Janice Simsí romances have taken me places I've never been before. Under the seas with Florida marine biologist Gaea Maxwell, in the Kentucky horse country with veterinarian Cara Lynn Garrett, to the Irish countryside with photojournalist Teddy Riley and on a Montana ranch with accountant turned bed-and-breakfast proprietor Cheyenne Roberts. Simsí stories often place African-American characters in settings and occupations where mainstream America is not accustomed to seeing them. By going outside traditional urban settings, her work has helped add definition and dimension to ďthe African-American experienceĒ in contemporary fiction. My favorite Janice Sims romances are A Bittersweet Love, For Keeps and her novella, ďThe Keys to My Heart.Ē We recently talked about my favorites as well as her new romance, A Second Chance at Love.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
I was born and brought up in Florida. Luckily, God saw fit to put me in the hands of a couple who loved books. Because of them, I believe I was genetically inclined to write. Iíve never really wanted to do anything else. I majored in journalism at the University of Florida, however because of the needs of my daughter, who I had shortly after college, Iíve never worked in the field. My background is a great help in my writing though. I'm at my best when I'm digging for information on a story. In fact, research is one of my favorite aspects of writing fiction.
What is ďThe Book of Counted JoysĒ?
I write a poem for each of my stories. Theyíre designed to lead the reader into the story. The reason I call this fictitious tome, The Book of Counted Joys is a direct result of reading Dean Koontzís books for years. I'm sure he won't mind my telling you this, because Iíve already confessed it to him: He also writes poems to lead into his stories. He calls his fictitious book of poems, The Book of Counted Sorrows. I figured since Iím writing about love, Iíd refer to mine as..Joys.
Do you ever plan to publish it?
Readers have written to me asking where they can buy a copy. Iím giving it serious thought. Romance never goes out of vogue. Why not a book of poems you can give your lover on Valentineís Day? Or on any other special occasion?
What was your first book?
My first published novel was Affair of the Heart. It wasnít the first full-length novel I ever wrote though. That book is gathering dust in a desk drawer.
How long did it take to get it published?
As you know, not many publishers were interested in considering African-American romances for publication in the not too distant past. It was a good friend, Avon Witherspoon, who pointed me in the direction of Odyssey Publishing in 1995, or was it 1994? At any rate, Leticia Peoples, then publisher of the now defunct company, was so wonderful. Even when she decided to quit the publishing business she was kind enough to forward Affair of the Heart to Kensington Publishing. A few months later I was offered a two-book contract. I've been working ever since. So, from conception to publication, it took around two years.
Do you write full time?
No, I write from four to five hours a day. I have Saturday and Sunday off. I feel that taking the weekend off gives me the chance to pull back from the story, recharge and maybe rethink some things. By Monday, I'm ready to get back to work.
How do you approach development of your characters?
I get ideas for characters from all kinds of sources, friends, and relatives. You name it, and Iíve shamelessly ripped them off. Mannerisms, physical descriptions, temperament. I can be watching a film and something about a character will strike me as interesting, and I'm off and running. Then I take a yellow legal pad and start writing down what makes this character tick from the way they sit while watching TV, to what they eat for breakfast. I like characters who are imperfect, they're more interesting.
How would you describe your sense of humor?
A sense of humor is essential to my well-being. Life is funny. I come from a family of joke tellers. My mom and dad used to try to outdo one another. Therefore, I grew up with a lot of love and laughter. It's natural for me to inject humor in my writing. Yes, some scenes will make you cry. I cried while I was writing about Saraís death in Affair of the Heart. I cried when Cheyenne held her dying father's head in her lap in For Keeps. All in all, though, I think you'll find more laughter than tears in my tales.
Where did the idea for ďThe Keys to My HeartĒ come from?
I wrote ďThe Keys to My HeartĒ with my hometown of High Springs, Florida in mind. I named my fictitious town Damascus after the biblical city. My dad used to tell us kids the story of Saul/Paul being blinded on the road to Damascus. In my story, Gabriel Merrick would be Saul/Paul. On the road to Damascus, he would have a revelatory experience. His life would be changed and the catalyst for that change would be Kiana Everett.
