Tag Archives: Toni Morrison

Author Interview: Kaylie Jones

I had the pleasure of meeting Kaylie Jones at the Brooklyn Book Festival last September. I attended a panel where she, Terry McMillan and Dennis Lehane discussed their latest books. (You can listen to the discussion here.) I immediately connected with her. As you will see for yourself, she is not only a gifted and brilliant writer, but an intelligent, interesting, lovely and beautiful person. I am blessed, privileged and honored to introduce to you, the extraordinary Kaylie Jones.

1) When did you decide you wanted to write?

When I was eight I started to write a novel in a school notebook. It was about a girl who runs away from home with her talking bear. I showed it to my father, who was very encouraging. He didn’t correct anything or give me advice, he just told me to keep going. I soon gave up, of course. He died when I was sixteen, a blow from which I will never fully recover. Soon after, I went off to college, completely directionless. The literary critics were very hard on my father and I felt I needed to understand where he stood in the canon of American letters, so I started to pursue the study of literature. I had a comp 101 professor, the writer Daniel Stern, who pulled me out of the class and told me he would work with me privately because I showed great promise. I was stunned; I didn’t believe him, but I applied myself to improving my writing. Really, all my stories were memoir in the guise of fiction. It wasn’t until my Junior year, when I was studying Tolstoy’s War and Peace, that I had a moment of enlightenment, a spiritual awakening, you might say. I was reading the death of Prince Andrew and realized that if a writer who’d lived more than one hundred years before me, with whom I shared no cultural experience, could write about the process of death and dying in a way that rescued me from my own grief, I thought – okay, this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to try to be a writer.

2) Was there anyone in your life who encouraged you?

While my father was very sick and unable to leave the house in the winter of 1976-77, we read books together. That was one of the highlights of my last year with him. We read Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily, Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and A Farewell to Arms. We read Bonjour Tristesseby Francoise Sagan, and The Wanderer, by Alain-Fournier, his favorite French novel. He did not go into explaining the authors’ stylistic choices; he liked to discuss the characters’ choices and actions, as if they were real people who were making the decisions for themselves. We also read the poems of Edna Saint Vincent Millay and Emily Dickinson, with whom he was a little in love, I think. These writers helped shaped me not just as a writer, but I believe they shaped my moral backbone and helped me to stay on some kind of moral path after my father was gone and no longer there to advise me.

I had fantastic writing teachers along the way. I often think of them as sages holding up lanterns along a dark path. In college, Daniel Stern was my first mentor. Later, I got into a very small and kind of elite writing workshop with a professor named Jack Paton, who was a veteran of WWII. He took issue with my father’s profanity and overuse of adjectives and adverbs. We would fight about it all the time! But I loved Jack, and he taught me to control my style, how to be precise and get my sentences down to their fighting weight. Later, I went to graduate school at Columbia, where I got my MFA. I studied with Richard Price, Edmund White, and Russell Banks. Can you imagine that good fortune? They were tough as nails, and I learned to listen to their criticism and advice.

Richard Price gave me a thirty book reading list one summer, telling me that I was “too immersed in the classics.” He wanted me to read what he called “down and dirty” modern fiction. So on that list were John Reechy’s City of Night, Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries, all of Toni Morrison’s works – many of the books that shaped him as one of our most important modern writers.

3) How did The Anger Meridian come about?

The second time my mother was hospitalized for alcoholism my daughter was starting first grade in a new school. We spent every free minute at New York Hospital. My mother would stare me down and yell at me as if I were somehow to blame for her condition. Everyone on the floor, including my daughter, heard her calling me the most awful names. My mother had a small heart attack while she was there, and they moved her to intensive care. I watched the heart monitor go up and down, up and down, and just kept praying for it to flatline. For her to die now, with no more pain. But she survived, and the horror went on for another four years. I often asked myself, “What would it take, what would be the last straw, that would push a daughter to kill her mother?”

I discussed this, philosophically, with my daughter, the way my father used to discuss characters with me. “I want to write a book about a woman who is pushed so far by her mother that she kills her, but it’s in a moment of passion, of rage.” My daughter, who was about seven at this point, offered advice.

