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When Colleen Oakes dialed her sister from a Denver coffeeshop midway through a draft of her third novel, she confessed, crying, that she was hate-writing her book.
Hate-writing—a common term for authors powering through a draft, despite the feeling that it either a) sucks, b) shouldn’t exist or c) sucks and shouldn’t exist—is a familiar sentiment for many creative types. But Oakes, a Denver native, felt that not only her draft, but the entire genre she worked within was no longer the right fit. Prior to 2014, she’d published mostly adult women’s fiction (think: Bridget Jones’s Diary), enticing readers with her cheeky, charming plus-sized protagonist, Elly, in the Elly in Bloom series. But Oakes was a third of the way through another book, and she already felt as if, at least spiritually, she’d left that particular genre behind.
“Well, what do you want to write instead?” her sister asked over the phone.
Oakes didn’t take long to think about it. “A story about girls who beat up on men with baseball bats and work out of a big black house!”
And that’s how The Black Coats was born.
Truthfully, Oakes’ vision had been slowly stewing inside her for years, tugged along by little pieces of inspiration: a black coat discarded on a Nebraska roadside; a lifelong love of vigilante superheroes; the death of a close friend. But it wouldn’t be until she’d already published two young-adult fantasy trilogies that The Black Coats would land on shelves.
Oakes’ newest YA novel, set to release February 12, follows Thea Soloman, a teenager in Austin, Texas, who’s reeling from the brutal murder of her cousin, Natalie. Not only is she grieving, detached from her family and favorite activities, but she’s also coping with the added sting of failed justice: Natalie’s murderer got away.
So when Thea’s invited to join a secret matriarchal society of women who work out a big black house, the offer is almost too sweet. These women, who call themselves the Black Coats, plot vengeance against men who hurt girls. They’re Batman-like vigilantes, working by night in long black trench coats. Their actions, referred to as “Balancings,” are meant to tip the scales of power. Through increasingly shocking acts, the Black Coats scare men from ever hurting a girl again. It’s a delicious, horrifying prospect for any woman who’s ever felt the literal and figurative scars of sexual violence, and Thea falls for it within a few pages.
Of course, violence begets violence, and The Black Coats exists purposefully in the moral grey. Once Thea discovers the more menacing cogs turning the great wheel of the Black Coats organization, she starts to take a step back, her feelings further complicated by her new boyfriend, Drew. But she finds the kiss of fist-to-face harder and harder to resist as the book goes on.
Violence and brutality are themes in The Black Coats, but Oakes is eager to talk about the love behind this book, too. Her own desire to see herself and her family reflected in her fiction fueled parts of the novel. At the time she was writing The Black Coats, Oakes herself was grieving the sudden death of a close family friend. She plugged that mourning into Thea, thereby giving her protagonist an even more convincing reason to join a society promising closure. And in her decision to make Thea a young woman of color, Oakes hoped to cast a spotlight on characters who look like her son. Oakes says she hopes Thea will serve as another example of the importance of diversity in YA fiction.
Now happily stationed within the YA genre, Oakes is proud to have penned a book that’s poignant in the #MeToo era. But The Black Coats wasn’t written with movement in mind; Oakes drafted the story in 2016, well before #MeToo went viral in the fall of 2017. At the time, she’d noticed a trend within her friend group: almost half of her closest female friends had experienced some sort of sexual assault. When she studied national statistics, she was further sickened. Today, one in three women will experience some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetimes, and 91 percent of rape and sexual assault victims are female.
Publishing moves fast—relevancy fades, trends skyrocket and plummet, and the ‘next big thing’ is always lurking around the corner—so for a book like The Black Coats to be published at such a pertinent time was serendipitous for Oakes. But violence against women is much more than a movement of the moment, and as young girls and women grow into their identities, they need to see women that look like them wrestling—and ultimately triumphing—against similar issues in the world. In that vein, Oakes hopes that her protagonist, Thea, might find a young reader who needs her now more than ever.
That, Oakes believes, is reason enough to keep writing.
Meet the author: Colleen Oakes will debut The Black Coats at Tattered Cover Aspen Grove, 7301 S. Santa Fe Dr., Littleton, on Feb. 12 at 7 p.m.