If you asked romance author Tia Williams what her favorite genre is, you might be surprised to learn it is horror. In fact, she once took a yearlong class on Dracula, taking an interest in the mythology of immortality and the fearsome, seductive title character. Williams chuckles as she says, “I’d love to write [a horror novel], but it always comes out as a romance when I sit down.”
A Love Song for Ricki Wilde is Williams’ fourth contemporary romance, and while it’s filled with her trademark balance of sexy love story and emotional moments both beautiful and tragic, there’s something new here: a full-bodied embrace of the fantastical and the serendipitous. Williams describes A Love Song for Ricki Wilde as a “modern fairytale,” one that adheres to Williams’ own preferences as a fantasy fan who focuses more on characters than rules; Ricki Wilde never gets bogged down into the hows and whys of world building. “I like ‘Game of Thrones’ because despite the dragons, it feels very much like The Godfather,” she explains. She notes one of her other major inspirations is Jude Deveraux’s iconic 1989 time-travel romance, A Knight in Shining Armor, where a heartbroken woman ends up centuries back in time.
The titular character doesn’t fit in with the rest of her family, an Atlanta clan that runs a string of successful funeral homes. “Death bums Ricki out,” Williams says. She has no desire to step into the family business and feels universes away from her socialite siblings. So Ricki instead chooses to strike out on her own, move to Harlem and open up a floral boutique, adorably and aptly named Wilde Things. As Ricki puts down roots, a cast of fascinating characters orbits around her. There is Ms. Della, an elegant nonagenarian who offers Ricki a place to rent in her brownstone; Tuesday, a tenacious former child star who becomes Ricki’s new friend; and Ezra, Ricki’s love interest, a mysterious and sensitive man with a gift for music. When asked what would serve as the soundtrack for this book, Williams says with a smile, “A lot of Prince. Specifically ‘God,’ which is mainly an instrumental.” Coincidentally—or perhaps not—a framed image of Prince and Vanity’s 1983 Rolling Stone cover hangs on the wall above her head as we speak.
A Love Song for Ricki Wilde allowed Williams to explore and research not just pop music but also flowers and fragrance, voodoo practices and spirituality, many of which are interests the author already enjoyed. Ezra’s devotion to art and culture was inspired by Williams’ own love of music: She once owned a Billboard book on popular songs and would go page by page, learning everything she could about each hit and how it was made. Ricki’s tender care for her delicate plants and appreciation of their exotic, complex fragrances echoes Williams’ former career as a beauty editor and writer. “I remember discovering all these different kinds of flowers and their scents,” she says. “I had no idea night-blooming jasmine existed and what that smelled like.” However, her biggest research focus was 1920s Harlem.
“I love the 1920s era: Hollywood, the Lost Generation in Paris, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes,” she says, and Williams includes flashbacks to this fascinating time in Harlem’s history alongside the present-day scenes. These additions create a rich sense of place, filled with Williams’ admiration for not only Harlem’s community and cultural renaissance, but also the ways art and activism provide solace and fuel resistance in the wake of devastating waves of racial violence. In Ricki Wilde, Williams writes, “What you haven’t reckoned with, you’re doomed to repeat. America was a ghost story with no end.” Shifting back and forth between the past and present, Williams shows the violence that’s been perpetuated against Black people and their communities. “American history and its causes do not exist in a vacuum and there’s a lot of generational trauma,” she says, but notes that even in the midst of hopelessness, there is love. It’s a dichotomy echoed in the book’s balance between life and death. Because Ricki’s been surrounded by death for most of her life, she seeks to offset it by tending to and nurturing her plants; Ms. Della possesses both the satisfaction of a life well-lived and the spirit to keep going.
That complexity, that sense of the fullness of life is also present in Ezra and Ricki’s relationship, which begins with a magnetic attraction but deepens as they, in Willliams’ words, get “lost in the soft, beautiful things”; their love grows through creating and experiencing art. Williams’ own work has already inspired adaptations, with The Perfect Find being made into a Netflix film last year starring Gabrielle Union and Keith Powers. Should Ricki Wilde get an opportunity to make the leap from book to screen, Williams thinks that KiKi Layne would make a good Ricki, especially given her performance in If Beale Street Could Talk. Actress Zazie Beetz is also a contender, as Williams says her more bohemian style would help bring Ricki to life. As for an on-screen Ezra, it’s no contest: The quiet, commanding presence of John David Washington is Williams’ pick.
A Love Song for Ricki Wilde has more twists than a well-versed romance reader might expect. Both the shift in genre and the obstacles Ricki and Ezra face (which we refuse to spoil), require a lot of faith in Williams. Readers may at first think they’ve mistakenly picked up a historical fiction novel, not a contemporary romance, and they may wonder how Williams is going to pull off that coveted happily ever after. One thing, however, is for certain: ears will be shed, whether from Williams’ evocative, emotional writing or how Ricki and Ezra realize they’ve found the person who truly understands them, all the way down to their bones. Williams hopes people will trust her all the way to the end. “There’s a genre rule when it comes to romance. Of course, readers might not know how an author is going to get there, but there will be a HEA. Readers have to feel safe and that’s something I think about with every sentence,” she says.
There’s a lovely moment in the book where Tuesday is desperately trying to figure out who she is outside of her past life as an actor. She thinks writing a memoir might be her next career move, but it’s not quite igniting her passions. “Maybe you were a memoirist,” Ezra says. “But identity changes all the time, I’ve found. There’s a few more ‘yous’ you haven’t met yet.” Growth and change are central to Ricki Wilde, whether it’s the passing of time or the courage to pursue a dream. And in talking with Williams, it’s clear there are many “hers”—the Prince fan, the history buff, the beauty writer, the fantasy reader—that overlap and intersect, contributing to the fertile soil from which A Love Song for Ricki Wilde was able to blossom. But what about the other versions of Tia Williams that readers haven’t met yet? The heightened, magical world of Ricki Wilde is a brave and exciting step toward something new. Maybe, horror novelist is next. Or perhaps just, as she suggests, “damn good storyteller.”
Photo of Tia Williams by Francesco Ferendeles.