Back in 2016, I interviewed Fiona Riley as she was releasing her debut novel, Miss Match. We met at the Saints & Sinners Literary Festival, a gathering of queer writers, editors, and readers in New Orleans that has been a wonderful venue for me to meet other folks in the same boat as me. Meeting Fiona Riley was one of the highlights for me the 2016 festival: She was enthusiastic, charming, and all-around wonderful, I had a great time hanging out with her and her wife, and she also provided a much-needed kick in the pants to me to get my own writing practice into higher gear.
Also, it’s just way sexy, yo.
After I finished reading it, I caught up with Fiona to ask her a few questions. Without further ado, here’s what she had to say. It’s long, but it’s pretty awesome, kind of like her.
Congratulations on your debut novel, first of all. I’m always interested in writers’ journeys to their first book. What was your writing background before this? Was writing a book something you’d always wanted to do?
I was about six or seven when I first remember the discussion of becoming a writer coming up with my neighborhood best friend. I was drawing with chalk on my driveway and randomly started writing little speeches or phrases that I made up on the spot. He told me I should be a writer. I think I laughed and purposely stepped on his Ninja Turtle pavement art. I was a total jerk that day. Once I developed an iota of maturity, I found myself really into music and poetry. I was drawn to the stories hidden in lyrics and rhymes as a preteen and teenager. I published my first poem at around age twelve and then another once I was in high school. It was a way for me to explore self-acceptance and creativity. I loved words and reading, it made sense to write as well.
Even though I was a little terror on that summer day during our afternoon chalk art session, it was the first concrete memory I have of exploring my creativity in a new way. The more I read and experienced the magic of getting lost in literature, the more I realized I wanted to be a part of that, if even just a small one. So, for as long as I can remember, yes, I have always wanted to be a published author. In my youth, I thought I would write great novels with tales of adventure that were spattered with life lessons and intrigue. As a college student, I thought I would publish something profound in a medical journal and write a textbook. After the excitement of college life turned into the reality of adulthood, I decided that writing about my day job was far less appealing than revisiting the adventures I dreamed about as a child. I settled for something in between and decided on romance. Why not?
The erotic and romantic aspects of their relationship are obviously the heart of the story (Wow, were they! I felt like I should put on oven mitts while I was reading sometimes), but there’s a lot more going on around that, too. I was especially interested in how aspects of their working lives were central to their stories: Lucinda’s navigating office politics and dealing with men threatened by a woman with power, and Samantha stepping very carefully to keep her own business on track. A lot of times it seems characters’ working lives get sidelined or left out entirely in fiction. Was this focus a conscious choice on your part?
This was absolutely an important focus for me. The fact is that as much as I am that child drawing on the pavement with chalk, I’m also a grown-up with adult responsibilities and relationships that take nurturing to maintain. For me, to really get into a story and its characters, I need the characters to have lots of individual development and growth. I want to know why Samantha would say this versus that when confronted with an unhappy client/mother, or why Lucinda is so protective of her privacy and her past. Why is she haunted?
Both of these women are established in their careers, and their careers are what brought them together in the first place:
Samantha is a matchmaker—she specializes in making the impossible possible. Navigating people’s emotions and vulnerabilities is an important part of her work life. As much fun as matchmaking sounds, there is a lot that goes into finding a mate that lines up with the idiosyncrasies and “wish lists” of her clients. Sometimes that involves having hard conversations with people unwilling to change. Other times that may mean biting her tongue and toeing the line of giving someone what they think they want in a partner versus what they truly need. It’s her job to find them a perfect match and help them to see the complexity and compromise that goes into making that work. During the story the reader will see that this is something Samantha worries about, she’s afraid she’s lost touch with her matchmaking abilities when her own relationship fails.
Samantha also struggles with keeping her relationship failure a secret so that her business doesn’t suffer… she’s in the business of happy endings, after all. She can’t really sell that brand if she’s not living that authentic life herself, and she knows that; in a way, she’s hiding behind her work to ignore the reality that she may never find what she promises everyone else: a perfect match.
Lucinda on the other hand is hiding behind her work in a different way- she’s had a tough life from early on and worked hard to find success in everything that she does. She was a talented dancer for the beginning of her life, but when that came to an abrupt end, she had to find a new way to harness the creativity and the control that dancing gave her. Two seemingly opposite things woven into one: grace with dancing comes from discipline and dedication; it is as much raw talent as it is hard work, and she didn’t become as successful as she was when she was as a dancer by natural good looks and a stroke of luck alone. She translated this ambition and drive into a successful career as a director of PR and marketing: She uses her creativity to help solve the problems of her clients while being able to harness the discipline and control necessary to manage a team of executives to run a profitable business. For her, this work is as much a literal translation of the well-choreographed nature of dance as any career could offer her.
But she works too much. Between juggling her dance studio with her high-powered executive career, she desperately tries to keep moving so that she doesn’t have time to stop and realize how alone she is in this world.
