NOVEMBER 26, 2018
THIS PAST SUMMER, Walter Mosley, Agatha Award–winning writer Gigi Pandian, and I started a group for crime writers of color. Within two months, the group went from the three of us to having over 80 writers — all in various stages of our careers. We cheer the ups, commiserate with the downs, and brainstorm ways to ensure the appallingly low number of mysteries published by writers of color continues to grow.
It was during one of those brainstorming discussions that the idea for this roundtable took shape. The group was discussing how best to diversify conference panels. I mentioned how I’d love to see a panel featuring black mystery writers who first published in different decades to see what had gotten easier, what had gotten harder, and what had stayed the same.
Steph Cha messaged me suggesting that it might work as a roundtable discussion. I knew exactly who I wanted to invite — and was thrilled when they all immediately said yes. The resulting conversation is enlightening and a great inside look at what it’s like to be a black mystery writer.
KELLYE GARRETT: Thank you all so much for agreeing to do this. I wanted to start off at the beginning. What made you guys decide you wanted to write a mystery novel with a black main character, and can I start with Gar just because you’re kind of the OG of the group, from 1988?
GAR ANTHONY HAYWOOD: That was a very kind way of putting it. Okay, I mean to me this is kind of self-explanatory. I mean I was a black man who was very much into crime fiction growing up, all through my young adulthood. Obviously when I decided I wanted to write, I wanted to write about somebody like me and I wasn’t seeing any characters of color in the genre. And I wasn’t giving any thought at all, being young and stupid I guess, to what the marketing aspects were of writing a private eye novel with a black character in it. That was just the book I wanted to write, this was the character I wanted to write about.
So I wrote my first novel, Fear of the Dark, and — to be honest with you, whenever I’m engaged in discussions like this, I have kind of mixed feelings about it because I didn’t really have a difficult time selling my book, but only because I submitted it to the Private Eye Writers of America/St. Martin’s competition that they had back then, and they were in the habit of publishing a first novel by an author who had never written in the genre before. And so I literally submitted my novel in ’87 cold to Mysterious Press and to this competition, and Mysterious Press sent the book back immediately. I didn’t have representation, so it landed on the slush pile and got sent right back, which might’ve been an indication of what would’ve happened to the book otherwise. But that was my path to publication, so it was a relatively short journey, so to speak, but quite frankly I’ve always wondered if how Mysterious Press responded to the book may have been how other publishers might’ve responded as well if I hadn’t won the competition the way I did.
KG: So Walter, what about you? When did you start writing Devil in a Blue Dress?
WALTER MOSLEY: I was going to graduate school in creative writing, and I was writing, and I had written a book called Gone Fishin’, which was around a character Easy Rawlins, and he had a friend named Mouse, and Mouse was getting married and one thing led to another. And I sent it out and everybody said, “Well, this is really good writing but there’s no audience.” What they were meaning was that you know, white people don’t read about black people, black women don’t like black men, and black men don’t read, so what are we gonna do with that book? And if you say it and you’re in charge, then it’s true. But that was okay because, listen, most novelists don’t get their first one published.
KG: What year was this?
WM: This was probably, you know, ’87, ’88.
KG: So there’s your answer, Gar.
WM: So I sent it out and nobody wanted it, but I didn’t mind, so I started writing another book. It was the same characters, but it turned out to be a mystery, which I didn’t expect at first. But by the time I got to the end of it, all of my earlier reading of all these detective novels — you know the noir stuff, Hammett and Chandler and Ross Macdonald — people said, “Oh, wow, this is new, this is interesting.” So they published it, and the reason I suppose I stayed in the genre is they do what people do, and they said, “We’re buying two books, so you have to write another book,” but as you go on, they buy another and another, so I kept writing it. My idea, though, was to write about something that wasn’t in literature and therefore not in history, which was that motion, that migration after World War II to various places, including Los Angeles.
KG: So besides Gar, Walter, did you know any other black mystery writers who were publishing at that time?
