Baby Brother’s Blues

Paperback $14.95

Feb 27, 2007 | 368 Pages

Ebook $11.99

Feb 27, 2007

  • Paperback $14.95

    Feb 27, 2007 | 368 Pages

  • Ebook $11.99

    Feb 27, 2007

Praise

Praise for Pearl Cleage and Babylon Sisters

“Pearl Cleage’s wonderful new novel, Babylon Sisters, shows a writer at the top of her game, managing to weave together the eternal dance of mothers and daughters, a timeless love story, rich friendships, and international politics into a fast-paced Atlanta saga with an unforgettable villain and a thrilling climax that leaves us cheering. Cleage has once again given us a book filled with folks who are so real we think we know them, or wish we did.”
–E. Lynn Harris, author of A Love of My Own

“Babylon Sisters’ funny, feminine, fabulous voice sings a story of history, family, love and redemption. Cleage’s ability to make the personal political and the political personal triumphs once again! Nestled in this beautifully written ode to love–of child, friends, men, and self–is a call to political activism and empowerment.”
–Jill Nelson, author of Sexual Healing

“Cleage writes with amazing grace and [a] killer instinct.”
–The New York Times

“A perfect blend of love and activism . . . [Cleage’s] characters struggle with issues of conscience and consequence, and readers are always richer in the end.”
–The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


From the Hardcover edition.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Pearl Cleage, author of Baby Brother’s Blues


Question:You were a successful playwright before you wrote your first novel, What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day. . . . Now you write both plays and novels. Do you always know right away which of those two forms is best suited for the story you want to tell? Is it just that some ideas are too big for the stage?

Pearl Cleage:I never intended to start writing novels. I had an idea that wouldn’t fit on the stage. There were too many settings, too many characters, too much time passing. I decided to try and write it as a novel. It was a little intimidating at first since I was working in a new form, but after I decided to write the book in the first person–to let the main character tell the story–I was more comfortable. Writing What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day . . . was almost like a long monologue. That appealed to the playwright in me! At this point, I’ve written five novels and I feel like I’m just getting as comfortable with the form as I am with playwrighting. I still have one play in my head that I just haven’t found time to write, but I still intend to get to it. I love the immediacy of theatre, but I love equally the intimacy of the communication between a novelist and a reader. Fiction is more of a one-on-one communication, while theatre depends on an experience that is shared. I enjoy working in both forms.

Q:What Looks Like Crazy was an Oprah selection–not bad for a first try! Still, I imagine the experience could be a little overwhelming for a young writer. What effect did it have on you and on the writing of your second novel, I Wish I Had a Red Dress?

PC: I had been writing professionally for many years when my book was chosen by the Oprah’s Book Club. What Looks Like Crazy was my first novel, but I was not a beginning writer since I already had a dozen produced plays to my credit. It was a great experience from start to finish, and it introduced my work to thousands of new readers, many of whom took the time to write me letters about the book and how much they enjoyed it. All of that was wonderful, but the truth is, each book is a new experience. The success of the last one, no matter how great that success, doesn’t really make the experience of writing the next one any easier. You still have to sit down in front of that blank sheet of paper and find your story. That never changes!

Q:Did you always want to be a writer? Who were some of your influences?

PC:I always knew I was a writer. When I was two years old I was already telling stories to my sister, who was only four. When she learned to read and write in first grade, I made her teach me what she knew. After that, I kept little notebooks with my stories in them. Langston Hughes was an early influence on me. My mother used to read us sections of his autobiography, The Big Sea, the way other mothers read fairy tales. I grew up wanting to travel the world like Langston and write about my adventures, while joyfully maintaining my identity as an American Negro.

Q:On your website, you coin the word “sisterspeak.” Can you talk a bit about what you mean by that and put it into the framework of your writing?

PC: I know that African American women have a way of communicating with each other that encompasses all that we are, including, but not limited to, race and gender. I call that language “sisterspeak” because it is specific to us. It is part of what binds us as sisters and allows us to connect across lines of class and region based on our shared blood memories.

Q:Do you consider yourself to be writing in any particular tradition, and for any particular audience?

