What is your first memory of writing?
A short story about a favorite dog from my childhood named Destry will forever be my first inspiration. Destry was a huge short-hair collie and he used to kill garden snakes in the field then chase the kids in the neighborhood with the snake dangling from his mouth.
How did you realize writing was a career you might pursue?
I kind of fell into writing because of a story that I just had to get out. I started writing So Good when I was in graduate school and was lucky enough to have the manuscript complete during the success of Terry McMillan. Once her book Waiting to Exhale proved that black people would buy books and read if the story was interesting to them publishers began looking for new black authors.
What inspires you to write now?
Everything. Whenever I’m talking to someone or reading something or watching a show various images and ideas trigger new creativity. I have many books in my mind that I will eventually complete in my lifetime.
What is the most rewarding aspect of producing a novel?
Fan response, especially when they like it and connect to it. I have fans that will still ask about my first novel So Good which was released more than 10 years ago.
How do you generate ideas for your novels?
The topics I choose are based on my own interests. I want to learn something and also enable my readers to learn. As a journalist once I choose a topic I research it for three to six months and the story and characters ultimately grow out of that research.
What themes tie your novels together, and why?
Issues that are important to African American women are the key to my novels. For example So Good, A African American Love Story explored relationships, All of Me, A Voluptuous Tale examine issues of weight and wellness in society and Colored Sugar Water tackled spirituality. Why- The most passionate writing is writing that comes from experience.
Which of your novels is your favorite?
All of Me, A Voluptuous Tale is the novel that is closest to my heart because the topic of Weight and Wellness is a personal one. However, it is difficult to choose one because they are all my babies and I love each of them for different reasons.
How do your family and students impact your writing?
People are stories. I listen and reflect during holidays with my family or when I talk to my students or hanging out with my friends. They motivate me to continue to grow.
How has your background as a journalist played into your writing?
Rather than approaching my writing with an English background, I approach it from a journalistic perspective. I choose a topic, research that topic and let the story and characters emerge from my research. I work from a flexible chapter outline because I am writing in a specific direction – toward the end. Many English teachers will say “ Let it flow”. That’s hard for me.
Has your role as an educator shaped your writing?
Definitely! In my research, I study images of and messages about African Americans in the media and that has made me very sensitive to the characters and plots I develop in my novels. I am working on a non-fiction book that will examine a theory called racialism that I have developed through my research.
What is your process of producing a book – from the initial idea to the finished product?
As mentioned earlier, the topic comes first, then research. Once I have the story and characters in mind I write a chapter by chapter outline. Then I start working on the book by writing it one chapter at a time. I like to write from an outline because it enables me to work on any chapter I want. I may write portions of chapter 5 today then skip to chapter 12 the next day depending on what I feel when I sit down at the computer.
Do you have a writing routine or favorite place to write?
I write in my home office mainly, but I have also started working on my patio and out on the deck when the weather is warm. I need peace and quiet so that I can concentrate.
How much time do you spend writing each week?
I don’t always get the chance to write every week. Because I am an associate professor at the University of Iowa I have classes, committees and other responsibilities. As often as I can I set aside two or three days a week to write. I need time to immerse myself in the project so an hour or two a day doesn’t work for me. I am very lucky not to have a nine to five job and I can take holidays and summers to focus on my writing as well.
Do you ever experience writer’s block, and how do you deal with it?
I know the cure for writer’s block – research or editing. If I am having a hard time getting started writing I simply research the topic and gather more information or inspiration. Also I can switch into an editing mode if possible in order to be productive during that time.
What are your other hobbies and interests?
I love to play Bid Whist, an African American card game. I also love movies, I’m a real critic and I evaluate plot and characters looking for stereotypes and racial myths that are perpetuated through many of today’s black films.
Is there anything readers would be surprised to learn about you?
I am a simple country girl. I love my blue jeans, with my iced tea in my calm and peaceful Iowa life.
How can readers connect to your writing?
Just keep an open mind. I like to add twists and turns. Sometimes it seems fans take things too literally. Enjoy it!
Talk about one interesting experience with a fan?
The fan in All of Me, who approaches Serpentine and tells her that too many black women are getting too fat in American, then suggests that she try baking a piece of fatback in the oven for various time periods to see that all she needs to do is increase the heat in her body to lose weight was a true experience.
What other authors have inspired you?
Contemporary authors include Tina McElroy Ansa , J. California Cooper and Laura Esquizel. Historical authors include Zora Neal Hurston, Chinua Achebe and Octavia Butler. Check out my favorites section.
What is your advice to aspiring writers?
Write! Get it down on paper. So many people have great novels in side of them but they never get it out and that is truly sad.