Jackson, Sheneska 1970(?)–
Sheneska Jackson 1970(?)–
Sheneska Jackson was just twenty-five when Simon & Schuster offered her a lucrative contract to publish her first manuscript, a tale of love, hope and the music industry set in South-Central Los Angeles. The fledgling novelist hailed from the very neighborhood where it was set, and was working as a secretary when her agent called her with news of the $200,000 deal. Jackson’s smart, dialogue-intense fiction, centered by savvy, self-confident heroines, have earned her comparisons with another well-received African-American novelist, Terry McMillan; indeed, the author of Waiting to Exhale was a tremendous influence on Jackson’s own literary ambitions. With two novels behind her and a potential career writing for Hollywood, Jackson knows her career choice was the right one, despite some initial setbacks. “I live for the times when I write a passage that makes me stop cold or burst out laughing,” Jackson wrote in Essence “At those moments I know that what I’m doing is worthwhile.”
Jackson and her brother Marcell grew up in a single-parent household headed by their mother, Etna, who was a supervisor for a utility company. Her childhood home was in Los Angeles’s South-Central area, where Jackson “went to bed with the sounds of gunshots firing in the streets,” she told Scott Roesch in an interview for the Internet site Mr. Showbiz. When she was fourteen, in the mid-1980s, the family relocated to a better neighborhood in West Los Angeles; but it was there that she first ran into gang-related violence when she was jumped by youths who took her jewelry and purse. “That was pretty ironic,” Jackson told Roesch. “That was the first time I was ever jumped.” After high school, she enrolled in college at California State University at Northridge, where she earned a degree in journalism in 1992.
Jackson had a difficult time finding a job in her field, however, and was working as a hospital secretary when she attended a talk by novelist Terry McMillan, who had become a household name in 1992 with the success of Waiting to Exhale McMillan’s words spurred Jackson to kickstart her own career as a writer. She bought a computer on credit, an act that filled her with trepidation. “I had never spent $2,500 on anything before,” Jackson reminisced to People about that day. “I cried and cried, wondering why I’d spent that money.” The financial trauma spurred her to put her purchase to good use, however, and she began writing short stories and sending them out to national publications. All were met with rejection. “But I didn’t give up because a few magazine editors didn’t share my vision,” Jackson wrote in an Essence article, and explained how she then tried a longer format within which to work—the novel. “When one road didn’t work for me, I didn’t quit. I simply changed routes,” she explained in Essence
Jackson’s resolve to write a full-length work of fiction
At a Glance…
Born c. 1970, in Los Angles, CA; daughter of Etna (a phone-company supervisor). Education: California State University—Northridge, B.A 1992; took writing courses at the University of Californ ia— Los Angeles.
Career: Worked as a hospital secretary, c. 1992-94; wrote first novel, Caught Up in the Rapture, and received a $200,000 deal with Simon & Schuster in 1995; contributor to Essence
Addresses: Office—c\o Simon & Schuster, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020,
forced her to get up at 3 a.m. in order to write before she had to leave for work. For six weeks, she also wrote on weekends and during her lunch breaks. She wrote in Essence that her desire to have a finished manuscript was what compelled her to push herself so hard. Upon completion, Jackson then shared it with her writing instructor at the University of California at Los Angeles, who liked it and put her in touch with a literary agent. That agent passed Jackson’s manuscript on to Simon & Schuster, and two days later the publishing giant was offering Jackson a two-book, $200,000 deal. She immediately quit her hospital job.
That work was Jackson’s first novel, Caught Up in the Rapture It won laudatory reviews for its fresh, reality-based look at life in South-Central and the genuineness of its characters. Centered by Jazmine “Jazz” Deems, an aspiring singer raised in a strict, religious household, Rapture follows her journey out of a sheltered life and into the turbulent and pitfall-laden world of the music business. Her burgeoning career as an R&B singer lands her in the arms of an unexpected paramour, Xavier Honor, also know by his rapper tag, X-Man. Another new signee to the same label as Jazz, Honor operates on the opposite, amoral end of the spectrum, but a series of crises serve to put him on a more solid path. The plot is further complicated when Jazz finds herself an inadvertent pawn between two record-industry powerbrokers.