PC:When I sit down to write, I am less concerned with audience than I am with finding the truth of the story I am telling. Most of my stories have African American women at the center because I am an African American woman! I believe Alice Walker when she says “you should be the center of your world.” I don’t think by that she means that African American women should only write for and about other African American women. I think she means that you should start with the human being that you are and know that if you tell your story as truly and deeply as you can, it will resonate with other human beings, no matter what their race or gender might be. How else to explain how I can be so moved by the work of Maxine Hong Kingston and Frank McCourt, who are not, have never been, and never will be African American women? That being said, I  absolutely consider myself to be part of the African American literary tradition that encompasses a passion for literary excellence with a commitment to social change.  I don’t see the two things as being in conflict.

Q:How rigorously do you plot your books before sitting down to write them? Do your characters ever try to take control and steer the book in unexpected directions? Do you let them?

PC:I do a lot of pre-writing. I develop character charts for each character so that by the time I start to write, I know them intimately. I outline the entire plot before I start writing. I am not one of those who says “I just start writing and let the characters take me where they want to go.” That would drive me crazy! I have to know where they are going so I’ll know how to get them there most efficiently.

Q:Tell us about your new novel, Baby Brother’s Blues. Is it a sequel to last year’s Babylon Sisters?

PC:Baby Brother’s Blues is my third novel set in Atlanta’s West End neighborhood. The book picks up the lives of the two main characters of Some Things I Never Thought I’d Do, Regina and Blue Hamilton. They got married at the end of that novel, and at the beginning of this one, Regina has just found out she is carrying their first child. Her impending motherhood makes her reexamine the role that Blue plays as the neighborhood’s de facto godfather. As she struggles with the questions this raises for her and for their family, the neighborhood continues to struggle with ways to maintain the peace and security that define it. Also returning in this book are Regina’s Aunt Abbie, the self-described “post-menopausal visionary,” Precious Hargrove, an ambitious politician with her eye on city hall, her son, Kwame, and his wife, Aretha, and Peachy Nolan, a former bandmate of Blue’s who is playing an increasingly large role in Abbie’s life. Rounding out the cast of characters are General Richardson, a lifelong friend and associate of Blue’s, Brandi Harris, an exotic dancer who has plans of her own, and Wes “Baby Brother” Jamerson, a wild card whose entrance into West End sets a chain of events into motion that no one could have predicted.

Q:A lot of your novels feature recurring characters and settings, and the new one is no exception. Was this continuity something you planned from the first? Did you set out to tell the story of a whole community in addition to the stories of individual men and women within that community?

PC:I didn’t really plan to set three of the novels in the same neighborhood, but as I finished each book, I realized there were other characters in the same community who had their own interesting stories to tell. I love to see the overlapping nature of their lives and their continuing stories. Since they all live in the same small community, it isn’t hard to imagine that they would know each other and show up in each other’s lives over time. It’s fun for me to write about West End since I live in southwest Atlanta, and with each book I can also describe the changes going on in my neighborhood.

Q:Do your plays also share characters and settings?

PC:My plays are all set in different places and different times. I have never written a play about West End, and I don’t think I ever will. The neighborhood works so well in fiction I know I will set at least one more book there.

Q:I found the character of Blue Hamilton intriguing. As the protector of Atlanta’s West End neighborhood, taking the law into his own hands, he reminded me of a superhero, a Batman—like figure. To some characters, he’s a hero; to others, a thug. Why does Blue choose to act outside the law? Doesn’t this choice exact a price on him and those around him?

PC:Blue is a very complex character, and his role in the neighborhood is complicated. Part of why he is so interesting is because he does take the law into his own hands, but he is careful to only do so within the context of his own very strict code of morality and honor. Part of what I’m exploring in this new book is the price Blue pays for keeping his neighborhood safe and peaceful. For those who think he should not take the law into his own hands, the book poses the question: what should he do? Whose job is it to keep communities safe? What is the role of good men in controlling the behavior of "the misbehavin’ men” referred to in Zaron Burnett’s quote at the front of the book? I admire Blue for taking responsibility for his neighborhood, and I invite my readers to look at him and think deeply about what he is doing and why. Regina is on this same journey of understanding during the course of Baby Brother’s Blues. When she asks him what he says when people call him a gangster, he responds that he is not a gangster, but a "free man” who is determined to stay free. He’s a fascinating character to write about, and I’ve enjoyed looking at him more specifically in this book.

