Bernice L. McFadden is an amazingly talented and hardworking writer. In a relatively short but breathtakingly prolific career, she has published ten critically acclaimed novels under her own name, including her first novel, “Sugar“, and her latest novel, “The Book of Harlan“, which won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work, Fiction. In addition, she has published five steamy novels under her pen-name Geneva Holliday.
I have become a huge fan of McFadden’s writing, which is intimate, impactful, and truly beautiful. Recently, I was fortunate enough to meet Bernice at a Black History Month event, after which she agreed to answer a few questions.
Chronic Bibliophilia: You have definitely ensconced yourself on my “Must Read Everything” shelf. Do you have authors whose full catalog you devour (or aspire to devour)?
Bernice L. McFadden: Yes! I read everything Toni Morrison publishes. Also, Terry McMillan. Both writers have had a significant influence on my work.
CB: What is on your bedside table to be read right now?
BLM: I’m reading a few things in rotation: “The Fire This Time” edited by Jesmyn Ward, “Here Comes the Sun” by Nicole Dennis Benn; “Marking Time Making Place (An essential chronology of Blacks in New Orleans since 1718)” edited by James B. Borders IV
CB: Are you able to read for pleasure when you are writing, or do you find you have to shut out outside voices?
BLM: When I’m writing I read poetry for pleasure and inspiration. Any other literature I consume has to do with whatever I’m working on at the time.
CB: I suspect that your books are your babies, so this may not be a kosher question, but… do you have a favorite? One that holds a special place in your heart?
BLM: Yes, they are all my babies and it’s difficult to chose one. But If I had to, I guess it would be “The Warmest December” because I poured so much of my personal life into it.
CB: I’ve read both that you knew at age 9 that you wanted to be a writer and that you went through a mill of unfulfilling jobs as an adult. Did the dream of writing stay with you or did it wax and wane? What was the linchpin for becoming an author?
BLM: Did I feel defeated at times? Absolutely! But something in me wouldn’t allow me to give up on my dream. I just always knew that being an author was in my future and I was willing to chase that dream until I took my last breath. I’ve not felt that type of passion for anything other than writing.
CB: Your books seem so well researched. Tell me a little about your research process. Is it ongoing throughout the writing process, or do you research until you get a sense that you are satiated?
BLM: I start researching years before I begin writing and the research continues on until I finish the novel. For me, research is like falling down a rabbit hole. One question leads to another and another and so on. Sometimes it’s quite daunting. But daunting or not, I love it.
CB: You are amazingly prolific. What is your writing process like? Do you have a place or ritual that particularly facilitates your writing?
BLM: I write when I feel moved to write. Early in my career I found that I could only write late at night when the world had gone to sleep. But later, I found that I could create during the daytime hours – this, only if it was quiet. I guess as long as there is silence, I can write.
CB: You have 10 Bernice McFadden books, with a spate of 5 Geneva Holliday publications in the middle of between 2005-2009. Is Geneva a living altar ego or was she a temporary love affair?
BLM: Hmmm, Geneva came at around at a time when I needed her financially and emotionally. I hope to revive her at some point. The world has drastically changed since she first made her appearance and I think she would have a lot to say about it.
CB: How did you go about plotting The Book of Harlan? Were the twists decided in the planning or did some surprise you during the writing process?
BLM: I allow my novels to unfurl holistically. I don’t dictate the plot. More often than not, I am just as surprised by the twists and turns as my readers.
CB: Would you mind telling me a bit about the elements in The Book of Harlan that you’ve tried to work with before and how they finally clicked for you?
BLM: I’m a fan of backstory. And if I’m not mistaken, backstory occurs in all of my novels. It’s an innate part of who I am. Even when I relate story verbally, I often find myself telling the backstory before I dive into the meat of the narrative. I guess, that’s why I write historical fiction – because the past is prologue.
CB: As far as I can tell, The Book of Harlan is your first novel with a male protagonist. Did writing around a male create any new challenges or changes in your perspective?
BLM: Yes it is and no, it did not present any new challenges. You’re not the first person to ask that question. Someone else asked if I had a difficult time writing from a male perspective or in a male voice. My answer was and still is: NO. And that’s because I didn’t know writing a male protagonist was suppose to be challenging. So, what you don’t know won’t hurdle you….
CB: In this time of uncertainty and, at the very least, increased stress and anxiety about the state of the world, what do you do to take care of yourself? What are the ways you hold onto your sanity and creativity?
BLM: I step away from the news. I watch cartoons and comedies. I take the time to smell the roses, as they say, and spend as much time with people I love and who love me.
Thank you so much to Bernice McFadden for so graciously sharing her time and her self! For more information on Bernice McFadden, be sure to visit her website at www.bernicemcfadden.com and, most importantly, read her spectacular novels!
Akashic Books has generously offered one complimentary copy of “The Book of Harlan“. To enter the giveaway, please leave a comment below mentioning an author on your “Must Read Everything” shelf. Entries are open until 5pm (EST) Friday, March 10th. Unfortunately, this giveaway is open to readers based in the US only, but for my international friends, please comment anyway!! The winner will be drawn at random and notified as soon as possible.