McFadden, Bernice L. 1966–
Bernice L. McFadden 1966–
With four best-selling novels published between 2000 and 2002, Bernice L. McFadden has garnered accolades from literary powerhouses like Toni Morrison and Terry McMilllan. Her debut, the emotionally-gripping Sugar, earned a handful of awards and elicited comparison’s to the work of Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston. Though she had always dreamed of becoming a writer, it wasn’t until she was laid off from her cushy corporate job that she began writing seriously. “I really felt like a statistic,” McFadden told USA Today. “A young, single black mother with no job. I didn’t like the way that felt.” She took advantage of her time off to throw herself into writing and it paid off. Within a few years she no longer needed to worry about her corporate career; she had become a successful full-time writer.
The eldest of four children, McFadden was born and raised in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, New York. She attended grade school at P.S. 161 and middle school at Holy Spirit, both in Brooklyn. She left home to attend high school at St. Cyril Academy, an all-girls boarding school located in Danville, Pennsylvania. Even as a child she wanted to write. “I was always an avid reader and dreamer,” she told Nubian Chronicles Online. “I guess all of the literature I was consuming helped to fuel my already active imagination and so very early on I began writing short stories and plays. I would say my first story was penned by age eight.” However, when it was time for college, her dreams were to be an international clothing buyer, not a writer. She enrolled in New York City’s Laboratory Institute of Merchandising in the fall of 1983. After two semesters McFadden took a position with Bloomingdale’s and then with Itokin, a Japanese retailer. However, according to Bernice McFadden Online, she became “disillusioned and frustrated with her job.” Still, she did not begin writing. Instead she returned to school and earned a certificate in travel and tourism from Mary-mount College. After taking time off to have a child—daughter R’yane Azsa, born on February 9,1988—she accepted a well-paying job with a prestigious resort reservation company owned by the Rockefeller family.
At a Glance…
Born in 1966 in Brooklyn, NY; children: R’yane Azsa. Education: Attended Laboratory Institute of Merchandising, New York, NY; Travel and Tourism Certificate, Marymount College; attended Fordham University.
Career: Bloomingdale’s, New York City, worked in retail, beginning c. 1984; Itokin, worked in retail, beginning c. 1984; worked for a resort reservation company, c. 1988-90; worked in travel industry, c. 1991-97, 1998-99; novelist, c. 2000-.
Awards: Honor Award, Black Caucus, American Library Association, for Sugar, 2000; Best New Author of the Year Award, Go On Girl Book Club, 2000; Best Mainstream Fiction Award, Golden Pen Award, for The Warmest December, 2001; Best New Author, Golden Pen Award, 2001; Zora Neale Hurston Award for creative contribution to literature, 2002.
Addresses: Home —Brooklyn, NY. Publicist —Brant Janeway, Director of Marketing and Publicity, Plume Books, 375 Hudson Street, 3rd Floor, New York, NY 10014.
In 1990 the Rockefellers sold the business and McFadden found herself out of a job. With the early nineties job market floundering and a two-year-old daughter to support, it was not the best time to be unemployed. A year passed before McFadden found work. However, according to her website, that year was “the turning point in her life because during those twelve months Ms. McFadden began to dedicate herself to the art of writing.” In between sending out resumes and attending interviews, McFadden immersed herself in literature and began devoting up to 20 hours a week to writing. During that time Sugar was conceived. “Sugar actually started as a poem titled” Letta. “I found the character the poem centered around quite intriguing and decided to change the character’s name and expand the poem into a short story,” she told Nubian Chronicles. “Later, after I realized no one was interested in a short story collection I was trying to sell, I picked up Sugar once again and decided to expand it into a full-length novel.”
McFadden began to submit query letters to agents but was met with rejection after rejection. She recalled to Nubian Chronicles, “It took me almost ten years to sell Sugar. Lots of rejection letters, lots of industry people not wanting to take a chance on something that was not a ’sister-girl’ book. So I guess some would say it was difficult. I like to say, it just wasn’t my time yet.”
Meanwhile, McFadden had found work in the travel industry, but according to her website, she was “forever frustrated with corporate America and the requirements they put on their employees.” Nonetheless, she remained focused on a business career. She decided that if she obtained a degree she could move further up the corporate ladder and somehow get free of the daily frustrations she encountered at work. She enrolled in Fordham University and spent two years taking courses in Afro-American history and literature, as well as creative writing, poetry and journalism. Though her intention had been to improve her chances in the business world, her university work began to fuel her imagination and her writing output increased. As noted on Bernice McFadden Online, “she credits the two years spent under the guidance of her professors as well as the years spent lost in the words of her favorite authors, to the caliber of writer she has become.”
