Like many in the U.S., author Debbie Rigaud watched the televised 2018 British royal wedding with great interest. “To hear the ululations when Meghan and Harry came out gave me chills,” she says. That excitement fueled her forthcoming YA novel Truly Madly Royally (Point, July), a rom-com that pairs a black American teen with a white European prince when they meet at a summer college prep program.
Had you read much contemporary royal romance before writing one of your own?
I’ve been following Alyssa Cole—her covers are amazing—and I’ve read Shannon Hale’s Princess Academy series, but I hadn’t sought it out before. I did live in Bermuda for a few years, and the queen visited when I was there. Because it’s a small place—there are about 66,000 people on the island—you’re not seeing her as a tiny spot in the crowd. You’re actually kind of close. And so I got a sense of how they view royalty in Bermuda, in a predominantly black society. Being American born and raised, I don’t have the same view and understanding of it, so I borrowed from those experiences for this book.
Zora, the heroine of your novel, has a strong sense of self and is not particularly impressed by Owen’s royal status. Why is that?
Black people come from a community that always tells us we’re kings and queens. I didn’t want the girl to be gaga over the idea of European royalty, because she was crowned in a way herself. I wrote with that idea in mind: In the book, there’s a ceremony where she’s crowned by her community [as a local leader]. I wanted Zora to feel that support from within. But I also wanted to acknowledge that some of us were excited about Meghan Markle. Black Twitter was cracking me up with the reactions—when Meghan became part of the narrative, we all stood up.
How did you reconcile those conflicting sentiments in the book?
Zora’s thinking is, “How will I focus on my goals and not have this media circus [around Prince Owen] affect what I’m trying to do with my life?” It’s an inconvenience. I think that’s realistic and mature. There are also the feelings of inadequacy that Zora felt from being on the prestigious campus and feeling out of place there. She’s shouldering a lot. But he notices her first. I know the narrative, that people don’t look to us as standards of beauty. It’s not all about looks, but we’re fly and Owen picks up on that. So it was kind of: We are fabulous. Black girls are awesome. We can catch someone’s eye.
Would the relationship between Owen and Zora be the same if he weren’t royalty?
I think so, because there’s an earnestness about him that’s endearing. He has a humility and a curiosity. He wants to learn about her world. When two people from different races are there to listen and learn when appropriate, that willingness goes a long way.