Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Writer's Block Interviews: Derrick Barnes

1) Tell us a bit about yourself and where you live and work.

I am a 1) husband, 2) father, 3) and a pretty decent children's book author. I work and live smack dead in the middle of the country in Kansas City, MO. I have a BA in Marketing from the greatest historically Black college/university in the country; Jackson State University. I became the first Black man, in the history of Hallmark Cards, in 1999, to be hired as a copywriter. I have currently 8 published children's literature titles in print.

2) How did you become an author? What do you want your legacy to be?

While working at Hallmark, in 2002, I landed a literary agent by the name of Regina Brooks of Serendipity Literary Agency; there was an illustrator at Hallmark who was represented by Regina. He gave me her information, I sent her a collection of short stories I was working on at the time, and we agreed on a contract some weeks afterwards. Maybe a month or two after that she landed my first two books deals with an African American imprint created by Scholastic (Just For You). Stop, Drop, and Chill and the Low Down Bad Day Blues were released in the spring of 2004.

I take my responsibility as an artist extremely serious. I want my body of work to exist long after I'm gone as a catalog of children's literature that inspired children of all races, nationalities, and walks of life.

3) Describe your body of work. Do you gravitate toward specific genres in your writing?

Before I began a new project, I always scour the landscape and take note of the characters, voices, and stories that are not being represented or told. I always try to create beautiful, realistic, perfectly flawed characters of color. I write for all age ranges but seem to gravitate more towards middle school readers more often.

4) My daughter is a huge fan of your Ruby and the Booker Boys series.  (She has me reading them now!) Who or what inspired these stories? How does your latest release, We Could Be Brothers, compare to the Ruby series and other books that you have written?

Bless you and your amazingly brilliant daughter. She has great literary taste. The series was initially named The Booker Boys. It starred the three Booker boys, narrated by Tyner Booker and they grew up in a single parent household. After shopping it to numerous publishing houses and being turned down, I put the series to the side for a couple of years. Even after adding a dad and a precocious little sister named Ruby, we still couldn't get it sold. My wife suggested that I pull the series back out, but this time make the little sister the main character. I did. and the rest is history. After rewriting the manuscripts and offering it to Scholastic, we ending up signing a four book deal with them.

We Could Be Brothers was my first hardcover release and my first attempt at middle grade literature. WCBB is essentially a three day conversation between two African-American boys ages, 12 and 13, that come from two different socioeconomic backgrounds and family structures.One comes from a single parent household, and has a ton of responsibility . The other comes form an upper middle class family, and his father is a daily, active, positive influence on his life. After having a conversation with my eldest son about how most of his friends don't live with both of their parents, more specifically without their fathers, I became very interested in how those daily conversations are conducted. How does having a dad and not having one dictate those conversations, how they see each other, and the world around them. The title came from a conversation the two main characters had about the dreaded "N" word. Pacino Clapton asks Robeson Battlefield, "If I can't call you my #igga, then what will I call you when I see you in the hallway?" Robeson responds, "Brother. We Could Be Brothers."

5) What kinds of challenges (if any) in the publishing industry do you face as a person of color writing about people of color?

There are a multitude of things that frustrate me from different entities in this industry. But I guess if you polled most authors, their complaints and beefs would be about the same: not enough support from the publisher, not enough support from particular media outlets, not enough retail/trade support from a particular demographic. But the truth is, as in any other industry, no one knows your audience better than you do. You have to go after the readers. Its really not the publisher's, or radio and television personality's job, per se, to push your books. It's all up to you. I try not to complain, just keep writing, keep working hard and reaching out to as many people as possible. I'm an eternal optimist. I wake up every morning and believe something good is going to happen. Every single day. That's God.

6) How do you promote your work? What methods have worked best for you?

Max out Facebook, Twitter, YouTube. Reach out to blogs and websites that are frequented by my target audiences. I pinpoint school districts, randomly, and email a form email I created, aimed at reading teachers, and media specialists/librarians, and principals.

7) Who are your favorite authors? What is on your reading list right now?

Langston Hughes is huge. Walter Dean Myers is the truth. R. L. Stine. Malcolm Gladwell. Toni Morrison. And surprisingly, Chuck Palahniuk. I read a ton of autobiographical books. Checking out Amiri Baraka now.

8) Please tell us about your blog, “My Four Sons”, on How does your family inspire you?

My wife and sons are everything to me. They inspire every single action that I take. They motivate me to be a better father and husband. I want them to look up to me, to be proud of me. I feel so blessed to have been chosen to be a part of the lives of these five amazing human beings.

MyBrownBaby gave me an opportunity to write about the day in/day out adventures of being the dad of the Mighty-Mighty-Mighty-MIGHTY Barnes brothers. They are so different and provide me with a multitude of challenges; having to approach these cats from different angles as it relates to education, discipline, motivation, conversation---it's a true blessing. I love it!

9) When you are not writing, how do you spend your time?

Most of my time is centered around my four sons and their activities and academics. When I'm not with the fellas, I'm with my queen, or working out at the gym. When I can squeeze in the time, I read. I'm also a huge jazz and classic hip-hop music fan.

10) What advice would you offer to aspiring authors?

Continue to develop your voice and writing style. Read as many authors with styles that you admire and that are similar to your own. Don't be in such a rush to get published. Landing an agent and a deal with a big publishing house may not be the route for you. Self publishing and pinpointing your own audience may be more fruitful for your project. Develop a business side; marketer, advertiser, promoter, budget analyst.

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