Zibby speaks to award-winning historical fiction novelist Vanessa Riley (who also holds a doctorate in mechanical engineering?!) about her latest novels Murder in Westminster and Sister Mother Warrior. Vanessa talks about her fascination with 1800s England and the West Indies, her wonderful late mother who was always her first reader and greatest supporter, the secret to her 26-year marriage, and her intriguing transition from Ph.D. scientist to creative writer. She also discusses her independent publishing journey and how she built a dedicated, enthusiastic audience on her own.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Vanessa. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss, oh, my gosh, all your recent work. You have so much going on. I don’t even know where to start. Welcome.

Vanessa Riley: Thank you, Zibby. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Zibby: Let’s start with Murder in Westminster, your latest book. So exciting. I think you’re going to reach for it now. There it is. Can you tell listeners a little about this? I read about your inspiration for it. Share more details about your childhood fascination with mystery and all of that.

Vanessa: My mom — this was our thing. Every Sunday night, we would watch Murder, She Wrote. We’d catch Matlock on Tuesdays, I think it was. It was our thing growing up. Personally, I always thought Jessica Fletcher was a serial killer. She was playing on the fact that there were weak-minded narcissists out here. They just wanted their moment in the sun, so they confessed. I thought, how can you have somebody die everywhere she goes? I digress.

Zibby: It’s correlation, causation. I don’t know. A little suspicious.

Vanessa: Probably, the engineer mind in me is like, one and one equals two. I researched from 1750 to 1830. I am completely enamored with London, the West Indies, and Sherlock Holmes and Deanna Raybourn and Sherry Thomas. I was like, I always love to do a mystery. I had read this really interesting fact that, because I had just finished all this research for Sister Mother Warrior, that when the Haitian Revolution succeeded, all the abolition movements in the world stopped. I was like, no way. William Wilberforce and Elijah , Thomas Clarkson, they’re not — actually, true. I started digging into the UK archives and looking at newspaper clippings and all these sorts of things. It was absolutely true. I was like, what does a person do? There are free people of color in London, born in London or they’ve immigrated to London. What are they doing during this moment where they can have this pride in a colony now being free from France? Everybody hated France back then. What do you do?

I just combined all the worlds together. That’s why you get Lady Worthing. She’s a woman of privilege, but she’s also of mixed race. She’s got Scottish and Jamaican heritage. She wants to use her privilege for good, but people keep dying around her. She’s fussing with her neighbor. He’s a retired navy hero, slightly, maybe, sexy Moriarty type kind of guy. They’re fussing because her terrier is being terrorized by his two greyhounds. No. She can’t see anything other because little Teacup would just never disobey. He’s erected this fence between the two. Every time they meet at the fence, they have some words exchanged. This time when they meet at the fence, the neighbor’s estranged wife is found dead on the fence, but on her side of the fence. In Abbie’s mind, she’s like, who’s going to believe me versus a navy hero? They end up working together to figure out who done it. It’s my first introduction. Hope it’s going to be a long series, Lady Worthing, Murder in Westminster.

Zibby: Amazing. That’s so exciting. Did your mom read it?

Vanessa: My mom passed away in 2016.

Zibby: Oh, no, I’m sorry.

Vanessa: She was my first editor. You ever had that person in your corner who just believes in you even when you screw up? When you screw up, she’s the first to tell you you screwed up and sends you to your room and all those wonderful mom chores and things like that. She would be so proud to see where we’ve come. I’m excited. I dedicate almost every other book to her.

Zibby: I’m sorry I didn’t know that.

Vanessa: It’s okay. Perfectly fine.

Zibby: I feel terrible. I feel that way about my grandmother who passed away. It must have been not even two years now. Just to have that support — even when I’m doing things that I know she would disapprove of, every so often, I’m like, I’m sorry, Gadgi. I know I should be exercising, or whatever it is that I know she would give me a hard time about. Then just wanting so much to show someone who’s — she was such a supporter of mine for so long. I totally get it. It’s nice that you have a person to be rooting for you, even without them now.

Vanessa: When Island Queen was written up in New York Times, I actually went to the gravesite with the paper and showed my mom.

Zibby: I totally understand that.

Vanessa: She’s the best. Your grandma and my mom, they’re with us as we move forward.

Zibby: You also obviously have a huge support in your husband. You’ve been married twenty-six years. You still look so happy in your pictures. You posted on Instagram about your anniversary. I’m like, what’s the secret there? Tell me a little bit about that, the secret to twenty-six happy years and all the smiles.

