This conversation with novelist, playwright and Oprah-fave Pearl Cleage originally ran on my blog The Pajama Gardener, where I post about writing and gardening.
Pearl's latest book is Just Wanna Testify.
Carleen Brice: You started out writing plays, correct? What led you to the theater?
Pearl Cleage: i have always loved the theatre. my mother and my father used to take us when i was growing up in detroit. we saw everything, from ossie davis and ruby dee in "purlie victorious" to dame judith anderson in "agamemnon" to rudolph nureyev with the royal ballet to jose greco and his passionate flamenco dancers to an updated version of shakespeare's "taming of the shrew" where they drove real motorcycles on the stage to alvin ailey's "revelations." i loved it all! i loved the movies, too, but the immediacy of live theatre was always so exciting. anything could happen! so i started writing short plays when i was really little.
i was one of those kids who always put together a chrsitmas play or a thanksgiving play that everybody had to watch after they've eaten that huge holiday meal and they are powerless to move. i'd recruit my cousins and my big sister and we'd do the christmas story or the pilgrims landing at plymouth rock. i doubt that we were very good, but we always got an enthusiastic response from our captive audience, and i was hooked! i acted and wrote plays all through school, but when i got to college, i stopped acting and concentrated on writing. i have written thirteen plays and i'm really happy to say they have all been professionally produced.
"since i had never written a novel, i was intimidated by the form. i didn't know where to start, how to proceed, how to wrap things up. as a playwright, i had been working to develop my craft for years. now here i was, facing something totally new. i took a deep breath, and calling on the spirits of alice walker and toni morrison to help me, i plunged in. this, of course, was a mistake."
CB: How is writing a novel different than writing a play? Do you have a different process?
PC: i never intended to write novels! i had been happily writing my plays and then i had an idea for a story that would not fit on the stage. it was too long, there were too many characters, too many settings, too much internal dialogue. so after weeks of trying to change it enough to make it fit the stage, i gave up and decided i'd try to write it as a novel instead. since i had never written a novel, i was intimidated by the form. i didn't know where to start, how to proceed, how to wrap things up. as a playwright, i had been working to develop my craft for years. now here i was, facing something totally new. i took a deep breath, and calling on the spirits of alice walker and toni morrison to help me, i plunged in.
this, of course, was a mistake. anytime you try to conjure up great writers to work on your book with you, there is bound to be some confusion. for me, it was trying to write third person like they do. i was used to writing dialogue, not description. when you write a play, you say: "it is a sunday afternoon on the sidewalk outside of a harlem brownstone. the year is 1930." then the set designer does the research and creates a set that looks like that harlem sidewalk. the costumer designer creates authentic period costumes, the lighting designer makes it look like a sunny city afternoon, and the actors bring their charisma and skill to making the characters come alive. now, as a novelist, i had to do all that myself, in addition to creating characters and making them walk, talk and move through their story.
i was overwhelmed and after a few months, i was floundering around with two hundred pages that i hated. i was trying so hard to be a serious novelist that i wasn't having any fun and reading my pages, i knew the reader wouldn't have any fun either. so i took a bold step. i said a mental apology to alice and toni, threw away all those pages and started again, but this time i was writing first person. it worked like a charm. as a playwright, i'm used to letting the characters speak. once i started writing in the main character's voice, the book came alive. ava johnson had a story to tell and all i had to do was get out of the way and let her tell it. i had a ball. the book turned out to be what looks like crazy on an ordinary day, and i've been writing novels ever since.
"the women in my books work with young people, support refugees, help new mothers, employ the homeless, grow peace gardens and participate in anti-war demonstrations. they also find time to fall in love, have babies, raise families, go to the beach, fly kites and laugh with their friends. i never thought you had to give up romance to be a revolutionary!"
CB: Are you still writing plays? What about screenplays for any of your books?
PC: i still write plays. i just wrote one last year called "a song for coretta." it takes place in atlanta as five women wait in line to go and pay their respects to mrs. coretta king who lay in state at ebeneezer baptist church. when i saw the television coverage, i was very moved by the picture of all those folks, standing in the rain at midnight, waiting to say good by to someone they admired and respected so much. the play was done at spelman college, where i was teaching at the time, and then at seven stages theatre. we had a great cast and a wonderful director in crystal dickinson. we sold out every show! the play is currently going into production in several other cities. "a song for coretta" was the first play i had written in ten years and it felt good to be working in theatre again. i am thinking about another play already!
as far as screenplays are concerned, my husband, zaron burnett, who is also a writer, is working with me on screenplays of several of my books. i am curious to see how they will translate. people are always casting the movies for me, especially blue hamilton! of course, denzel washington in blue contacts is always the first one they mention!
CB: Your books always include messages about social justice and just being good to one another. Is that a conscious plan on your part when you start writing?
PC: i am a true child of the sixties so i'm always trying to make the world a better place! i am convinced that if every person would just do their part, we could solve any problems we have, worldwide! i grew up in a very politically conscious and politically active family and i'm sure that's part of why the people in my books are always so deeply rooted in their community. the southwest atlanta neighborhood i'm writing about has been my home for thirty years so i am acutely aware of our problems, but i am also aware of what a vibrant place it is. i hope the books encourage people to look around at their own communities and get involved in something to make it better. the women in my books work with young people, support refugees, help new mothers, employ the homeless, grow peace gardens and participate in anti-war demonstrations. they also find time to fall in love, have babies, raise families, go to the beach, fly kites and laugh with their friends. i never thought you had to give up romance to be a revolutionary!
CB: It’s been a while since I’ve been to Atlanta. Is the West End you describe in your latest books really the way you describe it: well-kept with all-night businesses and men who tips their hats to ladies and women who feel safe walking at night? Or is this an urban African American neighborhood as you’d like to see it?
PC: i wish i could say that west end is exactly as i describe it, but we're not there yet. one of the things i'm always trying to do in my books is to create the kind of neighborhood i want to live in. i want to be able to walk at midnight, fearlessly. i want to be able to sit on my front porch and not hear gun fire and i sure want to have some men around who tip their hats and know how to say "good morning!" i want to eat fresh vegetables from the bounty of community gardens, so, i try to paint those pictures. i try to make readers remember how it feels to be safe and happy and loved and free. if we can see it, we can be it! (i told you i was a sixties child!)
"nobody's going to give you permission to write. they're always going to have other things for you to do. if you want to write, you better start writing."
PC: my father gave me some wonderful advice when i was working full time and raising my daughter and keeping up an active social life. i was spending my time doing everything but writing and, of course, i was whining about it. my father listened to me for about fifteen minutes and then he said, "nobody's going to give you permission to write. they're always going to have other things for you to do. if you want to write, you better start writing." my feelings were hurt because i was looking for some sympathy, but he was right. nobody is going to give anybody permission to write. if you want to do it, it is up to you to make a way to do it. the best book about the writing process that i've come across is anne lamott's bird by bird. it's widely available in paperback and it's got lots of good advice and laugh out loud stories about the craziness that all writers think is theirs alone, but which is really just part of the process.
CB: What changes have you noticed in publishing since your first novel, What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, which was an Oprah Book Club pick?
PC: i think the biggest difference i've noticed in publishing is that there is a lot more emphasis on business and a lot less emphasis on the artistic development of the authors. publishers are struggling to find a way to make books commercially viable in an age when people are getting so much of their information from electronic sources. i think writers feel this pressure, too, and sometimes it gets in the way. the craft of writing doesn't have anything to do with the business of best sellers. when the two get confused, nothing good can come of it.
Thanks Pearl for your time!