McKinney-Whetstone, Diane 1954?–
Diane McKinney-Whetstone 1954?–
Diane McKinney-Whetstone is the author of a trio of well-received novels that portray African American families: Tumbling, Tempest Rising, and Blues Dancing. Although she had been a public affairs officer for the USDA Forest Service for a number of years, it took the approaching milestone of her fortieth birthday to steer her toward a more rewarding writing career. After her debut novel, Tumbling, received good reviews and she was well into writing her next novel, McKinney-Whetstone eventually gave up her day job to focus on writing what she found most rewarding—novels featuring vividly drawn characters set in her hometown of Philadelphia.
The second of five daughters born to Pennsylvania State Senator Paul McKinney and his wife Bessie, Diane grew up in a home that valued the word, both written and oral. “My father especially was a great storyteller,” McKinney-Whetstone remembered in Penn Arts & Sciences. The McKinney sisters would have reading contests to see which of them could finish a book before the others. They also excelled at writing, with three of them—Diane included—eventually opting for careers in communications. Diane attended the University of Pennsylvania, where she majored in English. “I didn’t write any fiction at Penn,” she told Penn Arts & Sciences. “It was reading that was the most instructive. Also the bouncing around of ideas.” She graduated in 1975.
Shortly after Diane graduated from college, her mother died of esophageal cancer after a two-year battle. In 1978 Diane married her high school sweetheart Greg Whetstone. They started a family, which included twins, daughter Taiwo and son Kehinde. Finally as she was approaching a “significant birthday,” McKinney-Whetstone laughingly told Meghan Leary, “I felt that if I didn’t start to write fiction now, I never would.” So she made time in her busy schedule for writing by getting up at dawn. Writing from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m., seeing her children off to school, then getting to work at the Forest Service office was a challenging but fruitful routine.
Joining the Rittenhouse Writer’s Group, founded by University of Pennsylvania instructor James Rahn, gave her added incentive. This intense group, which met twice a week in eight-week cycles, proved to be a valuable experience. “They encouraged me to keep pushing the work so that it could be the best possible,” McKinney-Whetstone told Jeannine DeLombard of Book Quarterly. After writing the first draft of Tumbling, some five hundred pages, McKinney-Whetstone won a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts grant. This stipend allowed her to take a leave of absence from her Forest Service job to finish the second draft of the novel. She recalled to Essence reporter V. R. Peterson how her family got involved in researching the period details she need to polish the manuscript. She also noted how chaotic that time of her life became as the work of writing took over her life. “I didn’t plan the book this way. Meals got out of whack. Breakfast was ‘on your own.’ But a certain magic happened: a story emerged and I followed it.” In fact, sometimes she did not know where the characters she had created would take the plot. She found a literary agent in 1994, and
At a Glance…
Born in 1954?, in Philadelphia, PA: daughter of Paul (a state senator) and Bessie McKinney. Education: University of Pennsylvania, 1975, B.A, (English); married Gregory Whetstone, 1978; children: twins, Taiwo (daughter) and Kehinde (son).
Career: USDA Forest Service, public affairs officer; novelist and short story writer; writing instructor, University of Pennsylvania,
Awards: Citation from the Atheneum of Philadelphia for her portrayal of Philadelphia in her novel Tumbling; Pennsylvania Council on the Arts grant; Discipline Winner in the Pew Fellowship on the Arts; Zora Neale Hurston Society award for creative contribution to literature; citation from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for her portrayal of urban life as presented in Tumbling; Author of the Year award from the Go On Girl Book Club.
Addresses: Office— Department of English, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA. Agent— Ingrid Polston, 10 East 53rd St, New York, NY 10033-5299.
within a week of sending out the manuscript to editors, publisher William Morrow made her an offer, one too good to refuse. Just as she was making this book deal, McKinney-Whetstone’s life took a tragic turn. Her father, who had long suffered from heart problems, died. When Tumbling finally rolled off the presses, the dedication read, “To Mommie and Daddy.”
Set in a close-knit community in South Philadelphia during the 1940s and 1950s, Tumbling tells the story of Noon, a strong matriarch married to wayward husband Herbie, who has a liaison with a jazz singer. Although Noon and Herbie do not have children of their own, they adopt two baby girls who are left on the couple’s doorstep. The plot revolves around the couple’s efforts to raise their family. Then when the city government begins to pressure members of the community to move out so a highway can be built, Noon takes on a leadership role, surprising others and herself in the process.
Reviewers found much to praise about the novel, especially the characterizations and sense of place. They even compared McKinney-Whetstone favorably to Toni Morrison, an African American women writer known for using mystical elements and creating a distinct sense of place. Calling the author “a gifted prose writer with a tremendous sense of place,” a Kirkus Reviews critic added that she “convincingly presents the community’s fight for self-determination as the outward manifestation of the psychic struggle of African-Americans” during a critical period. “McKinney-Whetstone is clearly a smart, careful writer who’s created a page-turner of a novel with abundant style and irresistible charm,” lauded Jabari Asim in the Detroit News. Moreover, Booklist critic Lillian Lewis predicted that McKinney-Whetstone’s “powerful” novel “is sure to launch her career among the great African American women writers.” McKinney-Whetstone garnered several awards for this novel, including citations from the Atheneum of Philadelphia and from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, both for her portrayal of life in the City of Brotherly Love.
