BEFORE THE LIVE BN CHAT, BEBE MOORE CAMPBELL AGREED TO ANSWER SOME OF OUR QUESTIONS:
barnesandnoble.com: You are a commentator for National Public Radio, a contributing editor for Essence magazine, a regular contributor to numerous publications, and a New York Times bestselling author. Which of these commendable tasks do you enjoy doing the most? Why?
Bebe Moore Campbell (BMC): I consider myself fortunate because I have such a variety of outlets for my work. I like writing commentaries for National Public Radio; doing pieces for Morning Edition gives me a chance to put my own spin on news events. If I feel passionate about something that's going on in the world, I can speak my mind and perhaps stimulate other people to think. I'm always grateful to have a chance to address the Essence audience, my own community of African American women. I have a personal stake in sorting out issues that I write about for them. When I explore a topic for Essence readers, I do it also to help myself.
I have to admit that I most enjoy writing novels. Fiction allows me to stretch out and feel the story I'm creating. As a novelist, I have the ultimate power. I can invent places and characters. It's exciting to hear characters talking in my head, challenging to envision how things will play out. The process of building a series of events, of letting them flow from beginning to middle to end, intrigues me. Writing a novel frees me to be as creative as I can be.
BN: How has your teaching experience influenced your writing?
BMC: I consider my books a continuation of that profession, in that I try to impart a message. In YOUR BLUES AIN'T LIKE MINE, I attempted to teach how bad racism is, how it wounds both blacks and whites. In BROTHERS AND SISTERS, I tried to teach people how to get along with those who are different from them. In SINGING IN THE COMEBACK CHOIR, the lesson is that anyone who is willing to work hard deserves a second chance. That lesson is an old one -- try, try again -- but it's still valid.
BN: How do you like living in Los Angeles?
BMC: I've lived here for 14 years. I hated the city for the first two, and I've loved it ever since. It's beautiful and spacious; people are energetic, health-conscious, and open to new ideas. Of course, the business of making films dictates the local culture, and that can mean a lot of superficiality. I've learned to steer clear of people who lunch their lives away and don't have anything substantive to say. Even though L.A. has its share of ditsy folks, it's hard not to feel inspired by a place that never stops blooming.
BN: Who are some of your favorite contemporary authors? What about some of your literary influences?
BMC: I admire the work of Joyce Carol Oates, Anna Quindlen, Walter Mosley, Octavia Butler, Terry McMillan, Pete Dexter, Oscar Hijuelos, James Alan McPherson, and others. I have been greatly influenced by Toni Morrison. She is constantly evolving and taking her readers to another level. As for other literary influences, I would mention Wharton, Dreiser, Dickens, Ann Petry, James Baldwin, the Bront's, as well as Shakespeare. I try to read as widely as I can.
BN: How autobiographical would you consider SINGING IN THE COMEBACK CHOIR?
BMC: Every novel I've written has had a little of me in it. SINGING IN THE COMEBACK CHOIR is about Maxine, a 37-year-old television executive producer living in Los Angeles, and Lindy, her 76-year-old grandmother. It's the story of how their mutual love and support enables both of them to have a second chance. And it's also about how that love expands to embrace an entire community that needs the same kind of comeback. I see a lot of my own grandmother in Lindy, and when I created scenes with her and Maxine, all I had to do was imagine Nana and me having a conversation. I grew up in Philadelphia, so I'm familiar with neighborhoods like Lindy's. I've felt the same ambivalence that Maxine feels about where she comes from. The characters I've created, though, are original; I've borrowed a little bit here and there from "real life," but mostly they come from my imagination.
Moderator: We are pleased to have Bebe Moore Campbell here tonight to discuss her book SINGING IN THE COMEBACK CHOIR. Ms. Campbell, do you have any opening remarks?
Bebe Moore Campbell: I am on the
beginning of my book tour, and I am gratified by the responses of my readers. Thanks for
continuing to support me.
Arlene from St. Louis: In this book the successful main character is forced to return home but learns something from the experience. Do you really think it's necessary for African-Americans to go back home to be successful?
BMC: I don't think it is necessary or
even possible for black people to live only in black communities. I do think it is
important that all of us remain connected to these communities, if only emotionally so.
Where there are businesses there, we should support them. I think to disengage emotionally
from the communities that nurtured us is a mistake.
Jill from Beverly Hills, CA: Did you choose a talk-show career for Maxine because of the skewed representations that talk shows present to the public?
BMC: I wanted to create a character who
is conflicted about being in a profession that gave her a great deal of status. We are
such a media-conscious society that anyone working in the upper levels of TV production is
deemed a success. I wanted a character who questioned the meaning of such success and
yearned for work that would give her emotional gratification.
John from Kansas City: Jazz and the impact it had on Lindy plays a predominant role in your book. What do you think of rap music and the affect it has on people today?
BMC: I like the poetry of rap and the
fact that so many young people who aspire to be rappers have to be writers and poets. Rap
is encouraging young people to be creative and to read. I don't like the impact of
gangsta' rap. I think it has sometimes created violence among our youth. On the other
hand, I do like the realness of some of the rappers. This music has created an open,
honest forum that allows young people to express their feelings. It has given society a
new kind of freedom of expression.
Lauren from Santa Monica: I've heard you on NPR. I've read a lot about how public radio and television should be privatized. What do you think about the subject?
