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Interview with Dominica RPCV Shay Youngblood
Interview with Dominica RPCV Shay Youngblood
1996 Interview with Shay Youngblood
By Jake-ann Jones
JAKE-ANN: When did you start writing?
SHAY: I've been writing ever since I could remember holding a pen. I used to write for hours: words, random things. I really like the act of writing, my hand holding a pen or a pencil; even now, I write everything longhand, and then I type it into the computer. I call it a layering process, that's how I edit. Then I do another edit, when I'm typing it into the computer -- I'm editing it again. And then I get a hard copy, and then I edit on the hard copy, and then I type it in again.
JAKE-ANN: Do you write the whole manuscript longhand, or do you some and then enter it?
SHAY: I'll have an idea, for a scene in the book, I'll write that scene out, it might be five pages long -- I'll handwrite all of that and then as I'm typing it in, other things are coming to me -- "Oh, I can add this in," or "Oh, this is what it looks like, it's a rainy day, that would make sense because that way she can..." -- you, know like that, make things happen. So I've always liked the physical act of writing, it's something that I found exciting, soothing and meditative. So I started writing really early. The first poem I remember I was about ten years old. I was lying on my grandmother's floor and the tv was on, there was something about -- I think it was Howard Hughes that rented this penthouse suite in this fabulous hotel and it was like a thousand dollars a night, and I couldn't imagine -- it was something ridiculous, maybe it wasn't that much, but it was some incredible amount of money, and I was like, "I know people down the street who didn't eat one day last week -- a thousand dollars, you can do so much with that!" So I guess one of my first poems came out of a sense of injustice in the world, and how do you write that. So it was like a letter to Howard Hughes -- like, "There are some things you can do with that money!" So that was my first poem. And then I started writing. And I actually wanted to be an actress. I was a narrator in almost all the school plays from kindergarten to about fifth grade. Sixth grade: "integration." And that meant that I couldn't stay after school cause I went to a white school. Well, it was a mixed school, but things changed in junior high school and by the time I went to high school I was going to a mostly white school in an all white neighborhood and I couldn't stay after school...It was a pretty middle class, upper class white neighborhood, and black folks after dark were suspect. So I didn't get a chance to do acting.
JAKE-ANN: This was in --
SHAY: This was in Columbus, Georgia. So that affected my doing that. But I always loved the magic of theatre, always, always, always. But I thought, "I'll just keep writing." I didn't do well in math -- in junior high I started writing -- I would sort of not pay attention in math class, and I'd be writing these serial adventure stories. I'd write five or six pages, and there'd be this action ending...and the girls would be reading it, like "Girl, I really believed that, you write good!" and sort of encourage me, like, "What happens next?" So they kind of helped me -- in creating the sense of a suspenseful artist.
JAKE-ANN: So you were always writing and thinking in more than one genre?
SHAY: Always. Like I said, I just started writing words, then poems...I didn't think I could really write anything longer than a few pages; even when I wrote stories -- I never thought of it in terms of, "I can write a book." These were just little vignettes, and little pieces. In high school I wrote a few exercises, short stories. But I didn't really take myself seriously until I got to college.
JAKE-ANN: When did you write The Big Mama Stories?
SHAY: I started writing it in my early twenties. One of the first stories I wrote was about different hair formations -- it was called "Notes On a Nappy Head" -- it was about going from having no hair to having dreads to having straightened hair, processed...all these different mutations of my hair. And the next story I wrote when I was in the Peace Corps, again out of a sense of seeing injustice and figuring out how to write it -- or raising questions about injustices -- that story "In A House of. . . Monkeys" in the Gloria Naylor Children Of The Night Anthology. The Big Mama Stories came out of growing up, hearing these, wonderful, wild, funny stories, from the women I grew up with. My mother died when I was about two and a half years old, and I was raised by great-grandmothers, great-aunts, uncles, grandfathers...and a really small community. And like, the whole community! When I grew up, in the sixties and the seventies, you were raised by the whole community. So if someone saw you doing something wrong, down the block, they'd whip your ass, they'd call, and by the time you got home, you'd have to get ready for another ass-whipping.
JAKE-ANN: Do you see any of those people now?
SHAY: Most of them are dead. And most of them did not read. They had very little education, and I was one of the first in the family to get an education. So they were really proud of me. But, so I wouldn't get a big head, they wouldn't puff up in front of me -- when I was around, they'd go, "She's good and everything, but she could work a little bit harder!" But I would hear them, sometimes, really puffing up about me, and being really proud. But when I would listen really quietly, I would hear stories, really horrible stories of like, really hard times growing up. And also really fun things that happened, really kind of risque stories. But if I spoke up and was like, "What was that?" -- Girl, they were like, "Get out the room!" So I learned to be very, very quiet if I wanted to get the real deal, if I wanted to get the good stories. But as they got older and I got older, and I realized I wanted to be a writer, I would ask them to tell me their stories. And they would say, "Aww, nobody wanna hear about all that!" But I'd say, "Well I think it's important." So in a way I wrote out of sense of wanting to give them a voice. Because I thought they had done an incredible job raising me, this whole community of people raising me, both men and women, and I wanted to tell their stories. When I sat down to write The Big Mama Stories, it came out of a sense of wanting to give something back to them. Because I was really spoiled, loved by everybody; I was like, "the little orphan girl..." And my mother died very young, and tragically, and so they wouldn't talk to me about her. And when I tried to ask about her they would just burst into tears. So I knew very little about my birth mother...I also wrote out of a sense of, in a way, creating a history for myself. Because all I knew was what was in front of me...not what had been behind me. And so I made up all these stories. And sort of blended fact and fiction to make up The Big Mama Stories." And when I finished the short stories, I was living in the South of France, and I remembered that a theatre company in Atlanta said "You have a really good ear for dialogue, if you ever write a play." So I was cutting and pasting and trying to stick these little vignettes together...and I took it to the theatre all proud -- and they were like, "This is not a play. These are like vignettes stuck and pasted together. But I think you have something here." They said, "There's this black woman director in New York, you should meet with her." That's how I got paired up with Glenda Dickerson. I happened to be coming through New York; we met at Sylvia's up in Harlem, and we talked about the play. She had read the book and said she really wanted to work with me.
