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Beverly Jenkins: The WD Interview

Bestselling romance novelist Beverly Jenkins talks about the value of libraries, the changes in the romance publishing industry over decades, and the deep relationship she’s built with her fans in this WD interview from September/October 2020.
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On the heels of the publication of Beverly Jenkins' most recent book Wild Rain, here is her September/October 2021 Writer's Digest interview with editor-in-chief, Amy Jones.

With more than 40 titles to her name, including bestsellers such as Indigo, Topaz, and the Blessings series, Beverly Jenkins is nothing short of a superstar in Romancelandia. The activity on her multiple Facebook pages/groups and among her 18K+ Twitter fans is evidence of that. When I comment that the kindness and generosity of the folks participating was somewhat antithetical to most of Twitter, Jenkins isn’t the least bit surprised.

“They’re the best,” she says about her readers. There’s “a lot of sharing, a lot of uplifting.” But anyone who’s had even the briefest of encounters with her knows this is thanks, at least in part, to the positivity she puts into the world. Her love stories, ranging from historical, to contemporary, to young adult, and inspirational, don’t just offer the requisite HEA (happily ever after)—they feature communities of people helping and supporting one another.

Jenkins’ success is undeniable. She’s the recipient of the Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award, a Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award, and has been nominated for the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in fiction. But her first novel, Night Song (1994), wasn’t guaranteed. Happy in her career as a librarian, Jenkins wrote the book for herself—to see characters that looked like her represented in stories not based on slavery—which meant veering from the status quo of the romance publishing industry. She claims she got enough rejection letters to “paper my kitchen and yours” but she kept going.

Her first novel was also her first (but certainly not last) to include a bibliography of references. Many of her characters are inspired by or based on real people and the inclusion of source material has an important function for Jenkins. Reading her books was the first time I’d seen romances with bibliographies, so that’s where our conversation began.

[5 tips for writing romantic scenes.]

You’re known as a romance writer, but your historical romances have a surprising amount of content about little-known historical events. I personally found myself learning about things I had never heard of before. Why did you decide to take that approach?

I call it edutainment, entertainment and education. It’s a real painless way to teach the parts of American history that have not been taught in school. When I sold the book to Avon in ’93, Night Song, which is my first book, they told me I had to write a story ’cause I had like 700 pages of nothing but heat. It didn’t make sense for me to put this African-American couple against a majority white background and I knew that the African-American history was very rich and very broad and very deep. So, I just put it against the background of my people’s history. I don’t think it was a conscious thing. I don’t think it was a “hook” or whatever. It was just the facts needed to go with the story in order to set the story because, if we had no reason why she, Cara Lee, which is our heroine, moved to Kansas, then you’d have no reason for the story. The history and the story go hand in hand.

And then we had the questions of, well, did Black people really do this? Did Chinese people really do this? So in the very first book, just to sort of quell that kind of stuff, I put the bib. list in so the readers who were not familiar with the history wouldn’t have to search for the sources.

Wild Rain by Beverly Jenkins

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You mentioned in that book the story takes place in Kansas and the ones that I’ve been reading take place in the West and the South. But, you live in Michigan, so do you travel a lot?

I do travel, but not a lot. I’ve been doing history trips with a bunch of girlfriends for the last 10 years. The internet and Google and all of that gives you a lot of information that you didn’t readily have 20 years ago. I also have a very extensive library of history stuff. So travel? Yeah, but it’s usually with my girlfriends or if I’m traveling for book signings. You only have time to get on a plane, go to the hotel, do the event, get on a plane, go home. So these history trips have been fabulous. There’s a little bit of one in [the documentary] Love Between the Covers.

It was done by Laurie Kahn. She’s an independent filmmaker and she did a documentary on the romance community and the industry. It’s fascinating and it won lots of awards. She came along with me on one of these trips and did some filming and put little snippets of that in the documentary. A lot of these women have gone from being simply readers to what I call “sisters of my heart.” We travel together. We check on each other. We’re growing old together. Nothing like girlfriends.

One of the other things that I liked about your books is that your female protagonists are all strong women who often do not need the help of men. The women are the ones who, most of the time, need to be convinced that love is for them. I wanted to know how and why you decided to create those kinds of women in your romance.

I think that that’s a pretty good statement for most of the women in romance these days. For those who have not read a romance lately, we’re heavy on consent. We’re heavy on women who don’t really need a man. I always say that if my women were in a monster movie, they wouldn’t be the ones falling down when they’re running away from the monster.

Dorothy Sterling, who’s a historian, said that African-American women of the 19th century had three gifts that helped them be successful after and before the Civil War: They worked, and all of my women have jobs. They have a commitment to community and they love pushing the envelope on gender and race. So I have African-American doctors; I have gamblers; I have women who work on the Underground Railroad. Keeping Dorothy Sterling’s gift idea in mind, I consciously try and give them at least one of those gifts. Some of them have one, some of them have two, some of them have three, and sometimes I don’t even have to create those gifts because they come to me with those gifts. So it’s a conscious decision.

