Some of you may know that my real grandmother was in part an inspiration for the character Grandma Doris in my novel. You know all those funny things Grandma Doris says in the book?--well, my grandmother likely said something similar. My real grandmother died last week at the age of 96 after a couple of years of declining health. Grandma grew up in segregated Texas and married my grandfather "the paperboy" as a teenager. In the late 1940s she moved to the Pacific Northwest and the couple soon divorced. Grandma went on to raise three children on her own working as a domestic helper and managed to buy her own house. We laid her to rest last week with heavy hearts, but with the knowledge that she is now at peace and maybe she will finally find her "rooster" in Heaven.
I started this blog seven years ago as a struggling novelist seeking community. And to a certain degree I came to blogging as a woman who was learning how to trust her own voice.
Today, I am a published novelist--my book was met with great critical and commercial acclaim. I was dubbed a Power 100 Leader by Ebony Magazine. I've met so many wonderful readers traveling the country almost non-stop for three years; I've had wonderful opportunities like walking the red carpet for the Image Awards and hanging out with Vanessa Williams at the after-party, appearing on CNN and NPR and the NBC Nightly News, speaking at the Schnitz to an audience of 2500 people who had all read my book. The dream I had so many years ago came true! I got my big break -- now what?
I re-read this quote by James Baldwin and thought: he really gets what it means to be an artist--not just a success story. Words to live by. Thank you once again, Mr. James Baldwin!
“Then you make—oh, fifteen years later, several thousand drinks later, two or three divorces, God knows how many broken friendships and an exile of one kind or another—some kind of breakthrough, which is your first articulation of who you are: that is to say, your first articulation of who you suspect we all are . . . [Y]ou make your first breakthrough [as an artist], people have heard your name—and here comes the world again. The world you first encountered when you were fifteen. The world which has starved you, despised you. Here it comes again. This time it is bearing gifts. The phone didn’t ring before—if you had a phone. Now it never stops ringing. Instead of people saying, ‘What do you do?’ they say,’Won’t you do this?’ And you become, or you could become a Very Important Person. And then—and this is a confession—you find yourself in the position of a woman I don’t know who sings a certain song in a certain choir and the song begins: ‘I said I wasn’t gonna tell nobody but I couldn’t keep it to myself.’ You’ve come full circle. Here you are again, with it all to do all over again, and you must decide all over again whether you want to be famous or whether you want to write. And the two things, in spite of all the evidence, have nothing whatever in common.”
--James Baldwin, "The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity"
I am often asked about the real story that inspired The Girl Who Fell From the Sky. I will never tell.
First, I feel incredibly protective of the real girl. Yes, there is a real girl out there somewhere. She deserves to live her life without a reminder of that horrible day, that horrible tragedy. And it's not entirely clear that she even would remember what happened. It's very likely that she suffered traumatic amnesia. And then beyond that--the story that I have written is not her story--I did try to do that initially but it didn't work. I didn't know enough about her. So I wrote about what I knew: I wrote about growing up black and Danish and feeling like America's ideas of race and culture divorced me from my mom because people couldn't see her in me.
I write this today because I woke up to read the horrifying story about the Harlem mother who jumped from an eight-story building with her baby in her arms and the child survived. I received a ton of messages from readers about the story. It was as if they wanted a moment to grieve with me because I understood what that meant because of my book. I'm not sure. But I was glad to get their messages and not feel so alone in the sadness I felt about another woman feeling so unsure that she could protect and take care of her child she thought it best to take him out of the world too.
This post is a bit of ramble--written in the heat of grief and bewilderment--but there is one message I want to be very clear: to any sleuthing readers who want to find the "real girl" who was the inspiration of the book. STOP! DON'T! Give her that gift of peace and of grace. Know simply that her story of survival inspired the survivor in me and maybe in you too.
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I've added a few speaking and appearance dates for 2013: Western Oregon University MLK Commemoration, Sterling Bank's Bella Voce Book Club Author Luncheon, California Lutheran University, and the Richard Ellman Lectures in Modern Literature. You can find the details on the appearances page of my website. I'm looking forward to all of these talks and appearances, but the Richard Ellman Lectures opportunity is one I couldn't have imagined. The Richard Ellman Lectures is the biennial event held at Emory University, to celebrate literature. This year the speaker is Paul Simon. Yes, that Paul Simon and as a committee member I will introduce him for his mini-concert on Feb. 12 at Emerson Concert Hall, Schwartz Center for Performing Arts. Needless to say, I'm over the moon! For more information visit the website.
Last week I learned that my agent, Wendy Weil, had died suddenly of a heart attack. The loss came as an incredible shock--even though she was 72, she was healthy and vibrant. She seemed much much younger than her years.
Wendy took me on as her client in 2005 with only part of what would become The Girl Who Fell From the Sky complete. The day she said she wanted to represent me I jublilated over a fancy dinner with my mentor and friend Michael Pettit who had made the introduction. And of course, I called my mom and said: "I have an agent, Mor! And she is Alice Walker's original agent! She doesn't even need new clients!" I was certain that I would be signing a contract for 6-figures just because she repped me.
Over the course of the next 2.5 years Wendy sent the manuscript to close to three dozen publishing houses--all of them rejected the manuscript. But she never stopped believing in me and the work. She said to me once: "It doesn't matter how many rejections we get, we just need to find the one gatekeeper to say yes. We just haven't found the gatekeeper yet."
I think Wendy was happier than I was when I won the Bellwether Prize and the book contract. And I know she was incredibly proud of the final product that was published and elated about the amazing critical and commercial success that the book received.
The last time I saw Wendy was at the Book Expo in June. She was beaming from the front row as I shared the stage with Barbara Kingsolver, Hillary Jordan and the new Bellwether winner Susan Nussbaum. It was a wonderful moment and I felt so happy that she could share it with me.
Wendy was a literary titan, and a smart, and gentle and beautiful soul. I will miss her, my champion, greatly. You can read about her amazingly accomplished life and all the love that her clients and colleagues had for her in this lovely article.
Last week, I felt like I had come full circle with this wonderful experience I've had becoming a published novelist. I shared the stage with my dear friend Hillary Jordan (Mudbound, When She Woke) and Barbara Kingsolver. Barbara announced and introduced the new Bellwether Winner Susan Nussbaum (congrats!)--Her book should be published some time next Spring: Good Kings, Bad Kings.
I remember the first time I met Barbara a few months before my book was released. I was so nervous, and this time I was nervous all over again. But she's just so lovely and put me at ease. And she said to me: "It's important to me that you write this next book." Those words spoke to my soul! I am looking forward to the coming months--no engagements or other duties--just me and the writing. Wish me words.
Remember back in August when I did the CNN Dialogues panel hosted by Wolf Blitzer? Well, that same trip I got to sit for a CNN Red Chair interview (watch the video it really is a red chair) -- CNN Red Chair feature is a newsmaker series that has featured the likes of the current crop of Republican presidential nominees, Chaka Khan and George Clinton, and now me. You can check it out here:
I was so tickled when I saw the cover of the latest printing of the paperback. I'm not sure that other folks will notice, but I sure do. Instead of the words "National Bestseller", the cover of The Girl Who Fell From the Sky now says "New York Times Bestseller"--Whoo hoo!