JAKE-ANN: When was this?
SHAY: This was around '89. She directed the first several productions of the play. She was a great director and helped me to find theatrical voice as well.
JAKE-ANN: This is Shakin?
SHAY: This is Shakin the Mess Outta Misery which was based on The Big Mama Stories. When I started writing, I was sort of finishing the book at the same time because there was one story that I didn't have in the book that came out of writing the play. Which is the last story in the book, "They Tell Me, Now I Know", because that kind of pulls it all together. The young girl is getting ready to become a woman. She's had her period and the women said, "Well, it's time, you know, to do the crossing over." And so, they perform a ritual in where they give her, to prepare her, they tell her stories, to help, you know, sort of about their lives and what it's going to be like being a woman and how you have to carry yourself and they give her her name. Because they call her daughter, baby, sugar, honey. And they give her her name, which is Rita.
JAKE-ANN: So then you wrote Shakin, and so then, did that kind of fuel your flames for a minute to work in the form of playwriting?
SHAY: Oh yeah. I loved the magic of it. Like one day, I would go home, because till the end, I was cutting and pasting, and putting in new lines, and adding things and taking things out, up until opening night. It was driving everybody crazy because I had never written a play before - I had not studied playwriting. I came in out of a sense of, you know, wanting to work in theater and thinking, you know, how magical it was to get from the page, you know, you write something on the page and then people speak it. And it comes alive in in a way. I remember, I'll never forget, I didn't come for two or three days, and I walked into theater, and the first scene - I saw them moving and talking - and I forgot that I had written that. It would just transform. I saw, I was doing odd jobs, I had many different jobs, and so I would go see all the productions of the play. I saw, I don't know, dozens of productions - up at little theaters, bigger theaters and each one of those casts were just, it was like they created a family. And it was like seeing, it was like I had planted this seed, and everywhere different flowers grew. It was so interesting to me.
JAKE-ANN: Where did it first open? Here?
SHAY: It opened. . . No, it has not been done in New York.
JAKE-ANN: Oh, really? That's so strange.
SHAY: It might have had a reading here. Because I was trying to get it done in places. But it hasn't gotten done here. It's been done all over the country. Because when it got published, it went all over the place. So I was going to little theaters in Texas, and Columbus, Ohio, and they did it in L.A. which is where Sidney Poitier saw it. Just all over. I get calls now from Catholic schools in Chicago to a university in Iowa. So it, you know, it just has a life of its own.
JAKE-ANN: And how did you get to Brown? How did that happen?
SHAY: I was at an artists' colony, and someone in the program, she was finishing up the program, Juliann France - I just happened to mention, you know, I've been house cleaning, house painting, I was in France, I had been an au pair taking care of kids, I was an artist's model, delivering telephone books. I had all these different jobs and I was like, you know, I'm kinda tired. I really need to, you know, people were talking about MFA programs, and going back to school, and maybe that's what I need to do. Just saying it, putting it out there. And she jumped on it and said, "Girl, you need to apply to Brown. It's a great program. Paula Vogel is a goddess. I think you will really benefit from this program." Because I told her, you know, how I got into playwriting, and that I was really interested in learning about the craft of playwriting. By this time, I had written a screenplay for Shakin and I had gotten paid to do that. And I thought, you know, this is possible. And I did check out a couple of other programs. Brown was a two-year program. My friend said that Paula Vogel was a wonderful teacher. And I thought, okay, I'll take a chance. So, I applied and I forgot about it and literally kept doing my business - going to see Shakin all over the place. In my contract, they had to fly me in, put me up for two-nights, and I would do publicity for them. And so, I was happy because I liked hanging out.
JAKE-ANN: Were you working with an agent at this time?
JAKE-ANN: The whole thing just kind of happened?
