Tananarive Due contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
I've come across only one other person named Tananarive.
Like me, she was born in Tallahassee, Florida. Like me, her parents attended Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, a historically black college. I can't believe that's a coincidence.
My mother, who died in February of 2012, told me the story of my name often: When she was in college, she took a course in contemporary Africa taught by a professor named Dr. William Howard. There, she learned about the capital city of Madagascar, then the Malagasy Republic, which was called Tananarive--the meaning, I've read in recent years, is "Land of a Thousand Warriors." My mother thought the name was so musical that she vowed she would bestow her daughter with it one day, and she remembered it a few years later.
But in the time between the class and my birth, she had forgotten how to spell Tananarive, so she spelled it this way--T-A-N-A-R-I-V-E--with two letters missing. Ever the perfectionist, however, she called her former professor and learned of her mistake, so she crossed out the spelling on my original birth certificate and replaced it with the correct spelling.
Over the course of my life, the name has been the source of much frustration, ridicule, and, at last, pride. It has also led me to a couple of major coincidences. The first was when I attended an Atlanta book event and met a screenwriter named Gregory Allen Howard, who wrote the Denzel Washington movie Remember the Titans. He excitedly told me that his uncle was the Dr. William Howard who originally taught my mother the name, and that he, too, had heard the story of its origin from his uncle.
By then, I had made peace with my name. As a child, I'd taken solace in my ability to point out the name Tananarive on world maps and globes, impressing classmates and teachers alike. I even recovered from the shock of flipping open my atlas and learning that my precious name had been changed to ... Antananarivo! (I can appreciate the nation's post-colonial convictions now, but at the time, it was a robbery.)
By adulthood, the elementary school days of "Tanana Banana" or flustered teachers simply calling me "Miss Due" were long behind me, and I had consoled myself with the knowledge that my name was at least unique. I was the only one.
Then, in 2008, my bubble burst when I received an e-mail from a woman with my identical first name, but a wholly common last name. She might as well have been called Tananarive Smith. "Dear Tananarive," she wrote, introducing herself, and then signed it, improbably: "Tananarive."
My immediate response was disappointment; perhaps a flicker of outrage. But then, upon hearing that she also had been born in Tallahassee, the child of FAMU alumni, that disappointment turned to intrigue.
At least it wasn't random. Certainly there must be some connection between us.
Although she is younger, I imagine that one of her parents also took Dr. Howard's course on contemporary Africa and was equally smitten by the name's lyricism. Or, perhaps one of her parents had an encounter with my mother, or had heard about my birth (which was announced in Jet magazine) and been inspired.
We are virtual strangers, but we are linked by the name.
Linked by a university with a history of creating social change.
Linked by our parents' spirit of bold creativity.
My name, after all, is long enough to share.
It was the day of my eighth-grade parent-teacher conference, and I was petrified. My parents were about to meet with my algebra teacher, Mr. Kuett, and the news couldn't be good.
Math and I didn't get along. I'd been a straight-A student until the sixth grade, when Math first revealed itself as my lifelong foe. I'd weathered my humiliating D in the seventh grade; still reeling from the shock of that, by the time I arrived in Mr. Kuett's class, I wasn't even trying. I tried to be inconspicuous as I sat at my desk and doodled stories in my notebook. (Most of my junior high school work was "fan fiction" about the television show Emergency! and my adolescent crush, Johnny Gage, aka actor Randolph Mantooth. My stories were much darker and more explicit than anything that would have been allowed on network television, however. Let's just leave it at that.)
Mr. Kuett reported that my homework was spotty, and instead of listening to his instructions, I sat at my desk writing stories all period long. Then, inexplicably, he grinned. "But that's all right," he said, shrugging. "She's going to be a writer, not a mathematician."
That might have been the first time I'd heard one of my teachers say that I was going to be a writer. I can't recall whether or not his assessment saved me from punishment, but it offered me the validation every young writer craves.
I wouldn't be published until 1995, but I wrote my first book, Baby Bobby, in 1970. I was four years old. Like all self-published preschoolers must, I folded blank typing paper in half and filled the pages with stick figures and captions.
"Baby Bobby is in his crib," one page proclaimed. "Baby Bobby is drinking from his bottle," said another. And so on. Most significant was the back page, where I wrote my version of a synopsis and author bio: "Baby Bobby is a book about a babby. [sic] The auhtor [sic] is Tananarive Due."
Never mind that I'd misspelled "baby" and "author." Somehow, at the age of four, I understood the need to declare myself. I was an author. Strange as it sounds, that declaration steered my life. Self-identifying as a writer at such a young age lent me such tremendous focus that I'd created a self-fulfilling prophecy.
My parents were very supportive, especially my mother, who photocopied Baby Bobby and distributed it to all of our family friends. I have known writers--including the late Octavia E. Butler and my husband, Steven Barnes--whose families were mostly baffled and worried by their literary aspirations. I have often wondered how much I would have pursued writing if not for the absolute certainty that it pleased my parents. Could I have nourished that flame alone? All children are programmed to love their parents, but my admiration for my parents was bottomless.
In my eyes, my parents had helped to change the world. My parents were the first storytellers in my life, and their story had a tremendous impact on mine.
John Due and Patricia Stephens Due met in 1960 at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, where my mother was an undergraduate and my father was a law student. Theirs was anything but a traditional courtship. By the time they met, my mother already had been in jail and on a national civil rights speaking tour, and my father had left Indiana to join the growing movement in the South. He remembers reading about my mother's arrest in Jet magazine, a deciding factor in his decision to apply to Florida A&M. Change was too slow in the Midwest; he wanted to be on the front lines.
Mom was a product of the segregated South, having been raised in Belle Glade, Florida. Her mother was a homemaker and community volunteer, and her stepfather was a school principal; at one time, he was her high school band director, nurturing her love for classical music and the trumpet. Despite the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954, she never attended an integrated school, which she felt bitterly disappointed about. (She graduated from high school in 1959.) Change was also too slow for her.
My mother had always been a woman of action, a trait that defined her in my mind as a young person. And she'd always shared her stories with me and my two sisters, Johnita and Lydia. As I said of her at her memorial service: She didn't tell a story once or twice. She told a story ten times--twenty times. She told a story so you would remember it. Through the example of their past, as well as daily life, my parents taught us not to be satisfied with the status quo, and that individuals could make a profound difference in the world.
Like most of the young people who would embrace the civil rights movement of the 1960s, my parents didn't enter college with the notion that they would be at the forefront of national agitation against racial discrimination. They envisioned themselves simply going to school and getting their degrees as generations before them had.
