Wednesday, March 26, 2008

An Interview with Angela Henry

by Sandra Parshall

Angela Henry is the author of The Company You Keep, Tangled Roots, and Diva’s Last Curtain Call, featuring African-American sleuth Kendra Clayton. She founded the award-winning MystNoir Website, which promotes African-American mystery writers, in May 2000. Born and raised in Springfield, Ohio, she now works as a reference librarian at an Ohio community college. Visit her web site at

Q. Tell us a bit about your heroine, Kendra Clayton, and how you created her.

A. Kendra is what I like to call the girl next door with an edge. She's smart, funny, gutsy, and fiercely loyal to her friends and family. But, on the flip side, she's nosy, sarcastic, hardheaded, and impulsive, which is what gets her into a lot of trouble. I created Kendra by using traits from many of my female friends and relatives. There is a little bit of everyone I love in Kendra.

Q. Librarians are smart, savvy people - did you ever consider making Kendra a librarian sleuth?

A. Actually, when I started writing the first book in the series, I was working for an adult literacy program much like the one Kendra works for. By the time I finished the book four years later, I was working in the library field. So, I let Kendra keep my old job.

Q. Will you write a fourth book about Kendra, or are you working on something new?

A. I am working on a Young Adult book apart from this series. But, book number four in the Kendra series is already written and should be in bookstores sometime in 2009. I'm contracted for two more, bringing the series to six. Beyond that I have no idea, though I'd like to keep writing the series for a long time.

Q. Did you grow up wanting to be a writer, or did that urge come to you in adulthood?

A. I always knew I'd be a writer when I was younger. I'm an avid reader and always wanted to create stories and characters of my own. I started writing short stories in high school and got a lot of encouragement and positive feedback from my teachers.

Q. You've said that nine years passed from the time you started writing your first book to the time you were offered a publishing contract. Do you think publishers were reluctant to take on a mystery series with black characters? Or were you simply having the same run of bad luck that many beginners have? Or was it a combination of both factors?

A. Well, I'm more inclined to think it was bad luck and timing. A lot of the feedback I was getting for my first book was that editors loved my characters and they loved my "voice" but it wasn't suspenseful enough to compete in the tight mystery market. My agent never told me that any editors had rejected it based on the race of my characters. Also, I did have one publisher that was very interested but the editor that expressed interest left the publishing house and I was left in limbo. We could never get a yes or no answer and eventually gave up.

Q. Do you believe imprints dedicated to black fiction are helpful or harmful in the long run? Do they help writers find their most likely readers? At the same time, is it possible they prevent writers from breaking out to a larger audience?

A. I think black imprints can be a double-edged sword. For a lot of black authors, myself included, being published by a black imprint helped me get published and build a readership. I'm very grateful for that. But, books published by black imprints are usually only promoted to black readers, which makes it really hard for an author who wants to break out to a mainstream audience and make some of the big bestseller lists. It's not impossible. But it's very hard.

Q. You started out with BET Books, which was soon sold to Harlequin. Did the change of ownership affect you in any way?

A. Yes, it did. BET was a smaller publisher. Harlequin is bigger and has much better distribution, which is wonderful. You can find Harlequin books all over the world. However, I'm just beginning to see one of the not so wonderful things, and that's the bias some people have against books published by Harlequin. I experienced it first hand not long ago at a book fair I participated in. Another author asked me who my publisher was. When I said Harlequin, I got an earful about how all Harlequin books, no matter what the genre, were formulaic and all the same. Another Harlequin author said she's been dealing with that type of attitude towards Harlequin for years. I guess I was just naive. I knew people had biases against certain genres, and even genre fiction in general. I had no idea there was publisher bias going on too. As if authors don't have enough to deal with.

Q. Your books have been published in both trade and mass market paperback, haven't they? Do you think this strategy has helped you build an audience?

A. Yes. My books sell very well in mass market. My print runs in trade tend to be smaller. So, the mass market re-release really helps build my numbers. Now my books are also available in ebook format, which helps even more.

Q. Your latest mystery examines racism in the film business. Hollywood is a long way from Springfield. How did you do your research for the book?

A. Well, the character of Vivianne DeArmond, the actress Kendra's sister is accused of murdering, was loosely based on Dorothy Dandridge, the first African-American actress to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress. I read a biography of her and her struggles in Hollywood as my research.

Q. If you had to compare the status of black actors in Hollywood and black writers in publishing, which group would you say has made more progress in recent years?

A. Hmm. That 's a hard one. But I'll go ahead and say authors just because I think it's easier to get published than it would be to be cast in a movie or a series, especially in a lead role. I think the opportunities for black actors in Hollywood are more limited than the opportunities for authors.

Q. Mystery writers in general love librarians because so many are fans of the genre. How have your fellow librarians reacted to your success as a mystery writer?

A. I've had so much positive feedback from other librarians. I'm so humbled by all the support. If you ask me what book events I enjoy doing the most, it would be library events hands down. Librarians rock!

Q. Reference librarians in particular are dear to the hearts of many writers, as well as students, because our work demands a lot of research. As a reference librarian yourself, have you seen a shift away from libraries and toward the internet? Do you use the internet for research?

A. I use books and the internet for my research. I work in an academic library and even with all of the almost overwhelming amount of online resources and databases available, many students still gravitate toward books. Many don't like or feel comfortable with computers. That makes me confident that books and libraries are here to stay.

Q. What does the future hold for you as a writer? What would you like to be doing five or ten years from now?

A. I'd like to still be writing, hopefully full-time and in multiple genres.


Theresa de Valence said...

Interesting post, thanks.

Sandra Parshall said...

I was at the library this morning and noticed DIVA'S LAST CURTAIN CALL prominently displayed on a shelf of recommended mysteries. Very nice to see!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I'm in Minneapolis at PLA--a dozen or so mystery writers and ten thousand of those rockin' librarians. Seems to me this post is all about the need to bust a variety of stereotypes.

Pamela Ridley said...

Thanks, Angela, for being one of my contemporary pioneers. I write romantic suspense, was last published by Genesis Press who only publishes books with African American main characters. (As far as I know, that's true.) I thought your comment about the double-edge sword was on target: as recently as five years ago, a publisher actively seeking African American stories was largely, nearly exclusively, limited to African American run presses. That has changed, but certainly BET and Genesis did a lot to "fund" the African American talent now widely supported by mainstream publishers, so thank God for them. Why do African American publishers have limited distribution is a question. It's probably related to, like everything else in business, money and profit.

Angela, I wish you happy writing and continued success. This was a great interview, and great questions, Sandra.

Angela Henry said...

Thanks for all of the wonderful comments! And a big thanks to Sandra for interviewing me! I hope you all have a great weekend ; ).

Angela Henry