Women Writers, Ambition, and Integrity

In team sports, you know who’s on your team and who the competition is…one hopes. In the arts it’s not always as clear.

I am loving my integrity today. I am ambitious, but I have a deep commitment to balance that with honoring my relationships, particularly with other women authors. So I was working with a colleague on a creative opportunity that started out 50/50, until the folks in charge asked me to take the lead, and get more visibility and more credit that we originally expected.  For about 24 hours, I was sort of in a fog. I felt uncomfortable with the change, but I liked the idea.  But when they sent a follow up email, I snapped out of it. I sent the other woman writer a very direct email: hey girl, this is what we had originally talked about, this is what they are suggesting now. I didn’t lie, I was like, hell yeah, I would like that visibility & credit. But only if it’s cool with you.

I feel good, because I honored my desires – I told her that I wanted what they were offering. But I also honored our relationship. We had gone into this as a team, and I wouldn’t feel right about changing the plan without her blessing. I don’t want to achieve my goals only to find that I’ve alienated the women who matter most to me.

I think, as women, we are conditioned to either backstab each other to get ahead or be ambivalent about our desires.  We are taught to say things like…”oh gosh, they’ve asked me to cut a solo track on the album, but I just don’t know. What do you think? Should I do it?”

I don’t need permission from my colleague to want this. I just need permission from her to go after it. Funny how anxious I felt before I sent the email, and how calm I feel after sending it. I’ve clarified my position. No hidden agendas. I win either way.


From the vault: “Quick Note To My Body” from 2004

Quick note to my body:

Hey thanks for being such a trooper, sweetie! i know you’ve been asking for more water but I just keep forgetting. How crazy is that? Two-thirds water and I can’t seem to stay hydrated. And that lack of exercise; you’ve been so patient! Oh hold on, I’m getting another call…sorry that took so long, where was I? Oh yeah, I’ve been getting your messages about my posture and poor positioning at the computer. We can’t really address that right now, but it’s a good idea. We’ll just do a little chiropractic here and there to keep it from getting too crazy & look at the big picture later, okay? Did I mention how much i appreciate your understaning? Especially about the diet thing. I mean, if other people can eat it, why can’t I? I mean, what am I some conspiracy theorist who believes that the milk, corn, wheat and beef lobbies are filling our diet full of genetically modified, toxic, processed foods that are killing us? Really honey, I think you’re overreacting just a little bit, don’t you think? But I have been doing better in the sleep department, right? Well, a little better. You know I can really tell that I am the proud descendant of slaves.   I mean I don’t have that complete ability to work like an animal with lousy food and the worst of working conditions, but I’ve still got that good ol’ spunky slave spirit of my ancesters. Like the timexes of the world. We take a licking and keep on ticking, right? Well, babe, I’ve gotta dash, but you keep up the good work, okay? And I’m so glad we had this little talk.


I’ve been working like crazy on my book & didn’t get a chance to blog yesterday.  Today, I decided to pull something from the vault.  Went to my file of poems from 2004 to see what I was writing a decade ago & found this piece.  Funny how some challenges persist…

Don’t #CancelColbert, but…

Stephen Colber’s Colbert Report came under fire for racism this week. Ultimately, the question is:  where does satirizing racism end and racism begin?


It’s late, and I’m too tired to write anything well-reasoned, but I sweated over my own two tweets to the public debate last night, and I’ll also post a few tweets I found compelling in the #CancelColbert hashtag.



I like the Colbert Report.  I find it offensive at times on a number of issues, but overall a very important voice at the level of fake news national politics.  I don’t want to see it cancelled, but I think an apology is in order.  I look forward to seeing if he can pull it off, in character.


And while we’re at it, back to his original point, the offensiveness of the term “Redskins.”

Interview with Toni Ann Johnson about her novel, Remedy for a Broken Angel, Part 2.

-2This week is part two of last week’s interview with novelist ToniAnn Johnson author of the upcoming book Remedy for a Broken Angel.  Here’s the second part:

AD: Can you tell us about the book’s publication journey to print?
TAJ: I was interested in small presses that published literary fiction. While I thought it would be amazing to publish with a big publisher I felt that the small press route was more realistic for a number of reasons. After I got word from Johnny Temple that the book went to committee at Akashic, I felt hopeful that I’d eventually find a home for it if I kept trying.

