If you’re looking to kick off the start of the spooky season with a thriller, you can’t go wrong with Alyssa Cole’s When No One Is Watching. In the novel, Sydney Green hopes to create a walking tour that celebrates the Black history of her Brooklyn community, but she’s distracted by the strange disappearances of her neighbors and friends. Her investigation leads her to a company that could profit greatly from gentrification, and she starts to fear they’re using dangerous and deceptive means to move families out of their homes. Here, Cole talks about her research process, the neighborhoods that inspired Sydney’s, and her favorite indie bookstores.
You write in a lot of different genres. When you’re tackling a new genre or one you haven’t written in a while, does it change your writing process at all? Do you immerse yourself in books from that genre for research?
My writing process is pretty much the same for whatever kind of book I’m writing: I do a lot of research whether I’m writing historical or contemporary, sci-fi or thriller (sometimes what I might call an unnecessary amount, but it all helps at some point down the line). It helps me to have many different info piles to mentally pull from as I’m working.
I do read in the genre, because I don’t write things that I don’t also love reading, but I generally read things in a different genre from what I’m writing when I’m in the actual nitty-gritty writing phase of the project.
You’ve written historical fiction before, and this book weaves the history of colonialism and gentrification into the present-day problems Sydney is facing in her neighborhood and her attempt to create a neighborhood tour. What was your research process like? Did you come to the project with the history you wanted to explore in mind already, or did it change as you researched?
Oh, I came knowing what I wanted to explore! The history tour is based on history I’ve been reading for years as I researched my historical romances, though I did do a lot of specific Brooklyn and New York City historical research. The process was having literally hundreds of tabs open from targeted research to things that branched off from the results of the targeted research. I will note that if you do this, you should bookmark as you go or backup your session because all it takes is one restart where your tabs don’t reload to lead to disaster!
A company known as VerenTech is attempting to move into the neighborhood, despite community protests. It instantly reminded me of Amazon’s attempt to build a New York headquarters last year. Was this part of the inspiration for VerenTech?
Yes, it was! I researched a few companies who’ve used lawyers, politicians, and money in this way. It’s also based a bit on Disney and on institutions like universities that can eat away at communities as they expand.
The neighborhood at the center of this book (Gifford Place) is fictional, but you reference a lot of current and historic neighborhoods (like Weeksville). What made you decide to set this story in a fictional community in New York?
I’m from New York and New Jersey, and the neighborhood is based on places I’ve lived, walked through, or observed over the course of my life. While gentrification is happening everywhere, Brooklyn is kind of symbolic at this point, but I also love writing about New York City.
The evils in this book are real and insidious, but there’s also a bright spot when it comes to the community and the way they look out for each other and come together. Was that community aspect drawn from your own experiences?
In some ways. People often view NYC as this mean, callous place, or that it’s all people who have moved there recently, but that’s simply not true. There are loads of neighborhoods that are their own small towns in a way (bodegas as general stores, neighborhood gossip, festivals and parties, activities for kids, etc), communities where people look out for one another and have lifelong relationships just like anywhere else. Even among strangers in NYC, you can often find someone to talk to or have a brief, friendly encounter with. I moved a lot in Brooklyn and definitely lived in places where I didn’t speak to my neighbors, too, but I rarely lived in places where I thought a neighbor wouldn’t help if needed.
There are sharp critiques in the book about the way Sydney isn’t believed when she tries to point out that something is wrong. How did you strike the balance between genre conventions that lead characters and readers to question themselves with commentary about how harmful that kind of gaslighting is?
I thought a thriller was a great place for that kind of set-up. The protagonist who questions themself isn’t new, but I did want to add the layers of Sydney being Black and a woman and how society itself can be the villainous gaslighter for her even without the thriller elements.
The book ends with a section that suggests additional reading material, which isn’t common to see in fiction but feels like a perfect ending given the amount of current and historical issues explored in the book. When did you realize you wanted to include this, and why?
I always have a bibliography in my historical works. Partly because I’m often writing about history that isn’t “mainstream” and there will be people who assume I’m completely making things up (though a bibliography hasn’t always stopped those people). When writing about marginalized groups, certain readers are always ready to nit-pick about fact, even in fiction.
But I also just think it’s nice to have a resource for readers who are not nit-picking, but genuinely curious about the history they may not have been aware of. The bibliography allows them to read works from actual historians and take a deeper dive into the aspects of the book that interested them, if they want to. I’ve already compiled the sources, getting to share it with readers along with the story is cool.
If readers haven’t picked up their copy yet, which indie bookstore would you like them to support?
It’s hard to narrow it down though—indie booksellers have been incredibly supportive of this book. Thank you, to any of you who are reading!
What have you read recently that you’ve loved and would recommend to our readers?
The recently released Legendborn by Tracy Deonn, which is a contemporary YA fantasy that combines Arthurian legend with Black Southern mythos. The Duke Who Didn’t, Courtney Milan’s latest release, is just delightful and funny and such a bright spot with everything else going on. Rachel Howzell Hall’s And Now She’s Gone, a twisty thriller about an amateur private eye trying to handle her first case while running from her past.
Alyssa Cole is an award-winning author of historical, contemporary romance, and SFF romance. She’s contributed to publications including Shondaland, The Toast, Vulture, RT Book Reviews, and Heroes and Heartbreakers, and her books have received critical acclaim from Library Journal, Kirkus, Booklist, Jezebel, Vulture, Book Riot, Entertainment Weekly, and various other outlets. When she’s not working, she can often be found watching anime with her husband or wrangling their menagerie of animals. Visit her at www.alyssacole.com.