Bernice McFadden: Racism in publishing "is often quite blatant"

Two novelists -- one acclaimed and one new -- talk race and publishing, writing and motherhood, and much more

Published July 1, 2014 10:58PM (EDT)

Bernice McFadden, Lauren Francis-Sharma      (Akashic Books/Macmillan Publishers/Jackie Hicks)
Bernice McFadden, Lauren Francis-Sharma (Akashic Books/Macmillan Publishers/Jackie Hicks)

I attended the Anguilla Literary Festival in late May.  It was a wonderful locale, warm and lush, to relish the love of books and writers.  While there, I got to spend time with some lovely writers, both new and experienced, and I started thinking about how lost I feel navigating this new world I’ve been invited to join since my debut novel, "'Til The Well Runs Dry," was published this spring.

So, I saddled up next to Bernice McFadden, author of 14 novels (her latest is "Gathering of Waters"), who was gracious enough to chat and offer advice.

When we were together at the Anguilla Lit Fest we chatted about motherhood -- about writing and mothering and the specific challenges of this occupation.  When Lauren Sandler suggested that perhaps having one child was ideal for a writer/mother, Zadie Smith responded that “the idea that motherhood is inherently somehow a threat to creativity is just absurd.”  But I admit that at times it’s been challenging to write as I raise two small children.  Your daughter is now in her 20s.  What do you think you had to do that was different from childless writers and different from what male writers with children have to do?

Being a single parent and a writer was challenging. I’m an all-in or nothing type of person, I’m not comfortable multitasking. Raising my daughter while writing books wasn’t always easy. Each child and novel required an immense amount of attention and nurturing and I am sure that over the years one or both suffered because I was incapable of evenly dividing my time.

I really understand that.  There are times when I feel the book doesn’t care about the fact that I have children and times when I know the children couldn’t care less about the book. You have a fascinating story from becoming an unpublished writer to a highly acclaimed author. Tell me about that first book? How old you were? How long you worked on it and how you failed then succeeded?

I published my first novel, "Sugar," in 2000. I was 34 years old and had been shopping the novel for nearly a decade.  Which means, I started work on the novel when I was 24 years old. During that time, I received over 75 rejection letters. The publishers and agents thought the book was good, but claimed there was no audience for it. That was code for: Black people only want to read one type of book and "Sugar" ain’t it.  But I refused to give up, because deep down in my heart and soul, I knew they were wrong. I knew that I had been called to write and publish and that those people who were telling me no were not my source, not my creator, so while their rejections frustrated me, they did not dampen my spirit or extinguish my dream.

Was there a point in time when you were writing your novel or shopping it that you thought about throwing in the towel?

Not with this novel, but my first book I wrote when I was 25.  And when I couldn’t get that published, I wrote another.  Then, feeling like a failure and as if writing wasn’t meant for me, I gave up. It took me 15 years to tune in again and fight through the fear of failing. Sometimes I wonder what my life would’ve been like if I had pushed through those fears.  Then, I try to remember that everything has its time. Which brings me to this question: You’ve had 14 books in a 14-year career. You told me that it wasn’t exactly a book a year, yet it doesn’t seem like you’ve given yourself a break over the years.  Is this simply because writing is your profession and you need to keep food on the table or is there something else that drives you to keep writing story after story, year after year?  When I’m not writing (now that I’ve given myself permission to be a writer), I feel overstuffed, as if I need to be released, as if I need to get it all out or I’ll explode.  Do you have that sense when you need to write?

Yes, writing is my livelihood. A livelihood that has not always paid well. Even when there was no money coming in from my writing and none being offered, I still wrote. I have at least three manuscripts that no publisher has ever seen. I write because it is a natural part of me, much like breathing. I often compare writing a novel to pregnancy. There is the slow, steady growth that goes on in my mind. When the story comes to term, I give birth.  That is when I place the first words down on paper.

Since "‘Til the Well Runs Dry" was not your first try,  what was your experience in securing an agent and finding a publisher?  Was it tedious? Easy? Frustrating?

This time I did it differently. I attended a conference (Thrillerfest, though I did not write a thriller!) and I pitched the book to agents, face-to-face.  I was dressed in my blue lawyer suit, sweating, and my voice was shaking.  I met with each agent for only two to three minutes, but I left that day with 12 requests to read either a partial or full manuscript.  A week later, the agent who I most wanted, Victoria Sanders, called and asked me to sign with her.  We worked on tightening the manuscript for some months before submitting to publishers.  Victoria wanted it to be a novel no one could say no to and, in fact, it went to auction.  I guess you could say that was easy, but after waiting for 15 years for something like that to happen and writing the novel in the middle of the night while building a home and raising my girls, it certainly didn’t feel like it was easy.

