Saturday, August 30, 2008

TAKE TEN with International Bestselling author Father Andrew M. Greeley

When it comes to discussing international bestselling authors today, it is impossible not to include Father Andrew M. Greeley. He has produced over 50 bestselling novels over the past few decades, and I have had the pleasure to read and enjoy 15 of them myself. His tales of the lives of those who devote themselves to the service of the church have sparked dialogue and controversy almost from the beginning of his career. But there has been a positive side to his career and success as well. When talking about Greeley, Reverend Ron Rolheiser said this: "Nobody has ever left the church because of an Andrew Greeley novel, but many have been attracted back to it by him." Why is that, you might ask. Read this exclusive interview to find out.--- Cyrus A. Webb, Conversations Magazine

Father Greeley, we appreciate your taking out the time to talk with TAKE TEN today. Having enjoyed numerous bestselling novels and praise from around the world for the stories you create, do you see your writing career as an extension of your ministry?
Not so much an extension as an essential part of my ministry.

When did you know that you were such a gifted storyteller? Did you come from a family of readers?
I don't know that I'm a gifted story teller. I must leave that to others like yourself to judge. Both my parents read and both like to tell stories.

I have been curious for sometime about was there any one individual along your literary journey that inspired you to write and then seek to be published. Can you share with us what led to your submitting your first written work?
The late Bernard Geiss, a "packager" of novels, urged me to write a story about two young men who grew up to be priests. The Cardinal Sins emerged from that suggestion.

I became a fan of yours some 10 years ago, and I can say that one of the things that I loved about your work was how you allowed us to see the human side of people carrying out God's work on earth. Do you think we sometimes forget that the people carrying his message are prone to the same mistakes as the rest of us?
Many people expect perfection from their clergy and are shocked and dismayed when they see not perfection, but humanity. Sometimes the clergy abet this by pretending to be perfect.

Your work doesn't seem to try and protect anyone from scrutiny as we saw in THE CARDINAL SINS and PRIESTLY SINS. How much do you think the scandals of the Catholic church were worsen by the denial of any wrongdoing?
They were certainly made worse by constant denial. Why should anyone believe a bishop any more.

I know from talking to other fans of yours that regardless what their faith, you books strike a chord with all types of readers. What do you contribute that to?
I don't know how to answer that question. Apparently I write stories that many different kinds of people like to read. On the other hand I get lots of hate mail.

In a world where marketing is everything and the literary community is having to compete in a sense between itself, has there been the pressure to change the formula that has enthralled your readers for so long?
Only once when someone suggested that I set the novels somewhere besides Chicago, like maybe Denver. With all due respect to Denver, I declined. Chicago is a character in the stories. I've had a few helpful suggestions from editors and publishers, but they did not involve a change in style.

The Harry Potter series of books by J. K. Rawling seemed to captivate readers of all ages. What are your thoughts about the impact the Harry Potter franchise has had in encouraging young people to give reading a try?
A lot of young people gobbled up the stories about Master Potter. Whether they will read more because of those books, I'm not sure. Better that they get lots of good example from their parents.

Father Greeley, alot of authors that we speak to have an experience that has encouraged them to keep going when it comes to their careers. What does it for you?
I never once thought about abandoning the telling of stories. I am always encouraged by people like you who understand what the stories are about -- comedies of grace.

Thank you again for sharing a few moments with Conversations. We appreciate your time. You’re welcome, Cyrus. Thank you for the work you are doing to educate and encourage reading.

Additional information about Father Andrew M. Greeley can be found at

Saturday, August 16, 2008

"Take Ten" with author Valerie Wilson Wesley

Bestselling author Valerie Wilson Wesley grew up an army brat who moved around to different places. Now she is a celebrated novelist who has been featured all over the country and beyond through the stories that she weaves together. No matter what she has done in her life, she has always been a lover of words and it shows in her newest book OF BLOOD AND SORROW that Conversations read this year, a book that is part of the Tamara Hayle mystery series. So who is this woman that has enthralled readers with her universal characters? She gives you a clear glimpse in this exclusive interview.

Valerie, it has been a long time coming. Thank you for taking out time to speak with Conversations. For those who aren’t familiar with your work, why don’t you tell our readers a little about yourself.
I’ve had several careers, but I’ve always been a writer. I’m a former teacher, an editor at Scholastic News, and I was executive editor of Essence magazine for a number of years. I wrote my first novel, Where Do I Go From Here for young adults in 1992; it’s no longer in print. When Death Comes Stealing, the first mystery of my Tamara Hayle series came out in the mid-1990s and Of Blood and Sorrow, the eighth Tamara Hayle, was published last year. In between mysteries, I’ve written three novels, Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do, Always True to You in My Fashion, and Playing My Mother’s Blues as well a the Willimena Rules! series for children.

