The Turner House author Angela Flournoy recently sat among a hosts of eager writers who were hungry to know just how authors handled the publishing life. Lucky for me, I was able to sit and talk the details with Flournoy one-on-one.
Flournoy, a Summer 2015 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection and a New York Times Sunday Book Review Editor’s Choice, is a 30-year-old African-American woman making waves in the publishing industry. While Flournoy’s publishing success may look picture perfect, the author shared her real journey – one riddled with unemployment and leaps of faith.
“I always knew I wanted to be a writer, but writing is one of those things that they try to discourage you from doing even when people want the best for you, they think the best for you means something more secure,” Flournoy said.
The young author graduated from the University of Southern California during a time she refers to “where nothing was secure” due to the beginning of the recession. The recent graduate was soon laid off from her first job and began to write.
“That to me was a sign that I just needed to do what I wanted to do,” recalls Flournoy.
She then moved to Atlanta, no longer able to afford the LA life, and began working as a freelance writer while researching MFA (Master’s of Fines Arts) programs. She landed at the coveted Iowa Writer’s Workshop, which is where her first novel would be discovered.
On Becoming a Better Writer
When asked if she believed going into a Master’s degree was vital for someone looking to strengthen their writing chops, Flournoy said she didn’t think it was a must.
“The best thing I got out of the workshop was becoming a better reader because I was surrounding myself with people who had completely different perspectives than I did and that’s something you don’t get when you’re simply just showing your friends your manuscript” said Flournoy.
“I definitely think a writing group of some sort is useful. For one, you have deadlines. And two, you have other people who are going to look at your work seriously,” she said.
The author also advised submitting to writing contests.
“It’s really a way to get a lot of people to have eyeballs on you because when you win it’s normally a guaranteed publication in that contest’s magazine or journal.”
The Agent & Editor Hustle
While more and more authors are taking the self-publishing route, literary agents are a must for writers hoping to be published by a major publishing company.
Flournoy said her “Plan B” had she not been picked up by the original agent was to create a calendar and query every day. Querying is the act of sending your manuscript along with a proposal to literary agencies.
Once Flournoy secured her agent and the novel was sold to a publisher, Flournoy next went through the editorial process – all while waiting tables in Washington, D.C.
“I used to talk to her in the walk-in freezer,” Flournoy laughs on juggling her author aspirations and still managing her day-to-day life.
And what exactly should a writer look for in an editor?
“Find someone who isn’t just interested in making money, but someone who actually respects the product you are putting out. Editors have multiple books they work on in a year – this is your one,” said Flournoy in a more serious tone. “If you really want to be good you have to have an environment where someone can give you critique. If not you’re going to shoot yourself in the foot.”
On Knowing You Have a Great Idea
Flournoy’s father and his clan of brothers and sisters who lived in Detroit inspired the author’s debut novel. On one of Flournoy’s visits to Detroit, her grandmother no longer lived in the house her father was raised in.
“That was the first time I saw that house vacant and it just bothered me,” she said.
But that idea wasn’t enough to write the book.
“I always tell my students ‘an idea is not a novel.’ An idea is an idea,” she explained. “To me a novel comes because of people. But a novel can also come because you have an idea for something that is so nuanced – to think of something in a new reality besides the reality we live in.”
Flournoy set out to write about what it means to have a home that no one wants to live in. But, it wasn’t until nine months after the idea that a person came into her head who would eventually become one of the characters in her novel.
“I’m curious about uncharted territory, you have to pick something that’s going to keep you going. It’s a marathon and not a sprint,” Flournoy said on finalizing her concept.
Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing
Comparing book publishing to the music industry, Flournoy wished the publishing industry moved as fast as music when it came to getting one’s work out to the public.
While a label is no longer a must-have, she noted a strong entrepreneurial spirit is extremely important to making it.
“It’s a hustle no matter what. It’s certainly a hustle even if you have a publisher, as they’re only going to hustle for you as much as they see you want to hustle for yourself. But publishing is changing, there are very significant people who have self-published.” Flournoy gives the example of journalist, author and “Blood, Sweat and Heels” star Demetria Lucas who, she notes, had a built-in audience.
For author’s taking the self-publishing route, having a platform pre-publication can play a large role in the success of the book.
Diversity in the Book World
Last year, Publisher’s Weekly released its yearly publishing industry salary survey, but this time around they asked participants questions regarding racial diversity within the industry.
“…[Of] the 630 respondents who identified their race, 89% described themselves as white/Caucasian, with 3% selecting Asian and another 3% indicating Hispanic. Only 1% said they are African-American,” the survey found.
These numbers are important as it is often believed that more minorities working in publishing would mean more advocates for books by authors of color.
However, Flournoy has faith the industry is getting better, even if it is a slow progress.
“Things have gotten incrementally better,” she says beginning to recall a recent dinner she had with a group of Black women writers in New York, most of whom are published authors.
“The older women were saying even though it seems like there’s so few of us, back when they were on their debut it was a time where only one [Black women author] made it every generation or every five to ten years,” she said, recommending that writers surround themselves with a group of fellow Black women writers.
“At the end of the day we are going to boost each other and it will radiate out from there. We just have to keep pushing,” she said.
Flournoy is in the early stages of her second novel and says it’s very different from The Turner House… “but still about Black people,” she quips.