Have you started writing your second novel? If so, are you concerned about the so-called sophomore curse?

Yes, I have started and at first the “sophomore curse” never entered my mind, but the more I wrote and the more praise I’ve received for “Til the Well Runs Dry” the more it worries me.  Yet, there’s another part of me that understands that I’ve been put here now not to fail but to succeed.  And I believe that my enthusiasm for this second book, its story line, its characters, will help me overcome those fears.

If you could write "Til The Well Runs Dry" all over again, would you change anything?

Sure!  I can’t even read it from cover to cover anymore, because all I can think about is what I would change.  I’m not sure an artist can ever be completely pleased with her work.  The key is to know when to stop. And I still believe I stopped at the correct time with that story.

When I read your books, there is always a strong presence of the American South, yet there is also something so universal in your stories, so many elements that remind me of Caribbean literature.  I know that, like me, you have Caribbean heritage, but clearly you are solidly rooted in your African-American history.  What is it that draws you to write stories about this part of the world?   What do you think Caribbean culture and black Southern culture have in common?

My grandmother and her aunts and uncles all migrated from Georgia to New York and Detroit. They were a very close-knit family that came together for occasions both happy and sad. These were the people I grew up with. It was their stories that I heard told, over and over again. I believe these stories permeated my consciousness and are now revealing themselves in my novels. My paternal grandmother, Gwendolyn, was born to Barbadian parents who emigrated to America in the 1920s. Gwendolyn was very secretive, so much so that my father knew next to nothing about his father. If it wasn’t for my father sending my brother and me to Barbados for summer vacations, we would not have known much of anything about our Caribbean roots. Unlike the Southern side of my family, Gwendolyn never talked about her parents or her upbringing. I had to piece that together on my own. It’s only since I’ve reached middle age that my Caribbean elders have started sharing family history stories with me. Because of this, I suspect that someday, I might write an entire novel set in the Caribbean.

Black Americans and black Caribbeans can’t help but share cultural similarities , because we all come from the same place: Africa. You see many similarities in the foods we eat and in our music.

Yes, indeed, we do.  Tell me about race and publishing. We both landed large advances and probably the same level of excitement at our respective houses for our work.  I heard you say that your former publisher hoped you would bring in Terry McMillan sales numbers and were disappointed when you did not.  

Do you think the business today has changed when it comes to authors of color?  I think of Junot Diaz and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and how they’ve both done incredibly well (with amazing writing) and it leaves me somewhat hopeful.  Yet, Diaz himself wrote an interesting piece on the whiteness of creative writing programs. The Book Expo of America 2014 was heavily criticized for having very little diversity and in my own need to find books for my children that reflect the diverse lives of their family, I have been frustrated.  

Yet, I also must admit that in my promotion of "Til the Well Runs Dry," a book that blessedly has thus far earned great reviews and has received wonderful blurbs, I have struggled with how to get this book to shine through the information fog.  I have a cousin who waited until the sixth magazine, Family Circle, blessed the book before sending me a Facebook message saying that she was buying the book.  My own cousin!  This business is tough no matter who you are (unless you’re a reality TV star, of course) but you’ve been in it -- what will it take for people of color to get in and stay in?

Oh, I could go on for hours about race in publishing. Publishing is a small part of the larger white-dominated construct -- so it makes all the sense in the world that it would more or less operate under the guidelines that have oppressed black people for centuries. The racism is often quite blatant. Look at the prestigious literary awards; how many people of color have won them over the past 30 or so years? Same with the end of year “Best of” lists. What will it take for people of color to get in and stay in, is like asking what will it take for cops to cease from stopping and frisking black men just because they’re black men? I don’t know the answer to either question.

It can be frustrating.  Yet you write and write.  I’ve heard you say you have books no one has ever seen.  In fact, you have nine books published under the name Bernice McFadden and five books published under Geneva Holliday.  Who is Geneva Holliday?  Why does she exist? Do you have any regrets about her invention?

Geneva Holliday is my alter ego. She was born out of frustration. In 1998 when I was still receiving rejection letters for "Sugar," advising that I read what was out there, revise my manuscript and resubmit, I decided to do just that. I figured I’d get my foot in the door with my humorous erotica, position myself and then switch over to writing the literature that I’m most passionate about. But before I could finish the Geneva Holliday novel, "Sugar" was sold. I placed the unfinished GH manuscript away until 2004 when I pulled it out, finished it up and showed it to my agent who sold it in under a week.

