Saturday, February 07, 2009

Breena Clarke Interview

I met and interviewed Breena Clarke, author of River, Cross My Heart, and her latest, Stand the Storm, at a Harlem bookstore prior to an intimate reading and book signing at The Studio Museum of Harlem.

It was a privilege to sit in the book storeroom with the personable author, who answered my questions after careful consideration and thought.

KW: Why do you write? Is it because you’re inspired or have something to contribute to an ongoing artistic dialogue? Are your books for everyone?

Breena Clarke: Yes, I would say that I am most often inspired to write, and I feel an obligation to contribute to the exchange of ideas relevant to the African American experience, for all people who can read. I stipulate this because I recognize that access and interest in reading is not universal. All readers/thinkers are welcome to my fiction.

KW: For those who might not know, describe your style of writing.

BC: I describe my fiction as character-driven and as descriptive, panoramic, and historic.

KW: Who were your earliest influences? Who continues to influence or impress you as a writer and artist?

BC: My earliest literary influences were the big classics of elementary and middle school: Dickens, Poe, Alcott, Twain, and many others I can no longer remember. I was a voracious reader and remain so. Over the last 20 or so years, I have been entertained, enlightened, and inspired by the writing of a huge number of writers that include the following: James Baldwin, Jean Toomer, Ernest J. Gaines, Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Ann Petry, Jorge Amado, Edwidge Danticat, Cheryl Clarke, Alice McDermott, Margaret Atwood, Alice Walker, Paule Marshall, Barbara Kingsolver, Dorothy Allison, and Jewelle Gomez.

KW: What’s the biggest setback you’ve had as an artist? What keeps you going. despite the setback(s)?

BC: The biggest setback in my life is a personal one. The 1989 accidental death of my son changed my life entirely. Though I had early on been influenced by literary aspirations, I began writing with a more intense focus after his death. So my writing rescued me and continues to do so.

KW: Did you always dream of a life in publishing? What were your preliminary obstacles in publishing? What kinds of struggles did you face? How did you handle them?

BC: Yes, I have had early aspirations to have a book published. I was a library rat –- a girl who spent summer days reading in the cool, marble building with old oak chairs — the main library in Washington, D.C., so, I have always wanted to be on the shelves. I didn’t have obstacles to getting published. I have had the life obstacles that were typical of my “time” and circumstance. My parents were my most fortunate circumstance. They supported me and directed me, and finally let me choose my own career paths.

KW: Complete this statement: “Some people criticize me for…” How do you respond?

BC: I didn’t imagine that people would criticize me. Well, I suppose some people are annoyed and unhappy that I do not include a religious narrative in my novels. Religious worship is included for its social function only.

KW: Are novels your only form of expression?

BC: No, some of my short stories appear in two anthologies: Black Silk Erotica and Street Lights. I’ve also co-authored a play.

KW: Are you the only artist in your family? Is your family supportive of your career?

BC: Oh, no. I am not even the only published writer. My sister is Cheryl L. Clarke. She has published volumes of poetry, articles, and essays. My husband is an actor and a voracious reader. I have a cousin who is an actress, and one who is an actress and choreographer. My mother’s sister had a short career as a singer, and all of the other members of my family are kitchen table storytellers –- sharing the same anecdotes again and again.

KW: If not a career as a writer, what would you do?

BC: Perhaps I would teach. I taught some –- very briefly years ago, after college. I was an actress, director, and stage manager in my earlier career. Perhaps I might do this.

KW: If you could have dinner with five people in the music or entertainment industry, living or dead, who would they be and why?

