Bates, Karen Grigsby 19(?)(?)–
Karen Grigsby Bates 19(?)(?)–
For more than a decade journalist Karen Grigsby Bates has worked in a variety of media, exploring issues of race and culture. In the print media she has been active as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, a West Coast bureau reporter for People Magazine and a frequent contributor to such periodicals as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The London Sunday Mail, Essence, Emerge, Vogue, as well as the on-line magazine Salon. She could often be heard on radio as a correspondent for National Public Radio’s newsmagazine All Things Considered, and in early 2002 she helped launch The Tavis Smiley Show, acting as its alternate host. On television Bates has appeared often on the CBS Evening News, Nightline, NBC Nightly News, CNN, and MSNBC.
The daughter of a telephone company middle manager and a school teacher, Bates grew up in Connecticut, integrating the New Haven private schools. During her childhood, she did not revel in reading mysteries, but she did have “great affection for books that were not billed as classic mysteries [yet were suspenseful], like Rebecca and Jane Eyre, which conveyed to me not just what Mr. Rochester did with his first wife, but other things about how people lived and thought,” she told the Los Angeles Times. After graduating from high school, Bates attended Wellesley College, majoring both in sociology and Black studies. As a student she contributed to the university newspaper and literary magazine, and during the summer of her junior year she participated in an international exchange program at the University of Ghana, near Accra. Upon her graduation from Wellesley College, Bates went through the Executive Management Program at Yale University’s Graduate School of Organization and Management. Soon she was busy with a career in journalism for non-profit and profit-making enterprises.
Gates had been reared in a household where good manners counted, and after experiencing a number of social situations in which she met people whose manners left something to be desired, she decided to write an etiquette book. “I’ve been too many places where people showed up at dinner parties, unannounced—with four extra friends, ‘forgot’ to send thank you notes for wedding presents, wore dresses that looked like they came from Ho’s R Us to the office Christmas party, and so on,” Gates explained on The Mystery Reader website. So Gates teamed up with friend Karen Elyse Hudson to write Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times, which appeared in hardcover in 1996. The term “home training” is black English vernacular for good manners, and in this book the authors, addressing the growing African-American middle class, gave information useful in a wide range of social situations. Among them are such occasions as weddings, office parties, restaurant meals, christenings, job interviews, and funerals. The authors also gave information on how to be a good host or hostess, how to write letters, how to participate in clubs and organizations. Other suggestions for more contemporary possible situations included ways of dealing with being racially profiled by the police, maintaining composure upon hearing racial slurs, and dealing with less-than-friendly
Born and raised in CT; married Bruce W. Talamon; children: a son. Education: Wellesley College, BA; Yale University School of Organization and Management, post-graduate coursework.
Career: Journalist, 1980s–; television news correspondent, 1990s–; People Magazine, writer, 1990s; Los Angeles Times, writer, 1990s–; author, 1996–; National Public Radio, correspondent 2002–; The Tavis Smiley Show, alternate host, 2002–.
Address: Office —c/o Carrie Feron, Avon Books, 10 East 53rd St., New York, NY 10022.
service people, perhaps some waiters and waitresses at restaurants.
The work caught the attention of reviewers and sales warranted a paperback reprint edition five years after its original publication. For example, a Booklist contributor praised the authors’ common-sense approach and entertaining presentation of the information. And in Global Gourmet a reviewer emphatically stated that Basic Black “really does provide etiquette for modern times.” In Hudson and Bates’ opinion, “There’s not black manners, brown manners and white manners. There’s only good manners and bad manners.”