But then, in 1960, students at North Carolina A&T State University staged the first sit-in at a Woolworth lunch counter, and my mother saw a clear path to something she could do to improve the world. My mother and her sister, Priscilla, had attended a workshop sponsored by CORE (the Congress on Racial Equality) in the summer of 1959, enticed by a family friend who offered them a free dinner if they attended--and there, my mother had first met a reserved young man named Martin Luther King, Jr., who had launched to the national consciousness as the leader of the Birmingham bus boycott of 1955-56. My mother had known who Dr. King was, but she was never overly impressed with individuals for their accomplishments--however, she was electrified by CORE's nonviolent tactics and procedures designed to create instant results.
Inspired by the North Carolina students, Mom and Aunt Priscilla organized similar sit-ins in Tallahassee, Florida, where they had started their own small CORE chapter by knocking on doors in their dormitory at Florida A&M University. Several FAMU students picked a Saturday when they didn't have classes and staged their own sit-in, bringing schoolbooks to study while they sat at the counter and waited to be served. A local housekeeper also joined the group, risking her job to be present, as did a high school student who was the son of a local activist minister, Rev. C.K. Steele.
"What are you niggers doing in here?" the woman behind the counter told them, but they refused to move. The white crowd grew agitated and hostile, calling them names. Woolworth called the police, and the sit-in participants were arrested.
Weeks later, at a peaceful protest march while she awaited trial, a police officer threw a teargas canister directly into my mother's face. A stranger told her not to rub her eyes and shepherded her to a church where other students were whimpering and crying. From that day, she always wore dark glasses even indoors because of her sensitivity to light. My whole life, it was rare to see my mother's eyes.
My mother was a public speaker and bold activist, subjecting herself to arrest at least a dozen times. My father, a law student, studied the movement and chronicled civil rights activities in Florida and Mississippi. He helped spearhead the tactic of moving civil rights cases from state to federal court, and once represented Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., after an arrest in St. Augustine, Florida. My father is as quiet and reflective as my mother was vocal and fearless, but they were united in their vision of equality.
They married on January 5, 1963. Three years later, to the day, I was born.
While my sisters and I knew we would never go to jail for ordering a hamburger at a public lunch counter, we were told to expect to work twice as hard to get half as far. Rather than feeling discouraged, my sisters and I felt the hopes and dreams of the slaves as the wind that powered our sails. My parents, after all, had helped change the face of the world by not backing down and by singing "We Shall Overcome," without a single act of violence, even as violence was committed against them. Nothing was impossible.
The era of Alex Haley's Roots also gave me a sense of purpose. During the time the novel and television mini-series swept the country, I grew curious about my own family history. My father and great-grandmother told me a story of the founding of a historic settlement in Indiana called Lyles Station, where my forebears had moved after a violent attack from white neighbors jealous of their success as farmers. I was so electrified by the story that I created a class project called "My Own Roots," and my father drew illustrations of the battle of the round house and the wagon train to help illustrate it. One of my first attempts to write long fiction, Lawdy, Lawdy, Make Us Free, was about a young girl's experience during the Middle Passage.
When I was fourteen years old, a riot in my home town of Miami changed my future as a writer. In 1980, a black motorcyclist named Arthur McDuffie eluded police when they tried to pull him over for a traffic stop. McDuffie led a dozen officers on a high-speed chase before coasting to a stop for arrest, as if to say, "You got me." Police, in a pack, then used heavy flashlights to beat him, and he later died of his injuries. In an ensuing cover-up, police tried to make it look like McDuffie had received his injuries when his motorcycle "crashed." But a newspaper reporter uncovered the story, and manslaughter charges were brought against several officers.
At trial, all of the officers were acquitted by an all-white jury. Jurors explained that they didn't know which blow had caused McDuffie's death, so all of the officers were set free. That night, Miami began to burn.
I felt enraged and helpless. I had a nightmare about the Arthur McDuffie slaying and the Miami riots years later, when I was a grown woman and watched the drama play out again with Rodney King and the L.A.P.D. My wounds at the injustice were deep.
When my mother and sisters went to a demonstration protesting the verdict, I asked if I could stay at a friend's house. I had a migraine. I wanted to watch a new comedy movie, The Nude Bomb. After being raised by civil rights activists, I already had been to enough protests and marches to start believing they might not make a difference. Maybe the old mojo of the 1960s was gone.
In the 1980s, racism had a new face that might be harder to fight. I was only fourteen, but I was tired already.
That protest meeting turned into a riot. My friend and I watched stories on the news about cars being overturned and burned after angry residents took over the once-peaceful demonstration. Luckily, my mother and sisters made it to safety. My father, a county government employee, worked his phones to try to organize the community back to order.
As the days went on, the lives of blacks and whites were lost. The stories were terrible: A white motorist had his tongue cut out. An armed truckload of white men looked for black rioters to shoot. As smoke rose over the city, it draped Miami with a sense of hopelessness.
One day, I was sitting in my junior high school cafeteria, listening to a sterile Muzak version of pop music the administration was piping in to keep the students calm. A tri-ethnic school like mine--white, black and Hispanic--probably looked like a racial brushfire waiting to happen. But in truth, no one seemed to be thinking about the riots that day ... except me.
I hated the Muzak. I hated the reason the school was playing the Muzak. I hated the idea that people of different colors couldn't ignore their differences, felt superior and inferior to each other, couldn't even have lunch without having to be reminded of hatred and violence.
I had a headache. My chest was tight. I wanted to scream.
Instead, I started to write. "I want to live," I wrote, "in a society where Jew is no longer a dirty word. And no one remembers what 'nigger' used to mean."
It was part poem, part essay, about a place I wanted to escape to. I wrote about a perfect world, a Heaven that would make our world look like Hell. I had always loved writing, but I had never applied my writing to a wound like a bandage, or a tourniquet, to slow down the bleeding. That was the first time I realized that writing might one day save my life. My mother told me that if more people had known how to write essays like mine, they might not be outside rioting and getting shot.
I later turned that essay into a speech that won me national honors at a NAACP academic competition called ACT-SO, the Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics. I met young people from around the nation who inspired me to achieve, including a young man from my own Miami team who built a bionic arm. Chicago newspaper columnist Vernon Jarrett, a cofounder of the ACT-SO program, became a beloved mentor. I have never forgotten his commitment to young people, and his burning desire to make sure we understood the power of our history.
But most of all, the "I Want to Live" essay experience showed me that I had the power to control my emotions, give language to the inexplicable, and paint a portrait of hope. I could navigate life's seas with words.
My next blessing was the support and sound advice of teachers. In fifth grade, Mrs. Abramowicz read my stories about Cris Manning, Wonder-Boy aloud to the class. In the tenth grade, my English teacher, Mr. Kaplan, read a 200-page hand-written manuscript because I asked him to tell me what he thought. In eleventh grade, my English teacher, Mrs. Estaver, was rumored to be a writer herself. When I told her my life's dream, she gave me a piece of advice I have carried in my bloodstream ever since: "In order to be a writer," she said, "you have to wallpaper your wall with rejection slips."