Vanessa: Twenty-six happy years is, love me, love my dog. We don’t have dogs, but the concept is, you are marrying the person, so you know their dreams, you know their weaknesses, their failures, and you accept it. You’re not trying to go in this to change it because people don’t change. Sometimes they get a little better. Maybe sometimes they get a little worse. They don’t change. People are set. We’re adults. I knew he loved aviation. I knew that he was a military man. Even though at the time we met he was working for United, I knew he was going to go back in. I saw it coming. He loves his military life. He knew that I’m a workaholic. He knows that I will close myself off into my office, and you won’t see me for days, just to slide food and bring coffee every day. Coffee every day is a successful marriage. He just gets me. I get him. You still laugh. You find something new every day to laugh at. You make fun of yourselves. You just have a good time. He’s my buddy, my friend. If you ever want to know anything about astrology or moon sightings and things like that, that’s your guy right there.

Zibby: Really? I would not have thought. Interesting. Amazing. Tell me more about how you got into writing when you came at it as a PhD scientist. Tell me your whole background and how you got into this.

Vanessa: In school, I was the nerd girl. I love Western civilization, the Greeks, the Romans, all these different pieces of the world. I was also good at math. I’m on the math team and these sorts of things. I’m winning competitions in both. My mom — once again, mom. Mom sits me down. She’s like, “Baby, you always need to be able to pay your bills.” There wasn’t a career, or at least many career options, for someone who looks like me. Coming from the South, you just didn’t see it. You have to go back a couple generations before you get the Zora Neale Hurstons and the people who were doing this with the typewriters in there day after day. You’re probably still drinking coffee. We didn’t see it, but we did start seeing opportunities at NASA and the car companies, General Motors, etc. It made complete logical sense to go towards engineering. She was absolutely right. Engineering will pay your bills. All you kids out there struggling, engineering.

When you have a passion for something, it doesn’t go away. I can remember one of my supervisors was like, “Vanessa, this diecast manufacturing report is way too interesting. We just need the facts, girl.” It’s there. I had a difficult pregnancy. The doctor told me to sit my little behind down and to focus. I do a million things a day. I cannot sit still. My dear husband went up to the attic, brought boxes, found some of my journals that I had as a young girl. I was like, you know what? I know more stuff. I got more degrees now. I can do this better. Of course, no, that’s not the case, but it was a great discovery journey. It was like I was finding me again. It was exciting to write crafty stories. As you’re changing diapers and all those sort of things, you want something else to do when the baby finally goes to sleep. I just began writing again. It was an amazing process. I had to learn new things because the world had changed from story structure and these sorts of things. It’s been an exciting ride.

Zibby: Wow. It’s too bad there is no path. I was like you. I was like, I want to be a writer. Now what? No. Okay, marketing. There’s no good, consistent jobs where you can use that skill. Yet it is a really highly valued skill, so it doesn’t really make sense. I’m not sure what the answer is there. I definitely could not have hacked it for a single day in an engineering class, let alone profession. At least you had all of that to fall back on. How did you make that switch? Did you ever go back after your pregnancy?

Vanessa: Mm-hmm.

Zibby: When did you —

Vanessa: — Late at night. I’d get everybody in bed. Luckily, my husband goes to bed really early. He learned early on that I do not go to bed at the same time. He tried that for the first year. Didn’t work out. Everybody would be in bed. From ten to two was my writing time. I’m a night owl, and so just kept writing and writing and writing. My first book was traditionally published. This was 2013. The markets were — I wasn’t writing about contemporary things. I wasn’t writing church dramas. All these different things are wonderful. I wasn’t writing that. I was writing about people in 1806 in England and things like this, and the Caribbean. My father’s from Trinidad and Tobago. I’m bringing the stories he used to tell me into some of these things. There wasn’t really much of an appetite in publishing for that, so books two through probably fifteen were independently published. People need to realize — I think you stress this in your podcast. It’s a business.

A publisher is going to invest when they believe that other people are going to buy the book and that they know how to market. Sometimes other people will buy it, but they don’t know how to reach those people. I invested in myself. I indie published. I found my audience. I was like, see, I’m not the only one who likes history and likes Regency era and all these different things. We started gaining a following. Lo and behold, publishers started knocking back on that door. I don’t know how that happened. When I went to Entangled Publishing, which is part of Macmillan, I was reviewed in NPR. I was reviewed in Entertainment Weekly, Washington Post. My voice, my stories found an audience. Publishing found a way to enhance what I was already doing, finding more readers. I’m excited of where the journey’s going to take us next. Now, like at the beginning, I’m writing historical fiction. The stories like Sister Mother Warrior — I will conveniently show the book.

