Elise Bryant’s third YA romance, Reggie and Delilah’s Year of Falling, follows the burgeoning relationship between biracial pop punk band lead singer Delilah and D&D expert Reggie across a year of holiday meet-cutes, and how they navigate aligning their public-facing personas with who they truly are. We spoke with Bryant about her appreciation for the romance genre, her shared experience with her characters’ journey on identity, the Taylor Swift song that inspired the book, and continuing to expand on her interconnected universe of stories.

Reggie and Delilah’s Year of Falling is your third YA romance novel. What keeps drawing you to the romance genre?

Romance and rom-coms, that’s what I grew up loving. I inhaled every single Meg Cabot book, The Princess Diaries and everything else she wrote. I remember reading The Princess Diaries for the first time, and I’m like “You can write stories like this?” And so that was what brought me to writing. I wrote self-insert stories that were just like Meg Cabot, Megan McCafferty, Sarah Dessen. I love those stories, and I wanted to be in those stories. I wanted to be the girl who was chased. I wanted to be the girl who was held up on a pedestal and desired and so I wrote myself into those stories. The reason I keep writing it is because I love reading it, and there are just so many stories I want to tell. I think that alongside a lot of other authors, [like] Leah Johnson and Nicola Yoon, we’re trying to fill the bookshelves with these stories, so that teens growing up now can find them easily. I just fill bookshelves with examples of Black love and Black joy and Black girls just getting to be girls. I’m going to keep writing them. Hopefully, they allow me to.

Readers get to see both Reggie and Delilah’s POV. How did you develop their individual voices? What was it like to write from two different perspectives?

It was hard. I had never done this before. Both my first two books are single POV, so I was scared. Number one, because I want them to sound different than Tessa and Lenore. I want them to be very distinct. I also wanted them to sound different from each other. So it was a lot longer of a process. I couldn’t write Reggie and Delilah on the same day. If I was writing that day, I would only write one of them because I needed that space to be in one of their heads, which made the process take a lot longer. But it was important to me because I really wanted this book to be a slow burn and for them to feel like complete people on their own and give space for both of their identities since such a big theme of the book is them figuring out who they are. Also I was just scared to write a boy. Like what do boys think about all day, you know? But I had a lot of male friends read it and give me their perspectives. And they were mostly positive so I’m like, “Okay, I hope I did it!”

Reggie and Delilah initially meet on New Year’s Eve, then again on Valentine’s Day, and continue meeting on holidays. How did you come up with this premise and how did you develop the timeline?

I really love the Hallmark, Lifetime, Netflix Christmas movies. One of my biggest joys of the year is sitting down and just watching all of that. I knew I wanted to write all these love stories that I want to see with Black kids and I knew that there was something I wanted to do with some sort of holiday story. But I didn’t want to just do Christmas. I thought it’d be fun to get to explore all these different holidays and make it more of a story you could pick up at any time. It was hard at times to figure out how to make the story work, if at first they’re only seeing each other on holidays, and keep it realistic. There is a suspension of disbelief when you read some books, but I also wanted to make it make sense. There are some holidays that got taken out because my editor was like, “This needs to move along!” Maybe they’ll be a deleted scene someday!

Reggie is a huge fan of Dungeons and Dragons and participates in the D&D fandom by confronting racism through his blog. Are you a fan of D&D? Did you do any research to get the aspect of gaming right?

I had never played D&D until 2020. My husband has played D&D his whole life and he hosts his group here [at our home] every weekend. I would always listen in on their games, and I just love how gaming is an expression of their friendship and how they explore their relationships through these games. It was like an inkling in the back of my mind that I might want to use that or explore that at some point. But in 2020, when everything shut down, his group couldn’t come here. And he ended up setting up a game for my daughter and me, so we started playing. I was a tiefling Bard, named Weary! We did it at nighttime for fun. The character of Reggie started building from there, just through learning how to play the game. And I did a lot of interviews with my husband about this game. I [also] did a lot of research on my own about the different issues that people have with the game [regarding] race and how that plays out. It was difficult because I did all this research and I know how the game works, but then how do you make it accessible to people who have never played before? That was the balance I was always trying to strike.

As a biracial young woman, Delilah struggles with having her Blackness commodified by her white bandmates when they tokenize her to their own benefit, but also faces comments online about whether she’s considered “Black enough.” How did you develop Delilah’s journey with her Blackness?

Delilah's journey was taken a lot from my own. There’s something of myself in all of my characters but that specific aspect is definitely from my own life. I was the lead singer of a punk band when I was in my late teens and early 20s, and I did it as a favor to a friend just like Delilah. It was very out of character, because I was so anxious, I would break out into hives when I had to present in class. But just as it was for Delilah, it was kind of freeing because I’m going up there [onstage] and I’m not being myself. I’m performing this identity that’s not me, and there’s freedom in that. [Like Delilah] I was hyper aware that I was the only Black person in the room in a lot of these venues and these clubs. I could feel how I was seen as a token. I wasn’t being seen as who I was, but [for] my identity. That was all they were seeing and how that was often a symbol for how they saw themselves. Like, “Look at us, we’re so accepting we’re watching this Black girl onstage.” And I experienced a lot of microaggressions and outright racism from people, but it was always like, “Well, I’m not racist, you're my friend.” That’s really tough when you are still a teenager and figuring out your own identity, when everyone around you has so many opinions about it.