Q:Why did you give Blue his distinguishing physical characteristic of blue eyes, a trait usually associated with Caucasian characters? I thought it was interesting that the most powerful man in a novel in which there are no white characters nevertheless possessed this “white” attribute.

PC:Blue’s eyes are part of what make him mysterious. They are unexpected in a man who is described as so dark-skinned, but certainly not unprecedented. The legacy of slavery is a legacy of race mixing, and many African Americans have blue or green eyes, just like we have a wide variety of skin colors and hair textures. His eyes are not intended to be a Caucasian feature, but something which sets him apart. The book explains his blue eyes as a way to make sure Regina didn’t walk past him in this lifetime without recognizing him. Because of his eyes, she’d have to stop and give him a second look long enough to realize they were meant for each other. This was correctly predicted by Aunt Abbie, who told Regina that she would meet a man with “the ocean in his eyes” in Atlanta, and she did!

Q:The world of Baby Brother’s Blues is clearly our world–the United States has been hit by terrorists and is fighting an increasingly controversial war in Iraq. Indeed, the title character, Baby Brother, is a soldier who comes home on leave and then goes AWOL. Why, in a novel that takes such pains to be realistic, did you make the decision to avoid using white characters even for minor roles?

PC:This question makes me smile. I didn’t “take pains to avoid using white characters.” There were simply no white characters in the story I was telling! Would you find it unusual that Joyce Carol Oates would set a novel in an upper middle class white neighborhood and no black folks would come into the story? Was it strange that there were no black characters in Angela’s Ashes? It’s the same thing in my books. There are many communities in America that are not racially integrated, and West End is one of them. It is entirely realistic for people to live in this area and not encounter any white people at all for days, weeks, months, unless they leave the neighborhood. There were also a number of minor characters who were not identified by race at all, such as Precious’ secretary, the policewoman who directs people to Captain Kilgore’s office, the doctor at the Macon hospital where Lee’s grandfather is, Lee’s cousin’s girlfriend, the members of Baby Brother’s unit in Iraq, the soldier with the LSD on the plane. All of these characters were not identified racially and could have been white, Latino, Asian, etc. I do not know your racial identity, but I think your question grows out of the fact that you didn’t see yourself in any major characters. We all do that. Franz Fanon describes the experience of sitting in a movie theatre as a person of color and hoping that when the lights go down, he’ll see a character that reflects his reality. “I look for me,” Fanon said. For many white Americans, the experience of entering a fictional world where there are no white characters is a little disconcerting because it is unfamiliar. I think this is a good thing. As Ava says in What Looks Like Crazy, discomfort is always an important part of the process of enlightenment.

Q:From your research for this novel, and your personal experiences, do you think the war in Iraq is having a disproportionate effect on the African American community? How typical are Baby Brother’s experiences in Iraq and at home?

PC:I think the war in Iraq is having a terrible effect on all the Americans who are fighting in it, as well as being devastating to the Iraqi civilian population. I am strongly opposed to the war, which we entered searching for invisible weapons of mass destruction and continue to fight for reasons that our own president cannot articulate clearly.  I think Baby Brother’s experiences in the war are very typical. I based them on news reports, so I know that these things happen daily. His experiences at home are not so much a result of external things like racism, but of his own lack of discipline and willingness to take responsibility for himself and his actions.

Q:The “down-low” lifestyle plays an important part in the plot of Baby Brother’s Blues. The novel makes it seem like a common though secretive and shameful behavior among black men, with powerfully negative effects that extend beyond the men involved to their wives and families. How accurate is this portrait?