I think women in general, especially women of color, have had to be strong in order to deal with the times and what they faced, and the lemons that America has given people of color to try and make it as palatable a batch of lemonade as they could. I don’t do weak women and I don’t think my readers want to read about weak women. I think people who have not experienced romance in the last 15, 20 years would be very surprised at the feminism and the models that these women portray.

Beverly Jenkins | romance writing

You write in multiple romance subgenres. Is there one that is more challenging for you than another?

Nope. I think they’re all equally as challenging.Contemporaries are easier in the sense of familiarity. But historicals have a whole different vocabulary and they’ve changed over the years too. Back in the day you use words that these modern editors say, “Well, you can’t use that word.” “Well, yeah, I can.” Sentences have changed. They’re not as flowery. They’re not as long. They’re not as convoluted. POV has changed on the stories. Whereas we used to be able to do the hero and the heroine’s POV on one page, now they prefer that you stick to one. And for me, that was difficult at first because it seemed to hinder the story. But, I’m an old woman, I’m still learning. I’m still capable of being taught. I’m grateful for the great editors that I have had because each of them has brought something to the table. It’s made me a better writer. I listen to them when they say, “Bev, how about this?”

You mentioned that the idea of POV has changed. What else has changed in the romance genre?

What’s changed is we’ve got a lot more women of color. Romance now is no longer strictly male/female. You have every identity being written about. I think it’s starting to reflect the idea that love is love.

We’ve got a lot more romantic elements in other genres, so you’ve got romances now that are mysteries. You got romances now that are in paranormal, you’ve got romances now that are in fantasy and all of this is under the umbrella of a romance. So the tree has grown. There’s lots of new branches.

There’s lots of different levels of heat. That’s changed. You know, there’s a lot of women, and guys too, that are out there writing erotica that’s just fabulous.

I don’t know if other genres have changed as much. I know sci-fi’s changed a lot. Fantasy’s changed a lot, but romance has changed a lot. And when you bring more than a billion dollars to the table every year, you lead by example. We’re also very activist-driven with that whole #CockyGate thing, and the plagiarism—romance has led the way in being activists. I’m proud to be a romance writer even though people think we write with crayons—some people think we write with broken crayons—but we don’t have time for them.

[Romance novelist Jane Igharo on 4 tips to write a rom-com that deals with real-life issues.]

I loved the scene in Topaz where Katherine wants to start her own newspaper, but she can’t afford a printing press. She comes up with a really creative community-based solution that brings people together for conversation in a way that a physical, printed newspaper doesn’t always do. And I wondered if you could talk about what you see as the role of literature and journalism in today’s society?

Well, I think it’s there to entertain. It’s there to educate. It’s there to start conversations. Depending on the genre, it’s there to uplift. It’s there for young people who may not have access to a lot of money or whatever; it’s a way to see the world.

I probably say this in every interview that I have done in the last 10 years, 15 years: The best gift you can give a child is a library card. For me, growing up poor on the east side of Detroit, I had never been, I don’t know, five miles outside the city—I think the farthest I’d ever been was the Detroit Zoo out in Royal Oak. I was such an avid reader, a voracious reader, and it showed me the world. So that’s a function of literature: to show people other lives, other places. Maybe what they could be. Maybe what they could achieve.

It serves multiple purposes, but for me it always has to entertain also, ’cause I’m not going to read something that’s just going to bore me to death unless I’m in college [laughs] or high school. But, once you get past that craziness of reading the classics, the stories should move you. And that’s what I look for when I’m pleasure reading. I’m looking for something that’s—it’s got to move me in whatever way that I can be moved.

I read that you worked in a library.

Yeah, I did. You know, that’s all I ever wanted to do. I had no intentions of being a writer.

Really?

Nope. I stumbled into this. I fell into this like I fell into a hole.

Tell me that story!

All I ever wanted to do in life was work in the library. That was it. I went to Michigan State University in East Lansing and I started working in the library there as a student. And then my late husband worked for the Michigan Education Association, the big local teacher’s union, and he got a job representing the faculty in Big Rapids up where Ferris State is. So when we moved back down here to what I call civilization, I started working at Parke-Davis pharmaceuticals, which was one of the first big pharmaceutical companies in the country. They started in Detroit. I was working at their reference desk and one of the ladies—I’m getting to the story. You can tell I’m a writer. I need an editor! [laughs]

One of the ladies, who is still a dear friend, had written a romance, what we call a sweet romance, and she had just gotten published. So we were celebrating her and I told her about this story that I was working on just for me because this was the early ’80s and romance had only a few African-American stories published back then. Most of them were edited by Vivian Stephens, who eventually went on to found RWA [Romance Writers of America]. My girlfriend read the manuscript that turned out to be Night Song. She said, “You really need to get this published!” I’m like, “Where?” There was no Black mass market back then. I tell people that this is her fault and my mother’s fault that this all came to be. I swear she harassed me every day. “Did you find an editor? Did you find an agent? Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”

I cannot tell you how I found Vivian Stephens. She’d gotten out of publishing and she was an agent in those days. And I don’t know how I knew of her because I read everything—Romantic Times and all that. Some kind of way I found her address, sent her my little raggedy manuscript, and she called me at the desk less than a week later and said she wanted to represent me. I was like, “Whoa, OK!”

