Q&A with Karen:
White Readers Meet Black Authors: Tell us about Act of Grace (read an excerpt here). How did you come to write this story? What subjects/themes do you explore? What's your writing style like?
Karen Simpson: First, I would like to thank you for this opportunity. I always dreamed of appearing as an author on your blog so I’m truly excited to do this interview.
Act of Grace is the story of Grace Johnson a bright, perceptive African American high school senior who saves the life of a Klansman named Jonathan Gilmore. Everyone in her hometown of Vigilant, Michigan wants to know why. Few people, black or white, understand her act of sacrifice especially since rumor holds that years ago a member of the Gilmore family murdered several African -Americans including Grace’s father. Grace wants to remain silent on the matter but Ancestors spirits emerge in visions and insist she fulfill her shamanic duties by bearing witness to her town’s violent racial history so that all involved might transcend it.
Grace begins a journal, but she warns readers upfront that if they are looking for a simple or rational explanation for her actions then they need to look elsewhere. She knows that her accounts of her ability to speak to the dead, along with her connections to a trickster spirit name Oba, will be hard for most people to believe. With insight shaped by the wisdom found in African American mythology and the book, The Velveteen Rabbit, Grace recounts a story of eye-for-an-eye vengeance that has blinded entire generations in her hometown.
Act of Grace is loosely based on an incident that happened several years ago in my hometown during a Klan rally. When what was supposed to be a nonviolent protest became violent, a young black woman saved a white man, (whose was simply wearing a confederate flag T-shirt), from being beaten by throwing her body over him. She got involved because she believed he had the right to his beliefs even if she and others felt he was wrong. For weeks after the event people argued about whether she was a guardian angel or just crazy. My opinion was that she was a compassionate and brave person, worthy of admiration and respect for living up to her values. Five years after this rally I had a very vivid dream about a young woman named Grace and during the dream she yelled out what is more or less the first line of the novel.
My novel fits in with my lifelong interest in how some people are able to forgive what seem to be unforgivable acts and deeds and the subjects of altruism and justice. Especially justice, because while I believe it is my duty as an artist and writer to illuminating injustice, I also believe it is my duty to acknowledge how complicated and sometime messy getting justice is.
WRMBA: What's your goal(s) as a writer? Do you set out to educate? entertain? illuminate?
KS: I set out to illuminate but in an entertaining way in my work. Act of Grace deals with serious and violent issues, but I tried to make sure there was as much sweet as bitter in the work. Grace is a strong, willful young woman being sent out to do strong women’s work, but she has an incredible sense of humor and knows or learns how to experience joy even in the mist of sorrow.
WRMBA: What's your biggest surprise-good or bad- (so far) about the publishing biz?
KS: How much of a business writing really is. I was warned up front that it was but I was still surprised how much marketing an author is required to do herself. I’m finding that I’m better at it than I thought though.
WRMBA: What's next for you?
KS: A new, so far untitled, work that one writer friend described as a historical novel with paranormal sprinkles.
WRMBA: What's the best book (or whose the best writer) that not enough people know about?
KS: I love Dr. Authur Flowers work and his blog: rootwork the rootsblog: a cyberhoodoo webspace: Timely Observations on Politics, Literature, Culture, Struggle and the Hoodoo Way
Dr. Flowers has a new graphic novel from Tara Books called I See the Promised Land on the life of Martin Luther King. He does the telling as a griot, while Patua artist Manu Chitrakar adapts King’s life to his art. Patua artists from Bengal in eastern India are traditional scroll-painters who create vivid art out of all kinds of narratives - from fables and classical tales to contemporary news items. It a wonderful book that gives a new and powerful take on Martin Luther King’s life.
WRMBA: Any advice for aspiring novelists?
KS: If you are serious about getting published, work at writing as you would a career or job. Learn the craft by become a part of critiques groups, go to as many conferences as you can afford. Read all kinds of novels and writing book, but, in addition, read books and blogs about how to conduct the business side of writing. A good book to start with is The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published by Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry.