Kennedy Ryan, THIS COULD BE US

Kennedy Ryan, THIS COULD BE US

Bestselling romance writer Kennedy Ryan joins Zibby to discuss her heart-searing, sensual, and life-affirming new novel, THIS COULD BE US. Kennedy talks about her protagonist, Soledad, who is on a journey of self-discovery and empowerment after facing betrayal. She delves into the themes of feminism, sisterhood, and the complexities of modern womanhood. Finally, she sheds light on her personal connection to the portrayal of autism in the book, drawing from her own experiences as an advocate and parent of an autistic son.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Kennedy. Thank you so much for coming on "Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books" to discuss your latest, This Could Be Us. Congratulations.

Kennedy Ryan: Thank you for having me. I'm so excited to be here.

Zibby: So excited to have you. We got to meet in person at the LA Times book festival last year, which was so nice. Thanks for coming to the store. You have to come by in LA on your tour.

Kennedy: I will. I will. My tour stop is Long Beach. I have no sense of how close that is.

Zibby: Not too bad.

Kennedy: Maybe I'll make it by. Your whole team is always so amazing. Thank you, guys, for always being so supportive and sweet.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Sherri and Diana on my team are absolutely obsessed. Particularly, Diana, you are her number-one author of all time.

Kennedy: We message.

Zibby: You message? Okay, good.

Kennedy: I enjoy it.

Zibby: Good. Before I did this podcast, I didn't realize that it would actually really mean that much to authors to hear from individual fans. I thought, oh, they must get that all the time, but it really makes a difference.

Kennedy: It really does. It means a lot, especially when it's someone you respect. It means something all the time, but then when it's people you really respect and you look at the books they love and you're like, wow, you have great taste in books, and you like my book.

Zibby: I love that. This Could Be Us, which is fabulous, tell everybody what this is about. I didn't read the previous book. Now I feel like, did I miss something?

Kennedy: I have some behind me.

Zibby: Now I'll have to go back.

Kennedy: Yes. You read This Could Be Us, but you didn't read Before I Let Go.

Zibby: That's right.

Kennedy: I love that, though. It lives in the Skyland universe. That's the series. It's three best friends. They all interconnect, but I really want someone to be able to come in at any point and read and not feel like they missed something. I'm glad that when you read This Could Be Us, which is Soledad's story, the second friend in the group, that you didn't feel lost.

Zibby: Not at all.

Kennedy: The first book is Before I Let Go. That's Yasmen's story. Very distinct. It's interesting because for everyone who read Before I Let Go, this book is very different than that one. I had this sense of, oh, my gosh, I hope people aren't expecting that same thing. It deals a lot with mental health. She's going through a depression journey in the first book. It's a little heavier. This book, it has some heaviness to it. I really think of it as a woman reclaiming her power. She is the domestic goddess. She is the one who throws all the parties. She has the best charcuterie board. She has the best recipe for vinaigrette. She is the opposite of me, by the way, Zibby. I am none of those things, but Soledad is. She's incredibly intelligent. She applies all of that to her home. She sees her home as an industry, as her own conglomerate. She has three beautiful daughters. She sees her purpose as making sure that these women feel safe and that they grow up to be wonderful humans who impact the world in whichever way they decide. That's enough for her. I really wanted the three women in these books to feel very distinct. Yasmen, she has kids. She runs a business. The third friend, Hendrix, doesn't want kids, is completely into her career. I wanted them all to be ascribed dignity and to be ascribed respect for their choices, which I think is really the essence of what feminism is. Often, I'm not seeing women who are stay-at-home moms really esteemed as, this is an amazing choice. This is a worthy purpose. There's nothing lazy about it.

I really wanted Soledad to shine that way. She's a stay-at-home mom giving her whole life over to her family, supporting her husband, supporting her kids. Then her husband, ultimate betrayal. I get so many messages on TikTok about, I want to at her husband. Ultimate betrayal. He leaves their family in an incredibly vulnerable position. She is in a place where she has to all of a sudden become the breadwinner and still do all the things that still create the nurturing environment that she's wanted for her children. She also realizes there's a lot of herself that she's lost. This is a romance novel, but it is also a romance with herself. It is definitely about a woman who is rediscovering parts of herself that she lost. Especially as women -- we're moms. We're wives. We're friends. We're sisters. We are people. So often, those things that make us individual and that make us special, those things that have always been inside of us, the dreams, the ambitions, all of that has often been subservient to all the other things that we've become. This is really about Soledad refinding herself, reclaiming her power, self-actualizing. In a romance novel, she's self-partnering. She's dating herself. At one point, she says, what would it look like if I was the love of my own life? I know a lot of people are like, is it a romance? There is a love interest, but I really, in this novel, wanted to look at sisterly love. I wanted to look at friendship love. One of my favorite lines from the book is, there aren't enough sonnets for friendship. What that really means, so often, we are putting so much emphasis on romantic love -- married twenty-seven years. I get it. I love it. Romantic love, here to stay, but also, esteeming sisterly love, friend love, love of yourself, which really has to start first to have a strong foundation for every other expression of love. This is her journey. I'm really excited for people to go on it with her.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I could listen to you talk all day. I'm like, where's the popcorn? I just want to kick my feet up and listen to you go. You're inspiring, holding up women. Who are we? Let's do this.

