TANANARIVE DUE: Unique Name for a New Dark Star
"...I'd had it drummed into my head in creative writing workshop courses that one could not expect to be a respected writer when writing commercial or genre books. Legitimacy has always been very important to me...Finally, though, I said the heck with all of it. I wasn't going to try to be Toni Morrison or Joyce Carol Oates, I was just going to be me, and I was going to write about the people I know..."--Tananarive Dueby Paula Guran
July, 1997 (Originally published by OMNI Online)
If you want to know the one new name in horror that should become a household word, take note -- the name is Tananarive Due. She tells stories -- rich, entertaining stories full of characters who you get to know immediately and care about; stories with a touch of exotic spice but as filling and flavorful as down-home cooking. They appeal to people "who don't read that scary stuff" and to lovers of horror alike.
In these days of the "Hollywoodization" of the author to promote a book, you can't negate star quality and image. Tananarive's got that, too. She's petite, beautiful, intelligent and a professional journalist. She can handle an interview -- why not? she's an interviewer herself -- and manage to come across as a real live, if decidedly gifted, human being. She's black in a field where, finally, being in the minority and a little "different" can be seen as a marketing asset.
Most of all, she's just Tananarive. She got so excited about a chance to play and sing with The Rock Bottom Remainders and meet Stephen King, I could hear her scream -- and she's in Miami and I'm in Northeastern Ohio. She says dumb things when meeting famous authors (I won't repeat any of them, she'd kill me.) She's been known to drink sake and talk all night with writer buddies. She's got dreams and disappointments and a generous laugh that's bigger than she is.
Due's first novel, The Between, was praised by critics and nominated for the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a First Novel by the Horror Writers Association. Her latest, My Soul to Keep was published in July.
In addition to being a novelist, Tananarive is a columnist for The Miami Herald. Her dating column appears in newspapers nationwide. She has a B.S. in journalism from Northwestern University and an M.A. in English literature from the University of Leeds, England, where she specialized in Nigerian literature as a Rotary Foundation Scholar.
She lives in Miami with her three cats, Sula, Teacake, and Zoe.
DE: Okay, the name. Everybody wants to know about the cool, memorable, melodic name...tah-nah-nah-REEVE doo.
TD: Ah, yes, the name. My mother is to blame for that -- or gets the credit, I should say. When she was in college, she took a course in contemporary Africa, and Tananarive is the capital city of Madagascar. She loved the name and decided she would give it to her first-born daughter, but it was a couple of years before I was born...and in the mean time, she'd forgotten how to spell it! She had to call up her old professor to find the correct spelling. I always joke that I've been besieged by copy-editors from the very beginning, because my name is misspelled, crossed out and corrected on my birth certificate.
DE: You are African-American, in case you hadn't noticed. Oh, all right, so you know this and so do others because The Between has been mentioned as the "first major commercial horror work by an African-American writer" and your publisher sends you out to African-American bookstores. Has being black helped or hindered you as a writer? What does it feel like to be a "first"?
TD: Being black has helped me a tremendous amount, which would not have been the case only a few short years ago, in the pre-Terry McMillan era. Believe it or not, unless there's a phenomenon going on that I'm unaware of, the vast majority of my readers have been black readers -- and I'm also willing to bet that they are readers who do not primarily consider themselves horror/dark fantasy enthusiasts. I could be wrong about that second part, because Octavia E. Butler has done a great deal toward bringing black readers to the science fiction genre, which has made a big difference for me...but HarperCollins still primarily sends me to black bookstores for signings. Often people tell me, "Why do you let them call this a horror novel? This isn't a horror novel," because it does not fit their concept of, say, Clive Barker-style horror. What's also working in my favor is that the black community draws on so many belief systems that they take the supernatural for granted. I also find that a lot of black readers are willing to share their stories of prophetic dreams or ghost sightings, and to them, that isn't horror or dark fantasy, it's true life.
In any case, I want to stress the point that this is a big change from the way things were in publishing just a short time ago, before writers like Terry McMillan demonstrated that there is a large audience for commercial black fiction that is not Alice Walker or Richard Wright. First Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler and now Steven Barnes, all of whom have been slogging it out there in speculative fiction a lot longer than I have, faced a publishing world that could accept them as science fiction writers before it could accept them as black science fiction writers, so both of them have had book-covers in the past that downplayed their characters' races. My paperback edition of Butler's Dawn, which is 10 years old, has white women on the cover; I just saw a new edition with black women on the cover, so times are changing.