And then there were Black people who were like, the way you look, the way you dress, what you like, that’s not “Black enough.” Or because I’m biracial, that I’m not actually Black, which is something I still get. Through Delilah’s story, I wanted to explore all of that because we’re not a monolith. Delilah and Reggie both go through this [experience] of what it’s like to love this thing that maybe doesn’t love you back. Through both of them, I want to show that Black kids can be wherever they want to be, wherever they want to belong, and they can like whatever they want to like.

I just fill bookshelves with examples of Black love and Black joy and Black girls just getting to be girls. I'm going to keep writing them.

A concept that both Delilah and Reggie face is the idea that their interests are perceived as “white.” Why was it important for you to portray the racializing of interests and the effects it has on kids of color in developing their hobbies?

It was something I went through as a kid and then as a teenager. I think about high school in the early 2000s and listening to The Flaming Lips and Bright Eyes and my little emo bang that I had, and constantly feeling like I had to explain why I liked certain things. My white friends were never expected to explain what they liked, they could like whatever they wanted to like. Then when I became a teacher, I saw the same thing with my Black students, if they played D&D, or liked anime, or whatever it is that they that they liked, it was made fun of. And being told by kids who weren’t Black that they weren’t Black, as if someone else has a right to determine their identity. I wanted to explore what that does to your sense of self when other people are always attempting to define who you are. I want to explore the journey you go through to find yourself and to find that acceptance for who you are. I want my book to be a safe space for Black kids, but [also] all kids who maybe feel like they don’t belong in certain areas, to find that acceptance and that love for themselves through reading Reggie and Delilah’s acceptance and love for themselves.

Another central theme of this novel is shedding the “cool” facades we want others to perceive us as and being honest about who we are. Where did the spark for that theme come from?

It’s something that I’m still working on in my 30s; the person who I feel I really am [vs.] the performance I sometimes feel like I have to put on to be accepted or understood by others. I think it’s something that we work on all of our lives. I wanted to explore that with Delilah, her trying on another persona, and giving her permission and freedom to be someone new, and then eventually becoming brave enough to try to be that person. With Reggie’s persona performance, it’s to be accepted by Delilah. He’s performing who he thinks she wants, which I think a lot of us have done in our lives. So he has to learn to let go of that and be who he really is authentically in order to find a true relationship.

Taylor Swift comes up as a musical inspiration and source of comfort for Delilah. What Taylor Swift song/era best describes Reggie and Delilah’s Year of Falling?

I would say the spark of inspiration for this book was “Invisible String” from Folklore. That idea of all these little moments coming together to make these two people fall in love, I really liked that, and I think that did influence my idea of these little holidays and meet-cutes and moments of coming together. I feel like I always write from the heart and mine is a Fearless heart. That swoony idealistic version of love, I think all of my stories come from there.

Reggie and Delilah exist within the Happily Ever Afters and One True Loves universe, with the nod to characters from your previous novels. What was it like to revisit old characters? Will we be seeing more stories in this universe?

It was my editor who even made me think this was a possibility. When we were trying to decide what to write next [after Happily Ever Afters], she was like, “What about Lenore?” And I was like “I can keep going with Lenore.” She was a character I loved so much in the drafting process. Even after I finish a book with a character, I’m always thinking about what happens after the happy ending, right? I love having those little nods to Lenore, to Grandma Lenore, and Alex and Wally, and to show that they are still doing well. [In] my next YA book we’ll continue with a character from this book, who I really loved, so I get to show her love story next.

Has your experience as a teacher helped you in your writing? What was it like transitioning from a teacher to a full-time writer?

I taught special education at a middle school for three years, and at a high school for six years. I taught reading and English classes for kids with disabilities, and it was such a battle to get them to read. They’d be like, “This is so boring,” you know? I found that changed when I could find happy, joyful stories for my students, the same stories that I was searching for as a kid. Because I work with teenagers, I have such a respect for resilience, their humor, their bravery. And I hope that is reflected in all of my stories.

It happened pretty fast, the decision to leave teaching. And it’s very different. Because I spent all of my days being around other people talking to teenagers, and now I spend a lot of my days alone in my office. I think I’m always thinking back to my job as a teacher and making sure that I am showing teenagers in an authentic way, in a respectful way. I’m constantly influenced by my role in the classroom. And I miss it. I miss my students so much. That joy every day of being around teenagers, and the way they see the world. It’s been a hard adjustment, but then also this has been my dream since childhood. I wanted to be an author; this is all I wanted to do. To get to live your dream is a trip because it’s balancing your expectations vs. what it is. So there’s magic in it. And it’s also mundane, just like any job.

What’s next for you?

I can’t say too much because things haven’t been announced yet, but my next book is in a different age category and a different genre. It might come as a surprise to some readers, but I think people who know me well will totally understand why I would be writing this. It’s very different, but it’s very me.

Reggie and Delilah’s Year of Falling by Elise Bryant. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, $18.99 Jan. 31 ISBN 978-0-06-321299-2