I spent a wonderful afternoon with members of the Carroll County Chapter of the Maryland Writers’ Association. Hosted by the Finksburg Branch of the Carroll County Public Library, we talked about “Crafting Characters that Take on a Life of Their Own.” Thank you, Joelle Jarvis, president of the chapter, for the invitation, as well as everyone who came to hear me speak. I so appreciate your time and the warm and attentive reception you gave me.
I’m so excited that The Harlem Book Fair chose my novel, Provenance, as a First Fiction Finalist for the 2016 Wheatley Book Awards. The Harlem Book Fair is the largest African American book fair in the United States and the Wheatley Awards are named in honor of American Poet Phillis Wheatley (1752 – 1784), the first published African-American female writer. The mission of the annual competition is to recognize literary work and advocacy that transcends culture, country and perception.
While Provenance did not win, I was in great company and I am very honored to have my work recognized by this renowned national competition. Thank you, Harlem Book Fair!
For more information on the winners and other finalists see the Phillis Wheatley Book Award Winning Books feature on the aalbc.com website. More information about Phillis Wheatley is available here.
First, I must thank my wonderful family and great friends, as well as the book-lovers and dedicated volunteers who, despite the relentless rain, were there to support the 2016 Gaithersburg Book Festival. A very special thanks to my friend, Maryetta, who braved I-95 and drove down from New Jersey for the event. Thank you, thank you, thank you one and all!
This was my first time as a featured author at the Festival and I had a great time connecting with readers and other authors. As a fiction writer I spend a lot of time alone making up people and their stories so, it’s exceptional when you have the opportunity to get out and experience how your writing resonates with real people. I met a woman whose daughter sent her a copy of Provenance. This woman flew in from the Midwest to meet me at the Festival so that I could sign her copy of my book. She told me that she thought the book was important, that she had learned about passing, a part of the African American experience that she knew nothing about. She thanked me for writing such a beautiful book; that was pretty special, so I thanked her too.
I think writers, by nature, are not all that comfortable talking about themselves or their books, I know that’s true for me. I also know that meeting and interacting with readers is a vital part of being of being published and I’m working on getting more comfortable with that aspect of being an author. I’m hard at work on the next book in the Provenance series so the interest and enthusiasm I experienced that day will help me stay the course with Promise. If my experience at Gaithersburg Book Festival is an example what’s to come, I think I’m going to like this author thing!
If you weren’t able to make it to this year’s Festival, I’ve posted a brief video from my presentation (if you listen closely you can hear the raindrops cascading on the tent). The rain didn’t stop us for a second! Check out the moisture defying smiles and styles in photos on the Gaithersburg Book Festival Facebook page.
Just a couple of days to go until the Gaithersburg Book Festival on Saturday, May 21. I’m still working on my presentation and trying to keep my nerves under control. I’ll be talking about my novel, Provenance, at 10:30 AM in the F. Scott Fitzgerald Pavilion – hope to see you there! For more details – click here.
I asked a wonderfully cerebral friend of my daughter’s if he was planning to attend my reading at the Gaithersburg Book Festival on the 21st of May. Afraid of facing empty chairs at my event, I am unapologetically asking EVERYONE that question in these days leading up to the Festival. My young friend told me that he’d be there and that he was ready with questions that he planned to ask me.
“Like what? Give me an example,” I asked, confident that I was prepared to field any question about my book.
“I’d like to know why you write.” His question stopped me cold.
No one had ever asked me that before. I’ve been asked what I write about, how I write, when, where and how long but never, why?
Words on paper have always been my preferred method of communication. I was the shy child in an outgoing family and found refuge in reading and eventually courage and encouragement when I expressed myself in writing. When I write I have every sentiment and delivery skill at my disposal—tools I find harder to access in verbal communication. There are rarely, “Wish I’d said that, or hadn’t said that,” moments in a manuscript. Omniscience can be obtained through research and experience. Thoughtful beginnings, middles and ends can be crafted in stories carefully plotted and executed. I can make story arcs and characters curve in the direction I choose. Loose ends are tied, what’s lost can be found and, love and happiness can blossom with a few keystrokes. And, there is always the opportunity for revision. This is what I like about writing—it is not why I write.
