Thursday, May 06, 2010

Interview with Virginia Deberry & Donna Grant

Hello Ladies! Thank you so much for taking time to chat with me. You have so much going on and I know that readers for this blog are anxious to hear it all. So let's get started!

Q. The novelty of a writing duo will never wear off at least not for me! How long have the two of you written together and how do you make it work?

This probably speaks to some kind of group insanity we have always shared, but even from the beginning writing in tandem never seemed like an unusual idea. Before we wrote novels, we worked on a fashion newsletter and a start-up magazine together. That is where we learned we have an intuitive ability to collaborate and have a great time doing it. That happened 20+ years ago. When the magazine folded, the one thing we knew for sure was that we had to keep working together, because that made sense! Neither of us remembers who came up with the idea of writing a novel. We investigated other possibilities first, but the novel won out, and we've been doing it ever since.

The most challenging part of keeping it going, is managing the time it takes to do it. We really do write together—in the same room, mostly at the same computer. That means we spend a lot of time in the writing cave and away from family and friends, which is hard. We have been working on creating more balance—it’s a work in progress. Fortunately, the ideas are in no short supply and the mutual respect we have for each other’s talent and point of view means we still enjoy sitting down together and seeing what we can cook up.

Q. I've known you both for quite some time, but please share with the readers your individual backgrounds, where you grew up, loves/marriages, and when the writing bug bit you.

DG: I’m a Brooklyn, NY girl (I realize girl is a bit of a stretch), and my husband and I still live there. Brooklyn is a bubbling caldron of life and creativity—people from different backgrounds produce music, dance, art and the written word from a variety of traditions, and there are so many people per square foot that you can’t help but be influenced by each other. Some days it’s exhausting, but never boring.

My husband, Hiram, is an around the way guy—we were born 30 days apart in the same hospital and lived literally around the corner from each other as kids, but we didn’t meet until we were grown. New York can be like that, but after 25 years together, 23 of them married, we’ve made up for lost time.

Reading and writing have been part of my life for as long as I can remember. From Hans Christian Andersen and The Brother’s Grimm, to Dr. Seuss and cereal boxes, I’d read anything as a child. Mom was a big reader—she always had a novel going and when she’d ride the subway she always had her book to read, so I had my storybook too. I get a big charge out of watching someone reading one of our books on the train. I discovered my own facility with words pretty early—I wrote stories and poems, founded a class newspaper in fifth grade (printed on that really smelly mimeograph paper) and have been writing ever since.

VDB: I was born in a tiny town in North Carolina (left when I was a wee tot), grew up in Buffalo, moved to NYC in the early 80’s where I lived until ’92 when Donna and I really buckled down with this writing thing and I realized that being a starving artist in the city was more romantic to read about than actually live. I need to be in a place that was quiet, with grass and trees and parking, so I crossed the border. I’m now a Jersey girl—a transplant who took root in smack in the middle of the Garden State—New York is an hour north and Philly is an hour south. I’m living my life in the ‘burbs and lovin’ it.

I like to say that I am currently “husband free” and have been for a long time. I’ve been married twice, and divorced twice and am utterly at peace in the knowledge that all of us are not meant for matrimonial bliss. I’m not sayin’ “never again”, but I’m single and happy. I date and have wonderful friends and as full a social calendar as I want.

I don’t know if I was bitten by the writing bug or born with some kind of congenital defect that predisposed me to developing the disease—but like Donna, reading and writing have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. As a child, I always wanted a story and if someone wasn’t telling or reading me one, then I was making up my own. I have an old photograph of my brother and sister and me on Christmas morning—I must be about ten and we’re each holding our favorite Christmas gift. I’m hugging my brand new, bright orange Tom Thumb Typewriter! The die was cast early!

Q. You both are on a whirlwind tour and have been keeping readers abreast of your activities via Twitter, Facebook etc. When we all started out, technology wasn't much help. How have you both learned to make it work effectively for you?

Our very first book, Exposures—which we wrote as Marie Joyce—was written on a typewriter that had six pages of memory. When we finished those six pages to our satisfaction, we would print them out on three-part NCR paper (that was smelly too), erase the memory and start again. When we got revisions, we had to type the whole manuscript again. We are truly grateful for technological advances.

When we first included an email address in Tryin’ to Sleep in the Bed You Made, our publisher didn’t even have email. At that point we got more snail mail than email, but over time the balance has definitely shifted. We always saw an advantage to having a direct line of communication with our readers and we’re glad they enjoy sharing their thoughts. Fast forward to facebook, myspace, Twitter etc.—it’s still all about ways to share information and have some fun. Social networks have also allowed us to stay in touch with other writers. Virginia is the Techno-wiz of the two of us. She enjoys finding the way to work with each new platform and staying on top of the conversation. The trick here too is finding the balance between online communications, working on our books, and having a life. Not always easy. Sometime you just have to step away from the laptop!

