When it comes to romance, “perfect characters aren’t interesting to me,” says Roan Parrish, the pen name of a Philadelphia-based queer Jewish novelist. In a genre whose heroes and heroines have traditionally been in robust physical and mental health (with the men being older, richer, and taller), Parrish’s own protagonists are unusual: They have disabilities, depression, are in recovery. This is both a personal and a political choice, Parrish says.
In the popular romantic fiction of the 80s and 90s, “People who deserved love were the people that were aspirational for us in terms of societal standards,” Parrish explains. “Power, money, and physical perfection were indicators that a person was lovable. I understand that, but I think that it sets up such unrealistic and damaging standards. I’m interested in the way non-perfect characters are just as lovable. It’s about characters being perfect for each other.”
Parrish’s romantic leads are also queer, in her words, and mostly men (This is the most common pairing in gay romance.). She points out, “It was never true that the only people who ever fell in love were skinny, white, cis, hetero people. It’s a political act to honor that” by centering the experiences of, and writing happily ever afters for, characters who don’t fall into those categories. Parrish does this while incorporating some of the genre’s favorite tropes: In her male/ male holiday romance The Remaking of Corbin Wale, Jewish Adam Barrow returns to his small hometown to open a bakery, where he woos his neurodivergent crush with sufganiyot.
Parrish discovered gay romance while studying for her PhD in Literature. “I wanted to read something for pleasure that was nothing like what I read for my degree,” she explains. So, she ordered a mystery with a gay narrator and a romantic subplot, and “When I realized that gay—specifically male/male romance featuring cis men—was a genre, I dove into that category.”
During a visit to a grad school friend and fellow romance reader, her friend said, “‘I just really wish there was a book about a professor in a new place, someone in my position.’”
“So, I said, ‘I’ll write you one,’” Parrish recalls. “On the plane home I ended up writing a chapter and when I got home, I emailed it to her. She wrote back and said, ‘I love this, I have to know what happens next.’ Of course, I didn’t know what happens next, I hadn’t thought about it! I ended up writing most of it as a gesture to my friend. When I finished it, she said I had to submit it, and I did.”
The book was In the Middle of Somewhere. In it Daniel, a newly-minted academic, moves to Michigan and falls for a sexy local with dyslexia. The book was published in 2015, and suddenly, Parrish was a novelist. It felt like a precarious existence: “Every single quarter I would wait for my royalty statement… and expect that this would be the time I had to get a real job,” she says.