Life Story Part VII

At the “African American Fantastic Imagination” conference at Clark Atlanta University, I met my current wife, Tananarive Due. She’d only published her first novel, The Between, at that time, but her next, My Soul to Keep, was on its way. At the time she was the relationship columnist for the Miami Herald, but I only had to read a single page of her writing to know that this was a brilliantly skilled novelist. And . . . wow, she was cute, and could dance like a dervish.

It was about as close to love at first sight as anything I’ve ever heard of. Within two days we were holding hands at the airport, leaning our heads together, talking about how we could create an empire.

The road was bumpy—her mother, civil rights pioneer Patricia Stephens Due, met me with the words, “Well, I’m not impressed by you at all.”

“It’s not your job to be impressed by me. It’s your job to protect your daughter.”

I sat back and enjoyed watching her try to pretend I hadn’t said the perfect thing.

After we were married, we moved to Longview, Washington. My daughter, Nicki, needed me to be there until she graduated high school. It was still far from Hollywood, but I did manage to keep my hand in a bit.

A German television show called Ice Planet flew me over to Munich. The streets were as clean as Disneyland. I remember walking through those deserted streets at midnight, thinking that if the little boy I had been had any idea at all where I was going to end up in life, how delighted he’d be.

During this time I wrote for a number of shows that filmed up in Vancouver, British Columbia: Andromeda, Stargate, and Outer Limits. Amanda Plummer won an Emmy in my “A Stitch In Time” episode.

##

During lunch in New York, Warner editor Betsy Mitchell quizzed me about my current projects. I was in the early stages of research for an alternate history novel in which Africa developed a technological civilization before Europe and colonized the Americas, bringing white slaves.

The novel was originally envisioned as an analog of the American civil rights era, a mirror of the John Ball novel In the Heat of the Night, but Betsy convinced me to set it during slavery. The most fun here was holding a house party, where I fed pizza and beer to friends all day long, and had them help me brainstorm the background of the novel.

I knew Lion’s Blood was going down the right road when a white friend reading an early draft told me she wanted to walk up to a black guy and say, “Let my people go!”

Later, Betsy called me and asked me if I’d be interested in writing a Clan of the Cave Bear style book set in prehistoric Africa. I jumped at the chance, saying that to write it I’d need at least a year of research, and would need to go to Africa to do research first hand. Nicki accompanied me.

Tanzania was one of my peak experiences. The reserve we called “Giraffic Park.” Hiking on Kilimanjaro. Getting charged by an elephant. . . .

I’d wanted to be sure Nicki had memories with me beyond what I had with my father. Well . . . we certainly got them.

##

Actor Blair Underwood had been the original model of the immortal Ethiopian character Dawit in Tananarive’s novel My Soul To Keep. He proved to be a terrific guy, cursed to be so good-looking that it was easy for people to forget how smart he is, or what a fine actor he can be. He came to Tananarive and asked her to consider working with him on an historical novel set in New Orleans in the 1800s.

I counseled her that if she was going to collaborate, she should think about doing a contemporary novel (easier to write), or a detective novel (there was more of a track record for black books), and that I could guide her in this, as I’d always wanted to do a detective novel.

We thought about this along practical, artistic, commercial, and political lines. And it is important to remember that all these different threads were wound together.

Practically, it was an opportunity to use Hollywood style promotion on a novel. In other words, despite the surface glitz, if we could deliver the goods, people would love it and would be led to our other work.

Artistically, I’d always wanted to write a detective novel, something straight-forward and gritty. Blair brought in the idea of combining Zane and Walter Mosley. Well . . . what did I think about that? Sex? Great, and in fact Tananarive liked the idea better than I did. Walter Mosley? A superb writer, and his success kept the door open. The books were best-sellers, and won the 2009 NAACP Image Award for Best Novel.

##

In 2004 we decided to adopt a child. Raising my daughter Nicki had been one of the greatest experiences of my life, and I figured that I had enough life and energy left to raise another child. It’s said that we have two chances to experience the amazing bond of parent to child: once when we are children, and again when we are parents. I’d been damaged by my father’s absence, and could not begin to quantify the amount of work, time, and energy I’d put into healing that wound. It seemed to me that raising a son would force me to resolve this issue once and for all.

So we let ourselves be interviewed multiple times, and Tananarive made multiple trips out to Florida, where we had a lawyer who was acting as an intermediary. It was a heart-breaking, soul-crushing process, alternating hope and despair.

But in time, we finally found a mother. We wanted her to have had some college, and preferably be an athlete. College because that implied intelligence and focus. Athlete for the hope that she would look at her body as a machine and avoid drugs. We hoped.

Well, the day came. Tananarive was there at the bedside and actually cut the cord. I flew out to Quincy, Florida and met my son for the first time. I remember thinking that I’d waited my whole life for this moment, and that it was my job to love him and deliver him safely to his manhood.

In 2005 Nicki graduated high school, and we undertook the hazardous journey down to California. Weeks of packing resulted in two huge moving vans we spent four days driving from Long View to Glendora, an adventure in itself. We arrived in the new neighborhood and found people in costumes: girls in fishnet stockings with change-makers around their waists. I was shocked, and wondered where the heck Tananarive had landed us—not just prostitution, but the cheapest whores I’d ever heard of! Then . . . I realized that it was Halloween. The house we’d found was actually quite nice four-bedroom; Nicki took a job at a nearby movie theater, and then entered college.

My agent Jonathan had bad news for me: “You’re going to have trouble. Most television shows are written by staff. And they don’t hire anyone over forty for staff.”

So we struggled, although a movie deal of Tananarive’s novel The Good House materialized, with a Big Name Oscar-winning actor/director signed to direct.

Dealing with BND (Big Name Director) was fascinating. He’s brilliant, but has one of those peek-a-boo minds. If you’re in the drawer with him, you have his attention totally. If he’s off doing something else, it can be hard to get him to engage.

One film executive was actually honest enough to say: “Do they have to be black?”

I’d heard that so many times, about so many other projects. African-looking Aubry Knight in my first solo novel Streetlethal had been magically transformed into a Caucasian-Asian mix on the original book cover. The most annoying thing is that no one would take responsibility. No one would say that THEY would prefer the character not be black. No . . . it was always this mythical “audience” out there.

Yeah, right.

I was proud to look around the table and realize we were all aligned. Yes, they had to be black. Stupid, perhaps, but proud.

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