Tuesday, December 27, 2016

GETTING INSIDE the controversies: An Interview with Serena Bell

Contemporary romance author Serena Bell is ringing in the new year by launching Getting Inside, the first book in her Seattle Grizzles series of football sports romances. The book features a heroine with the most stereotypically gendered male of jobs: she's a professional football coach (linebacker coach). RNFF talked with Bell about this untraditional choice of profession for her heroine, and other controversial aspects of her unusual sports romance.

SB: First of all I wanted to say, Jackie, thank you so much for doing this interview. I love this blog and the way you tackle identity issues head-on and fearlessly, and I'm really happy to have the chance to talk about Getting Inside's release here.

RNFF: Thanks to you, Serena, for agreeing to be interviewed, and for talking about the controversial aspects of this book. First, I'm curious to know, where did you get the idea to have a female professional football coach as a protagonist?

Dr. Jen Welter, coaching intern for the Arizona Cardinals
SB: When I first started working on this series, the NFL hadn't yet hired its first female coach, Kathryn Smith (hired by the Buffalo Bills in January 2016), but it had hired its first female coaching intern, Dr. Jen Welter. I found myself fascinated by her, and I wanted to bring some of both her triumphs and her struggles to life on the page.

RNFF: How did you balance the need to portray the difficulties faced by women entering a predominantly male profession with the need to write a hopeful story (a requirement of romance)?

SB: Writing romance is always a tricky balancing act in this regard. On one hand, readers pick up a romance for the fantasy—the pleasure of getting to spend time in a world that's simpler and less stressful than the one they live in. On the other, if you decide to write about a controversial topic (like women in men's sports), you have a responsibility not to gloss over the difficulties of the real people who are struggling to make their way in a far grittier and more nuanced world than romance. My goal was to split the difference as best I could.

RNFF: Early in the novel, your hero, Ty (a linebacker on the Grizzlies' team) uses the "women are a distraction" argument to justify (at least in his head) his opposition to heroine Iona's presence on the coaching staff:

As soon as I lay eyes on her, I get this fierce, almost painful rush. It's just the aftereffect of going toe-to-toe with her over O's job. That's what I tell myself. Not about going toe-to-toe with her in a completely different way. Actually, there's no toe-to-toe in the video siege firing through my brain. Every other conceivable position though. This is exactly why women don't belong in the PFL. Because all this shit in my head doesn't belong in the PFL. (341)

How have women in football and other male-dominated professions countered such arguments?

SB: They've countered the argument by being good at what they do, by showing over time that they're an asset, not a detriment, to any organization. And that's what Iona does for Ty. She's steady, she's present, she's effective, and in the end, that's what convinces him, far more than any verbal argument she could present. Which is why, of course, it's so critically important for us to get more women into more roles we don't expect to see them in; it's the best way to change the kind of outmoded thinking that Ty's early musings represent.

RNFF: The first turn in Iona and Ty's relationship comes after a joint radio interview, during which a broadcaster insults Iona and Ty defends her. Iona gets angry with him, telling him she doesn't need defending. But then Ty says he would have defended any coach, male or female, and Iona thinks, "I suddenly realize that I'm being a great big douchebag" (946). Can you take us through your thinking here, regarding what's sexist and what's not?

SB: In my mind, the show's host is absolutely sexist—his blindsiding Iona (which, by the way, wouldn't really happen in sports radio; I took artistic license) with an assault on the viability of female coaches is just plain wrong. Ty may be operating out of some assumptions that he needs to revisit—the idea that Iona needs his protecting—but I don't see his motives as suspect. Iona is encountering one of her own blind spots; she's so used to being armored against the men in her life that she responds defensively to Ty's desire to protect her. Knowing Ty and Iona, I suspect she will have to tell him to "back off" more than once more in their lives together, and he will get better over time at letting her fight her own battles. And vice versa. I can see her trying to fight his battles just as easily as the reverse.

RNFF: A couple of Iona's observations struck me: First, "Pro sports are this country's hardest meritocracy, with the possible exception of the armed forces. If you make it this far, you must be good enough—it's true of players, coaches, staff—male or female." Second, "the worst sexists are aging off, and the players are so young, so most of them are used to the idea of women in positions of power. And a huge number of them grew up in single-parent households run by mothers, so the notion of a woman who calls the shots doesn't faze them." I couldn't help thinking these observations were more wishful thinking than reality, especially in light of the recent ascendance of Donald Trump. Do you believe they're true? Who was your source?

SB: Both of these observations came via a journalist friend who spent a good portion of his career in locker rooms and on sports courts and fields. His point is that—exceptions aside—pro athletes are just that, pros, and their overriding goal is to win. Everything else is just a distraction, including gender (which may be the myopia of male privilege, but I still found it be an incredibly interesting observation). He said that for most pro players, if a coach can make them better, that's all they need to know.

