[Interview] Bettye Griffin

Bettye Griffin has written over 13 romances and contemporary women's fiction that feature strong African American characters.

Her books include At Long Last Love (1998); A Love of Her Own (1999); Prelude to a Kiss (2001); Straight to the Heart (2004); The People Next Door (2005) as well as A Love for All Seasons and If These Walls Could Talk which will be appearing in May and June of this year, respectively.

Since fall 2006, she has been writing Chewing the Fat with Bettye, a blog where she posts regular commentaries on current issues and events.

In a recent interview, Bettye Griffin spoke about her writing.

What are the biggest challenges that you face? And, how do you deal with them?

Trying to come up with fresh ideas is a challenge, because I’d prefer not to write anything that’s been done a hundred times before!

I keep on plugging at it until I come up with what I want. Just like Thomas Edison with the electric light and Alexander Graham Bell with the telephone. Except I don’t work in a laboratory, and what I’m doing isn’t going to change the world.

Inspiration is everywhere, so I stay on the alert, listening to those human-interest stories on the news and in women’s magazines, and others. I have a couple of special sources I use in particular, but that’s a secret I will carry with me to my urn. Gotta protect my sources, as they say in the news biz.

What are you working on at present?

The working title (the publisher’s marketing department may choose to change it) is The First Fifty Years. It’s about four friends from childhood turning 50, and the life-altering events for each that stem from a tenants’ reunion of the Chicago public housing project where they grew up.

It is due to my publisher, Dafina Books, by July 1st and will be published sometime in 2008.

After The First Fifty Years I will probably write another romance. I’ve got a number of story outlines completed. I’m also working on the plot-line for a combined sequel to The People Next Door and Nothing but Trouble, because so many readers have asked for one. I can’t make any promises about when it’ll be ready -- the process from idea to completed plot to proposal to publication can take quite a while.

Which aspects of the work that you put into The First Fifty Years did you find most difficult?

All that research. I’m not a Chicago native; I just moved up here less than a year ago, and even now I don’t live inside Cook County. It’s amazing how much you don’t know about a place when you try to use it as a setting for a book.

Which did you enjoy most?

Just letting the words flow from my brain to the computer screen, especially where the characters’ emotions are concerned.

What sets the book apart from the other things you have written? And, in what way is it similar to the others?

It’s the most ambitious novel I’ve ever written. I’ve got a bunch of folks out there doing wrong, and I’m trying to make them sympathetic.

It's similar to the others in that it features an ensemble, which all of my mainstream novels have. (Think of those ensemble dramas on TV, like Gray's Anatomy.) I find that I like writing about numerous people. I did an extended family plus multiple neighbors in The People Next Door, and three families in my upcoming If These Walls Could Talk.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

When I get letters from readers telling me the profound effect one of my books had on their life.

For example, one of my early romances, A Love of Her Own (1999) addressed the topic of infertility. I heard from many women with this problem telling me how the book gave them hope, not of having a baby, but of finding a man who will love them in spite of not being able to give them children.

In my book Love Affair (2001), which addressed the hospitality industry, I had a dozen hospitality majors ask me to help them get jobs at a real-life service, but of course that’s more of an example of seizing a possible connection than life-changing. (They recognized from the book that I knew what I was talking about and that I must have worked for a hospitality consultant service at one time, which I did.)

Do you write everyday?

I try to compose a minimum of 1,000 words a day, seven days a week. Most days I’m successful am exceed that.

As a writer, what would you say are your main concerns ?

To tell a good story.

A good story is different things to different people. The general consensus is that characters have to grow and change, but I don’t necessarily agree with that. I’ve read several continuing stories that have been top sellers where the characters didn’t learn a damned thing from book to book, just kept on doing the same bad behavior, and the readers love it. So, I’ll say that a good story is one that the individual readers enjoy. As far as what the reading public wants, now, that’s the million-dollar question.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

When I was six years old and in the first grade. The illustrated Dick and Jane readers didn’t have a single character who looked like me. They were all blond and blue-eyed.

How did this make you feel?

Pissed off, or the six-year-old equivalent of it.

And when you decided to become a published author, why did you cho0se to write romances?

I started writing romance not because I always dreamed of becoming a romance writer (I didn’t) but because that was the easiest niche to get into. This was in the mid-to-late 1990s, when only a few authors were writing contemporary mainstream fiction featuring African-American characters. The market has really exploded since then, but at that time E. Lynn Harris was probably still selling books out of the back of his car and Eric Jerome Dickey was probably still doing stand-up comedy.

Who would you say has influenced you the most?

As far as writing, Frank Green, the leader of the Bard Society, the critique group I belonged to when I lived in Florida. He offered much good advice about the craft of writing. I can’t say I agreed with everything he said but he was very enlightening. As far as authors, no one.

How is this? Do you not need to be a reader before you can be a writer?

Yes, but I’m not easily influenced. And I’m also very discriminating. There are writers I admire but I don’t necessarily want to be like them. I just wanted to be like myself and write good stories.

How have your personal experiences influenced the direction of your writing?

It’s all there -- people I’ve known, places I’ve been, things I’ve done.

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This article has also been featured on the Leicester Review of Books and Blogcritics.org.


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