I'm grateful to Mrs. Estaver to this day for that advice because I believe it's the single most important lesson a writer should know. Mrs. Estaver didn't say I should expect one or two rejection slips--she said I would have to wallpaper my wall with rejection slips. That picture in my sixteen-year-old consciousness didn't magically make my skin any thicker or my ego less fragile--but it gave me a tangible visualization of how difficult the road ahead would be. I just nodded and thought, "OK, then," the way I would have felt if someone had said that in order to get across that river, I would have to swim all day and all night. I knew I would have a lot of work ahead.
I couldn't wait to start collecting my rejection slips. My first one came in high school, from a magazine then called Young Miss. Taking Mrs. Estaver's advice to heart, I taped the rejection slip to my wall. Each day, when I looked at it, instead of being filled with disappointment, the sight of that rejection slip made me feel that I was, at last, on my way. I have collected rejection slips from some of this nation's finest publications. Through college and beyond, all of my rejection slips were taped to the back of my door, in rows. In the years between high school and my first publication when I was twenty-eight, there were times I despaired and doubted, but Mrs. Estaver took the sting out of my rejection slips for a very long time.
As a freshman in college at Northwestern University, the biggest revelation in Janet Desaulnier's fiction-writing workshop was that I wasn't learning how to be a writer--according to Janet, I already was a writer. My other significant writing instructor at Northwestern was the late Sheila Schwartz, who later married author Dan Chaon, one of my contemporaries in school. While studying under Sheila, I expanded a short story I'd begun in Janet's class into a novella I called Different Blood, about a young boy whose loyalties are caught between his long-suffering mother and his older brother, whom she turns in to the police. Sheila was so excited about my novella that she encouraged me to begin submitting it.
I did. I sought out young adult publishers and, lo and behold, I received a glowing rejection from one editor who encouraged me to expand my novella to novel length so that she could consider publishing it.
I tried, but I couldn't do it. At the time, I told myself I could never be convincing writing a novel-length story in the inner city because the story did not resemble my life. Perhaps that's true. But in later years, I believe my inability to complete that book was far simpler than that: I choked. I was close enough to touch my dream, and I gave myself a reason not to try.
I would not publish a book for many years after that.
Although I took creative writing workshop classes at Northwestern, my primary major was journalism. I knew that the starving artist model wasn't going to work for me--I needed a skill that would lead to immediate employment.
Also as a result of those 1980 riots, my hometown newspaper, the Miami Herald, started a high school internship for minority students to try to bolster the number of minority journalists on its staff. I was one of the first students hired. I was fifteen.
By sixteen, I'd published my first front-page story, based on an anecdote I'd heard in my high school hallway: Someone had stolen a watch from the band director's son in the locker room, and the entire Spartans football team chased him out across the field to apprehend him. My editor loved the anecdote so much that she asked me to write it up, and it appeared on page 1A.
In college, I took internships at the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. I was so intrigued by business writing that I spent a summer writing for the business desk at the Miami Herald, and there I had an encounter I never forgot. One day, I was chirping to one of the veteran reporters that I was going to work for the newspaper by day and work on my fiction by night. He listened patiently, looked at me wistfully and said, "Oh, yeah--I used to want to be a writer."
The comment stunned me. Until that moment, it had never occurred to me that one could have wanted to be a writer in the past tense. Either you were driven by the compulsion to make up stories and commit them to paper or you weren't. Could I one day say the same thing?
Not me, I vowed. That reporter did me a favor. By showing me a possible future if I did not stay vigilantly on my path, he gave me emotional tools to keep writing.
After I graduated from Northwestern, I spent nine months overseas studying English and Nigerian literature at the University of Leeds in England as a Rotary Foundation Scholar. I grew enchanted with the fiction of Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ben Okri, and other African writers. There, I made a lifelong friend from India and flirted with the idea of living in Africa to teach English. But before I could navigate my way through the bureaucracy of find a job overseas, I got a phone call from editors at the Miami Herald offering me a full-time job in a suburban bureau. My aunt, who had gone to jail with my mother, called me in the middle of the night begging me not to take the job, telling me that I would never again live overseas if I came home so soon. By the time I got off of the phone with her, I was in tears. I knew she was right.
But I accepted my first full-time job at the Miami Herald, literally working for the same editor I'd worked for in high school, Susan Burnside. And, thanks to the business writer who had shown me a glimpse of a possible future, I was a reporter by day and a fiction writer by night.
While in graduate school, I had enjoyed the short fiction of Ian McEwan, admiring the way his stories in In Between the Sheets took so many creative chances, like his story "Tales of a Kept Ape," about a woman married to an ape--told from the ape's point-of-view. Brilliant!
I undertook an exercise to imitate him with a short story called "Amusement," about a screenwriter who is desperate to keep the fading interest of his girlfriend, so he introduces her to a crew member who is rumored to be a eunuch. My writing style was nothing like McEwan's, but the exercise opened me up creatively.
With the help of a no-holds-barred edit from a writer friend of mine from Northwestern, Robert Vamosi, "Amusement" became my first short story sale, to a magazine called the Writers' Bar-B-Q. But weeks after my highest achievement as a writer, I had my greatest disappointment--the magazine wrote me to let me know that it was going out of business before I could be published! "Amusement" went into a drawer. (I would not publish that story until years later, in a horror anthology.)
Like much of the fiction I wrote as a young adult, the protagonist of "Amusement" was a white male--my version of the "everyman" character I had been writing different versions of since my junior high school days of depicting Johnny Gage from Emergency! In graduate school, I'd begun a novel called Separate and Related, about a gay white male New York playwright dying of leukemia who decides to spend the last months of his life trying to heal his fractured relationship with his older brother.
As I often tell writing students, there is value to the phrase Write what you know.
I was not a white male, I was not gay, I had spent only one summer in New York, I'd never had a major illness, and I didn't have a brother. I was nowhere to be found in my own story--and, as a result, I eventually lost interest in it. (I also found myself writing the story at the start of the AIDS epidemic, and it suddenly seemed irrelevant to write about a gay man dying of leukemia in the AIDS era. But I didn't want to write an "AIDS story" either, since I was afraid that the disease would overshadow my story of estranged brothers.)
But even as I began to realize I would never finish writing Separate but Related, I was heartened to note the sharpening of my writing skills apparent with each new page. The exchanges between my playwright and his lover, and his brother, were the most sophisticated writing I had ever done.
Instinctively, however, I realized that I wanted to continue to hone my skills in short fiction rather than novel form. I wrote a series of short stories while I worked at the newspaper, including the aforementioned "Amusement."
I was so close to a sale, but not quite.
