Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Guest Interview with Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

NOTE: Carl, you won the copy of No Crystal Stair! Congrats! You can either leave your email in comments below or send me your mailing address via my website. This contest is now closed.

It's my treat to present a wonderful discussion between Doret of The Happy Nappy Bookseller blog and Vaunda Nelson, author of No Crystal Stair. Doret is also giving away a copy of the book! Just leave her a comment on this post. If you don't win here, in the spirit of the book, may I suggest purchasing it from an independent African American bookstore such as: Hue-Man in NYC, EsoWon in L.A., Marcus Books in San Francisco or The Wild Fig Bookstore in Lexington, KY?

Also, you may be interested in reading the NY Times obituary of another famous Harlem bookseller, Una Mulzac.

Everything below is from Doret. Enjoy!

Leave a comment to be entered to win a copy!

When I finished No Crystal Stair by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, I wanted to give the book a hug but since that wasn't possible I figured I'd do the next best thing and interview the author.

Hi, Vaunda and welcome. Can you tell us a little about No Crystal Stair

No Crystal Stair is a 15-year labor of love. It’s about two things near and dear to my heart -- books and family. It’s is the story of a remarkable man who was a pioneer in the struggle toward literary diversity, a pioneer in the efforts to make more African and African American literature available in America. The man was the Harlem Professor, Lewis Michaux, my great uncle. His National Memorial African Bookstore became a Harlem landmark -- a gathering place for scholars, politicians, activists,writers,artists, actors, and athletes -- until its closing in 1975.

Congratulations on the starred Kirkus Review . What exactly is a documentary novel? (After this interview was complete, No Crystal Stair received another starred review from Horn Book Magazine)

Thank you. Insecurity, doubt, lack of confidence are often a writer’s companions, so when the work is recognized in a positive way, as with the Kirkus star, it does the heart good. I’m thrilled!

After this project evolved from straight biography to its current format, my husband, Drew, started calling it ‘documentary fiction’. Think of it as the book equivalent of a film documentary in which individuals with some connection to the subject share their thoughts and experiences amidst historical photos and footage -- all filtered through a writer’s imagination. I included as much factual information
as I could, while filling in the gaps with some informed speculation (my best guess) about what might have happened to, or been said about, Lewis.

What was your family’s response when you told them about this project?

They were -- and are -- happy, supportive, proud.

Were you able to find any writings or journals of any kind that were kept by Lewis or his brothers Lightfoot and Norris?

No, but I was able to acquire audio tapes and transcripts of interviews with Lewis. Reading his words and hearing his voice were invaluable to developing his character in No Crystal Stair. There’s a short, online clip of Lightfoot preaching that is priceless.

In the book there are photographs of a lot of important African Americans including Malcolm X and some of the Black Panthers. Also, I was actually surprised (happily so) that you really got into the close relationship Lewis had with Malcolm X, a man who was important to the movement, yet seems to be overlooked a lot. Were you ever worried your publisher would say don't focus so much on Malcolm X?

Actually my editor, Andrew Karre, was very excited about Lewis’s friendship with Malcolm X and, early in the process, I thought he might want me to expand this aspect of the story. But Malcolm is such a powerful and fascinating figure, he could easily have taken over the story. Andrew and I worked together to keep him in perspective, to include only Malcolm X materials which were relevant to Lewis’s story. It is, after all, Lewis’s story.

There's a photo of Nikki Giovanni's first book of poems, Black Feeling, Black Talk, published in 1967, along with her thoughts on the National Memorial African Bookstore.

Did you have the opportunity to interview Giovanni?

Yes, by telephone. It was one of the wonderful gifts that working on the project provided. She was kind, funny, and generous with her time and stories.

Interspersed throughout are files that the FBI kept on Lewis Michaux. How did you know such files existed?

I suspected they might exist for several reasons: the rallies that were held outside the store; Lewis’s black nationalist, often controversial, views combined with his outspoken nature; and his close relationship with Malcolm X.

Did Lewis really let people who couldn't buy a book read for free in a back room?

My research says he did. It was a crowded space and his office was back there, so he may not have directed everyone to the office area, but customers certainly could read in the store. I even have an old photo showing the store with a sign out front that reads, “Harlem’s Most Complete Lending Library.”