BMC: I think in order to earn
much-needed revenue, NPR and public TV are going to be forced to take on more and more
sponsorship from various businesses and foundations. I hope most will be satisfied with a
mere mention of their product as opposed to full-blown commercials. To privatize these
entities will mean they will become more profit-driven. I think that would ruin the
chances for the types of programs that have become their specialties.
Sarah from New York: I just got SINGING IN THE COMEBACK CHOIR and I loved it. I saw on the back of the book that Washington Post Book World said you will be remembered as the most important African-American novelist of this century -- except for, maybe, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin. What did you make of that when you read it for the first time, and what do you think of it today?
BMC: I send the woman who wrote that a
check every month. Seriously, I think I am still aspiring to live up to her words.
Michael from San Francisco, CA: You portray Lindy as a churchgoer. Do you really think the church can turn around a lot of the problems that exist today without alienating people who aren't moral according to church doctrines?
BMC: Lindy wasn't a churchgoer. She was
a "backslider." I think churches can be relevant and influential if they have
the proper leadership. I am sure Lindy and any other thinking person wouldn't remain part
of a church that doesn't serve her needs.
Margo from Washington, D.C.: As a mother, do you feel that you've been able to teach your children to be enterprising, successful adults in today's society and yet still be aware and respectful of their heritage?
BMC: Both my daughter and my stepson
saw my husband and me working hard to be productive adults. We were good role models for
going after what we wanted. I also made them learn about black history even when they
didn't want to. I remember locking them in the bedroom and making them watch African
American history specials while they wailed in protest. So I think they are balanced in
Mary from Huntsville, Alabama: Since you live in L.A., would you ever consider having one of your books made into a movie? Who would you cast for Maxine?
BMC: I hope my book becomes a film.
Halle Berry, Angela Bassett, Vanessa Williams come to mind for the role of Maxine.
Tonya from Cleveland, OH: What do you think about the portrayal of single-parent families in the media?
BMC: I think such portrayals probably
are not balanced. There is a tendency to view such families as in trouble, when in fact
they may be providing a healthy environment for children. I do, however, believe that the
two-parent family gives the most support to a child. Still, single parents do manage to
rear successful children. I know my mother did...
Kelly from Denver, Colorado: Do you think it's fair to be labeled an African-American woman writer when Caucasian writers aren't labeled by their race?
BMC: I don't mind being called what I
am. I do mind the implication that because I am a black female writer, my work is only to
be read by other black women. My books are for everyone.
Dan from Detroit, MI: Do you always feel that your newest book is your favorite book? Do you have favorites?
BMC: I don't have favorite books. Lindy
from SINGING IN THE COMEBACK CHOIR and Lily from YOUR BLUES AIN'T LIKE MINE are my
Darren from Tulsa, OK: How did you get your first book published?
BMC: The catalyst for my first book,
SUCCESSFUL WOMEN, ANGRY MEN was a magazine article of the same title that I wrote for
SAVVY magazine. At the time I wanted to write a novel, but after ten years of getting
rejected, I decided to write a book based on the article to see if I could get my foot in
the door. The book did well, and then I was able to write my next book, and after that one
I finally began writing novels. I was rejected for five years before I was able to get
anything in print.
Robin Warshaw from Elkins Park, PA: Hi, Bebe. Can you tell the group a little about where your vision of these characters came from?
BMC: Hi Robin! How is everything going?
My characters are a blending of real people and a lot of imagination. My character Lindy,
for example, is a combination of my own grandmother and the blues singer Alberta Hunter.
There is also a piece of poet Paul Laurence Dunbar's subject Malindy from the poem WHEN
MALINDY SINGS. Her attitude and take on life come from my mind. Before I create characters
they start talking to me, in my mind. And after a while they tell me who they are, how
they speak, and what they look like. Say hi to Craig and give Rebecca a kiss. See you when
I get to Philly.
Ruth from Ames, Iowa: I keep thinking about the scene where Maxine is sweeping the front porch and Mrs. Kelly comes out and thanks her for cleaning her stoop. Mrs. Kelly says she remembers Maxine playing with her little girls, while Maxine remembers not being allowed to. But then Kane and Able say they get cookies from Mrs. Kelley all the time. What made Mrs. Kelley change?
BMC: Mrs. Kelly probably changed
because of her loneliness. When her own family abandoned her, she had to reach out to the
people around her. The older people remembered her as a racist, and so she befriended the
children. In the process she revised her own personal history so that she was able to see
herself as a good person. She needs to continue growing.
Nikki from Las Vegas: Do you consider yourself an African-American first, or a woman?
BMC: It is really hard to separate the
two. Some days I feel real black and other days I feel real female. It depends on the
Michelle Williams from College Park, GA: In your book, you describe Maxine's coming home in a not-so-well-to-do neighborhood. Did you grow up in a neighborhood similar to that?
BMC: My neighborhood was like the one
Maxine grew up in. It was a prosperous street of row houses. Inside those houses were
lower-middle-class black people who were searching for better lives for their children.
When I return to that neighborhood, I don't find the same pride that once was there, but I
do find that the core values haven't changed.
Ginger from Richmond, VA: What was the last book that you read that you liked? Do you only read new works, or do you sometimes go back and read older works, too?
BMC: PARADISE by Toni Morrison. I
certainly do read the classics and other older works.
Moderator: Thank you so much for joining us this evening. Do you have any closing remarks that you would like to make?
BMC: Thanks for all the great questions. It is wonderful to hear from my readers.