Jackson was careful to draw upon her own experiences and those of her peers in depicting another side of life in places like South-Central. She cautioned against stereotyping urban life as violent, dangerous, and a dead end by the entertainment industry. “Some people think that their circumstances have to be bleak because their surroundings are bleak,” Jackson told Roesch in the Mr. Showbiz interview. “But the characters [in Rapture] have a definite dream and they go after it.” Reviews were similarly positive. Publishers Weekly called Jackson’s literary debut “an engaging and up-to-date sudser.” Emerge book critic Kierna Mayo Dawsey saw Rapture as breaking significant new ground in African-American popular fiction—Jackson’s novel, Dawsey reflected, “puts ghetto love on the map in a way that says that the love and humanity that develop in the worlds outside of the middle class are as real and complex as anything else.” Dawsey also found praise for the way in which Jackson allowed her characters to evolve, one of the most difficult tasks in fiction.
When Caught Up in the Rapture appeared in bookstores in the spring of 1996, Jackson was already working on a follow-up in her Sherman Oaks apartment, and learning how to write in a screenplay format—noted filmmaker John Singleton (Boyz in the Hood) was interested in the movie rights to Rapture, and wanted Jackson herself to adapt it. No longer fearful of spending money, the new literary star bought herself a luxury car as her one concession to success. Her next book, Li’l Mama’s Rules, was published by Simon & Schuster in 1997. It takes readers down a far more intense path than the slight violence in Rapture: its title heroine, Madison McGuirre, discovers she is HIV-positive.
“Li’l Mama” is what others have called Madison since her difficult childhood; she went on to put herself through college and is now a successful teacher at an elite private school. Part of the impetus for her success is her younger sister, Serena, who has special education needs and attends the academy where Madison teaches. Because of her accomplishments, Madison considers herself a thoroughly modern single woman with little time for nonsense in the game of love. She writes her own set of “Rules” in a little notebook, reflecting her willful opinions when it comes to men “Never invite them back to your place,” she writes, and “Stay away from married men.” The great romance of her youth, with a medical student, ended after she discovered he had been unfaithful. Despite her resolve, Madison finds it hard to heed her own warnings at times. This proves especially fatal when an unsafe sexual encounter from five years past leads to her shock at discovering she is HIV-positive. At the same time, her old flame, now a doctor, has re-entered her life and wishes to resume their romance.
“Though Jackson writes in a Terry McMillan style—lots of attitude and quick-witted conversation—she delves deeper into her characters than McMillan does,” opined Bridgette A. Lacy in the Raleigh News & Observer, “letting us see why Madison wrote her rules as well as why she broke them.” Publishers Weekly called Li 7 Mama’s Rules “a solid, unsentimental but uplifting tale” told “with the honesty and perception [Jackson] displayed in her first novel.”
Jackson is direct and unsentimental herself about her feelings regarding attaining her own goals. Now a contributor to Essence, Jackson finds herself at the center of a new vanguard of African-American writers, directors, and other media visionaries working to portray another, often unseen side of American life. In late 1997, both her novels were on Emerge’s bestsellers’ list. She claims that success does not faze her, that she always envisioned herself far ahead of the game. “Maybe I just dream big,” she told People “I always thought I was a princess, even when I was driving around in my beat-up old Honda.”
Caught Up in the Rapture, Simon & Schuster, 1996.
Li’l Mama’s Rules, Simon & Schuster, 1997.
Blessings, Simon & Schuster, 1998.
Emerge, June 1996, p. 70; October 1997, p. 79.
Essence, May 1996, pp. 104, 164-166; July 1997, p. 138.
Library Journal, May 1, 1997, p. 140.
People, June 10, 1996, p. 125.
Publishers Weekly, March 18, 1996, p. 56; April 21, 1997, p. 60.
Raleigh News & Observer, July 13, 1997.
Interview conducted by Scott Roesch, http://www.mrshowbiz.com, May 15, 1996.
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