That following February, we were standing on the edge of a veranda of a big house overlooking a cliff in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where I was teaching a writing workshop with Beverly Donofrio, when my daughter said, “I know what you’re thinking. This is the perfect place for your character to push her mother off the cliff.” That was exactly what I was thinking and it was the beginning of the novel. But as the novel progressed, I became less and less sure that Merryn, my character, would be capable of pushing her mother off the cliff. So that is what the book is really about. What would be so awful that she’d find herself capable of such an act? Did she do it? Could she? Would she?

4) Bibi is an amazing character, how did she come to you?

Bibi, the mother in the novel, is based on several women I knew growing up, including my own mother. Educated women who grew up in luxury and without a want in the world – beautiful, admired, adored by their husbands, friends, and children. Usually they did not have careers, and perhaps that is where their feelings of insecurity, anger, and restlessness came from. They were women to whom no one ever said no. This is a little bit like being a movie star, where a person becomes so famous that no one will contradict her. In a situation like this, where a person is so insulated by her own family and her money, that the real world is only a vague scrim in the distance, her children often become her hostages. That is what I was aiming to describe: a 40 year old daughter who suddenly finds herself in actual fact stuck, held hostage, penniless, and at her mother’s mercy. That is the dynamic that drives the novel. The added dimension is that Merryn, the daughter, has her own 9 year-old daughter, Tenney, whom she adores, and whom she wants to protect and honor. So it’s a constant battle of wills between feeling like she has to honor her cruel and narcissistic mother, or honor her own child.

5) What is your writing or creative process?

Usually an idea for a book comes to me and I will attempt to plant that kernel. Then I water it and give it light and wait to see if it will grow. I’ve had many ideas for novels that never took root. It takes me about a year of thinking before I open a notebook and start to take notes. Then I start thinking about the idea of sitting down and opening a blank document on my desktop. This is the hardest part. My old friend the author Lucy Rosenthal called this “page fright.”

Then, hopefully, I start to write.

6) What are some of your favorite books or authors?

I still return to Tolstoy over and over again for style and form. No one shows characters’ feelings better, especially characters who are unaware of what they are feeling; at least, the reader becomes aware of their feelings before they do themselves. This is very hard to pull off.

One of my favorite novels is Pale Horse, Pale Rider, by Katherine Anne Porter. I wish more people still read her work. I go to her for courage. Often I’ll turn to Flannery O’Connor’s short stories for technique and precision. I especially love O’Connor’s imagery and the way she anthropomorphizes objects in her descriptions. I love that she has such despicable characters that are still fascinating. John Cheever still inspires me and helps me to hone my craft.

I fear our literature has become too obvious – white hat/black hat for the good guy and the bad guy. If only life were so simple!

Recently I took Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder with me to China while I was studying Kung Fu with Shaolin monks. I love her writing. She kept me company as I struggled to keep up with the youngsters in the Shaolin school. I think she is a very important American writer.

7) Is a writer born or made?

My friend Susan Cheever, John Cheever’s daughter, said something to me once that really stayed with me. She said, “Face it, we’re circus folk.” Meaning, if you’re raised in the circus, you learn to be a circus performer. If your mom rode elephants, you learned to ride elephants. I believe this is true for the children of writers.

I’d say most serious writers were children who felt a great loneliness and isolation, and found solace, friends, in books. The next step is giving back, writing to reach out and communicate with others who may feel the same way. This is probably a romantic notion, but I have always thought of literature as my higher power. The thing that pulled me from my own pit of despair and chaos.

8) What did you personally do to perfect your craft?

I never stop reading, studying sentences, studying writers. In an interview John Irving once said that he was never able to read for pleasure again once he became a writer, because he was constantly trying to figure out how the writer did something in the book, something technically spectacular. This made me laugh because I do the same thing.

One of my former students recently discovered Cormac McCarthy. I get texts and emails from him almost daily, quoting Cormac McCarthy and asking my opinion on how in the hell did McCarthy do this or that? Again, I laugh. This is how real writers think. Someone who tries to take the sentences apart to understand how the author did it. Which, of course, takes the element of magic, of unconscious inspiration, out of the equation. And that’s the part we can’t really account for. What my dad used to call the 10% magic part.