Zibby: There it is. Gorgeous.

Vanessa: My father used to tell me these stories about women and rebellions and all these sorts of things. I’m like, yeah, sure, Daddy. Okay, whatever. These are great stories. My mother was a literature person. My father was a storyteller. Hence, I guess that’s —

Zibby: — You were doomed.

Vanessa: I was doomed. I was doomed with this. He would tell me these stories of these fabulous women doing things because I was the only girl. It was three brothers. He wanted to encourage me in that way. Those stories did get in. The more that I dig through archives — I use my engineering skills now to go through archives, old books, finding different things, looking at — museums are starting to put things online. There’s first-person — you’re just putting the pieces back together to fill in the holes. Although I’m attracted to English, London, and Regency, the economy is all built on the West Indies. At that point in time, four out of every five pounds is coming from transactions based on the West Indies, from sugar or coffee or indigo. To me, it all makes sense now. I’m getting to tell these stories.

Zibby: Wow, that’s amazing. My question is, how did you know how to build your own audience? That is the holy grail of publishing anyway. For you to just decide to independently publish and then successfully find your people, how did you go about that?

Vanessa: One, I didn’t know I couldn’t. That’s the first thing. Zibby, just like yourself, you’re like, it’s a problem. I’m just going to — you don’t know there’s a right answer or a wrong answer. You just know, I’m going to build a podcast. I’m going to do these different things. You just want to do it, right?

Zibby: Yeah.

Vanessa: For me, being authentically me — I’m the same person. I’m like, if the publishers can’t figure out how to market me and the books, I will market me and the books. On my Instagram, you get bits and pieces of my quirkiness. You get my passion for history. Then I believe in a beautiful cover. The Bargain, which was book number two, I had spent my money on editing and on a beautiful cover. This cover was a gentleman out of Malaysia. It was this gorgeous cover of a Black woman. She’s in Regency clothes. Just the expression on her face, like she been through something and she got a story to tell, I put it out there. Without any additional advertising, the cover just started sparking conversations on Twitter and different places. A thousand was sold in two weeks.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh.

Vanessa: I know. I was like, see? I’ve got people. Part of it’s blessings. Part of it’s luck. Part of it’s just not giving up. I think that’s the real thing. I’ve got these stories to tell. You decide at some point, whether I’m talking to one other person — my mother at the time — or thousands of people across the globe, I’m going to do the best work I possibly can. I will tell you about the story. Hopefully, you’ll see my enthusiasm. You’ll want to pick up the book. You’ll want to learn something. It’s a different take. Regency folks, we know Heyer’s version or Austen’s version, but we don’t even really understand Austen’s version. Austen talks about the slave trade in Mansfield Park. In Sanditon, the richest woman is a mixed-race woman from Antigua. You go back, the world is a lot more diverse. There is more equity. There’s still every ist you could think of, misogynist, sexism. Any ism, it’s there. There was also room for this other piece, the shiny parts of our spirit where people conquered things and did things. It’s exciting to be in a space to be able to tell these stories.

Zibby: I keep thinking about what you just said, that there wasn’t an appetite for what you were doing. You were hoping your people were out there. I feel like the older I get, the more I realize that there is nothing unique about me or anybody else. If I have an interest in something, I am not the only one in this giant universe who does. The trick is just figuring out how to connect with those people and find them. Whether it’s what you like to read or what you like to write or whatever, there’s nothing that’s so — maybe there’s something totally bizarre. For most things, 1800s England, whatever, that is not such an obscure thing. It’s just the question of finding the right audience and the right friends or the right coworkers. I think it’s encouraging because people try to write a certain genre or they try something new and think, who’s going to read this? Maybe I’m weird for trying this. There are other people out there who feel the same thing. Maybe they’re working on the same thing. You just haven’t found each other yet.

Vanessa: Exactly. The beautiful thing is the internet and social media. You can find your people a lot easier now, but you got to be brave and be out there and be, once again, the most authentic version of yourself. When I got started, I had friends who wrote to market. Some of them did extremely well. For me, that wasn’t me. I wanted to write stories that I wanted to read. I wanted to honor my culture and just show these facts that I’m finding. I’m like, these need to be in a story so that people understand and lock into it. Like I said, it’s a storied existence. I’m having a great time. I’m just glad people get to listen.

Zibby: What do you like to read? The same type of book? Totally different? Everything? What? What do you read? What’s your go-to?

