A Conversation with Virginia DeBerry & Donna Grant, authors of What Doesn't Kill You
The title of this novel is borrowed from a classic adage, as in many of your other books, including Tryin’ to Sleep in the Bed You Made, Gotta Keep On Tryin’ and Far from the Tree. Why do you use expressions to title your books? Do you seek to reinvent them and make them relevant to our current lives?
We like expressions because they are familiar—whatever walk of life you’re from—and the words are always wise and sum up a situation perfectly. Of course most of us don’t realize that until we experience that 20/20 hindsight for ourselves.
What Doesn’t Kill You reads like a proclamation of independence. Although it’s carried out by a woman, it seems like an important lesson for anyone—the lesson of living and working for your self-satisfaction. How do you feel that you’ve learned that lesson in your own lives? Are your careers as writers part of that self-discovery?
We think self-discovery is an ongoing process. It doesn’t, or shouldn’t, stop when you’ve reached a particular milestone . . . the eighteenth birthday, getting married, starting your career, having a child. Goals are OK, but life is not about the end game it’s about all that happens before you get there; truly it’s how you play the game that matters. We are on our own journey(s) of discovery, not only about writing but about as much other stuff as we can possibly experience.
In your books, you always explore the enduring relationships between women. In What Doesn’t Kill You, you treat that topic in a different way—both giving due diligence to the bond between mother and daughter and acknowledging a woman’s need to concentrate on herself. This is an especially important theme when it comes to financial well-being. Do you feel that it’s an important message for women specifically?
Women must learn to take care of themselves—not just their families—because in reality, you are actually the only thing you can really count on.
Are any of the characters in the book based on people you know? If so, whom? Do you feel that the best characters are ones that the authors know in real life?
We actually try to avoid using people we know from our lives in our stories—it’s not fair, and we mostly want to keep them as friends! But there’s a lot of Virginia in Tee’s personality and demeanor and way too many of Tee’s experiences. Virginia doesn’t have any children, so no, there was no sleeping with the best man at her daughter’s wedding, but many of Tee’s postemployment dilemmas are ones Virginia knows personally—so we had a great “in-house” resource.
Another important choice of words from Julie comes when she tells Tee, “You know, Tee, you don’t know what’s around the next corner if you don’t turn it.” Are these words that you have often had to say to yourselves? What is so comforting about a close friend assuring you that there will always be unpredictability to life?
It’s hard to be brave all the time. Sometimes it is hard to be brave at all and, without your friends, to remind yourself that you have to keep putting one foot in front of the other, that “this too shall pass”—the journey would be so much lonelier and more difficult. We often quote the scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when they’re on the cliff—the posse is hot on their heels. Butch suggests they jump. Sundance says no and is forced to admit he can’t swim. Butch cracks up and says, “Are you crazy? The fall will probably kill us!” Then they hold hands and jump.
You don’t conceal the fact that the friendship between the two of you began with competition, as you were both working in plus-size modeling. Eventually, you developed a successful co-authorship career. Does the strong friendship between Julie and Tee mirror your own? Is there a specific common ground that leads to strong bonds when two people share a competitive past and a common respect for one another?
Mutual respect and trust has got to be at the core of any thriving friendship, and that has always been the case with us. And we established early that although we were competition for one another, the contest would always be fair. Unlike Tee and Julie, professionally we were always on equal footing. Tee started off as more of a role model for Julie. We enjoyed allowing their friendship to grow, so much so that Julie later has lessons to teach Tee. The space to grow and change is a wonderful gift friends can give each other.
Toward the first surge of her new career, Tee mentions that she created a blog with ideas on organization where her readers could ask for tips, ask questions and make comments. Do you find that your own blog (twomindsfull.blogspot.com) is a place where you can connect with your own readers and reach your audience more directly?
We love having our readers connect with us via email, our blog and our MySpace page (myspace.com/twomindsfull)! We post topics that run the gamut from the serious to the ridiculously inane, but our favorite part is reading the comments—and frequently commenting back. We like the immediate, hands-on involvement. And yes, we do monitor our own blog and My-Space page—’cause we get asked that all the time. That’s why we’re sometimes slow to respond—it’s all do-it-ourselves.
Why did you choose the end of the story to be dedicated to the future, the new generation created by Amber and J.J.? How do you feel that our own experiences help shape those of the next generation?
We have loads of readers that are a generation, even two, younger than we are. And we’re always tickled when we hear from them, in great detail we might add, about the things they learn from our books. When you reach a “certain” age, as we have, you have attained a “certain” wisdom—but that’s nothing new, it’s what has been happening with human beings on the planet from the beginning. So as storytellers, we are doing our part in continuing a cycle that’s as old as life itself.