PC:The phenomenon of “down-low” behavior has only recently become the topic of aboveground conversation and analysis but has long been a subject of concern within the African American community. The HIV/AIDs epidemic has made the dangers of this lifestyle to the wives and families of these men more evident, since many of these men are having frequent and unprotected sex. This unsafe behavior exposes their wives to a danger many of them never consider. This is the case with Kwame and Aretha. She has no idea that he is also having sex with men. I am writing about the problem in the African American community, but this is not a problem that is limited to our community. American homophobia makes many American men reluctant to admit to their sexual preferences for fear of reprisals in their personal and professional lives. The recent film Brokeback Mountain is the story of two cowboys who live their lives “on the down-low” because they are unwilling to face the consequences of their homosexuality in the communities they live in. Each one marries, although they are in love until one dies.

Q:How do you feel about the novel being issued by the One World imprint of Random House, which is directed toward African American readers? On the one hand, it’s great that mainstream publishers are acknowledging that there is a readership of color, so to speak. But on the other hand, it worries me that a kind of segregation is being introduced into the publishing world and into bookstores, and that readers of all races will miss out on the experience of discovering new writers from divergent backgrounds.

PC:I think my responsibility as a writer is to write as well and as truthfully as I can about the characters that interest me. The desire for “crossover audience” has nothing really to do with the creative process and is of no interest to me. I will say that I frequently meet women who are Asian, white and Latina who have found my books, read them, and enjoyed them just like my African American women readers, so I don’t worry about it. I know that if I tell my specific black woman stories as well as I can, they will strike a chord in other people of all races because they are human stories.

Q:Recently a provocative op-ed piece by writer Nick Chiles ran in the New York Times under the title “Their Eyes Were Reading Smut,” a play on the title of Zora Neale Hurston’s most famous novel. Chiles writes critically of “the sexualization and degradation of black fiction,” a process by which serious fiction has been swallowed up by so-called "ghetto fiction"–stories, as he puts it, that “glorify and glamorize black criminals” and that amount to little more than “pornography for black women.” Is Chiles overreacting, or is there genuine cause for concern?

PC:
I think the concern is justified. These books are not well written and contain lots of terrible stereotypes of black women and men, lots of glamorized drug use, lots of violence against women and mutually exploitive relationships and unrelenting materialism. The covers alone are enough to make any serious writer go home and put a cold towel on her head! I don’t think these books lead readers into anything better and generally only reinforce some of the worst things we’ve already seen done to death in the gangsta rap videos. I think we have to depend on readers to seek out better quality work no matter how mercilessly these so called urban stories are pushed at them.

Q:How does the fictional Atlanta of your books compare to the Atlanta in which you live and work?

PC: My fictional Atlanta is very much like the Atlanta I live in, except that we don’t have a Blue Hamilton, so we have to be a little careful about strolling around at midnight! Otherwise, I try very hard to make it true to the neighborhood as I know it. From the Krispy Kreme to the busy street vendors, the lovingly restored Victorian houses and unapologetic female political power, this is the Atlanta I know and love!

Q:There are a number of supernatural and metaphysical elements to Baby Brother’s Blues–reincarnation, life after death, witchcraft, to name a few. Do these elements reflect your personal beliefs?

PC: These elements reflect my own interests and curiosities. I find it interesting to use magical elements in the book as if past lives and spells were a natural part of life. I think there are many things that we cannot see or explain that are as real as the things we can touch. Mixing up all these elements in a realistic story is fun for me and I hope for my readers.

Q: Has there been any interest in your books from Hollywood?

PC: There are no current plans to make the books into films.

Q: What are you working on now?

PC: I’m letting my creative mind fully release the cast of characters from Baby Brother’s Blues before I start on a new book this summer. Presently, I hold the Cosby chair in the humanities at Spelman College, where I’m teaching in the Women’s Studies Center and reading as much as I can. I can’t read fiction when I’m writing–too distracting!–so I am devouring as many books as I can before I start working again.


From the Hardcover edition.

 

A CONVERSATION WITH
PEARL CLEAGE


Q: Baby Brother’s Blues has the same strengths of your previous novels: the compelling drama, sharp insights, strong characters, and almost mythical romantic optimism against a backdrop of harsh urban reality. Yet in this book, you move from the first person to third person point of view, and heighten the drama with more of a taut, thrillerlike plot and more immediate personal consequences for your main, recurring characters. What brought you to this place in your fiction, and will you hang with this writing vibe in the foreseeable future?

