Thursday, September 6, 2012

Interview-20 questions with Steve Barnes and Tananarive Due

Steve Barnes and Tananarive Due are two of the more interesting and successful writers of speculative fiction, horror, fantasy and sci-fi working today. They also happen to be married to each other. Barnes and Due occasionally write together, which sounds as if it must be the coolest thing since sliced bread. One of their latest joint creations is the just released Devil's Wake  which is a zombie novel, primarily but not exclusively aimed at the young adult market.

Barnes in particular has been an influence on my own blogging style. Barnes can be a very inspirational and uplifting writer. He seems to almost practice a relentless positivity. Due has written one of the freshest and most imaginative adaptations of vampirism and immortality this side of True Blood or Brian Lumley. If you haven't read Due's My Soul to Keep, you are missing out.  I've written before of my enjoyment of both Barnes' Lion's Blood series and the Barnes/Due Tennyson Hardwick series. Due has received an NAACP image award as well as an American Book Award. Barnes has written screenplays for works as diverse as Stargate SG-1 and The Outer Limits. One of these days I need to get around to reviewing Barnes' Blood Brothers, one of his earlier and darker novels. Barnes and Due are not only authors but each have numerous other skills, talents and interests including but not limited to martial arts, yoga, civil rights, journalism, teaching, life coaching and personal development. They each inspire you to kick things up a notch in your life and let go of your fears. A great thing about blogging is that you get to interact with quite talented people that you would otherwise never meet.

I thought you might be interested in reading an Urban Politico interview with the nation's hardest working husband and wife writing team. They were gracious enough to take time out of some extremely busy schedules to answer some questions for our readers. Thanks to Steve and Tananarive for their time. And now without further ado here's the interview with Steve Barnes and Tananarive Due. I hope you enjoy it.

The Urban Politico: Tell us about Devil’s Wake. Give us a short description-characters, plot, etc.

Steve Barnes: Devil's Wake is basically a story of survival, friendship and romance set against the background of the Zombie Apocalypse.

The Urban Politico: Why zombies and why now?

Tananarive Due: We have both always loved zombies.  Years ago, we came up with a zombie premise for our first short story collaboration, “Danger Word,” which appeared in Brandon Massey’s Dark Dreams anthology. We always intended to write a novel set in that world entitled Devil's Wake—but first it took a detour as a television pitch (no chance against the show “Jericho,” which had a similar small-town-after-the-fall feel to it) before reappearing in a novel form.

Steve Barnes: The horror field has always spoken to current fears. Zombies are just the latest in a long line. That said, they represent alienation, consumerism, immigration, depersonalization, and the terror of a changing world. That's a great grab-bag of emotional imagery to play with.

The Urban Politico: Devil’s Wake is first in a series, correct? Do you know how long the series will be?

Steve BarnesAs long as both we and readers are engaged. I can clearly see a point where the current story resolves, but as with all things in life, that just opens new doors and possibilities.

The Urban Politico: How has the world of speculative fiction and horror changed since you each started?

Tananarive DueIn terms of being a black author of speculative fiction, the biggest change for me has been the lost sense of cohesion after Octavia E. Butler passed away in 2006.  There are new, strong writers in the field, like Nnedi Okorafor, but it has been too long since we gathered as a group to share experiences and identify ourselves as a part of a thriving niche.  I miss that heightened sense of community.  (I hope to change that during my time as Cosby Chair in the Humanities at Spelman College.) 

Aside from that, I think most “genre” fiction was in the midst of a growth spurt when I started publishing in the mid-1990s.  I was embraced by the horror field right away, but my primary audience was black women—and many of them heard about me through the independent black bookstores like Marcus Books in Oakland.  Now, I think horror, science fiction and African-American book publishers are in the midst of leaner times overall. The horror field has grown vampire weary, as I learned when my publisher didn’t want to use the word blood in my latest African Immortals book, My Soul to Take, which I originally wanted to call Blood Prophecy. 
But everything is cyclical.  Our original idea for Devil’s Wake preceded the zombie book trend and AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” but we are appearing in the thick of it.  Sometimes good timing is accidental.

Steve Barnes: The images have gone more mainstream.

The Urban Politico: When did you each know you were going to be a professional writer? Was there a singular event?

