Tia Williams is having a moment. Sleek and elegant—and looking very much like a former beauty magazine editor—she’s settled into a cozy booth at the Smith, an upscale diner in New York City’s NoMad neighborhood, and ordered her first hot chocolate in forever, albeit without whipped cream.

“I’m learning to celebrate the small moments,” she says, sipping the cocoa. “I’ve learned the hard way that you have to grab them when you can.”

That said, it feels like Williams, 48, is on the precipice of something big, given the breakout success of her 2021 romance, Seven Days in June, a bestseller and Reese Witherspoon book club pick that’s being adapted for television. And expectations are sky-high for her follow-up, A Love Song for Ricki Wilde, a novel that mixes romance and fantasy against the backdrop of Harlem’s past and present and hits shelves in February 2024 from Grand Central.

The idea for the novel, which PW’s starred review calls “a showstopper,” came to Williams during a bout of insomnia. “One night, around 2 or 3 a.m., this story came to me like it dropped out of the sky into my head,” she recalls. “I had these disparate elements that I had to connect: a cursed musician. A haunted piano. A brownstone in Harlem. Leap years. And then there was a florist and a woman escaping the South. What was I supposed to do with all of that?”

She spent the next few hours unraveling the story, making the pieces fit together and hashing out themes. The result is the tale of 28-year-old Ricki Wilde, the youngest daughter of a wealthy, high-achieving family from present-day Atlanta, who eschews the family business and moves to Harlem to realize her dream of opening a flower shop. One February during a leap year, when it’s rumored that the veil between worlds is at its thinnest, she meets and falls for Ezra, a mysterious jazz musician from the Harlem of the 1920s. As the two work to understand the how and why of their meeting, Ricki finds the present colliding with the past in ways she’d never imagined.

“I really wanted to explore the concept of Black excellence and how it can set some very rigid expectations of what it means to be successful,” says Williams, who also dug into the history of Harlem and the Harlem Renaissance. “It’s one of my passions, and I loved learning about it. I’m a huge Stephen King fan, and, with The Shining, he talks about how houses have memories and places have emotions, and deep histories and the psychology of that. Paris. New Orleans. Charleston. Amsterdam, but especially Harlem. The history underneath the modernity.”

When her order—oatmeal and a side of bacon (extra crispy)—arrives, Williams, her dark hair pulled neatly back into a low ponytail, confesses that the success of Seven Days in June came just as she was about to give up writing altogether. Like many authors, Williams—whose debut novel, The Accidental Diva, published in 2004—knows that success can be elusive and fleeting.

The oldest of three sisters and daughter of an Army colonel, Williams grew up in Maryland and Virginia—with a four-year stint in Germany, during which her cousins in the U.S. would mail her VHS tapes of MTV and General Hospital. “We were such a pop culture family,” she says. “My mom was addicted to paperback romances, so I devoured them. Jackie Collins, Jude Deveraux. All the books with Fabio on the cover. And I’d spend months waiting for my February issue of Mademoiselle to finally arrive via international mail.”

By the time she was seven, she knew she wanted to be a magazine editor and author, and, no matter what she was reading, she would mentally recast the characters as Black. “I understood Black fabulosity because it was everywhere around me,” Williams says. “My parents had an epic romance. My aunt Diane was a fabulous, big-city career woman. We exist. But I knew those stories were not being told. Why are we missing from the page? From the screen? So, I decided I would tell our stories.”

And she did. After graduating from the University of Virginia in 1997, she headed to New York University for the publishing course and took a job as an assistant at Doubleday, before switching to magazines, working at YM, Elle, Essence, and other glossies. She decided to write her first book during a stint at Glamour, right after a bad breakup.

“I was 25,” she says. “I was a Black beauty editor in a very white world. No matter what I did, I was the only one in the room. And it was exhausting. I’d kind of hit a wall. I quit my job, put all my stuff in storage, and moved to Spain to teach English. While I was there, I started rewriting the story of me and this crazy guy, but like, having it work out in my favor. And I made him awesome. Sort of like a healing journey for myself. And when I was done, I was like, oh my god, this is a book.”

That book was The Accidental Diva. It was followed by the YA duology It Chicks (2007) and Sixteen Candles (2008). But then life intervened. “I took a long break,” Williams says, “because work was a lot, and I got married, had a baby, got divorced, and was a single mom for a while. I didn’t have the wherewithal.”

Eventually, she regrouped and started writing again, publishing The Perfect Find (2016), which has been reissued by Grand Central and optioned by Netflix, and Seven Days in June, about a depressed, migraine-suffering single mom who finds a second chance at romance. “I wanted to write a doppelgänger who had the same afflictions as I did,” she says, “but got a happy ending.”

Of course, she’s also written a happy ending for herself. Williams is remarried, the editorial director of Estée Lauder, and a bestselling author—just like she imagined herself as a teenager. “I never thought we’d be here,” she says. “And yes, I’m thrilled. But I don’t take it for granted. The thing is—especially with books by writers of color—publishing is so fickle, based on the trend of the moment, as opposed to the fact that Black women exist in the universe, and therefore there should be books for us as well.”

Like her other novels, A Love Song for Ricki Wilde fits that bill. But the book’s speculative twist is new territory for Williams. “When I first came up with this, I was nervous to tell my editor because it sounded so insane, and like nothing I’d ever done before,” she says. “But the thing that kept it from feeling so wild is that it’s still such a me story. It’s a big romance. It’s the funny dialogue. It’s the quirky extended family and secondary characters, a lot of pop culture stuff. And it’s still really grounded. It’s still a love story at its heart.”

“I’m writing what I know,” she adds. And publishing—like life—has its moments: those continuous ups and downs. “Do what you think is right for yourself, no matter the circumstances. Expect the worst, hope for the best, and you just might be surprised.”

Sona Charaipotra is a journalist, editor, and the author of six books.