Who is Gabriel Merrick?
Gabriel Merrick is an English professor at a historically black college in Connecticut. Sounds staid, huh? He is by no means usual. He wears his hair in dreads, is an adventurer. He climbs mountains on long trips to Africa where he leaves civilization behind. Thatís why he didnít know his only brother had been killed in an auto accident. No phones where he was. Gabriel has a zest for living. But he has turned off his emotional radar. Hurt once, he's decided that love isn't for him. That is until he meets Kiana. She changes his mind.
Now, if you were asking whom I modeled him after, the answer would be: Gabriel's my husband, Curt. Bits of Gabriel's personality also can be attributed to several other males Iíve known. Then, too, heís a figment of my overripe imagination.
When I think of Gabriel, I see singer Eric Benet. For some reason, (probably because my image of Gabriel is so strong), I can't picture Kiana Everett. Whom does she resemble in your writer's eye?
You probably have a better image of Gabriel because, after all, women read romance for the men. Itís wonderful to have strong, lovable heroines, as Kiana is, but when we read a romance novel, we want the men to be our ideal! I probably spent a bit more time developing Gabriel because of that. Kiana could be the actress, Nia Long. I can see her and Eric Benet in the roles.
That was a wonderful question because itís true that when Iím writing, the action flows rather like a movie. And I do tend to imagine well-known actors in the place of my characters. Doing that makes the writing more fun for me.
Will we get to see the Everetts again?
Definitely. I've recently signed another two-book contract with BET Books and the first book on the contract will be about Kerry Everett, Kianaís sister. She is the police chief of Damascus, Florida. She'll be trying to catch a serial killer alongside FBI Special Agent, Maceo Kent. The book is tentatively titled, This Time Forever.
Out of the Blue was a real departure for you. How did the idea for the story come about?
I've been hooked on sci-fi since I saw my first episode of Star Trek as a teen. When I began writing Out of the Blue, I had no intention of incorporating characters who were not of this world. However by the fifth chapter, I found myself combining African and Greek mythology, folktales from the Caribbean, and science fiction to come up with aquatic shape-shifting aliens whoíve been on earth since we were living in caves. Where did the story come from? It was one of those stories that was simply inspired. I don't know exactly where the idea came from. I'm just happy my editor, Karen Thomas, didnít tell me to go back to the drawing board.
Are you a science fiction buff?
I wouldn't say Iím a buff. Iím not hardcore. However, I love fantasy. Iíve recently read the Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman which has in the story line, among many other magical things, talking polar bears and knives that can cut a window between worlds. I would love to write books like that.
Why don't more African-Americans writing in the genre write paranormal, fantasy or time travel romances?
I really believe that more writers would like to, but they don't know how their stories will be received. I predict this will change in the near future, as publishers realize that our readers crave all sorts of stories, not just contemporary romances or historical romances. I say we writers should go for it. Write the stories. It used to be that African-American romances werenít deemed marketable enough to publish either. Now publishers are clamoring for the opportunity to publish them. I have a few fantasy tales on the back burner.
Which of the covers of your novels is your favorite and why?
I adore the cover of A Bittersweet Love. The male model is holding the female model in his arms, they're both bundled up in thick sweaters and they actually look like they're in love.
I have never been to Ireland. However, your descriptions of the countryside in A Bittersweet Love took me to a place in my imagination where I could actually see it. How did you research the setting?
Let me begin by saying that ever since I was a small girl, there's been something about Ireland that spoke to me. Most of my research was done online. Ireland.com was a great source of information about modern Ireland. I also read Irish fairy tales. I read books by Irish authors like John McGahern. Books about the constant struggle between Protestants and Catholics. And I began to see comparisons between the Irish and African Americans, believe it or not. We're both deeply religious, and we put a lot of stock in our families.
In A Bittersweet Love, I tried to depict the Irish realistically without resorting to cliches. In the book, Joachim and Teddy, the African-American couple, are perfectly at home in Ireland.