Q. What are some things that you would suggest writers do regarding social networking?

These days it’s undeniable that establishing an online presence is important. It’s the surest, most direct way to reach readers. Blogging, Facebook, Twitter are the ones we utilize most. There are two suggestions we can offer in terms of these networks 1) Engage—don’t be one-sided. As often as possible, have a real exchange with some of the folks who are your “friends” and “followers.” That means asking and answering questions. 2) Variety--post about a range of topics, not just your book(s). Let the folks “out there” see some of your personality, let them get to know you—not the intimate personal details of your life, but enough for them to be able to “see” you as a real person, not just somebody who’s selling books. We’re all trying to “move product” and that’s what the social networking sites facilitate so well, but it’s definitely a case of soft selling. Yes, you can post reviews, reminders and links to purchase your book online, places you’ll be signing. But it’s equally important to post about other things that interest you.

Q. Through your years of publishing, what has been your biggest obstacle? And what are you doing, or what have you been doing to combat it?

The obstacles have come in stages. The first was getting published. We ran into the Toni-Terry problem—our writing was not “literary” in the spirit of Toni Morrison, and it wasn’t in the Terry McMillan mold which were the two prevailing categories for black writers. Editors didn’t know where we fit in, so they would pass on the manuscript. We were fortunate to find an editor who appreciated our writing and encouraged us to go ahead and tell the story, regardless of the category. That, was a very big hurdle, one we’re not sure we’d get over if Tryin’ to Sleep in the Bed You Made was being shopped today.

Now, the categories have changed, but the problem is the same. We don’t write urban fiction or erotica, which are the hot categories in African American fiction and now, it’s much harder to get beyond the labels. Publishers are extremely concerned about the bottom line and are most interested in publishing more of what has been successful. It’s like we are all being pressured to write the same book and to compete for the same small piece of the pie instead of being encouraged to find a slice of the bigger pie.

We are looking to find ways to stay in touch with our loyal readers while we also introduce ourselves to audiences who don’t know us yet. We participate in online conversations on sites that are not solely African American and have received many emails that read something like, “I had never heard of you before, but I picked up out one of your books, loved it and will be getting more.” We realize publishing is a numbers game, and that in order to stay in it we have to bring in bigger numbers. The only way we can do that is to make ourselves known to readers across the women’s fiction spectrum. We believe our stories have universal appeal and deserve exposure in the wider marketplace.

Q. There has been countless discussion and debate about how and why black books are segregated in the stores. But even more disturbing the notion that the segregation begins in the publishing houses. Please share your thoughts on this and what can readers do?

All of us who write books with black characters have been made aware of the statistics showing which kinds of our books are selling the most. Along with that knowledge, comes the pressure—subtle or not—to make our books more like those with the biggest bottom lines. Yet, there has been no effort to market our books to a wider audience where we might find additional fans who would appreciate what we do, not what publishers think black authors should do. The basic assumption is that only black audiences will buy and read books by black authors. This is not the assumption with other authors. It is assumed that everyone will read Nora Roberts, James Patterson, etc., including black readers. It is also assumed that not just vampires read Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight series. So, we come out of the gate with a disadvantage.
Also, more and more often novels by African American are shelved in the African American section, not with general fiction. It seems readers are split on this. Some prefer to be able to find the authors they love in a separate section. The consequence of this is that casual book store browsers are unlikely to come across a book by a black writer that they are not looking for specifically, again, limiting our access to the book buying public.
We always tell readers that if there are authors they love, buy their books, otherwise you won’t see their work any longer. None of us are immune from this phenomenon. Also, if you love someone’s work, tell people about it, and not just other African Americans. The more people who know about an author, the better chance she or he will have to stay in the marketplace.

Q. Now let's get to it! Your latest novel UPTOWN hit bookstores March, 2010. What inspired the book?

Real Estate became the national fever in the 2000’s. All of a sudden people were talking about trading up, flipping houses, how much their houses had appreciated and borrowing against the increased value. Developers built luxury housing, often in neighborhoods that had never seen such activity and long-time residents were displaced. When did home go from being the place where you made warm memories with your family, to an actively traded commodity? We chose Harlem as the setting because it has been an iconic African-American community since the early 20th century, but there are communities like Uptown all over the country. We wanted to look at this phenomenon from the perspective of a family whose members were both long time residents of the area, and actively involved in developing the “New Harlem.”

Q. Give us some details about the storyline and why was this story important for you to tell?

The Dixon Group, started by long-time Harlemite and real estate investor King Dixon, and now run by his son, Dwight, owns large parcels of Harlem real estate, some of it bordering Central Park, the gem in the middle of Manhattan. Three of the four sides of the park are lined with luxury residences, hotels, fashionable boutiques and world-renowned museums. Only 110th St., the north side of the park, which was considered the gateway to Harlem, was still lined with tenements, a gas station, a correctional facility—hardly prime properties. But as 110th St began to be called Central Park North, it was clear the game was changing, and the Dixon Group was ready to cash in. What seems like the easiest piece of the puzzle, acquiring a property they need from a family member, turns out to unleash a buried, but long-simmering betrayal that affects Dwight and his cousin, Avery Lyons. They were once as close as brother and sister, but that ended twenty years ago. Now Avery is back in town, and the truth will come out, no matter who it hurts.

