SJ: Vindicated. When I sent out query letters, the agents I contacted were telling me that I obviously had some talent, but that they couldn’t connect to the characters. Pipe Dream was a story about four crack addicts running from the police, and stories like that weren’t being written at that time. Then I managed to connect with Random House, which had this new imprint called Strivers Row, and they loved the book, and they really got behind me and the book. There were a few other authors who signed with Strivers Row all about the same time, and they really gave us backing. They sent me on tour when the book first came out in 2001, and they really spoiled me. (Laughs) It led me to believe that’s how things are done all the time, but it isn’t really like that.
Tell me about your first book.
KQM: My first book was Satin Doll. I couldn’t find a publisher or even an agent because they felt that Satin Doll was a little bit grittier than those “sister girl” books that everyone was writing at the time, with three or four women looking for men and going through relationship problems. Satin Doll wasn’t like that. It was about four women who grew up in the streets trying to find not just love, but themselves. And back then, in 1999, most of the “sister girl” books were about middle-class women. Satin Doll was about women who grew up poor in Harlem and didn’t necessarily have the cleanest type of backgrounds. The main character, for instance, had dropped out in eighth grade, ran the streets, ran into major trouble and went on to get a degree in journalism at Temple, like me.
SJ: How else did your own life parallel Satin Doll?
KQM: At the time I wrote it, I was a reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer, but I felt like I was living in two worlds. Every weekend, I would go to Harlem and hang out, and every Monday, I would come in—sometimes with bloodshot eyes and liquor still on my breath—and write news for the paper. I felt like I was essentially living two lives, and that if the Inquirer was to find out who I really was, they would throw me out of the newsroom. But on the other hand, I felt if the streets found out who I had become, they would ostracize me. I had the struggle of trying to live in two worlds and feeling comfortable in neither. Like the protagonist in Satin Doll, I had dropped out of school in the eighth grade and ran the streets as if I were in a Nascar race. And it was much later in life that I finally cleaned myself up, moved to Philadelphia and got a degree in journalism. So, you can see I was writing what I knew and what I was still struggling to reconcile. But when I tried to get it published, I had agents tell me they loved the writing, but they felt like it was too gritty. They told me they’d take it in a heartbeat if I would change the story and make it more like Terry McMillan. Problem was, those stories weren’t the kind I lived or was interested in writing about.
SJ: So you self-published. But how were you able to do it? Self-publishing was a lot more expensive than it is now.
KQM: I took out a loan from the credit union, used my daughter’s college-fund money and borrowed money from my brother, Joe Quinones, the only one in my family who ever seemed to have money. I purchased 3,000 books and had no idea how to sell them. I had never sold anything in my life, and when I look back now, that lack of experience was a good thing. Marketing class would have told me how to sell 3,000 books in a year, which was my goal. But because I didn’t know how to go selling 3,000 books in a year, I got my hustle on, and when I turned around, I had sold 3,000 books in six weeks. I put fliers up all over the city. I gave out postcards on street corners and used all the techniques in the street to sell and promote my book. I learned a lot of bad habits in Harlem, but some of them came in handy. If you can hustle drugs, you can hustle books. If you know how to hustle, then you know how to get your hustle on, whether it’s gold chains or socks or books on the street.
We’ve talked about how both of our debut novels paralleled our lives, but what about your subsequent novels? You’ve written about drug addiction. You’ve written murder mysteries. You’ve written detective stories. Tell me, how do you come up with your story ideas?
SJ: I get a lot of ideas from my wife, LaVeta. She’s the smart one. We both went to Temple University. She was the one who went through my first book, and said, “Wow, you have some talent.” She edited it and made it marketable and coherent. She’s my sounding board. She’ll see something and say, “You have to write something with that in the storyline.” And I bounce all my ideas off of her.
Like with The Dead Man’s Wife—I wanted to write about somebody who was going through struggles with their marriage because I think that’s where I was when I was I plotting the book out. We’ve been married 12 years, and you go through emotional ups and downs and financial ups and downs, and the whole time, you’re growing. Fortunately, we’ve grown together, and we’re stronger for it. So, while The Dead Man’s Wife is a story about relationships, it’s also a suspenseful mystery. It’s about a woman who is accused of killing her husband, goes on the run to prove her innocence, and in the course of uncovering the mysteries of her husband’s life, she discovers the biggest mystery of all—her husband may not actually be dead.
