Years before Stacey Abrams came close to being the first Black woman governor in the country or became a driving force in the effort to flip Georgia blue, she was Selena Montgomery, author of eight romance novels. Last month, those two worlds collided: As it became increasingly clear that both the Georgia Senate races were heading to runoff elections, Abrams’ fellow romance novelists—Courtney Milan, Alyssa Cole, and writing partners Donna Herren and Bree Bridges—rallied behind her efforts to increase voter turnout in the state by launching Romancing the Runoff, an auction fundraiser.
The original goal was to raise $20,000 for the New Georgia Project, Fair Fight, and Black Voters Matter. By the time their auction closed, they had sold more than 3,000 items—including a signed edition of Abrams’ own novel, Rules of Engagement, that went for $3,200—and raised almost $400,000. Slate spoke to Milan to find out how Romancing the Runoff came together, why romance novelists are such a political bunch, and whether we can expect a repeat of the effort. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Rachelle Hampton: Tell me how the idea of Romancing the Runoff came about.
Courtney Milan: It started on November 6, when we were still in the state after the election where we didn’t know who was going to win and Steve Kornacki was doing his whole “I’m not sleeping” thing. Nobody really knew what was going on, but we just had all these counties updating votes, like 79 at a time. And you’re learning about counties in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and Georgia that I’d never heard of before.
My friend Bree Bridges, who’s half of Kit Rocha, texted me and she said, “I was thinking about doing an auction for Georgia to support the runoff.” We talked about it for about 10 minutes. This was at 10 at night. I said, “Oh, that sounds like a great idea.” And she’s like, “I don’t think it’d be too much work. I have some people I can get to volunteer.” We picked the name, and she got a Twitter account and I got a Gmail account and we went to bed.
Around noon the next day, we posted our first little things to our Twitter account, which had zero followers because we just created it the night before, and we retweeted it from our own accounts. By the time I’d finished explaining what we were doing, we already had something like 1500 bucks in the Act Blue page we had set up for donations.
We weren’t expecting anything like this. At every step of the way it has gone beyond our wildest imagination. Our original goal was that we wanted to make $20,000. We made that in direct donations the first day. I think that there are a lot of people who felt really helpless at that point. Giving them something to do, they could be like, “Yeah, I can make a difference in this way,” There was a real hunger for that. We just happened to tap into that.
You said that you were surprised every step of the way. Can you take me through some of those steps?
Oh my God. When we were first talking about setting up the auction, we were looking at the auction site and Bree was like, “I think we might need 100 to 200 items.” We have to pay per 100 items on the site. She was like, “I don’t want to do too many and then end up not using them.” We had a little Google form for people to submit potential donations and we closed it down within something like 12 hours because we already had more than 700 items that people wanted to donate. It was just an outpouring. People really wanted to be involved.
And then there were the donations. Like I said, we didn’t really think we were going to get a whole lot of direct donations, but we did, something like $25,000 in the first day. I think we put it up around noon, so we’re talking 13 hours. By the time the auction went live we had, I think like $95,000 in direct donations.
The proceeds from the auction itself—we weren’t sure what to expect. We knew we had a lot of interesting items. But we had so many things that went for more money than we could’ve possibly imagined. Just people were being incredibly generous. It was just really flabbergasting to see the excitement and the degree to which everyone was on board with this.
Tell me about some of the things that you all auctioned off.
One of the things was a one-year mentorship from Ann Aguirre,* who is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author who has been in the business for a long time. It ended up going for like $5,700.
There were consults with multiple Hollywood authors, screenwriters, directors, showrunners, Cheryl Anderson and David Slack and I will not remember all of them. We had a bunch of separate Hollywood people who really stepped up.
There were a lot of items that weren’t just from romance authors, but readers as well. There were readers who put out crafts, quilts, and that sort of thing. There was a crocheted T-Rex Christmas tree topper, which went for something like $450. Just a lot of really interesting creative stuff, annotated romance novels, that sort of thing.
Did you solicit the donations from big-name authors like Julia Quinn and Tessa Dare?
Tessa’s an unofficial organizer, she was on our Discord. Tessa and I have been friends forever, since before we started publishing. Julia Quinn volunteered. Most of the stuff came about because one of our volunteers used to work at Hollywood as an accountant, so she knew a bunch of people and reached out to them. I believe we specifically solicited people like Jodi Picoult who gave us a signed set of all 24 of her adult novels. But Julia Quinn offered that on her own. She just emailed and was like, “Hey, I want to do this.” And, I was like, OK, amazing.
There was some solicitation involved, but mostly it was just like there was a point in the auction when we realized there were so many items that we would put up and within half an hour, it was already in the thousand-dollar mark. And there are people who were like, “I don’t have a thousand dollars, I want to participate,” so we came up with the idea of talking to authors about donating like 10 copies of their books signed and that we would put up for like $25. Once we put on Twitter that we were looking for that, then we just had an outpouring in our inbox. There was never a point when we needed something, and we didn’t have people offering help.
Were you surprised at all by the response?
Surprised maybe is not the right word. I knew people were going to be on board. I knew people would be into it. It just felt so much bigger than anything that any of us had been doing. It felt like a real community effort. This is one of those things where if you put in one unit of effort, then the community is going to reach out and give you 100.
I think a lot of people might be surprised by again how politically involved romance novels are, even though the two intersect a lot.
Yes. Romance has been having the argument about politics for a very long time, and we have, I think, accepted that we are a political community in many ways. This isn’t the only time romance has been political. The Fated Mates podcast ran a “fated state” phone banking effort and made 300,000 calls in the general election, and they’re getting together to do it again for the runoff. Things like Romance for RAICES, which raised money for The Young Center, which does immigration law work—we have taken political action before and we’re going to do it again. Romance is political.
One of the reasons we were doing this was because Stacey Abrams is a romance author and Stacey Abrams and her work in Georgia are a huge part of the reason why Georgia turned blue in the presidential election. And she has been saying, this is like the romance narrative, right? The romance narrative is like the opposite of the Cassandra myth in some ways. You have someone saying, “No, keep on hoping, keep on hoping. It’s going to be okay,” and nobody believes them—but they get it done and they’re right! I think that’s the romance story. You look at something and you’re like, “No, look, we can do this if we’re in this as a community, stop giving up hope, stop believing that this can never happen. It can.”
That’s Stacey Abrams. She’s one of our own. She’s a romance novelist who has never tried to distance herself from what she wrote and has always said good writing is good writing. It doesn’t matter where you do it. There’s good romance novels, just like there’s good novels everywhere else.
Do you think that you’ll do something like this again?
Well, yes and no. We are planning to do something when Stacey Abrams runs for governor and other higher offices. Will it ever be like this again? I don’t know. It felt like a perfect storm in so many ways. When she’s running for governor again, in what, 2022, presumably there’s going to be a lot of other things on everyone’s plate.
Right now, we had a story that’s like: It’s the runoff in Georgia, this is going to determine the control of the Senate. You can tell the story about how this specific thing at this specific time about this specific person and this specific state is going to make a difference. I’m not sure it will feel the same way at some other time.
Dec. 7, 2020: Due to a transcription error, this post originally misspelled Ann Aguirre’s first and last names.