SHAY: This whole thing just happened. In Atlanta, when they did it, it took off. The thing is, they did a workshop reading at Selma College on the fourth of July weekend. I think it was 1989. And three hundred people showed up over that weekend. The theater was filled every night. And so the producers of this little theater - because they just thought, "Oh, we'll do a reading - this will be our community service." They had never done a Black show. They had the hot local Black actors do some roles, like non-traditional roles, in their shows. But they had never done an all-Black cast. They might have done a play by a Black playwright, but I don't think so. So my show, they were like, kind of skeptical, but when they saw the response, they were like, "Okay, we'll do the show." And it was selling out till the end. They did it for a four week stretch and they actually revived it the following year. They did it again. And it really took off, and in almost all the places it played, toward the end, with word of mouth, it would be selling out. But people didn't have that faith - "Oh, we're doing our community service. We're doing our Black play." So, that's how it kind of got started. And so with the screenplay, I was just doing my thing. Going to see the show, I had written the screenplay, and then I got a letter from the Program saying, you've been excepted into the program, blah-blah-blah. I was like, "Brown University?", like, you know in "New England?". It was amazing to me. All my friends were like, "Girl, you're kidding right? You are just kidding. You did not apply to Brown and like, get in." And I'm like, "Yeah, I did." I was so excited at the possibility of this whole new career opening up for me. Because basically, I wanted to go back to school to get an MFA so that I could possibly teach, I would have this tool just in case, and I didn't know very much about teaching but I was interested. But mostly, what I wanted to do was learn more about the craft of playwriting. Because I found it fascinating and wonderful and I kind of fell into it and was doing it on the job in the theater. I wanted to write other plays and I didn't quite know how and I wanted to find my voice. And working with Paula, just like, changed my life completely. I felt like I was just given such wonderful opportunity to write plays, you know, finding my voice. And she is a wonderful guide. She makes you do everything, as you know: write, direct, act, produce. It was great because I learned all the levels, all the ins and outs, of the theater. And also, she introduced us to all these different forms and different styles of theater which added to my vocabulary in some incredible ways.
JAKE-ANN: When did you meet Laurie [Carlos]? How did that happen?
SHAY: Oh. The first time I met her was in a train station in upstate New York somewhere. She was tired and I was, just like, in awe because of her in Praise House. I had seen her and Urban Bush Women before. I had known her work. So, the first time was probably, Penumbra was going to do Shakin and they called and asked her about participating in the show. To act or direct or something. And Robbie [McCauley] ended up directing her in it. So that was how I first met her. Then I asked her to direct some other things. She directed Black Power Barbie at Dixon Place and she directed two readings at the Public [Theater], Talking Bones and. . .
JAKE-ANN: No, we did. Robbie did Talking Bones and I was in that at the Public. And then. . .
SHAY: She was in it!
JAKE-ANN: And then she directed me and Ezra in Black Power Barbie at the Public.
SHAY: Okay. Well, something else was at the Public though.
JAKE-ANN: Black Power Barbie.
SHAY: Oh, okay, okay. You helped me now. . . because it is all becoming a blur. She directed something else though. I've been trying to get a venue for her to direct Black Power Barbie. Because I've worked on it. Somebody just did it in D.C. and they sent me a tape of it. It was like a New Works Now kind of venue. I was looking at it again, and I was like, "I want to work on this some more. But, you know, I got readings, I get offers to do readings all the time of a lot of my plays, and it's just kind of tiresome. You know, it's been read. It's been workshopped. I feel like I really need a venue where I know that it's going to have an opportunity to go up on stage - and that someone kind of believes in the work enough to believe that it's gonna happen. You know? It's just a lot of time and energy doing a reading. And everybody has a reading series now, and it feels like the support isn't there for the writers to like, "Okay, we want to produce your work. Good, bad, indifferent, we want to support you in your growth." Okay?
JAKE-ANN: So, this leads to an important point to bring up, especially, because there's people who are still in school. The one thing that you've always been an inspiration to me, besides the fact that you are so dedicated and completely just always doing your work - how have you managed to kind of keep so, you know, you really seem very positive and very, sort of, like, the realities of what you were just talking about, the economics, the lack of support for the writer, how have you kind of kept above all that and kept working? Because that really can, see, I don't know what it is, but it can be hard for people to produce writing. It really can. Like, how have you found that you've been able to just kind of keep it going? And just move through the mediums and go here?
SHAY: I can't say that it's always been easy. But the part that's been really easy is that I have, I'm really passionate about writing and about the work that I do. I think I plant a lot of seeds. There's like all these different elements to the writing life. Once I made a commitment to the writing life, what I do sometimes, is like, this is one of them, every couple years I get a commitment ring. In the way that you are committed to a relationship.
JAKE-ANN: I like that. Wow.
SHAY: This reminds you when you are aware from your partner. You know, people have their wedding rings, when they are away from their partner, this reminds them that they are in a committed relationship. And they think of the person, you know what I mean. And so, when i was in college, like with one of my last bits of money, I went to a pawn shop and got a small gold wedding ring. And I put it on this finger and I said, "This is what I really want to do with my life." I feel that this is the thing that I really love to do and this is a way that I can make a contribution.
JAKE-ANN: That's amazing. Where did you ever come up with that idea?