I don’t regret inventing Geneva Holliday, because she was my sole financial support from 2007 to 2009, when no publisher would acquire my literary work. I appreciate her and thank God for sending her to me.

Do you have any interest in writing in other genres, such as YA, nonfiction etc.?

I do, but mostly they’re not serious thoughts.  I’m a fiction writer, for sure.  I spent years practicing law constrained by facts.  For me, fiction is freedom, though I love when I have to find a creative workaround for facts that are in my way. Occasionally, however, when I’m frustrated by how little is out there for my children, I think (only fleetingly) that I could write a children’s series. And I would love to write a screenplay (my first book would be a perfect movie!).

I heard you say at the Lit Fest that you don’t write every day.  When you said those words, it was extremely relieving to me, as if someone gave me permission to not feel so guilty when I’m not writing.  Yet, thousands of writers say they write every day and that seems to be the way they keep the muse present and it also seems to be the way they legitimize their work.  Did you have to give yourself permission or was there something creatively that made writing every day feel unnecessary?

When I was a much younger author, I felt guilty about not writing every day because all of the professionals said that writers write every day! But then I built a bridge and got over it! What may work for them simply did not work for me. And that was that. I used to worry about losing my muse, until I realized that my muse or muses are my ancestors and they are always with me.

Tell me about the books that you didn’t write or the ones you threw away.  Tell me about the thing that you wanted to write but didn’t because you thought it wouldn’t sell or you thought you couldn’t do it.

Yes, I have written manuscripts that no one has ever seen. I can’t explain why I wrote these novels, as they are far different from my previous and current works. But I was compelled to write these stories for a reason and so I’ve stored them away until the reason presents itself. I would never throw any of my work away and I while I’m writing I dare not think about the future of the book, whether it will sell or not. I think those thoughts (while creating) are disrespectful to the process and the characters who’ve come to populate the story.

You write about Emmett Till in "Gathering of Waters." You imagine this kiss he had just before being murdered. I love that scene. Were you nervous to write about this young boy, this historical figure, in this most intimate way, as if you knew him.

When Emmet Till showed up in the story line, no one was more surprised than I. However, I never felt nervous about writing about Emmett, because I was so familiar with the tragedy that I felt as if I did know him.

I’ve just had my first novel published and when I’m speaking to people about my book, there’s this feeling of pure exhilaration, as if I’m finally in the skin I was meant to be in, despite the fact that my hands are trembling.  When I saw you give your presentation in Anguilla one of the things I loved watching (and I see this in Toni Morrison too) is the way you command your space.  The way your body seems to occupy the stage and the way an audience is drawn to you.  Do you think you had this from the beginning or was this something you developed?  I’ve seen many authors whose words are like gold on the page fumble on the stage.  In your mind, do writers have to have these two sides?  Do you think the need to have more stage presence has increased over the 14 years you’ve been in this business?

Firstly, thank you for that compliment. My first reading 14 years ago, I was a nervous mess! For the most part, it’s become old hand. Just part and parcel of the job, so to speak. Some writers are more comfortable presenting than others. Some are natural presenters; others have to work on it. Still others will never, ever feel comfortable. It’s hard to be something you’re not. Just because you’re a great writer does not guarantee that you will be a great orator.

Perhaps it’s just me, but it seems as if it was easier to get away with not being a great orator a few decades ago.  Now, I’m not so sure.  I spend an enormous amount of time thinking about presentations and reaching my audience when I’m reading.  After "‘Til the Well Runs Dry" was recommended to moms who watch "Mad Men," I read an interview in the Paris Review of Matthew Weiner,  and I began thinking about our place in history.  And how I came of age during the full onslaught of television. How there were few rules about how much you could watch, Tipper Gore hadn’t convinced anyone to give ratings yet, and I consumed and loved television, as much as I read books, as much as I watched movies.  What are your thoughts on those other mediums? How have other mediums influenced writers?  How is the written word still relevant?

I think all those mediums are crucial for writers as it ignites the imagination and offers ideas. Personally, I’ve been inspired by a number of documentaries. One in particular, "Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson." I was so fascinated by Johnson’s story, that he became a literary vehicle in the prologue of my novel, "Glorious."

The written word is absolutely still relevant. I believe there are more people reading now than there were 20 years ago.

There are many naysayers on that issue, yet I tend to agree.  Funny business, this publishing world.  In a past life, I practiced law.  I remember my first day at Skadden Arps in New York City and how exciting it was, how intimidating it was, and I also remember feeling like I had landed on another planet.  That’s the same feeling I have now that I’m in this world of publishing, like I have to learn a new language.  Tell me about your publishing experiences.  What would you have done differently?

