Saturday, July 30, 2011

Turning Writers Into MotherfXcking Rock Stars

Turning Writers Into Motherfucking Rock Stars

When I saw this article, I began to wonder.... hmmm, which author would I love to see elevated to Rock Star status and ... what does that mean exactly?  Love to hear your comments.

Donna Hill Interview by Eisa Ulen

What Mother Never Told Me, a novel that honors the literary tradition of Black women writers who sought to challenge the “Tragic Mulatto” stereotype in their work. Like Harriet Jacobs, Pauline Hopkins and Nella Larsen before her, Hill examines the generational impact of sex across race and class lines in America. Set in Harlem, New York; Amboise, France; and Rudell, Mississippi, this contemporary novel explores family secrets rooted in the past. Upon the death of the grandmother who raised her, main character Parris McKay discovers “her dead mother was alive.”
This stunning revelation launches the young woman’s search for the mother who abandoned her, her truth, and, ultimately, her own identity. With an exciting new love interest and two solid best girlfriends by her side, Parris is anchored well enough to sail a bit into the unknown and perilous waters of time before she was even born: Why did her mother abandon her? Why did her mother want her to think she was dead? Who is her father? These questions compel Parris to travel halfway around the world – but the only people who know the answers may not be willing to tell her the things Mother never did.
While she tries to piece her mysterious past back together to make herself whole, Parris enters a new relationship with Nick, the jazz musician she met while singing onstage at a downtown New York club. Nick has big plans to open a new place Uptown, in Harlem, but will he have time for Parris’ journey to discover her past and the fulfillment of his own professional aspirations?
Hill has crafted a novel very much in the tradition of 19th century Black woman writer Pauline Hopkins, who wrote novels in serialized form for Colored American Magazine in the early 1900s. Hopkins was writing against the backdrop of mob violence and the emerging Anti-Lynching Campaign, which Ida B Wells Barnett would spearhead. According to Yale Professor of African American Studies Hazel V. Carby, Hopkins believed fiction to be “of great value to any people as a preserver of manners and customs – religious, political, and social” and a “record of growth and development from generation to generation.” Similarly, with her elegant, educated, eclectic African American characters, Hill has created a world very familiar to her legions of fans, many of whom look to her to render today’s authentic, middle-class Black life.
 Hill, who explores themes from gentrification to mother-daughter relationships, has recorded a turn-of-the-21st century generation, the inheritors of the experiences of women and men in our shared past. With What Mother Never Told Me, Hill also celebrates the growth we’ve experienced so far, and the emotional and psychic development surely yet to come.
1.             With its page-turning storyline featuring a mixed-race heroine yearning to know her true parental / racial origins, your novel is written in the tradition of Black woman writer Pauline Hopkins’ serialized magazine novels (published from 1901 to 1903).  What Mother Never Told Me also expresses 19th century writer Pauline Hopkins’ desire to “raise the stigma of degradation from my race.” Did you intend to write a contemporary narrative in the tradition of work like Hopkins’?
When I began thinking about WHAT MOTHER NEVER TOLD ME and deciding on which direction to take my characters and how I was going to shape the story, my motives and inspiration came from several sources: wanting it, in a subtle way, to address the issues of race—or more accurately—the color complex of blacks. And yes, the stigma that has been attached to color, our inner hatred of ourselves that on some levels has been fed and nurtured on the institutional racism that is part and parcel of this country. And although race and the color complex are central to the story, I always wanted to strongly address the dynamics of the mother/daughter relationships in a poor black family, a middle income black family and a white family and explore the similarities and the differences which help us as women shape views of ourselves and the world.
2.             You retained so many themes and symbols of this 19th century literary tradition, with big money, the myth of pure American whiteness, and an indictment of the men who have historically run this country. These themes are consistent in your work and in, for example, Harriet Jacobs’ slave narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Like Jacobs, you examine the effect of the rape of Black women in white men’s homes – and even tie that rape to American capitalism and American politics. Was that a conscious decision on your part? Did you at any point in the writing process consider making the interracial sex in your novel consensual?
The rape was central to the story. The rape recast the entire life of Cora Harvey. Her dreams were destroyed, her innocence ruined, her hopes were crushed. The rape not only ruined her physically, but mentally and emotionally—forever.  As with all rape victims, there is a high level of shame. For the kind of character that I constructed in Cora, and the time period (the late 1920’s) her demoralization was even greater. That one act was the catalyst that redefined three generations, initiated a lie that destroyed lives, marriages and relationships. However, what I also sought to do was to put the rape in some sort of context and not to specifically dehumanize the white man who raped Cora, not to excuse him either but rather set up the historical events that precipitated this vile act: The Stock Market Crash and The Great Depression, to show the connection between money and power and how the rape was his outrage at having lost both. This rape was about a reclaiming of power and without the historical backdrop I don’t think the impact would have been as strong.  Much later in the novel the reader will come upon the diametric opposite: consensual sex between black and white for very different reasons, but again class comes into play.