SHAY: I can't say, I don't want to lie and say, "I didn't see it somewhere or hear", but I don't know how it came to me. But, it's like, I was at a point where I was really feeling down because I had gotten so many rejections. And I was sending things out all of the time. And in the beginning too, I was like everybody else, you send it to the New Yorker and wait six month for them to say no. I was bold at that time too: persistence. I did not give up. Because money, it was not about money for me. I knew that, well let me put it this way, I never thought that I could make a living as a writer. I'm a living witness that it's possible. I'm also a living witness that persistence pays. That one must be persistent. You must know about the business of writing. You must work to develop your craft and you must, I think, be in contact with other writers. All those things are really important to me. Particularly, being in touch with other writers. When I left the Program I started a writing group. Sisters' Salon. There are four of us. I called up my good friends who had left school gone to Connecticut, gone to Boston, and we get together once a month, and we eat together, we do writing exercises, and we talk about each other's works. We give each other feedback. And also, school each other, because there are a couple poets in the group, and there are a couple fiction writers, and we school each other on our genres. And people who want to break out in screenwriting, we get books and talk each other through the process. We encourage, we celebrate each, you know, when someone gets a poem published, we celebrate that. We celebrate each other. Now we are going to start doing it every two months because I am moving to New York. So, that's really important to have a support system of people who encourage you as a writer. Because early on, people are like, "You crazy?". You know, "You never gonna make a living in the United States?" Well, I don't expect to. This is what I love to do. And if you took away my money, took away my house, you know, it's like, just don't take away my pencil and paper. You know, because, it's really healing for me. And like I said, that feels like a way that I can fully make a contribution. So, I think that, I get down sometimes about it, but I think, I kept my passion. I tried to keep my faith up. I had this ring to remind me that it was a commitment, and it's not just, you know, it's not always going to be wonderful and good on top of the world. You have to work at it, in the same way that you work on a relationship. You have to give it a lot of time. You have to give a lot of energy. You can't, just like, send off one story or one play and wait for that theater to, like, call. Every three months, I send out at least five or six pieces. You know, I send out like a batch. I do a mailing. Let's just say, for every three months I do a mailing, to like, plays, I'll send out poems. I'll, just like, spend a week and some money, and energy, and effort going to the post office, packing up these things and then, I forget about it. Keep on doing my business. I work. I just work hard every day all the time. And it's different kinds of things that I'm working on. You know, some days I'm working on, you know, doing readings. I go and support other writers, and do exchanges with other writers. And also make sure that at least once a year, I go away to a colony. Everybody can't take that time off. Sometimes you just have to shut yourself down, you know? I make sure that I give my, again, my relationship with my writing is really sacred, and really special. I started several years ago turning the phone off. And I don't answer the door when I'm working. It's like I'm unavailable. And I'll come out and into the world, because I am so easily distracted, I think it interrupts the work and interrupts the flow of the work. Which is why colonies are so good, because once you are in it, you can stay in it. You know, for days. Sometimes, like, three, four days in a row, all I'll do is write and I'll sleep for a couple hours during the day, or whenever I feel tired and sleepy, but I'll go at it for like twelve hours at a stretch. Then I might not write for a week or two. I'm out in the world being social, you know, doing the business, and then, maybe I'll get another three day stretch. Where I can stay with these characters and stay with the scene until I get it right. And then, you know, it's flowing, it's like, whole. So, I guess that I often, I did get discouraged sometimes but someone told me that for every tenth rejection, there's gonna be a yes. So they get joyous when they get a rejection, because it's only like, "Nine more to go. Eight more to go. Something's gonna happen." And it's true, somebody told me that, and so, when I started every three months sending out this batch of stuff, it's regular. Every three months, I look for contests, grants. Every three months, in one mailing I would get, like, a rejection from something, and get an acceptance to a colony, or I would get a five hundred dollar grant, and somebody would have rejected my story. So it's something you have to continually, like, plant seeds, you know, for something to grow. But then, you have to nurture it.
JAKE-ANN: So, do you recommend that people diversify? I mean, you have diversified. You are diverse writer.
SHAY: Try it. It's a challenge. I love a challenge. And for me, I started out writing poetry, and then I challenged myself to write a short story, that was longer than five pages, because I thought, that was the end, or like, those little vignettes that I started out writing. And then when I finally wrote ten-page short story, I thought, "This is it. I'll never write anything longer than this." Then, I got into the world of playwriting, and I thought, "This is fabulous." You know, sixty, eighty-page play, "Oh my God, I don't think I'll ever write anything as long as that." And then, I thought I'll challenge myself. And also, what happened with theater is that, I did get somewhat discouraged, I must admit, when I'm with theater because of the climate. For very, oh, I'm gonna lose words here, but you know what I'm talking about. I can't, like, find the words right now. But the climate, was not very good for playwrights, for artists, in this country. And I felt very discouraged around theater. And so, I thought I need to keep writing. I have several plays that I want to work on, but I'm not finding the muse to work on them. I challenged myself to write a novel. And actually, I applied for a grant to write fiction, I had not written a novel. I had written two very bad novels that I've not shown to anybody other than like really close friends. And I hope that they forget that I ever showed them.
JAKE-ANN: Really? You had written two other novels?
SHAY: Yeah. Two novels. They were very bad novels.
JAKE-ANN: How long were they? How long did it take you to write those?
SHAY: Over a period of years. I would do things here and there, and poems, and little stories, and I was always working. I read two and three books at a time. I'm like, a little bit of this, a little bit of that, you know.
JAKE-ANN: Do you write the same way? Do you write on different things?
SHAY: Oh yeah. When I was working on the novel that's just out [Soul Kiss], I was working on the Paris novel that was coming out. So, I have seventy-five pages of the Paris novel already. Because when I sent off a draft to my editor for her to look at, instead of, like, just taking a break, because writing is my passion - is my heart. I love writing being in the others worlds. I pick up the Paris novel and come up with scenes. I'm always working on many things. And then, I'd like dabble in the play. So when I feel like I'm coming up to a stop, I pick up something else. When I really can't write, and I feel like I can't write anything, I'll write poetry. Which is like the essence of a thing, and reading poetry, too, really helps my writing. I'm really interested in language, and interested in story as well.
JAKE-ANN: If you had to describe, how you think you've changed as a writer, as a woman, over the years - how would you? What do you think you've noticed about your writing? You know, as you've gone on.
