You think finding the love of your life is hard? Try keeping her. Keith Jackson is a globe-trotting guitarist in great demand and with legions of ladies along the line. When he crosses paths with Lesli—a woman who wondrously stops his life dead in its tracks—it looks as if a happily-ever-after will be in the cards for both of them. Or will it?
Minnesota novelist, essayist and playwright Dwight Hobbes offers a sneak peek into his new release, Black & Single Blues, and shares thoughts on his journey as a savvy wordsmith.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: With a long list of credits to your name in Essence, Reader’s Digest, The Washington Post, The San Diego-Union Tribune, guest appearances on public radio and television, and theatrical expertise at The Loft and The Playwrights Center, it seems a natural segue to your latest passion for the world of book publishing. Such success, however, never happens overnight. What was your own journey like insofar as getting the stories in your head in front of a paying readership?
A: Tough. Essence took about two years to buy a short story and, aside from placing a play, “You Can’t Always Sometimes Never Tell” in a reasonably successful anthology, Center Stage, it was all queries and rejection slips from 1980 to 1992. Went through a marriage to a lovely, very disillusioned young lady. Frank Sinatra sang that if you can make it in New York you can make it anywhere. Doesn’t necessarily mean you can make it in New York, where the assistant to the editor probably has an assistant. The Twin Cities is a much smaller, very different world. Being rejected wasn’t nearly as coldly impersonal and you had a significantly greater chance of catching on. At the magazines, newspapers. Even book publishers. Something I Said (collected essays on domestic abuse, rape, race and more) I was able to pitch to Papyrus Publishing by calling Anura Si-Asar and having coffee. Made a magazine sale a year after I got here, then newspapers and haven’t stopped since. It’s been fat, sometimes lean but it’s steady. Never gone without some kind of check whether it’s big or small.
Q: Who are some of the authors you admired from adolescence and into adulthood, and what insights did you glean from them in shaping your own successful career?
A: Well, I cut my teeth on James Baldwin and Chester Himes as a teenager. Later, John A. Williams, Ann Petry, Zora Neal Hurston. Insights? I’ve never tackled the same subjects as any of them but did thoroughly digest their styles. Doubted myself for that until I saw that Baldwin, one of my greatest heroes, parroted Carson McCullers. Literally. After ages, I actually arrived at my own voice but even the most original pen is going to echo some influence.
Q: How did you feel the first time your saw your name in print? Was it a surprise or an expectation?
A: The greatest surprise was that Essence contract. It’s like, “What do they mean by ‘Yes.’?” It was staring me in the face and I still couldn’t believe it. Not only was I going to be in a national magazine but the only black one that ran fiction. Negro Digest had died years before and you have to understand, it was decades before opportunities got better. I just sat there, making myself believe it was real.
Q: What was the inspiration behind Black & Single Blues?
A: The story in Essence. Which had been an attempt at an essay, really, debunking true love as a pleasant fantasy. Wound up trying it as fiction and that worked. It was still cynical until the weekly, Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, a few years ago, needed a romance to serialize. In the process, it became hopeful because, frankly, I welcomed a break from coming up with caustic commentary week in, week out and wanted to do something on the lighter side. Shoot-from-the-hip sardonic but good-natured, put a smile-on-your-face fun.
Q: With whom will its storyline most strongly resonate?
A: I’ve said, you don’t have to be black, single or have to the blues to enjoy it, but, yeah, it resonates best with black women. Those who, for instance, like Lifetime but want to see someone who looks like them and has a good profession. Lesli, the female lead, is a head librarian, what you could call a sexy nerd. She’s self-possessed, intelligently articulate and, of course, hot as a sunburn. Keith, the male lead, is an easy-going, fun-loving guitarist who comes across her and is just blindsided by this fascinating woman. It affords readers a seldom seen look into the heart and mind of a man in love.
Q: If Hollywood came calling, who would comprise your dream cast for this book?
A: I suppose Paula Patton. And if there’s a youngish Denzel floating around out there somewhere.
Q: Are you a plotter or a pantser? And why does this approach work well for you?
