Conversations with Creatives: An Evening with Diane McKinney-Whetstone & Reflections from Lily Java

Talking to creatives—no matter their medium—about their work is one of my favorite things to do. Every artist’s point-of-view is different, and looking at, reading, or hearing their creation is like a peek into their mind and the way they see the world. So, on the evening of November 14, when I got the chance to have a conversation with Diane McKinney-Whetstone and hear a little bit about her work and her process I knew it was going to be a highlight of my year. And it was.

Author, Diane McKinney-Whetstone

About 50 women (and a few intrepid men, including Ms. McKinney-Whetstone’s husband, Greg) gathered on a cold night in Germantown, Philadelphia at the Our House Culture Center to watch me interview her about her books, her inspiration and her process. It was an interestingly personal gathering, with a few of the women greeting the author like old friends, several of them having known or grown up with her in Philadelphia even though some hadn’t seen her in decades. Just happening by for the event, was the iconic author of ‘Black Ice’, Lorene Cary. She, and Diane McKinney-Whetstone greeted each other affectionately, and obviously know each other well.

But I’ve come to learn that Philadelphia is like that—a small town masquerading as a big city,with intricate intersections of place, and space and relationships. And that’s how Ms. McKinney-Whetstone writes as well—her stories are complicated but familiar, personal, warm, welcoming and with the hint of an inside joke, that you’re only in on if you come from Philly. We talked about Tumblin’ her first novel, and about Lazaretto, her most recent offering, and she read from both which was a rare treat. I asked questions about her work, about race, about the craft. I was inspired and rejuvenated just listening to her and even more than that, I was struck by the commonality of the creative struggle—the characters’ voices in your head that come unbidden day and night, the self-doubt that often accompanies them, the worry that you don’t have enough time, aren’t “doing it right”, or should be engaged in something much more important, especially in times like these.

A few of my own writer-friends were in the audience, one of them on the cusp of publishing for the first time (who would kill me if I outed her), and another who already has, my friend Lily Java. Since Lily is, like me, prone to analysis of just about everything, I thought it might be fun to interview her about the interview, so you can hear another point-of-view besides my own. So, here goes …

Diane McKinney-Whetstone talked about ‘writing as a Black woman’ versus ‘being a Black woman who writes’. What did you think about her response? It was a great question you asked because it seemed like a deceptively easy one to answer. It’s funny too, cause thinking back on it, my initial reaction to her answer was that it was safe.  She seemed to hint that she can’t help but write as a Black woman because that is who and what she is. In other words, it’s natural.

Did you relate? Of course. Absolutely. For me it’s sometimes difficult to extrapolate the difference between the two options given. Being a Black woman who writes and writing as a Black woman are, as a whole, the reasons I felt brave enough to publish my work to begin with.  Knowing that I hadn’t read or heard enough of my type of voice was a strong catalyst — but how could writing like that not also be tied to my identity? I’m empathetic by nature, but I’m not that good at experiencing life outside myself to write as anything other than a Black woman.

One of the more gratifying moments for me was hearing her reaffirm that we need to give ourselves permission to write. How do you interpret that? Yes, I loved that moment too.  And she was absolutely right.  You have to make and give yourself the time to write. And even though an enormous load of guilt, self-recrimination, and exhaustion might come your way when you do acquire that time, it still has to be sacrosanct — untouchable. 

What does that mean to you? The thing that resonated for me most was when she said that she needed to overcome the idea that what she’s doing is frivolous. Boy that statement rocked me. I was raised to fight my own inner demons early because there were plenty enough on the outside to fight. Consequently, I don’t always see myself as someone who is lacking in self-esteem or confidence but of course I am. And I especially am when it comes to writing. Also, the times we’re living in don’t help much. It’s easy to say you’re writing to entertain and allow people an escape but doing it while the world is fraught ain’t easy either. Yeah, I think it was during that part of the talk that I turned to the young writer next to me and whispered something unoriginal but apt, “If it were easy, everybody would do it.”

