Interview by Z.M. Quynh
For this year’s horror issue, I thought it would be a good idea to sit down with Tananarive Due, who is an African American horror writer and one of my favorite authors. She’s known for such amazing stories as In the Night of the Heat (with Blair Underwood and Steven Barnes) for which she received the NAAACP Image Award and The Living Blood, for which she received the American Book Award.
Tananarive is a versatile writer with amazing range in the genres of supernatural thriller, horror, mystery, memoir, and historical non-fiction. Of all her works, my favorite is her civil rights memoir, Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights, which documents her journey with her mother, Patricia Stephens Due, a leading African American civil rights activists, through the Civil Rights Movement.
The following is an interview Tananarive did for Fiction Vortex’s horror issue, where she talks about her background and influences.
Fiction Vortex: What led you to writing horror as opposed to other areas of speculative fiction?
Tananarive Due: I didn’t understand anything of the concept of “speculative fiction” when I began writing horror; horror has simply been a consistent love of mine, perhaps because of my mother’s love for horror films and my early enchantment with the work of Stephen King. I also think horror appealed to me because it gave me a safe prism through which to address my real-life fears of mortality and the terrible impact of inter-generational racism.
FV: Can you define what “horror” means to you and the scope of stories that would fall into that category, especially in this current decade.
TD: Horror traditionally refers to supernatural stories meant to be frightening, but “horror” truly is an emotion rather than a genre — so I count Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved as a horror novel on multiple levels. Horror can be literary or commercial, in can be nestled within science fiction, it can be nonfiction — in my view.
FV: What advice would you give to aspiring horror writers?
TD: My advice for horror writers is the same advice I give all writers: hone your craft with short stories, read far more than you write (including short stories), finish what you write, and submit what you write. Don’t start a novel until you have mastered storytelling basic enough to publish short fiction — and then continue to publish short fiction while you write your novel.
For horror writers in particular, go straight at the thing that scares you the most. Mirror any supernatural horror with the real world horror that scares you.
FV: Do you have nightmares from your own writing, or do nightmares lead to your stories?
TD: While I was writing my first novel, The Between, I had to be careful about certain imagery late at night. There was a funeral procession that haunted my sleep after I wrote it. (Or was it before?) Sometimes it’s hard to tell if the nightmares or the stories come first. But I definitely have given myself unhappy dreams after writing sessions.
FV: What are you currently working on now?
TD: I am compiling a short story collection, Ghost Summer and Other Stories, which Prime Books will publish in the summer of 2015. I am also working on a historical novel about a Florida event that touched my family — but I have vowed to stop talking about that project and simply work on it. Though I did blog about the historical event: http://tananarivedue.wordpress.com/2014/01/09/unburying-the-lost-boys-pt-2-the-real-life-horrors-at-the-dozier-school/
FV: You have had your young adult novel Devil’s Wake optioned for a film. Can you tell us what that process is like? Do you have to shop your work to get it optioned or does someone just contact you?
TD: Options work in many ways. With Devil’s Wake, we crowd-funded a short film adapted from the novel (the film is called Danger Word), won a spot at a film festival, and met the producer at the festival. That’s one way. Another way is to pitch around Hollywood, which is the most exhausting way. Most often, my options have resulted from producers reaching out to me to inquire about the rights.
FV: Your previous work, My Soul to Keep, was optioned for a movie by the actor Blair Underwood in 2004. What was that process like and did the movie ever come out?
TD: Blair and his producing partners set My Soul to Keep up at Fox Searchlight, where it sat for many years. It was both a very exciting and deeply disappointing experience, since the film was never made. But My Soul to Keep has been optioned again, so we shall see.
FV: I know that Octavia Butler was a friend of yours, how does she influence your work?
TD: I was very lucky to meet Octavia Butler in 1997 at a conference at Clark Atlanta University entitled “The African-American Fantastic Imagination: Journeys in Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror.” (I also met my soon-to-be husband, Steven Barnes, at that conference.) Much of the time I knew her, I had her on the kind of pedestal that precludes phone calls like, “Hey, Octavia, what’s up?” I now, of course, regret this. Octavia was a longtime friend of Steve’s, however, so we visited her at her home when she lived in the Seattle area and we lived two hours south.
Her influence is so great that it’s difficult to measure. I did not know her work during my more formative years as a writer, but when I began publishing, her stature as THE Octavia Butler uplifted the entire black speculative fiction genre in a way we could not have found without her. She gave us enough weight to sustain. We lost some of that sustenance after she died, but the current rise and interest in black speculative fiction is, I think, much to her credit.
In terms of my actual writing, I hear Octavia’s literary voice in my head when I write near-future fiction, i.e. her voice in Parable of the Sower, in asking the question of where we might be heading if our current practices continue. She cared deeply for the world and all of its creatures, and I do want to help carry that torch. I dedicated my novel Blood Colony to her, and I tried to imagine what Octavia might have said about big pharma, the War on Drugs, and war in general as it related to the unfolding of my story.
FV: You and your husband, Steven Barnes, a Hugo-nominated science fiction writer who has written for many television shows including The Outer Limits and Stargate SG-1, co-write several works with you, including Devil’s Wake and Domino Falls, as well as others. How do you go about creating and writing a book with someone else? What is the process like?
TD: Collaboration can be very difficult, especially for novelists, but Steve spent years working in television, which is VERY collaborative, so he had much more experience when we started. The number one rule, for me, is never to write a collaboration if you could do it on your own. Don’t collaborate as a favor, or to make another writer feel good. The only reason to collaborate is that the story naturally springs from more than one source.