I’m not sure I have a profound answer to my young friend’s insightful question. The closest I can come is to say that like the color of my eyes, the sound of my voice, being part of my family—it is something I was born with. Ideas and images compel their way through me to become what I write. Why I write is the same reason I breathe—because I have to.
What compels you to do the creative thing you do? Leave me a note in the comments section, I’d love to hear why you do what you do.
Despite this post’s headline, I recently spent a few days at the Virginia Festival of the Book in great company. I was honored to be a presenting author on a panel, Le Fiction en France: France in Fiction, sponsored by Alliance Française Charlottesville (AfC). Also on the panel was Michael Keenan Gutierrez (The Trench Angel), who teaches writing at the University of North Carolina (UNC) and Bonnie MacBird (Art in the Blood), an EMMY award-winning screenwriter/actor/author from LA. The panel was expertly orchestrated and moderated by AfC director, Emily Martin.
This was my first author’s appearance at the Festival so we met briefly the day prior to our panel. Emily suggested Marie-Bette, the best little French bakery-cafe in Charlottesville and over coffee and pastry we found that even though we’ve moved in different spheres professionally, shared experiences made it easy to establish rapport. I know a little about Michael’s world because my daughter earned her Masters’ from UNC and Chapel Hill was on our regular itinerary. In addition to Bonnie’s impressive literary accomplishments, she wrote the story for the classic sci-fi movie, TRON. For my husband, Granville, that fact made Bonnie beyond cool. Emily’s broad knowledge of France touched on the experiences each of us had with the country and the language. We were comfortable with each other as people and authors however, would our characters and our books be as compatible?
The characters and stories in our books are unique—as authors we shared the common thread of Paris as the creative backdrop during distinctive periods in the city’s history. Bonnie set Art in the Blood in the year 1888 and writes in the style of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle about famous fictional private detective, Sherlock Holmes. Critical scenes in Michael’s, The Trench Angel, unfold in Paris during the 1920s after the Great War and, the characters in my novel, Provenance, are part of the frenzied art scene in Paris between 1931 and 1938 as the prospect of World War II looms large in the City of Light.
All of our protagonists are male, all are broken men in some manner, fighting inner demons that threaten to destroy them. Holmes is hopelessly addicted to cocaine, mystery and mayhem; Neal Stephens’ secret marriage and anarchist father connect him to murder; and in my novel, a father’s secret reveals a devastating legacy of lies that threatens to destroy his family. The differences in our three books were obvious but the similarities, like gems, were harder to find but delightful to discover. Our protagonists—a junkie, an anarchist and a liar— facilitated an organic, interesting and successful panel during the Festival.
For more than 22,000 book lovers, across 250 programs featuring more than 400 authors, there was discovery and exploration of surprisingly common elements in literature and people who seem to share no DNA. However, like our panel, if done right—as the Virginia Festival of the Book was— authors and readers have the opportunity to get to the heart of what makes books and book festivals so wonderful—they celebrate the diversity as well as the shared experiences of us all.
The Virginia Festival of the Book brings readers and writers together for a five-day celebration of books, reading, literacy, and literary culture. The 22nd Annual Festival will be held March 16-20, 2016 and I’ll be presenting at two events on Sunday, March 20:
I’ll be one of the featured authors at the during the 2016 event presented by The Charlottesville Chapter of The Links Incorporated. The event includes brunch, musical and spoken word performances by community youth, a tribute to book festival authors, book sales and signing. Tickets are $60 and available in advance only.
Sunday, March 20
11:30 – 2:30
Charlottesville Omni Hotel
212 Ridge McIntire Road
Charlottesville, VA 22903
Click here for more information and to purchase tickets
Authors Michael Keenan Gutierrez (The Trench Angel), Bonnie MacBird (Art in the Blood: A Sherlock Holmes Adventure) and Donna Drew Sawyer (Provenance: A Novel) discuss the role France plays in their books. Emily Martin, the director of Alliance Française of Charlottesville, the largest cultural network in the world promoting French language and culture, will moderate the panel.
