Excerpted from Seen It All and Done the Rest by Pearl Cleage. Copyright © 2008 by Pearl Cleage. Excerpted by permission of One World/Ballantine, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Conversation with Pearl Cleage
Pearl Cleage sat down to talk with Carleen Brice, author of the novel, Orange Mint and Honey, about the art of writing, the business of publishing, and the inspirations found in the world between.
Carleen Brice: You started out writing plays, correct? What led you to the theater?
Pearl Cleage: I have always loved the theater.My mother and my father used to take us when I was growing up in Detroit.We saw everything from Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee in Purlie Victorious to Dame Judith Anderson in Agamemnon to Rudolf Nureyev with the Royal Ballet to José Greco and his passionate flamenco dancers to an updated version of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew–where they drove real motorcycles on the stage–to Alvin Ailey’s Revelations. I loved it all! I loved the movies, too, but the immediacy of live theater was always so exciting.Anything could happen! So I started writing short plays when I was really little.
I was one of those kids who always put together a Christmas play or a Thanksgiving play that everybody had to watch after they’d eaten that huge holiday meal and they were powerless to move. I’d recruit my cousins and my big sister, and we’d do the Christmas story or the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth Rock. I doubt that we were very good, but we always got an enthusiastic response from our captive audience, and I was hooked! I acted and wrote plays all through school, but when I got to college, I stopped acting and concentrated on writing. I have written thirteen plays, and I’m really happy to say they have all been professionally produced.
CB: How is writing a novel different than writing a play? Do you have a different process?
PC: I never intended to write novels! I had been happily writing my plays, and then I had an idea for a story that would not fit on the stage. It was too long, there were too many characters, too many settings, too much internal dialogue. So after weeks of trying to change it enough to make it fit the stage, I gave up and decided I’d try to write it as a novel instead. Since I had never written a novel, I was intimidated by the form. I didn’t know where to start, how to proceed, how to wrap things up. As a playwright, I had been working to develop my craft for years. Now here I was, facing something totally new. I took a deep breath, and calling on the spirits of Alice Walker and Toni Morrison to help me, I plunged in.
This, of course, was a mistake.Anytime you try to conjure up great writers to work on your book with you, there is bound to be some confusion. For me, it was trying to write third person like they do. I was used to writing dialogue, not description.When you write a play, you say: “It is a Sunday afternoon on the sidewalk outside of a Harlem brownstone. The year is 1930.” Then the set designer does the research and creates a set that looks like that Harlem sidewalk. The costume designer creates authentic period costumes, the lighting designer makes it look like a sunny city afternoon, and the actors bring their charisma and skill to making the characters come alive.Now, as a novelist, I had to do all that myself, in addition to creating characters and making them walk, talk, and move through their story. I was overwhelmed and, after a few months, I was floundering around with two hundred pages that I hated. I was trying so hard to be a serious novelist that I wasn’t having any fun, and reading my pages, I knew the reader wouldn’t have any fun either. So I took a bold step. I said a mental apology to Alice and Toni, threw away all those pages, and started again, but this time I was writing first person. It worked like a charm. As a playwright, I’m used to letting the characters speak. Once I started writing in the main character’s voice, the book came alive. Ava Johnson had a story to tell, and all I had to do was get out of the way and let her tell it. I had a ball. The book turned out to be What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, and I’ve been writing novels ever since.
CB: Are you still writing plays? What about screenplays for any of your books?
PC: I still write plays. I just wrote one last year called A Song for Coretta. It takes place in Atlanta as five women wait in line to go and pay their respects to Mrs. Coretta King, who lay in state at Ebenezer Baptist Church.When I saw the television coverage, I was very moved by the picture of all those folks, standing in the rain at midnight, waiting to say goodbye to someone they admired and respected so much. The play was done at Spelman College, where I was teaching at the time, and then at 7 Stages Theatre.We had a great cast and a wonderful director in Crystal Dickinson.We sold out every show! The play is currently going into production in several other cities. A Song for Coretta was the first play I had written in ten years, and it felt good to be working in theater again. I am thinking about another play already! As far as screenplays are concerned, my husband, Zaron Burnett, who is also a writer, is working with me on screenplays for several of my books. I am curious to see how they will translate. People are always casting the movies for me, especially for Blue Hamilton! Of course, Denzel Washington in blue contacts is always the first one they mention!
CB: Your books always include messages about social justice and just being good to one another. Is that a conscious plan on your part when you start writing?
PC: I am a true child of the sixties so I’m always trying to make the world a better place! I am convinced that if every person would just do their part, we could solve any problems we have, worldwide! I grew up in a very politically conscious and politically active family, and I’m sure that’s part of why the people in my books are always so deeply rooted in their community. The southwest Atlanta neighborhood I’m writing about has been my home for thirty years so I am acutely aware of our problems, but I am also aware of what a vibrant place it is. I hope the books encourage people to look around at their own communities and get involved in something to make it better. The women in my books work with young people, support refugees, help new mothers, employ the homeless, grow peace gardens, and participate in anti-war demonstrations. They also find time to fall in love, have babies, raise families, go to the beach, fly kites, and laugh with their friends. I never thought you had to give up romance to be a revolutionary!