I subscribed to the Writer’s Market and started querying small presses. Most passed on the query. Nortia Press requested the manuscript. Nortia was only the second press to actually read the book and they asked for the rights to publish it about six weeks after I sent it. I admired their catalog. Their books seemed thought provoking, sophisticated, and tasteful. I’m pleased with where it landed.

Once the owner, Nathan Gonzalez, sent a contract things moved quickly.  He’d found an image for the cover within a few weeks. Nathan is a real editor. He asked for substantive changes and he pushed for what he wanted, all the while giving me the freedom to run with a change, or to not accept a note at all. We haven’t agreed on every point, but I’m happy with the questions he asked and gratified by how it’s changed the manuscript. He wanted to examine some of the darker issues in the story; things I’d hinted at, but left unexplored. He sensed there was something deeper and he forced me to excavate those areas. He also insisted that Serena’s accent be more identifiably Bermudian on the page. And he wanted some substantial cuts for pacing.

After the changes were made a type-set digital advance review copy was created, and I was able to see how it would look when published. From there we went over more edits. Then a book version of that was generated which is what we have now. The next step will be the corrected proofs that’ll go out to the public. It goes on sale June 10, 2014.

AD: Anything you would want to tell writers who are still struggling to finish or publish their first book?

TAJ: Get it done, but don’t rush the process. Do multiple drafts. We all want to get our stuff out there as quickly as possible, but sometimes if you rush it, it’s not the best that it can be. Sit with it for a while. If you think it might not be ready, it probably isn’t. The second thing is do some research on publishers and find ones that have published work that’s in some way similar to yours. When you go to work with an agent, it will be helpful to know where your book fits in the marketplace. Third, don’t give up if you get a few rejections. Write a very good query letter (there are examples online) and then submit, submit, submit. If your work gets rejected, that doesn’t mean it isn’t good, it just hasn’t found the right home. Keep submitting. Enter contests. Subscribe to the Writer’s Market and use their search prompts to find the right agent and/or publisher for your work. Fourth, find a buddy or a community of writers who can share information and encourage you. It can be an emotional roller coaster navigating the publishing world. People will coldly reject you, some will get your hopes up, then dash them, and a few will follow through. Having a buddy or a community for support can help get you survive that craziness. Writing is generally solitary, but the effort to publish doesn’t have to be and there’s a lot of value in having even a little support. You were my support, Aya, and I’m SO grateful. Thank you for talking me off the ledge a couple of times!

_DSC0199AD: Where can people get the book and where will you be reading?

TAJ: The book comes out June 10, 2014 and will available via the publisher at http://www.nortiapress.com, through Amazon, Barnes and Noble and in select indie bookstores. In LA it will be available at Eso Won books beginning in June. In New York it will be at La Casa Azul Bookstore in August. In Bermuda it will be at Brown & Company and Bermuda Bookstore in late July/early August while supplies last. Amazon UK will have it as well.

I’ll be signing books at LA Festival of Books on April 12th at 2pm. Nortia Press, Booth #803, Childs Way.
I’ll be reading at Pasadena’s LitFest Pub Crawl May 17th, exact time tbd
I’ll be reading in LA on Sunday, June 8th, 7pm at the awesome reading series: Rhapsodamancy, which takes place at The Good Luck Bar. http://www.rhapsodomancy.org/
On Thursday, June 12th, 7pm at Eso Won Books, I’ll be reading and signing books.
July 26th, 1pm–3pm I’ll be signing books in Hamilton, Bermuda at Brown & Company on Front St. in Hamilton.
On Saturday, August 2nd at 6pm I’ll be reading and signing books at La Casa Azul Bookstore on East 103rd Street in New York City.

#TwitterFiction fun continues – peep my spoof Lit Romcom pitch series…

I’m still having a blast on #TwitterFiction, both reading & tweeting.  Here’s my latest:

These are so fun to write…and a little addictive.  I would find myself working on them way too late at night when I should have been sleeping:

Having spent so much time in the literary agent query trenches and participated in the SF Writers Conference, there were many good places to set a screwball romantic comedy.  The querying process is so stressful, it was a great comic relief to imagine these tense moments as potential backdrops for romcoms!

Read the whole series on my twitter account @ayadeleon #TwitterFiction

Interview with Toni Ann Johnson about her novel, Remedy for a Broken Angel, Part 1.

