I discovered Chloe Liese after a few friends on Instagram shared a post she wrote about her journey writing her first #OwnVoices romance featuring a heroine with autism in her book Always Only You (out today!!). Instantly, I was sucked into Chloe’s words and wanted to read everything she wrote: Enter the Bergman Brothers series. Immediately, I ordered both books in the series and jumped right into Always Only You once it arrived on my doorstep (and now I’m currently reading the first book in the series, Only When It’s Us). The slow-burn, hockey romance is sweet, funny, emotional and just made me feel really good afterwards🥰. I admire Chloe so much and I’m so glad this book is out in the world today. Below, I chatted with Chloe about the importance of own voices authors, her inspiration for Frankie and what she hopes readers will take away from her stories.
What was the inspiration for Always Only You?
I wanted to write an #OwnVoice romance for a while, but I just hadn’t felt a character settle in for me creatively. When I was writing Only When It’s Us [Book one in the Bergman Brothers series] and plotting out (all!) those Bergman siblings, I knew Søren was that sunshiny hottie who was secretly a bit of a misfit. In a family of soccer players, he was the one aberration as a hockey star, teasingly called the black sheep but deep down feeling a little out of place even among his big family of seven siblings and his parents. I realized he needed his misfit match and that’s when my first female MC with autism just unfurled in my mind. I love gender inverting tropes because I’m here to shake things up and challenge our gendered biases and stereotypes so it worked perfectly.
Additionally, hockey romances are well-loved and as entertaining as many of them are, I’m tired of the male heroes being these Casanovas with egos the size of an arena and their love interests being swept up in the glamor of the pro-athlete life, which in reality, is not so glamorous. It’s grueling and exhausting and it takes a toll on relationships. So I made Ren a giant nerd, a softie cinnamon roll who loves the beauty of hockey, not its materialistic trappings or penchant for violence. I showed a sports world where you see how darn tired these guys get, and how consuming it is. I wanted to basically invert the typical hockey hero, and that was Ren, my Shakespeare loving, nonviolent sunshine. Frankie then must be his corollary, the semi-cynical, no-nonsense grump. Frankie has good cause to be a bit grumpy: she deals with a world that’s hard to relate to thanks to autism and navigates a body with arthritis that makes her feel a bit vulnerable. I also wanted to challenge the stereotype that autistics can’t be in social and artistic spheres so giving Frankie a creative career in social media management that included crafting memes and coming up with ideas born from that bone dry, incisive humor lots of autistic people have, and I had my premise: forced proximity, workplace romance, forbidden love.
Finally, I relied on a truism for many autistic women when it came to Frankie: We are clueless when a guy is into us. You gotta spell it out or we’ll just think you’re our friend. Truly. So it worked to have Frankie and Ren spending all these hours and days together and her being none the wiser that Ren was GONE for her. It honestly just flowed from there. I wanted to write a story where the autistic person wasn’t being “rescued” or fixed or taught, where Frankie’s and Ren’s coupledom was truly shown as a complementary dynamic relationship. Yes, Ren’s love helps Frankie heal and confront some of her internalized ableism; but Frankie’s love calls Ren on his self-doubt and exhorts him to own who he is and love himself the way she loves him. They bring out the best in each other and support each other’s growth. To me, that’s the best kind of love story.
Why was it important to you to write an #OwnVoice romance?
In my ideal world, marginalized experience would—as much as humanly possible—be written by #OwnVoice. Fiction is no stranger to tokenizing, woefully misrepresenting and thus ultimately capitalizing off the use of marginalized experiences. As an author who in the past has written disabilities that are not mine, I take the responsibility of exhaustive research and dialogue with representative voices incredibly seriously, and I remain open to correction by sensitivity and #OwnVoice readers. But ultimately, I think it’s best for those in a marginalized community to tell their story. As a woman who sought diagnosis for autism after reading an #OwnVoice romance, The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang, I know personally that accurate, empowering #OwnVoice portrayal—particularly in a genre that can affirm that marginalized experience’s worth, belonging, and lovableness—can be life-changing. It’s the best way to break down the stigma around differences and disabilities, and I think it humanizes an experience on a more profound level when you know your reading from a person’s lived experience. Am I afraid to share this? No. I’m so past feeling shame or insecurity about being autistic. I believe we have SO much to learn about the spectrum, and I’m frankly here to educate people on it and continue learning myself as I encounter other voices of those with autism.