Your books have a great following with women and especially with book clubs. Why do you feel that the lessons you exemplify in your stories speak so loudly to groups and to women? Are either of you in a book club?
We believe that the truth of women’s life experience—family, friends, mates, children, jobs, struggles, joys and everything in between, is a universal experience, one that transcends age or race.
Are you two currently working on another book together? Can you tell us anything about it?
Indeed we are—all we can (will) tell you at the moment is that, like so many of today’s headlines, politics and scandal will be at the heart of the story. Will the past cast its shadow over the present forever?
A CONVERSATION WITH VIRGINIA DEBERRY & DONNA GRANT, AUTHORS OF UPTOWN
Uptown is a departure for you both: many of your other novels have a much lighter tone and are centered around one or two strong female characters and their relationships. Why and how did you decide to take this new direction? Was the experience of writing Uptown significantly different than your previous works?
We enjoy stretching ourselves in our writing—working a new muscle group. For example, What Doesn’t Kill You, our last novel, was our first attempt at writing in first person. We had a ball and will undoubtedly do it again—hopefully with Tee. Readers got her, and she has much more to say. And just as with Tee’s economic woes, we wanted to be ripped- from-the-headlines current. The real estate bubble—mortgages, foreclosures, speculation, bankrupt developers—has been all over the news and affects lots of us, and Harlem properties were hot. When we were hatching a story about secrets, wounds, and a family real estate business rooted in Harlem, we realized we had already created the Dixons for Better Than I KnowMyself and that their moment was now. So this time the men came first, definitely unusual for us.
The cold, manipulative Dwight and the overbearing King made a strong impression with readers and they were juicy for us to write. Dwight needed a foil—a female character with Dixon family history. We had already introduced Aunt Forestina when we met Dwight and King. That gave us the opportunity to bring her daughter, Avery, into the picture. Once we came up with Avery and her self-imposed isolation from her family, we knew she had to have a friend to bring her out, someone she could talk to, someone who knew her before she withdrew. That’s when Alicia appeared, just when we needed her.
We wrote Uptown pretty much the way we always do. Whether it’s the doll business in Gotta Keep on Tryin’ or the cosmetics business in WDKY, we always research our background subject. In the case of Uptown, that was Manhattan real estate development—not an area we knew much about.
Then we develop our characters. Both Avery and Dwight have deeply layered personalities. What you see on the outside is not who they really are, and we needed to create each buried level in the way it might have occurred naturally, then place the next on top—so we could then have the characters reverse the process as they maneuvered through the story which took place in a few months, but really covered many years of family history.
Once the pieces are in place, we get down to the real nitty gritty, telling the story.
How do you think your fans will react to this departure?
As always, we hope our readers enjoy Uptown and that the story keeps them needing to turn the pages to find out what happens next. Our male characters have always gotten a lot of attention—either because people want to know if they’re real and have an available brother, like Marcus and Ron (we hope Jazz has joined that crew), or because they can’t stand them and want to see them get what they’ve got coming, like Dwight and Ramsey. The rest is about coming along for the ride. We do our best to craft a good story, with compelling characters. In the end we hope readers feel satisfied and get something they can carry with them.
You have written as a critically acclaimed and bestselling team for years. Are there any particular challenges or rewards that you face as a team, rather than writing solo? What is your writing process like?
The greatest challenge we think is that with two of us it does not, as some have assumed, mean we write twice as fast. Actually, it is the opposite. Our writing and editing process happens simultaneously which is good and bad. Good because mostly when we’re done, the first draft has been redrafted so many times already, it’s pretty much the finished product. Bad because it does take so much time and unlike other teams, we need to be physically in the same place—no e-mailing chapters back and forth for us. So while we are writing, we end up checking out of our personal lives for long stretches of time. Because Virginia lives alone, Donna stops being a city girl for a while and moves to her “country home” in New Jersey where our rhythm is whatever we choose for it to be. Days start and end according to a schedule that is totally of our making. We don’t divide the book by chapter or character—we really do write together, side by side at one desk—check out our video at http://simonandschuster.com. And at the end of a book, we have written and re-written every single word—together.
You have a wonderful and very active website. Especially entertaining are the photos you post in the gallery, including one when you met with President Barack Obama. Can you describe that experience of meeting him?