The novel depicts Teddy and Joachim as world citizens -- well-traveled African-Americans who are at home in any locale. How important is that to you?
I think of African Americans as capable of doing anything, being anything they want to. It's very important to me for my readers to get that message from my books. Our self-image is built from the inside out. And we're being bombarded with negative stereotypes. I believe we are who we THINK we are. Therefore, let's think of ourselves as capable human beings.
In A Bittersweet Love, Teddy says, "The mark of a good writer is that his characters leave a lasting impression on the reader. We think of them as real people and wonder what's going on in their lives long after the book's finished."
Take us beyond the conclusion of the novel. Did Teddy and Joachim spend their honeymoon in Ballycastle? Did Joachim complete a sequel to "The God Gene"? Did Teddy and Joachim collaborate on a book? Most importantly, did Teddy fry hoecakes for Joachim?
I always envision Teddy and Joachim happily married and living in San Francisco in a house by the Bay. They're standing on the deck. It's a cool, breezy day and the smell of the sea is in the air. They're bundled in thick sweaters and Joachim walks up behind Teddy, embraces her and plants a kiss on the nape of her neck.
Yes, they honeymooned in Ballycastle at the home of Conal and Erin Ryan who were on a book tour in the States at the time. Alex stayed with Adrian who'd settled in to being a sane, responsible father.
Joachim's book about Lottie was a big success, so his writing went in a different direction. He never wrote the sequel to "The God Gene". Since Teddy had inspired him to write Lottie's story, he called upon her to help him continue Lottie's story by writing about her sons. They collaborated on a series of books about positive African-American males in pursuit of love with African-American women of substance. Teddy was instrumental in realistically portraying the female viewpoint. Therefore, the books were written in two voices: male and female. The books gained unprecedented loyalty and readership from both sexes. I could go on, but you're getting me excited, and before you know it, I will have agreed to write the doggone sequel myself. And I already have enough on my plate! LOL
But did Teddy fry hoecakes for Joachim?
Indeed she did! And every time Joachim smelled those corn cakes frying in the kitchen, he knew he was in for a helluva time in the bedroom!
I once said your characters are placed in occupations and locations where mainstream America is not accustomed to seeing African Americans. Is that a fair assessment? And, if so, how does it address your definition of multiculturalism? How does it play into your definition of multicultural romance?
I was born and raised in the South. I'm forty-two years old, so I can remember having to drink from "Colored Only" water fountains when I was a kid. I will not have anyone put limits on my dreams. I've had readers who wrote to say they thought they'd never read a novel about a Black marine biologist. One letter was from a young Black woman who was a student studying marine biology. In Out of the Blue, she saw herself. That's the biggest compliment I can ever get. African-Americans are in every imaginable occupation.
My definition of multicultural romance encompasses depicting my characters as accomplished, or striving to get there. No, all of my characters are not professionals. Some are women who're struggling to get an education. They're single mothers who got "caught". They aren't beaten-down though. They have the spirit and the wherewithal to get what they want.
For Keeps is the story of an African-American family living in Montana where Blacks make up only .04 percent of the population. What type of research did you have to do to tell this story?
The first thing I did was phone the Billings Gazette and ask for a weekend subscription. I wanted to read about the locals. How they lived. What the headlines were like. From reading the local paper, I found out that they were experiencing a problem with methamphetamines, or crank, a highly addictive drug. I read about local Native Americans and their modern-day life on the res, or the reservation. I wrote about all of this in For Keeps. I also did extensive research at my local library and on the Internet.
You also mentioned the plight of the Black farmer in America. Why was it important to touch upon this issue?
It was important to me because I come from an agrarian background. I'm only one generation from the field. In other words, I had relatives who were sharecroppers and migrant workers. I can remember my uncle sharing his home with poor whites who were also migrant workers. Back then, migrant workers were poor Blacks and poor whites. Now, they're other poor people who come from countries like Mexico. I would like to see conditions for migrant workers greatly improved. After all, if not for them working the farms of America, we'd all starve.
Who is Josie Roberts? You have never written a historical romance. Will we ever get her story?