CB: It’s been awhile since I’ve been to Atlanta. Is the West End you describe in your latest books really the way you describe it: well kept with all-night businesses and men who tip their hats to ladies and women who feel safe walking at night? Or is this an urban African American neighborhood as you’d like to see it?
PC: I wish I could say that West End is exactly as I describe it, but we’re not there yet. One of the things I’m always trying to do in my books is to create the kind of neighborhood I want to live in. I want to be able to walk at midnight fearlessly. I want to be able to sit on my front porch and not hear gunfire, and I sure want to have some men around who tip their hats and know how to say “Good morning!” I want to eat fresh vegetables from the bounty of community gardens. So I try to paint those pictures. I try to make readers remember how it feels to be safe and happy and loved and free. If we can see it, we can be it! (I told you I was a sixties child!)
CB: A lot of writers (published and not-yet-published) read [my] blog. What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you about writing?
PC:My father gave me some wonderful advice when I was working full time and raising my daughter and keeping up an active social life. I was spending my time doing everything but writing and, of course, I was whining about it. My father listened to me for about fifteen minutes and then he said, “Nobody’s going to give you permission to write. They’re always going to have other things for you to do. If you want to write, you better start writing.” My feelings were hurt because I was looking for some sympathy, but he was right. Nobody is going to give anybody permission to write. If you want to do it, it is up to you to make a way to do it. The best book about the writing process that I’ve come across is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. It’s widely available in paperback, and it’s got lots of good advice and laugh-out-loud stories about the craziness that all writers think is theirs alone, but which is really just part of the process.
CB: What changes have you noticed in publishing since your first novel, What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, which was an Oprah’s Book Club pick?
PC: I think the biggest difference I’ve noticed in publishing is that there is a lot more emphasis on business and a lot less emphasis on the artistic development of the authors. Publishers are struggling to find a way to make books commercially viable in an age when people are getting so much of their information from electronic sources. I think writers feel this pressure, too, and sometimes it gets in the way. The craft of writing doesn’t have anything to do with the business of bestsellers. When the two get confused, nothing good can come of it.
CB: Those of us who are black female writers sometimes feel especially discouraged about the current book scene. Any words of encouragement?
PC: There exists a vibrant community of black women writers. Some of these writers are commercially successful and some are less wellknown, but many of them are working at the top of their game. They are writing wonderfully, and their work deserves to be widely read, reviewed, discussed, and enjoyed. The problem is that we don’t have viable publishing houses with viable distribution systems that are dedicated to publishing black women authors and aggressively marketing their work. What we need are some businesswomen who can see that publishing can be both culturally significant and commercially robust. There are so many avenues for marketing the work of black female authors that have not been fully explored, including book clubs, churches, sororities, and professional organizations. To my sister-writers who are feeling downhearted about the current book scene: I suggest that maybe we should start trying to find some bright young women with business degrees and see if we can make them see the possibilities for a future in publishing. In the meantime, our job is to keep telling our stories. If not us, who? If not now, when?
CB: Thanks, Pearl, for your time!
1. Why does Josephine decide not to stay and fight the theater and the backlash that she is receiving because she is an American? How does she just walk away from it all? How do you think the rest of the world views Americans since the Iraq War began? How do you think Americans view themselves?
2. How is the issue of responsibility, both public and private, central to the book? How do the characters carry out their responsibilities to each other—Josephine to Zora, Zora to Josephine, Howard to Josephine? How do the characters carry out their larger responsibilities to society? To Atlanta? To the United States?
3. The relationship between Josephine and Zora is complex. Many of the same personality traits can be seen in both granddaughter and grandmother. How do you think this both helps and hinders their relationship? Both wanted to run away from their lives at the beginning of the story; how did they change their ways of thinking by the end?
4. Why does Josephine decide to call the reporter back even after Howard warns her not to? How is Howard an enabler for Josephine?
5. There are many symbols in the book that seem to tie together the major themes of the story.What does the mermaid in the pool represent? Josephine’s abandoned house? The garden?
6. What is Victor’s role in the story? How does his story mirror those of others in the book?
7. Abbie found the “secret of life” in Amarillo, Texas.How do you think she helped Josephine find the secret of life? Do you believe that people find their bliss in a certain place on a map?
8. Why does Josephine stand up to Greer Woodruff, when she ran from her problems in Amsterdam? What keeps her in Atlanta besides Zora?
9. Some people have been inspired by this novel and have planted peace gardens.What does a peace garden mean to you and what would you plant in yours?
10. Family plays an important part in this book.What are the various types of families portrayed? How do neighborhoods create family?