In a lot of ways, though, The Between and My Soul to Keep, as supernatural suspense with black protagonists, have been an experiment in publishing. In that sense, being a "first" can be a little frustrating because I find myself explaining over and over exactly what I'm trying to do. A lot of non-genre readers just find my stuff a bit strange. Then, recognition washes over them and they say, "Oh, you mean like Stephen King, right?" Or, more and more often, "Like Octavia Butler, right?" I'm just happy to be published in an era when black life has been so mainstreamed in the media that I really believe non-black genre readers won't care that my protagonists are black, they're just people, and black readers are just happy to see their experience reflected in the commercial media. That's my hope, anyway. I know that's my publisher's hope, too. I'm really angling for very separate audiences.
DE: Let's talk about the books. The Between is literally the only book I have recommended to people that I got email back on saying, "I'm in tears...this is such a wonderful book..." Plus, a variety of people liked it -- nice straight middle-class people and headbangers that usually go more for the visceral. Now, with My Soul to Keep, I think you've managed to go even farther. This is the only book I can think of that can attract Anne Rice and vampire fans (because it has a perfect, sensual male immortal); women in general; rational Christians; people who like family-oriented books; jazz lovers; horror lovers; black folks; thriller readers, even journalists! Heck, you even have a sympathetic (if sadly closeted) gay character. What I'm trying to say is that I feel MSTK has great appeal to a huge market segment and vast potential as a break-out best seller.
I know you, T, I know you don't check demographics before you write, so this isn't calculated. Why do you think your stuff comes out this way?
TD: I always hated those articles in Writer's Digest that made writing seem like such a calculated process, that I was supposed to be scouring bookstores and making demographic studies before I ever began to write. I found all of that very depressing. At the same time, I also went through a long identity crisis as a writer. Should I be writing about white characters? Black characters? Urban characters? Rural characters? Heck, before I wrote The Between, my experience with writing speculative fiction had been very limited because I'd had it drummed into my head in creative writing workshop courses that one could not expect to be a respected writer when writing commercial or genre books. Legitimacy has always been very important to me.
Finally, though, I said the heck with all of it. I wasn't going to try to be Toni Morrison or Joyce Carol Oates, I was just going to be me, and I was going to write about the people I know. That meant I would write about the suburbs, about the middle-class, about the professional class. I would write about people like my parents and my friends. And because the people I know span all demographic categories and experiences, my books naturally do the same. The black experience shaped me -- my parents have been lifelong civil rights activists, after all -- so there is always a dash of the black experience in my books. I have had some very close gay friends, both male and female, so there are sympathetic gay characters in both The Between and My Soul to Keep. In fact, in The Between, one of the key "guides" turns out to be a gay man, and one reader complained to me, "I just hate he had to be gay." Well, that's tough -- I'm sure some people hate he has to be black, and that's just the way it is. I reflect the world as I interact in it, and I think a lot of readers can identify with the humanity of my characters even if they don't know any black people or gay people.
If that also means my books have the potential for crossover and huge sales, that's just icing on the cake. I had never succeeded in publishing a word of fiction, nor did I have a book contract, when I wrote either The Between or My Soul to Keep. I wrote those books for me, so I could grow as a writer and hopefully entertain myself a couple of years down the line, when I would dig them out of my desk drawer. A year after I wrote The Between, midway through My Soul to Keep, I finally got up enough nerve to try to get an agent and sell my work. I'm glad I did! But no one was more surprised than I was when my agent sold The Between.
DE: Your characters are wonderfully "deep" and I think this is because you place them in the context of extremely strong families with all the dynamics of love and loyalty. Does this come from your own family?
TD: Wow. I'm so glad you think my characters are "deep." I've always been a strong believer in character, which is because I really love people on the whole. I grew up in a very healthy way, in a family that stressed encouragement, support and loyalty to family. When I got my first job in high school, doing grunt-work for The Miami Herald, my paycheck went straight into the family pot. I grumbled from time to time, but I also understood that it was my responsibility to help provide for "the family," not to save up money to buy clothes and music for myself. I was never really into buying things, anyway, because I spent all my free time writing and daydreaming, so I didn't do a lot of normal teenager stuff. I have a feeling family dynamics will always be at the heart of my fiction. That's another reason, incidentally, that Stephen King electrified me so much when I discovered The Shining at age 16 -- I loved the supernatural aspects (that fire-hose jumping off the wall scared the hell out of me) -- but I mostly loved that book because those people were so well-drawn, so real, that they made every bit of it believable.
That's what makes Stephen King who he is, after all. When he complimented my characters in his blurb, I wrote him to tell him it was like receiving "a high mark from a favorite teacher."
