Written by: Melody Charles
With just the power of her words, she’s an author that can send her readers through different events and eras like a time machine: in her universe, heroines escape slavery with Harriet Tubman, write for T. Thomas Fortune’s pioneering 19th century black newspaper and lead covered wagons across the countryside to give women a new start in life. Beverly Jenkins has spent years writing varieties of fiction, but she’s best known for her signature historical romances that feature heroes and heroines of African-American descent.
With a newly-released book to promote and an upcoming historical romance in the fall, Ms. Jenkins spoke to Knowshi.com from Michigan about her body of work, her motivation and how she feels about her devoted and very opinionated legion of fans.
KNOWSHI: Glad to finally get my hands on this latest edition to the fictional Blessings series, “Heart of Gold” (a modern-day tale of the old and new inhabitants of Henry Adams KS, a locale created in Jenkins’ first historical novel “Night Song”). How did you get into this particular type of writing?
BEVERLY JENKINS (Beverly) : “It started with my agent persuading me to write a small-town book. Although I really wasn’t feeling it at first, it sort of all fell into place. I had a couple of characters, [the main character/town benefactor] Bernadine being one of them, that I had kept in development for about 15 years. I had no idea what she was about or who she was until she walked of the mental place I call ‘the green room’ one day and said, ‘Here I am’. At first I replied, ‘Who are you’? (laughs), but then when the story started coming together, I realized that she was the one who would start all of this and the book just sort of wrote itself. And four books later, like the title said, it’s truly been a blessing.”
KNOWSHI: Is the process of putting the stories together any different from the romance novels?
Beverly: “It’s sort of the same story told in a different time period, just without the love scenes. I’m pretty proud of it, and the fact that we’re using the same town I wrote about when I first started my writing career is a plus as well.”
KNOWSHI: Speaking of the historical novels, you’ve practically become synonymous with the genre of multicultural historical romance. Why do you think that is?
Beverly: “When people ask me why I chose that route, my answer is that the first book I ever sold was the historical. I grew up reading everything, including romance, even though none of the women in the stories looked like me, and I was a romantic at heart.
There have been a handful of other authors—-Gay G. Gunn’s done a few, Shirley Hailstock’s done one—but no other African-American author has made a living doing it. It would be nice to read somebody else with a body of work, but I seem to be the only chip in the cookie, so… tokens are meant to be spent. I’m continuing with the worlds that I’ve built and taking my fans right along with me. For me, it’s like my ministry: if I’d written a history book, no one would have read it. How many of those books are already sitting in bookstores now collecting dust? When you do it this way—where I give you some history and then a little treat—you’re so busy fanning yourselves from the treats that you don’t realize, until you close the book, that….wow, you just learned a lot of stuff here.”
KNOWSHI: When we spoke with your fellow writing peer Brenda Jackson last year, she spoke at length of the struggle that black writers had in getting picked up by publishers. Did that happen to you as well?
Beverly: “If you looked at the market back then, publishing didn’t start to take us black writers seriously until Terry McMillan hit the national bestsellers list with Waiting to Exhale….Girlfriend was on the list for months. Now I’m 63 years old: I’ve been in bookstores all of my life and I’ve always seen us [black readers], I don’t know what [booksellers] thought we were doing in there, sweeping up or what not, but we’ve been buying books forever.
After my agent and I were rejected by the other publishing companies, editor Ellen Edwards (at Avon Books) finally said, ‘I like the writing, let’s take the chance and do this.’ I’ve been with Avon for about 20 years and probably could go someplace else, but I’m dancing with the folks that brung me, as the old folks say. They get my books, I’ve got great support there and I’m not trying to train another publishing company!
KNOWSH: What was the resistance about?
Beverly: “They didn’t think we could write historicals, didn’t think we had a history [worth writing about] or that we could write with the languages and the vocabulary of the 19th century. Never tell a black woman there’s something she can’t do.”
KNOWSHI: As a fan, I can really only speak for myself, but what I think is so special about the characters you create is that the heroines are strong and assertive women: they don’t fawn over the men, they’re not damsels in distress.
Beverly: “Right, they’re not in conventional roles: nobody is at home being taken care of because black women in that time didn’t have that luxury. All of my women, no matter what time frame or occupation, they’re not content and they’re always pushing to make things better in their families and in society.”
KNOWSHI: Did you have a prototype for the men involved as well?
Beverly: “Black men, in general, don’t get enough credit for contributing to this country, then and now. There were brothers who took care of their families as they patrolled Indian Territory, fought in the Civil War or as lawmen in towns and cities. I want to how highlight how essential they were and are to the fabric of this country and give them the recognition that many have gone without.”
KNOWSHI: We fans certainly have our favorite couples, like Sable and Raimond LeVeq; Katherine and Dixon Wildhorse; Hester and Galen Vachon and Olivia and Neil July, to name a few. Some of those stories were generated from reader’s ideas, so how much does that figure into your creative process?
Beverly: “If it was left up to them, I would write about nothing except the Julys and LeVeqs: They would have me writing 24/7, 365, with no dinner, showers, church, nothing (laughing). I take their input and love that they’re invested and want what they want, but I write for me also, so I want to write the type of books I like to read. If those ideas can come together with mine, great, but if not, I know that if I use my gifts for good, they’ll still enjoy what I come up with.”
KNOWSHI: What’s next for us readers to look forward to?
Beverly: “Book 6 of the Blessings series will be out sometime next year and the third book in my new Destiny series, Destiny’s Captive, is coming out in October. It focuses on the 3rd brother, Noah: he’s a captain who gets his ship stolen by a descendent of pirates and it takes place in Cuba. [The heroine] Pilar is Afro-Cuban and he’s African-American and Spanish, of course.”
KNOWSHI: Do you ever incorporate yourself into any of the characters?
Beverly: “There are little pieces of me in all of them: Viveca Grayson, the one who gets lost all the time going home? That’s me—- I can get to where I need to go, but I can’t find my way back, which don’t make no damn sense. Katherine Wildhorse and her snoring? That’s me. And Sarita Chandler the one who likes to cook, that’s me too.”
KNOWSHI: Well as a fan of your work, I just want to thank you for your time and for being so receptive to us readers, it means a lot.
Beverly: “I am who I am because of my readers. I owe them the house that I live in, the car that I drive, my daughter’s college education, the coffee that I drink everyday. If they didn’t buy my books, where would I be? I still have every fan letter from every fan who’s ever written me and I respond every day to my e-mails. There are some authors who do not deal with the fans and don’t even like the people that they write for…. that is so disgraceful.
My fans know that if you come to a signing, you can bring those 30 books and I will take the time to sign em’, because I’m supposed to and I’m so blessed because of them. I’m having fun with them also, a big part of it for me is reaching out, getting those hugs and all that love. They’re naming their kids after my heroes and heroines, so it’s an honor to write for them and to have them love the stories as much as I love writing them.”