after being drawn to its lime-green cover. She was shocked by what she found inside.
Hibbert kept devouring more romance novels, largely populated by white characters and written by white authors. When she found her way to e-book romances, her world expanded. She saw authors from different cultural backgrounds writing their truths, and she points to Alisha Rai (Girl Gone Viral) and Rebekah Weatherspoon, founder of Women of Color in Romance, as examples.
“I was raised in a family with multiple cultural heritages, and I think you can see that reflected in my books,” Hibbert says. “My mum is half Roma and half Sierra Leonean and my dad is Jamaican, and his parents came here with the Windrush generation.”
Diversity has been a divisive topic in romance publishing, but that has slowly been changing. For this reason, Act Your Age, Eve Brown is a special novel for Hibbert. “One thing I wanted to do was write an autistic romance,” she says.
This is not the first autistic character Hibbert’s written, but it is the first she’s written in which both protagonists are autistic. “That’s the relationship I’m in,” she says.
Being able to put her experience on the page has allowed Hibbert to attempt to deepen the way readers look at diversity. Eve and Jacob share a disability, and yet, Hibbert explains, “they have incredibly different perspectives and they’re affected by their autism in different ways.”
Hibbert is feeling hopeful about where the romance genre is headed. “I’m excited about the increase in diversity and the opportunities people have to keep pushing boundaries by widening what inclusivity means,” she says. “As a romance enthusiast I’m so cheering for that, even though I shouldn’t care about people recognizing my genre, because it’s special as it is.”
Zoraida Córdova is the author of the Brooklyn Brujas series and the coeditor of Vampires Never Get Old.