Forsyth County library patrons spend an afternoon with author Vanessa Riley

Kimberly Bond

(Forsyth County, GA) Fiction fans gathered at the Post Road Library on Sunday, February 5 for an afternoon with award-winning author Vanessa Riley. As the author of more than 20 books in the genres of historical fiction, historical romance, and historical mystery, Riley captivated the audience with true-life tales of the people, places, and stories that have inspired her work as well as insights from her own life and career.
Author Vanessa Riley addresses enthusiastic fans at the Post Road Library.Photo byKimberly Bond

The story begins

Riley, who now lives in the Atlanta area, grew up in South Carolina as a self-professed “nerdy girl” who was into engineering and science. Her mother instilled in her a love of literature, teaching her about great authors like Thoreau and Longfellow. But her father, who was from Trinidad and Tobago, was a master storyteller, thrilling his children with vivid tales of the West Indies. It wasn’t until later in life that Riley realized many of the stories he told were true.

Riley’s parents eventually divorced, and she experienced what she called the pain of a broken home. She looked for solace in historical romance novels. Her favorite book was the classic Jane Austen novel Pride and Prejudice.

“Reading these books, it was like saying ‘there’s got to be something real, there’s got to be something more,’” Riley said.

Over time, Riley became intrigued with the 1750s to the 1830s. These years are known as the Georgian period, and they encompass the Regency era (1811-1820).

“To all people of this time, these are the freedom years. Everyone wanted their independence, from the colonists in America, the middle class of France, the enslaved in the West Indies, to Catholics worldwide. Yet no one wanted to understand their brother's point of view,” explained Riley.

But it didn’t take long for Riley to realize something was missing. She knew that Europe during that time was much more diverse than the world represented in these books, but those stories were going untold. She read over ten thousand books without finding someone who looked like her or shared her background, even though products from the West Indies – sugar, coffee, indigo – were major drivers of the European economy at that time.

What she did find from that period were stories of slavery. While acknowledging how important those stories are, Riley felt those stories alone did not reflect the full spectrum of reality for people of color in the Georgian period.

“When all you focus on is pain and never progress, never beauty, then you don’t realize you can reach for more,” Riley said.

She knew wealthy families from the West Indies would send their children to be educated in England, Ireland, and Scotland. People of color were inventors, musicians, soldiers, and revolutionaries. Her research showed her that there were people from diverse backgrounds and women of color who had become successful, wealthy, and influential, but they were absent from the literature.

“These are stories that are within the fabric of time but that have never been told,” said Ms. Riley. “When I find someone special in history and they have been hidden, I want to bring them back.”
Riley is the author of more than 20 books, some of which may be made into television shows or movies.Photo byVanessa Riley

An unlikely path

Despite her interest in literature, Riley didn’t begin her career as a writer. Riley described her mother as a “practical woman” who gave her children solid advice about living in truth, paying their bills, and making sure they “counted the costs to pursue their dreams.” So Riley indulged her other interests in college, pursuing degrees in engineering and eventually earning a doctorate in mechanical engineering from Stanford and several other degrees from Stanford and Penn State Universities.

She used these skills to obtain positions at exciting startup companies and impressive employers like NASA. She got married and started a family. But Riley never forgot her passion for writing.

“For ten years, [I] had three jobs - the day engineering job, the evening job of wife and mother, and the midnight writing one,” explained Riley.

An inspiring career

Riley was telling stories from her heart, but getting people to listen wasn't easy. For a long time, traditional publishing companies weren’t interested in her work. But Riley didn’t give up. She chose to publish her first book independently. Within a week, it sold over 1,000 copies. She kept writing and kept pitching. Eventually, the publishing companies took notice. But she wrote 19 books before one was available in bookstores – and it was published during the pandemic.

“I didn’t see my own book on the shelf for three months,” she joked.
A Duke, The Lady, and A Baby is a historical romance novel by Riley.Photo byVanessa Riley

That book, A Duke, The Lady, and A Baby is one of Riley’s historical romances. Some of Riley’s fans compare themes in it to those in the hit show Bridgerton. Riley says she is attracted to telling the story of how two people can come together and realize that they are better together than they are apart.

“I like to focus on the good, and that’s why I like romance,” Riley declared.

But Riley is also thrilled to be telling the stories of underrepresented people groups including women, people of color, and those with physical limitations such as amputees. Her work has been praised by AAMBC, Washington Post, New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, NPR, Publisher Weekly, Essence Magazine, and many other outlets. And now, Hollywood is beginning to take notice too. Some of Riley’s work may be optioned for future television or movie projects.
Riley passed out chocolates to some of her smallest fans after the talk.Photo byKimberly Bond

At the end of the afternoon, Riley took time to share some advice for aspiring authors. “If you have a book in your heart that you want to write, write it,” Riley said. “You’re never too old. You make the time.”

“You don’t know who you’re going to touch,” she added. “To now read about Blacks and Caribbean people, showing them as whole and complex people with agency is a dream come true.”
Riley shared some advice for aspiring authors at the end of her discussion.Photo byKimberly Bond

Where to start

Riley has written more than 20 books with more on the way. A new book, Queen of Exile, is due to hit shelves this July. For readers interested in checking out her works, here are a few suggested entry points:

  • For romance fans interested in the politics of the period: Start with The Bewildered Bride or A Duke, The Lady, and A Baby
  • If you’re looking for stories of inspiring women: Island Queen is based on the true life of Dorothy Kirwan Thomas, who rose from enslavement to command riches and save generational wealth for women of color. Sister Mother Warrior is about the two women who shaped the Haitian Revolution, helping to form the first free Black nation.
  • For mystery lovers: Check out the Lady Worthing mysteries. Lady Worthing is an amateur sleuth trying to use her privilege to get the abolition movement back on track in London while diving into high-profile crimes in London.

What author would you like to meet? Comment below or email to let us know.

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I'm a writer, editor, and journalist with a background in law and science. I love writing about interesting local places and events in Forsyth County, especially new businesses or family-friendly experiences.

Cumming, GA

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