When I tried to write black characters, they often were similar to the characters in my ill-fated novella, feeling unconvincing to me because I had not had an inner-city experience. Most of the black American authors I'd admired--writers such as Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Alice Walker, and Gloria Naylor--wrote about characters whose experiences had been very different from my own. I'd been born in the South, but I'd never had a rural life. I had grown up comfortably middle-class in the suburbs, an experience I'd never seen described by a black author in fiction.
But I slowly came to realize that I needed to write characters more like "me."
Two major aspects of my life had gone largely unexplored in my fiction--my reality as a middle-class black woman in an integrated environment ... and my love for horror and the supernatural.
But that was about to change forever.
One day in my undergraduate fiction workshop, we were asked to name our favorite writers. When it was my turn, I said, "Toni Morrison and Stephen King."
I'd seen the nods of approval when I mentioned Toni Morrison, but my classmates' faces froze with horror, it seemed, when I mentioned King's name. That was my first understanding of the delineation between so-called "literary" and "commercial" fiction that is so prevalent in college writing programs. My classmates couldn't believe that I had named a best-selling author within those hallowed halls.
Just as I loved the richness, texture, and history in Morrison's writing, I also loved the characters and addictive story lines in King's. I felt no need to separate their work into categories, or to disdain King because he sold millions of copies on a regular basis. Both writers intrigued, challenged, and horrified me.
But that was when the seed was planted: If I wrote popular fiction, or genre fiction--or anything except quiet stories--I would not be respected. My creative writing instructors were top-notch, and each changed my life, but I never took a writing class that taught plot or story structure, for example--the approach as natural as breathing in a screenwriting course. Issues of plotting, I think, are often considered the realm of the commercial writer, and M.F.A. and similar workshop courses stress language, poetics, and character development (which many screenwriters could stand to learn more about).
In the years since then, I have come to believe that the ideal approach to teaching writing would be a combination of the fine-tuning and poetics from the M.F.A. course and the attention to plot and structure in a screenwriting course. I believe that approach would send more young writers into the world equipped to write stories they can sell, either as short stories or novels. It would also help mitigate the disdain young writers often feel when they imagine the life of a best-selling writer--when, ironically, most writers would love nothing more than to support themselves from their writing. Perhaps my classmates considered King's writing a guilty pleasure, not imagining that he, like Morrison, would also withstand the test of time. Perhaps they had absorbed attitudes, or come to class with their own, that quality and success were somehow mutually exclusive.
All I know for certain is that I paid attention to that reaction, and it had an impact on my development as a writer. My friend Robert, a self-described fiction writer, considered himself in enemy territory from the start, finding ways to test his classmates' bias against genre writing, which he pointed out to me.
I did not have a clear understanding of what a "genre writer" was. Unlike Rob, I had never published a short story when I was in college. Unlike the man I would later marry, I had not had exposure to conventions and organizations dedicated to science fiction and fantasy writing. Rob was the first person to introduce me to the names Octavia E. Butler and Harlan Ellison, two giants in the field, but I would not read either writer until years later. (If I'd read Butler's Kindred or Mind of my Mind by the time I was in college, I would have found a welcome alternative to the rural Southern fiction or gritty urban fiction I had assumed were the black writer's sole domain.) In fact, aside from a stray short story or poem here and there, I never wrote what I now know is called "speculative fiction." Despite my love for King and the classic horror movies my mother exposed me to, by college it had never occurred to me to write about the supernatural.
And my classmates' reactions to Stephen King's name all but assured that I would not for years afterward. I graduated from Northwestern and the University of Leeds with a lack of interest in or desire for genre writing. I typically wrote about black schoolboys and white men and women facing family or personal crises.
One of my best unpublished short stories during my time writing fiction as a reporter at the Miami Herald was a piece called "Oscar's Mouth," about a young woman who believed she was the reincarnation of Oscar Wilde, which, in truth, was an exploration of the painful phase in my life when I was only attracted to men I knew would never be attracted to me in the same way. I had gay male friends I developed crushes on, more than once sparking intrigue that bewildered even them--and then their crushes faded. I read that story at a private gathering of friends, where I was admired and encouraged. But it never sold.
I wrote about a white playwright hiding from his grief over the death of his son with his whirlwind social life on South Beach, from the point-of-view of a girlfriend terrified to tell him she is pregnant. Influenced by the Franz Kafka I loved so much in graduate school, I wrote about a man's unusual cat-and-mouse relationship with his biographer. Rejection slip after rejection slip came to my mailbox, and I dutifully taped them to my wall--although without the joy of accomplishment I'd once felt that I was following Mrs. Estaver's advice and actually submitting my fiction.
After my ill-fated experience with The Writers' Bar-B-Q, I began to wonder if I would ever sell a short story. Although I'd equipped myself with a modest two-bedroom apartment that gave me an office I could dedicate to my craft (since I was a slob, my writing needed a room of its own), I feared that I wouldn't become a writer after all.
Then came 1992.
Four years after I finished grad school and started working as a reporter, South Florida was devastated by Hurricane Andrew. Often, life represents itself as a coin that can be flipped from side to side; a devastating event and a life-changing opportunity, both arriving at once.
Hurricane Andrew was my first.
After playing peek-a-boo with weather forecasters for days, Hurricane Andrew landed on South Florida's shores with deadly winds that left mile after mile looking like a bombed-out war zone. The Cutler Ridge area in South Dade, where I had grown up, sustained some of the worst damage. Only months before, with my mother's help and encouragement, I had bought a small townhouse in the northern part of the county, closer to my job, but my parents, grandmother, and aunt still lived in South Dade.
I was at a convention for minority journalists called Unity when Hurricane Andrew began its march toward the shore, and as a new homeowner, I was desperate to return to Miami to try to secure my property. I arrived on one of the last incoming flights, where the only other passengers, it seemed, were journalists. I remember one nationally known journalist who arrived with me, complaining about the upheaval the unexpected story assignment had created in her life; in a growing daze, I told her I lived in Miami and didn't know what to expect, and she fell silent.
Miami International Airport was on the verge of closing. There were no taxis, no shuttle buses. I'd paid for a round-trip ticket on the shuttle, but I couldn't reach the company. I also hadn't told anyone in my family I was flying back home, so no one was waiting for me at the airport. (My mother was upstate at a civil rights conference and my father was at my grandmother's house.) I tried dialing everyone in my family; the lines were busy. I was feeling a growing sense of panic when I dialed my own telephone number--and my ex-boyfriend picked up the line. Ivan Roman still had my key and had fled to my townhouse for shelter with a friend because they lived on Miami Beach, where forecasters had predicted flooding. I had never been happier to hear his voice!
"Don't worry, Tanana," he said. "We brought in your patio furniture and taped up your glass door. I'll come get you."