We also talked a little about writing ‘under the white gaze’. What were your thoughts on her response to that? You mean after I finished snickering and rolling my eyes that you asked it?  Hahahaha. Seriously though I thought she was practical on the subject. She’s a literary writer but she isn’t writing purely for white audiences. Her themes and subject matter tell you that. I also thought it was clear she wasn’t going to object to anyone of any shade reading her work.  I especially liked her encouragement of anyone writing in their own vernacular whatever that happened to be. 

Do you feel the‘white gaze’ as you write? Not at all. I do feel the gaze of my parents, grandparents and the rest of my family, as well as some of my teachers in the K-12 years. I especially feel the gaze of other writers of various hues, that I love and who have inspired me to read. Here’s the thing though. I think people are always trying to put Black people in a particular box.  As if because we’re Black what we do has to be, observed, managed, or judged through a certain lens in order for it to be called Black. It’s nonsensical. There’s good writing and there’s bad writing. Period. And not every story or voice is gonna resonate for everyone.

She had some interesting thoughts about the lack of differentiation among genres when authors are Black. Did you have thoughts on that as well?  Yeah, I do.  Can you tell?  So, here’s the thing I keep wondering, why DO we identify AA fiction in such limiting ways?  I suppose as a marginalized voice in publishing we feel as if that maybe the only way for our reading audience to find us but it does automatically keep us all in that same box I mentioned earlier. I’ve concluded that there’s no easy answer or solution except to have many more good AA writers who a rededicated to their craft and are writing out of the box that publishers as well as readers, black, white, or mauve, want to put us in. There’s a line in the movie “Legends of the Fall” where Anthony Hopkins plays an old man recovering from a stroke and he shakes his fist at the sky and says “Screw the government!”  I think of it when I think about this subject cause I always want to say “Screw the genre!”

It was surprising to hear that she doesn’t think the publishing industry has become significantly more competent in terms of decision-makers that promote the work of Black creatives.  I wasn’t surprised by that. I agree with her. There are still fairly poor hiring practices when it comes to broadening the employee demographics in traditional publishing and not nearly enough entrepreneurs of color jumping into the field of publishing either. I feel like we’re seeing a lot of placeholders in Black fiction right now, some quite brilliant, but not nearly enough to give us a true expansion of excellent diverse content in the publishing world. I think today the film and TV entertainment industry has in many ways done a better job of mixing it up and giving us that.

There was a minor skirmish during the conversation that seemed to indicate a divide between anew, younger generation of readers, and women who are Diane McKinney-Whetstone’s contemporaries, who read Bebe Moore Campbell, Terry MacMillan and the like. Do you think there is a real difference in the quality of Black fiction now than when those women were the household names for Black readers?  Sure, there is, but I guess I would take issue with the word quality. That word suggests there might be a superiority of one group over the other. I think there are huge differences in the circumstances and trends for those writing Black fiction now as opposed to 20 or 30 years ago. Those historical differences are often what makes the reader feel however they’re going to feelabout it. I imagine sometimes it’s hard to relate. That doesn’t make it better or worse writing though in the aggregate.  Does anyone want to compare the “quality” of Zora Neale Hurston and Nella Larsen to Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou?  They’re about three decades apart. It might bean interesting thesis but for my money, I’d rather just read them and forget the comparisons.

What were your most important take-aways from the conversation? I had two. 1) I need to spend more time with writers. It always makes me feel better to be around my people. Hahaha.  Seriously though, I’ve gone to see a lot of writers talk about their craft and I always feel great afterwards. It’s such a niche profession, and there is much to learn from the others who do what you do too.  2) I saw a lot of familiar faces at this event, which made me happy.  All were readers, but many were writers too and that is what keeps me hopeful about this profession especially when it comes to Black fiction.  There are so many out there who want to take the plunge and eventually will. 

Thank you, Lily Java. Fun hanging with you, as usual!

