What makes this particular genre you are involved in so special?
What makes historical fiction special is that it gives a history lesson while telling a story. It stretches the imagination of the audience because the reader is challenged to live as the characters live, and experience the same sights, smells, sounds, and emotions that may be evoked by situations that could or could not happen in this day and age. For example, a character may be thinking about her lover, while walking along an unpaved, dusty street. We can think about our lovers in any day or age, but would you, modern woman, still be thinking about him when the rain hits the dusty street, and it turns to mud? Would you forget about him because your high-button shoes and the hem of your petticoat became soaked and drenched in red mud? Or would you continue to saunter slowly as the hot water created steamy dust bowls in the street, soaking your clothes all the way through your high-necked blouse, your petticoat, your bustle, your skin? Furthermore, who would see you drenched when you got home, and reprimanded you for lollygagging in the rain? On top of it being unseemly for a young lady to get wet in the rain, you run the risk of catching pneumonia. The crimes from modern to former times may or may not be the same, but little things like mores and illnesses set the risks at a higher level.
What inspires you to write?
What inspires me to write is the idea of inspiring others. God didn’t intend for us to live in fear and misery. I write to inspire others to live by their own expectations. My characters are relatable because they are flawed, and forced to go through trial and tribulation in order to experience redemption. I love to tell stories, and even though I write fiction there is an element of truth in whatever I write. Revelation 21:5 states “write, for these words are true and faithful.” Just as sure as every Psy Fi novel I have ever read has on some level come to fruition, there is an element of truth in every type of fiction as long as it is written from the heart. The opportunity to free myself on a clean slate inspires me to write. A blank page, if not a blank computer screen, is limitless.
Do you set a plot or prefer going wherever an idea takes you
I have a tendency to set a plot first, then I go wherever the idea takes. I start with an intended destination for each character, but it never fails. Somewhere along the way, I’m instructed to try something different. A lot of it depends upon new characters showing up and changing the situation. I might even put a planned event on hold, or make it happen sooner, to move the plot along. I may plan on a specific event being the climax, but the character may move it to be a part of the rising or falling action. Essentially I go in with a clear intention, but the eventually the characters take over. They always end up telling a better tale than the writer, anyway.
Have you ever left any of your books stew for months on end or even a year?
Yes, I have left many books to stew, and miraculously I have always gone back. I happened to keep a diary of Cotton Club Princess. I started it in January of 2011 and finished it on my birthday in July of 2014. When I read journal entries I realized that over a period of three and a half years, I worked on the book off and on for eight months. For me, it was never writer’s block. I have accepted that as a writer I will have homework every night for the rest of my life, but I have never been a perfect student. Sometimes, actually lots of times, I don’t feel like doing my homework, so I’ll procrastinate. By God’s grace, it gets done. I have five more books in this series, and there might be more. When I started in January of 2011 I didn’t know this book would have a sequel. By July of 2014, when it was finished I knew there would be two more books. Now there are five more. The plots are written, I just have to sit down and do my homework.
Do you recall the first ever book/novel you read?
The first novel I remember reading was The Box Car Children, and I read that series, but I don’t recall any details about any of those books. The next novel series I read was Nancy Drew, and again, I remember nothing. The first novel I ever read that I remember to this day was Fast Sam, Cool Clyde, and Stuff by Walter Dean Myers. I remember specific details because as a country girl, I had always been intrigued with stories of children who grew up in the city, especially New York. I think it is better than appropriate that my debut novel, Cotton Club Princess, is about a girl from South Carolina who runs away to Harlem, and while there, grows into a woman.
Have you ever incorporated something that happened to you in real life into your novels?
Yes, I have taken events that have happened to me and put them in my novels. For example, like the main character in Cotton Club Princess, I am from a small southern town, and I moved to New York City. Also, like the main character, I am a conservatory trained performer.
People believe that being a published author is glamorous, is that true?