Josie Roberts, Cheyenne Roberts' great-great grandmother in For Keeps was inspired by my own great-great grandmother who was half Cherokee. No, I've never written a historical romance. I'm in the process of writing one though.
The novel is written in the first person. How different was the process for you as a writer?
It was the most difficult book I've ever written. In first person it's sometimes difficult to be descriptive enough to fully engage the imagination of the reader. This is because only one character's point of view is represented. I was satisfied with the results, but it will be a long time before I attempt another first-person narration.
You have written six full-length novels and three novellas. Which form do you prefer?
I prefer full-length novels. I get the chance to explore my characters more. I also like to build up the supporting characters. Sometimes these secondary characters get stories of their own, like Solange Dupree in Out of the Blue. She was the main character's, Gaea Maxwell, best friend in that book. Now, she appears in A Second Chance at Love. But in 2002, she gets her own, as yet untitled, novel.
At least two of your novels mention a Chicago superstation, WGN-TV. Why?
I like that station. In the context of my stories, WGN runs African-American movies quite often; plus, during the holidays, you can count on them to feature Imitation of Life, which is one of my favorite old movies. I'm an old-movie buff. Give me a Cary Grant movie, a bowl of popcorn and a Diet Coke and I'm one happy girl!
Which writers have influenced you?
A book that compelled me to try my hand at writing a novel was Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. When I discovered she was a Florida writer as well, that just cinched it for me. The first novel I ever completed, Eye of the Beholder, is set in Florida. It's an interracial saga that begins in the 60's and ends in the present.
When it comes to pacing, the writer who influenced me was Dean Koontz. He puts the pedal to the metal and doesn't let up until the very end. Exciting stories that leave you breathless. A writer I look up to is Toni Morrison. I don't aspire to write like her though. That would be futile, as she's a living legend.
A growing number of African-American romance writers live and work in Florida. The state is challenging Georgia and New York. Is there something in the water there that inspires so many authors?
(Laughing out loud) No, I think it's the heat that makes us write such steamy love scenes. Oh, you didn't ask about the love scenes. I must be preoccupied. I don't think there's anything in the water. I think it's just the temperate weather that draws so many writers to Florida. There's nothing like sitting at your desk in your office and gazing out at a beautiful, sun-drenched day
Let's go back to Florida author Zora Neale Hurston for a minute. What is the Zora Neale Hurston Festival?
The Zora Neale Hurston Festival is an event that began as a way to honor the author who made Eatonville, Florida her home, and the subject of several of her folk tales. The event takes place every year at the end of January in the historically Black-founded town of Eatonville, Florida. I have been fortunate to participate in the past, and, believe me, it's an experience you won't soon forget. Last year more than 100,000 folks strolled the grounds visiting booths that featured original African art, books written by African Americans. Afrocentric clothing, pottery, and the hats! Any church lady is in hat heaven at the Zora Neale Hurston Festival.
The next festival will be held January 26-28, 2001. Each year, the festival has a theme. The theme of the upcoming 12th Annual Zora Neale Hurston Festival will be POETRY. Nikki
Giovanni will be there as well as Maya Angelou, among others. For more information you may go to http://www.insidecentralflorida.com/partners/
What do you read when you are not writing?
I have a wonderful literary mentor who keeps me supplied with interesting books. And I thank her! Lately, I've read two excellent novels by Gay G. Gunn, Nowhere to Run and Pride and Joi. I recently read and enjoyed: Butterscotch Blues by Margaret Johnson-Hodge; Always and Forever by Beverly Jenkins; The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman. I love a good read. It doesn't matter what genre it comes from.
A Second Chance at Love is a spin-off of All the Right Reasons. Where does A Second Chance at Love pick the story up?
I introduced Toni Shaw and her daughters, Georgette and Briane in my short story, "To Love Again" which appeared in Arabesque's 1997 St. Valentine's Day anthology, Love Letters. I adored Toni and the girls so much, I continued their story in All the Right Reasons, bringing in the lover/father, Charles Edward Waters, who had abandoned them nearly 30 years ago.