In Medias Res–A Guide to ‘FOUR: STORIES OF MARRIAGE’

a 'Commitment' novelin me·di·as res
/in ˈmēdēəs ˈres,ˈmādēˌäs/
adverb
  1. into the middle of a narrative; without preamble.
    “having begun his story in medias res, he then interrupts it”
    • into the midst of things.

     

This one kicked my ass. Could you tell? (Here’s a hint: when a writer blogs to ‘explain’ their book before you’ve read it, they’re terrified of how it will be received). When I thought about writing the finale to the ‘Commitment’ couples, all I could think about was how much my readers wanted it. I was mildly curious about Shawn and Riley, Brendan and Tracy, Chris and Robyn, and Jayson and Keisha as well, but I have to admit, that the primary driving force was knowing how much you — the folks who even read my droning blogs about ‘process’–wanted to hear from them.

The dilemma I never considered was: what comes after the happily ever after? Where do you pick up a story that has ended conclusively, and happily? Where might we find those people? How do you write the beginning, middle and end to a story of people who have already had that? Then I remembered that true love stories never really end. There are ups and downs, things that send you spinning sideways, questioning and falling in and out of love, and then in love all over again. And I thought about how love stories are to be found in the mundane, day-to-day-ness of being in a couple. Raising kids, having meals, going to work, negotiating balance, growth … all of that.

So, in ‘Four: Stories of Marriage’, there is a lot of mundanity. I drop you in the middle of an ongoing narrative of four marriages, not at a beginning place, but smack-dab in the middle. And the ‘endings’ of these four stories are the same way … inconclusive, but a stepping away from action at a place where you don’t necessarily know what will come next, though you think you have an inkling. The other thing I thought about as I wrote ‘Four’ was the complexity of coupledom, and my belief that relationships are often about repeating the same dynamic, making the same mistakes, and negotiating the same tensions often without resolution. Not in a bad way, but in the push-and-pull way that keep people interested in and learning from each other, maybe over a lifetime.

I can’t give you a lifetime of reading about these couples. You wouldn’t want to read that, and I wouldn’t want to write it. But I leave you with them now, to rest, just as they are.

Love & Light,

Nia

P.S. Buy it, here.

 

 

Blog Stop: ‘The Breakup Plan’ by Tia Kelly

breakup+plan+2000x3000meet drew.

Drew Wilkerson is a dangerous man. Not in the physical sense. Well, yeah, technically it could be related to something physical, but he’s the type of man that could get away with the most ratchet of offenses and walk away from the incident both unscathed and with two more women fighting to give him some.

Six three. Runner’s build. Colgate megawatt smile with the charm to match. Can wear the heck out of a suit, jeans, basketball shorts… damn near anything and everything. After-hours radio voice. Hell, any time is the right time for that voice. And did I mention the brother has blue eyes? Drew says they’re hazel, but if that’s the case, it’s not the usual green-meets-brown version. When he wakes in the morning, all you see in them is a sea of crystal-blue depth. Piss him off and they remind me of steel. Whether you want to say they’re hazel, blue, gray-blue, or whatever, those bad boys are intense. Staring into them for more than five seconds will pin your ass to a wall so fast you’ll want to cosign turning over all your good credit for anything he could ask for. Although that wouldn’t be necessary.

Did I mention he’s loaded? Just dropped seven figures on his crib in Philly (and before you assume, I’m not talking about low, barely-reaching-million-dollar-status numbers, either), and that’s before the contractors were instructed to turn it into the home of his dreams.

– Avery Coleman


meet avery.

My Avery. I turn around to see her standing in the entry to my room, but she brings a smile to my face simply from the sound of her voice and the warm vanilla bean and coconut scent filling the air. She never can decide which is her favorite smell, and to be honest, I like the combination on her.

The smile on my face is there because I haven’t hugged my girl in weeks, and I’ve missed her, but it doesn’t take long for it to slip off.

“Hey.” She pauses mid-stride toward my open arms and frowns. “You okay?”

I should probably explain. I didn’t expect to see Avery looking the way she does. I’ve seen her hair in countless ways, from her usual Freddie on A Different World go-to style, to weaves, to bohemian braids hanging past her ass, to the small cornrows on the side with a mass of curls piled high on top vibe she’s going for now, so her curly ’hawk look doesn’t surprise me.

