Welcome to the Sweetest Debut, a new and regular installment in which we reach out to debut (or near-debut, we’re flexible!) fiction, poetry and nonfiction authors working with presses of all sizes and find out about their pop culture diets, their writing habits, and their fan-fiction fantasies.
Our very first respondent is Nicole Dennis-Benn, author of this summer’s Here Comes The Sun, a novel about a family of Jamaican women that has bowled over critics. “Haunting and superbly crafted, this is a magical book from a writer of immense talent and intelligence,” says Kirkus, in one of many glowing reviews.
What is your elevator pitch to folks in the industry describing your book?
Here Comes the Sun follows the lives of three women — a mother and her two daughters — caught in the shadow of the booming tourism industry that threatens their village. It captures “the other side of paradise,” exploring issues of identity, race, colorism, classism, sexuality, love, and belonging.
What do you tell your relatives it’s about?
I use the same elevator pitch with family. After all, I practiced it on them first — especially my in-laws — before I pitched it to anyone else!
How long was this project marinating in a draft or in your head before it became a book deal?
The idea arose during a 2010 trip back home to Jamaica; I started writing it in 2012 and by 2015 I had a book deal.
Name a canonical book you think is totally overrated.
The Bible. I think it’s the best fiction out there, but somehow it’s often placed in the nonfiction category. It would’ve been a lot better if Eden, Ruth, Jezebel, Mary, and Mary Magdalene had chapters, too.
A book you’ve read more than two times.
Sula by Toni Morrison. I read it at least once a year, and each time I get something new from it. The thrill of the plot twists I experienced the first time never goes away.
A book or other piece of art that influenced your writing for this particular project?
Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu, who depicts the exploitation and eroticization of the black female body through a feminist lens. My favorite piece by her is “Misguided Little Unforgivable Hierarchies,” a totemic structure of three women that I interpret as a family tree showing the legacy of violence, desire, and hurt resulting from colonization.
Your favorite show to binge watch when you’re not writing?
I have so many since I absolutely love watching television! Between writing breaks I often watch Scandal, House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Empire, and The Wendy Williams Show.
What’s the last movie you saw in theaters?
Joy, starring Jennifer Lawrence as Joy Mangano. A beautiful film with an inspirational, triumphant storyline.
Do you listen to music while you’re writing? If so, what kind?
I write in silence but I love music and, when I’m not writing, might play an album that’s relevant to a story I’m working on. While writing Here Comes the Sun, I played reggae artist Buju Banton’s album Til Shiloh. It captures the struggle ofJamaica’s working class and poor communities, which echoes the sentiments in my book.
Buzzing coffee shop or silent library?
Neither. I love writing in my home study where I can scatter books and papers and photographs of the people and places I write about. I also enjoy working alone at residencies, especially if they’re located in the woods — I love looking out at the trees.
Desk, bed or couch?
I prefer writing at a desk. I move to the couch when I’m editing. I reserve the bed for reading and sleeping.
Morning writing or late-night writing?
I prefer morning to late afternoon. My thoughts flow more easily then. I also like to rise with the rest of the world, get dressed, and go to work on my computer during regular work hours. This gives me structure.
Writing it all out in one big messy draft and then editing, or perfecting as you go (or something in between)?
Somewhere in between. I tend to write a messy draft then go back and edit for a week or two. When I go away and come back, I always realize there’s something more to the story.
How do you pay the bills, if not solely by your pen and your wit?
I’m a college writing professor and I run my own workshop — Stuyvesant Writing Workshop in Brooklyn, which is currently on hiatus as I tour to promote my novel. I also have a very supportive spouse! All of the above give me the freedom to write.
What is your trick to finding time to write your book while also doing the above?
I’m one of those writers who can write anytime, anywhere. I’m always writing. On the subway I’m constantly daydreaming, which in my eyes qualifies as writing, too. I like to scribble down ideas wherever I go, and to snap pictures of people who fit the description of characters I’d like to explore or of places I could see my characters inhabiting.
If you could write fanfiction about any pop culture character, real or imagined, who would it be?
I’d write about Beyoncé. How could I not? She’s one of the best and hardest working entertainers in the world today. “Lemonade” is my summer jam.