If you like to read and you have been a
lesbian for more than 15 minutes and you don't know who Penny
Mickelbury is, well, shame on you! Mickelbury has been bringing
reading pleasure to our community for quite some time now, first
with her Mimi Patterson/Gianna Maglione mystery series [Naiad
Press] then with her Carol Ann Gibson series [Simon & Shuster].
Penny Mickelbury believes in destiny, as long
as it's preceded by three little words: "create your own."
To that end, the novelist and playwright last year recovered
the rights to her first two published novels. Both feature a
crime-solving duo — investigative reporter Mimi Patterson and
homicide detective Gianna Maglione — and "did very well,"
she says, when they were published in 1994 and 1995. The series
will reappear in sequence, with Keeping Secrets scheduled
for release in February 2002 and Night Songs later in the year;
only this time around they will be totally Mickelbury
Penny Mickelbury is a journalist-turned-novelist who thinks of
herself as a playwright. Her lifetime of "firsts" began in 1970,
when she was the first African-American reporter at the Athens,
Georgia Banner-Herald. A former reporter for the
Washington Post, Ms. Mickelbury was a political reporter for
the ABC-TV affiliate in Washington, D.C. She was
co-founder and managing director of New York City's Alchemy:
Theater of Change. Ms. Mickelbury's mystery heroine, Carole
Ann Gibson (a wealthy African-American woman lawyer and
part-time sleuth) appears in thrillers including One Must Wait
and Where to Choose.
What does it take to write an excellent novel? Get out of the
way of your characters so they may tell the truth! Be
respectful. Listen to them. Know that you -- the writer -- are
the characters' vehicle, not their creator. A writer's ego only
gets in the way of letting characters out, Penny Mickelbury
declares. She's a critically acclaimed mystery novelist,
playwright and onetime journalist -- in short, a storyteller.
What's the writer a vehicle for? Realizing and actualizing the
truth of the characters who present themselves, who barge into
stories, complete with dialogue.
Clearly, the Muse is very real to Ms. Mickelbury. Try to force
characters, she assures us, and you'll end up with a mess on
your hands. Ms. Mickelbury doesn't sit down saying, "Well, I'm
going to create a character that does this and is that."
Characters present themselves. What Ms. Mickelbury does think
is, "That's interesting. I wonder who that is? What's she going
to do? Or he? Who is this?" Writers get to play with the
language, she insists, but not with the characters.
So how does the writer wrestle all these forces into a book?
Discipline and practice (in the classic sense) are essential,
especially in this world of immediacy, according to Ms.
Mickelbury. We all have so much available that discipline is
required simply to make selections and meaningful choices. Then
practice hones because, Ms. Mickelbury believes, the truth
really is eternal and she's quite sure there really isn't
anything new under the sun. That's why the great stories are
forever. It's a writer's job to find fresh ways to tell them.
In her heart, Ms. Mickelbury is a playwright because she is
entirely smitten with language. In a play, she's found, the
audience has a concentrated commitment to hear as actors perform
language. Everyone is involved and engaged in theater, a public
event which Ms. Mickelbury compares favorably to a church
What applies to writers, Ms. Mickelbury is confident, also
applies to musicians and painters. Creative people don't just
live, they engage. That engagement allows the artist to hear
what unbidden characters have to say, know what's going on in
their heads, what they want, and what motivates them. Then, like
any good medium, get out of the way!
As of October 2001, Mickelbury's corporate partnership with
stage-and-television actor Peggy Blow — 48/52 Development
Studio, Inc — is inaugurating a publishing imprint, Migibooks,
in addition to their collaboration in writing, teaching, theater
arts and play production. They're starting with a third and
brand-new Patterson-Maglione novel, Love Notes. "We
completed the proofread of the book and returned it to the
printer yesterday and expect to have the book shipped out to us
by next week this time," Mickelbury told me in early
October. Why take on this additional task and risk now?
