Who does she think she is?

27 Nov 2005

An Interview with best selling author Benilde Little by Pamella Bailey

Benilde Little is the author of the bestselling novel Good Hair. Little’s follow-up novel, The Itch, was published in 1998, followed by Acting Out in 2003.  Little was formerly a senior editor at Essence and a contributing editor at Heart and Soul. Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, Little graduated from Howard University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. She also attended graduate school at Northwestern University.

I caught up with Benilde by telephone from her home in New Jersey, to discuss her latest novel Who Does She Think She Is?

AfroToronto:  I really enjoyed the novel.  I found it interesting to hear from the perspective of three different generations.  How did you prepare to write from such very different perspectives?

Benilde:  I couldn’t be in a 26 year old head the whole time.  It’s 20 years ago for me.  That was the main thing.  I wanted a perspective of what Aisha was saying and doing.  Originally the book was called Three Weddings.  I was going to write about each person separately, Geneva, Camille and Aisha and each of their relationships.  But Aisha just kind of took over.

AfroToronto:  Aisha is a very strong woman who knows what she wants.  Where did you get the inspiration for her character and her story?

Benilde:  I was toying with the idea of doing a book just on Miles, who is in all the books except Acting Out.  My mother was planning a wedding, she’s in her seventies.  It was a renewal of her vows but with the white wedding dress, the whole thing.  It was so hilarious and poignant.  My mother never talked about missing anything, so I had no idea this was so important to her.  I think a wedding is so important to many women.  The story kind of evolved from there.

AfroToronto:  Is any part of the novel autobiographical?

Benilde:  My mother is a piece of work.  She is one of seven sisters who are very intense, strong, no nonsense women.  Geneva is similar to my mom in some ways.  Miles is also somewhat autobiographical.  I had an ex boyfriend who got married in his 40’s for the first time to someone significantly younger.  For the most part though, you get farther away from that the more books you write.  Good Hair was very much about my childhood.  When I create main characters I imagine what would have happened if…I could have been Ina the main character in my last book.  Aisha and her story about an interracial relationship comes from women I know in similar relationships.

AfroToronto:  In the novel all three women are faced with choosing between marrying a “comfortable” man or an “intriguing” one.  What are the messages about marriage you want to send to your readers?

Benilde:  You’re the first person to ask that question.  That is an important theme in the novel. You gotta marry the person that does “it” for you.  By “it” I don’t just mean sex.  That person needs to be someone you would have as a friend.

AfroToronto:  The main male characters, Will and Miles were quite similar in that they didn’t seem to know themselves or what they wanted in a relationship.  What were your thoughts in developing these male characters?

Benilde:  I don’t quite agree with your view of Miles.  Although he waited until he was in his 40’s to marry, I think there were good reasons.  It wasn’t an accident that he waited until his mother was dead.  He was incredibly close to his mother.  He was with Natasha in The Itch, and almost got married but then couldn’t go through with it.  This isn’t unusual for people with such a complex nature.  He also comes from a poor background and has worked hard for his money.  It takes awhile to get settled down especially when you have a lot of money.  Will is also an interesting character.  I read a lot about people from varying backgrounds, all extremes.  He does have a level of comfort with himself.  He always wanted to be different from his group. Marrying a black girl would be another “Will” thing to do.

AfroToronto:  Did any of the characters do anything you were not expecting?

Benilde:  Abby (Aisha’s white grandmother).  She was supposed to come for a visit and that was it. But she kept coming up in various places in the novel.  That was a pleasant surprise.  The relationship with Cedra and Aisha was another surprise. I didn’t know it would take that turn.  I also didn’t know who Aisha would end up with.

AfroToronto:  What kind of research did you do for this novel?

Benilde:  Originally I was going to write about three weddings so I was going to a lot of wedding shops.  I read Towne and Country to talk about the houses.  But most of it is stuff I consume along the way, until I need it.

AfroToronto:  Who are the authors that inspire you or impact your writing style?

Benilde:  There are lots of authors.  I’m looking to read John Irving’s newest book.  He says sometimes you write about something, thinking you are making it up, but then it turns out to really be true.  Amy Tan’s first book was about her mother in China.  She made it up, then found out it was true.  I find that fascinating.  I’m also reading Connie Briscoe’s latest book.  I recently finished the Biography of Alice Walker.

AfroToronto:  What is the most rewarding aspect of being a writer?

Benilde: When the magic happens.  Starting a book is hell.  You know at some point it will come together.  I love it when you have put in the work and the characters start talking back to you saying that’s not who I am, this is who I am.  I also love meeting the readers and hearing what they have to say.  I am honored they are with me on the journey and are getting something from what I put down.  I also love that I can work in my pajamas.

AfroToronto:  What are you working on next?

Benilde:  I have  a couple of ideas.  It took about two years to write this novel.  At the moment I’m working on promoting it.  I will start writing again in the fall.  I have an idea for a children’s book, The Poodle and The Pug.  My daughter wants to adopt a poodle.  We’ve been looking online.  The poodle has to be adopted with this pug.  They would not be separated.  Should be a cute children’s story.

AfroToronto:  I hear you are on tour, any plans to come to Toronto?

Benilde:  Not at the moment.  But I have heard so much about Toronto.  I’d love to come someday.


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