As an adult Bates has been a mystery reader for decades, enjoying the works of such authors as Janet Evanovitch, Donald Westlake, Robert Crais, Gar Haywood, Walter Mosley, James Lee Burke, Grace Edwards, April Smith, Michael Connelly, Jan Burke, Eleanor Taylor Bland, and Paula Woods. Despite her long-time love of the genre, it was not until the mid-1990s that she attempted to write a mystery. “I was drawn to writing mysteries simply because I like reading them so much, and I wanted to see if I could do it,” she told The Mystery Reader website. She was in inspired in 1995 by attending an annual conference of the National Association of Black Journalists, where she remarked on the participants’ interesting and combustible personalities. So amidst her work for periodicals, including writing an Op-Ed column for the Los Angeles Times, Bates created her sleuth, Alex Powell, giving her a staff job at the Los Angeles Times, a sharp mind and tongue, and a volatile temper. Although Bates says that the book is not autobiographical, she conceded to The Mystery Reader website that she shares some of Powell’s qualities: “We get called on the carpet a lot for our pointed observations, we’ve got some great girlfriends, and we do like a good meal and a good glass of wine.” After writing the first two chapters of her detective debut, Plain Brown Wrapper, she put them aside to “cool off” for awhile and worked on Basic Black.
In what some have dubbed her “Jane Austen with a bad attitude” style, Bates via her sleuth Alex critiques the Beautiful Black Bourgeoisie (BBB). She stated in a Mystery Reader interview, “There’s always been a Black middle class and it has expanded hugely in the last thirty years, so this way of life does exist for a good segment of Black America, and I wanted to see that in print in an enlightened way.” She also wanted her “readers to understand some of the struggles that a lot of black reporters have in predominantly white newsrooms,” she told a Los Angeles Times interviewer. The author’s humor is quirky and pointed, yet she maintains it is not often meanspirited. While poking fun at the foibles of the BBB, Alex and her reporter colleague attempt to solve the mysterious death of an award-winning publisher and ladies’ man at a national conference of African-American journalists. In the process they explore largely unspoken issues of class and race. Bates enjoyed the process of writing a novel because she could flesh out all of the interesting details, something she had to refrain from in typical journalistic reporting. “Fiction is a great place to finally be able to stretch out and write,” Bates told The Mystery Reader website. “You can’t be sloppy, but you can indulge in more detail.”
Four years after Bates began the mystery novel, she saw Plain Brown Wrapper roll off the presses to largely good reviews. A Publishers Weekly reviewer found the beginning of the novel “somewhat sluggish,” but applauded Bates’s “most appealing heroine,” sense of humor, and insider’s look at the journalist’s world. In a Library Journal review, the critic found Bates’s sense of humor to be on the mark and the novel as a whole “always entertaining.” About the reaction of readers to her novel, she told The Mystery Reader website: “While in general the reaction has been very positive … there were a few who thought Alex and her friends lived a little too large.” Another possible drawback is the novel’s pace according to a Booklist reviewer, who found the Jane Austen-like level of detail in describing fashions and interiors to be “tiresome.” Even so, the Booklist critic praised the characters and dialogue in Plain Brown Wrapper. Most tellingly, the executive editor of Black Issues Book Review deemed the novel a “murder-mystery romp that also offers sharply observed, witty social commentary on the manners and mores, habits, haunts and behavioral subtleties among contemporary BBBs.”
Bates admitted on The Mystery Reader website that she is still trying to master the rules of the mystery genre. “There is lots of room to move within the formula, but the formula itself seems pretty static,” she added. When asked if Alex would reappear, Bates said that she was already at work on a sequel, Chosen People, a selection of which appeared in Gumbo: An Anthology of African American Writing in 2002.
(With Karen E. Hudson) Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times, 1996.
(Contributor) Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real-Life Parenting, 1999.
Plain Brown Wrapper, 2001.
(Contributor) Gumbo: An Anthology of African American Writing, 2002.
Booklist, December 15, 1996; July 2001.
Black Issues Book Review, September-October 2001.
Essence, August 2001.
Library Journal, August 2001.
Los Angeles Times, October 10, 2001.
Publishers Weekly, 1996; June 25, 2001.
Washington Times, December 31, 1996.
“Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times,” Amazon, http://amazon.com (August 4, 2003).
“Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times, An interview with co-author Karen Grigsby Bates,” Global Gourmet, www.globalgourmet.com/food/egg/egg0597/blacketq.html (April 5, 2003).
“Karen Grigsby Bates – Correspondent,” National Public Radio, www.npr.org/about/people/bios/kgrigsby.html (April 5, 2003).
“Meet Karen Grigsby Bates,” The Mystery Reader, www.themysteryreader.com/bates.html (April 5, 2003).
—Jeanne M. Lesinski
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