It was still a bright, sunny day. As people say, there wasn't a cloud in the sky. Later, I would describe those clear skies in my novel The Living Blood, where a hurricane represented the manifestation of the ultimate evil: There hadn't been a single cloud visible, since hurricanes chased clouds away in the bands around them, creating their own form of deception.
Hurricane Andrew chugged through South Florida like a train. We lost power and marveled at green-colored lightning, but the damage in my area was mild. Thirty miles south, my aunt was screaming in her upstairs closet while her house flew apart around her. She, like scores of her neighbors, lost a part of her roof. My grandmother was so terrified during the hurricane, she developed a fear of thunderstorms that lasted the rest of her life. When my mother braved the littered roads to try to drive back home in the days afterward, the entire neighborhood was so devastated that the landmarks were gone, and she could barely find her way. My favorite climbing tree was still standing, but the house had sustained so much damage that my parents had to move out for a year while it was repaired.
In those first days, my cousin, Muncko, and his wife, Carol, flew in from Hawaii to help patch roof damage on my parents' house and his mother's, sleeping on my parents' floor at night in Miami's sweltering heat. National Guardsmen from other regions had also been deployed to help residents cope with hurricane damage. Suddenly, South Dade had turned into a refugee center. I remember standing with my grandmother in a feeding line, filled with rage and sorrow that had nowhere to go.
It was also a tense time, with a fear of looters as residents felt vulnerable. Many people had spray-painted LOOTERS WILL BE SHOT on the plywood nailed across their broken windows. One night, after a radio report that a black man in a white van had stolen weapons, the police swarmed my parents' home at night, drawn by my uncle's white van in my parents' driveway. I got a phone call in the middle of the night from my cousin's wife because my mother had directed her to call me as an outside witness, a holdover from her civil rights training.
After my mother went outside wearing only her slip for a tense standoff with a dozen Florida Highway Patrol officers, the situation resolved itself. But my world, it seemed, had gone mad. I no longer recognized it. Was it all a bad dream?
Thus were planted the seeds of my first horror novel idea about a never-ending bad dream. But the idea didn't come fully to consciousness until a random newspaper assignment in the weeks after Hurricane Andrew.
Author Anne Rice was scheduled to appear in Miami to promote her newest vampire novel, and my editor assigned me to read the book and conduct a phone interview. Tale of the Body Thief was my first Anne Rice novel, and I was intrigued. But in addition to reading the book, I also researched other profiles about Rice, including a New York Times Magazine cover that reinforced my earlier reluctance to write supernatural fiction myself. Critics were asserting that Rice was wasting her talents writing about vampires.
My chance encounter with Anne Rice came at an important moment in my development as a writer. I was creating professional level fiction, but I hadn't found my voice enough to make my writing stand out. I'd suffered a life-altering episode and was ripe to vent about it, but I still had my creative brakes on because of my unconscious fear that if I wrote what was in my heart, I would not be respected as a writer.
So I did what many journalists do when they interview other writers: I fashioned some of my interview to answer my own personal questions, seeking answers that might help me navigate that magical passage between published and unpublished writer.
"How do you respond to criticism that you're wasting your talents writing about vampires?" I asked, phrasing the question in textbook Journalism 101 style.
It was a telephone interview, so I couldn't see Rice's face. But I heard her laugh.
"Oh, that used to bother me, but it doesn't anymore," I remember her saying. "My books are taught in universities." Then she went on to describe the virtues of the lofty themes often pondered in writing about the supernatural, which I quoted in my November 19 article for the Miami Herald:
"Everybody knows who Jane Eyre is. Mary Shelley, everybody knows who she is, and everybody knows who Frankenstein's monster is. These are great, powerful, heroic images that really allow you to go outside of yourself, to really talk about questions that change you. ... That's what Homer did for people who went down to the corner tavern to listen to him. They didn't know Achilles, they didn't ever see the walls of Troy, but they sat there and listened to him talk about these enormous heroes and these enormous conflicts. And it was not just escape, but it was an escape that improves you. You go back feeling different, and that's what literature should do."
I was electrified. I cast off my doubts.
Within weeks, perhaps days, I began writing my first novel, The Between. I remember writing my sister Johnita a letter to ask what she thought about me writing a horror novel.
The story mirrored, in many ways, my experience with Hurricane Andrew: a man cheats death as a child and is forever pursued by death in his dreams. He wakes in a series of alternate realities, none of them seeming quite real. The protagonist was a black man whose rural history mirrored my mother's, but who was raising his family in a middle-class, integrated neighborhood like the one I had grown up in. He was male, but he was more like me than any character I had written thus far.
I didn't know it then, but The Between would become my first published fiction.
I had to restructure my life to make room for a task as consuming as a novel. No more rollerblading on Ocean Drive after work. No more sleeping in. No more concerts. No more movies with friends. No more television. My cable was turned off for lack of payment during the nine months I worked on that book, and I barely noticed.
Since I was a trained journalist, I'd given myself a deadline: a screenwriting fellowship in Los Angeles with a deadline of December of 1993. I didn't want to be a screenwriter, although I remember asking screenwriter Stuart Kaminsky the best way to become a screenwriter when he made an appearance at Northwestern, and he said it was to write novels that got optioned for film. I didn't particularly want to take a year off from my job if I won the fellowship, either. But it gave me a concrete goal, a reason to make sacrifices. On that level alone, it worked.
I finished the book in time and submitted it to the contest. I didn't win.
I also asked a coworker of mine to show it to his powerhouse agent at International Creative Management (ICM), and she passed. As far as I knew, I had written another unpublished piece of fiction that would be for my eyes only. I was improving, but I wasn't "there" yet. I mistakenly believed that a screenwriting committee's lack of interest and a single agent's inability to see where she would sell it meant that the novel wasn't good enough to publish. I put The Between in a drawer with my other work.
I began writing my second novel--My Soul to Keep.
Since I had opened my mind to writing about the supernatural, the idea for My Soul to Keep came to me easily: a Miami newspaper reporter realizes that her husband is a 500-year-old immortal, and he has sworn a secrecy vow that threatens their family. Pieces of that story had been nibbling at the edge of my consciousness since high school.
In high school, I'd written a poem called "The Eternal Man," about a man who had survived several wars and outlived his wives and children. Since it was written during the Cold War and fear of nuclear war, my last stanza was: I need not worry for this planet, you see / My tired feet need no place to stand. / I'll float or I'll wander or I'll drift out in space, / For I'm the eternal man.
Its complementary inspiration was a rare fantasy short story I'd written sometime during my early twenties, titled "The Anniversary." On the day of her fifteenth wedding anniversary, a woman is watching her husband pack his bags--he'd always said he would leave after fifteen years, and he is following through. They have had a perfect marriage, with a trunk full of photographs to chronicle their happy union, so she cannot understand why he's planning to go. But she does realize that he never aged and never got sick a day of their marriage.
