People meet me and expect to see Gayle or Joyce. They soon learn I’m not my characters and their stories are not my own. I’m a writer, an observer, a daydreamer. I look at people or a situation and simply imagine.
I never tell my readers what to think or feel; I just pray that my writing inspires them to do so. My characters don’t explain themselves at every turn because I want the reader to experience first-hand as they are reading.
But then, you can’t necessarily trust my characters completely. Maybe they’re lying to themselves like Denzel in FAST TALK, or they just don’t know any better, like Gayle in LIKE SISTERS. My readers are always sharper than my characters. They’re are always telling the characters a thing or two. I like that. That’s why I enjoy writing for teens. Teens think. They question.
If something bothers me for a good while, chances are, I will write about it. The story is the body, but my characters are always the soul of the novel. I usually know chapter by chapter what will happen in the novel, but I’ll wait for the character to make themselves known to me before I start writing. It takes longer for me to deliver a manuscript to Rosemary, my editor, but we’ve discovered that “getting it right” is always worth the wait.
I was born to write stories. When I’m not working, I’m daydreaming. Plotting out the next story. Listening to understand my character. Then I’ll get excited because I learned something that I didn’t know, and I start to write. And as I write I imagine someone is dying to read the story.
:::Frequently Asked Questions:::
1) When did you begin writing?
I always asked for a pencil and paper in kindergarten while my classmates colored pictures. By twelve, I was sending short stories to magazines only to be politely rejected. My family had just moved back to Jamaica, New York after a short stint in Georgia, and before that, California. My sister, brother and I weren’t allowed to play outside so I entertained myself by writing stories. I sold my first short story to Highlights Magazine at 14, and sold another to Essence magazine years later while a student at Hofstra. It was at Hofstra that I studied with Richard Price and Sonia Pilcer. The character Joyce (originally named Tawanda) in Blue Tights grew from a character sketch from my Hofstra days.
2) What inspired you to become an author?
I trace it back to the early year. Yes, year. I spent a lot of solitary time in my playpen while my sister and brother were free to explore our apartment in Far Rockaway. I didn’t have toys, just a few wooden alphabet blocks, so I had enough time to observe and contemplate. I loved stories and told them to myself because I had nothing else better to do until I was fed. As I grew older I told tall tales and read my sister and brother’s readers while I was at home waiting to go to school.
3) When did you publish your first book?
My first novel, Blue Tights, was published in the late eighties when I was thirty. The first draft of Blue Tights was written when I was twenty-two. It took many typewritten drafts to get this novel right. Twenty years later and the paperback is still in print.
4) Are any incidents in your real stories from real life?
I was once very serious about dance, which helped with writing Blue Tights. I also spent a summer selling candy door-to-door like Denzel in Fast Talk on a Slow Track. The events and characters that comprise the stories are daydream generated. I love making things up and making them credible. However, I’ve written closer to my own life in short stories. “Crazy like a Daisy” and “About Russell” come to mind.
5) Are any of your characters inspired by real people?
Often my characters evolve from some aspect of a real person or combination of people I’ve observed or have known. I try not to base a character on a real person in a strict sense. I like having the freedom to create a new character inside and out.
6) Which of your characters is most like you?
Akilah from No Laughter Here is a lot like my ten year old self. My sister, brother and I used to patrol the neighborhood park in Seaside to referee disputes and stick up for kids getting bullied. Man, we could have gotten killed! We were stirred by both Jesus and caped crusaders alike.
7) Where do your ideas come from?
I daydream, observe, listen to music, read, walk and love art. I never know what will strike me as an idea or when it will come. With NLH, it was the sound of laughter. With Every Time a Rainbow Dies, it was a controversial assault case from the late eighties. Even so, the focus of my novel changed as I learned more about Thulani and Ysa. I left my original idea behind once I knew my characters.
8) How long does it take to write a book?
For most authors, about a year, and some, even less. It generally takes authors about a year to write a good draft of a novel, then another couple of months to get it just right before submitting it to an editor. The editor then asks you to make further revisions.
For me? It takes a long time. I thought once I quit my job I would spit them out. Nah.
9) What advice do you have for young authors?
Young authors must be hungry readers. Devour everything. Novels, non-fiction, poems, plays, comic books, graphic novels, articles. Listen to and observe the world around you. Keep a journal and set fifteen minutes aside to write daily.
10) Can you read my work?
Unfortunately, I must say no. Time just doesn’t permit it. But if you’re between the ages of 12 and 19, feel free to enter your finished short stories to my short story contest. Good luck to all!
11) Do you visit schools?
If you pay me, why not? Now that I write full time I can no longer do school visits at no charge. Must keep my lights and phone on. Eating’s good too. And a roof over my head. Who doesn’t like having a warm place to stay? Like Gayle in Like Sisters on the Home Front, I hate flying, but I’m coming around. No flying in December or January.
12) Can you donate books and other items for a worthy cause?
I will try, but it’s hard out there.
13) Will you autograph a book?
If you send it, I’ll sign it. I only ask that you include enough postage for 2 Day Priority Air. These days, that’s $4.05. Do write any special instructions clearly!