9) What do you like the most and the least about writing a book?

I like when I feel a chapter or a short story or essay is finished. I can look back happily and say, “Well, that is good work.”

I hate a blank page. That feeling of heart palpitations and sweaty palms as I sit down to start. What I hate almost as much as that is my inner censor/critic, who tells me I have no right to write, and that I’m a vain and egotistical person to think I have the right to sit down and express myself. It’s taken me years to silence that voice, and bring it to the fore only in the final editing process.

10) Lastly, what advice would you give to an aspiring author?

I think learning when to silence that inner censor is a crucial part of being able to be creative. When to bring that critic out and when to keep him/her locked away. It is very easy to become discouraged as a writer.

One of the most important aspects of becoming a writer is finding a supportive community. Whether this is in an MFA program or among other like-minded writers, I think a writing community is crucial. I don’t mean a wife, husband, brother, sister, or best friend who says, “This is awesome!” I mean a serious reader who will give you honest and intelligent feedback. Also, if we don’t take criticism personally, it really helps.

I love the term “Literary Citizenship.” I believe it was coined by my friend, writer Lori May. Jim Warner, the poet, often uses it to describe a writer’s willingness to share, and to offer advice without assassinating another person’s work. And doing what we can to support each other without competitive jealousy. Many years ago I made the decision to help other writers whenever I could.

When I was in Soviet Georgia as a student in 1987, we Americans could NOT pay for anything! The Georgian cabbies wouldn’t even take our money. When we tried to pay for pirozhkis at street kiosks, the street vendors would not accept our money. I’d never had this happen to me anywhere in the world. I asked one Georgian cab driver why they would not let us pay. He told me a Georgian fable: “When God was making the world, he walked all over his creation, distributing goods from the Horn of Plenty. But he tripped over the Caucasus Mountains, fell and dropped the Horn on Georgia. That is why we have everything here! But the secret is, the Horn of Plenty only stays full if you give everything away.”

I have tried to live by that rule ever since.

KAYLIE JONES has published seven books, including a memoir, Lies My Mother Never Told Me, and her most recent novel, The Anger Meridian. Her novel A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries was adapted as a Merchant Ivory film in 1998. Jones has been teaching for more than twenty-five years, and is a faculty member in the Stony Brook Southampton MFA in Creative Writing & Literature program and in Wilkes University’s MFA in Creative Writing program. She is the author of Speak Now and the editor of Long Island Noir. Her newest endeavor is her publishing imprint with Akashic Books, Kaylie Jones Books.

You can follow Kaylie Jones on Facebook and Twitter.

 

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Author Interview: Takerra Allen

 

I have been watching this author on Facebook for quite some time now. I always resonate with her status updates. It is where I learned how she thinks, the beauty of her heart, the love of her family and readers, whom she endearingly refers to as her Luvs. Recently, I discovered she is Tupac Shukar’s sister. Tupac happens to be one of my favorite rappers. I can see talent runs her blood, however, her work stands on its own merit. With every stroke of her pen, she pours her soul out on to every page, and you feel every word. It is an honor and privilege to introduce to you, the beautiful, Takerra Allen.

1) Please tell us a little bit about yourself? Who is Takerra? Where did you grow up? How was your childhood?

I think I’m a simple woman. I am, at this stage of my life, about my family FIRST, myself second – doing what truly makes me happy and writing is one of them, finding the beauty in the world while I’m here, and pleasing God which I think all mentioned is a part of that. I was born in Jersey City, NJ, moved to New Brunswick, NJ at the age of 10, and I stayed in that area since. My childhood was beautiful because it was filled with love. I had some tough times, things I don’t discuss but I don’t let that overshadow the love my mother and father poured out on me. Even when living in Jersey City, witnessing crime and all types of things, sometimes too close for comfort even, I still felt loved. Through everything, all I can remember is the good.

2) What was your earliest recollection of writing?

