Wesley, Valerie Wilson 194(?)–
Valerie Wilson Wesley 194(?)–
Edgar Allen Poe would have loved these novels. So would Mickey Spillane. But Agatha Christie, the acknowledged queen of all mystery writers, might have questioned the setting. After all … how much literary ambiance can one find in pragmatic Newark, New Jersey? Plenty, if you happen to be mystery writer Valerie Wilson Wesley. Matching Newark with Detroit and Cleveland, she said in an Internet interview: “these cities are working men’s cities—places of big shoulders and bigger dreams where immigrants and other folks struggling to make ends meet live, love and try to raise their kids.”
In fact, its working-class black population was Newark’s greatest attraction for her. When she is planning a new mystery, she knew she would find a high crime rate there, along with a number of pressing social issues such as poverty and joblessness, which are not only in crying need of immediate improvement, but also carry dramatic potential. In Wesley’s view, such urban blight makes for a complex inner city fabric, which is the perfect setting for the hardboiled main character of her mystery novels.
Tamara Hayle is a character who is instantly identifiable to her admiring audience of African American women. Like many of the readers of Essence, the magazine where novelist Wesley spent two years as executive editor, Hayle enjoyed bubble baths and shopped at the local supermarket. And, as if this is not enough to root Tamara Hayle firmly in reality, the blue Volkswagen Jetta that Hayle drove in the opening scene of the novel No Hiding Place, is identical to a car that Wesley herself once owned.
But this is not all that drew fans and character together. Any single parent among Wesley’s readers will sympathize with Hayle, an ex-cop whose resignation from the force can be laid at the door of a fellow officer guilty of harassing a car full of black teenagers, Hayle’s son Jamal among them. And this is just the way Wesley wanted Hayle to come across—as the literary character representing the millions of smart, tough, single African American mothers who live in big cities all over America.
That way, she was sure to appeal to Wesley’s precisely tailored readership of black women. “We’ve been a forgotten audience,” she said to Carol Horner, though she noted that this has begun to change. “There’s a real boom now in books by black writers, and I think it’s good, because the more folks you get reading, the better off everybody is.”
Wesley was a bookish child. She loved to read, and she also loved to write poetry and stories. Her books were her security through the many moves her family had to make in order to keep up with her father, who was in the
At a Glance…
Born 1940s. Married Richard Wesley, playwright, two daughters. Education: Graduated high school in Europe. Howard Univ., BA, 1970; Bank Street Coll., MA, Early Childhood Education; Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, MA.
Career: Scholastic News, asst editor, 1970-72; Essence, editor, 1988, travel, senior editor, 1989, senior editor, 1990, features, senior editor, 1990, exec. editor, 1992-94, contributing editor, 1994—Novelist, currently.
Award: Griot Award, NY Assnof Black Journalists, 1993.
United States Air Force. They were also her delight through her high school years, which she spent in Germany and Spain. However, while they helped to shape a broader view of reality than most teenagers could boast, they could not keep her in touch with the swiftly-moving current of American popular culture. Looking back later, she recalled to Horner, “I didn’t even know who the Suprmes were.”
Fortunately Wesley was able to fill this void soon after her high school graduation, when she came back to America to enter Howard University in Washington, DC. In 1970 she emerged with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, and not long afterwards, she married Richard Wesley, had two daughters, and settled down to family life.
By the mid-1970s Wesley was ready for a challenge outside her home. She was volunteering at a daycare center at the time, and enjoying it, so she decided to go to the Bank Street College of Education in Manhattan for a master’s degree in early childhood education. Required to write a thesis, she decided to focus on fiction about exceptional children of the past, and the ways in which the stories could help to enhance the self-esteem of present-day children. It was an unusual topic, and she threw herself into it with great enthusiasm. As a result she not only earned her degree, but also rediscovered the talent for writing, which had been lying dormant within her since her high school days. “It was like something that had been asleep a long time kind of woke up,” she told Horner of Knight-Ridder newspapers. “That’s when I started to think of myself as a writer,” she continued.
Wesley started attending workshops at the Harlem Writers’ Guild. There she found great pleasure in writing poetry, short stories and articles, just as she had done during her childhood. By the early 1980s she had become so absorbed in her new occupation that she decided to give herself to it completely. She applied to Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, was duly accepted, and earned a second master’s degree. Then, she found a job as an assistant editor with an educational publication called Scholastic News.
A couple of years later, having put in her time learning the workings of the magazin, Wesley left to try her luck as a freelancer. It was not long before her byline was appearing with short stories for children in Scholastic News, as well as in another educational publication called Creative Classroom She also wrote book reviews, making careful judgments that would help the reader to gauge the level of the work as well as its potential for drama and character development. Typical of her style was her review of a children’s book called To Hell With Dying by the world-renowned Alice Walker, which appeared in the New York Times of August 14, 1988. “… the book’s message about the healing power of love is far too subtle for most young readers to understand,” she remarked, “and the first-person narrative, written from an adult’s perspective, will puzzle them.” Nevertheless, having personally appreciated the story on a level far above the one for which it is intended, she did not forget to say “Adult readers who have known a Mr. Sweet, a gentle soul who bridged the worlds of children and grown-ups, will be touched by Ms. Walker’s tale.”