WM: No, not then. It took a couple of years before I started meeting everybody, like Gar and Gary Phillips and, of course, Eleanor Taylor Bland. Hugh Bolton, you know, there were a whole bunch of us.
KG: So, Barbara, what about you? I read a Washington Post article and it was saying that your agent found you through a short story and that you actually sold to the first publisher that you submitted to. Is that true?
BARBARA NEELY: Yes, that is true. However, as far as the Blanche books were concerned, because that was not a mystery short story, I really do think I owe more to both Terry McMillan and Walter than I do to the publisher who bought the book. The first Easy Rawlins book had come out, Terry McMillan was selling I believe her first novel out of the back of her car, to the point where she’d convinced the publishing world that indeed there was an audience out there for black books. My suspicion with the first publisher, and I think the suspicion may have been based on some things that were said, was that you know, well, we’ve got Walter Mosley, it’s almost like we’ve got Fred Astaire, let’s see if we can find Ginger Rogers. So I think that their interest in the book was related to the public interest in his book.
And like Walter, I did not set out to write a mystery. I had a short story published, both a publisher and an agent got in touch with me and asked me if I was working on anything longer. I sent them both the same letter. The letter was about the great African-American novel that I was undoubtedly writing and went on about that for a page or two. And then in the last paragraph I mentioned that I’m writing this other thing with a character named Blanche White blah blah blah and they both wrote me back the same letter saying, “What about that other thing?” So that’s how Blanche got started. My major goal with the four Blanche books really was to write about something that I wanted people to know or read about, that is one or more of my subjects being race, class, and gender. So my goal was to couch information about one of those subjects in a story that folks wanted to read bad enough to know how it ended and therefore would read about this other thing that I wanted them to read about.
KG: Someone asked me the other day about, “Okay, why do you think in the ’90s there were so many black mystery writers?” and I said the same thing. I said, “I’m pretty sure it’s probably like, Walter but also Terry McMillan.” Her first book, Mama, came out in ’87, and then Waiting to Exhale, which was her third book, came out in ’92. She made people realize that black people read, but also other people will also read Waiting to Exhale, will read books about black people, too.
BN: When I was going out on tour, I used to tell people that every black writer should send Terry five dollars.
WM: There was a lot of people back then, though, like Benilde Little, E. Lynn Harris. I mean there were a whole bunch of people in the ’90s writing really popular fiction that a lot of people wanted to read.
RACHEL HOWZELL HALL: Bebe Moore Campbell.
KG: Eric Jerome Dickey. So Kyra, your turn, I know your first book came out in 2005, so that was obviously a big gap from Walter, Gar, and Barbara. Can you talk about what made you want to write a mystery novel?
KYRA DAVIS: Well, I was going through a difficult time. I was going through a divorce, starting off as a single mom of a two-year-old, and I just really wanted an escape. I did make my character — I gave her my ethnicity, my background, black and Jewish, but I didn’t do it because I was trying to be some kind of pioneer or revolutionary. I just needed an escape. I wanted a character who was fun, who had these life-threatening challenges that she could overcome, all with a sense of humor, and I just lost myself in this story that kind of took me away from the more mundane, comparatively speaking, challenges of my own life.
And when I shopped it, it wasn’t initially embraced. The first publishers that saw it rejected it, then the second round I got two offers, but what was interesting is that I really didn’t see my character as being a pioneer in any way. I really didn’t. I just, her ethnicity was what it was, it was not the point of the book, and it became very clear that my publisher both wanted the ethnicity — they loved the fact that she was black and Jewish — and at the same time they were afraid of it. They wanted this character, but they refused to send it to any black publications for review because they didn’t want it labeled as a black book. They certainly weren’t going to put anyone on the cover that looked ethnic. Yet at the same time, when they were asked by reporters, like, “Well, you don’t seem to have a lot of people of color on this imprint,” they’d say, “Oh, we have Kyra.”
