Bestselling author and RITA Award-winning romance writer Kennedy Ryan shares the story of her new audiobook, REEL the first in the Hollywood Renaissance series. Ryan worked with Lyric Audio to produce this historically inspired Black romance as an homage to the Black artists and entertainers whose stories have been too often lost or forgotten.
Kennedy Ryan: REEL was born from me being inspired by this resurgence of creativity among Black and brown creatives in broader culture, beyond romance. This surge has been accompanied by so much agency, people of color reclaiming our stories, telling them through our lens with our own voices. Works like Lovecraft Country, The United States vs. Billie Holiday, Sylvie's Love, One Night in Miami and others carry an energy we haven’t seen, maybe since the Harlem Renaissance. It started my wheels turning about all the amazing creators whose stories have gone unsung, untold, their contributions in many cases stolen or misattributed.
As I started meditating on it, a fictional character, film director Canon Holt, began emerging as a protagonist. He stumbles upon the “lost life” of Dessi Blue, a fictional composite of historical figures like Billie Holiday, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Adelaide Hall, and other key players from the jazz and blues tradition. Canon decides to make a biopic about Dessi's life and casts a relatively unknown actress, Neevah Saint, who is an understudy on Broadway. As the story took shape, I knew it wasn’t going to be a historical novel. It’s a contemporary romance, but Dessi’s story was so present and her voice so distinct that I knew it had to be a prominent vein in the book. I interwove the screenplay of the biopic Canon and Neevah are making of Dessi's life to take the reader/listener on her journey.
AF: Talk about the casting and production choices and how that provides a meaningful listening experience?
KR: As I was writing REEL, I knew [narrator] Jakobi Diem would voice Canon. Jakobi’s voice is so rich and resonant and scrape-the-floor deep. I love his voice so much, and I’ve done audiobooks with him before. I wanted a male voice for Canon instead of casting a woman to voice both roles. I want to give space and voice to Black males. Canon, an artist, is very important as a character—a strong man who is also sensitive, intelligent, principled. I wanted Canon to hold that space in the book, and I wanted a distinct male voice to hold that space in the audio experience.
I worked with [narrator] Eboni Flowers on my audiobook QUEEN MOVE, which I'm actually very proud was the first romance novel she narrated. She's such an amazing talent for the romance community. Eboni actually is a Broadway actress and was an understudy in Slave Play, which made history last year as the most nominated play in the history of the Tony Award. This was too “life imitates art” for me to ignore, and her voice is amazing. She is perfect for Neevah. There is so much resonance between her real-life experiences and the richness of her voice and the story.
Initially, I was just going to have Eboni read Dessi’s part because I thought, “It’ll just be a little bit.” As I started writing Dessi’s story, I realized it would comprise about 20 percent of the audiobook. And the voice was so distinct that I knew it required a third narrator. I needed to bring in someone else who doesn’t sound like Neevah whose voice is specific to that era and who delivers those lines in a way that doesn’t remind listeners of anything else in the audiobook. That’s when I cast Nicole Small, who is perfect as Dessi. Nicole is so nuanced in distinguishing between Dessi, who is from the South, and her partner, Tilda, who is from New York.
Sometimes there’s not much communication between narrators and authors, but I had a real synergy with those three narrators, and I think it comes across in the audiobook. There was so much collaboration between the four of us. We had great conversations. I think because they are all Black creatives themselves, you also hear their personal passion that comes with identifying with the challenges that artists from the past navigated and that many still do.
AF: Talk about your own, personal audiobook journey. Has being so involved in audiobooks affected your writing?
KR: I was not an audio person even three years ago. Now that’s the primary way I read. I used to be one of those folks who said my mind wandered and I couldn't get into audio. Then I had a half-hour commute to and from my son's school. That was two hours a day in the car, so I started listening to audiobooks. It has to be the right story, but then also it has to be the right narrator. It has changed the way I read and, in some ways, how I write. I drop a lot of the dialogue tags and filter the story through my ears as I write. I always find myself thinking: “How will this translate in audio?”
That also made providing audio as an option for my readers as soon as possible a priority. I would always have readers say, “When is the audiobook coming?” I was kind of casual about it before. “Oh, I’ll get to it.” And now it’s completely the opposite. I finished the first draft of REEL almost three months ago. There was a time when I would have released the ebook and paperback as soon as I could, but I held them because I wanted to offer my readers the audio experience simultaneously. I now build a simultaneous audio release into my writing schedule and process when I can.
As I was writing REEL, I always knew the audio would be simultaneous, but it wasn’t until I started writing that I realized the audio was going to be such a huge part of the reading experience. Music was so crucial in this era and to this story. I thought, you know, we have to have songs, and I’d never done that before. It felt providential when I came across these two songs that are featured in the audiobook, “Body and Soul” and “Look for the Silver Lining," because they both fit the storyline so well. I sing and had actually worked with vocalist April Christina on past projects. We both live in Atlanta. The studio that we used for the audiobook is based in Atlanta. It was perfect because she just went into the studio and recorded the songs. We added trumpet, piano, and other instrumentation. It all came together so well.