Sun. March 20, 3:00 pm – 4:30 pm
Central Branch of the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library
201 E Market Street, Charlottesville, VA
About the Virginia Festival of the Book
Produced by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities (VFH), the largest of the fifty-six state (and territory) humanities councils, the Festival is a program of the Virginia Center for the Book, an affiliate of the Library of Congress Center for the Book.
The Festival is the largest community-based book event in the Mid-Atlantic region and has attracted audiences of more than 20,000 for each of the past twelve years. The Festival has presented a captivating list of authors, ranging from international bestsellers to topical specialists to debut authors. An abbreviated list of past participants includes Edward Ayers, David Baldacci, Maureen Corrigan, Edwidge Danticat, Kate DiCamillo, Rita Dove, Jan Karon, John Grisham, Jim Lehrer, Frances Mayes, Colum McCann, David McCullough, Alice McDermott, Katherine Paterson, Lisa Scottoline, Pete Seeger, Karin Slaughter, Alexander McCall Smith, Lee Smith, Elizabeth Strout, Judith Viorst, and Charles Wright.
Programs range from traditional author readings and book signings to a StoryFest day of children’s authors and storybook characters; from a panel on how to publish a novel to a discussion on running a book club to a workshop on bookbinding. All programs are open to the public; with the exception of a few ticketed events, programs are free of charge.
The Festival is presented through a unique partnership of contributors that includes VFH, foundations, corporations, bookstores, schools, libraries, area businesses and organizations, and committed individuals. This partnership results in programs on a wide range of topics set among a variety of venues throughout the City of Charlottesville, County of Albemarle, and the University of Virginia.
Visit the Festival site for more information on authors and programs.
In my research about Paris between the Wars, I kept seeing a name I had never heard of before. Why had I never heard of this Black American so prominent in French history? As I read about him, and as you’ll read here, his story is so compelling that I had to include him in my book. I discovered remarkable people and events in history through research for Provenance, however, none were more remarkable than Eugene Jacques Bullard, America’s first black military aviator. Because of the color of his skin, he was never allowed to fly for his own country; so he flew for France and became one their most renowned and decorated military heroes.
He was born Eugene James Bullard, on October 9, 1895 in Columbus, Georgia. Bullard’s father, William, instilled in his children that they had to maintain their dignity and self-respect in the face of the white majority’s determination “to keep blacks in their place.” William’s convictions nearly cost him his life and after witnessing his father’s near lynching, Eugene at age 11, with just five years of schooling, ran away from home fearing that he had seen a preview of his future in Columbus. He earned his way by tending and learning to race horses. An English family that hired him told him that racial discrimination did not exist in England. By the age of 17 in 1912, Bullard stowed away on a German ship leaving Norfolk, VA for Aberdeen, Scotland, seeking opportunity he could not find in the United States.
Bullard performed in vaudeville and earned money as a prize-fighter eventually settling in Paris. He joined the French army at the start of World War I, was wounded twice and awarded the Croix de Guerre for bravery at the 1916 Battle of Verdun along side the Harlem Hellfighters, a battalion of African-American soldiers who were also left out of the history books. Bullard’s wounds made him unfit for infantry so he trained as a pilot in the Lafayette Flying Corps in the French Air Force. He flew 20 combat missions and was credited with downing two German aircraft in the world’s fight for democracy. When the U.S. entered the War in 1917, they recruited American pilots from the Lafayette Flying Corps and though Bullard passed the physical and was renowned for his aeronautical skill, he was not accepted – only Caucasians were allowed to fly.
After World War I, Bullard settled in Paris where he was an entrepreneur. He owned the popular Paris nightclubs, Le Grand Duc and L’Escadrille, an athletic club and other successful business ventures. His circle of friends included Josephine Baker, Louis Armstrong, Langston Hughes and French flying ace Charles Nungesser. With the outbreak of World War II, Bullard, who spoke English, French and German, joined the French resistance, was wounded and barely escaped when the Germans occupied Paris.
Eugene Bullard returned to the United States to heal, planning to go back to Paris after the War. However his businesses were destroyed and the life he knew in Paris had moved on without him. With the money the French government paid him for the loss of his property during the war, he remained in New York City, working as an elevator operator in Rockefeller Center and living in virtual obscurity.
