These People Did It, So Why Can’t I? (Dr. Ian Smith, Pamela Thomas-Graham and Catherine McKenzie) UPDATED!

A long time ago, I started a little series about professional people who somehow managed to write novels on the side called “He/She Did It, So Why Can’t I?”.  Here are some people that have me thinking my goal to write a novel while practicing law is achieveable:

1. Dr. Ian Smith

driansmithYou may know Dr. Ian Smith for the wisdom he shared on Celebrity Fit Club, but I was first introduced to him as a novelist.  Way back in the day—it had to be like 9 years ago—my mother took me to a book party (side note: I cannot WAIT for my future book parties!) and it turned out to be his, as he was promoting The Blackbird Papers.  Back then, he was *just* Dr. Ian a medical correspondent for NBC, so I guess he had time to squeeze in some novel writing.  Or maybe he is just one of those people who can’t decide what to do, so he does everything–in addition to obtaining medical and master degrees, he’s on a reality show, writes articles and books and lord knows what else.  Whatever the motivation, I read the novel back then, and I remember thinking that it was good.  So when I ran into him at a journalist convention (this was, of course, back when I was a journalist), I asked him when the next novel was coming out. He essentially responded never.  Apparently books about weight loss are easier to sell and he has many.  Whatevs, I only need to write one novel and if super multi-tasker Dr. Ian Smith can do it, I can too, right?

2. Pamela Thomas-Graham

PTGPamela Thomas-Graham is basically the person who first made me believe it was possible to have a full time job and write a novel (and in her case, raise 3 kids) at the same time.  Before I heard her story, I didn’t know such a thing was possible, and she’s stayed in my mind ever since.  You see, when Pamela wrote her Ivy League mystery series, she wasn’t simply a busy professional—she was President and CEO of CNBC! And she didn’t just write one, she wrote three!!  Each took place a different Ivy League–Harvard (A Darker Shade of Crimson), Yale (Blue Blood) and Princeton (Orange Crushed).  I read each of them over like 2 days.  All she had to do to make the series happen was wake up at 4:30 a.m. every day.  So I’m thinking– if a CEO and mother can manage to knock out three novels, then why can’t I, a person with a job and no kids, finish one?? (Oh, and did I mention she has a law degree?)

3. Catherine McKenzie

Catherine McKenzieOne day, one of my faithful blog readers told me that she was reading a book called Arranged.  Not only was the novel (the author’s second) written by a lawyer, but she actually still practices law, making Catherine McKenzie a current and true lawyer-novelist. Everything that I desire to be. She’s written three novels, which she talks about here yet still works at a law firm, which I know because she’s on their website here.  I haven’t read Arranged yet but it sounds like I could dig it.  It’s about a woman who is bored with dating, so decides to give an arranged marriage a try.  Clearly, problems arise.  I’m saying, if Catherine can be a full time lawyer at a firm and a part time novelist, please tell me—why can’t I???

UPDATE:  Catherine McKenzie retweeted my blog post to all of her followers!! She said “of course u can.” 😀

Chillen with A Doctor-Novelist

uzoSometime around Thanksgiving I had drinks with a friend who had written a novel.  I was so excited when he hit me up on his visit to his hometown in Maryland/DC from Nigeria because I remembered in college we had at least 2 or 3 really nice convos in the dining hall.  It was one of those things where you end up eating together because the only person you knew during that meal was your friend’s brother, but then you walk away and are like “Hmm.  I think I’m smarter now” or “I feel enlightened, but I have no idea why” and then it’s over until like a year later when the whole thing happens all over again.*  So when I heard from my friend Uzo Iweala , I obviously couldn’t wait to get smarter and be enlightened!  I was also in writing-group withdrawal and a blog hiatus, meaning I really needed to have a fiction-writing conversation.  While fascinating to discuss the writing process with someone (and by someone, I mean a doctor) who published a critically acclaimed novel and is working on the next one while simultaneously saving the world (I’m serious)…it was also hilarious.  I mean I actually said “when I think about a career as a full time novelist, it just seems a little bit too solitary for me.”  It’s like kind of absurd to say something like that with a straight face with someone who actually can have a successful career as a full-time novelist, you know?  Nevertheless, he indulged and said he could relate because he didn’t see many people while writing his masterpieces (my word, not his).  He then explained the pros/cons of the opposite experience of being on book tour (of course, another concern I have, but I’ll cross that bridge when I get there ;))

