DA Kentner writes the column THE READERS' WRITERS for the (Freeport) Journal-Standard and GateHouse News Service. My alter ego KevaD lives under a stairway of dreams where he writes stories and grumbles about everything. Click the pic to visit KevaD's blog.
Drop me a line at dakentner@yahoo.com

I invite you to read my award-winning short story posted on Calliope Magazine's web site.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Rosellen Brown - One of the Greatest Literary Talents We Shall Ever Have the Opportunity to Read

Conducting interviews with authors has allowed me to come in contact with some of - not just great literary talents - the finest human beings currently living. Rosellen Brown epitomizes and exemplifies that point.

Q) What was the defining moment or event that sparked your desire to become a published author?

A) I can’t speak for others (about anything I have to say!) but I certainly didn’t think of publishing when I began writing – I was a child and I loved reading; it felt natural to want to do that thing myself. I suppose that later I showed my writing to others and enjoyed the strokes I got for it, which I suppose you could call a kind of publishing. Actually, the whole idea of publication as a motivation is one of the things I like least about the current literary world: Too many people think “Oh, I can become a famous and maybe even a rich author” instead of writing to satisfy an internal need. For “real” (at least what I’d call serious) writers, writing is a necessity, not a career option.

Q) You have one husband, two daughters, two cats, and too many books (read and unread). Your life appears to be as unordinary as the next-door neighbor’s. Yet your novels of life are filled with anger, bewilderment, doubt, and ethical principles in relationships - and masterfully so I might add. Where do you draw inspiration for such inner turmoil?

A) Good question and thank you for the compliment. I’ve always thought I dream up those terrible situations so they won’t happen to me – sort of, sacrificing my characters to the gods so that they’ll think, “Oh, yeah, she already experienced this… if only in her imagination.” Seriously.

I also, of course, find the conundrums that arise in many lives simply interesting because those moral questions are challenging and people’s responses are difficult, unpredictable, not necessarily pleasing; I only hope that I can report them realistically. Saul Bellow said about one of his less admirable characters, “I came to represent him, not to recommend him.” Because my people don’t always react as my readers might like, I find that I have to defend them very often (and, of course, since I made them, I have a kind of sympathy for every one of them.) “Do you recognize this response?” I ask. “I didn’t ask if you approve of it, only if you think it’s plausible under (whatever) the circumstances.” Readers, of course, tend to think their behavior, even under duress, would be impeccable.

Q) In Street Games your voice is powerful and Anglo, Puerto Rican, African-American, male, female, parent, and child. The Chicago Tribune calls it “An American classic.” Who are these characters? You gave them life, but they obviously were not born from you.

A) I lived on a block like that one in Brooklyn for a few years and found myself fascinated by my neighbors there. I didn’t “study” them to write about them, only discovered – mostly – after the fact, after we’d moved away, that many, in vastly different form, might generate stories. I’m very bad at coming up with plots, so a lot of these are really more about the small ways in which people make themselves known to others and to themselves. Only one arose identifiably out of a real person and because I made up a lot so that my character was an amalgam of real and imagined, I felt I needed to beg her approval. (She was highly amused and gave me her blessing.) Usually as close as I get to anyone real is as a stimulus: I sort of narrow my eyes to make someone really blurry and then I fill in my own details. As for myself – I never write about my very unremarkable self; I like to be transparent. Of course everything that gets down on paper has gone through my head – into and out of it! – but you won’t learn anything more about me than what I’ve concentrated on.

Q) Because your writing is so strong, so relevant, and so contemporary, would you be willing to come to a community such as Freeport and meet with fans at either the library or bookstore?

A) Yes, absolutely. In fact my favorite part of any reading I give (you obviously know that we do a lot of those at colleges and bookstores) is the Question and Answer time at the end when I get to really engage with my listeners, who often surprise, delight and enlighten me with their insights and observations. There are a lot of myths about writers being too lofty to “relate,” but you’re right to want to prove that we’re actually ordinary folks who (as you said, lacking either intelligence or sanity!) work to make something very difficult look simple.