Pearl Cleage: It was a big change for me to write in the third person, but this story didn’t lend itself to one narrator. With first person, the writer and the reader can see only what the main character sees. This story had lots of activity that took place when nobody was watching so I had to become the all-seeing eye that could take the reader into each thread of the story until they all come together. It was challenging because I had to go to places where I wouldn’t have gone in first person. None of my female narrators would have been caught dead in Montre’s, and they definitely couldn’t have been where Blue and General were working out their questions. I think going to the places where the men go made it grittier. It was great fun for me, although nerve-wracking at times until I got comfortable with it! I now feel like I’m comfortable writing in first person and third person, which is wonderful for me as a writer. It gives me more tools to work with whatever story I’m telling. My new book, The Return of the Amazon Queens, is sort of a combination of the two. I’m using two narrators whose stories overlap. The narrators are Flora Lumumba, who was the founder of the West End Growers Association, and a new character in West End, Josephine Evans, Zora’s grandmother, who has been living in Europe for almost thirty years and has just decided to come home.

Q: This novel seems to be about war on many levels: personal, societal, political, and moral. The wars within and the wars outside of us that affect us so deeply. What moved you to explore this landscape of such profound inner and outer conflict?

PC: I am in great distress about the state of the world around us. Our country is engaged in so many violent conflicts around the world and nobody seems to know how to bring the conflicts to a peaceful end. I thought by having a character like Baby Brother, who was directly involved in the violence but had no political point of view, I could take a look at how that conflict evolves from a global level to our personal lives. I don’t think we can continue to perpetuate violence around the world and think that it won’t affect our citizens and how we act toward one another. I am also always asking readers to think deeply about the role Blue Hamilton plays and how we feel about the code of honor that he obeys. I want us to think about whether or not violence is ever justified and if it is, when and why?

Q: As a black woman who has said and written that you have been in love all of your life, what are your thoughts about and reactions to the down-low dynamic? What effects do you see it having on sisters, on brothers, on how we relate to one another in intimate relationships?

PC: I think the problem with being on the down low is not a question of love or sexuality. It’s a question of lying, and lying is always wrong. When Precious tells her son, Kwame, that the problem is his lying, not his sexuality, she is really saying what I believe. If Kwame had told the truth: to himself, to his mother, to Aretha, he could have lived the life he wanted. But he was afraid, so he lied, with disastrous consequences. I think lying is the death of love. You can’t love a person and lie to them.
Q: If you could be any character in Baby Brother’s Blues for a day, which would it be and why? What would you want to learn, experience, and/or accomplish as that character?

PC: I think I’d have to be Abbie doing that cartwheel on the beach! I’ve wanted to do cartwheels all my life and I can never get it right. I’d want to accomplish one perfect cartwheel!

Q: You write about many of the harshest realities in our country in general and the African American community in particular: domestic violence, street dangers, stripper culture, the down-low phenomenon, human trafficking, and, of course, the war. Yet you manage to instill a kind of hope in your characters and your readers. How do you maintain your own sense of hope amid the madness?

PC: I love that quote from Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl that says “In spite of everything, I still believe in the goodness of people.” She wrote that just days before the Nazis came and took her whole family to a concentration camp! I share that belief. I think that most people are basically good and want to raise families, do good work, fall in love, and grow old in peace surrounded by family and friends. The problems begin when we try to force other people to believe what we believe, or when we feel entitled to their resources simply because we are strong enough to take them. I think the challenge we face now is not to give up hope and abandon the struggle for peace and truth. If we do that, the bad guys will win and then where will we be? These days when I start to feel hopeless and depressed, I try to spend time with my two grandchildren. Being with them makes me want to rededicate myself to the struggle and to find peaceful solutions to the problems we face. I think I owe them that much.

Q: Tell us about the power of the storyteller, the novelist, and the playwright to share their vision with the world, and which vision you are most committed to sharing with your readers.

PC: I think storytelling is an ancient art that has survived because it’s through our stories that we reveal who we truly are as a community of people. I want my stories to be able to stimulate a vision in people of a different way for us to live together.
I think that one of the most important things a writer can do is to create characters that let us look at how we can be the best possible human beings. That doesn’t mean every character should be perfect, but I want my overall vision to be optimistic because I believe we are capable of “fixing what’s broke.”