Lewis Michaux and the National Memorial African Bookstore was a great influence on the Black community. Why do you think a book hasn’t been written about Lewis or his bookstore before now?

Honestly, I don’t know. There were articles about him and the interviews I noted earlier. He and the bookstore are mentioned in numerous books, but none solely on him. This is one of the reasons it was important for me to take on the task. But I don’t consider No Crystal Stair the definitive work on Lewis Michaux.

I was telling a friend (while in a bookstore) who has worked at several, including black owned, about No Crystal Stair. In return she told me about a Swedish documentary she watched recently called The Black Power Mixtape. Have you seen it yet?

Lewis Jr. told me about it, but I have not yet had the opportunity to view it. I look forward to seeing it. I haven't had a chance to watch the documentary either but I have seen a few clips, including one with Lewis Michaux.

Were you ever worried about capturing the essence of your great uncle's larger-than-life personality?

Yes. This is a major reason I abandoned the straight biography and shifted to documentary fiction. Those early attempts lacked the heart I hope I was able to convey in the final book. The new format gave me more options and flexibility to help readers see Lewis’s spirit, his intelligence, his charm, as well as his weaknesses.

Many book lovers, no matter their age, have dreamed of owning a bookstore. Do you think or hope Lewis Michaux’s success with the National Memorial African Bookstore will inspire someone to ignore today's obstacles and take a chance on their own store?

I love spending an afternoon in a cozy independent book store and patronize these stores when I can. It would be a fine thing if reading about Lewis led others to take on the challenge of opening stores of their own. As you suggest, there are obstacles today that didn’t exist when Lewis was in business, but Lewis had to overcome many difficulties, too. Owning and operating a bookstore is hard work whatever the time period. It would take passion and courage to take the risk, but passion and courage often lead to great things.

Vaunda, thanks so much for your time. I hope you and No Crystal Stair have a great year.

Thank you for your kind enthusiasm for No Crystal Stair.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Congratulations and gratitude

Marian is the winner of Panther Baby! Congratulations! You can leave your email in the comments or email me your mailing address through my website.

Thanks so much to everyone for entering! If you didn't win the book you wanted, please consider buying it.

Thanks to authors Bernice McFadden and Trice Hickman for the autographed copies! And thanks to publishers Agate Bolden and Algonquin Books for providing copies.

Next week watch for an interview with Vaunda Nelson, author of No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Giveaway Day 4: Win Panther Baby!

The winner of Keeping Secrets and Telling Lies is As the Page Turns. Congratulations! Thanks everybody for your comments and posts and tweets all week!

We finish up Giveaway Week with Panther Baby by Jamal Joseph, Panther, poet, prisoner, professor and Oscar nominee. (How's that for a curriculum vitae?) It's a memoir about coming of age during the Black Panther movement, which Kirkus called "an inspiring, unapologetic account of his transformation from armed revolutionary to revolutionary artist." For more about the book (supplied by Algonquin), watch the (great!) trailer below.

And read an excerpt here. If you'd like to win a copy, leave a comment below. I'll announce the winner (chosen at random) tomorrow morning...unless power goes out. Denver's getting hit with a monster snowstorm!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Giveaway Day 3: Win Keeping Secrets and Telling Lies!

Congratulations Sidne! You've won Creatures Here Below. Leave your email address in the comments below or email me your snail mail address via my website.

Here's the book trailer for today's giveaway: Keeping Secrets and Telling Lies by Trice Hickman. This one is a re-issue, just out this week. It was self-published and did well enough to garner attention from a traditional publisher. It's a sequel, so if you win it, you might want to pick up Unexpected Interruptions and read it first. Check out this interview with Trice for more about the story.

If you like romance and women's fiction, leave a comment below and you'll have a chance to win! All comments must be left before midnight eastern.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Giveaway Day 2: Win Creatures Here Below!

The winner of Gathering of Waters is Lisa DeNeal. Congratulations! 

Today's book is Creatures Here Below, by O.H. Bennett. The Philadelphia Tribune's review says, "...author O.H. Bennett grabs his readers by the hand and leads them through a house of miscommunication where everybody thinks too much and talks too little. Despite what I thought was a rocky start, Bennett’s characters become likeable in their frailties and failures, and the back-and-forth ripens into a welcome addition. Grab this book, and if you’re willing to be patient for a few pages, you’ll be rewarded by a bold story. In the end, Creatures Here Below is a novel you’ll be talking about."

