Interview: Tananarive Due, American Book Award-winning author

(Okay, Blogger is not allowing me to upload images. I'll come back later and try yet again.)

Today we have a very, very special guest interview: Tananarive Due, who's been published in a number of genres and won awards in all of them. Ms. Due received the American Book Award in 2002 for The Living Blood, sequel to 1997's My Soul to Keep (The Living Blood was one of Publisher's Weekly's Best Books of 1997; My Soul to Keep made the same list in 2002.) The Black Rose, a biography of Madame C.J. Walker, America's first African-American female millionaire, was nominated for an NAACP Image Award, and the book she co-wrote with her mother, civil rights activist Patricia Stephens Due, Freedom in the Family, was named 2003's best civil rights memoir by Black Issues Book Review. On top of these amazing acheivements, she also proves her excellent taste by being a fervent fan of the Miami Dolphins. Why she agreed to come here to the League and slum it with us, we can only guess, but we're sure glad she did. Please join us in welcoming Ms. Due.

Your latest book, CASANEGRA, was a collaboration with your husband Steven Barnes and actor Blair Underwood, who'll be starring in the film adaptation of your novel MY SOUL TO KEEP. Could you tell us how that came about? And also, is Blair as sexy off-screen as he is on? (Hey, our readers need to know this sort of thing.)

Long ago, when I first published MY SOUL TO KEEP, I sent a copy to Blair Underwood because I had imagined his face as the immortal character Dawit's. I have been a very big fan for years. I never expected anything to come of it, to be honest, but Blair read the book and loved it. He's been trying to launch the film version ever since. It's currently in development at Fox Searchlight...and now that the writer's strike is over, maybe there will be some progress.
But it takes years to get a movie made. In the mean time, Blair suggested a collaboration, and we all came up with the idea for a mystery series with erotic overtones. It has been great fun to write!
Is Blair as sexy in person? What do you think?

Your African Immortals series blends African folklore and history into modern African American society, and you were a Rotary Foundation Scholar in the field of Nigerian Literature at the University of Leeds in England. Has African folklore always been a subject you studied? Do you have a favourite legend or story you could tell us?

When I went to the University of Leeds, I had my very first exposure to Nigerian literature. Rather than looking at if from a folkloric point of view, I chose to write my thesis on the role of authors in conveying the pain and national trauma of the Nigerian civil war. I suppose that was of interest to me because I was about to undertake a career as a journalist. I read Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka and Ben Okri, as well as Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah, and I was left with a very strong imprint that a writer can have a relevant voice in cultural dialogue. So my use of black history in my novels is a way of conveying to all readers that while the past is behind us, it isn't quite gone. That past doesn't always have to be a source of pain or shame--it can also serve as a source of strength and resolve to do better.

What do you think is the most common misconception about books written by African American authors? And what would you say to people who believe it?

It's interesting: Years ago, before Terry McMillan, most black readers in search of commercial fiction almost exclusively read mainstream authors like Stephen King, etc., just like anyone else. Likewise, black moviegoers have often had to watch movies where their primary identification was with the white characters--and we all have the capability of empathy. For some of us, though, that capacity for empathy has rarely been tested. Nowadays, when Will Smith can make hundreds of millions of dollars in a movie like I AM LEGEND, it's clear that many other moviegoers are also able to empathize with a character who doesn't look like them. But that has been a struggle for artists of color.
So if there's a single stereotype about books by black authors, I guess it would be that somehow those books aren't universal. True, there's a growing segment of black fiction skewed toward a certain kind of inner-city experience that reflects the experiences of the readers, like Italian ganster fiction---but there are also black romances, black suspense, black mysteries, black horror, you-name-it. And if relative populations were reversed, far more white readers would be turning to black authors to find expressions of their universal humanity, just as black readers have. Trust me, if most people of any ethnicity were trapped on a desert island with nothing but boxes of books by black authors, especialy if the genres were diverse enough, their understanding of our commonalities would be deeply enhanced.

What made you leave Miami? And do you think perhaps the Dolphins are doing poorly because you left? Maybe if you move back we'll start winning again. I'm just sayin'.

I actually left Miami because I married novelist Steven Barnes, and he and his ex-wife lived in a small town in the Pacific Northwest while they co-raised my stepdaughter. I live in Southern California now, which is a vast improvement for a Miami girl like me, but I don't think I could live in Miami again---I'm too spooked by hurricanes.
And it's true: The Dolphins began their descent at about the same time I left. If there's any connection, I owe Dolfans a huge apology. But until there's an end to hurricane season, I won't be back---so instead of relying on me, I guess the Dolphins will finally have to find a reliable quarterback to carry on Dan Marino's legacy.
Don't get me started. But I never miss a game on TV.

