Carleen BriceCarleen Brice‘s debut novel, Orange Mint and Honey, was incredibly well received by critics, became a Target Bookmarked Break Out Book, and just this past week was optioned by Lifetime TV for the Lifetime Movie Network. Her second novel, Children of the Waters, has been garnering praise as well:

“compelling and difficult to put down.” – Booklist Online

“Children of the Waters is the latest engaging offering by Carleen Brice, who writes with aplomb about love, mixed race and the importance of family in this late-June release.” AOL Black Voices Book Shelf

“I was exhausted and singing the blues the hour I began Carleen Brice’s new novel, Children of the Waters. Five hours later, I’d finished this fresh, free-rein novel about mothers’ secrets and children’s sorrows and was shouting ‘Hurray!'” – Jacquelyn Mitchard author, The Deep End of the Ocean

I was excited to speak with Carleen after reading Children of the Waters–not only to pick her brain about her fiction but to speak about her initiative, which is pretty well summed up via the name of her blog: White Readers Meet Black Authors at http://welcomewhitefolks.blogspot.com/. Intrigued?

It’s my pleasure to introduce you to author Carleen Brice.

Interview with Carleen Brice: Part 1

Q: How do you respond when people ask, “What’s your book about?”

CB: This one is pretty easy to elevator pitch: It’s about two women, one white and one black, who find out they’re related and are possibly brought together by the spirit of their late grandmother. It’s about race, identity and what really makes a family.

Q: I see Children of the Waters as full-bodied “Issues Fiction,” with authentic discussions about interracial relationships, and similarities and differences that go beyond skin color-including the inner workings of family, the effect of long-buried secrets, and the importance of acceptance and reconciliation. What inspired or motivated you to write this book?

CB: It’s loosely based on a true story. One of my sisters-in-law is biracial and was put up for adoption while her birth sister was kept by the family. When she told me the story, I got goose bumps and every time I told someone else they got goose bumps. Goose bumps. A sign of great material if ever I’ve seen it.

Q: I loved that you tackled race issues face-on-how whites and blacks interact as couples; the repercussions of having bi-racial children; being a bi-racial child; the experience of “shopping while black, driving while black, anything while black….” Partway through the novel, Billie-who is bi-racial-reflects on her treatment of Trish-her white sister; she wanted to shock her, drive home the knowledge of what it meant to be black in America. She was tired of white people knowing little about blacks beyond Martin Luther King Jr. What do you hope readers take from your novel when it comes to race relations? What would you like to evoke, and what sort of conversation do you hope to inspire?

CB: I’m hoping first to continue raising awareness. I feel like the country sort of noticed recently that there are different kinds of people here, and are interested in them. I hope we continue to be interested and continue to converse. The biggest takeaway though is that we’re more alike than we are different.

Q: When Obama took office, there was a sense of healing between the races in this country. Is your sense that we still have a long way to go, that we need to go deeper, to really step into the skin of those of other races to understand their point of view? How do you think fiction might help close the gap between the races in America?

CB: Obviously, we’ve come farther than a lot of people ever thought we would. I cried election night on the phone with my 86-year-old grandmother who never in her wildest dreams thought she’d see a black family in the White House. It’s still hugely exciting and makes me very proud.

However, we obviously still have a ways to go. Just this summer black & Latino kids were turned away from a pool because they might upset “the complexion” of the private club they went to (and had paid for upfront).

As far as the role fiction might play, I think a wide variety of people telling their stories is important. How, if, or when that will bring people together I don’t know, but it is important.

Q: Backstory is critically important to the unfolding narrative in your novel. How do you go about weaving backstory into your plot? How important was it for you to highlight how past events can alter character and the present day?

CB: The past and its consequences are something I keep writing about, with nonfiction and with my first novel ORANGE MINT AND HONEY, so it’s clearly something that is important to me. I feel like individually and societally we are products of the past and the only way to improve upon where we are is to understand that.

