Author Bernice L. McFadden on The Book of Harlan and Honoring Black History

Bernice L. McFadden takes a break from penning award-winning novels to tell us about her literary journey and her work being optioned for a film.

JD Myall: Tell us about your publishing journey.

Bernice L. McFadden: I enjoyed the act of writing. I submitted to Essence Magazine and the newspaper and I got rejections or no response, so I stopped for a while. I went back to college for the second time. I was taking creative writing, poetry and advanced fiction writing. One of my professors pulled me aside and said, “I don’t know why you’re not published yet.” That was the first time someone significant, who knew about writing and had made a career in the industry had said something like this to me. She had been published, so I took that as confirmation. Then I started submitting again. When I was about twenty-five I started submitting on a regular basis. I submitted my first novel, Sugar, for ten years before it was published… I believe that if there is something that you really want you should follow it through to the end. You don’t give up.

Myall: People constantly talk about the lack of diversity in publishing. Do you think that is a problem that will be resolved soon?

McFadden: No. Publishing is a reflection of America. To fix it, we would have to start from the top and work our way down. We are still struggling at the top. You have very few black literary agents and editors. In these publishing houses, you have a lot of young white kids who have no clue how to market a person of color. I don’t think it’s any different than marketing for a white person. But many of them seem to think it is. So, no, I don’t see much change. Zora Neale Hurston was complaining about this in the fifties and here we are in 2017. No. I don’t see resolution coming soon.

Myall: The Book of Harlan won an NAACP Image Award in 2017. Your main character, Harlan, an African American musician, is asked to perform at a popular cabaret in the Parisian enclave of Montmartre–warmly referred to as “The Harlem of Paris” by black American musicians. Harlan goes, and then the city falls under Nazi occupation. He ends up in a notorious concentration camp in Weimar, Germany during the Holocaust.

Now that novel is being optioned for a film. How did that come about?

McFadden: Mark Tonderai was directing another project. He was googling something. My book came up. He read it and loved it. I knew he should have the book because when he started speaking to me about how he planned on shooting it…it was the same vision I had.

Myall: Will you get to go on set or be part of the script writing or production?

McFadden: I think I will be on set. I am down as producer. I think the only thing I want to do with the script is give a little advice here and there. Because it’s his vision and I want him to have that. We are both artists. I want to see him give his vision life on screen.

Myall: Can you give us any secrets from the film?

McFadden: Of course not. [She laughs.]

Myall: Can you describe the novel, The Book of Harlan, in one word?

McFadden: Epic.

Myall: The book boasted characters based on your relatives. Does that make this personal to you? Do you feel a personal responsibility, as a novelist, to shape reader’s thoughts on issues like history, race and sexuality?

McFadden: Yes. I’m teaching now, and one thing I pride myself on that when kids leave my class, they have a completely different view of history, race and social justice.

Myall: How do you think the issues in The Book of Harlan relate to the world today?

McFadden: I think a lot of things happening now in our own country and in the world today are being hidden from us. I think in thirty years some kid will write a book like The Book of Harlan that uncovers the things we aren’t being told or taught today.

Myall: What did you teach your daughter about racism and what it means to be a black woman at this time in history?

McFadden: Wow. I don’t know if there was a specific conversation. We had many conversations. Things were organic. It was like… did you see what happened to mommy or this person on the news? Let me tell you why these things happen. Let me tell you how to avoid these situations. The conversations that black mothers had with their black daughters were very different than the conversations black fathers had with their sons. It was different, less urgent and more organic… until the point where Sandra Bland was murdered. Then the conversations became the same.

Myall: Your book The Gathering of Waters deals with the death of Emmett Till. Was it painful to write? Why did you think Till’s death needed to be explored in that fashion?

McFadden: When I started writing that book, I had no idea I was going to be writing about Emmett Till… I write out of sequence sometimes. The character that enters my thoughts gets a few pages… I knew I was writing about three generations of women. When Money, Mississippi came up, I didn’t even know what town it was. I just knew it was in the South. Usually when I write, I record what I hear in my head. It usually is a female voice or energy. This time it wasn’t female, but it didn’t feel male either. It was frustrating for me. I wrote “the boy came down from the Greyhound,” in the chapter that introduces Emmett, without knowing who the boy was. I verbally asked, “Who’s telling this story?” I heard, “I am Money. Money, Mississippi.” There is no way to write about Money, Mississippi, and not talk about Emmett Till, so at that moment, I knew the boy on the bus was Emmett Till.

Was it painful? When I am writing, there is some kind of wall that keeps me safe from that. Once the story is finished and I start editing, I’ve probably had a six month break from when I sent it to my publisher and got it back. So it’s all new again. Sometimes I get a physical or emotional reaction then.

Myall: Describe your writing process.

McFadden: I write and research at the same time. I’ll read things I that I find inspiring… I read a lot of poetry. I like lyrical passages. I spend a lot of time walking because a lot of the writing goes on in my head before I put it on paper. Today I walked so far I didn’t know where the hell I was. It’s a lot of research, a lot of reading and a lot of walking.

Myall: How do you know when a novel is finished?

McFadden: At the beginning of my writing process, I feel like I have people coming to visit. Like one or two people. When I am really engrossed in the writing my house is full. All I’m doing is recording what I hear. As I get close to the end, my house starts to empty out. It feels melancholy and lonely without the characters’ voices.

Myall: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

McFadden: People feel that rejection is a horrible thing. Rejection can be life sustaining if you look at it as fuel for the fire. You should think, “I’ll show you.” It’s your dream and you should have it. Your time will come. Learn, acquire the skill. Your time will come.

Myall: You’re working on a memoir; what will we learn about you that we don’t already know?

McFadden: This is the first time I’m not hiding behind a fictional character. I’m writing about motherhood… about my mother and my grandmother. I come up in the text, but it’s really about them. In the end you will figure out, this is why Bernice is the way she is, because of these two women. I want to honor them.

Myall: What is coming up next for you?

McFadden: Of course, The Book of Harlan has been as optioned for film. I have a book coming out called Praise Songs for the Butterflies. And I am currently writing that memoir–And God Made Woman–and I am now being featured in the AAMBC Journal.

Bernice L. McFadden is the author of nine critically acclaimed novels including Sugar, The Warmest December, and Gathering of Waters (a New York Times Editors’ Choice Book of 2012). She resides in Brooklyn, New York. Her latest novel, The Book of Harlan, won the 2017 NAACP Image Award.