Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Meet: Erica Kennedy

Erica Kennedy is the author of the novels Bling and Feminista (both of which are great reads and would make great gifts for someone who can't get enough of People, US Weekly, and Vanity Fair and appreciates witty writing and meaty ideas). She blogs at The Feminista Files and you can also follow her on Twitter.

Erica was kind enough to answer a few questions about her work and her views of the biz....

White Readers Meet Black Authors: Describe your work for someone unfamiliar with it. What's your writing style like? What subjects/themes do you explore?

Erica Kennedy: I tackle most things with humor and that's how I think of myself: as a humorist. Sometimes I think that comes out of the fact that I had a very dysfunctional childhood and I have suffered from depression so it's a "tears of a clown" thing. You need to find the humor in everything just to survive. Like if I were ever to write an Augusten Burroughs-style memoir of dysfunction -- and I could -- it would still be funny like his always are.

I read somewhere that writers are always telling the same story in different ways. And I think I'm always telling the story of the haves and have-nots, insiders and outsiders. I'm very interested in the idea of social hierarchies -- who is revered and why. In Bling, there was a cast of rich, powerful or famous people and then others who wanted that power. Also the women in Bling got to tell most of the story which is not how it is in the real hip-hop industry where women are mostly objectified. My new book, FEMINISTA, is class warfare wrapped up in a romantic comedy. In both of my books I write in multiple POV because I've felt like both the have and have-not. Haven't we all? There's always someone who has more, always someone who has less than you.

WRMBA: Tell us about your latest novel.

EK: FEMINISTA is a romantic comedy with edge. Sydney Zamora, the heroine is aggressive, she's angry and that was a conscious decision. I think a woman showing her anger is a feminist act as is writing a chick lit about one! I hate when the heroine in chick lit/flicks is this infantilized klutz who just wants to find a man to save her. Sydney goes on a very active, misguided quest to find a mate but it's really about her figuring out her own shit.

I wanted to play with the idea of masculine and feminine because we've reached a time when men and women don't have such defined gender roles. Sydney is very aggressive and Max, the love interest, is very passive. That doesn't have to do with their gender, that's just who they are. Sydney's sister, Liz, is very passive but her wife, Joyce, is aggressive. Again, not really about gender but rather their personalities. So I think it's great that both men and women have more leeway to be uniquely themselves but it also creates confusion when it comes to dating because we're still not sure who should, say, pick up the check. That's why the book starts off with that situation going very awry!

WRMBA: How do you feel about the "bitch lit" tag?

EK: That came out of an early Publisher's Weekly review and I embraced it. It signals to people that this is not your typical fluffy chick lit. I know people will receive that label differently depending on what they are projecting onto the word "bitch" but I think the same could be said for Sydney. Some people say they love her, some people say they can't stand her -- and I love both reactions equally. When a character that I dreamed up in my head can provoke such a visceral reaction, I'm happy.

Funny thing is I read a non-fiction book called "Am-bitch-ous" while I was writing this and that was something I really wanted to touch on in the book: female ambition. In 2009, there are so many women who are not comfortable being the boss, making a lot of money, or saying "I got where I am because I work hard and I'm good at what I do".

I think everyone loves Beyonce, this global superstar who literally has it all at 27, because she always takes the "I'm so blessed just to be here" road and shunts all of her aggression and ambition off on an ALTER EGO. I swear I could write a whole DISSERTATION on the meaning of Sasha Fierce which is at once totally brilliant and totally terrifying that you have to go to that extent to be wildly successful and still be liked if you are a woman. Meanwhile, her husband, the former drug dealer who once shot his brother, stabbed a record executive, brags endlessly, like all male rappers, about how much dough he makes, can let everyone know exactly who he is. The difference in what they each had to do to get and maintain their success is ASTOUNDING.

But I totally get why women do that. Because when you don't humble yourself and play the good girl, you become labeled a diva or a bitch or an ice queen. You become Anna Wintour or Hillary Clinton or J. Lo in the early years before she learned the Hollywood game and realized she needed to tone down her badass Bronx swagger to keep getting cast in romantic comedies. *sigh*

WRMBA: Sydney is a feisty character, but she's also damn funny. Where forms your sense of humor?