My male narrator in "The Eternal Man" became Dawit.
My female narrator in "The Anniversary" became Jessica.
My Soul to Keep was born.
I remember wondering how I would begin such a daunting writing assignment, since the character of Dawit, once again, was nothing like me. How could a woman in her mid-twenties be convincing writing about a 500-year-old man? I remember thinking about the saying, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." I broke Dawit's history into more bite-sized pieces, concentrating on his history in the Ethiopia of the Middle Ages, the Antebellum slavery period in the United States, and the jazz age in Chicago in the 1920s.
Jessica was easier. As an investigative reporter, she was more advanced in her newspaper career than I was--and she had her life much more together, since she already had a husband and a young daughter--but Jessica was largely me.
Working full-time at the Miami Herald, it took me two years to write My Soul to Keep. Midway through, I began having panic attacks and various emotional issues that made me examine my life to try to determine what was suddenly wrong with me--and I decided that The Between had come back to haunt me. I'd convinced myself that I was pursuing my dream because I was writing almost every day, yet I had a finished novel that had been sitting in my drawer untouched for a year.
I needed to try to get published.
This time, I approached a Miami-based literary agent, Janell Walden Agyeman, who worked out of her home for Marie Brown Associates. I had run into her at a gathering years before, and she'd given me her card, telling me to get in touch if I ever wrote a novel-length manuscript. At about the time I approached Janell, I tried submitting a short story to a literary magazine based at a local college--and I was rejected. Again, I wondered if I would ever be published.
Janell began reading The Between, and she loved it. Three weeks later, she sold it to HarperCollins for more than my annual salary.
In many ways, mine was a Cinderella story. If Janell had tried to shop my novel five years sooner, or perhaps ever three years sooner, she might have met resistance and puzzlement. A horror novel with black characters? Who would buy it? Read it?
But overnight, one writer had changed the perception of whether or not books with black characters would sell: Terry McMillan. Her blockbuster Waiting to Exhale, published in 1992, rewrote the rules of black fiction. Suddenly, every publisher was hungry for black stories, black characters, black plotlines. I believe The Between is a good novel worthy of publication, but I also understand that I was swept in with a tide. Without Waiting to Exhale, my agent would have had a tougher time in the marketplace.
Veteran writers and I chuckle about it now, but we truly were a part of a Golden Age of black publishing in the 1990s, just as black film was undergoing a renaissance. Publishers spared no expense, sending new authors on elaborate book tours for their hardcover and paperback publications, putting us up in lavish hotel rooms. One publisher even issued me an American Express card dedicated to my tour expenses. For a new writer like me, sometimes that meant that the publisher spent hundreds or thousands of dollars to send me to a city where only a handful of people came to a signing.
But that didn't matter, my publicist told me. The idea was to get my name out in the media and to introduce me to the booksellers--primarily independent black booksellers--who would "hand-sell" my books to their customers. In my earliest days, one of my most supportive booksellers was Blanche Richardson at Marcus Books in Oakland. When I appeared at her store, she presented me with books to sign for other authors she believed should know my work: Terry McMillan. E. Lynn Harris. Octavia E. Butler. Tina McElroy Ansa.
In years to come, I would meet all of those authors and even come to know them as friends, but on that day I barely knew what to inscribe with my shaky hand. That was one of many moments of my early life as an author that felt like a dream.
My mother and I grew especially close during that time, since I was the only one of my sisters who had moved back to Miami after college. Although I could never afford to pay her, Mom became my manager, helping me find a literary attorney, fielding appearance requests, and generally making sure I was safe and treated well. (My mother was very ill when I first tried to write this essay, and my realization that I could hardly touch upon a phase of my life without her at my side made it too difficult to finish.)
No sooner had I sold The Between, it seemed, than my phone began ringing at my office with queries from film companies. One company that called me at my newspaper desk was Spike Lee's 40 Acres and a Mule. I remember going home from the office with a migraine because I couldn't believe the improbable turn of my life. A company called Longbow Productions, which had produced A League of Their Own with Geena Davis and Madonna, eventually optioned The Between for a year. My strange courtship with Hollywood had begun.
But a courtship of a very different type was waiting in the wings.
My writing career was taking off, but my love life was miserable. My longest relationship had ended at least three years before The Between was published, and although I was gaining notice among Miami's readers for my popular biweekly "Dating Column," I was more than ready to stop dating and find Mr. Right.
In 1992, I visited a psychic a coworker recommended because of her uncanny abilities, solely because I wanted a hint about who my soul mate was. Inez was an elderly woman who gave readings free of charge because she believed she would lose her gift if she profited from it. Her readings brought visitors to her house, so she gained friends instead of money.
I asked Inez about my soul mate, and she scowled.
"No ...," she said. "I don't see anything yet." Then her face brightened suddenly. "But you want to write a book! I see it wrapped in a white ribbon ... "
Although I had started writing The Between by then, I was skeptical about her sudden "revelation." After all, she knew I was a reporter, and what reporter didn't want to write a book? But the more Inez spoke, the more excited she became.
"It's going to be a best-seller!" she said. "People are going to look upon you like that poet ... what's her name? Maya Angelou!" she exclaimed.
I could barely keep from rolling my eyes. It seemed to me that she was telling me exactly what any writer would want to hear. Gently, I prodded her again to try to see a relationship in my life. Her scowl came again. "No ...," she said, as if she were peering through a fog bank. "I don't see anything ... not now. You need to become who you're supposed to become--that's when you'll meet your man."
Inez was right.
Five years later, after The Between had been published and My Soul to Keep was scheduled to follow, I was invited to a black speculative fiction conference at Clark Atlanta University. The other invitees, the letter said, were Octavia E. Butler, Jewelle Gomez ... and a novelist and television writer named Steven Barnes.
Weeks earlier, I would not have recognized Steven Barnes's name. But a friend I'd met through the Horror Writers Association, a gifted writer named Michael Marano, had recently e-mailed me that he thought I should meet a writer named Steven Barnes. He told me that Barnes had written for Showtime's revival of the series The Outer Limits.
I paid Michael little mind until I happened to find an episode of The Outer Limits in a hotel room while I was traveling with my mother, and I was immediately intrigued. I'd missed the beginning of the episode, but it starred actress Amanda Plummer, and it was about a scientist who had invented a time machine so she could kill serial killers before they could strike. From the writing to the performances, I thought the episode was top-notch, so I contacted Mike and said he had my attention.
"That's an episode Steven Barnes wrote!" Mike said. (It is generally considered one of the best in the run of the series, and garnered Amanda Plummer an Emmy and Barnes a Cable ACE Award nomination.) He had also written several novels, including Dream Park, in collaboration with Larry Niven.
