Talking about writing, slavery, grief and more with novelist Bernice McFadden

As promised in my last post, here’s my interview with novelist Bernice McFadden, whom I met at a Book and Author Luncheon, and whose novel, “Nowhere is a Place,” I found to be an extraordinarily compelling tale about family, family secrets, journeys of self discovery, and the personal and ancestral history that make us who we are as people. (See my previous post for full review.)
Fran Dorf: Would you tell readers a little about yourself, your background, and how you came to be a writer?

Bernice McFadden: I am the eldest of four children. I was born, raised and still reside in Brooklyn, NY. I am the mother of one grown daughter. I was a shy child and books offered and escape from the real world. I dreamed of becoming a writer at a very early age. It’s the only thing I ever really wanted to be. For a while though it seemed as if it wouldn’t happen, but back in 1999 the God’s smiled down on me and granted the one thing I wished for on every birthday and every star since I was nine years old.

Fran Dorf: Wow. I admire that. I was a “secret” writer in my teens, but even then I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to be. Question: I admit I found myself more enthralled by the historical story in “Nowhere is a Place” than the contemporary one, although they certainly worked together to tell a larger tale. I especially loved the scenes in which the slaves take over the household of their deranged master. It seems to me that owning slaves would deeply affect the sanity anyway, regardless of how much a society tries to deny the common humanity of people. Can you comment on the origins of this scene? Is this something you invented, or is it based on a real incident or incidents?

Bernice McFadden: When I sit down to write story I start off believing that I know what’s going to happen – I believe I have a beginning, middle and end. I’ve published ten novels to date and each and every time my characters prove me wrong. The characters control the story – I just write down what they show me. I do believe that that particular scene is a tribute to the ancestors that fought against the establishment.. ie. Nat Turner.

Fran Dorf: Well, it’s an amazing tribute. Question: One character, a Native American girl, Nayeli, who is given the name Lou by her master after his dog, takes a large role in the book. I didn’t actually realize that Native Americans were also forced into slavery in America, although I’m certainly not surprised that they were. I assume this interesting nugget is based on truth, but did you know this already or find it out through research? How much research do you do for your novels, and do you research while you are writing the first draft, or before you start, or both?

Bernice: Yes, I was aware that the English enslaved Native Americans in the Carolinas, using them on plantations as well as shipping them off to the Caribbean Islands. I do most of my research as I’m writing the novel.

Fran: Can you comment generally on the relationship of your fiction to your life?

Bernice: For me it is impossible to NOT include some real bits of myself in my fiction. Writing a novel is like a carrying a child – when it’s born it’s going to have your DNA.

Fran: I love the DNA metaphor. I’m always amazed when I hear writers and teachers of writing somehow disparage “autobiographical” novels, or deny that writers use their own lives in their fiction. Question: As a bereaved mother and student of psychology whose last novel was inspired by my loss, I have come to see human beings through a unique lens–the way they incorporate trauma and grief and loss into their lives. I’m always amazed at how deeply these difficult experiences influence personal psychology and one’s personal narrative. In this context, I’m talking about trauma, loss and grief that can be either personal or, for want of a better word, ancestral. I wonder if you might comment on this, whether it has any validity for you, how your own losses as I’ve just defined them affect who you are and what you write about.

Bernice: I’m very interested in grief. I study it in myself and the people around me. This interest is certainly present in my work. I feel that I do my best work when I’m grieving or have the bottomless sense of loss and sadness – I pour my emotions into the story and which in turn seems to lend a certain level of authentication.

Fran: Yes, I study it too, and I agree that emotional authenticity is key. We must always write from a place of grief and loss or what we turn out will be sappy or sentimental. Which is one of the reasons I call myself The Bruised Muse. Question: I’m fascinated by the myriad ways novelists go about writing novels. One novelist told me he wrote things down on cards and pasted them on his bulletin board. John Irving insists he always knows the ending. As a writer who never made an outline in her life and always writes (okay, wrote) fiction to find out what’s going to happen, I can’t imagine that. Can you talk a little about your process?

Bernice: The first time I ever outlined a book was a few months back. My agent suggested I do so because we were shopping a partial manuscript. I sent him three pages, which was of course unacceptable to him. Before it was all said and done I had cried, cussed and slammed all of the doors in my house in order to keep from breaking all of the mirrors! We went back and forth so much that I felt like I was writing a dissertation – but fifteen pages later I was proud of what I had done (even though the story is sure to take a different path) and grateful to my agent.

Fran: When did you know you wanted to be a writer? What training or study did you undertake in order to become one? Do you think compelling storytellers are born, can be taught, or both?

Bernice: I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was nine years old. I took two writing classes at Fordham University back in ’95 and ’96. I do believe you either have it you don’t.

Fran: Actually, I agree, although I think you can learn to use the tools of the craft more effectively. Aside from Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, who are some of your favorite writers?

Bernice: Gloria Naylor, Rita Dove, Stephen King. Junot Diaz has a found a new fan in me as well as British author, Christopher Wilson.