KQM: Do you always write about your own life when you write a book?
SJ: No, but the important thing for me is to actually want to write whatever it is I’m writing about. Some writers get to the point where they’re writing to just keep cranking something out; they’re writing what they think people want or whatever is selling in the market. But I think you really should write what you’re passionate about because readers are smart, and they can tell when you care about your story. For instance, my first novel, Pipe Dream, came out of my personal experience. And while I’ve written really good books that came almost exclusively from research, like The Last Confession, the story that comes from personal experience is probably more powerful than the ones that come from research. The thing is, though, whichever method you choose, it has to be a story that you, the writer, care about. That way, the reader will care about it, too.
KQM: I know that the main protagonist in your past few books is white, even though you’re black. You don’t find that too often. James Patterson comes to mind as an exception, but tell me how and why you write main characters with a race different than your own.
SJ: There are characters of every hue in my books, and I do that because it’s real life, and it’s interesting to see how people respond to that. As black authors, people expect us to only tell black stories, whatever that means. I tell human stories. I write about people, and people—at their core—all want the same things; we just go about getting them by different means. I will say this, though: I have a real affection for black people, and I want to explore that a little more in my next book. Because black people just strive and survive in spite of everything. The economy goes down, and some people jump out the window. Black people shrug and say, well, we didn’t have anything anyway. There’s a different stress about black people that I admire and love.
What about you? You’ve written six novels since Satin Doll, and they’ve been about a few different subjects. How do you think your writing has changed over the years?
KQM: I think my writing has matured. Satin Doll will always be a sentimental favorite of mine, largely because it was my first book that not only mirrored my life; it also really changed my life. But as I have gotten older, I see life a little differently. I see my life with different eyes and see other people’s lives through more mature eyes. Every book I’ve written has been around a character who mirrors me. I’m not just someone who grew up in Harlem, not just someone who’s a single mom, not just someone who grew up poor, and not just someone who struggled to change my life. I’m all of that and much more. And so all of my characters have different aspects of my personality. There’s the selfish me, the mature me, the generous me and plenty of other me’s. I write about each of them at different times. In the beginning of my writing career, I think I was stuck at writing about what was affecting me at the time.
It took a long time before I could get to the point where I could write a book like An Angry-Ass Black Woman. In this book, I’m telling the true story of my life, and I’m not hiding behind a character. Because when you’re hiding behind a character and people ask, “How much of this is you?” you can say whatever you want. It took a brain tumor and the threat of death for me to be able to write the true story of my life. An Angry-Ass Black Woman is about me growing up in Harlem during the ’60s and ‘70s—all of the hard times and the good. A father going in and out of psychiatric hospitals. A mother trying to make it the best way she could for her. Growing up amongst predators and fighting not to become a victim, you know? I tell it with a little bit of bitterness, but also with a lot of humor. Because though we had hard times, we also had fun and got into a helluva lot of trouble. It’s almost like a female version of Manchild in the Promised Land.
SJ: How did you find out you had a brain tumor?
KQM: It was 2005 or 2004. For about a year, I had been having problems and bouts of disorientation. I was teaching at Temple University and living in Mt. Airy. I also went to school at Temple, and later I was teaching at Temple. Now keep in mind, I had lived in Mt. Airy ever since I’d lived in Philly. The house I was in at the time, I’d been living in that house for eight years while I was going back and forth to Temple. One day, I’m going down Venango Street, and I get to a stop sign and couldn’t remember what I was supposed to do next. I panicked, and as I was panicking, I figured out it was a panic attack, and I grabbed my cell phone. I couldn’t remember how to operate it, and so I just pressed a button to talk to the last person I’d talked to, and I asked him if he knew who I was. He said he did. I said, “Good, because I need someone to come get me.” That gentleman’s name was Butch Cottman, a community activist here in Philadelphia. Ten minutes later, he and another person came and got me, and they took me home.
SJ: Wow. So how did you react when you heard the diagnosis?
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 2015 Philly Spring Guide