There are aspects of it that are glamorous, such as going to Book Expo America, and of course, book signings. So far for me personally it has been work. I have had to balance between telling tales, and making book. Telling tales, or writing is the creative aspect. Making book, is the business aspect. Making book involves building the author platform, networking with others in the literary field, marketing your book, building your brand as an author, booking appointments for book signings, etc. There is glamour in working for yourself, because of the independence, but there is grunt work involved.
Now when you look back at your past, do you feel accomplished?
Yes, I feel accomplished! I attempted to write my first novel when I was seventeen. I had a plan, and a plot, but the characters changed the plan and the plot. At that time I didn’t know that was supposed to happen. I lost control, and couldn’t get back to the direction I desired the story to go. I used the story as a means of escape from whatever I was dealing with in real life. Well, someone found out that I was writing, and said: “who’s going to read it.” Between that statement, and not being able to take the plot where I wanted to, I lost heart and put it away. I tried several times after that, and the same thing happened every time. I was thirty-nine when I started writing Cotton Club Princess. A few months later I met Sharon Draper, and she was the one who told me that the characters were supposed to have free reign over the plot. I also reconnected with the man who is now my husband, and he encouraged me whenever I got discouraged. Between letting the characters take over, and having a supportive voice actively cheering me on, I found what I needed to finally finish a novel!
What does the word ‘retirement’ mean to you? Do writers ever retire?
The word retirement means nothing to me because writers never retire. Dealing with language every day energizes the mind and the spirit. I think we as writers get more seasoned and creative by finding more ways to tell the same stories we’ve always told. Over time we as writers find new ways to reinvent ourselves through language and communication with our audiences. Furthermore, writers are the historians of every era. When writing stops, history stops. History cannot stop, otherwise, mankind will have learned nothing!
Which book would you want adapted for the silver screen?
I would love to see The Octopus by Frank Norris made into a feature film because the novel reads like a panoramic view of a camera reel! It is a beautiful story set in California wine country in the early 1900’s, and it is told by a man who is attempting to write the great American novel, but every time he tries politics get in the way. I mean politics literally get in the way because he is a house guest of the governor, and the family itself is divided because there are family members on both sides of the political coin, while the tracks of the railroad, like an octopus, are reaching all over the state monopolizing the means of transport of goods raised on the farms. If it isn’t politics, it is business and industry affecting this writer’s ability to romanticize all that he is witnessing. Even though this novel was written in 1901, it is relevant to this day and age, which is another factor that makes the tale transferrable from the page to the screen.
Some writers create a bubble around themselves until they’re finished with their project – how true is that in your case?
Guilty! Aside from my husband, I wouldn’t speak to anyone about my novel until it was finished, and I would sneak away for at least thirty minutes a day to write when I first started. The thirty minutes I utilized were my lunch period at the job I was working at the time. Eventually, some of my coworkers began to notice that I wouldn’t eat lunch with them anymore, and they would comment, which was fine because adults are easy to ignore. When my students realized I was in my room during lunch, they made it known that I was missed and often asked if they could have their lunch in my room to avoid getting into a fight with another student. That is the best ruse a child can use if they desire a teacher’s attention. Eventually, I was no longer able to use those thirty minutes, and I would have to find them elsewhere. When I did, those thirty minutes were swallowed up as well. People are naturally curious. They always want to know how others use their time, and if they can interrupt, they do. So yes I do create a bubble for at least thirty minutes a day that is dedicated to writing.
If you’re writing about a city/country/culture you haven’t physically visited, how much research do you conduct before you start writing?
The amount of research I do before I start writing is minimal because I want the slate to be as clean as possible for the characters to invent themselves and I follow. I ask God for guidance as to the direction my stories should move. If too much is planned when you write you run the risk of losing spontaneity that could keep you as a writer, and your audience, riveted. For example, my novel is set in Harlem during the late 1920’s to mid-1930’s, with my characters writing a series of letters back and forth. I randomly made up days and dates to put at the top of the letters, figuring I would find a calendar from that time period and correct them. When I finally sat down with the calendar, the days and dates were already correct. I kid you not! They were already in place! Another time I said something about an intercom at an apartment building, and I thought to myself, I’m in the zone now, I can research if intercoms were in existence at this time later. I did my research on intercoms, and they had been invented by this time. Write now, research later! Get the story on paper, or flash drive as soon as humanly possible, you can do corrections while you’re editing.