It’s seeing the roundness of her adorable caramel apple cheeks slimmed out and revealing a hint of cheekbones, making the diamond and pearl studs I gave her stand out a little more. Hell, it makes even her mouth look…

Sh*t, I don’t have time for a sexual harassment lawsuit, so I better not say. But what I can mention is the mustard tank she has on shows off shoulder blades that are more defined than the last time I saw them, when she wore a single-shoulder gown to a fundraiser a few months back.

And her waist. Jeans hug curves, but these curves aren’t hers. She still has one of those asses folks sing about, saying a beat was made for, but that’s not why I sometimes catch myself staring at her.

I do just because she’s Avery.

– Drew Wilkerson


REVIEW:

Avery Coleman and Drew Wilkerson have been best friends for a long time. And she’s also his personal assistant, and a friend-of-the-family. They’re so close that she is privy to just about all the parts of his life that would normally remain private – his email account, his residences, his charge cards and even gifts sent to him from his lady-of-the-moment. Still, as tight as they are, Drew is not necessarily as up-to-speed on what’s happening in Avery’s private life as he might believe he is.

Ahm … he has no clue that she is about to get married. And soon.

The news throws self-assured Drew for a loop and after a brief period of being a supportive best friend, he decides that what he needs to do is break up the wedding. But in doing so, will he also break up this friendship that has lasted more than a decade and been a cornerstone of his life?

While both Drew and Avery are flailing about and struggling with their obvious-to-all-but-them emotions, we slowly learn that there are a million tiny pieces from their past that help explain why their bond as strong as it is. Drew was with Avery during the lowest point in her life, and she has been with him since well before he was the handsome and in-demand playboy that he now is. The wedding, we realize, is just a catalyst for the inevitable reckoning with their pasts and their feelings that Drew and Avery were always going to have to do.

‘The Breakup Plan’ was on the one hand a lighthearted and humorous look at two people bumbling their way toward admitting a love that has always been there; and on the other, it was a glimpse of some of the darker and deeper things that might prevent someone from asking for and getting the love they want.

I especially liked the backdrop of the complicated and sometimes messy extended family dynamics—the sibling rivalry, the differences in relationships with parents and friends, the blurry boundaries, and the undercurrent of shared history. All of that made it believable that Avery and Drew could go so long having said so little about how they truly felt. Although there were some moments when I might have wanted to know more about Avery and Drew’s journeys—separate and together—at the end of the day, I enjoyed them and felt invested in seeing them find their way toward each other. I think you will too.

THE BREAKUP PLAN is available NOW!

Amazon: http://bit.ly/TheBreakupPlan

Author Website: www.tiawithapen.com

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/TKNewsletter

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AuthorTiaKelly

Twitter: https://twitter.com/tiawithapen

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Goodreads Author Profile: http://goodreads.com/tiakelly

Add Book on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/41508689-the-breakup-plan

Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/Tia-Kelly/e/B00B7AKXGI/

Playlist: http://bit.ly/BreakupPlan

Giveaway: http://www.rafflecopter.com/rafl/display/ba335dad1/?

‘The Breakup Plan’ by Tia Kelly

breakup+plan+2000x3000

A man without a plan is a shell without purpose.

Which is why I sat down almost nine years ago and put pen to paper mapping out my ten-year plan. I meant business. Everything that could set me up for a lifetime of joy had to go down on the list, and every day I worked my ass off to fulfill it.

Open my own sports agency. Check.

Earn first million by my thirtieth birthday. I did that a week before I turned 26.

Negotiate the most lucrative contract in Major League’s history. Did that, too. Then went and broke my own record. (Thanks big bro!)

I could go on, but this isn’t about bragging. It’s me admitting in the midst of drafting something that helps shape and mold much of my success, I made a costly mistake.

One day I realized all those entries with corresponding checkmarks are pointless if I never factored into the equation the most important goal of all. Avery.

