Interview By: Melody Charles
A quick book lover’s pop quiz question, if you will: what do titles “Tonight and Forever”, “Slow Burn” and “A Madaris Bride For Christmas” all have in common? They were all written by Brenda Jackson, the first-ever African-American best-selling romance novelist. And with Christmas, Ms. Jackson accomplished yet another feat: the first African-American of either gender, or genre, to publish 100 books.
Unbelievably, however, there was a time in the not-so distant past that many believed ‘Black’ and ‘romance’ were mutually exclusive terms. It wasn’t always easy for Ms. Jackson, but in this in-depth chat with Knowshi, the Florida-based trailblazer discusses her triumphs, trials and what she tells new novelists about making a place for themselves on bookshelves and among their peers.
KNOWSHI- It’s an honor to speak with such a pioneer in the publishing world, wow—-having written 100 books is AMAZING!
BRENDA JACKSON (BJ)- “Thank you for helping to spread the news! Terry [McMillan], I believe, is on her ninth book, and on average, most authors release one or 2 a year, but this year I’ve had 6 books come out. It’s a milestone that no other writer has reached and I don’t think people know, so I told Harlequin that my story needs to get out there. I appreciate Dallas giving media coverage because I’m making history!” (chuckles)
KNOWSHI- Indeed. First of all, can you tell me the differences in the romance industry back when you started versus the publishing world today?
BJ- “When I first decided that I would write a book, it was in the 1980s. I’m not going to say there were no African-American love stories, but there were very few. Vivian Stephens, who was the first black editor at Harlequin, she had gotten a couple [from black writers] in, but overall publishers had this belief that black romances doesn’t sell and that wasn’t their market by far. They didn’t think that anything was broken, why fix it?”
BJ- “We confronted publishers about publishing African-American books: some would tell us ‘absolutely not, we don’t have the market for it,’ end of conversation. But after my background in business and being a part of corporate America [State Farm], I understood their reasoning. I didn’t believe or accept it, but a publisher, like any other company, is in the business to make money. and if they don’t think their clientele will buy into this, they’re not going to waste their time.
Then Terry McMillan came onto the scene with Waiting to Exhale, and then they were looking for Exhale-type stories. I wasn’t writing about the men who misuse their women, abuse their women, I was writing about the romantic guy, the one being faithful to one woman, remembering her birthday, taking her out, date nights…it was a hard sale. It was only when one CEO of a publishing company, Walter Zacharius at Kensington Books, decided to started a line for African-American book, Arabesque, is when we finally got our first break.”
KNOWSHI- When did the ball start rolling in the favor of you and other African-American writers?
BJ- “At first, we were paid less than our white counterparts just in case it failed, but we were okay—most of us didn’t even have agents and just signed those contracts so fast, we were so glad to see our books in print. The line was Arabesque and it became successful, even after Kensington left the promotion up to the authors. I got my girlfriends in sororities and other places to push the books anywhere where there was a mass of black women. I would buy 100 of my own books, go to a mall, set up a booth and sell my books, or go places as a vendor and sell my books. This was before social media, and now it’s so much easier. Today, if you know how to do it right, you can do the campaign that way.”
KNOWSHI- What are other distinct advantages to being a writer today versus a decade ago?
BJ- “Well now you don’t have to wait on a publisher—you can write e-books, get it on Amazon to sell it that way. Over the last 18 years I’ve seen the transformation, so when I see a new black author complain, I just smile and shake my head because they don’t know what hard is. They need to need to talk to some of the trailblazers like myself, Beverly Jenkins, Donna Hill, Rochelle Alers and [the late] Francis Ray to see what we had to go through. Some of the authors don’t want to work hard, they don’t want to hit the pavement. I get e-mails from some asking, ‘Will you help me to write my love scene?’ What? Don’t ask another author to help write anything for you!”
KNOWSHI- Now that African-American romance novelists are more accepted, what are the relationships like with other pioneers and some of the newer authors?
BJ- “We enjoy writing, support each other and we basically became authors of the same level, we respect the genre and each other. It’s a good feeling. There are so many good writers out there making their way to printed or digital books, but some don’t believe in editing, so they write a book and throw it out there and it’s not fair to those who time and quality into creating a great book. It’s good that you have a story to tell, but you have to perfect your craft. That’s what I tell people who write independently: you won’t see your mistakes, so you need another pair of eyes or two to grammatically correct them, you know?”
