Solomon Jones, 44, and Karen E. Quinones Miller, 54, have much in common. Both were newspaper journalists in this town—Miller at the Inquirer, Jones at the Daily News (and, previously, here at PW ). Both attended Temple and later taught there. Both are now Essence-bestselling authors, with new novels out this month. And both are lucky to be alive.
Miller grew up in Harlem, where she earned her respect on streets that gave it grudgingly. Jones grew up in North Philly, where the struggle for survival was seemingly never-ending. The two learned strikingly similar lessons—among them, that adversity can always be overcome, if one has the will to fight.
That common realization would come in handy.
For Jones, it was a lesson that would redeem him after his struggle with drugs and homelessness in the 1990s. For Miller, it would help her battle through a brain tumor in 2005. For both, their respective determination to rise above their circumstances led to prolific writing careers here in Philadelphia, followed by acclaim from readers across the country.
Miller’s provocatively titled An Angry-Ass Black Woman (subtitle: “A Novel Based on True Life—Her Life”), published by Simon & Schuster imprint Karen Hunter Books, has been making waves since Oct. 2; The Dead Man’s Wife, the latest in Jones’ Detective Mike Coletti series, arrived in bookstores just last week. Days before their joint book-signing and reading at the Free Library on Nov. 1, Miller and Jones sat down to talk to each other about their lives, their books and the amazing journeys that shaped two of Philadelphia’s most distinctive storytelling voices.
Solomon Jones: I still remember when we met over 10 years ago. You were protesting the closing of a black bookstore in the Gallery at Market East, and you reached out to me to join the effort. I guess you could say you were an angry-ass black woman even then. Which leads me to my first question: You’ve been connected to stories and causes in Philadelphia for so long. Why do you set all your books in Harlem?
Karen Quinones Miller: Because Harlem is always in my heart. That’s how I identify myself. I’ve lived in Philadelphia for 25 years now, but when I’m out of town and people ask where I’m from, I always say “I’m from Harlem, but I live in Philadelphia now.” I love Philadelphia, but I’ve never quite understood it. I don’t quite get it. In Harlem, everybody is real, and that’s not to say Philadelphia isn’t, but in Harlem, everybody is real, and they’re very raw, and I don’t find that in Philly. Not to the extent that Harlemites are. A lot of times in Philadelphia, when I’m arguing with someone, I have to figure out what they’re really saying.
SJ: What do you mean?
KQM: In Harlem, a lot of the fights are over respect, not about material things. So in Harlem, if someone ripped off your chain, and you had a chance to get back at them, it’s not to get the chain back. It’s because they disrespected you. In Philadelphia, they want that chain back.
SJ: That’s because we want our stuff in Philly. That’s not going to change. But what’s changed about Harlem since you left?
KQM: When I grew up, Harlem was something like 95 percent black and Puerto Rican. It’s much more culturally diverse now. And while diversity is a good thing, that diversity—through gentrification—has destroyed the Harlem that I knew. I believe a strong community is one where children live with their parents and, when they grow up, move out, but move to a place within that same community. Like South Philadelphia, Harlem was a place where generations of families lived. But people can’t do that in Harlem now because when people move out of their parents homes, they can’t afford to move into that same community because along with gentrification came such high real-estate prices that native Harlemites can’t afford to purchase, so the younger generation is being forced out. To me, it’s the demise of Harlem as I knew it. The culture is quickly changing, and soon the old culture will have completely disappeared. But I want people to know about the Harlem in which I grew up, so I write about it. It’s my way of preserving the memories—both good and bad.
But what about you? I write about Harlem, but you do the same for Philadelphia. Why?
SJ: Because I love Philadelphia. I was born and raised here, and I find it fascinating. I grew up in two different parts of Philly. I started out my life in West Oak Lane, a working-class neighborhood. Everyone had two parents, and, in most houses, that worked well. Of course, there were problems, too. In one home, the dad might be beating up his wife and kids, and in another, the dad was a drunk, and in yet another, the mother was running the street. But for the most part there was a nuclear family. And everyone knew each other’s family.
Then my parents got divorced when I was about 14, and we went to North Philadelphia and moved in with my grandmother. It was a place where we were all poor, but we were all in it together. It was a little bit harder, and I had to grow up. And I think I see a little of that in my writing now. I think all parts of Philadelphia, actually, are reflected in my writing because I feel I’m part of Philadelphia. So it would naturally be the place where I set my novels.
KQM: You’re one of the more prolific writers I know in Philadelphia, Solomon, and I’ve always enjoyed your works—starting with your first novel, Pipe Dream, back in 2001. What made you start writing in the first place?
SJ: I’d gone through an addiction when I was in my early 20s. As a result, I’d lived on the street for a time, and I’d seen everything from prostitution to vicious assaults to gunplay. I’d lived in shelters and been to rehabs and slept in abandoned houses. In the mid-’90s, when I was coming out of that, I started working as a doorman for a condominium while I was going to school at Temple University. There was a woman there named Susan Jacobs who I met when she volunteered at the shelter where I was staying, and she gave me a Macintosh to do my homework. So I started using it. And about this time I was reading a book called The Gold Coast. It was written in chunks—in scenes—and I thought, “I can do that.” So I started writing my own novel. And I started by writing about what I really knew: the streets. Nine months later, I had Pipe Dream.
KQM: So Pipe Dream was largely autobiographical?
SJ: Yes and no. The main character in the novel is named Black, and that was my name on the street. You never use your real name in the streets; everyone has a street name. So I was called Black, and that’s what I named my main character. In the streets, you use whatever you have at your disposal to survive. While some people used guns, knives and violence to get around the challenges on the street, Black used his brains. That was me. That’s how I survived those times. The other characters in the book are composites of other people I came across during that period in my life. The plot, however, wasn’t necessarily something that actually occurred in my life.
KQM: I know you had a hard time getting Pipe Dream published. How did you feel when you finally found a major publishing house that was interested in releasing your book?
We're so proud of prolific PW alum Solomon Jones, we could just burst—but not before reading his 10th book and eighth novel, the Philadelphia-based crime noir "The Dead Man's Wife," which was released Tuesday.
In the first excerpt of Chapter One of Jones' eighth novel, a former figure in Detective Mike Coletti's past makes some interesting moves—in and out of the courtroom.
As Coletti watched, he remembered a time long ago when Andrea was a young vice cop and he was a rising star in homicide. Back then, he was willing to do anything to have her, but now Andrea belonged to someone else, and there was nothing he could do to change that.
The acclaimed author tells her own story in this drama-filled novel set in her gritty Harlem hometown. Get a taste of it via the debut of three excerpts of its first chapter.
When we lived in the basement we had out and out rats. I remember my mom bought a cat ’cause she thought it would scare the rats, but one day we woke up and the cat was dead—a rat had bitten the shit out of it.
PW's Summer Guide 2014