As soon as I decided I wanted to meet Steven Barnes, his name appeared on my invitation to Clark Atlanta University for the 28th annual writers' conference, "The African-American Fantastic Imagination," organized by professors Mary A. Twining and N'Diaye. I was also amazed to see Octavia E. Butler's name, since I had heard so much about the Hugo and Nebula award-winning writer. By then, I also had read Kindred and the "Patternist" series, so I fully understood why she was so widely admired. Other panelists included Samuel R. Delany, a pioneering science fiction writer who won Nebula Awards for his novels Babel-17 and The Einstein Intersection in the 1960s; and Jewelle Gomez, Lambda Literary Award winner for her lesbian feminist vampire novel The Gilda Stories.
The event was better than I could have imagined. Even before it began, I realized that my room was right next to Steven Barnes's, and I heard his arrival. The next morning, I rushed out to introduce myself in the hallway--I think I was wearing a sweatshirt, fresh from sleep--and we ate breakfast together at Paschal's. But as gracious as he was, I didn't really notice his bright, burning aura until I heard him speak and tell his story as a writer. His presence hit me like a lightning bolt. (He tells a similar story.)
Octavia tolerated my gushing with her usual good nature. Steve and Octavia had known each other for years, so we bonded as a group immediately. Atlanta was like a wonderland; I remember eating at a restaurant and hearing whispers that the group Sweet Honey in the Rock was dining at a table nearby as attorney Johnnie Cochran strolled by the window. I felt surrounded by the cultural heartbeat of black America. When music played, Steve and I got up to dance playfully, inviting Octavia to join us. Octavia declined, but she was visibly tickled by the sparks she saw flying.
Our final panel was at the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American History and Culture, which Jewelle Gomez transcribed in Dark Matter: Reading the Bones, edited by Sheree R. Thomas (2000). There, we all discussed our reasons for writing speculative fiction, and I revealed my preoccupation with death and loss and my upcoming novel, My Soul to Keep:
For those of you who don't share my fear of death, there's sometimes a fear a life. A fear of what happens tomorrow, which we can't know or can't expect. So I grapple with these things, and my books always cheer me up. ... Deep down, what I'm really trying to do is perform a public service.
The spark I'd felt with Steven Barnes in Atlanta only grew once we were apart. We wrote love notes via the Internet, saw each other for brief visits, and were married in my parents' living room on August 1, 1998.
But we weren't the only ones who considered that conference special: Years later, visiting Octavia at her home outside of Seattle, we noted that she had a framed photograph of that gathering on her wall. "My other family," she explained.
Far too soon, Octavia would be gone.
I have played the piano since I was a child, and played trumpet in junior high school, enjoying duets with my mother, but by high school I believed I had to choose between music and writing, so I chose writing. Still, I've always had keyboards and continued to play piano for pleasure, with a secret dream of being a rock star.
Humorist Dave Barry, who worked at the Miami Herald while I was there, played with a group of writer-musicians called the Rock Bottom Remainders, and I was excited when I learned they would be playing at the Miami International Book Fair. I spotted Barry in the newspaper cafeteria one day, and in an uncharacteristically bold moment, I approached him and told him how much I was looking forward to the concert, and how cool it would be to play with them one day.
"Well, we won't have a keyboardist for our Elvis number, so you could now," he said. Mitch Albom, the keyboardist, would be singing vocals during "Jailhouse Rock," he explained. I was breathless. Stunned. "Sure!" I said, although at that moment, I couldn't have remembered the melody to "Jailhouse Rock" if I'd had a gun to my head.
A slew of fantasies were fulfilled the night I played with the Rock Bottom Remainders at Bayside in Miami: I was playing keyboards on a stage with a band for the first time in my life. I was a rocker. And I met Amy Tan and ... Stephen King!
I'd started reading Stephen King when I found a copy of The Shining when I was sixteen, and his characters and stories had been an important part of my development as a writer. I was tongue-tied and star-struck, but I managed to offer him a signed copy of The Between. "You look so serious," he said, noting the stern author photo.
King's address was in the Horror Writers Association handbook, so I wrote a letter mentioning that we had met, asking him if he would blurb my second novel. I considered this a pie-in-the-sky gesture, so I was stunned when I received a letter from Bangor, Maine. As I had learned during my days of awaiting rejection slips, I held the envelope up to the light and noted that it was only about two lines long. I assumed it was a form letter, or it said, Yeah, right.
Instead, he had written: "I really enjoyed The Between, and I would be happy to read My Soul to Keep. --Steve King."
He faxed a very kind blurb to my editor on the day it was due.
My Soul to Keep had a charmed birth and probably remains my best-known work.
The late E. Lynn Harris, whom I had met on the book circuit and who had been introduced to my work through Blanche Richardson at Marcus Books, recommended a publicist. It's the first and only time I hired an outside publicist, but I believe the investment paid off.
Again, Hollywood came calling. I optioned My Soul to Keep to Samuel Goldwyn Productions. But one day I was at a Miami event and ran into an employee for Knight-Ridder, which then owned the Miami Herald, and he mentioned that he was working on a video with actor Blair Underwood.
I told him that Blair was the actor I'd imagined when I wrote the part of Dawit for My Soul to Keep, and he offered to send him a copy. Again, I expected nothing to come of it, but Blair was on the phone two weeks later to try to option it. Mom chaperoned me the first time I went to meet Blair and his wife, Desiree, at a local polo club. In the years to follow, Blair would travel to Lalibela, Ethiopia, to shoot his own footage for a film version of My Soul to Keep. Through his partnership with Strange Fruit Productions (with Nia Hill and D'Angela Steed), the project was set up for many years at Fox Searchlight Studios, with Rick Famuyiwa slated to direct.
Eventually, Steve and I moved to Southern California to be closer to Hollywood and have a greater role in shepherding our books to film. My stepdaughter, Nicki, had reached adulthood, so we left the Pacific Northwest area where her mother lived and brought her and our young son, Jason, to live with us in the Los Angeles area, where she began college. Jason was in diapers while Nicki was in college.
My Hollywood experience taught me how hungry black actors were for substantial roles. Partnered with Blair and Strange Fruit again, Steve and I wrote three drafts of a screenplay for a film adaptation of my possession-slash-haunted house novel The Good House. Forest Whitaker was attached to direct.
I have learned many lessons in Hollywood, but chief among them was the difficulty of moving projects forward with black casts or themes. Once, at a pitch meeting with Forest Whitaker, Blair Underwood, Steve and our producers, the company president asked us, "Do the characters have to be black?"
He explained, rather sheepishly, that his European investors wouldn't embrace a film with a black cast. A separate version of that question had come up years previously, at Samuel Goldwyn, when a development executive told me that the question of race had been discussed internally in terms of Dawit and Jessica.