And it was interesting because, like most of us, I lived in a bit of a bubble. I didn’t realize that my character’s ethnicity would cause a conversation. I remember I was reviewed by Savoy Magazine and it said that Kyra Davis explores and explodes stereotypes by creating this African-American Jewish character and I’m like, wait a minute, if I’m exploring and exploding stereotypes, my very existence is exploring and exploding stereotypes, and I don’t really see my very existence as a political statement. But again, at the same time, I also got interviews from people who seemed puzzled by Sophie. I actually had someone interview me saying, “It’s really amazing because when I read the dialogue of these characters it could be me and my white friends talking, it always jars me when you mention her ethnicity.” And again, intellectually, I knew that that mentality was out there, but I wasn’t really confronted with it until the book came out.
The process of getting it published was not that difficult considering what some people do to get their debut novel out. I got a three-book deal, so that also kept me in that genre, like Walter Mosley. But I feel like I was a little bit handicapped because of this push-pull I was getting of we want this character, but let’s not really talk about her blackness; so we want a black character, but we want her to be the exception. And as a result I feel like the books were never fully given the positioning I would’ve liked, and in my editing there were certainly struggles there explaining things I never thought I’d have to explain. I was asked — my character Sophie was going through one of her drawers, there were swimsuits and sarongs in there, and I was literally asked by a copyeditor, “Why does she have so many sarongs? Is it an ethnic thing?” and I’m like, “What are you talking about?”
KG: Black people like sarongs?
KD: Right, yeah. All us black people, we got sarongs. Particularly us Jewish black people. It was really an eye-opening, interesting journey for me, but the publishing process itself was fine. Again, it could’ve been much more difficult. It’s just that it was very clear at that time, in 2005 — and again there’s always the pendulum — in commercial fiction, I really feel like everybody was comfortable having exceptions, in terms of black characters, they just weren’t interested in making it the rule.
KG: Kind of like a pat yourself on the back of the thing, like, “Oh, let’s trot Kyra out to prove that we’re so open-minded”?
KD: Yeah, it’s like, I grew up in an all-white town and I think that when you’re the black kid in an all-white town, you always sort of get this like, “Okay, but you’re cool,” so you get to be the black friend, right? And I think that Sophie took that role, at least for my publisher, and that’s not always the most comfortable place to be.
KG: So, Rachel, I know, ’cause you know I love you so much, before you wrote your detective Lou series, you had written commercial fiction, in the 2000s.
RHH: A Quiet Storm was published on the first anniversary of 9/11, so, yeah, that kind of sucked.
KG: I know that you had self-published a mystery as well, right? No One Knows You’re Here?
RHH: Right, and The View From Here, and that was out of necessity.
KG: Explain your journey for us, please.
RHH: So my first book was published with Scribner. I had a big publisher, and I was very happy, it was really cool, I got to go on tour and Essence and all that. And after that, I could not get another book deal. Because this was the time of so-called “urban lit,” so Sister Souljah and all those kind of gritty types of literature. And editors didn’t see my work as black enough, as urban enough, as gritty, which was, you know, insulting, because I’m black and I grew up in the Crenshaw area of Los Angeles. I couldn’t understand it and I couldn’t get another book deal.
But like most of us — we keep writing and keep writing — and in that time I wrote two novels that I had tried to shop, and they weren’t bought. So this was also the time that Amazon came out with their self-publishing thing, and so I published them on Amazon. And No One Knows You’re Here introduced Syeeda McKay as a reporter who is investigating the case that was actually the Grim Sleeper case here in Los Angeles. So she was like my first step toward a procedural, but I was terrified of writing a mystery, a procedural, because you have to know things about DNA and cop process and all that stuff, and I didn’t know any of that.
And it took, unfortunately, while I was pregnant with my daughter Maya, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. And so pregnant going through that — and still writing, ’cause writing is therapy — and three years later another cancer scare, I figured I am not guaranteed to be here and I need to figure out what it is I want to do before tumors take me. And so I decided that I wanted to write a procedural with a character who’s like me, like the women I went to school with, so that was a black women in contemporary black Los Angeles, doing things and solving crime and all the rest of it.