The publisher is comparing this book to some of Edward P. Jones' work. I think it also bears favorable comparison to another Agate Bolden novel, Before I Forget by Leonard Pitts Jr. From the publisher's synopsis:

This powerful new novel by O.H. Bennett tells the story of a makeshift family struggling to stay together as life wears away at their bonds of blood and love. At the center of the family is Gail Neighbors, the hardworking single mother of two sons, Mason and Tyler. Mason, the older, grew up without knowing his father, Pony Reed, a feckless gambler and womanizer. Tyler, the younger, sings in the church choir and enjoys a close relationship with his father, Dan, who left Gail a few years before but still spends plenty of time at the house. To make ends meet, Gail has taken in two boarders: Annie, an elderly woman with a diminishing grip on reality, and Jackie, the twenty-year-old single mother of baby Cole, who can't fully accept her overwhelming new responsibilities.

To give you a feel for Bennett's writing, this is Mason in the first chapter, after a fight with a boy who made a joke "something about missing fathers and bastards":

"Most of the blood was Mason's. It caused his ripped shirt sleeve to cling to his upper arm. Small drops landed on the white leather toe of his right sneaker. Mason turned the key and pushed the door open. He tried to do everything softly. He held his hand under his elbow to catch the drips and moved silently through the dark house. He slipped into the downstairs bathroom, easing the door shut with his shoulder before pulling the chain on the light over the sink. Instantly a face appeared in front of him, a dark, narrow, and closed face with brooding eyes, and tiny dots of blood sprayed from hairline to chin. That blood would belong to the that brother who grinned too much, who talked too much."

This is Miss Annie, one of the two boarders, in chapter two:

"Miss Annie Gant woke gripped by pain in her left leg. The leg felt as if it was petrifying from her knee, hardening into a crooked column of stone beneath the sheets....She wanted to ask God for relief so she would not wake anyone, but Miss Annie was too afraid even to breathe. She wanted to disturb no one. No one must rush to her in the middle of the night as if she were a baby. Long, tortuous moments passed and she silently struggled in the dark. She could feel blood finally begin to flow back into her limb, feel the relief of veins, once like the twisting hairs through marble, as they swelled again, returning life to her leg. She let out her breath and with lips moving against the fabric of the pillowcase, whispered thanks to God for allowing her to keep quiet. She heard her prayer answered with an inquisitive whine. A wet, black nose shoved toward her face. 'Shh, Sarrie girl, don't wake nobody. I'm all right now Everything's all better. It's going away. I feel it letting go.'"
And Gail, Mason's mother, who runs the boarding house:

"God is elusive. A preacher told Gail when she was still quiet young that to live life right is to search for Him each and every day like a miner in the deepest hold looking for that vein of gold. Gail searches on her knees in her dark closet. She is an old thirty-nine. She has borne three children: the first, the girl, Gail's mother took from her arms right after delivery. Gail could not find God then, though she called for Him. Gail's father, who would not stand for her mother's scheme, came back to help, but he was days late. He patted her hand while she remained bed-ridden and assured her he would find out where the child was sent and bring her back. But two days later he died of a heart attack and no one remained to champion Gail's cause. She called on God then too. But He did not come. A preacher who found Gail in the last pew late one Sunday night told her God would not come when she called, but if she lived a Christian life, she could go to Him and He would always be there for. So Gail began her search for God at every church and every sanctuary she came across. There were sweet, sweet times when she came close or thought she'd found Him, when the music of the choir and the shouted word of the gospel seized her and she swayed and rocked, burned in the divine light. But the moments of communion were brief and rare. Now, when others hopped and flailed in the aisles and professed their love for Jesus, she too clapped hands and gave praise, but eyed them with skepticism."

Right away, you can see this is a story about people in pain and their connection to one another. A connection that may see them through life's pain.

If you'd like a free copy of Creatures Here Below, leave a comment. Winner chosen at random and announced tomorrow. Please leave only one comment per person. Thanks and good luck! Remember, tomorrow, I'm giving away Keeping Secrets and Telling Lies by Trice Hickman.