Now, I’ve got enough rejections to paper my kitchen and yours, but it didn’t bother me because I already had my dream job working in the library. So the rejections did not hurt my heart the way it might have had I been trying to be published. She didn’t even show me half of the ones that I got. But it was interesting because the letters that I did see said, “Great story, great writing, but …” “Great story, great writing, but…” The “but” had to do with, there was no box for it. In New York’s mind, and probably most of the country too, any 19th-century story featuring African Americans had to be slavery based. So here I come with the story about this Buffalo soldier and this Oberlin-educated schoolteacher living in a town of free Black people on the plains of Kansas, and New York was like, “What?”

So on June 3, 1993—and I remembered that ’cause it was my husband’s birthday—Ellen Edwards called me and wanted to buy the book. The rest, as they say, is history. I was published that next year in 94 and so I’ve been at this now, what, 26 years? I’m still writing. I’m still enthused about it. Still amazed that people are reading my stories and actually buying books.

Did I hear you right? You said you started writing that first story in the mid-‘80s?

Yeah, and it was just something that I did after work when I wasn’t reading. This was B.C., before children [laughs]. My husband would go play tennis because he was a big tennis guy back then and I was working with the library at MSU. We were living in East Lansing. I would go home and read because nothing is better than working in a university library. Because you could get all the stuff before anybody else got it! I worked on this little story and I was writing it just for me, because like I said, I wasn’t looking to get published.

When I was a kid, my milestone birthday that I looked forward to the most was turning 10 so that I could get my own library card. And it was absolutely the most exciting thing for me.

Mine was very exciting too. But I think we got ours at seven or eight. Like I said in that speech [for the Nora Roberts Award], the libraries for African Americans were segregated. But my mom, she went to the library anyway when she was in high school and although they wouldn’t let her take out the books, she would sit there and just read. When the libraries desegregated in Detroit, she didn’t care how many books you brought home. She didn’t care what you read—you couldn’t read crazy stuff, but she didn’t care what you read. I have always been connected to libraries and library cards in that way.

Are there people at your libraries who scout for you, the new history books they think you might be interested in?

I don’t visit the libraries as much as I did, but the readers do. I have such a great relationship with them. I had been looking for—I think it was for Night Song—this book that William Wells Brown wrote in 1863 called The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements. It was this great 19th century and 18th-century history of Black, mostly men, of course. I think I put a note in, it’s either Night Song or Vivid (which was the second book) that I had been looking for a copy. I could not find it ’cause of course it was out of print. Well a couple of years ago, I get a package in the mail and one of my readers had found a copy!

That’s such a great story about your readers. And it’s something I noticed as I looked through your Twitter feed—your readers are so loyal and kind and that is so anti-Twitter.

They’re the best. I think that’s a function of my readers, but also Romancelandia is like that—that’s what we call romance Twitter, Romancelandia—a lot of sharing, a lot of uplifting. I have four Facebook pages. Three of them are mine and one is a reader-founded page. I’m on Facebook every day with them. I wake up in the morning and say “good morning,” and ask them how their days are. I say good night to them every night, because I am so grateful for them. I wouldn’t be here without them. They put my kids through college. They bought my car. Their contributions to my bank account—I have seen authors with their heads up their asses about readers and I am just amazed! There’s not a lot of them, but I am just amazed at the attitude sometimes of some authors and their relationship with the people who are paying their mortgage! So I go out of my way to be kind.

I’m very conscious of them and trying to keep them happy and they in turn support me, look out for me. When I lost my husband in ’03 I knew in the evenings I could go on online with them and they would cry with me and keep me supported. One of the reasons that I came back into the light was their support. They are very, very, very special to me. Some of them have named their kids after some of my characters!

Do you have any advice for romance writers who are starting out?

Finish the book. I give lectures and talks and all that. And, I was guilty of this also, talking about the book. When I was working on Night Song back when I didn’t think I was going to get published, my sisters, I had four sisters, and my sisters would always say, “Well, what’s going on with the book?” You know, so write! Get that first draft done. Doesn’t matter what it looks like. Doesn’t matter if it doesn’t have a plot. Doesn’t matter if the grammar’s all over the place. Just get it done.

And then after that’s done, you have the satisfaction of knowing that you finished something. Let it sit, then go back and start actually writing it because nobody wants to see that first draft. Do not send your—I tell people—do not send your first draft to anybody. The first draft is for you, as the writer, to see what sticks on the wall and what doesn’t. Then you go back and pretty it up and fancy it up and find the plot and fix the characters and write a story.

Another piece of advice that I give new writers is not to let the success of others bother you because they’re on their path and you’re on yours. It’s hard to do because you see your critique partner hit the Times list or whatever, but don’t let somebody else’s success make you feel less because you’re not. They’re on their path and you’re on yours.

Finish the book and don’t let the success of others make you feel less. Those are my two golden rules. WD

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