Perhaps way back then I wasn’t ready to see how much my best friend of fifteen years deserved that number one spot in my life. Maybe I was blind since the whole settle down and get married scenario wasn’t my thing since, well, forever. But now that I’m aware of the role I need her to fill in my life, there’s no such thing as letting go until I can convince her to be mine.

Considering she’s about to marry someone else does make winning her heart a little bit dicey. But if there’s anything you should ever know about me is that I always play to win. And losing Avery is non-negotiable.

The Breakup Plan.

A best friends to enemies romance.

He ruined her wedding day and he’ll do it again until she’s his..

The Breakup Plan by Tia Kelly – On Sale TODAY at 10 PM (EST)!!

tia+kelly-watercolor+copy

Tia Kelly is the author of contemporary and women’s fiction. She is known for her candid way of capturing life, love and relationships… one story at a time.

Author Website: www.tiawithapen.com

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/TKNewsletter

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AuthorTiaKelly

Twitter: https://twitter.com/tiawithapen

Instagram: https://instagram.com/tiawithapen

Goodreads Author Profile: http://goodreads.com/tiakelly

Add Book on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/41508689-the-breakup-plan

Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/Tia-Kelly/e/B00B7AKXGI/

‘Behind the Pen’ is back!

Behind the Pen 2018 FlyerI only started doing book signings and public appearances about three years ago. The first one I did was my own, ‘Wine with Writers’. After that, I tested the waters with a couple others, and once I realized that I would not spontaneously combust from all that … interaction, I was all in. To my neverending surprise, meeting people who read my books is not at all like most social interaction. Large groups of people can be draining for me. Meeting readers is by contrast, energizing, inspiring, and a great motivator. Not to mention talking to people who remember details about your characters and stories that you’ve long forgotten, and who took even the smallest bit of encouragement, or found empathy for different points of view just because of something you’ve written … there’s nothing like it. It makes me humble, and grateful that I write.

So, this year, I’m doing it again, at ‘Behind the Pen’ in New York, on Saturday, August 11. Organized by the Sistah Girls Book Club. Behind the Pen was created by Sistah Girls founder, Sharee Hereford, to celebrate black independent authors and the readers who love their work. What started out as a small digital conversation has turned into a growing community (over two thousand members now!) of authors and readers who enjoy literature.

Last year, my author besties Rae Lamar, Jacinta Howard, Lily Java, and Tia Kelly were there, which made it super-fun. After the event our little band of writer-friends had dinner afterwards, and dissected everything (as writers are prone to do) with a motley crew of moms and daughters, friends and one very special reader; and the main thing we talked about was how amazing it was that people even gave a crap about meeting us. Then we moved on to how incredibly well-organized ‘Behind the Pen’ was. For a maiden voyage, they thought of just about everything, and there were no glitches that I could see. Every writer was treated like a VIP, and every reader had the time and space to interact with us in a meaningful way. There was food, drinks, music, fun and a great view of Lower Manhattan. It fueled the work that I did for the rest of the year. I think, for sure, it made me write more … and better.

This year, I think you still might be able to make it. Tickets for Behind the Pen are still available here for a mere $25. But if you can’t make it, you can order signed copies of some of my favorite books, below.

I hope you see you at Behind the Pen, but even, if not …

Happy Reading!

~N~

 

Freeform

Just WriteSometimes I overshare about what I’m working on. And it’s kind of cool because the responses to the sharing are always positive, and motivating and reassuring. But there’s the other side. Sharing also leads to requests for timelines–which I then provide but rarely keep–then there’s disappointment from readers, and contrition from me because the last thing I want is for readers to be disappointed, even when in disappointing you, I may be satisfying myself. So, I tried, and continue to try to plan my releases, and have at least somewhat of an idea of when something I promised might be available.

