He Never Came Home – Interview with the author Regina R. Robertson

I must admit the first time I saw this cover and read this title I was immediately drawn in and was curious to see what this book was all about.  As soon as, I realized that it was a collection of essays written by women recounting life living without their fathers and their sometimesimg_3775 subsequent and turbulent reunions, I knew it was for me.  It’s the first time in a very long time that the back cover of a novel as truly spoken to me.  It was calling me.  Of course it was, since I too am a woman who grew up without my father.  I’m so glad I took the time to read it, ponder it, and even shed tears over it.  This is a must read for everybody.  Read below and discover Regina R. Robertson’s answers to my interview questions about her poignant debut novel He Never Came Home.

Me:  How did you get into writing?
Regina:  When I think back, I can admit that I was always a bit of a “closet writer.” As a kid, I spent a great deal of afterschool time at the library, read lots of books and was completely head-over-heels in love with magazines. I also loved my English classes. Oh, and I’m very proud to say that I was a master of sentence diagramming!

I studied marketing in college and after graduation, I landed my first “real job” at a record company. There, I did a lot of writing – marketing plans and such – and over time, I noticed that my writing stood out. That was probably the first time the “light bulb” switched on for me. Until then, I just assumed that everybody knew how to write.

After leaving the world of music and moving from New York to Los Angeles, I did some job-hopping in the film marketing and advertising industries. My paychecks covered the bills, to a point, but I wasn’t happy, at all. Then, on one fateful day in January 2001, I was fired from a job that I really hated. My immediate thought was, “What do you want to do with your life, like seriously? What will make you happy?” Because I’d always loved magazines, I figured I’d try my hand at writing for my favorite publications. My first writing assignments were press releases and artist bios…and I just kept building from there.

Me:  Could you tell my readers how He Never Came Home came to be?
Regina: He Never Came Home began its journey to publication as a 1,500-word article I wrote for Honey magazine entitled, “Where’s Daddy?” For that story, I interviewed three women who grew up without their fathers as well as an author who’d written a book on the subject and a psychologist. After the article ran (in October 2002), a colleague of mine, Tresa L. Sanders, asked why I hadn’t thought to interview her. Although I didn’t know her family history at the time, her question made me wonder how many other women saw their upbringing reflected in that story. That’s when I had the first thought about writing a book. Oh, and Tresa’s heartfelt story, “He Always Said, ‘I Love You,’” is featured in He Never Came Home, page 107.

More than a decade after that Honey article was published – and after enduring my fair share of rejection and many, many starts-and-stops – I scored a book deal, finally, and began my search for (and found) 21 brave women who trusted me to share their stories. So, it’s been quite a long road.

Me:  How did you go about writing the stories that were told to you? Was it difficult to do?
Regina:  Writing and editing the as-told-to stories was rather seamless. The biggest challenge was working around everybody’s schedule, but it was manageable. We got it done.

For these stories, I either hopped on the phone (with my out-of-town contributors) or scheduled a time for a sit-down (with my Los Angeles-based contributors). After each interview, I’d do my transcribing and think about where I wanted to start. Once I had the opening mapped out, I’d send along a few paragraphs to the contributor and ask, “Did I get it right? Is this your voice? Are those the facts?” Thankfully, the feedback was mostly along the lines of, “Yup, that’s what happened,” or “Wow, that really does sound like me!” From there, I’d continue crafting the story and we’d go back-and-forth with editing. In the case of Regina King (whose essay is entitled, “Redefining Family”), we were editing while she was juggling two, primetime shows and also, winning Emmy Awards! There were a few times when I’d missed a fact or didn’t understand a piece of a story, so I might have a quick follow-up call or a few frantic email exchanges.

Once I was all done, I sent the final version to the contributor and said, “Okay, this is what’s going in the manuscript…what do you think?” Each of my contributors were happy with the way their stories were told, even the tough parts. Ultimately, I wanted to make sure that everybody had the space to tell their story and “hear” their own voice when they read it.