Q) What advice can you give to a struggling writer trying to become published?

A) Sometimes I think the only question struggling writers want the answer to is “How do I get an agent?” and though I don’t want to mock the difficulty of breaking into publication, I have to go back to my first answer: If you don’t write for yourself, and learn your craft before you take it to “the market,” you’d better be okay with the fact that you’re going to be rewarded for doing what somebody else has already done. There are “genre” writers – purveyors of romance, mysteries, police procedurals, etc. which can be done by following a pattern, and that’s okay if that’s what you’re interested in; there are some terrific books in all those categories. But for what’s called “literary” writing, which I’d compare to a hand-tooled piece of furniture as opposed to something extruded from a machine (except at its best), there are no shortcuts: read a lot, imitate your betters (purposely, knowing that you’re imitating) and take your time. Find a reader who is willing to be honest with you and not just love you as a friend or spouse. Find a mentor if you can. Find a group that will also enjoy what’s working in your writing but crack it open and look inside, challenge you, demand revision, etc. There are plenty of ways to connect, these days, with helpful peers and mentors. And when it looks most discouraging – because the publishing world has been torn to pieces by many forces – take notice of all the books by new writers that nonetheless continue to emerge. Many of the best of them come from small presses your mother will not have heard of but that doesn’t matter; try to get the work between covers when it’s ready and keep on moving toward the next story or book or poem and the next and the next. Publication ought to be a reward, not a lure, and when you’re writing it shouldn’t take up more than an atom of space in your brain.

Dedication + Integrity + Talent = Sandra Jackson-Opoku

Twenty years. Two decades. What did you do with your last twenty years?

Sandra Jackson-Opoku used hers to write one of the most stirring accounts ever written recounting the plight of African women and their abduction from their homes to the "New World."

I sincerely thank her for taking the time to answer some questions for me. Ms Jackson-Opoku is a woman of dignity and grace and it was my honor to have shared a moment in time with her.


Q) What was the defining moment or event that sparked your desire to become a published author?

A) I seem to trace that impetus back as far as my pre-reading days, around the age of four. Mine was among the first African Americans to integrate a public housing complex called Trumbull Park. One of our neighbors was a steelworker and writer, Frank London Brown who wrote a novel about the experience, appropriately titled Trumbull Park. I recall being inspired by that an ordinary person, someone who lived nearby could write a book and have it published.

I was also inspired by my father, Roscoe Jackson Sr., who wasn't a writer, but a great storyteller. He told these colorful (sometimes off-color) stories about people like Shine and Joe the Grinder. I didn't know it at the time, but these were bawdy figures from African American folklore. I thought Daddy was making it all up!

The character of John the Baptist Wright from my second novel, Hot Johnny and the Women Who Loved Him was modeled somewhat on Jody, AKA Joe the Grinder, who was a legendary lover and ladies' man.

Q) Your debut novel THE RIVER WHERE BLOOD IS BORN won the Black Caucus of the American Library Association Award for Fiction. While a motivating and dramatic epic of a family of women spanning three hundred years and the water that ties each generation to the previous, it is the story of its telling that I personally find intriguing. That story spans two decades. For this novel to become reality, it took an inextinguishable flame deep within you. Please share with us what fuelled your soul to place a beating heart within this book.

A) The novel's origins were very different than what it eventually became. It began after my first trip to Africa in my early twenties. I spent a year in Lagos, Nigeria as an exchange student and got to travel around the country and other destinations in West Africa. My main interest in writing in those days was journalism and poetry. When I returned I started doing travel writing, and thought I'd do some pieces on my experiences in Africa. Those pieces started morphing into short fiction about black women travelers. One of those stories was published in a feminist journal called Heresies, and went on to win the CCLM/General Electric Award for Younger Writers in 1983. I eventually was able to acquire a literary agent and a book deal.

