Books

Stormzy’s new star author Taylor-Dior Rumble on writing Merky’s first romcom: ‘I kid you not, I Googled “How to write a book”’

“I s*** you not, I definitely Googled ‘How to write a book,’ at one point” laughs Taylor-Dior Rumble, the author behind the first romcom to be released by Stormzy’s #Merky Books imprint at Penguin. The Situationship, which marks Rumble’s publishing debut, now looks set to be one of the biggest hits of the summer, a raw, witty and zeitgeisty look at the modern dating dilemma of undefined romance.

The 26-year-old southeast Londoner had been grafting as an apprentice journalist at the BBC, where she had been working hard to pitch stories about the experiences of Black women since she landed the gig aged 18. Her articles covering the politics of Black hair and colourism in Hollywood started to attract interest from the publishing industry. Then, one day, an agent emailed her asking if she’d be interested in writing a book; Rumble assumed it was spam. By 2019, Rumble left the BBC and started working with Stormzy’s imprint to write The Situationship. It took, she says, “a chaotic two years to complete”.

The book is named for a growing dynamic in dating, where a couple haven’t defined their status, confusion (and sometimes delusion) reigns on both sides. The Situationship follows protagonist Tia who has a similar background to Rumble: she’s a driven young journalist working in the newsroom at the fictional London City News (LCN), who finds herself heartbroken when the love of her life, Aaron, arrives back from a stint in America with a new girlfriend. After licking her wounds, setting up a Hinge account and re-entering London’s dating scene, Tia finds herself in an ill-defined romantic entanglement with a smooth photographer called Nate. She assumes they’re on the same page, even though their relationship is riddled with red flags (he takes days to text back and is shady about whether he is seeing anyone else) and devoid of any clear-cut definition.

Unlike many authors that write about romance, Rumble did not study creative writing, take any writing courses or escape to an author’s retreat to pen her debut. Instead, she wrote scripts to map out the characters’ dialogue and turned to music by Lauryn Hill, R&B heavyweight SZA and Swedish singer Snoh Aalegra for inspiration.

“It’s the longest thing I’ve ever written – I didn’t go to uni, I haven’t written a dissertation or anything like that,” says Rumble, windswept after travelling from her home in Catford to meet me in Shoreditch. Even though Rumble felt some uncertainty and self-doubt at first, she was certain about the book’s ending, which – without spoiling the plot – goes against the basic formula of popular romcoms (where we typically see a withered and heartbroken female protagonist finally get the man of her dreams and gallivant off into the sunset). “I love romantic comedies but sometimes I do feel a bit… not miffed, but sometimes I feel like the characters maybe shouldn’t have ended up with that guy and maybe, it was actually more toxic than what it seems. Maybe Hollywood glamourises certain bull**** [it implies] we should put up with, but we really shouldn’t in real life.”

Rumble was writing the book during the Covid-19 lockdown, after her father was diagnosed with stage four cancer in late 2019. Writing about Tia and her two best friends, the raucous Luca and loyal Hannah, as they navigate their fun, unrestricted early twenties in south London, felt like a way to escape. “It’s funny because I was hell-bent on making this a really bleak, serious book,” she says. “For a lot of Black writers, it just seems that there are a lot of very serious books that deal with heavy topics and if I ever want to get published, I need to write something that the industry has a big appetite for.” Initially, Rumble had planned to depict Tia having to tackle very blatant obstacles such as racism in the workplace. “But when it came down to actually typing it, I just didn’t have it in me. My reality was very bleak so the last thing I wanted to do was stay in that zone while trying to work on this book for two years.”

Rumble wanted to depict Tia’s hardships in a way that felt true to her own experience. For example, in The Situationship, Tia and her work bestie Gbemi spend coffee breaks on LCN’s red sofa debriefing about everything including their dating lives, ever-growing workloads and microaggressions they face at work – sofa chats that were inspired by her time at the BBC with her colleague Maisie. “Obviously, Black people aren’t monoliths and everyone has unique experiences, but for the most part, me going to work, having to code switch, moving away from my colleague if they want to touch my hair and then just going about my business… unfortunately, that’s normal,” she says. “[Microaggressions in the workplace] are not necessarily this massive trauma point that I feel like a lot of TV shows or other books might depict it as. Unfortunately, it’s just an everyday thing and you just dust it off your shoulders and meet your girlies for a drink after work.”

