Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Meet: Ravi Howard, author of LIKE TREES, WALKING

I had the pleasure of meeting Ravi Howard in Houston last year at the Go On Girl Book Club Awards Weekend. Ravi received their "New Author of the Year Award" for LIKE TREES, WALKING. He's a good writer, a nice guy and a new father!

When the phone rang at the home of Paul and Roy Deacon in the early morning hours, it often meant that someone had died. The brothers’ family owned the Deacon Memorial Funeral Home and had buried the loved ones of Mobile’s black families for over 100 years. On the morning of March 21, 1981, the call was different. The body of nineteen-year-old Michael Donald was found hanging from a tree on Herndon Avenue. The murder shook the citizens of Mobile, Alabama, especially the Deacon brothers. They had called Michael Donald a friend.

As the brothers navigate their teen years, they face familiar rites of passage; prom night, graduation, college life, but the family business forces them to confront the rites death brings, passages from this world to the next. As Roy and Paul Deacon search for solace, their journeys take them from church sanctuaries to cemeteries, protest marches to courtrooms, from the tree-lined streets of Mobile to the dark beach roads on the Eastern Shore. Added to the grief of a murdered friend, the brothers and their hometown face the first lynching in over sixty years.

Mobile had been as peaceful as its tree-lined streets were beautiful, but the murder gave the city its own sad chapter in the Alabama racial history. Like Birmingham’s four little girls, Selma’s Bloody Sunday, and Tuskegee’s experiment, Mobile had the murder of Michael Donald. In this riveting debut, Like Trees, Walking explores a fictional aftermath of a true story that will both haunt and illuminate. The novel examines death, faith, truth, and justice, elements that often intersect and at times collide. An old tale set in modern times, Like Trees, Walking explores the complexities and the promises of America’s New South.

The Q&A
White Readers Meet Black Authors: Describe your work for someone unfamiliar with it. What's your writing style like? What subjects/themes do you explore?

Ravi Howard: I was born in Montgomery, Alabama, and I learned about the history of the civil rights movement from books as well as personal narratives from folks who lived through that time. I always thought the personal stories were more interesting, even when the people telling those stories were not well known.

There was this vibrant chorus of folks who had small roles but big voices and I've tried to bring that street-level perspective to my work. I guess I consider myself a novelist that deals with grassroots histories.

WRMBA: What's your latest novel about?

RH: My novel,
Like Trees, Walking, fictionalized the story of an actual lynching that took place in Mobile, Alabama in 1981. Although the crime was central, I wanted to explore the ways that reactions to such a crime were different--or similiar-- to reactions to such crimes in the past. (You can listen to the NPR story about him doing research about the murder here.)

One of the questions I had to answer was whether this was a contemporary or a historical novel. In many ways it's both. Certainly, we have to rely on the historical record to revisit events that happened before our lifetimes. I wanted to look at how we react to things that are within our span of memory. How does the public record differ from the recollections we hear from friends and family. I looked at how those personal stories are in some ways op-eds to the historical record that sometimes misses the mark on racial violence and history.

WRMBA: What's your goal(s) as a writer? Do you set out to educate? entertain? illuminate?

RH: I would like to say all of those things are part of the mix. I look at my work like a rendition on a jazz standard. I'm not the first to take on any of my subjects, but I hope that readers can appreciate the style and approach each writer takes to commonly told stories of black history.

As black writers and poets take on history, it shows that those moments are fluid and the light we shine on them can create a wide range of images. Once history is etched in stone, I think it becomes less interesting.

WRMBA: What's next for you?

RH: I'm working on a book inspired by the Alabama roots of Nat King Cole. It's a challenging and fascinating journey.

WRMBA: What's the best book (or whose the best writer) that not enough people know about?

RH: William Henry Lewis has a great short story collection called
I Got Somebody in Staunton. (This is at least the 2nd time one of the profiled authors has recommended this book.)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

News and links

Getting Ready for the Holidays
Have you noticed the countdown clock at the bottom of the page? It counts down to National Buy a Book By a Black Author and Give it to Somebody Not Black Month. Just over a month before it's here! Poets & Writers has some suggestions. Readers, got tips on good books we should be giving folks this December? Let's get the buzz started.

Bernice McFadden is about to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the release of her novel Sugar! She has an interesting idea about how to celebrate. Sugar would also make a great NBABBABAAGITSNBM gift.

New or Upcoming Releases
Rebel Yell by Alice Randall. Shelf Awareness ran an interesting Q&A with her recently. Randall is part of an interesting and acclaimed group of writers called The Finish Party.

