Choosing to Begin

Photo by Jon Tyson (Unsplash)

Each writer becomes an author in their own way. Each route to publication is unique and while you can read about someone else’s experience I doubt you can duplicate it yourself. Writing is a practice—something you work at repeatedly to become proficient. The arts are a prominent theme in my books and writing, like music, visual and performing arts, to do it well you have to practice. You write, edit, and rewrite to hone your craft and simultaneously work on growing courage and conviction—dispelling the internal and external voices that tell you that you can’t and, embracing those that say you can. You’ll also need the wisdom and grace of friends, family, and other writers who are willing to share their wisdom and experience so that you grow through it as you go through it.

Until my debut novel, Provenance, I had never written fiction. I entered the publishing world naked and afraid—with no massive social media platform, celebrity status, or inside access to the publishing world. I also had additional hurdles—I am a woman of color writing about a nuanced black experience (passing) and, I’m over fifty.

Undeterred,  I went to writing conferences to meet agents and queried incessantly hoping to beat the odds. Agents in their 20s and 30s looking for the next young literary breakout talent found it hard to relate to me and my manuscript. Though the odds were against me, I believed in my hard-earned skill and if I am anything, I am determined.

After a couple of years of “I don’t understand how to find an audience for your book,” or “I don’t think I am the right agent for a book like this,” or no response at all, it became clear that landing an agent and a traditional publishing deal was highly unlikely. I may have been beaten but I certainly wasn’t broken.

I wrote Provenance for avid readers like me—anyone who had grown tired of reading fiction about the African American experience that focused only on our history of being enslaved. I craved stories that celebrated what it means to be a person of color – to determine our own destiny and to achieve great things because of and in spite of.  I knew I had written a good book, and I knew there was an audience for it.

Not being able to land an agent could have ended my quest to be a published author but as I said before if I am anything, I am determined. I figured out how to self-publish and promote my debut novel. I worked like hell to reach an audience that I knew was there.  

Provenance took this author on an exhilarating adventure. I am grateful to the readers who helped it reach #1 in African American Fiction on Amazon, to the juries who awarded it prizes for debut and historical fiction, to the book clubs, book fairs, and libraries who invited me and my book to in-person and virtual appearances around the country.  It was a heady adventure—risky and remarkable.

Fast-forward to 2024, Promise, the sequel to Provenance is complete and I am embarking on a new adventure. It is time to begin again. Putting fears of the dreaded sophomore slump aside, I am querying agents hoping that the literary world is more welcoming to authors of color and opportunities for diverse stories have truly grown. Writers and readers of color have always bought and read books. I am hoping that with more expansive thinking comes a myriad of opportunities. This adventure starts with the success of my debut novel and thousands of readers who know my work and are asking for more – now I am neither naked nor afraid.

So, aware of the challenges and the rewards and armed with my hard-earned skills and my hard-headed determination—I am choosing to begin again!

Shchukin & Withers: Paris Made Collectors

Foundation Louis Vuitton by Christine und Hagen Graf via Flickr
Foundation Louis Vuitton by Christine und Hagen Graf via Flickr

The Arts & Leisure section of Sunday’s New York Times featured an article on Paris’ next landmark exhibition, “Icons of Modern Art: The Shchukin Collection,” opening at the Louis Vuitton Foundation on October 22. The exhibition features 130 Impressionist, post-Impressionist and Modern works from the collection of this early 20th-century collector.

Shchukin, a textile heir and magnate, began buying art in the late 1890s, building a collection of 275 works before the start of World War I. He fled to Paris when his home and collection were seized by the state during Lenin’s purge of the bourgeois. The Russian government dismantled, nearly destroyed, but thankfully distributed his art to Russian Museums where the magnificent paintings languished in obscurity and the collector’s name was erased from their provenance. Now, though his grandson’s efforts, the collector and the collection are once again making art history.

Sergei Schukin by Dm. Melnikov (1915) (WikiCommons)
Sergei Shchukin by Dm. Melnikov (1915) (WikiCommons)

Shchukin’s story, through real, is the stuff of fiction. I couldn’t help but see the similarities between this real art lover-collector and, Lance Henry Withers, a fictional character in my recent novel, Provenance. Because of government persecution, they both sought refuge in Paris. Shchukin and Withers used art to heal the loss of home and loved ones. By collecting, they experienced Paris and life through the arts. Influenced by Gertrude and Leo Stein, they learned how to find beauty and meaning in Impressionism, post-Impressionism and Modern art—what they first perceived as canvases of colorful chaos.

The disposition of Lance Henry Withers’ collection is a primary theme in Promise, the second volume my Provenance series, due out in early 2017. Promise continues Withers’ story with the fate of his fictional and fabulous collection informed by research on collectors J. Paul Getty, Arthur Barnes, Walter Chrysler,  Joseph Hirshhorn, The Steins, The Rockefellers and others. Perhaps Sergei Shchukin should be on that list. Sounds like a great reason to do research in Paris this fall.

You can see the New York Times article about the Paris exhibition of the Shchukin collection here and, you can read about Lance Henry Withers’ collection in my novel, Provenance. You can find more information about the “Icons of Modern Art” exhibition at the Louis Vuitton Foundation here.


Great Experience at the 2016 Gaithersburg Book Festival

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.


Eight Essentials – You’re Never Too Old to Read Young Again

Little Golden Book - InteriorI loved a recent post by Tom Burns on Yahoo’s The Good Dad Project about books every child should own. If you’re like me and your response to lists of what’s good/bad, best/worst, in/out, hot/not, is, “Who says?” then you will appreciate Burns’ list. It recommends no specific books but broad and self-defined categories that help parents give children a diverse reading experience – so much more evolved than letting someone we don’t know dictate what book will resonate with us or our children.

Children will certainly benefit from the types of books Burns suggests: board books, mythology, books you loved as a kid, books that suit their personality, poetry, non-fiction, books that are too old for them and brilliantly, blank books. As I read through his list I thought adults should use this list too!

When we mature as readers and settle on specific types of books we love, we sometimes forget the eclectic array of books that made us love to read. Burns’ list made me remember everything from the Golden Books my sisters and I read until we wore the covers down to the cardboard, to the blank composition books, my first journals, that would swell as I wrote down thoughts and feelings in prose that no one but me would ever read – thank goodness! These are great memories that I can make new again by just picking up a book.

Do you remember what books you loved in the 8 essential categories?



You Look Like…

masked image croppedIn my novel, Provenance (Creative Cache, September 2014), several characters, during the early part of the 20th Century, feel they must take advantage of their racial ambiguity to reach beyond what society prescribed for them. That was then, and it is now. Evidence, a recent article in New York Magazine about ethnic plastic surgery to blur racial identity. In the 21st Century, when some have declared that we are post-racial, why are we still adding to the arsenal of effects and affectations used to deny our provenance.

Seems the themes in my novel are as relevant as ever.