Cheryl Woodruff, my new editor at Ballantine/One World encouraged me to develop what was then a collection of themed short stories into a novel. My challenge then was to figure out a connection between these characters from different places and times. I discovered that they were a family, all descended from the same woman who'd been born in 18th century West Africa, captured into slavery, and transplanted to the Americas. I also had to find some kind of "connective tissue" to stitch these fragments into a whole cloth. That became a storytelling frame between two otherworldly narrators -- the Gatekeeper of the Great Beyond, and Ananse, the storytelling spider from African and Diasporan folklore.

Q) Your duties as an educator keep you extremely busy. Your writing weaves ‘real life’ into a tapestry – one that we long to enjoy with an artist’s eye. Can we look forward to another novel from you?

A) I recently took a year off to write and to roam. I gave up my apartment and stayed in various artists' communities throughout the country, where I worked on three novels. I'm still doing some polishing on them. I can't yet say when will they appear. Hopefully soon.

Q) What advice can you give to a struggling writer trying to become published?

A) That's a poignant question. With the current economic crisis and the changes in the publishing industry, it is a challenging time for writers right now. All I can say is "be encouraged," and stay the course. When the dust settles, I suspect there will be even more opportunities for writers to become published. It may go without saying, but "don't be quick to quit your day job." There are certainly exceptions, but few writers are able to support themselves fully from their writing. Most of us have to do other things.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Marcus Sakey - The Next Household Name in Crime Drama


If there is any writer who fits the preconceived mold so many of us seem to erroneously possess about authors, it would be the literary talents of Marcus Sakey.

His debut novel THE BLADE ITSELF was released internationally and the film rights were purchased by award winning actor and producer Ben Affleck.

A fluke? His second and third novels received the same acclaim with the film rights to both being purchased immediately, the third, GOOD PEOPLE, by Toby McGuire’s production company. And his fourth novel, THE AMATEURS, is on the same fast track of ensuring Sakey’s well-deserved position as one of America’s best known authors.

Back at home in Chicago for a brief respite, Marcus was kind enough to take a few minutes to share some thoughts with me.

Q) What was the defining moment or event that sparked the desire to become a published author?

A) Learning to read. I remember the moment, the exact instant when the squiggles became words and I could see Spot run. That was it, I was hooked.

Q) Many authors in the crime/mystery/thriller genre hang their hats, hopes, and careers on one protagonist. You haven’t, though I am aware there have been those suggesting you write a book series. Will there be a series and if so, what type of character will your protagonist be?

A) Hard to say. I certainly wouldn’t rule out the possibility. But right now, I really like coming to each book fresh. I have some overlapping characters—most very minor, although there is one in my upcoming novel that is a pretty big figure—but you still couldn’t really call the books a series.
If I do write a series, I’ll likely follow the model of people like Laura Lippmann and Harlan Coben, where I write one in the series, then a standalone or two, then return to the series.
For me, after I spend a whole year with a group of characters, I’m just not interested in diving into another year with them right away. I wouldn’t bring the energy that I need.

Q) Even though your first three books were snatched up for potential films and your fourth is receiving critical acclaim, you remain one of the truly nice guys. I personally have seen you taking time to speak with fans when you didn’t have to. How do you keep yourself grounded and not let your success get in the way of who your are?

A) Kind of you to say. I guess the thing is, I don’t really think of myself as any sort of big shot. I love talking to fans because we’re talking about books and writing, and those are two of my favorite subjects. Not only that, but it’s an incredible feeling to know that someone out there really dug what I created, that it kept them up past their bedtime, just as so many books have done for me. So it’s not any sort of sacrifice.
And on a general level, I believe you get out of life what you put in. Being an asshole may let you win in the short-term, but it’s a pyrrhic victory.

Q) What advice can you give to a struggling writer trying to become published?

A) Ass in chair, fingers on keyboard. If you want to be a writer, you need to write. Thinking about it and talking about it are hobbies—if you want to make a living at it, it needs to be a job.
As far as specific, tactical advice, I have a tome on my website (MarcusSakey.com), from how to write a query letter to some of my day-to-day tips on crafting a story and polishing your prose.