Saturday, December 20, 2008
My name is Tananarive Due, and I am addicted to bedtime stories.
I have grown so accustomed to listening to audio books as I go to sleep at night that it’s now very hard for me to sleep without the steady burr of a voice in my ear. Common sense tells me it’s a bad habit, like leaving the TV on all night, and yet I can’t take off my headphones.
When I was preparing a lecture on Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred last year and couldn’t bring myself to open her book—her loss was still too raw—I found that I could listen to the audio book instead. The storyteller gave me a bridge back to Octavia.
Now, it has become a full-fledged dependency. I just finished listening to the unabridged version of my novel Joplin’s Ghost. Barack Obama’s self-recorded version of Dreams From my Father, which I listened to during the primaries, was a revelation.
Fiction is my favorite, but college-level lectures make great bedtime stories too. (I listened to several great theology courses from The Teaching Company while I was researching Blood Colony.)
Rewinding is a constant fact of life—after all, I’m bound to lose my place when I fall asleep, and sometimes I’ve found myself listening to the same 10-minute patch night after night because I can’t stay awake longer—but that seems a small price to pay.
Now, my habit has followed me to my car, where I hook up my iPod, tape recorder or CD player through the car’s sound system. Or the supermarket, where I listen while I shop. Or in the kitchen while I’m cooking. I now officially spend more time listening to audio books than I do actually reading.
At Recorded Books, there are also audio versions of My Soul to Keep, The Living Blood, The Good House (which I also recently listened to while revising my screenplay version) and Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights. Tantor Media also released an audio version of Casanegra.
Wish I could tell you that my audio books would make great stocking stuffers, but the Recorded Books versions are expensive—more designed for libraries than purchase: Joplin’s Ghost, for example, is listed at between $61.75 to $113.75 on the Recorded Books website. But they do have a weekly rental rate for about the cost of a hardcover novel.
I loved actress Lizan Mitchell’s performance of Joplin’s Ghost (2005) for Recorded Books. I’m revisiting that novel because I’m ready to start brainstorming on a screenplay adaptation, so I got over my shyness about my own prose long enough to listen to the story.
Lucky me! I had forgotten enough that I was able to listen as if someone else had written the book. And while I couldn’t help making silent edits in my head, I never outright winced. I’ll just be honest: I was captivated. It was scarier than I remembered, and I enjoyed the love stories in both of the novel’s timelines. There were also strains of Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” at the breaks, adding a new dimension. What fun!
Although My Soul to Keep and The Good House are both in film development at Fox Searchlight, voice actors are my only taste of how an outside artist would interpret my work thus far. In fact, with Lizan Mitchell’s performance fresh in my head, I did a much more convincing rendering of a scene between Scott Joplin and a country conjurer when I read from Joplin’s Ghost at Antioch University Los Angeles this week.
If you haven’t read Joplin’s Ghost, here’s the plot: An R&B singer at a crossroads in her career encounters the ghost of ragtime composer Scott Joplin at the Scott Joplin House in St. Louis—and he follows her. I came up with the idea after meeting the site’s former curator, who has since passed away…and he told me he had seen a ghost in Scott Joplin’s parlor.
Phoenix, my singer, is at a crossroads because she’s trying to record conventionally “black” commercial music instead of the music she hears in her head. And Joplin himself, who died in 1917 after debilitating syphilis and heartbreak because he wasn’t taken seriously as an opera composer, also struggled with the constant tug-of-war between art and commerce.
I wrote Joplin’s Ghost because of my own balancing act as a full-time writer—my writing has to sell, but I also want to write what’s in my heart. That is a battle that is becoming more pronounced for writers as tough times descend on the publishing industry.
I have also been saddened, over the years, to see the decline of instrumental music among black artists, when previous generations of black artists pioneered ragtime, jazz, funk and rock and roll. (I remember the days in elementary school when the music teacher rolled a cart from classroom to classroom so that students could choose the instrument they wanted to play in the school band. Those days, sadly, are long gone in most schools…)
The audio book brought Joplin’s Ghost to life, just as all audio good audio books do.
But just as when we turn the last pages of a book we have carried with us everywhere for days, weeks or months, there is a sense of loss when the story is over. The characters vanish. The world of the book disappears.
And I can’t let a night go by before I have chosen another.
This time, I have Stephen King’s short story collection, Just After Sunset: Stories. I’m a Stephen King fan from way back--and, like King, I think novelists should also keep their short fiction skills sharp. I want to publish a collection of short stories myself, so I’m eager to see where King will go.
Am I worried about having Stephen King’s stories romping in my head as I try to go to sleep at night? Maybe a little. But I prefer a storyteller’s fancies to the whispers about real life’s sorrows past and future that sometimes burrow into my head when I try to sleep at night.
Now...excuse me while I put on my headphones.