When I was eight or so I began taking creative writing classes for fun – a teacher recommended me. I did a few summer writing programs. I reflect now and just remember the comfort of a teacher even at ten or eleven years old saying class, we’re going to do this while Takerra and a few other students, you guys can go to these computers and type whatever you want. It was like a treat. When they would give out journals and say write in them for the school year, I would be so excited. I always got A’s on writing projects with interesting notes – some good, some critical lol. Outstanding writing, but you can’t start a sentence with “and” or “but”. Or, Takerra, this is running on too long. The same things I was told then I find myself doing now and I realize, it’s my writing style. I wrote poems, and plays, and in a diary, and songs since I could begin writing. I didn’t go out and play much, didn’t have many friends, I just stayed in my room with imaginary characters and writing them in some way. I was weird. Who knew I was being groomed.

3) Did anyone encourage you to write or did it come naturally for you?

It definitely came natural but when I was about seventeen, I started writing my first book, Thicker than Water. It sat unfinished for a very long time. A few years later my boyfriend who is now my husband, said you should finish this book. And I did.

4) What was the first piece you have ever written? Was it published or non-published?

Thicker than Water was my first novel and it was self-published originally in 2008 and then with a new cover and editing lol in 2009.

5) What is the one thing that means the most to you?

My daughter. I can’t imagine anything coming before her. She’s a whole life that I am in charge of and I’m responsible for molding her for the world and giving her all of the love so she doesn’t do crazy things looking for it elsewhere. There’s nothing bigger than that.

6) When you first decided to write a book were you afraid or insecure? If so, how did you overcome it?

I wasn’t scared at all actually and it’s crazy because now I yearn for the lack of pressure. The first is easy to me because there’s no pretense of who you are supposed to be. No expectations. You just write what you want and it’s so liberating. Now, I have more pressure. Because more people are watching; my Luvs. I want to please them. I want to live up to the last work.

7) How does the inspiration or ideas for your books come to you? How do you formulate your realistic characters?

I dream my books. Knock on wood, they keep coming. Every time I’m afraid I will run out of ideas, I have another dream. Dream Gods please keep them coming lol. The characters are real because they don’t start as people. I don’t focus on looks, or what they’re going to do first. I focus on emotions. I feel what they feel – their fears, desires, and then I create them based on that. Because all of our thoughts and actions come from the things we desire and the things we fear. It’s what makes us, us. So when you give your characters fears and desires, you make them human.

8) What was the hardest book you wrote and why?

Restricted Too. Because it was promised. I said I was going to have a sequel before I even had the entire story. So the pressure to create it was real. I would never do that again. I’ll never say there will be a sequel until it comes to be 100% and I feel it in my bones.

9) How did you learn to perfect your craft?

Oh, I don’t think I’ve perfected my craft at all lol. I reread, a lot. I reread as a reader my work and go, do I feel it, can it be better? And I just assault my work until I personally can’t do any better.  I’m very into detail now. I’m enjoying it. But still, I read Jane Austen or Stephen King or Toni Morrison and I go, why couldn’t you write like this? LOL

10) How many times do you send your work to an editor? How is the editing process for you? Do you learn the most from the editing process?

My work goes through two editing processes. Luckily, they don’t change much from how I write, they really just look for structure, misspellings, tense, grammar things like that. It may not work for everyone, but so far it works for us.

11) What are some of your favorite books and authors? Do you have an all time favorite book?

I love Jane Austen, Gillian Flynn, Dorothy Allison, Toni Morrison, and all-time favorite – Stephen King. Most people don’t count Wes Craven for writing but he wrote screenplays that were awesome and he’s one of my idols. I don’t have a favorite book really.

12) What do you want your readers to get from your books?

Love. I want them to feel love, experience love – the good and bad of it.  I want them to get lost for a little and then take a message from it in the end. I believe there is a message in each one of my works. Devout – unconditional love and doing what’s best for you even if it hurts. Heaven’s Hell – strength, growth, standing on your own. (There’s Power in the…) V – forgiveness, the importance of family. Restricted – consequences. The Lonely Pole – following your dreams even when life throws a bunch of stuff at you, and it never being too late even if you lose your way. Thicker than Water – friendship, betrayal, trust, getting through hardships and losing people.

13) Do you have a writing routine? Do you write every day?

