Interview: Talia Hibbert breaks down characters, representation and more

Having a new release is always exciting but for Talia Hibbert, 2023 is ushering in a new era for her as a writer.

I’m sure all romance readers and even, YA readers are excited about Highly Suspicious and Unfairly Cute. This is Talia Hibbert’s first YA release and not only was I lucky enough to get an ARC, but I also got to interview Talia.

I’m sure my fellow readers have already picked this one up and are excited to hear Talia’s thoughts so I won’t give much more preamble. Let’s just say that this was a dream come true for me and I’m incredibly excited and honored to share her answers with you.

Get excited as Talia Hibbert talks about the characters, the representation, and more featured in Highly Suspicious and Unfairly Cute.

Talia Hibbert shares insight into Highly Suspicious and Unfairly Cute and more in our interview.

Talia Hibbert

Talia Hibbert. Credit Ed Chappell

Culturess: Highly Suspicious and Unfairly Cute follows the romance between Celine and Bradley. For the most part though, Celine stole my heart with how blunt she was. How was it to craft Celine as a character, knowing people might not love her because of her personality? 

Talia Hibbert: I enjoy writing supposedly ‘unlikeable’ heroines because outspoken, innovative, or independent women and girls are often forced to conform—and that shouldn’t be the case.

At the same time, when I’m crafting a character like Celine, I am aware that some readers will hate her. And as an author, you do feel pressure to craft a story everyone will love.

But the truth is, that’s impossible. Instead, authors have to write something we love, something that people like us will love, something our ideal reader may be hungry for. I know that reading unlikeable heroines is always a thrill for me, and ultimately, I want to give my readers that same thrill.

Culturess: Since we just talked about Celine, I have to bring up Bradley because I
adored his character, too. He was just so sweet and seeing his struggles was tough to read at times. Was it cathartic to write about him having OCD as someone who also has OCD? 

Talia Hibbert: It definitely felt good. Brad and I don’t have exactly the same struggles or the same journey, but through him, I was able to express some things I haven’t before. Mental illness is not usually a public thing. It’s considered impolite, especially here in the UK, to ‘make a fuss’ just because the woodgrain on a restaurant table is ruining your meal.

But in this book, through Brad’s perspective, I could explore the mundane ways OCD sticks its head into daily life. More than that, I got to show how Brad deals with it; how others support him; that OCD does hinder him, but it doesn’t have to tie him down and destroy his hopes. That was a joy.

Culturess: Between Bradley and Celine, Brad is definitely a lot more open about dating and being intimate including sharing that he’s bisexual in the first chapter which was refreshing to see in a YA story. How important was it for you to feature a bisexual character in your YA debut? 

Talia Hibbert: From the start, I knew I wanted queer characters in this book because, as a queer author myself, I value the chance to represent our world the way it really is: full of
diversity. But I didn’t know Brad would be bisexual until I wrote him interacting with his frenemy, Donno, and realized: Brad definitely had a crush on this guy once upon a time.

Once I’d made that decision, it felt wonderful to craft a high school experience in which the popular boy could casually be bi. When I was at school, that could never happen. And I’m sure for a lot of kids even now, it couldn’t happen. But it can be a reality, and it should be a reality, so I wrote it, and I love that.

Culturess: Without giving spoilers, I will say that the ending of the story surprised me, especially Celine as she had such a clear path to success in her head. Regardless, her plans changed throughout the book which is something a lot of us can relate to especially given all the pressure teens are under at that age. Can you share what caused you to write Celine’s “happy ending” in that way?

Talia Hibbert: Celine goes through a lot during this book – she’s been through a lot before the book even starts. And preparing to go to university takes her from the relative protection of childhood to the instant, high-pressure adulthood that we thrust on teens literally as soon as it’s legal. That transition is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. She is unhappy and something’s got to give.

The thing is, when the story begins, Celine already has everything she needs to succeed. Absolutely nothing can stop her… except herself. She’s decided there’s only one correct path, and if she can get on it, then she will be happy. In reality, happiness is not a side-effect: happiness is the point. I wanted Celine to be free, to trust and value her own feelings, to divorce her self-worth from the expectations of others. Everything else was background noise, because as long as she’s right within, she can make anything happen.

Culturess: While we’ve talked a lot about the characters individually, I feel like Celine and Bradley are better together which is just a testament to you as a romance writing queen. Additionally, this is also a Black love story that we rarely see in traditional publishing. Despite the struggles the two faced, they ended up together in the end so how did you balance such a delightful romance with such heavy topics as mentioned above? 

Talia Hibbert: Thank you! I have been blessed throughout my life to see representations of Black romance grow and diversify in all forms of media. Once upon a time, it was hard to find Black love portrayed with joy and lightness. Now, there are so many adult and YA romance authors I can turn to if I want to see that. But of course, there can never be too much. I wanted to add to it.

I’ve always enjoyed giving my characters real-life problems, the kind that can often weigh us down. Because I don’t think having those problems precludes you from experiencing love and contentment and happiness, and that’s a message I try to send with my work. If a reader with chronic pain or mental illness or family trauma or insecurities picks up my books, I don’t want to transport them to a world where those things don’t exist; I want to take them to a world where they exist, but don’t prevent a happy ending.

Highly Suspicious and Unfairly Cute by Talia Hibbert is out now wherever books are sold.