Now, we all know that's not how it plays out systematically. There are still almost no female coaches in pro football (or in other male-only pro sports). There are still far too few black coaches and black quarterbacks in pro football. And for sure, there is still an enormous amount of intolerant language, behavior, and bullying in pro sports—on both the player side and the fan side. I chose to focus in this book on individual positive behavior, because my primary goal was to normalize the idea of women with key roles in men's pro sports. I want readers to end up cheering for Iona's strength rather than seeing her as a victim.

RNFF: Bringing up the issue of race in pro sports leads right in to another controversial aspect of your book: you are a white author, while both of your protagonists are African American. Talk about your thinking around that decision.

SB: Around seventy percent of NFL players are men of color, and from the beginning, I knew I didn't want to write a series that suggested otherwise. (As I side note, and to reiterate a point I made earlier, this doesn't mean that positions are fairly distributed by race, something that needs to change). I struggled with feeling like it wasn't my "place" to write this story, or that I'd be taking an #ownvoices opportunity away from a writer of color. But I am hopeful about the "abundance" behavior of the romance market: the more readers encounter books with thoughtful portrayals of characters of color, the more of those books the market will demand.

RNFF: Controversy #2: workplace relationships. Falling in love on the job is a common romance novel trope. But many readers have trouble if there are uneven power dynamics involved (if one party is the other's boss, for example). In your story, your heroine, Iona, is a coach, and your hero, Ty, is a linebacker who plays under her. When they first meet, Ty is instantly attracted to Iona. He knows, though, "if she's anyone who has anything remotely to do with the team, she's off limits" (137). But by novel's end, both still retain their jobs even after they have gone public with their romantic relationship. Take us through your thinking here, about why this is a HEA, rather than a potentially squicky ending.

SB: For me, it has everything to do with the real way power is distributed in a relationship. Power is complicated. It can come from physical size and strength, from someone's position in the career hierarchy, from someone's privilege within the larger society, and from a lot of other sources. The reason the ending isn't squicky for me (squickiness is, of course, 100% in the eye of the beholder) is because when I look at the way power balances out between Iona and Ty, neither of them holds an unfair amount of it.

RNFF: Controversy #3: the "balls" issue ;-)  In an RNFF post from 2014, titled "The Anatomy of Courage," I used your book Hold on Tight to discuss why using the word "balls" as an image of courage might be problematic. And early in 2017's Getting Inside, Ty observes this of a fellow player about whom he was worried: "I grin. He's got his balls reracked"(125). Tell us why you think it's important to use such language when portraying certain male protagonists.

SB: I don't think it's essential. I think another writer might make a different decision, to give Ty a totally genderless set of language around courage. That said, it seemed pretty clear to me, given the freedom—one might say abandon—with which Ty discusses his, erm, "equipment" in this book that he'd locate male courage in his balls. I wanted him to feel credible as a guy who spends his time in locker rooms, even if he's also a guy who wouldn't tolerate, in a million years, the notion of a locker room as a place where hate belongs.

RNFF: So, what's up next for this series? Will you be tackling any of the issues about race in pro football that you mention above?

SB: You'll be hearing more about the Grizzlies! Calder's book is up next, followed by two more books about some of your other favorite characters, too. And I'd love to tackle more of the issues around race—particularly equity in coaching and quarterback positions—in future books.

Thank you again, so much, for the great questions and the space to think and talk about these issues!

RNFF: Thanks, Serena, for stopping by. I'm looking forward to seeing what develops next in this series. Given the stats in the "Gender Equality in Radio" graphic above, might I say that I hope a female sports talk radio personality might feature in a future Grizzlies romance?

RNFF readers: What are your thoughts about any/all of the above controversies? Do they make you more or less likely to search out Bell's book?

Photo credits
Jen Welter: Washington Times
Gender Equality in Radio: Visual.ly
Workplace relationships: Careerbuilder.com via Brandon Gaille

Getting Inside
Loveswept, 2017


  1. Thank you again for having me, Jackie! I love the graphics. And a female radio personality would be fun! Will think about that ...

  2. I'm so excited for this series! I love Serena, and I love the Football. Sometimes it's hard to be a feminist and a football fan (not to mention a feminist neuroscientist football fan!), so yeah...heading to Amazon as soon as I finish this comment!
    My high school varsity letter is in football. Okay, I was a trainer, not an offensive line-woman, but I was the first female to tape an ankle at my high school, so I guess I broke a low gender barrier, all the way back in 1980.
    Hey...maybe a female neurologist team doctor...that whole concussion protocol has me fascinated...

    1. Hey, Teri Anne, glad to give you the heads-up on a series that sounds like it is right up your alley! Female trainers would definitely be another potential way to feature women in the usually male-dominated football world...

    2. Teri Anne, that is SO cool. Go you on the broken barrier -- every one counts. And I LOVE the idea of the female neurologist -- I still need a heroine for my fourth book, so she may be it! Would you be interested in helping me with research if I do go that route? It seems wrong to write a whole football series and not deal with the issue of head injury at all. As for the problem of being a football fan & a feminist -- people I know are pretty cool at this point with the idea of my writing romance, but their reactions when I said I was writing a football series?? Not quite so supportive ...