So Lou came out of my need to one, normalize my life, and two, kind of reckon with my mortality, and three, you know I grew up reading Chandler and Stephen King and all these cool people who wrote about cool places, and I love Los Angeles and I thought it was a cool place so I wanted to write something about my part of L.A. And I too was inspired by that juxtaposition of — what if I had a Walter Mosley character meet a Terry McMillan character, who would she be? And that was my jumpstart. And I got an agent because by then my first agent and I had parted ways because, you know, she couldn’t sell anything for me, and I found my agent and a few months later we found Forge. My editor absolutely loved Lou, and they then bought three more in the series and my standalone. So while it was very tenuous and scary and frustrating for me getting here from my first books so many years ago, I’m here and this is my voice, and I’m glad that I went through all that to write a character who resonates with a lot of people.
KG: ’Cause, it came out in 2014?
KG: Besides the people here, were there any other black mystery writers that you knew, especially women, who were publishing?
RHH: Paula, Paula Woods. I read her Charlotte Justice series, and that had four books — was it four books?
WM: She was doing that for a while. She stopped about eight or nine years ago.
RHH: Yeah, I wanted more, but there wasn’t any.
WM: Eleanor Taylor Bland and Valerie Wilson Wesley.
RHH: Yes, I read a few of those. But Valerie is East Coast, and she was older, and I wanted to write the cop who was younger, in Los Angeles, who doesn’t have a kid. So those two. Paula definitely, though, for Los Angeles. Because I finally got to see our L.A. in a book instead of Beverly Hills and Santa Monica and all that.
KG: So I sold my book in 2016, and I write funny mystery novels — kind of like a Janet Evanovich, I think similar to Kyra. My book was actually a really hard sell. It took over a year to sell it. When I got my agent and my book was being sold, there weren’t any other black women who were writing amateur detective novels. Once I sold it, I saw like Alexia Gordon and then V. M. Burns, she does it as well, so now there are a few of us, but at the time there weren’t any, and my editor was like, “I can’t find any comps for you, I can’t find any comps for black cozy novels.” And I was like, “I could’ve told you that.”
I wanted to know with you guys, how was the editing process? I know Kyra kind of talked about it. So for me, for example, I had a line in one of my books referencing step shows. Both my agent and my editor were like, I don’t know what this is, and I ended up taking it out because I didn’t want to explain. So I was wondering: Have you guys ever had that problem where you felt like you had to overexplain something for an editor or dumb it down? Did you guys do it, or did you not do it?
RHH: My editor is pretty good. She’ll let me keep a random reference like “step show,” and I’ll have to maybe throw in three words to give some context. But she sees like I see that white folks get to explain things and say things that none of us understand but they keep going. It’s up to me as a reader to figure out what the hell life in Maine is like. So I think she respects that kind of, you say what you have to say and let Lou be who she is and you’ll bring the reader along.
GAH: I think what’s interesting is that, in this age of cultural appropriation, white folks know how to say something before most black people do.
BN: I got a real chuckle when Kyra was talking earlier about having to explain things. I remembered that I had to fight to get a dark-skinned Blanche on the cover of the book. The cover that they sent me looked like a white woman who’d been in the sun for maybe 25 minutes and I had to explain to them that black women were going to kick my butt if I had a truly black character who didn’t look like one. I had to argue with an editor about the number of orgasms Blanche had. She told me, you know, nobody has that many orgasms. I suggested that she might need another sex partner. And language, of course, was questioned. There was a phrase that I used that an editor absolutely objected to and when I read it out at readings women just sort of fell back in their chairs. So a total misunderstanding of our language and a lack of confidence in our ability to know what our readership can take. Including the thing about white people: I mean it’s like, they’re not stupid, they understand context, they can get it. But yes, having to fight all of those fights in the early days.