Me:  The pacing of He Never Came Home was perfect. How did you decide the order of the stories?
Regina:  Writing and editing the book was therapeutic, but also quite taxing, emotionally. Once all of the stories were written and edited, I was actually quite excited about the sequencing process.

My plan had always been to section the book into three categories – distant, divorced, deceased. If I recall correctly, I whipped up the table of contents in a few hours, in a single day. I knew I wanted to open with a young woman’s voice, so I gave that slot to Niko Amber (“The Birthday Present”). Then I thought maybe my essay (“Death of a Stranger”) might be a good way to close the collection. From there, I looked over the list of contributors and thought about how their stories might flow together. Although everybody’s circumstances are different, I started to see that there was some “connective tissue,” if you will.

After I submitted the manuscript, my publisher thought the sequence was perfect! So, I’d say that writing the table of contents was the easiest part of my publishing journey!

Me:  He Never Came Home is your first book.  Will you be writing any fiction novels in the future or other non-fiction novels?
Regina:  Yes, He Never Came Home is my first book…and there are more to come! I’m definitely thinking about what I’d like to write about next, but I’m also trying to catch my breath. The publishing process is intense – worth it, of course, but intense! So, for now, I’m tossing around a few ideas and mapping out my next book proposal…in my head.

Me: Will you be exploring this theme of missing fathers in future novels?
Regina:  We shall see what comes to mind.

Me:  How has He Never Came Home been received by the public and in literary circles?
Regina:  So far, the response has been amazing. I’ve received such positive feedback from women, many of whom have shared with me their personal stories, whether on social media, at book signings or just out in the world. I’ve been quite surprised by the amount of feedback I’ve received from men, too. In fact, I had a man tell me that reading the book made him “want to be a better man.” That was really touching.

In literary circles, the response has been quite positive as well. Again, I’ve received such interesting feedback from men. Whether they are fathers or uncles or brothers, so many men were moved by the stories and seemed to have found some enlightenment about how important their presence is.

Me:  Would you consider making He Never Came Home in documentary form?
Regina:  Absolutely…and fingers crossed!

Me:  How and why did you get Joy-Ann Reid to write the foreword?
Regina:  During the entire time I was writing and editing the book, I was thinking about who I’d like to pen the foreword. As I got closer to my deadline, I started panicking. One of my contributors, Wendy L. Wilson – whose essay is entitled “That Day in April” and with whom I’d worked during her tenure as the News Editor at Essence – sent me a note suggesting Joy-Ann Reid.

In short, Joy-Ann had recently lost her mostly-absent dad and wrote a very personal Facebook status about how she felt about his passing as well as the ways his absence affected her family. When I read her words, my first thought was, “Wow, this piece could have been in the book.” Then I thought, “Wait…of course she should write the foreword!” After asking around, I found my way to her within about a week’s time and sent her an email outlining the project and asked if she might have time to talk. We scheduled a call, she heard my long-winded spiel – ha! – and she was onboard, which completely blew me away.

I sent her the manuscript and in response, she crafted the most wonderful opening for the book. Again, I was completely blown away and still am, honestly. She was supportive from the start and it means so much to me that she is a part of the project. And although it might sound a bit cliché, working with Joy-Ann was an absolute joy!”

Me:  Do you feel your book will bring more attention to this problem of girls growing up without their fathers?
Regina:  The book is shedding more light on the issue, for sure, and sadly, there are so many fatherless young girls and women out in the world whom are still unpacking their feelings.

The stories in the book are triumphant, which makes me quite proud. We all made it, or are making it, and I think that’s what speaks to readers. I want people to know that no matter where you come from or what you’ve been through, there can be love and light and hope on the other side of it all.

I’d like to extend a big thank you to Regina R. Robertson for agreeing to do this interview, in spite of her extremely busy schedule.  I enjoyed our brief connections around He Never Came Home and I wish you tremendous success for He Never Came Home and for your future writing.