However, the French people never forgot the war hero they nicknamed the “Black Swallow of Death.” For his distinguished service to France during World War I and II, his adopted country awarded Bullard their highest military honors: Médaille Militaire, Croix de Guerre, Volunteer’s Cross (Croix du combattant volontaire), Wounded Insignia, World War I Commemorative Medal, World War I Victory Medal, Freedom Medal, and the World War II Commemorative Medal. In 1954, the French government asked him to help relight the Eternal Flame of the Tomb of the Unknown French Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. In 1959, he was named Knight of the Légion d’honneur. In 1960, when France’s President, General Charles de Gualle, visited the United States, it was Eugene Bullard he asked to visit with. Having no idea who he was, the State Department had to scramble to find him before de Gualle’s visit. Eugene Bullard died of stomach cancer on October 12, 1961 at the age of 66. He was buried with military honors in the French War Veterans’ section of Flushing Cemetery in Queens, New York.
In 1992, the McDonnell Douglas Corporation donated a bronze bust of Bullard by sculptor Eddie Dixon to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum where it is displayed in the Legend, Memory and the Great War in the Air gallery. On September 14, 1994, the United States finally recognized the hero that could not fly for his own country by posthumously commissioning him the rank of Second Lieutenant in the United States Air Force.
Eugene Bullard as a Character in Provenance
I included Eugene Bullard as a character in Provenance because he embodied what the fictional characters in the book were searching for—the opportunity to live undefined by their race. My characters visit his popular night club Le Grand Duc, where celebrities and dignitaries in Paris vie for the attention of this dark-skinned American. Bullard illustrates the courage and commitment people of color had to have to achieve their potential. Bullard makes another appearance in Provenance during his later years in New York, again demonstrating that life extracts a cost for everything. In his courage, passion, conviction and pathos, Eugene Bullard is in every way a remarkable American that deserves more than his county gave him.
On the Historical Characters Resource page of this blog are the titles I used for my research on Eugene Bullard.
Note: This is the second in a series of blog posts I’m doing about some of the history I uncovered while researching Provenance. For posts in the series click on the From Provenance Research under Categories.
Does your book club crave fiction that begs to be talked about? Well, have I got a book for you! My novel, Provenance, is perfect book club fiction—a page-turner that leads to lively discussions about race, family, love, lust, deception, history, heritage and destiny. The novel’s flawed and captivating characters will give you plenty to talk about and stay with you long after the book’s final page. As the author I’m more than a little biased in my opinion of Provenance, so here’s what other readers have said.
I’d love to join your book club, writer’s group, civic or social club, sorority or fraternity (yes – men like the book too!) for a discussion of Provenance. Read a full chapter Excerpt from Provenance then, contact me here and let’s find the best way to get together for some spirited conversation—in person, via Skype or an online chat.
I must have looked at that word on the first page, third paragraph of my novel, PROVENANCE, at least 100 times.
A young black man, caught after dark in a sundown town, is running for his life.
“We’re Richard Whitaker’s boys, you know us!” he shouts over his shoulder as he tries to escape what could be a fatal consequence for just arriving in town on the late ferry. The racist sheriff responds,
“Then you know! No niggers ‘llowed in town after sundown.”
There it is, the N-word. For the time, 1909, the place—a fictional coastal town in southern Virginia—and the situation, the language is authentic. However, in today’s still racially challenged world, like other racial slurs from our recent past, the word still stings. Today, it is not politically correct to use the N-word; I debated whether to change that word to one that was more palatable, more attuned to today’s sensitivity. I decided to leave it in because it is so visceral, to serve as a reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go when it comes to matters of race.
There are still places where people of color are considered a threat like they were in sundown towns throughout the this country; though the blatant signs once posted with the message, “Nigger, Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on You In (fill in the name of the town) are thankfully a thing of the past.
There are still people who hurl the N-word around to demean and hopefully destroy. Though not my intention, some will say I perpetuate the power of the word by using it. Outside of this literary context I believe that may be a valid argument. However, in PROVENANCE, my novel about a family’s determination to survive and thrive despite the overt racism that scarred the early 20th century, my goal is to demonstrate that the N-word is powerless in the face of self-determination. It becomes meaningless if you realize it defines not one single thing about you.