A: Had to look pantser up. No, if I don’t know where my story’s going to go, I’ll be lucky to ever get there. Before writing the first word, I need to decide how things will end. How they begin. In-between, sure, that’s a free-for-all, nudging here and there, letting the characters – you have to create them solidly enough – allowing their behavior to carry the action.
Q: What was the most challenging aspect of developing the plot and characters?
A: I have to care about the people in order to convincingly create them. Know them inside and out. Well enough to give them each spontaneous behavior and distinct dialogue. The plot, the story has to be something readers or an audience finds an interesting experience. Something they’ll feel.
Q: Do you allow anyone to read your works-in-progress or do you make them wait until after you have typed THE END?
A: Nope. Nobody reads nothin’ ‘til it’s done.
Q: How did you go about finding the right publisher for your work and what was the takeaway from that experience?
A: With Essence where else was I going to go? They owned the market. The plays, you just keep knocking on doors until one opens. Of course, you don’t send dramas to a shop that specializes in comedy. You open up the old trusty Writers Market and see who’s looking for what. Black & Single Blues lucked out. I knew Shelley from reviewing her novels, which is how we originally came across on another. She doesn’t even do romantic fiction but asked to look at it, anyway. And liked it.
Q: Where do you see the publishing industry going in the next 10-20 years?
A: With all the advent of electronic this and that, e-books, I-Pads, what have you, God alone knows. I do have a sneaking suspicion that just like even the biggest big chains, let alone small, independent stores that have gone out of business, have run into serious trouble selling something you can hold in your hand and turn the pages of, it’s conceivable actual books could become obsolete. Not a good thing
Q: Why do you write?
A: It’s a cliché but it’s true. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly. When it’s something to which you’re naturally suited you don’t, to coin another corny phrase, choose it. It chooses you.
Q: What would readers be the most surprised to learn about you?
A: That I started out reading comic books and that’s how I got hooked on books. And, these days, I thoroughly enjoy, am engrossed in Warriors. A children’s book series about clans of kitty cats adventuring in the wild.
Q: What are your best tips for aspiring writers in terms of (1) being an original voice, (2) not giving up, and (3) dealing with rejection?
A: Being original ironically calls for first finding a style you admire. You learn to speak by hearing someone else’s voice. From childhood, y’ know? Eventually your own way of walking and talking through a story will develop. Not giving up? What can I say, you have to refuse to lose. Have the attitude that if you ever fail, you’ll never know it because you’ll have died trying. Rejection is easier to deal with in love and life than it is in writing and dealing with it in love and life is plenty tough. With writing, you can get turned down because you don’t have the chops or simply because your material isn’t what they’re buying. And never know which reason it was. Just that you got turned down. It can be, and my ex-wife told me this, entirely arbitrary. Which is the God’s honest truth. I found out, a couple years after the Essence sale, that it happened because Marcia Ann Guillespie peeked at the editor’s desk, saw it sitting in the rejection pile and overruled her. Had she been looking left instead of right as she went past, that would’ve been that. Ultimately, you have to develop a thick skin. It helps keep your morale up to always have something out there on somebody’s desk. That way, you’re always giving yourself a chance.
Q: What’s next on your plate?
A: Working on two manuscripts before I get to the three waiting behind them. A Black Life On The Great White Way, memoir of ushering 20 years at Historic Theater Group/Hennepin Theatre Trust, a company that brings Broadway seasons to Minneapolis. The book is sort of a Backstairs at the White House only instead of historic drama, you get a nonetheless engaging tale of some entertaining trials and tribulations. And Ella Stanley, a play based on Effa Manley, the Negro Baseball Leagues’ only female owner who, in the late 40’s, refused to sit down somewhere, shut up, be a pretty face and let men handle things. She was a savvy businesswoman and community crusader way ahead of her time. Who, however, like the men, lost her livelihood when Branch Rickey and, after him, the rest of Major League Baseball, raided black clubs for talent like Jackie Robinson. That’s social progress for you.
Q: Where can readers learn more about you?
A: Www.dwighthobbes.weebly.com. That’s about it. Marcie Rendon, a former student, successful writer and good friend, tried to do a bio on Wikipedia but found the rules and regulations too tricky. Of course, there’s always Facebook.