Kennedy: I want popcorn too, Zibby.

Zibby: That's amazing. You have this whole part of the book that you're describing, but there's another whole part about autistic kids. There's the twins who are autistic. You have an autistic son. I actually just interviewed a woman named Paige Layle. I don't know if you know her. I want you two to do a book event. Maybe I could moderate or something. She wrote it when she was twenty-one -- now she's twenty-three -- about being undiagnosed autistic until she was fifteen. I read them back to back. I was like, I have to introduce these authors to each other. That also was a fascinating part of the book with the totally different -- I know it comes from personal experience. Could you talk a little bit about that and including that and how to balance, even, the two different storylines and all of that?

Kennedy: It felt natural for me as far as balancing the storylines because the two boys, Adam and Aaron -- they're twins. They're autistic. They are the sons of the single dad, who is our love interest, Judah Cross. I know what you mean by balancing the two, but it's such a part of who Judah is and is such an extension of how I built his character. As you get to know Judah, you have no choice but to get to know his sons because how he cares for them and how he loves them and how he parents is such a huge part of who he is. There's no way to get to know Judah without getting to know his boys. You mentioned that I have a son who's autistic. Like I mentioned, I've been married for twenty-seven years. He's now twenty-three. He was diagnosed when he was two. That's twenty-one years. So much has changed in the landscape of autism. We had such a hard start. Some of that was circumstantial. People don't believe me. You would have to write this. My son was diagnosed with autism on a Thursday, and the next day, my husband lost his job. It just created this devastating -- not that we're devastated about him, but just all of your money drying up. At that point, insurance covered absolutely nothing. It was a tough time. There was a lot that we were negotiating as a family. It tried us as a family, especially considering how it happened for us. It tried our marriage. I have always had a heart for families who have children with autism and obviously, actually autistic people.

I now have an autism auction that I run every April, which is Autism Awareness Month, in conjunction with KultureCity to raise money for autism. I'm in. I'm an advocate. I used to run a foundation for families who have children with autism. It has been a huge part of my life's work, but I never merged these two passions of advocacy and uplifting our community and serving our community any way that I could, a community that has embraced our family and been so good to our family, and my work as an author. I never merged those. I talk about, in the author's note, how I was hesitant. It's something that's so personal, but people have such distinct opinions about everything with autism, even how you refer to it. Is it autistic? Is it a person with autism? There's all these different ideas about how to be autistic. I was hesitant. I always joke that my first rule of writing is Hippocratic. First do no harm. I never wanted to write something or do something that will be perceived as harmful to the community that's been such a support to us. I was always hesitant to write about it. Then when I got to this story, this guy, Judah, I had to break it out. This is going to sound weird. There's so much of my husband in Judah. Watching him grow as a parent, watching the patience that this life has forced on us -- you become very patient. You become very compassionate. When you see people having a hard time in public, you don't jump to conclusions. You wonder. I wonder if they're dealing with some of the things that we're dealing with. It changes you. Obviously, Miles has his own life. My son has his own life, his own path. This happened for his own journey, but I'm in his life. It happened to us too. I think it's made me a better mom. I think it's made me a better person, a better friend. It's done the same for my husband. It was such a joy to write a man who is that dedicated to his kids. That's what we see in Judah.

It wasn't, for me, as much a research process with autism because I knew so much about it. It was more that autism is truly a spectrum condition, and I wanted to ensure that this story reflected not just our experiences, not just the experiences of a few people that I have encountered or families that we've assisted. I wanted a broad spectrum, a great cross-section of experiences. My son, they used to call it more impacted. He's older. He's still with us. He's mostly nonverbal, needs a lot of support. There's no way that you would meet my son and not know there's something going on. There are so many folks on the spectrum who, you would meet them, and it's pretty much invisible. It's something they can mask, whether it's sensory issues or whatever. You might not ever know, but they also have challenges that need to be respected and supported. I thought, from the twin perspective -- they're twin boys. I'm taking two people who are as genetically identical as possible. They're in the same house. They have the same parents, the same circumstances. The way their autism plays out is completely different. That was just a way for me to show how broad this spectrum is and how different it looks for everyone and how we should respect how it plays out for each individual.