My copy:  He Never Came Home – Regina Robertson – paperback, 208 pages

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Behold the Dreamers

snapseedThe immigrant story has been the central theme to quite a lot of contemporary novels these past few years.  The release of Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers may have first been perceived as another typical immigrant story to join all the others, but actually it’s much more.

I was sent a Net Galley uncorrected proof in exchange for an honest review, so I opted to listen to the audiobook while reading simultaneously.  The experience was very interesting because I got to see what was edited and how the change of a few words can give a passage a totally different feel. The general story of Behold the Dreamers is a family from Cameroon united after some time. We the reader follow their ups and downs to remain in the United States and to hopefully obtain the proper paper work.

The story begins with Jende who is going through an interview with Clark Edwards to become his chauffeur.  Happily, Jende gets the job and Behold the Dreamers evolves and explores the dynamic relationship between the Edwards, the rich American family and the Jongas, the Cameroonian immigrant family.  Honestly, this juxtaposition between the two families is brilliant.  Mbue tells this story while favoring none of the characters.  What works the best in this novel is that the characters feel as if they could be real people.  They aren’t all good or all bad. They are characters that have all the possibilities of making wrong and right decisions.  Despite the wrong things these characters do, the reader will automatically find at least one of them sympathetic.  You’ll even be able to understand why they do and why they do things, even when you won’t necessarily agree with them.  That made this immigrant story an extremely refreshing and fair retelling.

From the beginning, the growing relationship between these two families seems promising.  They add to each other’s lives while still remaining at a comfortable distance.  Following their connections with each other is as fragile as the American economy.  There  is a constant nagging feeling of dread that haunts the reader.  What will happen next?

The Edwards family have everything and from outward appearances things are perfect, and  the Jongas are a struggling family trying to maneuver the difficulties from everyday day life, education, family issues, immigration bureaucracy, and money problems.  The funny thing is that both families have similar problems and are both affected by the financial market crash.  The question is which family will fall perfectly on their feet?  Or will both? Or neither?  Mbue uses the market crash of 2008 to show that it was an equalizer of sorts when it came to the damage that Americans and immigrants felt – losing their jobs, their homes, and even family.

Mbue’s writing is direct yet, you will be surprised by where it leads you.  It’s amazing to read this debut novel from a young writer who has come into her gift without loads of  practice.  True passion and well written.  I’ll link the video below where she talks about how Behold the Dreamers came about.  It goes to show you that the simplest idea came become an interesting book.  They just need to be developed.  So, if  you haven’t read this book I strongly encourage you to pick it up or even listen to the audiobook, which was brilliantly read.  The accents were perfect and really added another dimension to the story as opposed to just reading the book, especially if you’re not familiar with Cameroonian accents.

Behold the Dreamer, 380 pages – Random House, March 2016

My Rating:  4 stars

Recommended to:  Readers who enjoy immigrant stories.

Audiobook:  Excellent

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Here Comes the Sun

Nicole Dennis-Benn’s debut novel explores living on the island of Jamaica.  Masquerading img_3150behind a jovial gay cover in bright orange, yellow, and green, Here Comes the Sun, starts gently and insidiously goes places we aren’t prepared for.  The novel revolves around three unlikable main characters – Delores, Margot, and Thandi, who form an unforgettable trio.  Delores is a mother preoccupied with money and not enough to the real well-being of her daughters.  Margot her oldest daughter is motivated to work in the hotel and she gets to the point of selling her body to hotel guests to earn enough money to pay for Thandi’s education and the family’s house expenses.  Thandi, Delores’ youngest daughter, is 15 years younger than Margot.  She’s brilliant in school and is searching to be loved and accepted.  All the family’s desires of escaping poverty in River Bank are tied up in the hopes of Thandi succeeding at school and eventually going to medical school to become a doctor.