Wish me sweet dreams.
It’s a time of great joy in many of my circles, but also great uncertainty…so my thoughts and prayers are with you during this holiday season and throughout 2009!
Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa and Happy Holidays, everyone!
A CALL FOR DONATIONS FROM UP SOUTH IN N.Y.
This is an announcement my editor, Malaika Adero, sent me in conjunction with a program being planned in my honor in New York this March. I promised I would pass it along:
We Need Your Support….
Join Up South, Inc.
in partnership with Medgar Evers Center for Black Literature
as we celebrate
One of America’s finest contemporary authors of fiction and nonfiction
On Sunday, March 29th, 2009
In New York City
(venue to be announced by February 1st, 2009)
Tananarive Due, Steven Barnes, and other special guests will read excerpts from her award-winning and bestselling fiction, participate in a discussion with the audience of her extraordinary career and life as a writer. A reception will follow the performances.
Please make a contribution today: $25 or more will secure you a seat in the audience and an Up South International Book Festival t-shirt or tote bag. Go to www.upsouth.org and write firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Please send checks or money orders payable to:
Up South, Inc.
310 Convent Avenue, Suite 2A,
New York, NY 10031.
Your contribution allows us to present this and other extraordinary writers, artists, thinkers—especially book authors.
Up South, Inc. is the producer of the annual Up South International Book Festival, held in New York City in the Fall.
We are a nonprofit organization, 501 (c) 3, accepting tax deductible contributions.
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
AT 3 p.m. this Saturday (Dec. 6), I will appear with my husband, Steven Barnes, and Blair Underwood at Eso Won Books in Los Angeles as we sign copies of our new steamy mystery collaboration, In the Night of the Heat. The store is at 4331 Degnan Blvd.
Blair, Steve and I appeared at Eso Won last fall, and it had the feel of a community event: a full house, actress CCH Pounder and even a politician or two. And if you’ve never had the chance to meet Blair—or, heck, even if you have—it’s a great chance to make your friends jealous. (For video clips and an excerpt from our second Tennyson Hardwick novel, see the entries below.)
This is the only joint signing scheduled for In the Night of the Heat, which makes it special. The store will also have copies of Blood Colony (my African Immortals novel) and The Ancestors, the book of ghost novellas I did with Brandon Massey and L.A. Banks. But this event is exciting for other reasons, too.
Those of you who remember the glory days for your favorite black authors may have noticed that publishers don’t tour the way they used to—-and so I do signings less frequently. Family life also has a little to do with that-—with a husband and a 4-1/2-year-old at home, hitting the road has less allure than it once did.
But it’s not your imagination: Black publishing is changing. Publishing is changing, PERIOD. I just got an email from Zane on the subject while composing this blog. One publisher recently caused an industry-wide stir by announcing that it has asked its editors not to acquire new books right now. And with less disposable income in the hands of many Americans, authors and bookstores are struggling.
Eso Won is no exception. Owners James Fugate and Tom Hamilton were surprised by a marked decrease in book sales when they left La Brea and moved into Leimert Park more than two years ago. At this time last year, there was real fear that the store would be closing down.
So far, they are hanging in there. But how’s business?
“Slow,” says Fugate. “Black books are just not doing well in general.”
There are a lot of factors, perhaps: A bad economy. Internet book sales. Competition with chains. Fewer book tours to draw in the crowds.
But Fugate also says that he believes that in recent years, more of the books are lacking in originality and story. He wonders if some black readers may feel squeezed out by shifts in the marketplace.
The one bright spot: Barack Obama. For about a week after the election, buyers were flocking to his Barack Obama shelves. “The Obama stuff is helping quite a bit,” he says.
Eso Won is special to me, and it’s a Los Angeles institution. When I appeared at the store with my mother, Patricia Stephens Due, to sign copies of Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights, I looked up and saw Angela Bassett sitting out in the audience! Long before Blair became my co-author, I always looked forward to seeing him at my signings at Eso Won too. The store has hosted everyone from Bill Cosby to Barack Obama to Octavia E. Butler to Walter Mosley, and the list goes on…
And I’ll be there Saturday. Leimert Park is a funky little area, worth the visit. For more information or to pre-order a book to be signed, call Eso Won at 323-290-1048.
Even if you can’t make it Saturday, don’t forget about Eso Won this holiday season. Or the bookstores in your own neighborhood.
Trust me, they’re struggling.
Barack can’t do it alone.
ABC is saying it won’t renew the series “Dirty Sexy Money,” which co-stars Blair, Peter Krause, William Baldwin, Donald Sutherland and Lucy Liu. Blair’s publicist assures me that all is not yet lost, so email ABC.com, click on CONTACT US, and tell the network that you can’t live without “Dirty Sexy Money.”
Spread the word. It helps. Really.