March 8 2017 11:28 AM

Beverly Jenkins shakes up romance with black characters, historic settings

Romance writer Beverly Jenkins is exhausted.

“I’m running all over the country — from Los Angeles to South Carolina to Chicago to Dallas,” Jenkins said.

City Pulse caught up with the author while she was at her home in Belleville, Mich., on a respite from a demanding author tour. Jenkins had no inkling she’d be a writer on the road for a book promotion tour when she was sitting at her clerk’s desk at the MSU Library some 22 years ago.

“All I ever wanted to do was work at the library,” she said. “I had no other aspirations.”

Fast forward to 2017, and Jenkins has written more than 20 novels, mostly for the romance imprint Avon. Her latest, “Breathless,” hit bookstores earlier this year. Nearly all of her work is set in the 19th century with African-American characters as the lead protagonists. Jenkins said when she began writing in the 1980s, African-American characters were virtually non-existent in the romance genre.

“That may be one reason I got so many rejection letters,” Jenkins said. “Sandra Kitt began writing for Harlequin back in 1980s and became the first black romance writer.”

Still, Jenkins was uneasy with the genre, since most black romance books used the era of slavery as a backdrop.

“I felt our lives were more than slavery and Jim Crow,” she said.

To escape the literary tropes of slavery, Jenkins has shifted her settings to the 19th century old West, where free black people migrated to the plains.

“I call my writing ‘edutainment,’ and it’s a great way to teach African-American history,” she said. “African-Americans were part of the American history quilt.”

The idea of education is one reason she included a detailed bibliography in her new book.

“It answers the question, ‘Did black people actually do that?’” she said.

Jenkins said the 19th century has so much to offer historically, especially for African-Americans.

“During Reconstruction, strides were made and there was hope (for African Americans),” she said. “Then, in 1876, Reconstruction died with lynchings and the Klan. African-Americans said to themselves, ‘We’ll go west if we can’t live here.’”

Some African Americans were even met at the Mississippi River by armed forces to keep them from leaving, because they were so important to the Southern economy.

Jenkins is also doing her part to change the popular notion that sex is the major component of any romance novel.

“We no longer have Fabio on the cover,” she said, referring a popular form of cover art which showed a ripped Caucasian character with flowing hair, shirt open to the waist, about to seduce an attractive woman.

“It’s all about the story now,” she said. “And the (romance) tree has grown many new branches including paranormal, fantasy and veterans.”

Jenkins said romance novel market has grown to a $1.3 billion industry that controls 30 percent of the market. It’s the best selling portion of the mass publication market.

While she writes romance, Jenkins’ personal reading habits trend toward fantasy authors like Jim Butcher.

“I’d love to do a dragon book,” she said. Although Jenkins said she didn’t graduate from MSU, she attributes her time on campus as instrumental in her development.

“MSU made me,” she said.

Jenkins lived in Hubbard Hall in the late ‘60s, a turbulent time on campus.

“We were waiting on the revolution, while today the resistance is led by Teen Vogue,” she joked, comparing that time to today’s political climate.

Jenkins said she writes about two books a year, which might seem prolific to the layperson. She would disagree.

“I’m still a slacker when it comes to some romance writers like Nora Roberts who seem to have books coming out every month,” she said.

Girls’ Night Out presents romance author Beverly Jenkins

7 p.m. Thursday, March 9
Schuler Books & Music (Eastwood Towne Center location)
2820 Towne Center Blvd., Lansing
(517) 316-7495,