Backstory is difficult to weave into a plot because you don’t want readers bogged down with flashbacks. As more than one writing teacher has said, If the backstory is so important, why isn’t that the story you’re telling? I try to give backstory in pieces, and only as needed for the reader to understand the present story.

Q: What’s your process? Day writer or night? Polish as you go or push through the draft? Plotter or pantser? Who wears the pants-you or your characters?

CB:I can best answer this question by saying I’m a Gemini. I can write first thing in the morning or in the evening—whenever the house is quiet is best. I also sometimes steal off to a coffeeshop in the afternoons.

I plot in advance sometimes and sometimes start writing and see where it goes. I polish as I go sometimes and sometimes just push through.

I’ve never had the experience of a character pushing me into writing something I didn’t want to write. I have learned things about characters I didn’t know as I wrote about them (little quirks and secrets), but we work together my people and I.

Q: Let’s talk character. Billie is a particularly vibrant, complex female character, orderly and logical but also spiritual and new age-y. I loved the scene when she tries to use “foot-track magic” to keep her boyfriend from leaving her, first gathering some dust from his footprints. “If she mixed this dirt with a piece of brown paper with Nick’s name written on it nine times in red, a piece of penis-shaped mandrake root, and a lodestone fixed with Follow Me Boy Oil, he would have to stay with her,” she thinks. How do you go about developing characters? How early in the process do they become fully formed for you, or do they remain malleable throughout the drafting process?

CB: They become more and more themselves as I write. I usually have an idea about them-I knew Billie was into hoodoo, for example-but as I write I become more aware of their insecurities and fears, their habits.

Q: Have you ever had to redirect a character, or do they always seem to lead you down the right road?

CB: Yes I have. An example is from my first novel. My protag originally fell for the spiffy guy, but in subsequent drafts I realized she wouldn’t really be ready for such a mature, together guy and would be more comfortable with the nerdier (still wonderful) guy she ended up falling for. Some readers were mad at me she didn’t end up with the cool guy, but it just didn’t feel right to me.

Q: Trish’s bi-racial son, Will, went through an abrupt personality change, an identity crisis, after enduring not only his parents’ divorce and a move away from his father, but after being mishandled by some white police officers. Suddenly he’s committed to abstinence, attending a hard-core church, and correcting his mother’s foul language. How did you handle his 180 as you went through the drafting process, in order to make it feel believable to the reader?

CB: I knew pretty early in the drafting he was going to do this. A relative of mine went through a similar religious transformation, so I was very aware of what it looks like.

Q: Which character did you identify most easily with? Which characters were harder to write? How did you get the hard ones to open up for you?

CB: I really identified with all the characters in this story. They are all a little part of me. I try to think of characters in ways that allow me to empathize with them even if I disagree, like a good actor would.

Q: Do you have any tricks for getting into their heads? Do you meditate on them/with them? Ever try “method writing,” when you channel them like an actor would?

CB: I do try to get into their heads like an actor. I don’t necessarily walk around the house “in character” but while I’m typing I will say the dialogue out loud and laugh if the scene is funny or cry if it’s sad. I try to get myself in a similar emotional state as the one I have to write–music is great for this! So is looking at old family pictures sometimes.

Q: What might people be surprised to learn about your process?

CB: It’s a really, really messy process that I wish I could tame and control, but so far, I haven’t been able to. I keep a notebook for each novel and it’s filled with scribbles and out-of-order thoughts and scenes. I wish I could make those notebooks much more orderly, but I guess they house the subconscious and there’s no ordering that.

Come back next week for part 2 of my interview with Carleen Brice, when we’ll talk about inspirations, writerly lessons and more!

About Therese Walsh

Therese Walsh co-founded Writer Unboxed in 2006. Her second novel, The Moon Sisters, was published in March. Her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, sold to Random House in a two-book deal in 2008, was named one of January Magazine’s Best Books, and was a Target Breakout Book. She's never been published with a lit magazine, but LOST's Carlton Cuse liked her Twitter haiku best and that made her pretty happy.