Your books run the gamut from historical fiction (THE BLACK ROSE, an NAACP Image Award nominee) to non-fiction (FREEDOM IN THE FAMILY, a civil rights memoir you co-authored with your mother Patricia Stephens Due) to supernatural thrillers (The AFRICAN IMMORTALS series, THE GOOD HOUSE), and now to mystery with CASANEGRA. You also contributed to NAKED CAME THE MANATEE, a hysterically funny mystery/thriller parody. Is there a particular genre you don't think you would ever attempt, and do you have a favorite genre?

Supernatural suspense and dark fantasy are still my favorite genres, I think, because I am so fascinated by mortality. But I have really enjoyed my entree into mystery writing, so don't be surprised if I turn up in future mysteries. In terms of other genres...hmmmm. I have a pretty good sense of humor. I did stand-up during an open mike night at a comedy club in Miami once, and I have always wanted to try my hand at humor. That's the one nut I haven't cracked yet.

You teach creative writing in the MFA program at Antioch University in Los Angeles. What do you think is the most important thing you tell your students?

I try to convey to my students the lesson I learned after workshop classes with very talented students at Northwestern University in the 1980s: Talent isn't enough. Even hard work isn't enough. I believe the biggest pitfall writers face is the aversion to rejection---and rejection is to publication what a stove is to cooking. You don't get one without the other. A high school English teacher once told me that in order to be a writer, you have to wallpaper your wall with rejection slips. That's the single best piece of writing advice I ever got. It's "easy" to learn craft: practice, practice, practice.
But how do you learn to withstand pain? That's the key to writing success as much as it's the key to life.

What is your method of writing, if you have a method? Do you outline? Do you listen to music while you work? Does the room need to be tidy before you start?

TIDY? Excuse me, I nearly fell out of my tattered chair from laughing so hard.
Thank goodness "tidy" has never been a prerequisite. I'm working on it, but I'm still a slob.
From the beginning, though, I've needed a room with a door that closes. That's important to me. Yes, music is often important too---music helps me get into flow state.
And while I'm not a fan of outlines, I have learned that they are a necessary evil in the professional writer's life. Not only can an outline and three chapters be the basis for selling a project (and, thus, the highly-coveted "check" that comes in the mail once in a while), but they're pretty essential to make sure you actually know where your story is going. I once wrote a hundred pages of a novel that never went anywhere, and I simply can't afford that kind of luxury anymore.

"Tananarive" is such a beautiful and unusual name. Can you tell us if it's a family name, or if there is a specific meaning to it?

Tananarive was the capital city of Madagascar, now called Antananarivo. My mother first heard that name while she was taking a course at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, and the only other Tananarive I've met lives in Tallahassee and had a parent who attended the same school. So I'm thinking it's not a coincidence.

I found JOPLIN'S GHOST fascinating, especially as a former St. Louisan. Do you feel some of the same pressures Scott Joplin did, with regards to writing what your heart tells you to write vs. writing what will sell? Do you think that may be one reason why your writing covers such a broad spectrum of genres?

Yes, absolutely, JOPLIN'S GHOST was my meditation on the pressures of the marketplace on an artist. I make no secret of the fact that CASANEGRA was very much a commercially-oriented project, but at the same time we want good reviews and a lasting legacy. I don't think commercial writing and "literary" writing are mutually exclusive---especially if the definition of "literary" encompasses the notion of work rooted in ideas and not just plot---but it is definitely a struggle I face every day.

Of all your books, which one do you personally feel is the best introduction to you for a reader unfamiliar with your work?

I often suggest MY SOUL TO KEEP, since that has been a reader favorite and has spawned two sequels. I think I hit something pure in that novel.

Can you tell us what your next project is, and perhaps something more about the films in development as well?

My next novel, entitled BLOOD COLONY, happens to be the second sequel to MY SOUL TO KEEP. (There's a middle book, entitled THE LIVING BLOOD, which won an American Book Award.) I have a sample chapter posted on my blog! We're also racing to finish our second Tennyson Hardwick novel in the CASANEGRA series with Blair, which will be entitled IN THE NIGHT OF THE HEAT.
In terms of the film front, Steve and I were very excited to sell our screenplay adaptation of my haunted house novel THE GOOD HOUSE to Fox Searchlight, and we can't wait to get the studio notes and start rewriting it now that the writers' strike is over. And, of course, all three of us are very eager to find a film home for CASANEGRA. Wish us luck!

Next time Blair Underwood calls, would you give him my number?

Sorry, Steve and I are keeping Blair all to ourselves. Can you blame me?

You can learn more about Tananarive and her amazing body of work at her website, and read her updates, news, and thought-provoking posts over at her blog.

Thank you so much for stopping by, Ms. Due!


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