Bernice L. McFadden’s name is one that has floated around my literary atmosphere for as long as I can remember. Before I became a member of the Harlem Writers Guild and long before I became the Guild’s Director of communications, I had heard about Ms. McFadden.
“Oh, have your read…?
“That Bernice really has a way with…
And although the wonders of Ms. McFadden’s skills have sweetened the literary air for almost two decades, I have to confess, I was late to take up one of her books. Another confession…I initially liked Loving Donovan but didn’t love it. Until a little later. The same with her last, critically acclaimed work The Book of Harlan.
After enjoying a spirited panel celebrating the inestimable John Oliver Killens, featuring Ms. McFadden and other admirers, I happily purchased an autographed copy of The Book of Harlan at the Guild co-sponsored event held at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn in 2016.
I dove into BH a few weeks later and initially, as with Loving Donovan, I was curious but not captivated, but then ten pages in…fifteen pages in…I caught myself thinking of this passage while working out and that sentence while talking to a friend and then suddenly it was love. Devouring the life of Harlan Elliot, his family and friends, spanning jazz, WWI, and the hopefuls striving for the sweet milk of a curdling American Dream, I found myself in the state every writer wants their reader to be in battling between staying up past bedtime because you just have to see what happens next and putting the book down because you can’t bear to have it end.
Bernice L. McFadden is a slow burn writer. It takes a few strikes of the flint before she ignites you, but once you’re on fire the flame is not easily extinguished. Hence the reason I often catch myself tweeting her my thoughts on the Book of Harlan adjoining Kindle Unlimited to get a copy of Keeper of Keys. Her research is deep, her research hand deft, her characters heartbreaking and beautiful. She is now among the writers I pick up the minute a book is released, as I did with her latest Praise Song for the Butterflies, and which is why I wanted to feature her in this blog. She is the first author to appear on the Harlow Ophelia Jackson Mystery Blog, and although she won’t be the last, she is setting the bar very high.
Name: Bernice L. McFadden
Occupation: Writer/Professional Black Woman
When did you start writing? I started writing at the age of nine. I published my first novel SUGAR in 2000.
A Historical Love
Why historical fiction? I love, love history!
Favorite historical era? Roaring Twenties
Best/most interesting thing you’ve discovered while researching? I was surprised to learn that NativeAmericans were sent to Barbados as slaves.
Most disturbing historical thing you’ve discovered about women, African Americans, or family members during your research? Between 1880 and 1920 nearly 200 Black women were lynched – and we rarely hear their stories. Which Is why I included MaryTurner in my 2010 novel: Glorious.
Favorite work of historical fiction? Beloved.
Best/ worst thing about writing historical fiction? The best thing about historical fiction is the research.
A Literary Life
Favorite writer? Aaah, I don’t have just one – but I will say that Toni Morrison is at the top of that list.
Last book you read? Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
If you weren’t a writer what would you be? Crazy.
Some people feel like a “real” writer when they first publish or get an agent. When did you feel like a “real” writer? When my creative writing professor read my work and told me that one day, I would be a published author.
How do you navigate the delicate tightrope of using real people in your work—friends and historical? If the person is alive – I ask permission to use their story. If the person is deceased, depending on the scene, I may change the name to protect the innocent.
Proudest writing moment? When Toni Morrison sent a handwritten letter to my editor praising my novel: The Warmest December
When do you start on the next book, before or after completing the current one? I start thinking about the next book when I’m in the middle of writing the current book. But I don’t start writing the next book until the current book is published.
Can you read your work after it’s published and not just the book tour excerpt? Recently, I’ve started listening to my books on audible. Sometimes it’s easy — other times, I find that I am over critical of my writing.
How much weight do you give to book jacket design? Are you a cover buyer or a first sentence buyer? I’m drawn in by titles – then opening lines – then covers.
Outline or free form? Free form!
How many drafts? Oh, that depends on the novel. I’ve written as few as three drafts and as many as twelve or thirteen.
When do you know when to stop researching? When I feel like I’mgoing overboard.
When do you know when to stop editing? I never stop editing. Even when the book is published, I can still go back and find things to tweak.
Congratulations on the new book! I’m so excited to read it! Can you give us a little peek into the process of writing your latest, and I’m sure to be greatest, work? What was the inspiration? How long did it take you to write Praise Song for the Butterflies? I was inspired to write Praise Song after visiting Ghana back in 2007. Two women who accompanied me that trip shared their experience of visiting a rehabilitation camp for former Trokosi women and encouraged me to consider writing a novel about it. I found little information on the topic but used what I did find to construct a story that I hoped would shed some light on the tradition and the women who survived it.
Greatest difference between your first book and your latest? Praise Song for the Butterflies is a contemporary story that is partially based in Africa. It’s also a female-driven story – very different from The Book of Harlan.
In an industry terrified of the unknown, the unproven, how do you find the bravery to write stories that the market swears no one wants? And what’s your advice to other writers on how to perform this magic trick? The ruling class has always told Black people what/who Black people should read and listen to. Luckily, we have our own minds and hearts and can make decisions based on the preferences we’ve created for ourselves and not the ones created for us. This is why I have an audience.
If believing in yourself, writing your truth and continuing to follow your dream – even in the wake of rejection – is a magic trick — well then keep your wand polished and continue to Abracadabra until you pull the rabbit out of the top hat!
Wow, what a pleasure to highlight such a wonderful writer and person. I hope you enjoyed this peek into the magical world of Bernice L. McFadden! I know I did.