SHAY: I think I pay much more attention to language and form and structure. And I think, playwriting really helped me with that. Before, I would just sort of write whatever came into my head and I would, like, have a story that I heard, for example, in the Big Mama Stories there's this older woman I worked with, and I big mamas like through my life. Older woman, who sort of, make sure you have a hat on when it's raining out, or make sure you have some Vicks salve, you know, on your chest when you have a cold. This woman, she told me this story about the bus. Like, these women got on the bus, they were all these maids, and this one woman had snuff in her mouth and she didn't have her spit cup with her, so she spat out the window into this white woman's face. In like, the forties or the fifties. And they stopped the bus. It was funny when she was telling the story up to the point, you know, she spit in the white woman's face, and I was howling, and then, they stopped bus. And so that was like the seed to that story the "Maid's Bus", I think it's called the "Maid's Bus." And I think, what I sort of notice about my writing is that the more that I've read, and I read a lot of different kinds of European authors, Latin-American authors, I'm just all over the place: mystery, science fiction. And sometimes I read the dictionary. I just go through reading, like, words and definitions. And sometimes, I'll meditate on those words on paper, like, essay. Or like, you know, the color blue, I'll just do a meditation on the color blue in a notebook that I keep. And I think, that what I've noticed is that structure, form, and language have become more important to me. And trying to fuse all these different elements into, like, novel. I love novel writing now, because I have so much space and so much time to, sort of, meditate on characters, on their feelings, on their surroundings, on what color is the sky, what kind of shoes are they wearing? The sound of things. The smell of things. I think I am much more aware of all the senses when I'm writing now. And different genres. And I try to infuse poetry, always, in the work. Because I am so interested in sound and rhythm. Still, and as I work in theater, so in the novel. Because I use a lot of elements from theater in the novel. When I gave my first draft to my editor, the first thing she said was, "You sure are a playwright." She said, "I know you're a playwright. Your dialogue is strong, and you've got a great story here. But what does a room look like? What color is the sky? What are the sounds that she is hearing?". And see, I depend on set designer, sound designer, to do all that. So I have to really adjust to being a novelist. I had to make that transition. I was fortunate to have a great editor, in Julie Graugh at Riverhead, who really worked with me on developing my voice as a novelist. It was like a different kind of collaboration, in the way that I collaborate with the artists, with actors, with directors, in theater. It was a different kind of collaboration, she'd asked me really great questions. What happens next? What does the room look like? So how are you going to get her out of this? How does it end? Because before, I would sort of write along and she worked with me on, like, sort of, writing a synopsis. And, so now, for all of my work I do maps. You know, I write a map. And sometimes, the map changes. And basically, it is basically a synopsis of where I think the story will go. And I don't always take that route, but it helps me to know where I am headed.
JAKE-ANN: What is the map? How is it written?
SHAY: It's written out, like, in narrative form. It's like the essence of a story: the major scenes, and themes in the story.
JAKE-ANN: Almost like a treatment for a script?
SHAY: Exactly. And Daniel Jones, actually, one time I was having a really hard time with a project, and he said, "Write it like a poem." He said, "What are the major beats?" Like, "find sentences, find the beats, and write it like a jazz poem". Write a synopsis. . . I'm not sure if I am making myself clear.
JAKE-ANN: You are. I need to ask you about poetry because, God, first let me ask you this question. How do you deal with, have you ever felt pressured or have you ever questioned your own, who am I to be doing this? And there are so many words in the world, I mean, how do you do it? That's the problem for me.
SHAY: It happens all the time. Just the other day, I walked into a book store. I'm a word junkie. I'm always reading and I love book stores, and I love books, I love books, and I love words. Like I said, I read the dictionary. I used to read the bible as a child, just because, it was one of the, we had very few books in our house. We had several, you know, different kinds of bibles. So I would read just for the sheer joy of words. And I think. . .
JAKE-ANN: Can I ask you a question? Because why? What do words mean to you?
SHAY: Well, see I lose myself in words. I lose myself in story, in the same way, when I pick up a book and I get lost in a really good book. And as, Toni Morrison says, the world falls away. I've been in the book stores and I picked up By The River I sat down and wept, by opening, and reading the first few lines of the book, and suddenly, the book store didn't exist anymore. I fell into the world that the author had created. When I am writing that happens too, and I forget about audience, I forget about reviewers, I forget about the publisher, the editor, my agent. I forget about all those censors, and I fall into this world, and I really, truly let myself go. And I am addicted to that.
JAKE-ANN: So, it's very personal.
SHAY: It's a very personal kind of journey for me. Over fifty-thousand books a year get published. And I go to the book store and I freak out. What makes me think that I have anything very important to say? I think everybody has something to say. I think we all have really unique stories to tell. And I think those who are persistent, who are honest, because often writer's will ask me, "Well how do you know you are a writer? How do you know when to let go? Or how do you know what to write? Or how to write?" And not that I'm fortunate that I don't have people, like family, to sort of, like, censor, or worry about what they are going to say, or what would they think, or will they thinks that me. One of the things that I started doing early on, after Big Mama Stories, was pretty, you know, semi-autobiographical. That I began to separate, I had to separate myself from the character, this is not me. One of things I do, I draw a picture of the character, so that, you know, and I keep it up on the wall, or I cut out a picture of who I think the character looks like. And like, for Mariah, it was like a rock star, actually, a black woman, you know, I cut her picture out, and that was Mariah. It was not me. A lot of these things happen in the book, you know, all these things happened, they just didn't all happen to me. And I had to separate that, this is a work of fiction, this is not my life. And so, that freed me up to be as honest as I could possibly be. And the work has resonance. And the work, I think, soars and strong when you are honest and raw and dig as deep as can go. Not as deep as you think you can go without people, like, being mad at you, or thinking you're strange, or, that film we saw tonight. I mean, I think that was really a brave piece of work to do, to like, put out there. So, I think you just have to be really brave, you have to be really strong, and you have to be honest. And like, walk the censors to the door. Let them out. They have no place in the writing. You know?