DE: Jessica, in MSTK, is a contemporary, believable, intelligent, sexy woman -- who is also a practicing Christian whose faith is central to her life. I think she is rare, perhaps unique, in modern fiction and certainly in horror. How did you manage this?
TD: It was very important to me that Jessica be convincing as a Christian, because a key plot point is her inherent aversion to the notion of everlasting life on Earth, or of losing her immortal soul in exchange for immortal flesh. Also, church is very central to the social structure of large segments of the black community, so Jessica's faith makes her an easily identifiable character to a lot of black readers. I myself was raised Unitarian, which is pretty nondenominational -- there were Christians, Jews, atheists, and agnostics at my church -- so I had to base much of Jessica's Christian sensibility on that of a very good friend, whose upbringing and beliefs are different from mine.
DE: Dawit, the immortal in MSTK, is, uh...well...HOT! He's Mr. Perfect -- nineties kinda guy, perfect dad, brilliant, handsome and is an incomparable lover. So he has a past...it turns out to be a REALLY long past of several hundred years...but who really wants him to be perfect-perfect, right? Where did this character come from? Is he based on anyone you know?
TD: Dawit was a character I created by pretending I could close my eyes and make my wish come to life. There are some similarities, even exact words of dialogue, from a man I'd dated briefly at the time I was writing it (I can't say which ones!)...but mostly Dawit is drawn from wishful thinking --to a point, anyway. Obviously, I would never want to be in a relationship with anyone so violent and deceptive, but part of the reason Dawit seems so perfect is that he goes to a great deal of trouble to create himself in the image he knows Jessica craves. I see him as part actor, really, even though he himself believes the part he is playing.
DE: Dawit is also a jazz musician, really a pioneer of jazz. I'm not an expert, but this seemed authentic. Does this come from your own musical background?
TD: I absolutely love music, but I'm certainly not a jazz expert -- in fact, I really had to research the jazz era to write this book. Basically, I decided I wanted Dawit to be a jazz musician, then I had to figure out how to depict him that way. While I was writing, I listened to a lot of old recordings of Louis Armstrong to try to capture the mood and music of the time. I also had to read a lot. But I'm really glad I did, because I learned a lot about jazz while I was writing this book -- and just like a good friend of mine, a sax player, once told me, jazz is the kind of music that gains more and more texture as you begin to understand it. Jazz, as an improvisational music form, offers countless variations and opportunities for creativity. That's why David is so electrified by it, because he can literally lose himself inside of that creative process and touch his own humanity again. To me, it's infinite --which is why I think Dawit enjoys it so much.
DE: Another dimension of MYSTK is that it encapsulates -- in one person, Dawit -- a great deal of the historical experience of being black in America. It's sort of a mini-Roots. Was this intentional? Dawit could easily have been a cosmopolitan character.
TD: I guess I'd have to say it was intentional that so much of Dawit's history coincides with African-American history. Slavery, for example, is such a huge and distasteful subject that it tends to get glossed over -- and I wanted Dawit to make the point that it really was not that long ago, certainly not in his memory. I guess my hope is that those experiences provide black readers with immediate recognition and help educate other readers, but in a way that's logical to the plot and doesn't bog the story down. Ultimately, I always hope readers can glean more than a plot-line from my work if they want to...but if nothing else, they're reading a compelling story about people they care about.
DE: How do you write? What comes first? Story, characters? Do you plot it all out first? You work full-time. When do you write?
TD: With both The Between and My Soul to Keep, the basic story came first, and the characters were right on its heels. I based the concepts in My Soul to Keep on a poem I wrote in high school entitled "The Eternal Man." I just wanted to examine what it might really be like if people were immortal, what kinds of emotional stresses that would cause. I make a lot of notes before I begin writing -- and, strangely enough, I like to look for those beginning-of-section epigraphs right away because they help me fortify exactly what I want to convey, too. Reading quotes and poetry about the themes that interest me always help me get excited about a new project. And, believe me, you have to be excited, because there's a long road between the idea for a novel and an actual completed book. I was working full-time at The Miami Herald when I wrote both novels, so I had to write for two hours in the morning, from about 7 to 9 p.m., and then two or three hours each evening, about 8 to 11 p.m. That may not sound like a lot of time, but I understand Stephen King writes for about four or five hours a day, so that time can go a long, long way. My favorite time to write is in the morning. DE: What about the rest of the day job? Other than the column, what type of journalism do you do? Do you enjoy it?