Q: What have you learned from the characters in Baby Brother’s Blues?

PC: I learned that men’s lives are very, very different from women’s lives! I guess I knew that already, but writing a novel in the third person and living in the heads of the men in the book really made me aware of how differently men and women approach the world. It was challenging, but I learned so much and I truly value the experience.

Q: What does Wes Jamerson, aka “Baby Brother,” represent about Black life in America today? How did you feel about him as you were writing this book? Did your feelings change as the story progressed?

PC: Wes Jamerson is a lost soul. He has a tremendous feeling of entitlement and no feeling of responsibility. It is difficult to deal with people like this because they never feel that they are responsible for their actions and the consequences of those actions. I felt sorry for him, but he is never a person who is going to be a contributing member of any group, so he kind of had to end up the way he did.

Q: Kwame is living a life of deception. Is his wife, Aretha, deceiving herself as well?

PC: I don’t think Aretha was deceiving herself. She had no idea her husband was living a double life. His lies were so complete and her trust in him was so absolute that she had no idea that he was having affairs and seeking out the company of strangers. I think she was deceived, but I don’t think she was deceiving herself.

Q: Do we all deceive ourselves a little when it comes to love? Or is there room for absolute honesty with oneself and one’s partner in a relationship?


PC: I think there is room for absolute honesty and that not only is there room for it, it is necessary if the love is going to last. I don’t think that there can be lies and deception between people who say they love each other. What is the reason for lying to loved ones? I firmly believe that truth must be at the heart of any real loving relationship. Think how different Kwame and Aretha’s relationship would have been if he had told her the truth.

Q: Blue is driven so strongly by his sense of ethics, yet it led him to be unforgiving of his best friend, General. Is their friendship a casualty of an ethical war? And will Blue regret being so hard on General?

PC: I think Blue is consistent. That is part of his personality and part of what makes him able to play the role he plays in West End. You can’t hold the power of life and death over people and be wishy-washy. You have to have a strict code of ethics, honor, and conduct and stick to it. General knew the rules. He knew he broke the rules, not about Juanita, but about Baby Brother’s murder. If Blue had forgiven General, then what message would that send to the community about Blue and his men? Allowing General to kill someone–even an undesirable someone like Baby Brother–would undermine everything Blue has built. He didn’t kill General. General recognized his error and took his own life. He knew there was no other honorable choice. I think Blue will miss General, but I think he knows there was no other choice.

Q: Aretha and Regina are friends. Has Regina had any trouble staying sober after her recovery from the cocaine addiction that she overcame in Some Things I Never Thought I’d Do? Does Aretha know about this aspect of Regina’s life?

PC: Regina never had a problem with alcohol and drugs again. After she got over breaking up with Son and with Beth, she became stronger for the struggle. Regina and Aretha have probably talked about this many times. They are close friends and during the time they spent at the beach together after the murder of Baby Brother, I am sure they talked about everything!

Q: The character Brandi was very realistic, as were your descriptions of her work at the strip clubs. Have you been to a strip club? Have you known any women who do that type of dancing? Is stripping a form of exploitation, an empowered life choice, or something else altogether?


PC: I have never been to a strip club, but I’ve seen enough of them in movies, videos, and on television shows that I felt I could re-create the ambience in a believable way. I know one woman who worked in a strip club while she was in college. She didn’t particularly like it, but it paid good money and she quit as soon as she graduated. I don’t think of working in the sex industry as an empowering choice as much as I think of it as the lesser of the evils many women face when looking for employment. Since the sex industry usually involves physical intimacy with other human beings based on an exchange of money, not an exchange of emotions, I think it has the potential to cheapen those emotions and make it difficult for the sex workers to be involved in other human relationships. There is also the question of violence and sexually transmitted diseases. It’s dangerous, dehumanizing work in most cases, and not a life I would recommend.

Q: How does diving so deeply into the issues of the day, the pathologies of our society and our community, affect you as a person outside of your writing?

