Novelists Virginia DeBerry and Donna Grant share one voice
Published: Sunday, June 27, 2010, 12:03 AM Updated: Monday, June 28, 2010, 1:47 AM
By Karyn D. Collins
When Virginia DeBerry and Donna Grant are in full-on author mode as they have been this spring and summer, they are a happening — picture-perfect clothes, makeup and hair as befitting two former models (they met while working at the same agency for plus-size models); hugs with their fans; folksy stories about their lives and the places they’ve been.
“There are people we’ve seen every year when we come to their city,” says DeBerry, who lives in North Brunswick and turns 61 this month. “They feel this connection to us. It’s like a reunion.”
Grant says they like to have a good time with their fans.
“People reach out to us. They’ll hug us and everything. Hey, that’s fine. We like hugs,” says the 53-year-old writer who lives with her husband, Hiram Bell, in Brooklyn.
Readers have met DeBerry and Grant so often that they’ve even introduced the pair to family members over time.
“People bring their kids to meet us. We’ve had young adults and teenagers bring their parents. It’s amazing,” says DeBerry.
On their current book tour the writers are promoting “Uptown,” a family drama focusing on gentrification, an issue many black neighborhoods grapple with. The novel also reflects on other real-life issues such as the ongoing real estate and mortgage crises and their impact on the economy.
“Our book centers on a development in Harlem, but wherever we’ve gone, people say to us, ‘Your book is exactly like what’s happening in . . . ’ and they name some neighborhood in their community,” says DeBerry. “It’s happening everywhere. Everyone can relate.”
The story raises questions many in the black community have asked about black developers such as those in “Uptown,” says Grant.
“Do these developers owe something to the people who were already there? Do they owe it to their community to give back? Are they just taking advantage?” says Grant.
“Our books are about deep, personal relationships: friends, families,” says DeBerry.
The pair have been producing a novel almost every year for the last three years under a deal with Simon & Schuster. Their biggest hit, “Tryin’ to Sleep in the Bed You Made,” hit the New York Times best-seller list in 1997 and a feature-film adaptation is under development. Actress Regina King recently signed onto the project, they say.
DeBerry and Grant also had success with their 2004 book “Better Than I Know Myself,” which was on Essence magazine’s best-seller list.
Despite their success, the authors say they continue to fight to write the type of stories they believe in.
They say some publishers would prefer they write grittier, sexier urban books. They left their previous publisher for this reason, and DeBerry says she almost quit altogether. “We drew the line in the sand and said we will not write what I call a booty-thug book. It will not happen,” DeBerry says. “Everyone doesn’t want to read those. Just because we’re black authors doesn’t mean we want to or should have to write that type of a book.”
But the bigger issue, they say, is the way the publishing industry categorizes works by black authors. If you look for DeBerry and Grant novels in most stores, you won’t find them it in the fiction section. You’ll have to head to African-American literature.
“It’s a ridiculous catch-all category that has everything — thriller writers, mystery writers, the booty-thug books, romance writers and novelists like us,” says DeBerry. “As black authors, we get marginalized. We’re only marketed to black readers. We call it the Toni-and-Terry syndrome. If you’re not Toni Morrison or Terry McMillan, if you’re not writing about the past like Alice Walker, you get put in this one category.”
She adds that authors who aren’t black, but write about black characters, don’t seem to have the same problem. When fall arrives, DeBerry and Grant will retreat once again to their “writer cave,” where they will go into writer mode (virtual seclusion) at DeBerry’s home.
The two describe the process as a grueling marathon, in which they typically sit for days on ends at an L-shaped desk, trading turns at the computer keyboard as they write their book.
There is no perfectly groomed hair or makeup, no fan meet and greets. There are few moments of leisure, unless you count quick trips down the street to the grocery or drugstore, or into New Brunswick to clear their heads.
The last time around, DeBerry says, she filled up her car with gas around Thanksgiving and didn’t need to fill up again until St. Patrick’s Day.
Friends, relatives and even local merchants know the drill. Indeed, the ladies confess that one of their favorite restaurants in New Brunswick will drop off meals for them — just in case — if the two haven’t been heard from in a while.
“No trading e-mails — no, no, no. We sit right there side by side in our pajamas with our coffee. One of us types and the other one talks and then we switch; and we just go back and forth,” DeBerry says. “She can start a sentence and I’ll finish it. We like to say we are the author, singular. We are one voice.”
It’s a routine that, after 20 years, the women have perfected. This year they will begin work on their eighth novel, with a target publishing date of summer 2011.
“We’d love to say 2012 for the next book and take a break. But the publisher wants it sooner,” says DeBerry.
Such is the grueling life of best-selling novelists.
Maybe by 2011, their next book won’t be found just in the African-American section of bookstores. Grant says they’ve become increasingly vocal about the pigeonholing of black authors, writing letters to everyone from editors to librarians.
“We feel we have to speak up about this because this is our livelihood,” she says. “I think people understand where we’re coming from. We want to reach everybody. That’s really what we’re all about. We have stories that are universal.”