Feminista by Erica Kennedy, which I learned about on Twitter. I loved her novel Bling so I am very much looking forward to this one. Check out Publisher's Weekly rave review of this "bitch lit" book and ask yourselves WHY HAVEN'T WE HEARD ABOUT THIS BOOK? (Drives me batty!): "This crazed black romantic comedy from journalist and author Kennedy (Bling) charts the rocky course of Sydney Zamora, a very angry single. The Cachet magazine writer decides, at 33, that she's got to get married before her eggs sour. So her rich sister hires Mitzi Berman, a successful Manhattan matchmaker, to
find Sydney's Mr. Right. Mitzi's challenge, as she sees it, is transforming fierce feminista Sydney into a dress-wearing girly girl (says Mitzi: If you don't make some radical changes in your behavior, you will die alone). Catching Sydney's eye is the fabulous Max Cooper, the spoiled playboy heir of a department store fortune, but can her politics mix with his background? Truly, their path to connubial bliss is barbed with obstacles, charted with sarcastic glee by Kennedy, a pioneer of chick lit's naughty stepsister—bitc
h lit."

Wench by Dolen-Perkins Valdez due in January. Here's the Publisher's Weekly review: "In her debut, Perkins-Valdez eloquently plunges into a dark period of American history, chronicling the lives of four slave women—Lizzie, Reenie, Sweet and Mawu—who are their masters’ mistresses. The women meet when their owners vacation at the same summer resort in Ohio. There, they see free blacks for the first time and hear rumors of abolition, sparking their own desires to be free. For everyone but Lizzie, that is, who believes she is really in love with her master, and he with her. An extended flashback in the middle of the novel delves into Lizzie’s life and vividly explores the complicated psychological dynamic between master and slave. Jumping back to the final summer in Ohio, the women all have a decision to make—will they run? Heart-wrenching, intriguing, original and suspenseful, this novel showcases Perkins-Valdez’s ability to bring the unfortunate past to life."

Attention Book Clubs
In the November issue of Essence a black book club is pictured reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett. (I don't have any problems with them reading a white author, btw.) Anybody know of any white clubs reading a black author? If so, send me pictures! I will post them here.

And is there such a thing as interracial book clubs?

The Writer's Life
Junot Diaz talks about the moment he really became a writer (giving hope to every writer I know).

I recently experienced a dream that many writers have: seeing a book turned into a movie. I just got back from Vancouver where I visited the set of "Sins of the Mother" (based on Orange Mint and Honey), which will air on the Lifetime Movie Network, and met the cast (Jill Scott and Nicole Beharie) and crew. Pictures are here. I'll post a link to an essay I'm writing about my adventure soon.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Cybils: Children's bloggers literary awards

The Happy Nappy Bookseller reminds us to vote in the Cybils (The Children's and Young Bloggers Literary Awards.)

Author Elyse Singleton's guest post in defense of "real writers"

Bestseller on Arrival

Until recently I had never given much thought to the Mamas and the Papas. After seeing the first Oprah interview with Mackenzie Phillips, I told a friend, “Yeah, I’ve heard of them. They sang Sunday, Sunday.”

“No,” he said. Monday, Monday.”

“Oh,” I said. What I knew about the Mamas and the Papas was “Sunday, Sunday, da da da da da daor “la la la la la la,” and with that failed bit of expertise exhausted, I had not much else to say.

Phillips, the daughter of lead singer John, has led a less harmonious life even than my personal rendition of their famous song. Her High on Arrival─an autobiography that details child sex abuse, consensual adult incest, and the shenanigans of people who took illicit drugs Sunday, Monday, every other day of the week, and would have invented an eighth day to take yet more drugs were that possible—is making the electronic tongue of the TV and Internet media wag quite a bit.

But I should state I have not read Phillips’ new book and do not plan to in any situation devoid of someone coaxing me to with an assault rifle. That means for all I know, it could be Shakespearian in quality and wisdom and an experience no human being interested in literature and living a better life would want to miss. For argument’s sake, I am going to assume it is not.

What I do know about works like Phillips’ is that their easy access to huge media promotion is the bane of better but less publicized works. And I have a direct interest because I (and three or four of my friends) write less publicized but presumably better works. Of course I understand that in a free market society people take their wares to the open mart and the most effective, not necessarily the best person, wins. If Phillips had declined to mainline the media, as she has done, from a capitalist perspective, it would have been silly, like leaving money on the table. But what are the rest of us to do? I, and many of my peers, routinely grapple with ideas about self-promotion. When my novel came out in 2002, one fellow I know suggested that to draw more attention to myself I should go and find Osama Bin Laden. Also, there are savvy agents, consultants, and how-to guides that can provide instruction about low-cost ways to promote one’s book that do not require a grisly death in a mountain cave in Pakistan.

I am not proposing that writers comprise an elite magical club, nor that anyone in this life gets to choose the competition. But I wonder if it would be OK to make a special pitch for ourselves, to say, hey, folks we are real writers, who have worked and struggled years to strengthen our grasp of the art. We apologize if you are disappointed that we are not the mistress of the serial killer, not the prostitute who slept with the famous politician, not the celeb who snorted an avalanche of cocaine. We may not have solid credentials in crime, scandal, and self-degradation, but we know how to do a damn good job of telling a story, fiction or nonfiction.