My background is journalism. My creative process is always very heavily interview. That's just muscle memory for me. The first thing I'm doing once I'm writing is -- one of the first things is drafting a list of who I'm going to talk to. I talked to probably ten, thirteen different autistic people and parents, actually autistic people and parents, interviews, great conversations, things that haven't happened for us and have happened for other people that I incorporated into the story. Then another thing that I did that was really, for me, insurance and making sure is I hired an actually autistic editor; meaning, someone who actually has autism and is also an editor. Reading from that perspective, making sure that I am giving those characters as much respect as possible, that all of the language that I'm using is ascribing dignity, is giving them personhood, all of that, is not harmful, that was very important to me. That was an added step this time, was hiring an actually autistic editor before it got to even my publisher. There was a lot that I did around that just to take care of those boys and to take care of the representation so that when apparent or, even more importantly than apparent, someone who's actually autistic is reading this book doesn't feel hurt or harmed but feels respected. That was very important. For people who don't have much experience with autism, for them to get a glimpse into what it's like for a lot of our families and a lot of our challenges but also a lot of our triumphs and a lot of the things that are special in our families, I wanted people who don't have that experience to see it.

Zibby: Wow. Does it happen with identical twins that the autism plays out in very different ways, or does it present usually -- it does?

Kennedy: It definitely does. It definitely can. I mentioned that I used to run a foundation. I ran it for ten years, actually, started and ran a foundation. We had several twins come through the programs. They would be vastly different. There is a genetic component. We're still trying to understand everything that is going on with autism, just like with so many other conditions. There's a genetic component. I have dealt with families who have four kids, and all four kids have autism. It looks different in each one of them.

Zibby: The passion that you speak about this with is so inspiring, honestly. You have boundless energy, clearly.

Kennedy: I do not, Zibby.

Zibby: You do. You do. You must.

Kennedy: It's under-eye concealer.

Zibby: No, to not just cope with your own family situation, but to run a foundation and do all these other things and be writing eight million books. How did your own writing career dovetail with that time in your life when your husband lost his job? Where were you in terms of your writing and journalism and your books? How has that all played out?

Kennedy: My background is journalism with an emphasis in PR. I was working with a lot of nonprofits. I was also freelancing, writing for magazines. What I started really doing once the autism was a part of our life -- I realized that everything became autism. I started this foundation. Of course, I'm raising this beautiful boy who has autism. I found myself on television talking about autism and writing for Chicken Soup for the Soul about autism and writing in mom magazines about autism. Everything was autism. I needed something that was just my own, kind of like Soledad. You come to a place where you're like, what's mine? What pleases me? Where am I finding personal joy? There weren't a lot of places of that. It felt like everything was kind of consumed. I remembered how much I loved reading romance. I grew up reading romance, to my mother's chagrin. When you get to college, a lot of times you're like, it's time for the serious books. I stopped reading romance. I was at a place where I needed something of my own. I said, I'm going to start reading romance again. It brought me so much joy. I started reading romance again. I was like, I am a writer. I love romance. I wonder if I could. It's ironic, Zibby, because the first book I ever wrote is Before I Let Go, the one that's book one of this series. I wrote it fifteen years ago. Never planned to publish it. It is not my debut novel. It is when my husband reminded me about three years ago. Now it's going to be a television show. I'm like, honey, I owe it all to you. I just wrote that to see if I could. I was like, "It's not good." My husband was like, "It really is." My sister said, "It really is." I slid it under the bed, forgot about it.

Then it's so funny because my son was -- a lot of kids who have autism are obsessed with water, water play, watching water. My son at that time in his life loved water. We would go to this river every day. All the families would come to this river. We would go to this river. I'd sit on the riverbank. He'd play in the water. This town called Rivermont started building in my mind. I'd write a little bit of it every day. That became my debut novel, this story built around this river. I was still running the foundation. I got a book deal when I was forty years old. It's never too late. That's when I got my first book deal. I was doing it all for a while. I was writing. I was running the foundation. I was still working with another nonprofit with journalism. It just became a place where I was like, this is a lot. Really, the reason I stopped running the foundation was redundancy. We were twenty years ago when this was diagnosed. So little existed as far as services and support. Now there's so much. What I saw was the things that I was providing are now provided by the government and by other agencies. I decided that I would shut that down and really direct people toward larger organizations that were doing it much better than I was anyway. I still wanted to be a part of the community. That's when I started, along with another author friend, Ginger Scott, the online book auction that we do every year. I continued writing. That's where the journey meanders. Being in autism all the time and being consumed by that is what drove me back into reading, which led me to writing. Then when I'm writing, I'm always looking for, how can I give back to autism? It merges. For me, the auction, which is every April with KultureCity, is a great solution because it actually aligns with what I do for a living now. I love it.