I was introduced to your work after several friends reposted your Instagram post where you shared your own autism diagnosis journey and your hope for writing your own #OwnVoices story. Can you talk a little bit about your journey and how it inspired Frankie?
I was diagnosed at age 30, and all I can say is that it was a relief to finally understand why I had always felt peripheral, anxious, sensitive and socially confused. I was dealing with depression and anxiety up to my diagnosis. When I read The Kiss Quotient I recognized a ton of myself in Stella, and started researching online about what’s formerly been called Asperger’s but now is called “high functioning” (super problematic label) autism. I sought psychological evaluation and received diagnosis. I’d say I brought to Frankie my honesty about how hard it is to connect with people even when you care, to stay vulnerable when you’ve been chastened and shamed or excluded so often. I’m empathic. I care about others, but damn is it hard to convey that or expose yourself to people sometimes. You internalize this feeling of “getting it wrong” a LOT as an autistic person, and you develop a lot of anxiety about if you’re saying or doing the right thing. It becomes easier to just mostly stick to yourself and the things and few safe people that bring you joy. I don’t think it’s a bad or lesser existence, just a different one. And I tried to bring that reality to Frankie. She cares, she loves, but she also has a small trusted circle and finds moving beyond that no less than deeply vulnerable and difficult.
What do you hope audiences will take away from reading Always Only You?
I hope they find it an uplifting, humorous, sexy, and realistic love story about two people who feel like they don’t belong in different aspects but find their home in themselves and each other. I hope they’ll be convicted about ways to be a better friend and ally to autistics, to have patience for their struggles and appreciation for their strengths. I hope they honestly seek out more autistic voices, a few which I highly recommend: Hannah Gadsby, a comedian with ADHD & autism, Michael McCreary, another standup autistic comedian and author of the memoir Funny, You Don’t Look Autistic: A Comedian’s Guide to Life on the Spectrum, and Helen Hoang, autistic author of The Kiss Quotient & The Bride Test.
I also really hope that they preference #OwnVoice writing about autism, and when they pick up books purported to portray autistics that are not by autistic authors themselves it is with a huge dose of skepticism that leads them to do their homework to see how #OwnVoice reviewers feel about the book’s attempt at representation. An example of a book not by an autistic author about a character with autism that I thought was well done is The Girl He Used to Know by Tracey Garvis Graves. A book that was an atrocity and horribly offensive in its stereotypes was Perfectly Adequate by Jewel E. Ann (Note: I do not call out books lightly, but I believe it is important and my right as an autistic person to speak out against offensive and inaccurate representation. The author knows my feelings about her book and has not engaged me since I reached out respectfully, so I feel completely fair and right in voicing this).
Lastly, I love your #FeministAFFriday hashtag! What inspired you to do this?
I have always had a passion for cutting the societal bullshit. Maybe that’s because as an autistic, I don’t absorb societal “shoulds” the way neurotypicals do. Tell me I have to wear a bra? Um, says who? Why? They itch. They’re your idea, not mine. Nope. Tell me I can’t do what a man does in a professional field. How come? Where’s the data to back up your claim? I’m smarter than him, and I’ll show you how. Tell me sex is dirty and masturbation is shameful? Says who? Since when? Pretty sure that’s a trick created by men to control my body for their purposes. You catch my drift.
I’m honestly just really comfortable pushing back against arbitrary cultural constructs, and asking why and pushing for answers until I’m blue in the face. I don’t care if people disagree with my challenging encultured ideas or not so I figured, what the hell, let’s dedicate time and energy to talking about this stuff that I push back against morally and philosophically when I live and write. When people visit my Instagram or Facebook pages, when they swing by my website, I am what all autistics are—consistent. What you see on social media is what you’d see if you met me in person, and it’s what you’ll read in my books. There’s no posturing, no sides that take turns showing up depending on my audience. There’s just me. I don’t play games, I don’t dodge my beliefs. They’re there, they’re clear, and I want you to know them if you’re following me or considering reading my books because my values infuse my fiction. #FeministAFFriday feels like a clear definable way to communicate my values of intersectional feminism, equality, antiracism, and inclusivity of disabilities and all marginalized experiences, to convey my convictions as a human, a writer and a voice in the conversation.
ALWAYS ONLY YOU (Bergman Brothers #2):
ONLY WHEN IT’S US (Bergman Brothers #1):