And the thing is . . . absolutely any subject treated in the scandal texts has been covered by real writers, even great ones. A high-nourishment-yet-fantastically-entertaining work that, like Phillips’ bio, takes a look at the 60s-spawned drug scene, is Joan Didion’s (a great American author whose company I would never consider myself in) Slouching Toward Bethlehem. Many actual writers have weighed in on the excesses of the counter-culture, from Didion to Tom Wolfe to Sara Davidson. Unless works by such people were lost in some nuclear mishap, I cannot imagine turning to an ex-sitcom star for insight and information about a weighty social problem.

Still, good arguments exist in favor of high-profile books: They bring people into book stores, and the avid reader may make more purchases than planned. Also, as my dear friend Carleen Brice reminded me, many non-writers employ professional writers as ghosts, throwing a bit more income at our lot.

In interviews Phillips’ says she has opened a dialogue on incest. It is a subject “not talked about,” she claims. Not talked about where? In Saudi Arabia? Maybe I am suffering from false memories, but I cannot recall a time in the last thirty years when the subject was not a media hit in America.

And I do not think books are the best answer to people who rape and/or drug children. The most intelligent response is simply—prison.

What public action speaks more eloquently to child sex abuse is the recent move toward extradition of globe-trotting felon Roman Polanski. After more than 30 years, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office decided it had tired of playing patty cake with rich Mr. Short Eyes, who pleaded guilty to having relations with a 13-year-old girl.

I wish Phillips well. But I do not wish to see her book fare better that its betters. No kid deserves to experience sexual assault or to have a psychopath for a dad. In a saner world she would not have been victimized, but also she would not have a book out.

Elyse Singleton is author of This Side of the Sky and a winner of the Colorado Book Award for fiction.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Meet: Bernice McFadden

Some quick links before my conversation with novelist Bernice McFadden:

Congrats to friend of the blog Felicia Pride, whose new YA novel Patterson Heights is newly on shelves!

Martha Southgate brings together black male writers for a reading in Brooklyn. The Defenders Online writes about it.

Publisher's Weekly is launching National Bookstore Day, November 7, to celebrate indie bookstores.

The obituary for Sarah E. Wright makes me wish I had known of her work long ago.

If you have an iPhone, get the Lol Book Blogs ap and follow White Readers Meet Black Authors on your phone.

There's nothing I like better than discovering an author I haven't read who has lots of books for me to read. If author Bernice McFadden is new to you, you're in for a treat. Bernice has been an online friend since I started blogging at the Pajama Gardener, and was one of the inspirations for this blog. Blogging about her journey to get get a publisher for her literary novel Glorious (after blurbs from the likes of Toni Morrison, excellent reviews, and awards for her previous novels including Sugar, This Bitter Earth, and The Warmest December), she shared with readers, authors and wannabe authors the hard truths about publishing, especially when it comes to literary fiction. Being a creative person in a society that doesn't much value creativity is hard. Her blog made me feel not so alone and a little less crazy. Happily, the story behind the story of Glorious has a happy ending: it will be published next year by Akashic Books! In the meantime, read this Q&A and get to know Bernice and her work:

White Readers Meet Black Authors: Describe your work for someone unfamiliar with it. What's your writing style like? What subjects/themes do you explore?

Bernice McFadden: I like to think that I have a lyrical style. I enjoy history and so there is often a historical slant to my novels. I write about every day people, who once they hit the page are transformed into extraordinary characters.

My most recently published novel, entitled: Lover Man which was written under my pseudonym, Geneva Holliday. Lover Man is the sequel to my 2008 book, Seduction. The story centers around a man who I can only describe as a serial lover....(smile)

WRMBA: What's your goal(s) as a writer? Do you set out to educate? entertain? illuminate?

BM: My goal as a writer is to honor my ancestors, while writing the book that I want to read. I do hope that once the book is published that it would go on to educate, entertain and illuminate.

WRMBA: What's next for you?

BM: Next up for me is the 2010 release of my historical novel, Glorious. The novel is set against the backdrops of the Harlem Renaissance and the post-war South, and blending fact and fiction, Glorious is the story of Easter Venetta Bartlett, a fictional Harlem Renaissance writer whose tumultuous path to success, ruin and finally revival not only represents and pays homage to those gifted artists that came before me but offers a candid and true portrait of the American experience in all its beauty and cruelty.

It is a novel informed by the question that is the title of Langston Hughes famous poem: What happens to a dream deferred? Based on years of research, this heart-wrenching fictional account is given added resonance by factual events coupled with real and imagined larger-than-life characters.

WRMBA: What's the best book (or whose the best writer) that not enough people know about?

BM: I think one writer to definitely watch is William Henry Lewis (I Got Somebody in Staunton).