The setting of this novel is River Bank a quiet little village situated near a resort hotel, where cruise ships make frequent stops with nonchalant tourists.  Life in poverty on an island can make people do things they would have never thought of doing to survive.  The way Dennis-Benn uses light and darkness to convey the moods of the characters and to set a scene is masterly.  Told with luscious language and poignant analogies, she accurately paints the picture of the horrific situations facing Jamaicans in little sleepy towns near luxurious high-rise resorts.  As I was reading this novel, it made me think of A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid and the rage that ran through the novel.

“The darkness claims her, encircles her with black walls that eventually open up into a path for her to walk through.  She takes a few steps, aware of the one foot in front of the other; of the strangeness creeping up her spine, wrapping itself around her belly, shooting up into her chest, The scent of the bougainvilleas that line the fence is like a sweet embrace. The darkness becomes a friendly accomplice. Yet, the familiar apprehension ambushes her: Can she be seen?  She looks over her shoulder  and contemplates the distance it would take for her to walk to her house from here.  A good mile.  She stands in front of the bright pink house that emerges from the shadows.  It seems to gloss in the dark….”(Here Comes the Sun, pp. 15-16)

Here Comes the Sun is a novel that mixes a good plot with excellent character development. It’s obvious that Dennis-Benn set out to depict a story showing the sociological implications of the difficulties people on the island face, while balancing the plot with pertinent themes such as homosexuality, mother/daughter relationships, colorism, sexism, class, race, missing fathers and of course the long-lasting effects of colonialism on the thoughts and behavior of the island people.  You’re probably thinking that this sounds like a lot to put in a 345 page book, but it’s brilliantly balanced, paced, and speaks clearly to the reader.

Having four generations living under the same roof was Dennis-Benn’s way of having the reader follow and understand the difficulties of each character.  Dolores is a horrible mother but her discourse is obviously that of the after effects of colonialism.  Money is the only thing that she believes will get them out of where they are.  She would subscribe to the expression – You gotta do what you gotta do.  Delores’ voice and a few of the other secondary characters like Charles, Miss Ruby, and Maxi are always in Jamaican dialect which roots the reader into the tradition of life in River Bank.  The dialect isn’t hard to understand.  Saying the lines out loud can help you understand the meaning better if you struggle with reading dialect.  Margot hiding her homosexuality, her deep hatred for her mother, and her desire to earn enough money to leave River Bank and set up elsewhere drive her throughout the story and the lengths she goes to make this happen are mind-blowing.  Thandi who has the weight on her shoulders to succeed in school to save her family from poverty and at the same time doesn’t feel accepted in her school;  has seemed to take in all the derogatory things she hears about dark skin.  “Tsk, tsk. Well, God played a cruel joke on you.  Because, chile, if yuh skin was as pretty as yuh hair, you’d be one gorgeous woman.” (Here Comes the Sun, p. 25)  Sadly, she is so sure that she’ll be accepted if her skin is lighter.

You’ll be glued from the moment you begin to read this story, anxious to find out what’s going to happen next, shocked as you’re pulled through all the twists and turns.  All the secondary characters are just as memorable as Delores, Margot, and Thandi.  The only real problem I had with Here Comes the Sun was the ending, to be exact the last chapter.  I was really disappointed to not get the closure I was hoping for once the novel was finished.  I wanted to know what happened to the characters.  Chapter 40 left me dissatisfied.  I really enjoyed all the other parts of the novel and felt they were perfect.  Unfortunately, the outcomes of the characters are left hanging and inferred.  It felt like she had no idea how to finish this book or maybe she was reluctant to end the book with all the loose ends perfectly tied up.  Could she have felt that ending the book this way shows that life goes on, as if we the readers were just witnesses to a part of these characters’ lives?  I’m wondering if maybe she plans on using these characters for another book.  That would make a great second book. 😉  So, have you read this one and if not are you interested in trying it?