BC: Fats Waller and Billie Holiday would be at the very top of my list -– so much so that I could forego the three others and just have these two. It would take many pages for me to explain that I feel Thomas “Fats” Waller was the greatest musician of his age. I carried him in my heart since I took a set of his 78 records to college. They were something that my mother had in the basement. They were, of course, antiques when I played them in my dorm. They were kitchy to my dorm mates, but vital to me in ways I don’t fully understand. And because I went to college as a quirky, smart, black girl, I was obsessed with Billie Holiday. Many of us were. To me, she was the most beautiful and most talented person who breathed. I would also select Bessie Smith, Otis Redding, and Sam Cook. I think an idea of men as generally nice and well-intentioned left me when Otis Redding died. He had a country-sexy singing style that was one of the nicer parts of my musical youth. Sam Cook was also part of that nice guy youth thing. I loved -– still do -– his music and was heartbroken when he was killed. Bessie Smith is part of the transition from nice girl to bad woman of the world after Catholic high school. I used to own the entire Columbia reissue.

KW: Do you meticulously plan or work from a sudden burst of inspiration?

BC: I plan my work. I make notes, create a structure, and work regularly. I am inspired, though, greatly. I have developed ways to excite and inspire myself. Research -– discovering facts and circumstances for the first time and making connections to other materials -– is very inspirational for me.

KW: Which event or series of events have shocked and/or wowed you over the years, and will any of these become the basis of a fictional work?

BC: The MLK March on Washington, the church bombings in Birmingham, and JFK’s assassination all have had a profound impact on me. I remember coming home, as a child, and finding my great-aunt on her knees in front of TV in the aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination. He was a promising talent wiped out before he reached his potential. The Civil Rights Movement was a scary time in American history.

KW: How do you keep yourself motivated? Is there a key to your creative process? How many drafts until you know the book is ready?

BC: It is somewhat of a challenge to keep from tiring of a novel before it is finished. The key is probably to take a short break. I discovered that some novelists actually try to work on two projects so that they can stay fresh. There is no set number of drafts for me. I use my intellect and instincts to decide how done the draft is. If, after a short break, I read it and it reads well –- especially if I am surprised by it -– I consider it at a stage for some other pair of eyes.

KW: How important are rankings, ratings, and adulation to you as a writer? Are you striving for commercial or artistic success/appeal?

BC: I’m one of those writers who will tell you she is interested in both commercial success and artistic success. Simply put: I want people to read my work critically and praise it, and recognize some intrinsic value. I also want them to purchase it and support my living. Since we live in a society with vertical structures, it works to be favorably placed on lists and rankings, but the lists don’t make one book better than another, artistically.

KW: Do you use writing as therapy to combat mood swings or adversity?

BC: No, writing can’t be everything. One thing I’ve learned over the years is not to make writing be all things. I use music, art, theater/film, basketball, swimming, and Qi Gong for mood management.

KW: What does “authentic” mean to you as an artist?

BC: That which can be verified in the deepest part of cultural understanding -– the visceral, the “know in the bone” feeling.

KW: What were the most difficult scenes you’ve written in either of your two books, emotionally and spiritually?

BC: The scenes of death in both novels were most emotionally involved for me.

KW: Do you find that you get lost in your work for days or weeks on end? And does that result in deeper, more resonant work?

BC: No. The point I have finally gotten to is having a way of staying in my own daily life and becoming involved with the novel each day. I have thought, in the past, that I would most like to have a solitary stretch in a lovely place and fill up notebooks. And when I am vacationing, I do…sort of. But I have to keep myself fit physically and emotionally in order to be consistent, to be at my desk each day. I sleep deeply and productively, and I have used dreaming/creative visualization since I was very young.

KW: What do you think will be your artistic legacy?

BC: I can only hope that my legacy will be that I portrayed characters in my fiction who illuminate the complex lives of ordinary people and that I wrote well and artfully.

KW: How much research went into writing this novel?

BC: Several years worth of reading and visiting museums and historic homes.

KW: How far have African Americans progressed emotionally and spiritually since the setting and time of your novel?

BC: I don’t think of the people of the 19th century as being less emotionally or spiritually complex than those of the 21st century. The differences would be in areas of personal freedom and access to education. I believe that the reason I can empathize and that my readers can empathize with the characters of Stand The Storm is because human beings are motivated by all the same feelings and are only different because of circumstances. I think a novelist is counting on this truth –- in fact, is manipulating this so that the reader becomes invested.

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