What do a porn star, a biker, a soccer phenomenon and a football player have in common? They’re all heroes in indie author Mariana Zapata’s novels—Kulti, The Wall of Winnipeg and Me, and Under Locke, to name a few—and only part of what makes her books so memorable. Zapata is well-known within the indie community for her slow-burn romances, and her exceptional character development for both the heroine and hero. We see the heroine’s growth within the relationship, but outside of the relationship—as an individual—as well. Zapata’s ability to craft incredible storylines for female characters is unparalleled.
The heroines make significant strides in both their careers and relationships with friends and family. But what truly makes some of her heroines stand out compared to others in the romance genre is their diversity. I was incredibly lucky to have the chance to speak with Mariana over the phone. From why minority characters in romance are so essential in today’s society to where she gets such unconventional ideas for the premises of her stories, Mariana was more than willing to get to the heart of what makes writing so rewarding.
Arguably the best of her work, Kulti features heroine Sal Casillas, who comes from a Hispanic background. About halfway through the book, I thought, This is the first romance book I have ever read with a minority character as the protagonist. As an Asian-American, it was such a sobering realization, and one I couldn’t shake off as I finished the book.
Zapata remembers when reading books as a kid, she would imagine herself as the heroine regardless of what she looked like. But as a writer today, she wants to give her readers someone they can relate to a bit more.
“There’s so many people in this country that aren’t just Caucasian,” Zapata said. “I never remember reading a book with a book with a Hispanic heroine.”
As a Mexican-American, Zapata recalls that she was often the only person in her advanced classes who wasn’t Caucasian, and few other kids would talk to her because she was the “different” kid.
“You’re not American enough for the Americans, and you’re not Mexican enough for the Mexicans,” she said. “You’re trying to figure out a balance of how you’re being raised.”
The struggle of finding that middle ground when growing up with two cultures—American and wherever your parents are from—is a concept not often tackled or even present in romance books. In Kulti, Zapata incorporates Sal’s Hispanic heritage in ways that subtly show how her culture has shaped who she is as an individual. She speaks to her parents in Spanish, whether it’s conversations over the phone or during her visits to her childhood home. Often, she and her love interest, Kulti ,will make lighthearted jokes over their respective heritages, Hispanic and German. Zapata captures the nuances of growing up in a multicultural family beautifully. It’s the small things we take from each of our cultures, and blend with others that makes our experiences as members of minority groups so unique.
From diversity to professions, Zapata isn’t afraid to tackle our preconceptions of certain individuals, and flip them on its head. In fact, Zapata’s very first novel Lingus centers on protagonist Kat’s romance with a porn star Lingus (aka Tristan). The idea stemmed from a viewing of a porn documentary on Netflix, she said. In forming the idea for Lingus, she challenged herself to write a story where she could portray a porn star as a normal human being
“The people they showed and interviewed [were] just normal people, and they’re weirdos,” she said. “But that’s what makes them special and interesting.”
Unlike Lingus, who is incredibly goofy and lovable from the moment you meet him, the majority of Zapata’s heroes are distant, temperamental, and rough around the edges. Zapata’s second novel Under Locke features the hero Dexter Locke, whom was inspired by Jackson “Jax” Teller, the main character from FX’s crime drama series Sons of Anarchy.
“The main character just pissed me off so much and I wanted to like him, [but] he made all of these horrible decisions,” she said.
When Zapata first submitted the slow-burn romance starring a cranky biker, publishers complained the hero was too mean and unlikable. On top of that, they worried the length of the book was too long for typical romance books. Luckily, Zapata refused to change Locke’s stubborn demeanor, and readers fell head over heels for the moody biker. It was then that Zapata realized that by sticking to her intuition, she wrote a romance that readers were genuinely able to connect with based on the individual’s growth, and the complexity allowed given a longer platform.
Now, with book signings all over the world, and a dedicated fanbase both on-and-offline, Zapata is absolutely unstoppable in the indie romance community. When asked if she had any advice for aspiring writers, she said finding what you’re “super passionate” about is key.
“It takes a long time for you to find your own style,” she said. “Just keep writing until you figure out, this is something that I love and am excited about.”
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