Have you ever written a character with an actor in mind?
Yes, I have. In Cotton Club Princess, the characters Peder and Kroyer Skaagens are based on James Marsden, and Tom Welling respectively.
What’s your favorite movie which was based on a book?
My favorite movie that is based on a book is The Help, because the movie, for the most part, stayed true to the story. The screenplay and the actors remained true to the feelings that the book meant to invoke in the readers. My only problem with the screenplay was that it glazed over the relationship Minnie developed with Johnny. That one scene close to the end of the movie failed to do the justice to the conversation these two characters had in the middle of the book that later solidified their individual relationships to Celia, thus proving that she was a strong enough glue to hold a house together, despite all the gossiping the Junior League did about her.
Which literary character do you most resonate with on a personal level?
The literary character I resonate with most is Sula from the book of the same name by Toni Morrison. I also feel a connection to Sula’s best friend, Nel. As a reader, not an author, I feel that certain books must be read several times throughout your lifetime as a measure of how far you have grown as a person. For me, Sula is one of these books. At some point in my life, when I was a lot younger, I was Sula. Now that I am older, I identify more with Nel. Sula is more brash and daring than Nel. Nel is the reserved one of the two. Like in the story, there was a point in my life where the Sula in me, challenged and even hurt the Nel in me. It made me realize, like Nel realized at the end of the novel, that forgiveness is internal. Before you can forgive others for the wrongs they have committed against you, you have to forgive yourself for the hurts you’ve put yourself through.
DO you enjoy theatre? Would you ever like one of your stories to be turned into a play?
One little-known fact about me: I am the first African American to graduate from my Alma Mater with a BA in Theater, and from there I graduated from the American Musical and Dramatic Academy with a certificate in Musical Theater Performance. In short, I LOVE THEATRE! I will go so far as to say Cotton Club Princess was made to be converted into a stage play. It’s about a girl who runs away to Harlem to become a Cotton Club showgirl and literally grows up performing there. She later graduates from the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance. There isn’t any singing, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be a great musical theatre piece. People who have read it have complimented me on how the dialogue sounds realistic, so I think it would transfer well to the stage.
Can you tell us about your current projects?
Aside from marketing Cotton Club Princess, my current projects include the sequel. The working title of which is called Lily, who happens to be the sister of the heroine in Cotton Club Princess. I am also working on an adult Christmas story. I say it is adult because the situations, such as child abuse, religion, grief, unemployment, marriage, are everyday complicated scenarios that grown people face. I also teach a writing seminar at my church in Tennessee.
Have you ever written a character based on the real you in some part?
I don’t think it is possible to write without something in the story being based upon the real you, so yes I have. Every story is connected to the texture of my existence. Nostalgia, the heroine in Cotton Club Princess, is from the south, and she moves to New York to be a performer. She also ends up becoming conservatory trained. That is who I am, a conservatory trained stage performer. Lily is the younger of the two siblings, and she ends up marrying a man she met when she was 12, and he was 16. That’s who I am, also. I’m the youngest of a pair of siblings, and I met the man who is now my husband when I was 12, and he was 17. There has to be a little bit of you in everything you write, otherwise what in you will facilitate the imagination needed to create on any level.
How big of a part does music play in creating your “zone”?
For my first novel, Cotton Club Princess, I created a YouTube playlist of my favorite songs from the time period. Even when I was a little girl I loved big band jazz and ragtime. Music was instrumental in creating my “zone” because the novel is about the Cotton Club, and the major performers, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton, etc. are all mentioned.
How many children do you have? Do you see any young writers in any of them?
I have three children, and out of all of them I see the middle one being a writer, because she is the most excited about my novel being launched, she reminds me when I haven’t written, and when she is assigned to write a story or a paper for school, her teachers compliment her on the content and the delivery. The oldest looks like she’s going to be majoring in nursing, and the youngest is about to turn three, and she seems to want to sing.