JAKE-ANN: Could you tell me about poetry? Because I feel like that's mysterious to me.
SHAY: How do you mean?
JAKE-ANN: Well, it's funny, like I feel, I feel often that I'm not, you know, I tell people all the time about you, "Shay, is a real writer." And I feel like, and even when you are talking, I hear it, I mean, it's your life. And everything that you say, the passion and everything. I wonder with myself, what my, I mean, I have a kind of moments of the experience of being in the flow and I enjoy it when I am there. And maybe as I'm getting, growing I can focus more. It may be my attention span is really short. [Laughter.] But one thing I haven't yet learned to do is really read poetry. And I know now, that it's something that I really have to get back into reading.
SHAY: What do you think you have to read? What do you think is poetry? I go to the library, really no, I don't go to library as much anymore because I don't live near one, but I go to the poetry section in a book store. Mostly like, the used book store near my house, and I just, like, pick things off the shelf and flip through it, and when I see something that moves me, I begin to read. And then sometimes, like, these images will just, like, jump off the page and I'll be thrown into a revelry, and you know, I'll write that line down. And I'll, like, think. I'll sort of meditate on it. And many things, and it's like stories sometimes, will come out of these images. And reading the poems, too, is like, I'll hear these rhythms, and I'll like, develop when I'm writing, I'll think, I'll hear the music. You know, from poetry? And I'll trans. . . not really translate it, but I sort of make my own composition that are both musical and lyrical that's telling a story. So it's like merging these different forms. And like, the other day, Elizabeth Alexander, I just, like, opened up her book and it's like, "Damn. Damn." It's just speaking to me. So, it doesn't mean you have to read like Walt Whitman, or like, some of these dry old, dead tired, you know. Ntozake Shange spoke to me. That's when I woke up. I was like, "This is poetry? I'm down. I'm down." But that was far and few between. That was not what was respected or revered or talked about or you didn't have a whole lot of that. You didn't have a whole lot folks talking like Ntozake. So, I just like wander the aisles. Haiku! Japanese haiku. I just found a nice little corner in the book store and curl up. So I can't say that I have this . . . you know. And I think it's, that's what poetry is about, that mystery, and that essence. And I don't think it is so easy to decipher or take to take apart.
SHAY: You see? It's like going to museum and you are looking at an abstract painting. You get something very different than what I might get from it because of what you bring to it. It's the same with poetry. You hear different things. You see different things than I might see in it.
JAKE-ANN: In your writing, where is your balance in what is the mystery versus the stuff you are going to be very specific about and know to the nth degree? And is there a place where you kind of just say, this is mystery for me?
SHAY: I think I am always trying to make discoveries and always trying. . .
[BREAK IN CONVERSATION. THEN CONTINUING.]
JAKE-ANN: Yeah, the mystery.
SHAY: I want my work, what I want to say is, I definitely wouldn't want my work to be highly philosophical, you know, talking to only a few people. I don't consciously think about that, but that is my voice. It says, you know, tell a good story. That's my, you know, sort of driving, I want to tell a good story, and I want to tell it well.
JAKE-ANN: How do you work with your characters? Like, when you were just talking about the girl who is a rock star? Or any character, how do you think about your characters?
SHAY: Sometimes they come to me. Sometimes they come to me, they are entwined with the story that I want to tell. Basically, as I sit down, I answer questions about, for instance, what kind of physical gestures? What do they look like? Like I said, I be drawing. I keep a notebook. Soul Kiss has its own spiral bound notebook, and I am always taking notes on the character. Or I'll see somebody, that'll like, make a move like one of my characters. Or someone, who's like, sticks their foot, you know, when they are nervous, or twirls their hair, when their nervous. And I take down all these down, these real specific gestures and think about my character, to make them real. Make them believable. Give them a whole entire life. When I get stuck that's what I do. So, I don't know everything about them because I am writing to discover who they are. Sometimes I get to the end of the first chapter, and I'll read through it, and I'll go, "Oh, I don't know, like, what her favorite food is." Or I'll feel stuck and then I'll try to mention her bone structure.
JAKE-ANN: Talk about patience. Do you feel you are a patient person? I mean, with yourself.
SHAY: I'm really impatient. I want things to happen really fast. Sometimes I'm writing and call up my friends and say, "Could you read this now?" You know, because I'll just need a pat on the back, and somebody to tell me I'm going in the right direction. I get impatient with myself sometimes, but, I've learned over time to become more patient, because things just don't happen over night. They take a lot of time. [TAPE OUT] And sometimes they [characters] do things that I wouldn't necessarily have them do if I were like directing them but they take on a life of their own in a way. [TAPE OUT] But I'll go where they lead. I don't know if that makes sense.