We had the good fortune and honor to meet Barack Obama at a private reception during a fundraiser prior to his election as the 44th President of the United States of America. In person, Mr. Obama was present, sincere, funny, smart—all the qualities we had seen on TV. We’ve met a number of important, influential people of all stripes—actors, singers, governors, senators—and we can usually feel the “spin,” tell when we are talking to the persona and not the person. But with the President, there was no posturing, no pat political clichés. We had a genuine conversation, mostly about the books we’ve written (he was interested as a fellow author) and our relationship with the mutual friends who had invited us to the event. We were truly taken with how relaxed he was in such a high pressured situation. After our meeting we were both convinced that he was the real deal and more committed than ever to doing our part to help get him elected. And now that Mr. Obama has taken office, we are working to answer his call to service.
Through your website or at your many book and speaking events, do your fans ever share their own stories with you? Do any of these stories (or aspects of them) work their way into your books?
Yes, readers often share their stories and experiences with us—not only at events, but also through e-mail. Most of the things they share are about how situations and/or circumstances we wrote about mirror similar incidents in their lives. They will often say “You wrote about my life!” “How did you know?” “You two must have been following me!” Of course we did not really write about them or their lives—we make our stories up—they are fiction—really! But over the years these kinds of comments have proven to us that nothing we make up is too far out of the norm for readers to connect or identify with. Most importantly these reactions remind us that most of the challenges we struggle within our lives are universal and that we all, to some degree, feel better because of that connection, the feeling that we are not alone.
Do either of you have experiences in real estate that helped influence Uptown?
No, not really. The infl uence was more about connections to neighborhoods in New York that were changing radically. We had no real estate moguls in our families though Virginia’s first New York apartment was on the 110th Street block we write about in Uptown and once upon a time she worked for a real estate law firm. Donna’s Mom grew up in a walk- up on 143rd St and Seventh Avenue. The family maintained connections to the area even after they moved. Donna has memories of going with her mom to Miss Helen’s beauty shop around the corner for a press and curl. Or making rounds uptown with Grandma. Donna would sit on a barstool sipping Coca- Cola with extra cherries while her grandmother caught up on the neighborhood news—but that is a story for another day.
What do you see happening to Avery and Dwight after the end of the story?
We did leave them both with a lot on their plates. We like to bring our characters through the mess we made of their lives and point them toward a new beginning. After that, they’re on their own to take the next steps—unless you want to know more. So, if you want to know how Avery adjusts to her life back at home, how her relationship with Jazz progresses, if Dwight picks up the pieces of his life or becomes a bitter, vindictive man, let us know.
Here you brought back King and Dwight Dixon from Better Than I Know Myself. Do you have plans to write a sequel to Uptown? Ifnot, will some of these characters show up in future stories?
We have a habit of slipping characters from one book into another. Sometimes they are mentioned by name, other times just by profession and a description. There have even been a few readers who have discovered our predilection (hope you enjoyed a glimpse of what Ty and Regina are up to)! But if we’ve already “invented” a doctor or photographer and need one in the book we are working on, if the timeline fits, we borrow them without hesitation. We also have a practice of giving even minor characters a pretty detailed backstory, so there is always more to them than is revealed in the book where they first make an appearance (Alicia certainly has more stories to tell). Gotta Keep on Tryin’ is our only sequel and Uptown is our first experience spinning characters off—though we have thought about it as a possibility for several other characters. We’re not saying yes or no—we just have to wait and see how Uptown does—how readers like it before we contemplate a sequel. But if we need a diplomat turned real estate queen, an investigative reporter, an owner of a fancy uptown boutique, or even a dominatrix—who knows?!
What would you most like readers to take away from this story?
Well, there are a few things. Virginia’s grandmother had a saying—“There’s more room out than in.” She meant that if an event or situation is gnawing at you, changing who you are and how you live your life, you need to find a way to get it out, talk about it, cry about it, whatever it takes. Avery’s life was altered by keeping a painful secret. So was Dwight’s and ultimately the pain he inflicts on himself costs him. Alicia, on the other hand, is pretty much the opposite. She says what she feels, deals with the consequences, and goes on without the burden of the misunderstandings and anger caused by not revealing the truth.
We are also in a time when success is often measure purely in terms of money. Whomever has the most wins, no matter what they did to get it—cheat, lie, or put others in danger. Is that really what we feel makes someone successful? Is it okay to turn whole neighborhoods and people’s lives upside- down to turn a profit? Does ownership grant you the right to do what you want? We wanted to raise the questions and give folks a chance to think about how they feel.
What are you working on now?
We’ve been checking out the headlines again. This time we’re doing research on a subject that affects about two thirds of Americans, and it’s a subject we know lots about from personal experience. We’ll keep you posted.