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Author Bernice McFadden Gets to the Heart of a Good Story

by Andrea King Collier /
Bernice McFaddenRaya /

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Bernice McFadden is a novelist with a fiercely loyal fan base.

Her novel, “Sugar,” put her on the map, followed by eight other novels under her given name and five under her pseudonym, Geneva Holliday. Her 10th novel under her name, “Praise Songs for the Butterflies” is in the works and scheduled to be released in Spring of 2018.

[The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity]

 Bernice McFadden Raya

NBCBLK: When you start a new novel, does it have the same excitement or challenges that happened when you wrote your first published novel?

For me, writing a novel is like scaling mountains. I have the skill and equipment, but the mountain is different, so my experience follows suit. It's always thrilling and frustrating and depressing and sobering. I'm an emotional mess when I write.

When you go about developing a book, do you have a character or a plot first?

I don't think about the plot. I focus on the characters’ lives, habits, and desires and eventually the plot sort of holistically comes to life.

You are teaching at Tulane now. What are you teaching? How does teaching balance with writing?

I teach creative writing. I love teaching. It has filled a void I didn't realize I had inside of me. That said, I've not yet discovered the fine balance between writing and teaching. My attempts at doing both have been a bit frustrating - but I'm sure as time goes on I'll get better at it!

Tell us how the characters in “Loving Donovan” came to be?

Sometimes, I write memoir cloaked in fiction. The characters that populate “Loving Donovan” are projections of my parents, my great aunts, uncles and myself. When I was going through the crisis that would eventually produce “Loving Donovan”, I remember spending months thinking about the various types of love that I had witnessed between the men and women in my family.

After a year or so of comparing, contrasting my relationship with those of my elders (most of whom were long dead) I started writing the book and they (my ancestors) did what they always do — they took me by the hand and guided me through their lives.

 Loving Donvan by Bernice McFadden. Akashic Books

Of all of your books, what was the hardest book so far?

I think “The Warmest December” was the most difficult to write simply because I had to open a wound and take a hard and honest look at how my father's alcoholism and my parent's tumultuous relationship shaped me as an adult. I've not yet written a book that I found easy.

We hear that “Book of Harlan” may be a movie soon.

The film rights for the “Book of Harlan” have been optioned. What happens next is the producer sets out to find financial backing to bring the book to life. This can take a long time or a short time — you just never know with these things.

Who would be your casting choices?

I'm partial to Elvis Nolasco as Harlan and Viola Davis as Emma. Other than that, I haven't really thought about casting. I guess I need to get on that! LOL

Sugar” is an amazing book. Will we ever see it as a movie?

I believe we will. I don't know when that will be. But I'm patient.

 The Book of Harlan by Bernice McFadden. Akashic Books

Who do you read when you want to be energized and inspired?

I read a variety of poets and essayists for inspiration. I love Patricia Smith and Eula Bliss.

What's the next thing we will read from Bernice McFadden?

“Praise Song for the Butterflies” will be published in 2018 by Akashic Books. The story is about ritual servitude and is set in Ghana and New York.

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