KNOWSHI- Do you still get any of the criticism about catering to a primarily African-American audience?
BJ- “My target audience isn’t necessarily African-American women, it’s anyone who wants to read a wonderful, well-written romance story. It could be Asian, black, white…my characters are black, but I believe love is color-blind and if you are a true romantic reader, the characters can be vampires, shape-shifters, paranormal, whatever: they’re going to enjoy the stories and fall in love with the characters. I don’t close the door on anyone and I write my books in a way that will appeal to anyone who wants to read it. I don’t write the gangster type stuff, the ghetto-type stuff, I write what I know, and that’s African-Americans in a relationship that, in the end, will live happily ever after. My experience was meeting my husband when I was 14—I got my ‘going steady’ ring from him when I was 15 and I still proudly wear it today. We got married when I was 19, he was 21, became the best of friends and now we’re going into our 42nd year. I believe in romance, lasting relationships, for loving someone forever. that’s what I love writing about and that’s what I’ve experienced in my own life. That’s the fantasy i have in my mind, for someone to meet that tall dashing person, you work out the issues, you get married and live happily ever after. A letter from a fan wanted me to bring back a particular couple and take them through a divorce, I was like ‘wow.’ I don’t write about what is, I write about what could be. that’s the difference. I’m a true romantic. My characters don’t grow apart, they stay together.”
KNOWSHI- Your story is so beautiful, how can people really have a problem with that?
BJ- “They do: it bothers me when people say ‘women get caught up in your books and they’re out here looking for these Madaris (made up) men,’ and some even ask where can they find these men. I know they’re joking, but what I also want to do is set the bar higher in what they may be looking for so that they do seek a man to treat them with respect, like you’re his queen and you treat him like he’s your king. I look at my writing as my own ministry, because I have couples that write me together and say that after reading, it helps their relationships because it makes the husband more thoughtful and so forth. A lot of good can come from reading romance novels, but some people just prefer the drama. I write drama books too, and they have a satisfactory ending, if not a happy one. Some people want it to where he goes his way and she goes hers, and that’s not what I want to write about.”
KNOWSHI- I remember when BET owned the Arabesque line and adapted many of the novels to movies. What was your experience with it?
BJ- “I’m one that wasn’t happy. One Special Moment was the only one adapted to a movie, and BET promised me that it would 80% of the book. You’re not gonna get a 100% adaptation, but at least have enough where the readers can follow it and BET totally missed the concept: my girl [character] was a virgin until marriage, and that book was one that Sunday Schools were using. It was a love story and had love scenes in it, but those didn’t take place until after she had married [the male character] Sterling. Now in the movie, they had her having sex and getting pregnant before they even married, and that was totally opposite of what the true story is. The brother who was her guardian—-her parents were killed early on, he raised her and it was a beautiful relationship—-they made him an irresponsible jerk. That book had won a lot of awards that year, but I told BET that I wasn’t supporting it. BET wanted a film to pull in a larger market audience and they didn’t want it to be a ‘chick-flick.’ My following ended up boycotting the movie because it wasn’t wasn’t what they expected it to be.”
KNOWSHI- You turned one of your most beloved novels from the Madaris family series, Truly Everlasting, into a hit independent film with your own production company in 2011 and it was just recently picked up for the Netflix line-up. Are there any others in the works?
BJ- “Debbie Allen read “A Silent Thread” and wanted to directed it, the only thing she’s doing different is embellishing the characters to make them come to life on the screen. Once I give her the final okay on the adaptation script—and so far I’ve been liking it—then we go to the contract and she’ll announce it in Hollywood. We’re looking to film next year. I’m hoping there will be others, because I believe the movie with Debbie Allen will do well and then other people will look at my other works—-I’ve got 100 books to choose from!” (laughs)
KNOWSHI- How exciting for us romance lovers Ms. Jackson—your latest book is already a hit and we’re looking forward to your next masterpiece. Anything else you want Knowshi and your loyal readers to know?
BJ- “I don’t put myself above any reader or any other author—I love meeting my readers and I want them to know me as a regular person. They see me in those book covers and think I’m bigger than life…um, no. I really appreciate you [fans] as an author because you don’t have to buy my books or my movie, it could be just something else sitting on the shelf.”