WM: Not that I disagree with anything that anybody’s saying, but I found the opposite in two different ways. Number one, I’ve had some really good white editors who’ve understood or stood back and said, “Okay, you’re writing it, so I’ll accept.” Also I’ve had to deal with black editors who’ve been so kind of like brought up in or around the Ivy League that they argue with me about things that I say. So like, “Oh no, black women don’t say that,” and I’ll be like, “Really? What black women do you know?”
And, of course, in publishing in general, there’s a lot of trouble with editing. It isn’t what it used to be. Editors think in different ways than they once thought about, like, trying to make the best book that you’re trying to write. Because that’s the thing you do, right? Somebody writes something and you have to figure out what it is they were saying and then if there’s something wrong with that then you say, “Well, listen, you’re trying to say this but it seems like you’re saying that,” and that’s what an editor should be doing. It’s just a big problem I think in publishing in general. I think that the race issue is there, but I think it’s more complex than just that was that white person that was that black person.
RHH: I want to back up because I just remembered something very important with explaining. My character Colin, who is Lou’s partner, is white, so I get to have him be the clueless white guy she has to explain things to, so that is, I guess, my out for explaining random black things to a white audience.
BN: I love the publishers that I have now. The old Blanche books are being published by Brash Books, and they have been absolutely wonderful. I partly attribute it to it being a publishing company that was started by mystery writers, which makes a big difference. And they came to the work with a lot of understanding of what it was that I was trying to do, which I really appreciated. And tracked me down — because I had done everything I could not to be found, and Joel Goldman … I think he told me it took him three months to find me, but he persevered, which is just the opposite of what we assume that the publishing experience is going to be. That you’re chasing them down the street instead of vice versa. So that was a very nice thing to have happen.
WM: Have they convinced you to write some new books?
BN: Well, I am writing, but I’m not trying to publish.
WM: Why’s that?
BN: Because I want to write what I want to write and I want to be able to write it until I think it’s the very best that it can be, or I’m tired of writing this now and it’s good enough.
WM: Well, yeah, both of those things are valid.
BN: This is not an attitude that necessarily works in the publishing world. It felt different. I was away from writing for a number of years, and when I came back the whole publishing world was a different world.
WM: It’s a loss to our world if you’re not writing. You’re a wonderful writer. Whatever you have to say is great.
RHH: I agree.
BN: Right now what I’m doing is working on a series of short stories that are just kicking my butt, and I am loving it. But I don’t know that I’m going to try to go find a publisher for them.
RHH: I have a question to you guys, that is kind of related to this, about the times they are a-changing. Do you think that — you know, Kellye here has racked up a lot of awards, Attica racked up some awards, Tayari, there’s this whole kind of recognizing black writing excellence finally. Do you think that we’re on this continued path, or do you think that they’ve checked the box and now we can go back to business as usual?
KD: I have to say that the latter has occurred to me, and it does scare me. The publishing industry does tend to love trends and turn everything into a trend, usually to their own detriment. I’d like to think that we’re just expanding. Human history is a bunch of fits and starts. It’s hard to point to something that has been just continual progress. I’m sure that there will be ditches to fall into, a few landmines here and there, but I’d like to think that it’s going to be, with a few detours, a slow progression toward just inclusion.
WM: It’s been steady growth since Barbara, Gar, and I have been writing, and that’s 25 years or more. And I think it has less to do with people following fads and more to do with them thinking they can make money. And because there are so many black people who are buying books and wanting to read books about black people. And because of hip-hop, so many white people wanting to do the same thing. When we stop selling, they’ll stop selling. That’s a fact. But I remember when I started out in the late ’80s I would go down to Philadelphia for the big black conference down there and there’d be 200 writers, real writers, in the room, and three of them were published. It was almost impossible for black people to get published then. So what’s going on now is so incredibly wonderful. It may not be the best it can be, but it’s still incredibly wonderful.
