Feb 4, 2024 - Culture

Meet the Biden administration staffer who pens romance novels

D.C. author Nikki Payne and her second novel, "Sex, Lies and Sensibility"

Author Nikki Payne and her new novel, "Sex, Lies and Sensibility." Photo: Courtesy of Nikki Payne

By day, she's a tech anthropologist for the White House. By night, Nikki Payne is penning steamy Jane Austen fan fiction with leading characters of color.

Why it matters: Romance — long one of the most popular yet white-centered genres of fiction — is now booming with diversity, and Payne is a local leading voice "subverting the canon" with smart, sexy, inclusive works that make readers swoon.

What they're saying: "Church, cemeteries, and romance novels are still the most segregated places in America," Payne tells Axios. Like a lot of us, she grew up with grocery aisle romances filled with red-headed damsels and shirtless Fabios.

  • "There are ways that people build out what is beautiful and what is desirable, and what is worth loving and who's worth loving in these romance narratives. And oftentimes, Black and brown folk are excluded."

Yes, but: That's changing, with authors like Payne tapping into — and propelling forward — the $1.4 billion romance genre, and writing what Payne calls "big, unapologetic stories about people of color getting their happy ending."

The latest: Payne will release her second acclaimed novel "Sex, Lies and Sensibility" on Feb. 13.

Catch up quick: Her first, "Pride and Protest," is set in modern-day D.C. and follows a torrid romance between a Black DJ-activist heroine and a soulless (but so hot) Filipino American property developer looking to turn her Southeast neighborhood into pricey condos.

  • Payne's upcoming novel traces affluent Black sisters from Montgomery County who flee to Maine after a family scandal, and encounter a strapping Abenaki eco-tour guide who's claimed stake to their property. With one sister, sparks — and clothes — fly.

What's next: A "high heat" murder mystery set in "gorgeous Prince George's," where Payne and her husband live.

Flashback: This Jane Austen girlie — born "in year of our lord, 1982" — was coming of age when the movie "Clueless," an "Emma" remake, hit theaters, Payne tells Axios. "I was thrown. It was so perfect."

  • Then, "that BBC dare-to-be-8-hours-long Pride and Prejudice" came out. ("I'm not okay.") Finally, Emma Thompson's "Sense and Sensibility."
  • "I don't understand how any person got out of 1995 not knowing some of the most important works of Jane Austen, and not just completely bowled over," says Payne.

The intrigue: Payne's a PhD anthropologist and proud member of the feminist writing collective Smut U. She works in the Biden administration with the United States Digital Service, building out tech policies like the new AI executive order, and working to develop "thoughtful, human-focused" policy around how to use AI.

  • Surprisingly, there's a lot of crossover between her West Wing day job and romance novels. "I study aesthetics and power, so I'm always interested in the very same things that Jane talks about in her books, which is the structure of societal hierarchy."

Context: Austen's fanworld is huge and bifurcated — think white supremacist interpreters on the far right, and "Emma's Dragon" sci-fi on the left.

  • "She's so ubiquitous, she can read a little like the Bible," says Payne, who admits she was nervous about how "Pride and Protest" would be received (good news: very well).

Yes, but: Like other Black authors, Payne's regency reimagining is still criticized by the "#NotMyAriel" crowd, she says.

What they're saying: "There are so many books that get attention that center on Black pain. What I find so hopeful about Black romances is that they are giving Black girls rest. They're giving Black girls the man of their dreams without the assumed struggle," says Payne.

  • "But they're also writing about the real friction in the life that comes with being a Black woman. They're telling the truth in these books. And I love them. I love that for them, for us."

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