Q. Tell us about the characters and the research involved in putting this book together.

This is the first book we’ve started with the male characters, but when we knew the story was about real estate in Harlem, when knew we had already met two of the characters to help us tell it—Dwight Dixon, Jewell Prescott’s fiancĂ© in Better Than I Know Myself, and his overbearing father, King Dixon.

Q. What do you want readers to get from UPTOWN?

We hope they have a read that keeps them wanting to turn the pages and find out what happens next. We also hope to leave readers with some questions to answer. Does success mean that the one with the most money at the end wins, or are there other qualities we expect? What does home really mean? Is it just the building, or is it a feeling we carry with us? If our feelings for home are unsettled, do we ever feel at home, no matter where we go?

Q. What have been some of your marketing strategies for UPTOWN?

We try to keep ourselves available and “out there.” We have been fortunate to still be sent on book tour by our publisher and we try to make the most of the opportunity to travel around the country. With Uptown we were able to visit some cities where we have not been in a long time—like Denver and Dallas, as well as others where we have never been—Augusta, GA, Jackson, MS, Milwaukie, WS and Pittsburgh, PA among them—where it was great talking with fans we had not had the chance to meet previously. In addition to our regular online activities, we have written guest blogs (Thanks Donna!), appeared on blogtalk radio, reached out to book clubs and book bloggers, whatever we can do to get the word out.

Q. Let's talk cover. When I saw the cover, a lot of things went through my head. What are the thoughts behind the cover? What did you want to evoke from the casual browser?

We don’t have final say-so on covers. On our last book, What Doesn’t Kill You, there was another version of the cover that we preferred, but we lost that battle. We actually liked the Uptown cover as soon as we saw it. It feels like a cover that surrounds a big story, one that would make a browser in a bookstore stop and check it out. It also feels like the art director didn’t just find a stock photo and slap it on a page with the title on it. They actually gave it thought and made it reflect the feeling of the book. It also didn’t hurt that our name was above the title—first time that’s happened.

Q. Four Colored Girls. Tell us about it and how it got started.

The full name is 4 Colored Girls Productions. For those of us who remember back when we were called colored girls, the name is meant to pay respect to all that we were taught then about having pride in ourselves and being able to accomplish whatever we set our minds to. We formed the company three years ago, along with partners Tyrha Lindsey and Tracey Kemble, both of who have extensive film production experience. We all met 10 plus years ago, when Tracey, who was an HBO VP at the time, optioned Tryin’ to Sleep in the Bed You Made to produce independently. Tyrha, who reached out to us at about the same time, we working for Qwest Entertainment, the production arm for Quincy Jones. She wanted the option, but Tracey already had it. At the time, Hollywood had very different ideas than we all did about what kind of movie to make out of Tryin’ (like on starring Winnona Ryder and Gweneth Paltrow)., and the movie was never made. But years later, we all still believe there is a wonderful movie to be made from the story, and we intend to produce it.

Q. Where do you stand now with the movie?

Regina King attached herself to the project from the beginning—she was a fan of the book. We did the first several passes at the screenplay and have worked with a screenwriter to polish it. Last year was difficult in terms of raising funds, but the outlook this year has been better. Right now we are at a very important and encouraging point regarding a particular financing avenue, so we are hopeful—and saying our prayers. We’ll definitely keep you posted.

Q. What books are on your list to read this summer?

Gee, it would be great to have a summer like when we were kids—two whole months with no assignments—bliss. The reality has been deadline summers which haven’t left much reading time. Glorious by Bernice McFadden is definitely on the list. She waged such a battle to get the book published and it’s exciting to see it receiving great reviews. You know we love a good read about mothers and daughters, so What Mother Never Told Me is definitely on the list. We each have stacks of books to catch up on. Let’s see how far we get!

Q. Where do you see the future of publishing going, specifically for the black author and reader?

Our crystal ball is not so clear at the moment. Storytelling is a time-honored tradition for humans in general and for those of us of African descent in particular, so we know that stories will continue to be written and shared. As far as publishing goes, the whole industry is scrambling to keep pace with developments in e-book publishing that change the entire reader-writer-publisher paradigm. None of us can rest on what used to work, because we are no longer, “back in the day.” That could be scary, but it can also be invigorating. What it definitely requires is that writers and readers stay active, and open-minded and look to stake our claim in the new media landscape.

Q. What is your next book project and can you share the storyline with us?

We have a few ideas on the table and are continuing to brainstorm. As we have mentioned, this is a difficult moment in publishing, and we are not sure what our next steps will be, but we’ll keep you posted.

Q. Where can readers find out more about you?

They can find all kinds of info, our travel schedule, our contact info and whatever else is on our minds at: on:

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