Tananarive Due: I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was four, literally—but in some ways, I really don’t feel that I knew I would be a professional writer until I sold my first novel, The Between.  At the time, I had been working at the Miami Herald for five or six years, writing in my spare time.  I felt very confident after college and graduate school, where I’d made creative leaps and seen myself develop a professional prose style for pages at a time, but I didn’t know if I would ever make a professional sale for publication until my agent called me to let me know that HarperCollins had made an offer on my first novel.  Just two weeks before, I’d had a piece of fiction rejected by a local college literary magazine, so I tell writers all the time that you don’t know how close or far you are sometimes—you just have to keep writing.

Steve BarnesMy third year in college. I entered a writing contest, the winner to read his story to an alumni group. I won, and as I read the story, watching their faces, I realized that this was the greatest love of my life. I dropped out of college and went to work.

The Urban PoliticoHow has the internet and associated phenomena such as Facebook and illegal file sharing helped or hurt your business model?

Tananarive Due: I don’t yet have any personal knowledge of illegal file sharing having an impact on my work. But a recent book-signing in Atlanta was a testament to the power of Facebook and social media—when we asked which members of the audience had heard about our signing through Facebook, nearly everyone present raised their hands.

Steve BarnesIt sure scares the industry. Epublishing is great for those with a good relationship with the left side of their brains.

The Urban PoliticoWhat’s one thing (and it might be different) that you wish readers or would be writers knew about writing?

Tananarive Due: I don’t think there is enough respect in general for the time it takes to write consistently good fiction. Too many people think they will master writing overnight, or that they are as good as they will ever be.

Steve BarnesThat it is amazingly hard and insecure...and you should only do it if any other choice is harder still, emotionally.

The Urban PoliticoHave you ever felt pressure (external or internal) to write more or even solely Caucasian protagonists? If so how have you dealt with that?

Tananarive Due: No editor has ever asked me to write a novel with a white protagonist, although I certainly understand that to do so might widen my appeal.  Or would it?  I know I write my best work when my characters are different versions of myself—and while I have certainly written non-black characters, I was so stamped by an upbringing by civil rights activists in a newly-integrated Southern neighborhood that racial issues tend to provide a subtle underpinning to my themes and events.  Do I believe that my books would have won more crossover readers if my characters were white?  Perhaps, if I had found the right themes to sustain my creative interest.  But my hope is to find more universal appeal by writing more truthfully about the deeply personal—so my main protagonists are always likely to represent a racial metaphor of some kind even if they’re not black. 

Steve Barnes: Sure. In a perfect world, I would have written fewer white characters--but I have this odd compulsion to eat.  

The Urban PoliticoWhat’s it like working with another writer when you are also married to them? Do your writing styles complement each other? Do you take turns writing chapters and/or edit each other’s work?

Tananarive Due: I had never collaborated in fiction before I met Steve, and it isn’t always a comfortable process for me. I characterize collaboration as twice the work and half the power, so a project really has to jump out as a collaboration before I would choose anything above writing solo.  Steve is beautiful to collaborate with because he’s so strong with plot and structure, and can think so quickly on his feet.  At our best, we can create a kind of jazz riffing that feels nearly as spontaneous as solo writing—but with twice the brain power.  At worst, we might argue over plot or execution.  No matter how much you talk it out, sometimes the vision you discussed looks very different when the other writer puts it on paper.
We never sit over each other’s shoulders. I write the first drafts for the Tennyson Hardwick mystery novels (South By Southeast comes out September 18th) and Steve writes first drafts on the Devil's Wake novels.

Steve Barnes: We plan the stories together, and then one or the other of us writes the first draft.

The Urban Politico: I like reading each of your works because I know that the black man/woman isn’t automatically going to die first and won’t be a stereotype. Why is that still so common in some fiction?

Tananarive Due: I truly think there is a deep longing in our social fabric for a time of “happiness” when there was a permanent, loyal domestic class, or the myth of that time, which leads to Sacrificial Negro imagery. Aside from that, it’s a cheap way for filmmakers to show “Danger ahead!” without having to kill off one of the white characters—like Loss Lite.

Steve Barnes: Because human beings are hierarchical, and place themselves higher on the hierarchy than they place others. So characters die in the approximate order of perceived value or audience discomfort. Ugly implication, but there you are. If blacks were in charge, you'd see white guys dying nobly to protect their black friends, sob sob.

The Urban Politico: Hollywood and black drama-changing for the better? What can the black (or any) audience do to help that along?