JAKE-ANN: Do you know your endings when you start?
SHAY: No. Rarely. I'll have a play, I'll have a character, but I rarely know when I just sit down and start it. But I start it more and more, as I get deeper into the story, sometimes I'll have it all in my head. I have many, many ideas for stories, for poems, for plays, for screenplays, and I have them all in my head. And I don't exactly, exactly know where it ends, I know kinda how I or where I want it to go. I have that road map. Like I said, I always do a little road map even when I begin. Because I have usually been thinking about it for a long time. Like, a scene will come to me and I'll start writing that scene. When I first started this novel, the first three chapters, I thought they were great. I spent months working on them, perfecting them, over and over again. And after the second or third draft, I realized that those first three chapters did not belong in this book. And so, I had to, like, you know, take them out. But it was hard, because I had worked hard, and, you know, they don't have a home yet. I worked hard on it. It was hard to let go. But I've learned to, you know, learned what works and what doesn't for me. Like a learned my language in a way, I learned my voice. So, like, people tell you over and over again, this isn't working, and it just ain't working.
JAKE-ANN: And how did you know over a three year period, at what point did the editor come into it? How did you know when it was finished if you didn't know what your ending was? When did it come to you, "Okay, this is it?"
SHAY: Well, the editor came in, I was in the Brown book store looking through the Writer's Guide To Literary Agents, Publishers, and that kind of thing, and saw that this particular agent had a degree a in Comparative Literature and French Literature, and loved reading, and was also interested in new writers. And so I wrote to her. I sent her what she asked for -- which was the first fifty pages, a letter of interest. So I sent it, and they said, in a week they called me and said, send me the rest. So, I sent it to her and she asked me some really good questions about it. And she asked me really good questions and I said, "I hadn't really thought of that." And, you know, I sort of had what I thought was an ending, and it didn't quite work after she asked me those questions, and I thought, "Ooh, this'll really change things. So I need to do some more work." And then we finally met, after about six months I guess, and she said, sort of, how's it going? And I said, well, you know, I could finish this in another year, like for edits, because I know where the story is going. And she said good. So she was in California. She went to New York, the following week or something, and met with the publisher. And the publisher said, "Do you have anything new?" She said, "Well, I've got this new writer. You know, she's not finished yet, but this is what the story is about." [TAPE OUT] At this point the publisher knows that there is an editor at her house that would be interested in my kind of writing and my work. So Julie Graugh calls me up on the phone and goes, "So, what's the book about? So, do you know how it ends." Because she had read the first two chapters, and a synopsis, and said, "Well, how does it end?" And I said, I even forgot what I said, and I hadn't read the book in awhile, I was just really kind of bluffing. And she said, "Okay", and she hung up the phone, and two days later my agent calls and says they want to make a deal. And so, she said, "They made an offer", and I said, "Well, that's fine. But we haven't sent it out to anybody else?." And then they doubled it. And I was like, "They did what?" And she said, "This is what they want to do it for." So basically, they made a pre-interest bid, so that they would get it, based on fifty pages and a synopsis.
JAKE-ANN: Did you have more than fifty pages?
SHAY: At that time I had about ninety pages maybe. And then we did the contract over the next four or five weeks. They wrote up a contract in which I had a year to finish it.
JAKE-ANN: What is going through your mind during this time?
SHAY: I really have to do something good for it to be worth this much money. I'll tell you that went through my head. I felt a lot of pressure because so much money was involved and I was doing the work for love, for passion. You know, actually when I graduated, I wasn't sure I was going to teach. And I had to sort of succeed by writing a grant to do a novel. And I just had this idea at that time. I hadn't had anything written, I had an idea, before I got the grant in the fall of '93, after graduating in May of '93. I got an $11,000 grant and actually that freed me up so that I only had to work part-time. I worked part-time at Brown Food Services. [TAPE OUT] That money made it so I didn't have to work every day. It was like three days a week, three or four days a week at Brown Food Services. It's like fifteen minutes from my house, so walking to work in the morning I would, like, think of scene that I needed to work on in the book. The father and daughter need to have a fight here. I would, like, think of things and by the time I got to work I had to look things up; I would write it up really quickly. And on the way home, I would think it through some more. And then I got home I would type it up and then work through the night. And in the morning, I would leave some room for work. And so in the morning, I would look over my notes and think. I would have a little note pad and pencil and I would walk to work. It took me about three years, all told. And then, all this other stuff, then I start the publicity. And this whole other part of that business part: the business and marketing.
JAKE-ANN: How do you feel like you're ... is it changing you as a person?
SHAY: I feel like other people are changing around me somewhat. I think that I have a really good support system. I've been waiting for this, like this opportunity, to have a first novel. [TAPE OUT]
JAKE-ANN: What does success mean for you?
SHAY: Success means that I have finished, I have accomplished some goals that I have cut out for myself. I have finished an entire novel. I can pat myself on the back because of that. Not because I've gotten good reviews and not because any person likes it. But because it is getting all this attention, I feel I achieved one of my goals, my writing goals. You know? So no matter what happened with the book, I can move forward feeling good and powerful. You know? No matter what happens. Because in an instance, like I said, one mail I got a star Publisher's Weekly review, okay? In the next mail, I got, you know, Emerge Magazine saying that it bordered on the pornographic.
JAKE-ANN: You didn't expect that from. . .