KG: I don’t know if you guys felt like this, but I also feel a pressure in a way because I mentioned my editor was like, “I can’t find any black cozies to comp you,” and so I’m like, “Wow, so now I’m gonna be the black cozy for the next black writer.” Obviously I’m so happy I got these nominations — I think I was the first black woman since Barbara Neely to win the Agatha for best debut and I might be the first since Barbara for the Anthony nomination. And I’m happy for that but I also do see the bigger picture of like, okay, hopefully there are some kids out there, black people who are talented writers who might look at mystery now because they see — because my book has a black woman very much on the cover, like dead staring, and they’re gonna see that and hopefully that inspires them, and then when they do write, agents will be like, “Well, Kellye’s book got this that and this,” so hopefully they’ll have a better chance so that it doesn’t take them a year.
WM: One of the great things about always being new is that you’re always the first person to ever to do something, nobody ever did this before. And that’s helpful.
RHH: I don’t consider myself mediocre at all, but don’t you want some — in some ways I want us to get to be mediocre instead of always the exception, always the gifted kid, always the ones who are doing the most. I think you guys know what I mean, right?
KD: I totally know what you mean. My dad used to say that when you used to see a black person as a backup singer you knew that was the most talented person on the stage, and now we’ve earned the right to suck as much as anybody else. So that is the goal so that you don’t have to be this genius stellar person that is the exception.
RHH: It won’t be any of us, but someone gets to be mediocre.
KD: That’s absolutely true. I guess that’s where my fear comes in a little bit, though. My concern is that sometimes publishers think this is the “in” thing, and they start grabbing everything that they think fits that box without checking quality as much as I think that they should be, and then when those books don’t sell, they’re like, “Oh, we’ve saturated the market.”
KG: That’s like cozies right now.
KD: Again, it’s not that I don’t think we’re on a progression, but I can see possible issues that I think can be overcome. I’m just not sure it’ll be completely smooth. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they will avoid that particular trap, and we’ll just have a handful of mediocre books.
BN: I did want to speak on the issue of mediocrity and say that under no circumstance is that a good idea.
RHH: No, but I guess I mean there are so many of us that —
BN: I understand your point, but your point is also related to the other thing that’s just been said about what gets done with that mediocre work and what it gets designated as being. There was a period, and it may still be going on and I may just not be enough in touch with publishing to know about it, but a whole sort of subset of books written by black people that were badly written and were elevated into bookstores in the African-American literature section and into our high schools as good African-American writing, and that is absolutely dangerous. And of course I absolutely also agree with Walter that as long as there is money to made on us — hey, that’s how we got to this country. As long as the money can be made, we will get published. What I would like to see is who makes the money, who are the publishers of black books, who are the editors of black books; that all of those behind-the-scenes people and the people who own and run publishing companies that publish our works look like us.
KD: That would be nice. I do agree that we have the advantage right now that black books are selling, books by authors of color are selling, and I think that the publishing world has been somewhat inspired by Hollywood, where you see things like Scandal and Empire and Black Panther, all these shows and movies starring diverse people — now Crazy Rich Asians — and I think that all sorts of mediums are looking at that and saying, “Oh, we want to get on that bandwagon.” But as with almost all industries, the people behind the scenes frequently don’t reflect what they’re coveting. And it would be nice to have more editors of color, and to be honest it would be really nice to have more agents of color, because those are the first gatekeepers. And by the way, I’ve had some great white agents and great white editors — I’m not saying that they can’t do the job. I just think that for the sustainability of diversity in literature, you need to have it at all levels, and I think there’s still more work to be done there.
I want us to be able to have a variety of books. Because white people have a variety of books. We can have a cozy, and we can have a noir, we can have a PI, we can have a police, because that’s what white people have, so why can’t we? Especially because my books are about a black woman, but they’re not necessarily focused on that. We can have our books that are focused on the black experience and books that are about a woman who happens to be black dealing with Hollywood, so that’s what I really would want to see and I hope that we get to see it.