Modern dating, instead, is the focus of the book, tapping into a general mood among young women in their twenties right now: dating apps are absolute hell. A lot of that frustration that Tia faces, both at work and in her dating life, is inspired by what Rumble and her friends were going through at the time. “I feel like our twenties are not explored enough in the media and everyone refers to it as this really ghetto, messy period. [I wanted to show that] it’s fine not to have your s*** together or your dream job or partner in your twenties. We’re not supposed to have it all figured out.”

I ask Rumble if she has an IRL equivalent to her Aaron or Nate. There’s that laugh again. “The last thing I wanted to do was have one of my… how do you even call them… ‘exes’ or whatever?” she trails off, past situationships presumably filling her mind. “Basically, the last thing I’d want is someone to text me and be like ‘Did I inspire this [character]?’. I’m not giving a man that satisfaction in my debut! I knew that for damn sure from the very beginning,” she jokes. “If ever got that ‘Am I your muse?’ text, I would die!!!”

Reflecting on her time at the BBC, Rumble says she learnt from the “industry’s best” but felt as though the stories that truly mattered to her and her peers were not given the attention or coverage they deserved. In The Situationship, we watch Tia move heaven and earth to successfully execute her feature on the politics of Black hair – a piece Rumble actually wrote while she was at the BBC. “I think I was quite naive walking into the Beeb. I just felt that no matter how hard I worked, I just wasn’t moved as quickly or further along than other people,” she says, describing how stories she would pitch were not appreciated. “I remember one time they invited Elaine Welteroth, who was the first Black editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue, to talk about her career and diversity in the newsroom. She was brilliant – I’m a huge fan – but everyone in the room who came was a person of colour. It’s fantastic but everyone in that room already understands what she’s saying. It would never be the people who actually needed to hear why this stuff is important.”

Working with #Merky Books has been something Rumble added to her vision board – a collage made up of pictures and affirmations to manifest your life goals – when she left the BBC in 2019. The publishing imprint, which was founded to amplify underrepresented voices in publishing, has released award-winning books like That Reminds Me by Derek Owusu, who was named in the best British novelist Granta list for 2023, Jade LB’s Keisha the Sket and the New Writers’ Prize winners Jyoti Patel, Hafsa Zayyan and Monika Radojevic.

Rumble hasn’t met the main man himself just yet. “I think he’s definitely kept abreast of things that are going on. But day to day, he leaves it to the professionals.” Still, though, Rumble praises the musician – who by now, is a household name – for creating new platforms, like his scholarship for Black students at the University of Cambridge, or the £10m over 10 years that the #Merky foundation pledges to organisations committed to fighting for racial equality and Black empowerment.

“It’s gonna sound corny but I wanted to make this story with [#Merky Books] because their whole ethos about being a disruptor in the publishing industry and being a platform for underrepresented voices,” says Rumble. “Coming out somewhere like the Beeb, that’s the exact space that I want to walk into,” she says. But Rumble is well aware that the lack of diversity in journalism is not dissimilar in the publishing industry. In 2022, the Publishers’ Association reported that ethnic minority groups make up 17 per cent of the publishing workforce. “The publishing industry is very white and middle class,” says Rumble. “I’m so lucky to be working with people [at #Merky Books] who not only look like me but come from similar areas to me and understand me completely.”

Does she hope that Stormzy will ever read the book? She grins. “I think that would be lovely, but I’m completely fine if he never read it,” says Rumble. “I doubt the ins and outs of a 20-something woman’s situationship dramas are going to appeal to him.” Given she started the book as a collection of scripts, Rumble has every intention to get the book adapted for screen – and she’s already had some meetings about it. “It’s freaking exciting for me to see that people think there’s potential for The Situationship to be adapted,” she says decisively. A TV adaptation is definitely on her latest vision board. “Maybe Stormzy would have more fun watching it!”

‘The Situationship’ is published on 17 August by #Merky Books



I’m so lucky to be working with people [at #Merky Books] who not only look like me but come from similar areas to me and understand me completely

Taylor-Dior Rumble

Xural.com

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