PC: I think that looking closely at our community and thinking deeply about what I see there is part of my work. As a writer, I have the responsibility to try to understand why human beings do the things they do, and create characters that allow me to explore the wide variety of those behaviors. I don’t set out to write about issues. I set out to write about people, characters who are situated in real times and places. Because problems and challenges exist, my characters run up against them, too. At the same time, they are trying to figure out their personal relationships and their love lives. I am very concerned about the degree of violence and intolerance in our world. I hope that my writing is part of the movement of people to reclaim their countries and communities and remake them as places of safety and peace. I’d like West End to be so peaceful that they don’t need Blue Hamilton anymore so he can just relax and raise his child and love his wife, but we aren’t there yet.

Q: What, if any, bullets of insight or awareness are you hoping to lodge in the consciousness of your readers with Baby Brother’s Blues?

PC: I hope that people will find these characters interesting enough to spend a couple hundred pages with them. I hope that, as they follow the journey of General and Blue and Zora and Baby Brother and Brandi and Abbie and Peachy and the rest of these folks, they will see themselves reflected in some of the challenges and some of the choices. I hope this book tells a good story that draws you in and won’t let you go until it’s done!

Q: When did you know that you were a writer, someone who would write for a living and be published? When did you feel that you had arrived?

PC: I have always known I was a writer. I started telling stories to my big sister when I was just two years old! When she learned to read and taught me at age four, I started writing my stories down in little notebooks, and I’ve been doing it ever since! I never thought about whether or not I could write for a living. I started publishing very early, while I was still in high school, but I usually got a few dollars and a few copies of the magazines in payment. I always thought I would have to do other things to pay the rent! It has been such a blessing to me to be able to write full-time and make a living at it. As for feeling like I had arrived, I think the wonderful thing about writing is that you can keep doing it, and working to get better at it, until you’re too old to hold the pen and see the pages! I’m not trying to arrive anywhere. I’m trying to work hard and be a better writer with each and every book. I love the process of writing and I hope to continue to do it for the rest of my life.

Q: What advice do you most commonly give people who tell you they want to write novels?

PC: I tell people they should keep journals to help them get into the habit of writing for at least half an hour a day. A journal helps you begin to look more closely at the world around you and how you feel about what you see. Developing a point of view and voice are crucial to the writer’s art, so a journal is a good place to start. I urge them to write each and every day and to think of learning to write the same way they would think of learning to play the trumpet . . . you have to practice if you want to get good at it! I also encourage people to think about developing their craft before they start trying to figure out how to make money. If you write well and work to write better, I believe you will find an audience. But writing isn’t a field to go into to be a millionaire–most writers never make enough to pay the light bill!

Q: What is it about the process of writing that sustains you? Challenges you? Fulfills you? Makes you crazy?

PC: Writing is the way I answer my own questions about the world. When I look around and see that my community isn’t safe, I ask myself: Why isn’t it safe and what would it take to make it safer? When I start trying to figure out what it means to be in love, I create characters who are trying to figure it out, too; that allows me to discover the answers along with the characters and the reader. The most challenging thing, I think, is to figure out what story you are trying to tell. At the early stages, all things are possible and it is the writer’s job to focus in on the one story that you can’t stand not to share. When I find the thread of the story I’m looking for, I am always grateful and very excited. I think there’s always a moment when you feel like you’re crazy for even trying to write this story. You hate the pages you’ve got, you have no idea where you should go next, and you don’t even like your characters anymore! At that point, you should get up, turn off your computer, leave your office, and go outside for a while. Sit on the front steps, wave at your neighbors, drink a glass of wine with your beloved, play with your grandchildren–anything to remind you that the world that’s making you crazy is all in your head. It’s only make-believe. Real life is something else altogether and writing, even wonderful writing, is only a pale reflection. So when you feel crazy, just remember, “It’s only a novel . . . it’s only a novel . . . it’s only a novel.”

Q: What would your readers be most surprised to learn about you?

PC: I think most readers would be surprised to learn that I can cook a great Thanksgiving dinner, complete with turkey, homemade dressing, mac and cheese, collard greens, and all the trimmings!

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Also by Pearl Cleage

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