The next biggest rule I learned from Steve: Someone has to be the lead writer and have the final veto. Some collaborators literally sit side by side as they work, but I cannot write that way. Steve and I outline together, though he does much of the work of outlining because plot and story are two of his great strengths. Then we decide who will write the first draft and the second writer follows. If disagreements emerge, the lead writer (first draft) has final veto.
Collaboration in screenwriting is much more common because writing screenplays takes so many more skills, in my view, than writing a novel — the verbal skill of pitching, the skill of visual storytelling, the ability to process feedback from several sources, etc. I enjoy collaborating on screenplays — in fact, I haven’t written a solo screenplay yet.
FV: I love that your body of work features diverse characters, particularly characters from the African diaspora. How much diversity do you see in the genre of horror? What are some issues that may be affecting diverse writers in this genre?
TD: Diversity is a fight that is long from over. It is, in fact, a wearying conversation. But I will say this: editors and readers make assumptions about books based on faces on the cover, author names, etc. Writers of color are still fighting to win over white readers who have never, as I have, lived in a culture where MOST of the work they study in school is about white characters, most of the films are about white characters. If you’re in the majority culture, you have no reason to stray outside of your comfort zone. This is a vast generalization with many blessed exceptions, but I often ask black writers, “How many books have you read by Asian writers?” to make the point. How many straight readers gravitate to work by LGBT writers? This is simply a matter of human nature. It is changing, but slowly. There are some heroic editors and readers out there pushing for diversity, but it will take time.
There are far more writers of color who self-identify as horror writers than when I began publishing, but I don’t necessarily believe that this means more self-identified white horror readers are discovering them. What’s happening is that black readers are embracing more diverse genres themselves — black science fiction, black horror. The crossover question will be an interesting one to follow.
I would argue that my own work is universal, but happens to feature the journeys of protagonists of color. I have had many white supporting characters, even co-leads, but feel no need to write a book with a main protagonist who is white because there are so many fine writers doing that already. I’m writing for the reader I used to be, the aspiring writer I used to be, who need to see black characters the way grass needs rain. All readers are welcome on the journey.
FV: Finally, I really want to ask: You have such a unique name; where does it come from, what does it mean, and is there a story behind it?
TD: Tananarive was the capital city of Madagascar, now called Antananarivo. My mother, the late Patricia Stephen Due, first learned the name at a course at Florida A&M University. The only other Tananarive I had met also had parents who attended Florida A&M University, so I’m not sure what was going on there.
FV: We’d like to thank Tananarive for taking the time to answer questions, and for being such a great inspiration. You can find out more about her and her works below.
Tananarive Due began her career as a journalist, having received her bachelor’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and a master’s in English literature from the University of Leeds, England, where she specialized in Nigerian literature as a Rotary Foundation Scholar. She is a former feature writer and columnist for The Miami Herald.
Aside from crafting stories, she is a creative writing instructor and has taught in the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles, the Hurston-Wright Foundation’s Writers’ Week, the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, VONA, and the summer Imagination conference at Cleveland State University. She serves as the Cosby Chair for the Humanities at Spelman College.
Her work has been nominated for multiple awards, including the a Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a First Novel for The Between (a novel which crosses the genres of horror, speculative fiction, and detective thriller), and the Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel for My Soul to Keep, the first novel in her African Immortals Series. Her historical fiction, The Black Rose (2000), based in part on research conducted by Alex Haley before his death — about the life of Madam C.J. Walker, the first female self-made millionaire in America — was nominated for an NAACP Image Award.
Tananarive was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award in the Fine Arts from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation in 2013 at the 17th Annual Celebration of Leadership in the Fine Arts. She was also awarded the 2008 Carl Brandon Kindred Award for the novella Ghost Summer.
Her speculative fiction novels include The Good House (2003) and Joplin’s Ghost (2005). Her African Immortals Series includes My Soul to Keep (1997), The Living Blood (2001), Blood Colony (2008), and My Soul To Take (2011). This popular series began with a 500-year-old Ethiopian immortal named Dawit and his unknowing wife, Jessica, a Miami newspaper reporter. The first book in the series dealt with the conflict of a devastating secret between a married couple and the costs that comes with immortality. The award-winning sequel introduced the danger inherit in having blood that has the power to heal.
Her list of published short stories includes: Like Daughter, published in Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora (2000); Patient Zero, published in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Eighteenth Annual Collection (2001), Trial Day, published in Mojo: Conjure Stories (2003), Aftermoon, published in Dark Matter: Reading the Bones (2004), Senora Suerte, published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (September 2006), Like Daughter, published in Lightspeed Magazine (June 2014), and Herd Immunity, published in the anthology, The End is Now, Volume Two of the Apocalypse Triptych (September 2014).
Ever evolving, Tananarive is currently dabbling with films. You can read more about her on her blog, http://tananarivedue.blogspot.com/ where she talks about her exciting foray into filmmaking with her first zombie movie, “Danger World,” starring Frankie Faison & Saoirse Scott. The movie is a collaboration with her husband, Steven Barnes, based on their young adult novel, Devil’s Wake. The film was nominated for Best Narrative Short at the BronzeLens Film Festival and Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles and has been optioned by Tonya Lewis Lee, Spike Lee’s wife and a producer at ToniK Productions. Check in at www.tananarivedue.com to learn more.