This year, I have some ‘Have-To-Write’ books in my head, and God willing, they’ll get written. But I’m finding that the timeline I’ve set isn’t working. And that’s because something else is going on with me. I’ve been freeform writing a lot lately. Characters, stories and ideas are coming out of nowhere, and I’m just letting them come, not asking them to wait in line behind others, and not censoring them in any way. Most have been unusual, unformed, even unlikable and in a lot of ways uncharacteristic of what I’ve done in the past, and that’s been incredibly exciting. At least for me.

Writing evolves. I don’t want to write the way I wrote two, or three, or five years ago. For readers of romance, relationship-focused or women’s fiction, that can be scary, or even irritating when their writers change course. And I think many writers know this, so they disappear into their writing labs, and experiment in isolation, and agonize over hundreds of pages before they feel confident enough to release something that first and foremost satisfies them, but also satisfies their target readers. (I don’t believe for a second when writers say they write only for themselves. That’s what journals are for, not novels.)

But that’s a delicate and sometimes impossible balance. To satisfy your personal creative growth impulse and that of an audience who wants most of all, for you to give them what they know they will love. Imagine for a moment that you make a delicious pot roast with fingerling potatoes and a side of wild rice. Your family tells you it was the perfect meal. And then, every day, for the rest of your life, they demand that you make pot roast with fingerling potatoes and a side of wild rice. As delicious as you found that meal, as proud as you are of having made it, one day, you begin to loathe pot roast, cringe at the sight of fingerling potatoes and vomit if you have to eat wild rice. So it is with writing; at least for me.

The only cure is to step away from the pot roast, at least for a while, and experiment with, say, chicken marsala. That’s what I’m doing for now.

And I realize that produces some disappointment. The dread of your disappointment made me even consider, for a hot minute inventing a second pen name, something to hide behind so that I could keep the expectations and positive equity intact with the other things I write. But y’know what? I’m not going to go that route. I’m going to trust you to hang with me while I write stories that surprise you, or shake you up, or make you mad, or frustrated, or sad.

Wanderer - High ResolutionSo … what that means is that before I return to pot roast–which I have no doubt I will do from time to time–I’m doing chicken. And lamb. Pork even. You don’t have to like them. I mean it, you don’t. But do this for me? Judge them on their own merits. Don’t expect them to taste like pot roast.

And you know me … I’ll tell you everything as I go along this journey; probably more than you care to know about ‘process’. That’s all for now. Back to cooking ….

~N~

P.S. You know I have an online book chat about ‘The Wanderer’ coming up in a couple of days, right? Join the online book club ‘Because My Heart Said So’ here, to participate in the chat THIS WEDNESDAY, May 30th at 7 PM.

New Release! The Wanderer

Wanderer - High ResolutionHere’s the deal with 2018. I decided to write with no fear. You ever meet a writer who says they know their stuff is really good, then one of two things is almost certain to be true:

  1. They’re projecting confidence they don’t entirely feel (i.e., they lyin’); or
  2. they’re not as good as they think they are

Writing is a fearful, fetal-position-at-3am-sobbing-into-your-pillow kind of thing, believe me. Sometimes I write a paragraph I love. Sometimes I write a book I like a lot. I have never, never, ever written an entire book I loved. That’s the high I’m chasing. I feel like it might take me a lifetime to get there.

The fear is what makes me write slower than I might otherwise write, and also, strangely, release things on impulse, almost to purge them from my head and set them out into the world where, occasionally people will validate how terrible I thought they were to begin with. And sometimes people will tell me I was mistaken, and it wasn’t terrible after all. Of course, the latter is by far the preferred outcome. Fear of the former stunts you. I think you have to fail a lot in order to succeed.

So, this year , I made myself a promise. I would write more, write more carefully, and write without fear. By that I mean, I’m going to write entirely what I feel, and just let it go. I think, I’ve done that periodically, but not nearly as often as I would have liked to. So this novella, one of my ‘Shorts’ is where I’m marking time with that. If things I release, sound and feel different, if you sense I’m going someplace really different for a minute with a book, or series of books it’s probably true. But ride it out with me … I think we’re going to have fun.

Oh, and ‘The Wanderer’ is available now! Check it out, exclusively on Amazon.