With many books under your belt, the main character of your mysteries, Tamara Hayle, has been celebrated by readers and critics alike. What do you think about her has resonated with so many readers?
I think that many readers find themselves, or parts of themselves, in Tamara Hayle. She’s a single mom coping with raising a teen-age son alone, no easy task these days, yet she always manages to take care of business–make a living, care for her child, and solve her case. And she does it with style and a sense of humor. She also manages to find a little love on the side. too, which always adds some zing.

Readers tell me they like her because she’s funny and tough, the kind of friend everyone needs in their life. People often ask me how I found her character. Truth is, she’s a bit of all the women I admire–my sister, friends, and all the smart, savvy women I knew at Essence.

Speaking of the critics, there have been reviews of your novels in some of the most celebrated media outlets in the business. Has it surprised you that your career has been so highly praised?
It’s always a delight to get a good review, but I’ve certainly had my share of bad ones. You take what you can use from each review–good or bad–and then go on to the next book. The important thing for a writer to remember is that she has to be her toughest critic. My advice to students in my creative writing classes is to write, edit, let it rest for a few days, and then read it again with new eyes. Never write and edit during the same period; you’ll never finish the story.

I guess an obvious question to ask is what led you to mysteries?
I’ve always loved mysteries, even as a kid. I remember going to the library each week for a new Agatha Christie. I also loved the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. I love writing mysteries because you can do so much with the form. It’s a genre which easily bends to incorporate unique settings, styles and characters. Although they are formulaic--there are always red herrings and a denouement–a writer can make the form her own.

Was there ever a doubt in your mind that your career as a writer would take off?
Writers are always faced with that blank sheet of paper or computer screen so there are always doubts. You might get a contract, but you have to finish the book and it has to be accepted by the publishing house. All one can do about doubts is to write through them. The process itself has to be the most important thing because nothing in life--or publishing--is guaranteed.

You are published by Ballantine Books, one of the most celebrated divisions of Random House. For the sake of aspiring writers that are reading this interview, tell them about the process for going from story idea to manuscript to ending up with a publisher.
My story ideas come from many places. I may be inspired by a story I’ve read in a newspaper or one that has been told to me. Often a character will come first, and I’ll build a story around her. Once a I get an idea, I let it “simmer” for a couple of months until the characters come into full view. Often, I’ll do a very short, general outline of the story, but that always changes when I begin to write. Character drives plot, so I need to really know my characters before I begin to write. I usually do character bios to get a detailed sense of each character, and then I put them on stage and let them play. Equally important is setting and the point of view the story will be told from.

When I’ve written the story or a much of it, I’ll say a prayer and give it to my agent who will try to sell it. Hopefully, I’ll get a contract. Publishers usually want to see a completed manuscript from a new writer and often from established ones as well. Publishing has changed in the last ten years, and I usually advise unpublished writers who can’ find an agent or to try regional or small, independent presses.

When the manuscript is given to the editor, she will accept or reject it and write a revision letter. I’ll incorporate her suggestions into the piece. When I’ve completed the revision, she’ll pass it on to a copy editor for copy editing. It will then will come back to me for a final review with the copy editor’s revisions.

Of Blood and Sorrow was the novel I read this year. It was released earlier this year and continued your series. I think one of the most intriguing qualities about your career is that you have not been pigeon-holed as just another black author. Your books have cross-over appeal How much of that was your goal?
I’m an African-American woman writer, but I write about things that concern all people–regardless of race or gender. Strong plots are always universal, and well-drawn characters are full, rich people whom readers connect to regardless of a writer’s ethnicity. A good book is a good book and writing a good book with believable characters and a strong plot is always my main goal.

Children’s books seem to be something else you are gifted at writing. What can we expect next from you on the literary front?
I’m currently working on a proposal for a new novel, and shortly after that I’ll start one for a new Tamara Hayle Mystery. Wish me luck!

Any other advice you want to give writers who seem to write outside the box of what would be expected of them?
Yes, be true to your spirit as a storyteller and respect the craft, which means taking your writing very seriously and learning as much as you can from the masters.

Thank you again for this opportunity, Valerie. If our readers would like to find out more about you online or purchase your books, how can they do so?
There’s my website It promises a blog, but I must confess, I haven’t begun blogging yet. I hope to start a blog very soon. Most of my books can be purchased through, and other book outlets.