To ignore the importance of their work would deny the readers the opportunity to truly understand the intricacies of their personalities. The choices they make are entirely based on their past experiences, their aspirations, and their dreams. Both women are playful and childlike at their core but driven to success by the failures of their past. I did my best to express this in their dialogue and exchanges with each other. They are passionate, strong women and this spills onto the page in more ways than one when they finally cross paths and embrace their attraction.
TLDR; in a perfect world, the work we do to sustain the life we want to live should be as much a joy and adventure as the time we spend with our loved ones outside of that work. Samantha and Lucinda love their work, they love their lives in different ways, and the only way to really understand them is to understand what drives them to be successful in making sure that their work and their play contribute equally to their happiness. Aside from all of that—I love a woman who can rock heels and a suit while commanding the attention of a room. Both Samantha and Lucinda have this in spades. Let’s be honest, who doesn’t love a beautiful woman in a well-tailored suit that is smart, sassy, and a little dirty? *raises hand enthusiastically*
I was intrigued by this line in your bio: “A series of bizarre events afforded her with some unexpected extra time and she found herself reaching for her favorite blue notebook to write, never looking back.” Sounds like a story! Care to elaborate?
As much as I consider myself very playful and light hearted, this part of the story of my life is a little more somber. Two months after my 28th birthday I was diagnosed with advanced, metastatic cancer. There wasn’t a lot of time to consider how much my life would change after my diagnosis since we needed to act fast to try and save my life—I would have to contemplate all of that later on. After a long, complicated surgical intervention and hospital stay, I started a difficult and exhausting six months of chemotherapy. It was during this time that the little hobby of writing one-shots became something more serious. The truth was that if I wanted to become a published author, my window for that becoming a reality was quickly closing. Coincidentally, I had started writing the beginning of Miss Match about two weeks before my diagnosis, as soon as I was well enough to sit up again, I promised myself I would finish that novel no matter what.
That’s the real story behind the “series of bizarre events” alluded to in my bio. Had I not been diagnosed and subsequently treated for cancer, I don’t know that Miss Match would ever have been published. Cancer gave me a chance to put all of my “adulting” responsibilities on hold for long enough to decide what I really wanted to accomplish in my time on this planet—and that little girl playing with chalk on that summer day was the loudest voice in the crowd. I wanted to be a writer and I wanted to write about the one thing that I wasn’t sure I would get: a happy ending. So a little idea about a matchmaker and a dancer with a dark past quickly became the living, breathing reason I woke up in the morning on the days I felt the worst.
I’m a bit of a wonk for people’s process. How long did it take you to finish Miss Match? What was your schedule like while you were working on it?
I wrote the outline for Miss Match over the course of one day in August 2012. I started working on the full story in January 2013 and finished it in March of that same year. I wrote 4–8 hours a day, 3–4 days a week during that time. It was an exercise in distraction as much as one of dedication. I was determined to quiet the side effects of treatment by engaging my imagination to paint a world of possibility. It was an exercise in dedication because some days my fingers hurt so much from the chemotherapy that I couldn’t touch anything colder or warmer than room temperature because of the rawness of the nerves in my extremities. Typing was a real bitch sometimes. 😉
Prior to my diagnosis I was a workaholic. I’m not someone that sits idly and contemplates things. Or at least I didn’t used to be; some of that has changed now. Some of it is the same. Being home on treatment, unable to work or be outside, really forced me to reflect on the parts of myself that had been suppressed by the stresses of adulthood. There was no time like the present for me to write the next great American lesbian novel, so, Miss Match was born. 😉
I’m often asked why Miss Match is important to me as a debut novel. The answer is bigger than I believe the question is ever intended to be: it’s not important to me because it’s my debut novel. Miss Match is important to me because the process of writing it, the opportunity to write my characters the happy ending I want for myself, likely saved my life.
Boston plays a prominent role in the novel as well. (I especially liked Myrtle the turtle and was even more delighted to find out she’s an actual attraction at the aquarium.) Did you draw from personal experience exclusively or were there aspects of the city you had to research? Did anything surprise you in the process?
I’ve been living in Boston proper for over a decade now. The aquarium, the Franklin Park, the Top of the Hub… these are all places I am familiar with and frequent. I take all of my “first time” Boston guests to the Top of the Hub. The view is everything I described it as and more; the sunset at that height is positively breathtaking.
I’ve been a sucker for aquariums my whole life. I love all things aquatic. Shark Week is my favorite week of television every year, without fail. I try to visit the aquarium in every city I travel to—just last month I hit up the Shedd in Chicago. The Beluga whales were adorable. But nothing quite compares to the center tank at the New England Aquarium—it’s the closest I have ever felt to being a true sea creature. Standing at the lowest section and looking up at the hundreds of thousands of gallons above you is magical. I swear. Come visit and we will go together. 😉
What are you working on next?
I try to keep myself pretty accessible on social media, so please stop by and say “Hi” or check in on my WIP development. Thanks for reading!