Any movie that makes it to the screen is a minor miracle. But when people ask me why there has never been a film adaptation of my books, or Octavia Butler's books, I am forced to reflect upon the impact of "color shock" that prevents people from automatically relating to characters who do not look like them. People of color are trained young to empathize with white characters in books and film, but it is learned, not inborn. Authors face that hurdle with novels, since readers make decisions based on the book cover, descriptions and author photos; but it is possible to have a "cult following" in publishing that is not possible in Hollywood, where a "cult following" is an abject failure. Since Hollywood is a business, questions of alienating the audience because of the ethnicity of the characters are always present even when they are not spoken. (As of this writing, it has recently been revealed that powerhouse filmmaker George Lucas lost $60 million to release the movie Red Tails, about the World War II's Tuskegee Airmen.)
"Why do the characters have to be any color?" a white woman once asked me on an airplane after I described my books to her.
Because we are a world of myriad ethnicities, and all of us want our stories told.
Only two of my works are fundamentally historical, with no supernatural or science fiction element. The first was The Black Rose, which I coauthored based on the research of the Alex Haley Estate. Again, an influential writer from my past had resurfaced in my life.
By then, I had a new agent, the late John Hawkins at John Hawkins & Associates, whom E. Lynn Harris had recommended to me. John's office had once represented turn-of-the-century poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and author Richard Wright, and he'd represented Alex Haley until his death. One of Haley's unfinished projects had been a biography of black female hair-care entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker, widely touted as the first black female millionaire, and he asked me if I would take on the project.
I was puzzled. "Why me?" I said. "I've never written a historical novel."
He pointed out my historical chapters in My Soul to Keep and convinced me I was the right writer. I had a deadline of less than a year, during which time I had to go through more than a dozen boxes of research to try to follow Haley's notes, which he had compiled with his researcher A'Lelia Bundles, Madam Walker's great-great-granddaughter. I decided that I would use as much of Haley's research as I could, but I decided I would have to approach the story as a novelist, through the character of Sarah Breedlove, who later became Madam C.J. Walker.
I was petrified through most of that project, feeling the weight of both Alex Haley's legacy and Madam Walker's on my shoulders. Often, I stared at my photograph of that remarkable woman--who had been born into poverty and practical illiteracy soon after the end of slavery and created a business model that gave countless black women, including my own grandmother on my father's side, a chance to be independent rather than working as housekeepers or sharecroppers.
Writing The Black Rose was an invaluable experience and helped prepare me for my next historical work, which I now consider my most important book: Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights.
As long as I could remember, my mother had wanted to write a book about the foot-soldiers she knew during the civil rights movement: the students, faculty members, housekeepers, and strangers, black and white, who risked their lives and freedom to create social change. She helped inspire a black high school student, Calvin Bess, to go to Mississippi to register voters in 1967, and he never returned home--the victim of a mysterious killing. She knew a white student activist, Jim Harmeling, who was so disillusioned by the racism in the South that he committed suicide. Scores of others went to jail and were beaten. As she wrote in our book: "And they suffered! Their families suffered. Their jobs suffered. I know people who never recovered from the Movement. I know people who cannot today bring themselves to talk about what happened to them during that era. ... And they were all ordinary people."
Mom envisioned a book called Ordinary People, Extraordinary Things, a collection of oral histories where activists would tell their individual stories of why they chose action when so many others were too afraid. But publisher after publisher rejected the concept. One day, John Hawkins told me, "You're missing the forest for the trees. You're a mother and daughter writing a civil rights memoir together. That's how you'll sell it."
And he was right. When we reframed the concept, the book sold right away. I was able to take a year's leave of absence from my job to research and write that book with my mother, taking road trips, interviewing activists or their surviving family members. We laughed and bickered and cried. Writing that book with Mom--and our ensuing book tour once it was published--was one of the most significant experiences of my life.
For years, I had shied away from trying to write that book with her, eager to discover the world for myself rather than living in the 1960s past, dwelling on painful stories. But I am grateful every day that she lived to see it, and that we could cement the adulthood friendship that would last the rest of her life.
I'm often asked why I write about the supernatural. Beyond the horror movies my mother raised me on, or the uncertainty and tension during the early integration days of my childhood, I write to gain strength. My characters are invariably stronger than they think they are--and often they are facing my old foe, death. I remember contemplating the idea of death, of nothingness, as young as twelve. I have always believed in God, but I do not have a clear picture of an afterlife.
A few years ago, I got a letter from a woman who told me that an intruder had entered her home and threatened her. She believed I had saved her life, because she drew on Jessica's strength in The Living Blood to stand up to him and drive him away. No writer forgets receiving a letter like that.
As an artist, I have been fortunate, as Anne Rice told me, to see my books taught in universities. I have won an American Book Award, an NAACP Image Award, and a Yari Yari Pamberi "New Voice in Literature" Award that helped me share the stage with another of my literary idols, Toni Morrison. I have had the joy of mentoring younger writers, such as Nnedi Okorafor and the late L.A. Banks, who have earned their own prominence in the field of speculative fiction. I have had the rare privilege of working with the same editor at Atria Books for many years, Malaika Adero.
And my literary partnership with Steven Barnes has grown beyond our early short-story and screenplay collaborations to include our "Tennyson Hardwick" mystery series with Blair Underwood and a new horror series aimed toward young adults--hopefully inspiring the imaginations of young readers and writers who are eager to see themselves reflected in the books, and perhaps (one day) movies, they enjoy.
My writing has not protected me from my losses, nor will it protect me from death. But it has never forsaken me as a haven where the noise of the outside world disappears, and where I can try to give language to the hopes, dreams, and fears that defy words.
A few years ago, while I was working on my novel Joplin's Ghost, Atria Books publisher Judith Curr put me in touch with a psychic who had been amazing the building with his accurate readings, which he usually charged thousands of dollars for. My only experience with a psychic previously had been Inez, who had foretold my meeting with Steven Barnes at a writing conference. Despite that, I was still skeptical of psychics in general.
During the telephone reading, the psychic told me that he was receiving a message from my grandmother, my mother's mother, and that I would be a teacher. A teacher! At the time, I was a full-time writer, lucky enough to be toured regularly, and I believed I had left the world of having a day job behind. To me, his words signaled that I would not be able to support myself as a writer: One day, you'll have to get a job, kid.
Now I have taught part-time for several years in the creative writing program at Antioch University Los Angeles. Last fall, I took my first full-time position in thirteen years on the English faculty at Spelman College in Atlanta--a stone's throw from the college where I first met Steve and Octavia Butler.
Once again, the psychic was right. But I had been wrong to believe that teaching would be a chore. Just as I love public appearances, I love to lecture students and help them develop their skills as writers and thinkers. I love liberation from the treadmill of trying to create art on a schedule that pays my bills.
As a child, I dreamed of writing for a living.
As an adult, I dream of writing for its own sake, the way I wrote as a child.
I still have so much to learn.