Tananarive Due: First, audiences have to support quality films in droves. There is little that black audiences can do to coax white filmgoers to join them, but if the projects don’t get the support from the black audience, that could be the end of that particular artistic conversation for the next five or ten years.  I’m an enthusiastic supporter of Sundance winner Ava DuVernay, who is writing, directing and producing her dramas from black life—stories about people who happen to be black, not stereotypical “black people” of the popular cinema.  Her film Middle of Nowhere opens in October, and I’m looking forward to it! 

Steve BarnesYes, it is. But what I'm waiting for is for black actors to get love scenes in major films. So far, that's a guarantee of box office death. White audiences just avoid that like the plague.

The Urban PoliticoWho are some of your top influences as far as other writers? Who are some up and coming writers you think people should know about?

Tananarive Due: My earliest influences were probably Judy Blume, Stephen King and Toni Morrison.  There are too many great writers out there to name, but readers who like my work should definitely try Nnedi Okorafor and Nalo Hopkinson, if they haven’t already.

Steve BarnesI love the classics: Shakespeare and Aristotle. And modern classics and masters: Stephen King, Robert Heinlein, John D. MacDonald, Octavia Butler, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard and Ian Fleming. I admire Nnedi Okorafor.

The Urban Politico: Is there still a distinction between literary and commercial work? Do you self-consciously try to write in one style or another at a given time?

Tananarive Due: I really loathe the categories of “literary” and “commercial,” and I think too many writers cripple themselves artistically by swearing too much by one identity or the other.  I try to write well-written page-turners.  I want them to sell, so I hope they’re commercial—but I want the quality to stand the test of time, so I hope they’re literary.

Steve BarnesLiterary writing references the body of previous literature. Commercial fiction is more concerned with story telling. I'm a story teller.

The Urban Politico: Steve, you used a phrase once which really struck me. You wrote of “sacrificing your melanin on the altar of your testosterone”. Can you explain what that means?

Steve BarnesSure. In order to find images of vigorous masculinity, I read books with heroes like Tarzan, Conan, James Bond, and Mike Hammer. All either excluded black people, or depicted them as basically sub-human. 

The Urban Politico: Steve, Lion’s Blood and Zulu Heart are made into movies. Who plays Kai? Aidan O’Dere? Nandi? Lamiya? Will we see a Zulu Heart sequel?

Steve BarnesI honestly don't know about casting. There are more African-featured actors in the field these days, from Idris Elba to Djimon Hansou.

The Urban Politico: Tananarive, does teaching help make you a better writer?

Tananarive Due: I’m having to learn again how to juggle a full-time job with my writing, but overall I do think teaching can make writers better simply because it reminds us of how hard we have worked, and still must work, to pursue our dream.  Working with learning writers makes that quest feel fresh again.

The Urban PoliticoYou both do so many different things. Simultaneously!! What’s the secret? How do you stay balanced?

Tananarive Due: Believe it or not, I don’t believe I’m a great multi-tasker, so it takes constant practice. I exercise, I meditate, make to-do lists, and play a lot of Angry Birds in spare moments.

Steve Barnes: The work is something I do, not who I am.The trick is to continue to associate with your true self, what part from which the action and creativity arises.

The Urban Politico: If you were going to recommend one of your books to someone who wasn’t familiar with your work, which book would that be and why?

Tananarive Due: I think My Soul to Keep has really emerged as a reader favorite.  It’s more ambitious novel than my first, The Between, and it spawned three sequels—so that’s usually the first book I recommend

Steve Barnes: Lion's Blood.

The Urban PoliticoRoughly how long does it take you to create a novel from concept to final edit?

Tananarive Due: I generally write a novel in one or two years, depending on how many other projects I’m juggling.

Steve Barnes: Roughly a year, but stretched across about four years--I have multiple projects going at once.

The Urban Politico: Are there some other future projects or plans that you can share with us now?

Tananarive Due: My next project will be a screenplay.  But I’m adhering to the sage writing advice that says not to talk about the project—just write it. This one, I fear, has had far too much talking and not nearly enough writing.  I haven’t written a screenplay in a long time, and I’m ready to jump back in.

Steve Barnes: Yes, I have a movie project I'm not quite ready to talk about. Please keep your fingers crossed!

Tananarive Due blogs at

Steven Barnes blogs at and helps people bring about positive change in their lives at He also hosts a regular podcast which discusses personal improvement, growth and how to apply transformative techniques to your own life.

Each writer also maintains an extremely active presence on Facebook.
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