And thank you so much, Cyrus, for giving me the opportunity to talk to readers!

Monday, August 11, 2008

"Take Ten" with author Sam Love

Author Sam Love came to the attention of Conversations in early 2008 and has kept our attention every since. The 61 year old native of Aliceville, Alabama has taken his love of the 60s and brought readers an enjoyable, unforgettable tale in the book ELECTRIC HONEY. Though written years ago, the message and social issues it addresses are beneficial for every generation as you will see in this interview.

• Sam, Thank you for taking out the time to talk with Conversations. Before we get into your book ELECTRIC HONEY, I want to talk about your desire to write. Where did it come from? Is it something you always knew you wanted to do?
Thank you for the work you do promoting books. I’ve often wondered why I have a desire to write. Something inside me keeps pushing me. I am a mix of Scott and Irish and they have a great tradition of story telling. I have a feeling it is one of those genetic problems medical science can’t cure.

• I am always curious as to what authors enjoy reading and how much it coincides with the time period they write about. What about you? If I was to visit you at home, what would I find on your bookshelves?
I have always enjoyed the off beat. I loved “Gods in Alabama” for example or any of the books by Carl Hiaasen and Jodi Picoult. I just finished “The Diamond Cutter” about a Buddhist monk who goes to work in the diamond district in New York. I am also reading books now about the psychology of the workplace as research for another writing project.

• ELECTRIC HONEY takes us through several generations, however, the main story takes place in the sixties. What was it about that time that drew you to it?
I lived through the sixties and some of my friends didn’t. I also feel we are living in a culture where memory is disappearing. We are overloaded with noise and information and our brains are forced to shed anything they don’t need to function. I reference this in the Disclaimer in the front of “Electric Honey”: “Much of this story relied upon my memory of Mississippi in the 1960’s and since memory is disappearing from our culture, the story has all the accuracy of a fairy tale.” I have thought about making a bumper sticker that says, “Remember Memory”.

I do think the sixties was a period that many people want to forget. Parents are not proud of some of the things they did. The conservatives have also attacked some of the alternative values young people explored during that time. The peace, women’s, and civil rights movements all opened up a Pandora’s box of questions about a white male dominated, materialistic and militaristic society. It led to clashes in the culture that are still happening. I heard a debate last night on TV about the role of alpha males in corporations. Much of this discussion I first heard 40 years ago. I even have a section in “Electric Honey” that describes a meeting where the women break off into a “consciousness raising” session on “sister power”. They discuss the role of women in the meeting and return to the main group with a list of demands. As they start listing their demands, some Neanderthals drive by in a pickup and fire a shotgun blast into the meeting. As odd as this seems today, it happened and I was there when the building got shot up in Mississippi. For years too many people voted with their shot guns in the state.

• For those who are just finding out about ELECTRIC HONEY, give them a little bit of an overview as to what the book is about?
I create an interesting cast of characters from the time. I first wrote the book from the third person perspective, but I couldn’t make it work—too dry. I then rewrote it from the perspective of a young woman struggling with some of these issues and her mother, who worked for a right wing conservative who attacks the youth revolution as a way to gain a political platform. So, I have two women characters on opposite sides of the cultural clash. Both of them are honest about their worldview. One is seeing her safe, conservative world challenged and the other is involved in questioning the old Southern culture. It gives me a classic protagonist and antagonist clash. Of course, they do have a bond and only time allows the daughter to develop more of an appreciation of her mother’s perspective. Interestingly enough this clash is still going on. I just saw a McCain commercial that talks about the excesses of the sixties’ hippies and how he represents the real patriotic America. This is right out of one of Colonel Billy’s speeches in “Electric Honey” (Colonel Billy is the right wing zealot who is the mother’s lover). One interesting thing about the current presidential race is that some people are too young to have experienced the culture war and none of this resonates with them. I actually thought we needed to parody the conservatives and get a good laugh at the absurdity of some of the things they believe.

I actually wrote one of the love scenes as a military maneuver and some women wince when they read it, but I had never seen that in fiction before and I thought it might symbolically capture the ongoing battle between men and women.

One interesting audience I never expected is young people who lived in Russia and the Eastern bloc. The book chronicles the anti-Communist phobia of the time (young people today don’t realize how “Communists” were the ultimate boogey men). I have had several people from Russia, Poland and Belarus read the book and they are fascinated at Colonel Billy’s anti-Communist rhetoric.