KD: That’s a big thing. My books are cozies too. Sophie was not a character who was really focused on her ethnic identity. Sometimes in some of the books you see how the world can be more focused on it than she is, but that’s not really the point of the books. And we shouldn’t have a landscape where you have to either be a) talking about the black experience and black identity to be considered a worthy book of color, or reversed, b) that someone just happens to be black and therefore it’s okay. We really do need to have both. I do think that we’re getting there, I really do, more so than we’ve ever been before, certainly in my experience, but we need to continue to expand on that. One shouldn’t be elevated over the other necessarily if we need all of the above, because as you pointed out, that’s certainly the case for books for white people.
GAH: I was wondering if we could talk very briefly, guys, about something that I’ve been concerned about for a while, and that is black readers of mystery or genre fiction who won’t touch black authors. They’ll read authors in the genre all day long, but they won’t touch Walter’s books, they won’t touch mine, they won’t touch Kellye’s, et cetera. Have you guys encountered that and how do you feel about it?
RHH: Yes. I was actually about to say, we can say all this but if no one’s reading it, including black women, and white women, especially for cozy readers, all this is pointless because the publishers are looking at how many people are actually reading your books. I finally did get to go to the Virginia Book Festival this past year and got to go to the Links Brunch, and that was the biggest event I’ve ever been to where there were so many black women reading, and they were like, “We’ve never heard of you.” It broke my heart because I’ve been around for a long time, but for some reason I haven’t been able to break past that barrier. Maybe it’s a regional thing or something. But I know my publisher has no idea how to get me in front of large groups of black women readers — but they haven’t figured out how to do that with white women readers either.
WM: Can I say something about this? One of the reasons that I was thinking that we should have an organization is because whether right or wrong, most people think of us as urban writers. And there’s a lot of attention to literature in urban areas. The one thing I think that was superior about what we were back in that day is that Eleanor Taylor Bland who kept us together, and we would appear in all of these places. I think right now if we were able as an organization to appear in cities, we could get all of our names out to a large group of people and also sell more books. It’s up to us because nobody else is gonna do it. We could talk about that forever, but nobody else is gonna do it. Because why even think about it? There’s no kind of money they’re gonna make. But if we had 10 or 12 or 15 writers appearing at literary and mystery festivals in the various cities, we could have a big impact and we would sell a lot more books and get people aware of us.
BN: You know, I remember doing numbers of events for black women’s organizations with huge audiences. There was one somewhere in the South, the Mary Church Terrell Literary Club, and, of course, there was the Go On Girl! Book Club. Your agent may want to look at the list of black women’s organizations if you are trying to break into more black readership.
KD: I think that in the past, and this really is something that’s changed a lot, but the whole thing about bookstores that had the black books area or the urban fiction, it was segregated out, and I think that was really damaging because I don’t think a lot of — there was a very select group of black people who wanted to go to just the black books section. I do think that I’ve had the luxury and I’ve been blessed by having a fairly diverse readership and I think one of the reasons for that is my books were put in just fiction, or mystery. Again, that seems to be changing but this whole thing, as I pointed out before, sometimes there was a certain amount of mediocrity in those segregated sections, and it was stigmatized, which was wrong on so many levels but it was seen as stigmatized, it was created as stigmatized. We need our books in the front of the bookstore. They need to be on the tables like everybody else. And now I feel like that’s happening.
WM: Well, wasn’t that always happening? Weren’t you always in fiction and in the black area? Like Toni Morrison would have a book. Definitely it would be in the black area, but also it would be in fiction. But not just someone as big as her, but lots of people. It’s always been true for me.
KD: Well, I mean Toni Morrison absolutely.
WM: I think a lot of people.
KD: Yeah, I don’t really think so.
WM: I do.
KD: The cozy mysteries, because Kellye, you’re right, you’ve broken through, but there were a few cozy mystery writers who were writing black characters. And again, I was fortunate to be up front but I saw that the others were not.
WM: And they weren’t in the mystery section?
WM: There’s all these sections that you look to be in because some people only go to one section.