_DSC0199One of the best parts of being a writer is other writers.  I’ve been blessed to know some amazing writers, and one of them is Toni Ann Johnson, whom I met during the final year of my MFA program at Antioch Los Angeles.  Her novel will be released June 10th, via Nortia Press, Remedy For a Broken Angel:

Serena is a Bermudian jazz singer whose demons lead her to abandon her daughter Artie. Artie’s anger eventually drives her to Serena’s younger lover, Jamie L’Heureux, a jazz superstar. The spirit of Charles Mingus thrums throughout the story as these two women tangle in a syncopated mother-daughter relationship.

Toni Ann Johnson has researched and written a number of historical films about people of African descent. Disney’s “Ruby Bridges” told the story of the child who integrated the New Orleans public school system in 1960. “Courage To Love” for Lifetime Television looked at the life of Henrielle Delille, a free woman of color in mid-19th Century New Orleans whose mother was a Quadroon mistress to a European man. Delille rejected that life and instead worked as a nurse caring for abused urban slaves. She later petitioned the Catholic church to become one of the first nuns of color in the country and she began the order Sisters of the Holy Family. “Crown Heights” for Showtime Television looked at the tension between African-Americans, Caribbean-Americans their Hasidic Jewish neighbors in Crown Heights Brooklyn at the time of the riots there in 1991. Remedy For a Broken Angel is her first novel.

She and I have become cheerleaders for each other’s work, as women of color writers engaging with the literary industry.  We’ve had conversations about topics ranging from our own personal struggles with writing and publishing to the underlying themes of race, gender and family in our work.  I was so excited about her new book that I had a ton of questions for her about it:

-2AD: Tell us a little about your book and how it came into being.

TAJ: Remedy For a Broken Angel is the novel’s title. Its genesis was a dream I had years ago wherein my mother (not my actual mother– a dream version) slept with a man I loved. I was shaken and couldn’t stop thinking about it. The things my subconscious  kicked up needed to be addressed. The first iteration was a short film script, then a longer script. Neither satisfied me. I gave up on the story, but the characters wouldn’t leave me alone. I’d think about them, they’d bang about in my head, and I had an unsettled feeling that they had more to say.

I’d never written a novel, but I wanted to try, because the characters demanded to be explored fully. The dream was in 1992. I wrote both scripts in ’93. Beginning in 1994 my screenwriting career took off after I signed with a big literary agent (Dave Wirtshafter) and I was working continuously on writing assignments back to back for about a decade. Then in 2003 things slowed down. Rather than focus on getting my screenwriting career humming again, I took a couple of years off to work on the novel. I’d been thinking about the characters all those years. A draft was completed in late 2005. Early in 2006 a New York book agent, Marie Brown, agreed to represent the novel. She sent it to a few big publishers and it didn’t sell. I didn’t know enough about the publishing business to consider small presses, which was a good thing, because instead of continuing to try to sell it, after one more screenwriting assignment that came unexpectedly in 2007, I took the following few years to train in a writing program.

I’d never studied fiction before. I’d studied playwriting and screenwriting but I didn’t know how to write a novel, despite having tried to do it. I went back to school and earned an MFA in creative writing at Antioch University. When I completed the program, I re-wrote the book. Then re-wrote it twice more. I sent it to an agent who said she’d read it, but never got back to me. In the meantime a friend and colleague Kate Maruyama (author of Harrowgate) told her mother, author Kit Reed about the novel and Kit was kind enough to recommend it to Akashic Books.

Johnny Temple, the owner, told me that the book had gone to committee, but ultimately they didn’t reach a consensus, so it wasn’t for them. But I was encouraged that they’d read it, and that a couple of people on the committee liked it enough to discuss it. So I kept sending it out. The next publisher that read it was Nortia Press and they made an offer. The book has gone through another couple of drafts with Nortia’s editor, Nathan Gonzalez. I’ve lost track now of how many drafts there have been altogether, but I’m glad it’s finally coming out. I’m halfway through writing my next book, which is a collection of linked short stories.