3.             The Tragic Mulatto stereotype, that of a confused young woman often motivated by money and a yearning to pass, is a character that generally collapses, passes out, or literally dies when the story ends. You reference just such a narrative in  What Mother Never Told Me when Parris and Nick watch the film Imitation of Life on television. In your novel, however, Parris experiences a significantly different conclusion. Was your intention to usurp, or flip, the Tragic Mulatto stereotype? Did you attempt to vindicate the countless mixed-race American women who never received their fair share of the pie, so to speak? Did you attempt to do in your fiction what rarely happened in real life and achieve a kind of literary justice for Black women?
I wish that I could say that I sat down with all of these altruistic intentions. Looking back at the story, I would think that Emma, Parris’s mother, would fall into The Tragic Mulatto stereotype to a point and would have remained there, had I let her. What I worked hard at with Emma (who is actually my favorite character) was to try to help the reader to understand the complexity of this woman, feel her desperation and her unrelenting need to be cared about and loved by someone and in understanding that, the reader could then grapple with the difficult decisions that she made about her life—specifically as it related to her daughter, Parris.  Emma could have easily become and remained tragic, walked off alone into the sunset, having lost everything.  That would have been the easy way out.  She needed to come to terms with the choices that she’d made. She needed to look at herself and how her decisions affected her daughter Parris and make amends.  As for Parris, although she too is of mixed race, she never suffered with issues of her duality because from early in her life she had the unwavering love of her grandparents who nurtured her and believed in her. It wasn’t until she found out that her mother, whom she thought was dead all of her life, was very much alive that she began to question her own value and sense of self—and not as a mixed race woman but as a human being.
4.             This book was published 2 years after the election of the first biracial president. What impact, if any, did Obama’s campaign and personal narrative have on your work?
In the aftermath of his run and election, the issues of race and identity are still hot topics.  The racism that exists within this country remains rampant, which certainly opens the door of discussion to the issues raised in WHAT MOTHER NEVER TOLD ME.  Much like the President, Emma and Parris both struggled to find their identity: Emma who could pass for white and Parris who struggled to uncover the real reason why her mother wanted her to believe that she was dead all of her life.  The President never grew up with his father and neither did Emma.  And Parris was raised by her grandparents.  However, despite adversities, they were all able to rise above them and make a life for themselves.  I didn’t consciously take into account the President’s life, but his certainly can serve as validation for the points that are raised in my novel.
5.             Parris and Nick are jazz artists, but they could just as easily have been Hip Hop, Pop, R&B, or Soul artists. Why is jazz such an important theme in your work?
This question made me smile.  In all of the novels that I have written throughout the years, there are similar elements that crop up.  One, my characters invariably live in a brownstone or have friends that do and they all love jazz. It wasn’t until well into my twenty year career that I realized that I was doing this or why.  The question came up in my MFA class workshop last year.  My advisor asked us to write about something that we treasure. And my short piece was about brownstones.  It was in that writing that I realized how much I loved them because so much of my life, who I am, my friends and some of my fondest memories are tied to the brownstone that I grew up in, in Brooklyn.  And as I arrived at that happy conclusion I also realized that many of my characters have a talent for music or a love of it and it was generally jazz.  My father loved jazz and in the background of my life, jazz was always playing on his stereo: Dizzy, Coltrane, Miles, Ella, Billie, Betty, Nancy all the greats.  And although I grew up with R&B, jazz was being imbued into my veins. I’m sure that my sharing of this great American musical tradition is in tribute to my dad.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Buidling a Writing Career from the Ground Up

Waaay back in a galaxy far, far away, where computers and “social networks,” were relegated to the government, big corporations and their ilk discussing how to take over the world during lunch at the 4 Seasons, (still happens) when writers tapped out their prose on typewriters, used carbon paper for copies, and connected with their readers through letters that they stuck in envelopes, put a stamp on it and mailed them—well that’s when I started writing. (Damn, how old is she? To which I respond—old enough to remember). I say all of this to say, that it has been 21 years that I have been in print—successful by some standards. But longevity was not an accident.

When I began writing, there was no such thing as  “African American” romance, or the “black section,” of a bookstore or library.  I felt very excited but very alone when my novel ROOMS OF THE HEART, was published in 1990.  At that time there was less than a handful of black romances ever published—period.  But it wasn’t long before I discovered that there were those who wanted me to succeed and that there were other writers out there just like me that wanted to be published.