"Publishing is in incredible turmoil and I really wasn't anxious
at this stage of my life — I'm not a child — to be dependent on
somebody else for my livelihood," explained the internationally
acclaimed author, who cheerfully added that she's 53, a Gemini,
and doesn't have the knees for running any more.
The second engrossing Mickelbury mystery suite
— One Must Wait, Where to Choose, The Step Between and
Paradise Interrupted, all published by Simon & Schuster —
pushes the envelope for African American literary heroines with
the introduction of Carol Ann Gibson. A rich attorney widowed
young when her beloved corporate lawyer husband is murdered,
Carol Ann has spun off from a successful criminal law practice
into her own security and investigations firm, partnered with
ex-police detective Jake Graham. The Carol Ann character is
compelling because she has the mental toughness it takes if you
propose to live four score and ten on this planet; she isn't a
victim of her emotional needs like the sleuths of at least three
other African American women mystery writers I won't name. I
mean, it's one thing for your investigator to be a woman who
expresses anima, the so-called "feminine" side of the
human personality. It's another to expect me to swallow a sleuth
who can stay focused and maneuver in dangerous situations, but
then goes all teen-age gooey around a certain guy.
like that baffle Mickelbury as well. "This business of women
having to have a man or coming completely undone in the presence
of some guy — I don't know any grown women who respond that
way." Mickelbury said her creation, Carol Ann, "works
very hard to control her feelings and emotions because even
though she is capable of enormous love and loyalty, it's very
limited. The people she loves she loves absolutely, without
question and without hesitation; there just aren't a lot of
them." Her voice infused with the rhythm and pop of that
finger-snapping "Z" hand-jive and head thing, Mickelbury jazzed:
"The books talk about her husband and his Buddhist
sensibilities — well, she doesn't have them, okay?" Boomp!
"That's not who she is. She's capable of respecting who and
what other people are, but it's not her. One of the journeys she
has made in these four books is learning, 'How do you love and
trust people who are outside of your family?' She and Jake are
very loyal to family. They've never been loyal to other people."
Obviously Carol Ann sets boundaries on what she'll accept and
how she'll be treated — and so does Penny Mickelbury. She
doesn't think her books, especially the first series, have been
pushed to their maximum audience and earnings potential. "It's
really, for me, a question of respect and acknowledgment of a
writer and my value to a company; so, I just said, 'Let me just
stop depending on publishing.'" Like other mid-level writers
working with publishing conglomerates, Mickelbury found herself
doing much of her books' publicity herself. "If I have to use my
own money and make my own contacts to push the books anyway, "
she reasoned, "I might as well be doing it all for me. "
Publishing their own work is a way of authors' "regaining more
control of our own lives and our own destinies, not leaving so
much crucial decision-making power in the hands of other people
— of any stripe, but particularly of white people," Mickelbury
said. "There are things that are peculiar to us and required for
us because of memory and history," she added, pointing out that
images, voices, and experiences with particularly African
American nuances often meet resistance from decision-makers who
don't get them and don't respect the writers' creative judgment
either. It's an old story. Langston Hughes discussed it in his
landmark 1926 essay, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain."
And there's Amiri Baraka's telling line in his eulogy ("Jimmy")
for James Baldwin: "So let the butchering copy editors of our
captivity stay for an eternal moment their dead eraser fingers…"
Moving toward ever greater self-determination comes naturally to
Mickelbury. She was raised in Atlanta, Georgia during
segregation, reared by parents who told her, "Don't worry about
what white folks are doing, 'cause they're doing what they've
been doing for four hundred years. They're not going to stop it
for you. You better make a way for yourself." Mickelbury was
among the first handful of black students to follow pioneers
Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Hamilton Holmes into the previously
segregated University of Georgia. In July 2000 she relished
returning to Athens as a recognized author attending a writers'
conference in a building she had never dared enter during her
matriculation. Why not? "Sure, we were there on the campus, "
she answered, "but they didn't want us there, so except for
where we absolutely had to go for classes, it was like, 'Do you
want to die today just to go into some hall?'"