Towards the end of the 1980s, Wesley formed an association with Essence, a magazine which has been a staunch mainstay in her career ever since. Her first position there was on the travel column, where she started as an editor and rose to the rank of Senior Editor for Travel by mid-1989. By now she was an experienced writer, and her work was marked by an easy, conversational style that made a dream destination of every vacation spot she described for her readers. Enticing indeed was a massage she had at a Jamaican resort called Swept Away: “Along with a short temper and a sour disposition, I’d brought to Jamaica a neck that hurt when I bent over too quickly and cramps in my hands from too many hours at the word processor. An hour later, when I left the masseuse, I was limber enough to dance the limbo.”
By mid-1990, Wesley’s enthusiasm and undoubted talent had brought her to the rank of senior editor for features. Thereafter, she became executive editor by mid-1992, holding this post for the next two years. Though no longer the executive editor, Wesley continues to contribute articles for the magazine.
In 1993, after writing several stories for children, she published a book for young adults, called WhereDoI Go From Here? Based on the real-life experiences of her daughter and her nephew, the plot dealt with the subject of racism, an ugly reality that is still hovering like a dust cloud over the African American community.
Racism also took center stage for her in 1995, when Essence and Family Circle magazines undertook a joint survey of 2,000 women. Presented jointly in October, under the title “Race in America,” it was a searching examination of women of all races, and their honest feelings about such issues as interracial dating by their children—61% of blacks had no objection, but only 41% of whites—self-perception of racial bias (41% of blacks considered themselves more biased than whites (21%) and proved to be twice as distrustful of other races than whites.
Wesley’s personal contribution to the survey was an accompanying article called “Understanding Black Anger,” which appeared concurrently in both Essence and Family Circle The piece detailed a hurtful experience suffered by her own daughter at the hands of a racist store security guard. It also set forth, in boldly chiseled words, Wesley’s own feelings about racism and the place it should never be allowed to occupy in the life of an emotionally mature African American. She wrote, “We make our anger work for us, but we also understand that there are those among us whom anger has conquered, those for whom it has festered into self-destruction and self-hatred and the surrender of a dream not only deferred but never imagined.” Her warning about rage was clear. Nevertheless, though she mentioned the store security guard again at the end of her article, the warning accompanying her comment carried a cautious hint of optimism: “This divided nation belongs to both of us; it is ours to claim and to heal. And if we are to save it, we must find a way to reach across our troubled history and finally touch one another.”
In 1994 Wesley finished her first novel for adults. When Death Comes Stealing was set in inner-city Newark, a town she knew well from Sunday afternoon excursions with her husband, Richard, a native of the city’s Ironbound section and a successful playwright himself. The star of the story was an African American detective named Tamara Hayle, a savvy inner-city single mother possessing the same humor about life’s quirks as many of the Essence readers showed. Wesley touched on several sensitive issues in this initial work, exploring the volatile relationship between black men and the police; the financial problems surrounding the divorced black woman, and the dubious safety of the inner-city slums in which so many of America’s single mothers live. Published by G.P. Putnam, this first novel was excerpted in Essence in August, 1994, and attracted enough attention to merit a review in the New York Times.
Her second Tamara Hayle mystery, Devil’s Gonna Get Him, which dealt with the richest and grubbiest members of Newark’s black community. Next came Where Evil Sleeps, which was set in Jamaica, because “I’m enchanted with the atmosphere there,” she told Uju Asika of The Weekly Journal. Like her earlier works, it featured Tamara Hayle, and garnered reviews in the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. All three have also been published in England, Germany and France, and are currently being considered for use in a television series.
No Hiding Place, her latest Tamara Hayle mystery, appeared in September of 1997. Sold to the Doubleday Direct Book Club by the time it was published, it was also designated an Alternate Selection by both the Mystery Guild and the Literary Guild. Other honors it earned were selection as a Books-on-Tape Audio, plus selection by Avon for paperback publication.
It is unlikely that Wesley’s readers will tire of Tamara Hayle in the foreseeable future. But if Hayle should pall, Wesley will certainly find some other endearing character to write about. Once just a childhood pastime, now a dearly loved career that is sure to grow.
Book Reviews, New York Times, August 14, 1988, Section 7, p. 28.
“Nights in Negril,” Essence, December, 1992, p. 101
“Understanding Black Anger,” October, 1995, p. 102.
Where Do I Go From Here?, Scholastic, 1997.
When Death Comes Stealing, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1994.
Devil’s Gonna Get Him, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1995.
Where Evil Sleeps, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1996.
No Hiding Place, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1997.
Easier to Kill, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1998.
About … Time Magazine, March 31, 1995, p. 22.
Essence, October, 1995, p. 102.
Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 1993.
New York Beacon, October 11, 1995, p. 23.
New York Times, August 26, 1993, B, p. 5; August 26, 1994, Section B, p. 5; August 17, 1997, 13NJ, p. 3.
The Weekly Journal, June 10, 1997, p. 8.
Information was also obtained online at Putnam-Berkley online, at www.putnam.com.
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