AD: Were there particular things you wanted to say about Caribbean identity, artists, music, family, race, gender or our generation?
TAJ: For me, the significant ideas that emerged are psychological and spiritual. The book tries to answer the question: Can one forgive the seemingly unforgivable? The central characters– mother and daughter– Serena and Artie each suffer trauma during childhood. The sexual betrayal (Serena sleeps with Artie’s husband) is just the catalyst that forces both women to dig into their pasts. Serena, a jazz singer, abandons Artie when she’s a child. Serena was abandoned herself when she was a little girl living in Bermuda. She was given to an aunt and the story she was told was that it was because her parents and siblings were passing for white and she was too dark to pass. She has immense anger about the experience and she’s unable to process it. It manifests in a variety of ways, including narcissism, which brings with it an inability to lovingly parent her daughter Artie. Serena’s ambitious; driven to succeed as an artist more than she’s interested in mothering, and she’s focused on her own emotional needs more than she can meet anyone else’s. She’s also competitive with her daughter. I was interested in exploring Serena’s narcissism to make sense of it, and to see if I could find compassion for it. If you’re the child of a narcissist it’s very difficult to forgive, but not forgiving has consequences.

I was also looking at colorism and its effects on families. While Serena is Bermudian, colorism and passing are, of course, not unique to Bermuda. They exist anywhere that slavery or colonialism existed, and anywhere that there’s a dominant culture belief that lighter is better. There’s another character in the book, Serena’s lover, Jamie, L’Heureux, a jazz artist presumed to be white whose ancestors lived in New Orleans. He, too, has a family history that includes relatives who passed for white. And in that case a family was damaged by it, too.  I’m interested in how those kinds of histories, play out in the present. The book traverses time periods with the past constantly affecting the present. Old wounds continue to ache, time isn’t always enough to heal them .

There are a series of coincidences in the story– connections between people and places– and I was interested in looking at the way parts of our lives sometimes seem to have a destined design to them. I find myself drawn to, or connected to certain people and circumstances, and often it turns out that those interactions are meaningful, or lead to some kind of growth, as if the soul purposely led me to them.

Menachem Schneerson– the renowned Hasidic Rebbe wrote “For hundreds of years–perhaps since the beginning of creation–  a piece of the world has been waiting for your soul to purify and repair it. And your soul, from the time it was first emanated and conceived, waited above to descend to this world and carry out that mission. And your footsteps were guided to reach that place. And you are there now.”

This idea of being drawn to a seemingly negative experience that ultimately leads to something good intrigued me. The characters experience deeply difficult things, and I wanted to find the grace in those difficulties.

AD:  Can you talk a little about your writing process?

TAJ: It’s pretty much one of a lot of thought, meditation, and then writing draft after draft after draft. It’s slow. Some drafts are full revisions. Others focus on one character, then another. There have also been drafts for specific elements, like describing the music. My editor asked me to think more deeply about what the music could be expressing in different scenes. Originally, I saw the music as an expression of sexual energy. It is that, but it can also express a range of emotions, so I explored them.

My process generally starts with emotionally connecting with a character. In this case, it started with emotionally connecting with the two main characters, one of whom is a narcissist. When I began writing Serena years and years ago, I didn’t realize it was narcissism. I just knew that her behavior was familiar  because I knew a woman like her who was physically and verbally abusive and justified that abuse as an appropriate response to the behavior of others. I spent years observing her, trying to understand her thought process. I was able to emotionally connect with a character who had this difficult personality, despite not approving of her behavior. As a writer, I could wear Serena like a costume, move through the world like her and feel what she felt.

Often during the writing process I meditated, took walks, and tried to spend time thinking before executing scenes and passages. There are several jazz musicians in the story, so I spent a lot of time with music. Charles Mingus’s spirit is a character in the novel and I listened to him. I also listened to Miles Davis. Carlos Santana wrote a piece that comes up in the novel repeatedly called “Europa.” He recorded it on guitar and it was also recorded by saxophonist Gato Barbieri. I often listened to a group called BlackNote, that was based in LA in the 90s. They were a young, multiracial group of talented musicians that helped inspire the musical life of Artie’s young husband, Kendall.

When I was working on the first draft, I wrote nearly every day. Then I didn’t work on the book for a couple of years. I just thought about it a lot while doing other things. When I finally committed to going back to the book, again, I wrote nearly everyday. After I had a draft, I gave it to colleagues, got notes then went back into it, revising again and again.

Next week’s questions:

Can you tell us about the book’s publication journey to print?

Anything you would want to tell writers who are still struggling to finish or publish their first book?

Where can people get the book and where will you be reading?

My genderflip tweets for the #TwitterFiction fest

So it’s begun!  The long awaited #TwitterFiction festival.

I was also inspired by the YouTube series “Girls on Film” which had female actors reenacting famous scenes that originally featured two male actors.

From Franz Kafka’s The Trial

From Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway

From Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

More to come…


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