In 1970 she was the first black reporter hired in the nearly
150-year history of The Athens Banner-Herald. In '72 she was
among a handful of black employees at The Washington Post — one
of the seven who brought a historic discrimination suit against
the company a decade and a half before reporter Jill Nelson's
arrival found the paper's culture still steeped in racism and
sexism (which she described in her 1993 memoir, Volunteer
Slavery). Mickelbury's daily journalism career culminated at
DC's WJLA-TV, an ABC affiliate, where she covered both the
District and the Hill for six years and was assistant news
director for three. Being denied promotion to news director
prompted her to sue again, alleging discrimination. She received
what a source said was a hefty monetary settlement and left both
the station and the journalism grind.
Penny Mickelbury declares herself a "contemporary American
writer" in vigorous dissent from the prevailing, somewhat
pejorative classification of suspense novels as "genre fiction."
Her themes are seriously topical. For instance, Night Songs, a
1995 Lambda Literary Award Nominee, considers whether crimes
against women are hate crimes; and the plot of the first Carol
Ann book, One Must Wait (1998), dramatizes the link between
racism and environmental pollution in Louisiana — the subject of
a June 2001 Africana article, "Touring Cancer Alley." Migibooks'
forthcoming Love Notes thickens its plot with lesbian menopause.
Mickelbury characters are so vividly whole that they are being
taught at Emory, North Carolina A&T and UCLA in English, Women's
Studies and/or African American Studies classes that have
adopted her books.
"I personally believe, in America particularly, mysteries are
the best writing going. That's just a fact. If you read the top
mystery writers, the stories are better and they are better
told," Mickelbury declared. Asked what the difference is
between a mystery and any other novel, she said, "That gets into
plotting, purpose, and ultimately the denouement. There are
novels in which murders occur, but one of the things that
constitutes a mystery is that the reason for the existence of
the novel is to discover who done it and why." Mickelbury said
her books fit that definition of "mystery," but that doesn't
make her some sort of lesser writer. "The responsibility of all
of us is to give a good story well told. I write, I hope, good
books. I am American, I am a novelist, so I think I write
contemporary American novels. That's what I do."
She declined to categorize the popular fiction of other African
American writers. "I'm not real interested in comparing and
contrasting, particularly among other black authors, because we
alone among artists of any ilk are not given the right and the
freedom to be wholly who and what we are. I don't think it
serves any purpose to compare Toni Morrison and Terry MacMillan.
What are we talking about? Why can't we have black folk selling
and writing and buying and reading all manner of things?"
"I remember being rather appalled at the amount of vitriol
surrounding Terry MacMillan's early success, and I'm thinking,
'What is this about?' — discounting the part of it that was just
pure jealousy. I'm thinking like, 'What is it that people object
to?' If they object to the subject matter, what you have to
realize is that there are people for whom that's life, and
nobody got pissed off at Jacqueline Susan and Joan Collins,
Jackie Collins, whoever these people are. People think they're
wonderful and they can sell books and get rich all day long.
Terry Macmillan ought to be able to sell books and get rich all
day long." The Mickelbury caveat is: "By the same token, I think
that it ought to be just as possible for people who tell a
different kind of story to get that story told, get it in front
of the people who want to read those stories."
She says that marketing-driven publishing and chain bookstores
are reducing the variety and quality of stories available in
what she termed our "culture of mediocrity." Most people,
she thinks, "don't want to read books 'cause they think it's
too much work." But, "for the people who do want to, it's
important that the books be there," Penny Mickelbury
insisted, "and that we continue to produce quality writing and
quality story-telling for people who want it. I don't care if
it's not but a hundred."
Penny Mickelbury is represented by
the Charlotte Sheedy Literary Agency,
New York, NY
Contact Migibooks at 1-866-GET-MIGI (438-6444) or online
or Peggy Blow
firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 20365 Los Angeles, CA