My biggest fiction-writing takeaway from the convo though was about authenticity.  Specifically, Uzo said that his thesis advisor Jamaica Kincaid told him (and I may be messing this up, so don’t quote me) that if you write that a farm tastes like arsenic—you better have tasted that farm!  Ok,  I KNOW I messed that up, but you get the point.  Authenticity makes or breaks a piece of writing, in my opinion.  I think it’s also what makes the process so hard.  On the one hand, you want to be honest because you know the reader is going to feel and probably reject your restraint.  On the other hand, nobody is trying is to put all their business out there.  And by nobody, I mean me!  I want to write about a girl, but it’s not going to be an autobiography, believe me!  Rather, I want to write about someone whose very clearly NOT me. But how?  Thankfully, this thought did come to me as I was chatting with my novelist-doctor friend, so I asked him how he’s able to capture characters who have lived completely different lives than his.  He basically said interviews, which I found encouraging because I used to be a journalist!  I also love when people give me simple, applicable answers/advice. Thank you.  As for the inner most feelings/thoughts of these characters…I’m beginning to learn that just because you haven’t experienced how wonderful it feels to win the lottery, doesn’t mean you can’t describe happiness.  Or you don’t have to have had a dog die to be able to write about grief, if that makes sense.  This is what I think at this point, but I’m still figuring it out.

Anyway, my New Year’s resolution is to blog regularly again.  I’m bizzzack peoples!  Hasta luego!

*Side note: I basically told Uzo this entire story and his response was that he barely knew me in college, he only came to my dorm to visit his brother and sister and he only hit me up in DC because I felt so bad that I was supposed to go to his book signing but then didn’t because Politics & Prose is just way too far away. So sad.

An Author Shut Down My Senior Thesis (Thankfully, No One Cares)

broyardBack in the day, I wrote my senior thesis on Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, which was about a black guy in the 1940s who passed as a white, Jewish guy.  To be honest, that ish was so long ago, I don’t remember much beyond the thesis of my thesis.  I do, however, remember this: one chapter was about the influence of the writer Anatole Broyard (pictured left) on the novel’s protagonist, Coleman Silk.  There were several similarities, but the big ones were that both men were Creole (think Beyonce), academic, and “passed” as white, meaning they were black but pretended to be white.  As part of my research, I corresponded with Broyard’s daughter, Bliss, about her Dad’s life.  She gave me some tidbits, and was in the midst of working on a memoir about her Dad, who she had no idea was black until the end of his life (yes, that means, she had no idea SHE was black either).

Ok so, fast forward 6 years, and some things happened.  First, Philip Roth published An Open Letter to Wikipedia in the New Yorker.  He was mad that Wikipedia wouldn’t change the statement that his novel was “allegedly inspired by the life of Anatole Broyard” despite his requests that they do so.  Wikipedia, he claims, said that he, as the author, was not a credible source. Roth, who is notoriously press-shy btw, then published a letter trying to seize control over the interpretation of his novel.  He said that Coleman Silk was NOT based on Broyard and, in addition to giving a bunch spoilers, he argued that he alone was enough to counter the assertion. Ok.

Somewhere between 2006 and now, I became Facebook friends Bliss Broyard after meeting her at a signing for her memoir, One Drop.  I posted Roth’s article on her timeline (although it was almost more for her fans, since I assumed she had seen it).  The other day, she wrote a Facebook post that began “someone posted on my timeline this Open Letter from Philip Roth…”  Of course I was like, “oh s**t.”  Then I read her post.  On Facebook, she shared extensive thoughts on Roth’s letter, primarily arguing 1) that it’s actually not so crazy that people made comparisons between her Dad and the protagonist and 2) an author can’t dictate the conclusions other people draw about his characters.

I agree with both arguments, and not because I’m personally invested in the outcome of this debate—I mean, let’s face it, no one is ever going to read my thesis again.  But, in the words of a fellow aspiring author from my writers group, once a writer publishes, “the words are out of his hands.”  If Roth had  read Molly Ringwald’s New York Times blog post or at least MY blog post on her post, he would have known that.  Everyone has different experiences and backgrounds that will lead to unique responses to fiction, art, etc.  The character you created isn’t yours once someone else consumes it. Let him go Roth, let him go…  I’d like to know what others think.  Holllla.