• What stood out to me the most about the book, Sam, was the way the mother and daughter in the book weren’t as different as they might have seemed to each other. When you look at what is considered the “generational divide” today, do you think a lot of it is just because we don’t take the time to get to know each other?
I actually think every generation rebels, but the cultural rebellion in the sixties was bigger and more challenging to the accepted social values. I don’t doubt that all of us have some of the same basic motivations and that developing a better understanding of each other can lead to more tolerance for the other’s views. I really see the “generational divide” today as a function of those of us from the sixties who are now getting too old to run things and leadership is being passed to a new generation who are facing some huge problems. Solving these problems is going to take all of us working together. We can’t afford any divides now.

• There is an interesting story about the title of the book. Tell our readers about the supposed “Electric Honey” that was talked about between Bobby Joe, Peach and her mother.
The title “Electric Honey” comes from a rumor I heard when I was a student in Mississippi that bees would fly through the fence that surrounds the government sponsored marijuana farm at the University of Mississippi and pollinate the plants. They would bring back the marijuana pollen and create a very special honey that shared the buzz. In researching the book, I found some references to bees doing this so it is likely true. In the book, this “electric honey” weaves in and out of the characters’ lives on both sides of the cultural divide.

• In a world where perception is reality, what is the largest parallel you see between the world today and the world you write about?
I am often amazed at the parallels. People are questioning the wars in the Middle East just like they did the Vietnam war. I just read a discussion that Obama may have to bring back the draft, which was a really contentious issue in the sixties. The recession is forcing some of the economic issues about women in the work place. It is also creating a collapse of the materialist culture. The fears of Communists are gone, but we have replaced it with a fear of Muslims and “terrorists”. It does seem like gays are making progress, but the cultural clash about sexual freedom is still with us. Some of the rumors being spread about Obama’s historic bid for the White House have echoes of the ugly racism of the fifties and sixties.

• At the end of the day, Sam, what do you hope people take from ELECTRIC HONEY?
I would love for someone to take away the idea that this would make a really entertaining movie that could give us a good laugh about some of the absurdities of the sixties. The book has already inspired a song by Tom Pacheco, “Big Jim’s Honey”, about a farmer whose honey sales take off because his neighbor is planting marijuana. It’s actually a great song, which audiences love. Maybe it will be the “Alice’s Restaurant” of the 21st century.

“Electric Honey” is more of a fun-filled chronicle of a time that we are conveniently forgetting than a book with any serious idea that will save the planet. In the opening sentence Peach talks about how the book chronicles a time when “my life flirted with magic”. We could use a little magic now to pick up our spirits.

• The book was originally released a couple of years ago. Are you surprised that it is still being talked and written about today?
This book is a tribute to the fact that the publishing industry is undergoing radical changes. I think we are actually entering a “Golden Age” for poetry and fiction. We are seeing a parallel in publishing to what happened with film that allowed the “Indie Film Movement” to flourish. I first wrote the book about 25 years ago and after a number of rejections, it sat in the drawer. It was on a disc so old I could not find a computer that could read the document file, but a friend had an old one he was throwing out. It had an old version of WordStar on it and it read it. I then started work shopping the novel here in New Jersey and got some very good criticisms that led me to rewrite it. I was also encouraged that some women in New Jersey who write romance fiction were intrigued with the story. We all know what happened with the sixties in California, New York and London, but very little has been written about how it played out in the heart of the country in places like Starkville, Mississippi.

Now with the changes in the publishing industry and the internet, it is possible to get “independent” fiction out. That makes this book possible. Otherwise, I would have gone to my grave with these wonderful characters trapped on a computer disc that archaeologists couldn’t read. We really are seeing a renaissance of poets and story tellers now and it is exciting. Your work with Conversations is a perfect example of sharing some of this excitement and helping unknown voices find an audience. Your work is critically important as bookstores close and newspapers cancel book review sections. I think the culture will be a better place for it. Keep on blogging.

Nothing excites me more than when someone discovers the book and it resonates with them. One exciting aspect of today’s literary market place is that books can now have a longer life. They don’t have to be published and sell in one month before they are remaindered. You can now reach a world wide audience with the internet and that was impossible a few years ago.

• Thank you for your time. If our readers want to find out more about you, the book and your upcoming projects, where can they find you online?
Thank you for this opportunity. They can check my web site or purchase the book on Amazon. Some sellers of used books are already trying to get over $50 a copy for some of the copies I have signed. This is either wishful thinking or they know it is odd enough it could be a collector’s item.

Electric Honey was chosen as one of Conversations Book Club's "Top 20 Summer Reads of 2008". This is definitely one book you don't want to miss out on. Thank you Sam for sharing with us. We are better because of authors like you.