TD: In addition to my Dating Column, I have also been a general assignment features writer for The Miami Herald. I was so relieved to flee to features, because I HATED writing news, which I wrote for years. My low points were having a teen-age rioter point to me and say "You're next" after he and a pack of other young boys overturned a news van during a Miami civil disturbance. That was one of those What am I doing here? moments. But a worse one -- and one that so disturbed me that I was literally in tears on my way to the assignment -- was when a woman school principal was shot to death by her husband, who then shot himself. Basically, it was a typical get-the-reaction-of-family-members kind of assignment, and it was POURING rain, and I wanted to be ANYWHERE else. So I arrive at the woman's house and knock on the door, asking to speak to her father. I'm told to wait outside. I remember standing in the middle of the lawn because I felt like such an intruder; I didn't even want to stand on the porch. So an old man and a younger man came outside under an umbrella and met me in the middle of the lawn. The old man said something to me in Spanish. I don't speak Spanish, so I asked the younger man to translate. "He said, 'Please don't give us any more pain,'" the young man said. I remember being filled with so much shame and self-loathing. I apologized and walked away. I'm sure another reporter would have pressed one step further for a comment: "Sir, I'm really, really sorry for your loss, but could you just tell me how you feel...?" Yeah, right. I left as quickly as I could, and I never looked back. That incident haunts me so much that I included a version of it in My Soul to Keep, when Jessica's family has to tell her newspaper editor to please leave them alone.
That's why I can't do news. Feature stories are a bit better -- feel-good stories, profiles of interesting people. But every once in a while I get an assignment that crawls straight under my skin, which happened shortly before I went on leave last year: A well-respected Miami woman was dying of cancer, and her family welcomed me into the midst of their pain and confusion to profile her. It was a bit better than standing on that poor old man's lawn in the rain, but I still felt that I had no right to be there. In essence I knew, and she knew, and her whole family knew, that I was writing that woman's obituary. I think I have too many death "issues" myself to ever be comfortable in that role.
DE: Tell me about the "serial novel," Naked Came the Manatee you were involved with.
Naked Came the Manateewas a glorious surprise. The Between my first novel, had only been out a few months when the editor of the Herald's "Tropic" magazine invited me to take part in an unusual project the magazine was going to run: Week after week, South Florida authors would each write a chapter of a novel, passing it on like a literary hot potato. It would be a twist of the concept of the collaborative novel Naked Came the Stranger, which had been very successful years ago. We would not meet beforehand to discuss it, and we would only have a week to write our respective chapters. And oh, by the way, the other participants were going to include Elmore Leonard, Dave Barry, Carl Hiaasen, Edna Buchanan and other top writers with South Florida connections. I was thrilled, honored and utterly terrified. My terror grew as it got closer and closer to my turn (I was Chapter Eight), because agents and editors had caught wind of the project and decided they wanted to publish our book FOR REAL, and for a six-figure advance. So, even though the Tropic editor never really said it, when my turn came up, I know he was thinking, "You better not screw this up." What was worse, I was in the midst of a bunch of publicity for "The Between," so I ended up writing the bulk of my stuff on an airplane trip between Miami and San Francisco.
But it worked out, in the end. Or I think it did. You basically have to read Naked Came the Manatee and see for yourself.
DE: What's next, T? I don't want divulge any secrets about My Soul to Keep, but I can safely say that you finish it and say, "Oh, goody! Sounds like there might be a sequel!" Yet a sequel would have to be placed in the future and ...oh gosh, T, does this mean you are going to be writing SCIENCE FICTION!?
TD: Okay, you're on to me. I am making notes for a sequel (I've even picked a few epigraphs), and it is placed in the near-future...but it would be a real stretch to call it science fiction. As it is now, it takes place in the year 2001. So, assuming it wouldn't be published until 1999 or even 2000, it's only about a year in the future. Actually, though, this book will have some elements of science fiction as well as magic realism and supernatural suspense -- so it'll be just as tough for booksellers to classify as The Between and My Soul to Keep.
DE: How about you? Where do you see yourself in five years? Ten?
TD: I just plan to keep writing! That's always been my goal, and in some ways I'm just still thrilled that I've been able to support myself from my fiction for the past year. It isn't easy to do, and I don't take that for granted -- but I just want to continue writing and publishing. In addition to working on the sequel to My Soul to Keep, I've been working with my mother on a nonfiction book about the civil rights movement in Florida (she's a longtime activist, and spent 49 days in jail for sitting at a Woolworth lunch counter in 1960).
Down the line? I really don't know. But novels are my first love, and I'm sure I'll always write novels and short stories (even if I'm the only one who ever reads them.) The hardest challenge at this point will be to continue writing for love and not for money, which is the way I wrote The Between and My Soul to Keep. My hope is that if I'm faithful to my roots as an artist, I'll always do my best work and success will follow.