Writing is my favorite thing that I've ever done. I always tell people that, for me, writing is not -- I know this sounds so precious. Writing is not, for me, just vocational. It feels like a calling. It feels to me like I was put on this earth to tell stories that will impact people. It feels for me like there's something so impactful about people seeing themselves in pages of fiction, seeing their experiences, especially when they aren't used to seeing it, especially when you open a book and you're not used to seeing an autistic person who is being ascribed dignity and navigating the world and especially when you're not used to seeing Black women who are doing these amazing things, who are being esteemed and loved on. Marginalized groups especially, vulnerable communities, that's where I like to write because we don't see ourselves enough in culture portrayed in a way that's authentic but also not stereotypical, positive but not unreal. I'm not someone who likes to write characters that are -- it has to be positive. This can't be a villain. They can't be a this. I want to be authentic. I want to be real. That's what I do.

Zibby: That's amazing. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Kennedy: Figure out why you want to write. It took me a while to figure out my why. When you figure out your why, it really determines what you write. For me, it did. When I first started writing -- the first books I wrote were great. They're great. Sure, they are. It's the same craft. It's the same, if it's talent, talent. When I figured out that I really wanted to write about things that meant something to me, it changed what I wanted to write. It changed what felt like success to me. For me, success is first measured in impact. I didn't know that when I first started. I'm chasing what I thought meant success, whether that's making a list and selling lots of books and looking around at my friends and what's making them successful. If you do those things and it's not yours, it's hollow. That's just the most incredibly frustrating feeling, to put so much into the pursuit of something, and then when you get it, it means nothing. There's all kinds of practical advice you can give. Make sure you're taking craft courses. For me, the soul-level is, know why you write. That affects what I write, who I write for, and how I know that I'm successful. It's not the metrics that other people prescribe.

Zibby: Wow. Amazing. This is so amazing. What do you do to just chill out when you're not book touring and writing and advocating and planning things and all of that? Give me something you do.

Kennedy: Zibby, I am such a boring person. I read. When I'm writing, I don't get to read as much. I am an audiobook girl. Give me the audiobook because I can multitask. I've always been a voracious reader. I still am as much as I can be. I watch good television. I have my husband. It's sad, but a lot of our quality time is spent watching television together.

Zibby: That's not sad. I think that's very common.

Kennedy: We save our shows. Okay, you can't watch this one without me. Then I have my family. I just moved recently back to North Carolina. We lived in Atlanta for twenty years. I love Atlanta. It actually feels probably the most like home because our lives were there. My son has never lived close to my family. He, as I mentioned, is limited verbal. The pandemic was very, very hard on us, very, very hard on us, as it was on so many families. It was hard on me. I was diagnosed with depression during the pandemic. I was in Atlanta. We were in this pressure cooker. My son needs a lot of structure. No school. No services. It was hard. I was going through a hard time. My mom always knows -- if you ever have a mom who always knows, you won't take it for granted. My mom always calls at the right time, always checks on me when I'm about to collapse. We were on the phone. I had books due in the pandemic. Miles was having a hard time. Everything was really, really hard and dark. I didn't recognize at the time that I had depression, that I was depressed. I had a panic attack on the phone.

My mom was here in North Carolina. She said, "That's it. I'm coming." She flew to Atlanta, was there the next day. She washed the clothes. She cooked the food. She made me go write and took care of my son. It was so much calm and peace. My husband said -- my mom was there a few days. He said, "We need to move home. We need support. We need family." My son would walk up to me. He would go, "Nana. Grandaddy." He would name our family members, just start naming them. He was just, in his way, telling us, I want my family. When you ask, what do I do? there's so much joy I get in spending time with my family. We haven't lived close to them. We hang out. We laugh. We eat. We cook. We just have a good time. I have not had extended family around me in twenty years. That's one of our joys now, is spending time with our family and, like I said, reading. Usually, if I have bags under my eyes, it's because I stayed up too late reading. I'll write, write, write. Then it's late. I'm like, I've been writing for hours. I should go to sleep. Can't shut my brain down, so I start reading a good book.

Zibby: I can relate to that. Kennedy, you are so impressive. Your success, it just couldn't happen to a nicer person. Congratulations. It's so nice to get to know you more.

Kennedy: Yes, absolutely. I hope I get to see you this year.

Zibby: You too. Thanks so much for sharing.

Kennedy: Bye.

Zibby: Bye.

Kennedy Ryan, THIS COULD BE US

THIS COULD BE US by Kennedy Ryan

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