No, and no lol. I mean, I don’t go out of my way to write everyday but it does end up happening most of the time. I follow my heart and spirit and try to write when I’m feeling inspired. I feel like people heard someone say, you should write a little everyday even if you don’t want to, and now that’s like bible. That sounds terrible to me. I think that’s how mediocrity happens. When you wait until you really feel it then you have a heartfelt story. I would rather put out one heartfelt story once a year than three okay ones. Since when did it become a race? But again, it’s what works for me.

14) When did you decide to start your own publishing company, “Angelic Script Publishing” and why?

We started Angelic Script Publishing when we decided to put out the book in 2009. My business partner Sandra, saw something in my work and invested in printing the books and I appreciate her for that ,and luckily it was successful and she and I were able to make that back and more and we are still going! I thank God for what we’ve accomplished so far and all of the readers who made it possible.

15) Who had the most influence in your life and why?

I’m influenced by so many people for some many reasons. I’m influenced by my mother, God rest her soul – her strength and just the qualities of being a lady at all times. My father and his consciousness he instilled in me. My husband and his honesty and the ability to appreciate the simple things in life. My daughter and her innocence, the way she sees the beauty in everything. My brother, Tupac, his passion, his talent, the fire that couldn’t be tamed. My sisters, my other brothers,  my best friend, Sandra, my readers who are so inspiring and dedicated and loving, I cannot limit it to one person.

16) You have ten books published, correct? Thicker Than Water being your first. How long does it take you to finish a book?

V2 was number 11, yay! But yes, Thicker than Water was my first. It really varies, but it can take anywhere from two to nine months lol. But I am always working on a few things at once. So I may stop a project for like six months and then pick back up and finish it in three weeks. And then I send it to Dee-Dee (Sandra) for her stamp of approval.

17) Are you currently working on any new projects?

Yes, I am working on three novels, one is top priority as well as finishing up the Heaven’s Hell film. Very excited about that.

18) Is there something else you still dream of achieving?

Film and television. I always loved film – I took drama in high school and college and adored it. Now I see it wasn’t for the acting, it was for visualizing a story. I want to see my stories played out. That’s a dream.

19) If there was one thing you would want to change about the industry, what would it be?

The lack of creativity and weed out the people doing it for the wrong reasons. It has become so trendy and I am scared for the future of urban fiction. I see great potential for the growth as far as movies, and commercialism, and the way it has expanded is phenomenal; but it seems like it’s expanding with too much crap. Too much repetition, no respect for other writers or the readers for that fact, people are looking to make a quick buck and want to be famous, and writers are not famous lol. You have to love the craft. You have to be born for this.

20) Lastly, what advice would you give new writers?

Write from your heart and make sure it’s in your heart. I’ve had many new writers contact me, and let me just say, to many, I am new as well. But I’m honored anyone would look to me for advice and I tell them the same, write from your heart and follow your own path. Many of them have gone on to write books and although many don’t mention the advice I gave, or that they’ve talked to me at all, (and by the way I try to answer every question lol even through my schedule, and some asked lots of questions lol but it’s cool and I love it). It’s love on my part and I still give that advice first. I don’t know, for reasons people like to keep their interactions with other authors quiet. Tracy Brown answered a question of mine when I first started, K’wan has always kept it real with me, Ashley and Jaquavis have shown love, Wahida Clark has shown love. I acknowledge them and thank them for that. But whether new writers chose to follow my advice or not, I tell them all the same amongst other things, and I hope that they appreciated it. Shout out to my inbox lol. And shout out to my Luvs!

Takerra Allen is the author of eleven urban-romance titles, including the 2010 African American Literary Award nominated hit novel, Heaven’s Hell and the 2015 RT Reviewers Choice Award nominated, Thicker than Water 3. In addition to being an author, she is the proud daughter of former Black Panther William Garland and sister to the late, renowned Tupac Shakur. She has been featured in publications such as XXL Magazine and Don Diva Magazine, featured four times in the Top 10 Urban Books Listing. Her Thicker than Water series is currently published through Kensington/Dafina Publishing and an independent film based on the novel Heaven’s Hell has been filmed, directed by Takerra and produced by Angelic Script, the independent entertainment company of Takerra and her business partner, Sandra Mobley.

You can follow Takerra Allen on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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