Vanessa: I’m an everything girl. I do love historical romance. I love Beverly Jenkins. I love Julia Quinn. I love Sarah MacLean. I love historical fiction. If we look on my happy shelf, I have Kate Quinn, Denny S. Bryce, Nancy Johnson. There’s so many great voices coming up. Get me with a story. Throw me in someplace where I feel I’ve been transported. Beatriz Williams does that all the time. I feel like I’m transported when I read one of her books. Fiona Davis, the same thing. Take me someplace. That’s what I try and do. I try to take you someplace and immerse you so much that you feel a part of the story. With Sister Mother Warrior, which just came out in July, I translated French. I put in the African languages because the stories of these two dynamic women, Abdaraya Toya, who’s a Dahomeyan warrior — everybody’s going to go see some movies that are coming out, between Black Panther and The Woman King.

This is true. They’re based on real women tribes who protected the king. You have Abdaraya Toya, also known as Gran Toya in Haiti now. She was a Dahomeyan warrior. She’s protecting the king. She gets conquered and transported to Saint Domingue, which is present-day Haiti. She raised up a generation teaching them the same, how to position troops with the stars, how to choose the best paths. One of the young men that she pours into is Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the man who liberates Haiti. These are true stories. I personally can’t believe that no one had written the story in a way to let people sink into the times and the complexities of what’s going on in African politics and the African kingdoms as well as Britain, France, Spain, Portugal. Everybody’s fighting for Saint Domingue because it’s the wealthiest colony. It’s the most precious. Everybody wants the pearl of the Antilles. I can’t believe someone hasn’t written it before.

Zibby: Do you ever burn out?

Vanessa: No, I’ve never burned out, but I do honor taking moments between books. There’s a two-week period where I just veg. I read my friends’ books. I try to stay away from research during that timeframe, but I love research. I’m a geek. I was in Blackheath in March. I went to this little bookshop. I was just going to go in for a second. I leave with a pile of books because I just love research books. I love old books. You indulge in your other passions. To me, because this is fun, because this is really my passion, I have not come to burnout place. I hope I never come to burnout place. Tip for writers, I write every day. To me, I make it a muscle. If you write every day, it becomes a muscle. You can always depend on a muscle working. When you take gaps, other priorities come in place. Muscles get atrophy, and so it gets harder and harder to go back. I’m trying to convince myself with the gym. That’s the same thing.

Zibby: I was literally about to say that. Where I am with the gym right now, yes, I’m just watching the atrophy take over. I’m like, this used to be so easy. I used to wake up every day and do it. Anywhere I traveled, I would find the closest gym and go to a spin class or something. Now I’m like, wow, it’s not even on the menu when I wake up anymore. It’s so bad. Anyway, what’s your next book?

Vanessa: The next book will be another historical fiction. It’s called — we just got the title too — Queen of Exile.

Zibby: Ooh, that’s a good title. Love it.

Vanessa: There’s a queen that people need to know about who ruled a kingdom for ten years, the exact same ten years that the Regency went from in England, from 1811 to 1820. Then she went into exile in Europe and literally visited all the spa cities in Europe. It’s going to be intrigue. It’s going to be danger. You’re going to see a level of opulence of a woman and resilience in a woman that we need to know more about. I’m going to not say her name right now, just let the intrigue go through.

Zibby: I’m intrigued.

Vanessa: Look for Queen of Exile next summer.

Zibby: I think you should organize a trip if the communities are still there. I want to go on that trip to all the spa places in Europe. That sounds good.

Vanessa: I know. I went to half of them.

Zibby: You did? Amazing.

Vanessa: I went to half. The things that she saw are still there. I just wanted that experience. What does it feel like? Particularly because the country that she ruled didn’t have these monuments or these things going back, at that point in time, two or three hundred years prior to. They were just starting to build those for the kingdom when the kingdom fell. What does it look like when you go and you see this cut marble and the tapestries and things that are hundreds of years old? The churches, they had one big one, one big cathedral, but mainly wood and glass. Now you’re going to marble. What does that feel like? What does that look like? What does that add to your journey? I had to go. I had to be in the spaces where she was. It was a very humbling experience. I’m hoping that I brought that to the manuscript.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, very exciting. I’m sure you did. Vanessa, thank you so much. This was so fun. I really enjoyed talking to you.

Vanessa: Thank you so much. You have a great day. Have me back.

Zibby: Come on back. Buh-bye.

Vanessa: Buh-bye.


SISTER MOTHER WARRIOR: A Novel by Vanessa Riley

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