One of the first people in the industry to mentor me was Carol Stacy at Romantic Times Magazine.  She was kind but blunt and wanted me to decide if I was in it to make a career or be a one-book wonder.  She got me onto the Geraldo Rivera Show as an audience member when he was discussing romances! That is where I met Sandra Kitt, the first real-live writer I’d ever known.  Sandra became my second mentor and formally introduced me into the world of writers from inviting me to her home for writer gatherings to getting me to go to one of my early writers conferences, where I ultimately met Monica Harris who would later become my editor at Kensington Publishing, whose job became Karen Thomas’ who in turn allowed me to write my first mainstream novel. In the interim the Arabesque line at Kensington was purchased by BET and three of my novels were adapted for television. Having written mainstream fiction ala Karen Thomas, that opportunity opened the door for me at St. Martins Press where I got my first hardcover contract under Glenda Howard, and then Monique Patterson.  And to come full circle Glenda is now my editor again at Harlequin.  Through it all, I worked to maintain strong professional relationships with each of them, and not only with my editors, but other writers as well.

Why am I telling you all of this? These were the building blocks of my career.  I didn’t write a book and get “discovered” and make millions of dollars.  It was a process, a process built on trust and loyalty and networking and building friendships that have sustained me for 21 years.

There isn’t anything quite as important in your writing career than forming honest relationships with industry professionals.  You do that by being a professional. By being good at what you do. By treating your writing as an art and a business and not a hobby. By being willing to take advice.  Willing to do things for others for free. By letting the quality of your name become your brand. 

If you got into the writing game to see your name in print, to get rich and famous, then this is not the business for you. As with any art, you have to love it. You have to want it. And you have to be willing to stick with it even when you don’t make the NY Times list.

What you want to ask yourself at the end of the day is: what do I want the literary world to think of me when they hear my name? The answer is up to you.

Happy writing

Beyond The Book

As a writer, you spend hours, days, weeks and months researching, writing, plotting and planning.  You have an idea for a novel that you want to share with readers.  You put your heart and soul into it. Often you sacrifice time with family and friends and time for yourself. Finally one day you write, “the end.” The sense of accomplishment (and relief) defies explanation.

If you already have an editor, you turn your precious baby over and pray that it will be treated with care. If you self-published, you have to find and editor, a printer, and a means to distribute your book. Now you can take a breath. Your book is written, your story is told. All of those hours, days and months have paid off. WRONG.  The real work has just begun.

Writing the novel is the easy part.  Getting it the attention that it deserves is where the real work comes in.  Whether you go with a traditional publisher or strike out on your own, marketing and promotion will be the difference between your “masterpiece” being read by hundreds of readers or just your best friends and family.

Even after having been in this business for more than 20 years, for me it never gets easier.  With each book the same amount—and sometimes even more—effort and enthusiasm goes into the promotion of the book.

With the book market being so tight and so competitive and continually changing, as an author, if you plan to be successful you have to keep working long after the last page is typed.

If I had my way, I would just write my books and stay in my room.  (As quiet as it’s kept, I’m really kind of shy). But I know that if I want to keep being moderately successful at this writing thing, I have to keep doing the work.  So I’ve put together a list of things that I have found to be terribly important:

Build your contact list.  Think of all the people that you know, starting with family and friends. Get email and snail mail addresses when you go to events.

Get a good-looking, functional website, easy to navigate. Not one that looks homemade with ads on the side. Wordpress has great templates.

Secure your domain name. Domainrooms is a good source and inexpensive.

Get business cards.  Try Vistaprint. You can get 500 for a few bucks.  Keep them simple. Name, contact info (email, website) .Getting business cards with a picture of your book is cute but limited.  Get cards that will work with the next book you are writing.

Join some of the online book clubs. Contribute to the conversations. Don’t just show up when you have a new book, or only post when you want to promote yourself.

Set up your Facebook account, Twitter, Shelfari and Blog.

Plan to attend literary events. (Pick and choose wisely. You can’t be everywhere)

Find out what bookstores are in your area. Make sure that they stock your book.  Offer to do a stock signing.

Stay in touch with your readers.

Tour on a budget! Do virtual tours.  They are great ways to be all over without leaving home.

Open a Skype account so that you can “visit” book clubs online.

Open a account to record readings from your novel to upload to your website.

And while you are busy promoting your new baby, get to work on its sister or brother.  If you’ve written a great book and promoted it well, your readers are going to want more.

Good luck!