My copy:   Here Comes the Sun, 345 pages

Rating: ****

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Hausfrau

Intense. Surprisingly addictive. Mounting intrigue. Anna is an American who has to all intent and purposes met and fallen in love with a Swiss called Bruno. He is tall good-looking, unwavering, and candid in his opinions. She has lived in Switzerland for 9 years and still doesn’t speak German fluently. Her life is evolving as if on autopilot. Switzerland and its people don’t seem to want to let her in or is it that she doesn’t want to fit in. After living 9 years in Germany the reader could probably assume that Anna doesn’t want to fit in (that’s what I assumed) and that she is just simply an unreliable narrator. However, I’d say that is not exactly the case.

hausfrauAnna is often very honest about her feelings to the reader and about the various events she goes through. She is also very clever with her scrutiny and descriptions of the different characters she has relationships with. The third person voice acts like a journal, where we hear her every thought – her fears, her loneliness, her desires.  Hausfrau has a similar voice that seems to be common at the moment in a few popular contemporary novels – female voice that’s raw and direct i.e. Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, etc. Fortunately, Anna’s voice is not annoying but realistic. Actually at some point, I felt sorry for her (didn’t last long) even though most of her problems stem from her incapacity to make proper choices and to evolve to something better.

Hausfrau’s structure is what gives it an originality that makes it interesting.  It explores more than just a  discontented housewife who’s trapped by home chores and such.   That’s because oddly enough most of the time we follow Anna when she’s outside of the house. The juxtaposition of German language grammar and pertinent statements and questions from her psychoanalyst, between reading about Anna’s dalliances, disclose thought-provoking reasons why Anna has difficulty adapting to life in Switzerland. In no way are all of those questions answered but there is a brilliant case made for how important some life decisions are and how they can affect us for the rest of our lives. The onset of Hausfrau felt like a typical unhappy housewife story, but in spite of that beginning it gradually won me over with its structure. It’s like reading about a train wreck ready to happen, but it’s a quick read and full of lots of twists and turns that will keep you entertained. The weaknesses of Hausfrau – the predictable ending and I would have liked to see Anna evolve into a stronger woman as the story unfolded, but she seems to remain unchanging in character, no development. She didn’t even seem desperate towards the end. It seems this type of contemporary novel featuring weak women is becoming regrettably trendy. Even though, it’s definitely a good read and looking forward to Essbaum’s future novels and I may even try to pick one of her other poetry collections.

Have you guys read Hausfrau? If so what did you think?

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#ReadSoulLit Photo Challenge – Day 10

Day 10 – a Black Book:

A black book is like saying the little black dress.  It’s a book that makes an impressive impact visually and IMG_1394for the content between its covers.  I chose Trumpet by Jackie Kay.  I haven’t read this one yet but I’m very familiar with Kay’s beautiful poetry and Red Dust Road and am sure it’s very good.  I have to thank Claire over at Word by Word for introducing her to me and Kesha from ke-sha Forsaken for gifting it to me.  I immediately thought of Trumpet for today’s challenge.  It’s a perfect fit.

“In the 1950s and 60s, Scottish jazz musician Joss Moody was celebrated for his sound:  everyone who heard it imagined they knew the man behind it.  But with the remarkable fact uncovered upon his death, it becomes clear that no one but his wife, Millie, knew him at all. A tapestry of brilliantly realized voices from Joss’s world reveals the startling and poignant story of Joss and Millie: how they built a love, a family, a life out of a complex, dazzling lie.” (back cover of Trumpet Pantheon edition)

What’s your black book of the day?

 

 

#ReadSouLit Photo Challenge – Day 9

Day 9 – Beautiful Edition:  

Well if you have followed you know how important today’s theme is to me.  Beautiful Edition!  Now I IMG_1389had a few ideas for this one but I decided to choose one of the books that I’m reading at the moment and that’s Jacinda Townsend’s Saint Monkey.  Couldn’t resist, it’s so beautiful.  It’s colorful, vibrant, attractive and the artwork is sensitive to the book’s subject.  I don’t know the name of the artist who painted the picture on the cover (wish I did), but the designer of the cover is Jaya Miceli, who has designed plenty of other beautiful covers.  I’m enjoying this novel so far and will be back with an in-depth review.  I’m currently on p. 50.  Name your beautiful edition(s).