Welcome back to the Tropical Romance Book Club, a reading project to experience love around the world as written by local authors. In case you’d like to catch up, previous featured authors have been:
Bianca Mori, contemporary romance author, from the Philippines
Roslyn Carrington, contemporary romance and literary fiction author, from Trinidad and Tobago
Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, author of fiction and a cookbook, from Singapore
In this installment, author Lydia San Andres of the Dominican Republic has kindly agreed to talk to me about her experiences reading and writing romance. She is the author of historical romances set on a fictional Caribbean island she describes as “a composite of Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic.” For this project, I read her book A Summer for Scandal, set in 1911, about a woman who secretly writes an erotic adventure serial, and the man – a literary author and a critic – who falls for her and learns her secret.
Caroline: How did you discover romance?
Lydia: Growing up, I used to exchange books with one of my cousins. By the time we were teens, she started reading rom-coms and romances, which she passed on to me. I’m pretty sure that the very first romance I read was a Candlelight called Highland Lovesong… I kind of want to find it again and reread it! Anyway, it wasn’t until the very beginning of 2014 that I became a huge fan of romance after coming across Courtney Milan’s The Governess Affair. I started by reading all of Milan’s backlist, then found Alyssa Cole and Alisha Rai and Rose Lerner and was instantly hooked!
Caroline: How do readers in the Dominican Republic get their romances?
Lydia: It used to be pretty difficult to access books unless you were fortunate enough to travel or have family overseas who could mail you some. The handful of bookstores in Santo Domingo, the city where I grew up, didn’t carry a huge stock and what they did have was pretty limited when it came to genres. All that changed with Amazon and e-books. It’s so much faster and easier to purchase books now, and it shows in peoples’ reading habits.
For print books, there is one bookstore left in the city that carries genre fiction, so we’ve had to be creative. There are library-like services provided by groups like Bookworms RD. Some supermarkets, pharmacies and department stores also sell books, generally in Spanish.
Caroline: What’s popular there?
Lydia: I’d say contemporary romance is the most widely read subgenre. Fifty Shades of Grey was incredibly in demand when it came out and it seemed to have sparked a liking for erotic romance, with Spanish author Megan Maxwell being a reader favorite. Like in other parts of the world, Dominican romance readers are voracious and will read a staggering amount of books.
When it comes to authors, the most popular seem to be American. Bookstores carry both novels in English and Spanish translations from U.S. publishers, but supermarkets and pharmacies generally focus on Spanish translations—the Harlequin lines Jazmin and Bianca are sold practically everywhere. Our native language is Spanish, but a lot of people in the Dominican Republic learn English at a young age so they tend to read in both languages. For my part, I went to a bilingual school and started learning English from the age of three or so. I was reading almost exclusively in English from the time I learned to read.
I’m not sure I’ve seen romance by local authors, though I’m sure there must be some out there!
Caroline: Putting on your author hat, what’s it like being a romance writer in the Dominican Republic? Your heroine Emilia has a difficult time unveiling her secret identity as an erotic saga author in your 1911 fictional setting. Is that connected to your experience?
Lydia: I don’t think I would have as hard a time as Emilia if I were more outspoken about writing romance! I’d like to think things have changed since 1911, when the idea of a woman writing erotica was pretty scandalous. In fact, one of the local authors I’m acquainted with pens erotic short stories (I’d say they skew more towards literary fiction than genre, though) and she’s always been open about her writing. I’m not sure if it would be as accepted in academic circles, which are dominated by older and rather conservative men, so for now I’m choosing to keep my two identities separate.
Caroline: One thing I really enjoyed about your book was how authentic the setting felt. How did you develop your fictional, historical town of Arroyo Blanco?
Lydia: A Summer for Scandal was actually the very first romance I attempted to write and the first draft was set in the Dominican Republic. I kept getting stuck, partly because the historical era I had chosen was rife with political and social upheavals that kept threatening to turn my fluffy story into something much darker. So I decided that setting the book on a fictional island – which, almost four years later, is still unnamed! – would allow me to ignore those conflicts. The island is a composite of Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic, with Ciudad Real being a mixture of Havana and Santo Domingo and Arroyo Blanco based on Ponce and Santiago de los Caballeros.
I’m not technically a historian (my degree is in Art History), but I’ve been working as a historical researcher for the past few years and it’s taught me how to dig into archives for material. My favorite thing ever is reading letters sent from townspeople to City Hall, in which they demand, request or plead for things that are either interesting or silly, like the man in 1901 who wanted permission to ride a cart pulled by goats around the park. (Don’t ask me why – his letter never said!)
Lydia: I also love looking through birth and marriage records because they help provide a clear idea of just how diverse Dominican society was in the early twentieth century.
Since I’m using mostly Dominican sources, my fictional island is most heavily based on Dominican history and culture. I take a lot of elements directly from modern culture because for me it’s more important that the stories feel genuine and that Dominicans who read them can identify with those elements than being perfectly historically accurate. I mean, my characters aren’t likely to whip out a smartphone or anything wildly anachronistic, but I’m not too bothered about making sure people ate empanadas in 1911. (They did, though!)
Caroline: For any readers interested in books about your region and culture, what are some books by yourself or by others which you recommend? We are obviously a romance site, but our readers read widely in different genres.
Lydia: Adriana Herrera’s upcoming American Dreamer is fantastic and has a Dominican chef hero. J.L. Lora has a romantic suspense series and a second chance romance called The Summer I Loved You, which everyone should check out. For more Latinx romance, I would recommend Mia Sosa, Alexis Daria, Zoey Castille, Priscilla Oliveras, Sabrina Sol…
As for non-romance, I have Dominican authors Elizabeth Acevedo (The Poet X) and Claribel Ortega (Ghost Squad, out this year!) on my TBR.
Caroline: Thank you so much for your time!
And now, over to you, readers. Does a book set in the Edwardian Caribbean pique your curiosity? Can you second any of Lydia’s suggestions or add to her reading list? Do YOU want to ride around the park in a cart pulled by goats, and if so, why?
Lydia San Andres can be found online at her website, lydiasanandres.com, and as @lydiaallthetime on Twitter and Instagram.
~ Caroline Russomanno