SHAY: There's going to be the range. There's going to be range and so you have to be sure. You have to be secure in yourself that what you are doing is right. You know what I mean? Not right. Not what you are doing is right but. . .
JAKE-ANN: Do you think five years ago you would've been ready for it?
SHAY: The thing is though, it's been steady for me, though. It's like it's been kind of steady. I can't say that it's been, like, way up here that I've been, you know. In a way, I think some of that has to do with, like, not being in New York. And not having a New York kind of vision. It was more of a, sort of like, regional, kind of, different kinds of attention which, I can say was really good for me. But it just taught me to be steady and [TAPE OUT] at public opinion. Because just as quickly as public opinion would lift you up, it will drop you down. And so you have to be really steady with yourself and with the work. And no matter what, to keep working. Like I said, I'm already a quarter into the next project. I didn't stop sit down and say, "Oh I'm gonna ride on this." As soon as the tour is over, I go right to Yaddo for six weeks to work on the next book.
JAKE-ANN: You've travelled a lot. How do you think travel has. . .
[OFF-TAPE, THEN CONTINUING]
SHAY: . . . No in between, nobody talked about, people would have laughed at me if I started talking about my Native American, European, African-ness and Indian-ness. In our community, you have to like bond together. You may have little fractured groups going on. And so I came to Brown, I met people from all over the world. And it wasn't about, everybody was not my brother, and not my sister, just because their skin [TAPE OUT] I think it did introduce me to different cultures to see the world. Because you live here in New York, too, you're exposed to many different cultures right here. But I think there is nothing like being in another country where you don't speak the language to really check your survival skills.
JAKE-ANN: You've lived, where were you when you were in the Peace Corps? That is fascinating to me because since I was a little girl I dreamed of going into the Peace Corps.
SHAY: Well, I had this idea that I wanted to make a contribution to the world. I came from a family that was. . .
[SIDE ONE FINISHED.]
[SIDE TWO - CONTINUED IN PROGRESS]
JAKE-ANN: Oh really? Well, I'll call her.
SHAY: And also, you can get a press release too, if you need some more information. I think I have on of the interviews actually. I mean the review.
JAKE-ANN: So I am a very young person who thinks maybe I want to be a writer. . .
JAKE-ANN: . . . but I don't know. . . I'm a young black woman and something about this society says to me. . . Let's say, I have a feeling that I can't. . . You know? What would you say. . . How do you go about getting. . . and maybe I don't have anybody telling me I can't. . . You know. . .
[TAPE IN AND OUT]
SHAY: I'd tell them believe you can do it. You know. No one else is going to say, you know. You have to find, like, some inner strength and you have to do it. You can't just talk about it, think about it, you know. "Why can't I do it?" You know, you have to do the work. I think reading is really important, reading, getting the books, basically, writing the books. That is how I started too. Like, writing the books that you want to read. You have to let it drive you, you know. Let nothing and nobody get in your way. Believe in yourself and the work. Don't let anybody tell you that you cannot do it.
JAKE-ANN: You are a very spiritual person. You haven't mentioned spirituality at all, but, does that fall into your life in anyway?
SHAY: Oh certainly, certainly. I have a lot, I think I am a very spiritual person. I believe in God, I mean grew up in the Baptist church, in the Southern Baptist tradition. So, I definitely believe in God and I believe that there is a god who [TAPE OUT] and that the ancestors are watching and with us. And also, I'm always, faith has certainly carried me. Well for me, I have faith in something that is greater than myself, that is outside myself. [TAPE OUT] . . . that grant girl, you know, do not even think about it. You know. They don't give that to Black people. [TAPE OUT] I was bold enough to send some of first stories to the New Yorker. They sent it right back, but I sent it to other places. You know, I didn't let a no stop me. I knocked on every door. When I decided I wanted to write a play just because I had never written one didn't stop me. I thought, "Well, I'll invent something new."
JAKE-ANN: And it's funny, because you're very, to meet you, you are very kind of, you seem very centered. . . but almost demure, you know. You seem very. . .it's kind of great, it's kind of interesting to hear this, in a way, it's a really positive thing. . . in a way, it's real basic, it's persistence, and it's what you are saying, you know. You might be the type of person that people would ___________ to know you from a distance as to meet you. Because you're so kind of calm. [TAPE OUT] You might not seem like the kind of person who is so aggressive and knocking down those doors but I can hear, like, as you talk, that's there's just this part of you. . .
SHAY: . . . only limited by your imagination. [TAPE OUT] I was just bold, like, sending my play. I came back with this cut and pasted job and I thought I had a play. I was bold enough to go to a theater and say, "I have this play that I want y'all to work on." And it's also like luck played a really big part, I think. [TAPE OUT] . . . the conference, like, I think it was at the Kennedy Center, __________ she pressed twenty dollars into my hand, like a big mama. She wanted to make sure I had something to eat. [TAPE OUT] . . . and it's part of my responsibility to pass it on.
JAKE-ANN: Is there anything you would like to talk about? That I haven't asked.
SHAY: No, no, you took care of. . .
SHAY: Like my mantra, in one of my things, I say, my motto is . . . [TAPE OUT]
JAKE-ANN: That's very good.
SHAY: My motto, I got to stay in the present.
SHAY: You know? And look out for yourself. . . [TAPE OUT] I just feel like I am on top of the world as long as I can.
JAKE-ANN: I'm so proud of you. You are too fierce, girl.
SHAY: Thank you, baby.
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