Fran: I’m glad you love Stephen King. Me too. I love Diaz’s short stories but haven’t tried his novel, nor am I familiar with Christopher Wilson.
Bernice: Christopher Wilson wrote a novel called Cotton — unlike any story I’ve ever read — every one I’ve recommended the book to loved it. Diaz’s The brief wondrous life of Oscar Wao– FABULOUS — I loved it — I felt like I was reading it on a treadmill — his rogue writing style left me breathless.
Fran: Breathless? How can I resist that? I shall have to read them, as well as Gloria Naylor and Rita Dove, and the complete works of Bernice McFadden. Question: My last novel, “Saving Elijah” fit into no particular genre, and I always felt as a consequence that the publisher didn’t really know what to do with it. I felt the book and author luncheon was a great way to bring your writing to a wider (read: white) audience. Which leads me to the following question: I feel writers are nowadays compelled in this niche-driven world to appeal to particular audiences, whether the audience is “women, “African American,” “African-American women,” “Jewish women,” or genre based. Obviously, publishers want to exploit whatever natural audience there is for a writer’s writing, but do you feel you’ve been pigeon-holed as an “African American writer” and do you feel limited by that in any way?

Bernice: YES I DO!!! It’s terrible that publishers do not market AA writers across the color line. There are a few exceptions – but too few for it to trickle down and make a major difference for the rest of the AA writers. Which is why my attendance at the Ferguson Library Luncheon was so important – I understand that in all the years I’m just the 4th AA author participant! It baffles the mind that in 2008 so many people believe that we are more different than we are alike. A real lover of literature couldn’t care less about the color of the authors skin – they just want a compelling read – plain and simple.

Fran: Can you comment briefly on how the legacy of slavery affects African Americans today.

Bernice: Four hundred years of slavery and its afternath are not easily swept awy from people’s memory and culture. I don’t know if you are familiar with the infamous Willie Lynch letter, but back in 1712, slave owner Willie Lynch addressed a group of slave owners in the colony of Virginia, and read from a prepared document that outlined his fool proof method controlling black slaves. That method, whether the powers that be admit it or not, is still–not unlike the Constitution–in use today.

Note: The Bruised Muse was unfamiliar with the Willie Lynch letter, but found an enormous amount of information on it on the Web. About what subject isn’t there an enormous amount of information on the Web? As anyone who has emailed me one of those rabble-rousing, false letters about Obama being a Muslim, or Britain/University of Kentucky/etc. eliminating the Holocaust from its school curriculum knows, I try always to seek truth. Just so the reader knows, the Willie Lynch letter is purportedly a letter by a British slave owner speaking about the way to psychologically control slaves, by dividing them according skin color, age, hair type, etc. Here’s a link for the full text. I do feel compelled to point out that there are also debunkers of this letter as an urban myth. For that, check this link. Even if the letter is a hoax, I take its point as a psychological truth. I don’t think there’s any question that oppressed people adopt certain of the negative stereotypes and notions foisted on them by their oppressors, and that it is to their detriment to do so. I do believe a light-skin/dark-skin self-prejudice still rages in the black community, for example. Where did this come from? An oppressor will always encourage you to argue amongst yourselves while he picks your pocket and keeps his foot on your head. It’s an effective, psychologically sound (if Machiavellian) slight of hand.

Bernice’s website is: http://www.pageturner.net/bernicemcfadden/

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2 thoughts on “Talking about writing, slavery, grief and more with novelist Bernice McFadden

  1. Thank you so much for publishing this interview and introducing me to Bernice McFadden. I couldn’t agree more with what both of you had to say about the pigeon holing that is done in the publishing world that limits the exposure of writers across all reading lines. I also was so fascinated with the comments that both of you made regarding the personal connection in your “fiction” writing. I look forward to reading both of your works.I found you through a link on LibraryThing where I am an early reviewer. I was looking for a review of your book “Saving Elijah” which I didn’t find but found your blog on your profile. I am part of a bi-racial family and I am the family historian and genealogist for both sides of the family so I can relate to what Bernice had to say. Additionally, my son was killed three years ago and I have been unable to cope with that loss. I feel like I never will. Thank you for sharing your personal insight. I am subscribing to your blog so I can come back often.

  2. Hello, it was wonderful meeting you at the get together in Stamford and I’m now checking all of the sites that I took down.

    This is a great interview that touches upon some very good points that I’d like to weigh in on.

    The characters controlling the story is very true. Indeed you can have an outline of how you want the story to begin and end but if you create good characters that aren’t one dimensional, they will guide you. It’s amazing that when I was writing a script a while back the characters did their own talking like they had a life of their own. When this happens you know you have something special and is one of the great rewards of the creative process.

    On grief and the creative process I must also agree. I find that my best work is done when I’m upset, depressed or both. This is not to say that I must always be this way to write but the work takes on a different depth and tone when you can write or create in these moods. It’s a very healing thing as well. And when the work is completed it must have your DNA because it’s coming from you. To stifle that would be to create something that is a fraud.

    Publishers, movie studios, record companies and all love to pigeon hole talent. It’s easy to wrap it all up in a box, package it and sell it. But It gets stale if you ask me. I’m glad your work did not fit into something so neat and tidy. It’s what gives things originality. I’m also sad to hear that the publishers feel that the work Bernice has done would only interest a small segment of the population. they do her efforts a disservice.

    I am sorry for the loss you touched upon in your interview and hope that your work will continue to be a place for healing and a productive outlet for your thoughts.

    Again, wonderful meeting you and I look forward to reading more.

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