KD: Exactly. It seemed like particularly with more genre and more commercial fiction those books were put in a certain section. They were not put in the front of the store. There were exceptions — there’s always exceptions — but they were exceptions. And I think that’s the problem. It’s in every genre. You look at someone like Kayla Perrin, who’s written all these romances, and she’s never in just the romance section, because her characters are black, so she was never gonna be a Nora Roberts because they were just sort of put aside. And that was a real problem, and it is beginning to change in every genre. But again, particularly for genre and commercial, that just has not been the case. It’s been more the case for authors who write about the black experience. If you’re writing a book that publishers and bookstores see as a book that’s going to help educate, then there was a better chance of you getting into the front of the bookstore. If it was a book like Kellye’s, it was highly unlikely.
BN: Until the day of great book integration happens, we do have agency. I had friends in at least three cities who felt responsible for going to booksellers in their city, making sure that the books were in sections other than mysteries, and making sure that the cover was facing out. So there are other ways to do what you have to do until the happy day comes.
RHH: That kind of blends into the conventions and the book panels and placing all the colored writers on one panel to talk about that one thing that only writers of color can talk about and that’s being a writer of color instead of including them in the larger conversation.
GAH: There was a time when Walter and I only saw each other during Black History Month, I mean that was it.
RHH: While you’re happy to be at the party, once again they’re getting to check a box: “So we invited this person, and now we’re gonna talk about diversity.” And it’s like, I also am a woman, and I’m also from Los Angeles, and I’m also a college graduate; there are so many other places I can be besides this one panel. And I’m not going to Bouchercon this year but those of you who are going, are you on interesting panels that are beyond being diverse?
KG: I’m actually on a screenwriting panel, so I think there’s been a push this year to make sure that they’re embracing diversity and having authors of color on a variety of panels, and they’re having an event highlighting authors of color, so there’s definitely a push at Bouchercon this year.
WM: I mean really honestly, it’s like Malcolm X talking, and he says, “Why do you wanna ask them for freedom? They don’t like you.” Complaining about what they do and don’t do doesn’t mean much to me because they’re not gonna stop doing it, and I’m not gonna stop them from doing it. The only thing that I can do is start to figure out, well, how do I make it work for me and mine? Where I’m coming from is that place. Because people are stupid, people are confused, people are racist, people are all kinds of things but they’re only gonna pay attention to things that are actually literally important to them that they can understand.
Max Rodriguez, who many of you may know, more than 20 years ago, gave a talk, and he said, “Listen, if you’re a writer and you’re successful, you should give a book every once in a while to a black publisher because that’s really the right thing to do.” Which is why I published with Paul Coates at Black Classic Press, and it was good for me because Paul’s always been nice to me since then, and I was like really riding high at that time. And I think that’s something, those are at least the kind of things we can do, you know what I’m saying? I’m trying to think of things we can do.
BN: I remember that, Walter, and I remember really admiring you for doing that. I thought that was just so great.
WM: Thank you. It was fun, and it’s something we can all do, though, right? I mean not necessarily that, but you know, figuring out how to get the membership of our organization at literary festivals, at all the major urban hubs, how we can get out there without trying to — ’cause like really, honestly the big publishers, which are white businesses, never were supported by the government so they never had to hire people of color, they’re not even gonna recognize that they’re doing anything wrong. It’s not possible for them. So it’s up to us. My argument from that point is yes, people do all kinds of things wrong, but I’m not worried about them. I’m worried about what we did or didn’t do right.
KD: I did say before, my first publisher wouldn’t send my book to black publications. They were afraid of having it labeled a black book. So I got my own publicist, and we sent it to the black publications. And that’s how I got reviewed in both Cosmo and Ebony, and so you do have to take a lot of it on your own and just hope that you continue to move the ball forward and drag everybody else with you.
WM: But if we have an organization then we can help each other.
RHH: That is one thing that I appreciate about other writers. Black writers and even writers of different ethnicities, especially in mystery, we tend to help each other out a lot. Kellye, you’re a great example of someone who tries to make connections between all of us. I mean here we are, talking. I would say more than any other genre I see that kind of helping each other out and talking each other up and recommending each other for this thing and that thing. I find that heartening, and it helps me want to keep going in this when I’m exhausted.