EK: I always go for the joke. Sometimes I wish I could not go for it but that's my natural instinct. And I think sometimes the worst things that happen to us are the funniest. But we can't see that while we're in it. What's that saying? Comedy is tragedy plus time. So when I'm writing a book or screenplay, sometimes I'll ask myself, "What is the worst possible thing that can happen to this character right now?" And that will yield something funny. But since I am not that character, I have the perspective to see the humor. And the worse it is for them, the funnier it is to us.

I also think Mitzi the matchmaker is really funny because she was inspired by a real-life matchmaker who is hysterical! But one of the things that makes this woman really funny is that she's a truth-teller. And that's how I think of Mitzi. She tells it like it is and never sugarcoats anything.

WRMBA: Feminista features an interracial love story and multiracial characters. Do you think of yourself as a "black writer"? Have any strong opinions about how so-called black books are promoted?

EK: Do I think of myself as a "black writer"? Wait, is that a trick question?! lol I grew up in an all-white neighborhood, I went to Sarah Lawrence which was a school filled with privileged white kids but where my core crew was black, I knew a lot of people in the hip-hop world who were very rich, self-made black people, I've dated men of different races. I've grown up in a very multicultural world, in all these different social milieus so that's the kind of world I depict in my books. Even with Bling where most of the characters were black because it was set in the hip-hop world, you had people from different social classes and backgrounds because that's interesting and creates conflict for the story.

But it's interesting that when I wrote this book about the hip-hop world, I got this big push from the publisher. But I didn't get that with FEMINISTA which has now been covered in Essence and Latina and Disgrasian because it's a story that all these different woman can relate to. I attribute that, in part, to how much the publishing industry has kamikazed itself in the last 5 years but also I think it has more to do with gender than race. It's fine for all these rich, powerful men in Bling to do the most scandalous things but it's not okay for a woman like Sydney to be aggressive and not know her place.

Most of the female editors who read the manuscript were afraid Sydney would be read as unlikable and you know what? Some people don't like her! Hell, I don't at times in the book. But that's that good girl complex I'm talking about. Who says everyone has to like her? Isn't the bitch often the most interesting character? Some people don't like Sydney and there are other people who totally identify with her or say "I know someone JUST like her." Even last night on Twitter this whole convo started about who should play Sydney in the movie. (It's being shopped right now.) And it was so interesting for me to hear everyone's different ideas of what she looked like and WHY they thought that.

WRMBA: What's your goal(s) as a writer? Do you set out to educate? entertain? illuminate?

EK: I definitely want to entertain but you can always say something while being funny and that "something" will likely be received better. Even with Bling which was a campy satire, I still tried to address the power hip-hop music has on the culture. As absurd as the habits of that world can be, I also wanted to respect the influence it's had.

With FEMINISTA, there were some anonymous commenters on my blog early on who were sort of like, "How dare you talk about or trivialize feminism!" The best, now oft-repeated for laughs comment was "For are disgrace!" But why the hell shouldn't I talk about it?!

I think if you asked 5 different women to define "feminism" or "feminist" you'd get 5 different answers because it's something that is always evolving with the culture as it should. I'm part of that evolution, you're part of it, women who make movies or appear on magazine covers or run companies are part of it, women choosing to leave the workforce to raise families, Serena Williams nude on the cover of ESPN magazine, looking sexy and strong by revealing an awe-inspiring body made of muscle SHE built...

Feminism is not this highbrow subject only to be discussed by academia. I think it's all of our lives as we're living it.

WRMBA: We've had lots of discussions around here about whether or not putting people of color on the cover of a book harms the ability to sell the book to people of no color. The cover of Feminista seems to show only white people, and gives the impression the protagonist is white. Do you agree with that assessment? What do you think of the book cover?

EK: I had a big fight with Miramax Books over the Bling cover because they shot a giant necklace that said BLING on some model's sweaty chest. It looked pornographic! The cover we used was one of FIVE different options that I designed myself. So when I saw the FEMINISTA cover it didn't look so bad to me compared to that first Bling craziness.

The FEM cover was also just a black and white sketch at first so I thought of it as race-neutral. My main problem with it was that it seemed limp. It felt very chick lit and I wanted something stronger that telegraphed the edgier tone of the book. But oddly, I never really thought of it depicting a white woman until people started saying that to me! I just thought of it as a sketch. And in a weird way, I liked that the men in the window were different colors because that was a graphic way of showing the multicultural aspect of it. Or something. At this point, it is what it is.