McKinney-Whetstone’s contract with Morrow gave the publisher the first option to buy her next two novels. In 1996 her second novel, Tempest Rising, hit the stores. In this work, the author focused on two African-American families living in Philadelphia in the mid-1960s: Clarise and Finch and their three daughters make up one family, while later the same three daughters and foster mother Mae and daughter Ramona make up the second “family.” Throughout the course of the novel, which moves back and forth in time, the three teenage daughters, Shern, Victoria, and Bliss, attempt to escape their foster family and return to their mother who tried to commit suicide after the death of their father. In the process, the characters learn important lessons about themselves and each other.
These characters and their determination to overcome obstacles elicited praise from reviewers. Writing in Library Journal, Ellen Flexman praised McKinney-Whetstone’s “simple phrases and beautifully drawn characters,” adding that the author “masterfully evokes” the emotions of the characters. So too, Dottie Kraft of School Library Journal called the characters “uniquely and vividly drawn.” According to Kerry Sherin in the Pennsylvania Gazette, “The book has all of the eccentric characters and uncanny plot twists of a Dickens novel... Tempesi Rising conveys a powerful sense of the social world in which its characters live.” He added, “At times, the wisdom the book affords can be had too cheaply. Characters suddenly state the point. Yet the book depicts dysfunctional families so vividly that even the narrative’s own heavy hand doesn’t weigh the story down too much. The characters have known such violence and deprivation that the narrative’s occasional truisms have a kind of gaudy chutzpah.” Sherin concluded, “Tempest Rising is a deliberate blend of wit, horror, pragmatism, and optimism—an artful mix for an artful story about the ways we learn, and sometimes re-learn, how to live.”
By the time her third novel, Blues Dancing, rolled off the presses, McKinney-Whetstone had nearly a quarter of a million books best-selling books bearing her name. With Blues Dancing, the author finally dared to write a story set in contemporary Philadelphia. Previously she had needed to distance herself in time in order to write fiction instead of relying too heavily on known people and events for her works. In the novel, Verdi, the pampered daughter of a southern preacher, and Johnson, a street-wise city boy, had twenty years earlier become entangled romantically after they meet at the University of Pennsylvania during the 1970s. When the Johnson and then Verdi became addicted to heroin, they went their separate ways, Verdi being rescued by a professor who had fallen in love with her. When they meet again after such a long hiatus, they find themselves still drawn to each other and have to make difficult decisions.
Although a Kirkus Reviews critic described the plot as “elementary” and the characters “monochromatic,” other reviewers praised the work. “A captivating read” is how Janice Williams described Blues Dancing in her Library Journal review. Martha Southgate of Essence enthused, uBlues is a novel well worth curling up with on a long winter’s night.”
Having grown up in Philadelphia, it would seem natural for McKinney-Whetstone to set her stories there. “I really need to know the place where my characters live before I know who the characters are. Place informs character,”the author revealed in Essence. “I know Philly. It’s provincial, a neighborhood city. When I was growing up, it was very territorial. People thought they knew things about you based upon the section of the city where you lived. In each of my books, I have introduced different facets of Philadelphia over time.” And McKinney-Whetstone intended to continue to write about her city, though her success as a writer allowed her family to buy a house in the suburbs.
As well as contributing short fiction and essays regularly to such periodicals as Sunday Magazine of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Magazine, and Essence, McKinney-Whetstone taught fiction and poetry writing at the University of Pennsylvania, her alma mater, in Philadelphia. She stressed to young writers that they must plan for regular, undisturbed writing time because writing is serious work. “I approach each writing session with a measure of self-doubt,” McKinney-Whetstone told DeLombard. “In my own kind of dysfunctional way, I hope not to lose that, because I’m afraid if I lose the self-doubt I may not be able to write anymore. Each time that I sit down to write, I wonder, ‘Okay, can I do this?’ and then something happens on the page—this magic happens and it’s quite a thrill, so I hope that that never goes away either.”
Booklist, April 15, 1996; February 15, 1998; February 15, 2000.
Book Quarterly, April 4-11, 1996.
Detroit News, June 1, 1996.
Essence, July, 1996; November, 1999; August, 2000.
Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 1996.
Library Journal, June 15, 1996; March 1, 1998; October 1, 1999; November 1, 1999.
Penn Arts & Sciences, fall 1996.
Pennsylvania Gazette, May, 1998.
People, May 27, 1996.
School Library Journal, October, 1998.
Women’s Review of Books, July, 1996.
Additional information was found on-line at the University of Pennsylvania web site, Megan Leary “Writer with Double Penn Experience Returns to Share Success,” http://www.upenn.edu/pennnews/features/1996/121096/mckinney-whetstone.html and the Diane McKinney-Whetstone web site, www.mckinneywhetstone.com.
—Jeanne M. Lesinski
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