Publishing is a business and the writers and their works are commodities. That was a hard lesson to learn and accept. Had I understood that in the beginning, I think I would have guarded my emotions a bit more when my career took a turn for the worse, I would not have taken the shift so personally. The other thing I keep in the forefront of my mind is, A bad don’t happen — as my West Indian family says. In other words, everything, good or bad, happens for a reason and the reason is usually for a better future.

Yes, that’s true, though it’s hard to remember it, when you’re in the thick of it.  Of course, that part of publishing will never change. Yet, things are changing. Books are being serialized more and more (reminiscent of the introduction of early European novels), though they are offering entire seasons of television shows to be gobbled up in one sitting.  It makes me wonder if the powers-that-be don’t view us as the same consumers. What do you think is happening in book publishing today?  Clearly, it’s been rocked by e-books (though that is leveling off) and the unpredictable successes of many YA novels, not to mention this battle waged by and against Amazon.  Where do you think we’ll land?  What has changed in the 14 years you’ve been in this business?

I hope we’ll all land on our feet. I think the most obvious change in publishing is the number of self-published success stories that have emerged from the e-book market. When I first started out, there was a stigma attached to self-published books because many of them were not well-written or even well-edited. But that has all changed. Writers no longer need an agent or a publisher. I think it’s forcing publishers to rethink their royalty cuts and 100-page, slave-style contracts.

Writing and publishing a book was a life-long dream of yours. Now that you’ve made that dream a reality, is the experience, thus far, anything like you imagined it would be?

Yes, it’s been mostly fantastic! I have lots of pinch-me moments, because I’ve wanted this for so long and I try to remember, even on bad days, how lucky and blessed I am to have this opportunity. And when I’m in the process of writing, I feel so alive, so like myself.  Yet, like many authors, the time doing promotion is what’s been challenging. Scheduling readings, trying to get book clubs to notice the book, capitalizing on a good review.  There’s so much information coming at all of us, every day.  I fear people on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram will tire of my endless promotion, yet this is what I must do.  I have to sell books.  Imagine being in Central Park on a beautiful summer day, the sky is blue and the sun is shining, and people have their iPods, their skates, bikes, pedometers, their dogs, friends, picnic baskets and you’ve got to convince them to stop, to listen to your pitch, then to buy your book. Yikes!

What are your hopes and dreams for your career as a writer? What would you like your legacy to be?

Of course, I want to have longevity, and at the end I want to feel the way I do with "‘Til the Well Runs Dry," like the possibilities are endless.  I have always had such a vivid imagination.  I can dream about lands, worlds, conversations I’ve never experienced, just as if I’ve lived it.  And I think that’s a gift.  I’d like to be that writer who readers value because I give them an opportunity to be someplace or be with people they otherwise wouldn’t meet.  A writer who values plot as much as the development of character.  And at the end, I want to feel passion, have so much to write, that someone will have to pull me away from the keyboard.  That’s how the best writers make me feel about them.

Are there any writers who when you read their work, make you want to write more or write better or write in a different style? 

Toni Morrison, Patricia Smith ... just to name a few. They constantly blow my mind and make me want to be a better writer.

Yeah, when I say Toni Morrison it makes me feel as if people will think I’m being inauthentic.  Yet, her writing does something to me too.  Something magical.

I know that you don’t outline.  I don’t do much outlining either.  But you do know where you’re going, correct?  Many of your books have multiple points of view and characters whose lives overlap.  When I write complex stories, I find that I have to draw a map to make sure it all ties together. What’s your process?  What time of day do you write best?  Where do you work? 

I don’t always know where I’m going, because as the writer, I’m simply following my characters and jotting down their conversations, interactions and activities. Fourteen years ago, my mind was younger and sharper, able to keep up with the multitude of characters and their individual POV’s. But now, I find that I need to create a chart to keep up with names, ages and relationships.

Lately, I’ve been writing from morning through to evening. Earlier books I wrote at night. Before I sold my house, I worked in my office, on a desktop. But life is very different for me now. Presently, I have a room of my own in a house filled with loving family members. I write in a way I never thought I could: propped up in bed on a laptop. Will wonders never cease? I hope not.

Lauren Francis-Sharma is the author of the recently released novel “‘Til the Well Runs Dry.”

Bernice McFadden is author of 14 novels, including “Sugar,” “Glorious” and “The Book of Harlan,” which will be released in 2015.    

By Lauren Francis-Sharma