WRMBA: What's next for you?

EK: I'm polishing the FEM screenplay and working on some others. Dealing with the publishing industry (both experiences) has really soured me on books. Publishers are so woefully out of step. I can't imagine writing another novel until I can publish myself on Amazon.

WRMBA: What's the best book (or whose the best writer) that not enough people know about?

EK: Sellevision by Augusten Burroughs. That's his first novel that I don't think a lot of people know about. Not sure if he ever wrote another novel after that. But it's funny as shit!

WRMBA: Thanks Erica! Personally, I hope you keep writing novels, but I'd go see a movie written by you too.


Ernessa, author of 32 Candles said...

What a great interview! I loved "Bling" -- that book just really stayed with me and I still find myself thinking about certain elements of it to this day.

But I'm thinking as a Smith College grad that I'm going to love "Feminista" even more. And I agree w/ Ms. Kennedy about the lack of strong women in chick lit. It's really turned me off the genre and made me wonder if there's still an underlying desire to be "saved" in the American woman even though we're stronger than ever.

One last thing: Ms. Kennedy really nailed on the head what drives me SO crazy about Sasha Fierce. It upsets me that Beyonce is this great business woman and a strong role model, but when little girls want to be her, most times they're only thinking about the hair and the body and the fame.

Thanks so much for this interview.

K.L. Brady author of The Bum Magnet said...

This was a great interview. I'm currently reading Feminista as we speak, and I love the character. I never really thought of her as a bitch but just as a woman with a strong personality, who knows what she will and will not tolerate.

I was particularly intrigued about the question on the book cover and whether she considered herself a "black writer."

When I first bought the book, I looked at Erica's picture in the back. I started reading the book, thinking, "She sounds black. So who is this white chick on the cover???" lol After I got a chapter or so in, I didn't even think about it again. As a matter of fact, I thought it was a great marketing strategy to keep the book from being pigeon-holed like so many black authors are these days. Whatever the reasoning was behind it, I think it works.

I'm like Erica in many ways. I was one of four black people in my high school graduating class, started school at the University of Akron, which was like 5% black at the time. So, I've led a very integrated life and that is reflected in my writing and my pop cultural references. Can't get away from it.

Anyway, I look forward to more great things from her. And I think Feminista would make a great movie!

Carleen Brice said...

Ernessa, Yes, I thought Erica hit several nails square on the head. I'm happy to run this interview on the blog!

K.L., Isn't it interesting how a strong female character so easily gets labeled "bitch"?

Jodie said...

Saw this book mentioned here a while back and I kind of thought it wasn't for me, but now I want it. Any book that takes on the idea that a female character has to always be likeable and the only way to make them likeable is to make them incapable of doing anything is a feminist triumph.

angela henry said...

A character's likability is so subjective. I've got a project on submission now and have gotten mostly positive feedback from editors. But recently there was one editor who hated my main character and found her to be cold, unsympathetic and unlikeable.

I don't happen to agreed but I remember thinking, what's the big deal? Why does she have to be likable? She's got flaws. If she were a real person, not everyone would like her, either.

Carleen Brice said...

Angela, an agent told me my character Shay in Orange Mint and Honey was unlikeable too. I wonder how many male writers/characters get that critique?

Cioara Andrei said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Eden said...

Brilliant interview. I am yet to read any of Ms. Kennedy's books, but being as funny and keenly insightful as she is....I have put bling and feminista on my wishlist. Best of success to her with her writing career.

Khay Writes said...

excellent post! I am bookmarking your blog right now!!!

Caroline Bender said...

Happy Blog-aversary. You write some compelling book reviews. i have picked out several that I want to check out (including yours, of course!) Enjoyed your coevred of Push/Precious and comparison to Slumdog Millionaire. I felt really burned by that film (be happy! see, they are dancing at the end!) but also want to see the performances in Precious.
Looking forward to reading even more posts.

Carleen Brice said...

Welcome new readers!

Caroline, I got burned by Slumdog too. My husband walked out on in, but I stayed thinking there would be a payoff. The Bollywood number really wasn't worth the emotional pain the movie put me through.

CKHB said...

You had me at "I think a woman showing her anger is a feminist act as is writing a chick lit about one". I will definitely grab a copy of Feminista. Thanks!