AF: You’re known as both an author and a savvy businesswoman. And you’ve emphasized the importance for marginalized and self-published authors to have control over their content. What aspects of audio production are most important for you to deliver to your listeners?
KR: I preface this by saying everyone has to decide what’s right for them. I make decisions about when and how I share my rights. There are times I want to maintain complete control over everything and times when I see the strategic benefit of a partner. To me there’s no wrong answer. I think there’s a right answer for each person, which is sometimes different for each book or series. And that’s really my approach to business, looking at the full landscape of what you’re doing and what your goals are—because everybody has different goals—all of that has to play into your decision.
Some of my books were recently optioned for television. You never know where your work will go, so I like to have as much control over all of it as possible but make calculated decisions about sharing those rights in a way that makes sense for what I want to accomplish. You also have to consider the expense. You know what you can afford to do. There have been times when I knew I needed my work in audio but couldn't afford it or didn't want to spend what it would cost, so I sold the audio rights. The value of offering that to my readers made it worth that trade-off. There may be times when I realize I can't afford to do this myself in audio right now but I need to wait until I can, not sell my rights. Maybe you'll be able to publish through a royalty share. I've done all those options at various points in my career, based on where I was and what I needed.
I am an advocate for self-publishing. Things are improving, but what we’ve seen in years past (and still to a degree) are systemic barriers that often make it harder for artists of color, queer authors, neurodiverse authors—anyone who doesn’t align with what has been esteemed in the mainstream—to break through. Indie publishing has been such a boon for us. I'm not waiting for someone to give me something. I can make it myself.
When I share my work with partners it's because it's mutually beneficial. I self-publish. I publish through a small press. I just signed a great deal with a large traditional publishing house. I've sold my audio rights. I've done it myself—like with REEL and my All the King's Men duet. I believe there are different readers in different ecosystems. I want my stories to reach as many of them as possible, and diversifying distribution can be part of that.
AF: You describe your characters as strong, emotionally whole female characters who do eventually get a happily-ever-after. And you’ve talked about some compelling issues in your stories such as environmental protest, domestic abuse, and social justice. Can you talk about how you translate some of the tough issues in REEL to the audio experience?
KR: There are certain scenes, that, when I wrote them, I knew they were a little tough. There’s a scene in which Dessi Blue is asked to wear skin- darkening makeup. And that is based on something that actually happened to Billie Holiday. She was out on the road, and she was fairer in complexion than the rest of the band. The white organizers were afraid the light would hit her in a certain way and the audience would assume it was a white woman on stage with a Black band. And they forced Holiday to perform in skin-darkening makeup. I knew I wanted to pay tribute to Holiday’s strength as an artist in enduring that while still giving us amazing art, still bringing us joy.
When I heard narrator Nicole Small deliver that scene, it came together exactly as I envisioned when I wrote it. An early reader who listened and read said, “You haven’t read REEL until you’ve heard it.” I understood what she meant. Then it’s followed in the next chapter by narrator Eboni in character as Neevah, who just had to act that scene out for the movie. She had to walk in those shoes, and we hear her response. Those two powerful voices butted up against each other in parallel spaces, separated by decades, knowing that we as a people are still navigating difficulty and knowing that Dessi was navigating the same barriers and the same biases, is impactful. I'm not sure you fully get it that way just from the written page.
And then of course, there’s the music itself. Chapter 17 features “Body and Soul.” When the piano comes in under the narration and then April Christina, the vocalist, starts, there is such a purity to her voice. I knew this was a book I wanted to bring dimension to, and audio was the best way to do that.
AF: REEL is Book 1 in the Hollywood Renaissance series. Are there more stories, and any news on the audio publications for those?
KR: This is a series of stand-alones, so each couple gets their own book. The making of the movie Dessi Blue stretches across the whole series, but each couple gets their HEA in their book. When we get the next story in September, a novella called THE CLOSE-UP, we'll see more. Then there are two more full-length novels. Each book will reveal more layers of the Dessi Blue film.
We’ve already cast the character Takira, the best friend from REEL. Narrator Wesleigh Siobhan will voice her in THE CLOSE-UP. She has such an amazing voice and following. She and I have been wanting to work together, and I feel she has the Takira vibe. We haven’t cast the male lead yet. I am planning to use different narrators for all the books.
AF: What’s something you really want your listeners to know?
KR: The importance of this particular audiobook to me, and how I really hope people experience the book this way. REEL is so personal. It had never occurred to me to narrate my own author’s note, but I started tearing up as I was writing it for REEL. For me it’s my love letter to these artists who trailblazed in sometimes incredibly adverse circumstances. As someone who stands on their shoulders and is walking in their steps, I felt that resonance.
Near the end of REEL, we hear Dessi speaking about her journey. Dessi is a fictional character, but that was real life for so many people. I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude to those whose contributions have gone largely unsung. I wanted to write this story, to shine light on their lives—not just what they endured, but also the joy they found and spread in the midst of it. They produced such incredibly high art in the thick of adversity, which is a testimony of their talent and resilience. I ended the author's note with the words that spurred me to write REEL in the first place. And I say thank you.
Kennedy Ryan photo by Perrywinkle Photography