Finally, in 1997 McFadden decided to quit her job and devote herself full-time to writing. She spent the next seven months reworking Sugar. In May of 1998, with her savings dwindling, she had to return to work. It would be her last stint in corporate America. On February 9, 1999, she sent a query letter to agent Jim Vines, who later told Publisher’s Weekly, “[the letter was) so good, and eloquent, that I couldn’t resist asking to see her book.” Two weeks later he took her on as a client and promptly sold Sugar to E. P. Dutton/Plume, a division of publishing giant Penguin Books. The novel was well-received and quickly became a bestseller. Publisher’s Weekly described it as “a touchingly lyrical tale of two neighbors in an Arkansas town 40 years ago who become great friends; the only problem is that one is a pillar of her church, the other a prostitute.” Their friendship shakes up their small Southern town and “both women’s painful pasts come back to haunt them in a crescendo of violent reenactments, betrayals and surprising revelations leading to a poignant, bittersweet ending.” The book garnered several awards including the Black Caucus of the American Library Association’s Fiction Honor Award and resulted in a flood of publicity for McFadden. She became a regular at book festivals and embarked on a heavy tour of book sign-ings.
Following the publication of Sugar, McFadden steadily churned out a new novel nearly every year. The Warmest December, published in February of 2001, depicted a grown daughter coming to terms with her difficult past. Black Issues Book Review wrote, “Sitting beside her dying father’s hospital bed, Kenzie Lowe realizes hate is as transient an emotion as love. When she needs it most, hate has deserted her. In its place is an empty ache that reminds her of her empty future. Listening to the old man’s feeble breaths, she comes face-to-face with her turbulent past—a childhood of broken dreams, broken trust and tragedy, the result of her father’s alcoholism.” Publisher’s Weekly described the book as “[a] graphic, poignant second novel [that] charts the resonating legacy that alcoholic parents pass on to their children through the cycle of addiction and domestic violence.” The book also prompted acclaimed novelist Toni Morrison to write, “Riveting. The Warmest December so nicely avoids the sentimentality that swirls all around the subject matter. I am as impressed by its structural strength as by the searing and expertly imagined scenes,” as quoted on BerniceMcFadden.com. McFadden told Nubian Chronicles Online that she was compelled to write the novel when her own father became deathly ill. “I thought I was in danger of losing him. I started thinking of the time I spent growing up in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn and those thoughts conjured up the memory of a family who lived above us. The father was very abusive. So, I thought how would that child feel in this situation—and the story just unfolded.”
McFadden’s third novel This Bitter Earth, a sequel to Sugar, debuted in February of 2002. She said during an interview with BET Online, “It was never my intention to write a sequel, but a lot of the first story was edited out and I don’t think the characters were happy about that because they kept coming back to me!” The novel was less well-received than McFadden’s earlier works. Black Issues Book Review summed up the problem: “While the author’s engaging, rich and wickedly damaged characters breathe life into this complex tale, the plotline is problematic, and the story eventually falls apart. Had McFadden excised unnecessary characters and eliminated one of the subplots, This Bitter Earth might have been a more fluid and coherent read.” However, the review concluded on a positive note: “Even with these mis-steps, McFadden weaves an interesting tale about bitterness so palpable it stifles everyone in Sugar’s world.”
As with her previous efforts, McFadden was widely praised for her sensuous prose and her ability to vividly depict harrowing experiences and emotional pain. In January of 2003, she once more offered readers a work rife with pain. Loving Donovan depicted the love between two emotionally scarred people. Of the book Black Issues Book Review wrote, “Bernice McFadden’s writing is dark and delicious. Her characters are so richly and distinctly drawn that their pain is palpable. And there’s no shortage of pain. Or hope, thank goodness [this novel] firmly establishes her among the ranks of those few writers of whom you constantly beg for more.”
With such an impressive body of work produced in a relatively short time, journalists and fans alike wanted to know how she did it. Whenever asked about her creative process, McFadden became almost mystical in her introspection. “The characters just come to me,” she told Nubian Chronicles. She continued, “My writing is really a leap of faith—I just jump in and let the characters lead me through the story.” These characters have led her to major literary success. In addition to her novels she contributed a short story to Black Silk, a collection of African-American erotica and wrote Keeper of Keys for USA Today’s Open Book series which publishes original writings on the internet. Her work has sparked the kind of adoration that fans normally reserve for writers of Alice Walker and Toni Morrison’s ilk. As long as the characters keep visiting her she should keep those fans happy for a long time to come.
Sugar, E. P. Dutton/Plume, 2000.
The Warmest December, E. P. Dutton/Plume, 2001.
“One Night Stand,” Black Silk: A Collection of African-American Erotica, Warner, 2002.
This Bitter Earth, E. P. Dutton/Plume, 2002.
Loving Donovan, E. P. Dutton/Plume, 2003.
Black Issues Book Review, March 2001, p. 20; March/April 2002, p. 32; January/February 2003, p. 33.
Publishers Weekly, March 29, 1999; November 1, 1999, p. 72; November 13, 2000, p. 86; January 14, 2002, p. 40.
USA Today, June 7, 2001.
BerniceMcFadden Website, www.pageturner.net/bernicemcfadden/ (March 23, 2003).
“Chat with Author Bernice L. McFadden,” BET.com, www.bet.com/articles/0.,c3gbl570-2233,00.html (March 23, 2003).
“Interview with Bernice McFadden,” Nubian Chronicles, www.nubianchronicles.net/mcfadden.html (March 23, 2003).
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