Now, A Second Chance at Love begins approximately three years after All the Right Reasons ended. In All the Right Reasons, Chuck promised to pursue Toni and keep pursuing her until she relented. He keeps his word. About a year-and-a-half after All the Right Reasons ended, Toni and Chuck began a clandestine affair. In the beginning of A Second Chance at Love they've been carrying on for some time and Chuck is ready to take it to the next logical level, marriage. Toni is happy to allow things to go on as they are. She loves Chuck, but, really, what will everyone think if she marries the man who abandoned her? Where is her pride? A love affair is one thing, but marriage is quite another!
What is A Second Chance at Love about?
The essence of the tale deals with obsession and the lengths to which we'll go for the ones we love. We witness this throughout the book. Why does Chuck pursue Toni for three years if he doesn't feel he'll eventually win her? Why does Toni let him? And Yusef Makonnen, a secondary character, is so enamored of his wife, Salah, that he will do anything to give her what she wants. Even if he has to break the law on two continents to do it. A Second Chance at Love is part mystery, part suspense, part romantic-comedy and part adventure. I was exhausted by the time I finished writing it.
Is A Second Chance at Love a part of a growing trend to make romance heroes and heroines more reflective of all segments of the readership?
It is on my part, yes. Many of my readers are women over forty. They want to see themselves reflected in my stories. They're exceptional women who know what they want from life. Of course, you know women only become sexier as they age. I want to depict women in their forties, fifties, sixties who're aware of their power as women, and that includes depicting them as sexual beings.
Toni and Chuck are Baby Boomers who came of age during the 60s. The cover models both sport a bit of gray hair. Do you think that's important?
I remember the first time I saw cover models who looked like me (African-American). It was a wonderful, strangely ego-boosting moment. Some publisher out there actually cared that I wanted to see myself reflected in the stories I loved to read! A Second Chance at Love is probably one of the few African-American novels whose cover has models on it who are in their
fifties and look like they're having a damn good time! For many, life gets more exciting after fifty. The children are, hopefully, out of the house. You're comfortable in your preferred career. And, yes, love and romance is still an integral part of your life. Why not write stories that honestly reflect that?
What's next? What are you working on now?
Right now, I'm writing This Time Forever, which is a full-length for BET/Arabesque. It will debut in November 2001. However I have a novella in a St. Martin's Press anthology which debuts in September 2001 also. The anthology is titled, SISTER, SISTER. My story is called,
"Best Left Unsaid". Of course the anthology is about sisters. The other authors in the anthology are Donna Hill and Carmen Green. My story is about what happens when two sisters discover they've shared a man. Does the knowledge tear them apart, or bring them closer?
In Affair of the Heart African-American veterinarian Cara Lynn Garrett was pursued by a white man, Evan Fitzgerald, before Jordan Davidson won her heart. Several of your stories include interracial relationships between secondary characters. Do you ever plan to write an interracial romance featuring your primary characters?
Funny you should mention that. I've written a novella for a St. Martin's Press anthology. In my story, "Best Left Unsaid", African-American main character, Rhonda Copeland is involved with Stuart Mitchum whose ancestry happens to be Italian/Jewish. He looks like actor Billy Zane: darkly handsome with a little bit of a bad-boy smile. I think my readers will like him. Also, the first full-length novel I ever completed (but still haven't attempted to get published) was a saga with an African-American heroine and a Jewish-American hero.
Can you tell us anything about your life outside writing, about your family or other interests?
I've been married to Curtis Sims for nearly twenty years. We have a daughter, Rachel. In my spare time I enjoy shopping for bargains, books especially. I've recently made a promise to myself: This year (2001) I'm going to learn how to swim. I know, a forty-two-year-old woman who can't swim? And she's a Florida native??? I had a bad experience as a child and have been afraid of the water ever since. This year I'm going to tackle that fear. Wish me well. We must, after all, keep challenging ourselves.
What advice can you give writers who are getting started?
Try to maintain some type of schedule for writing, if you're serious about it. And, as a friend of mine says, "You don't get paid if you don't send the work to the editor". Believe in yourself and your abilities. Put your work into the hands of an editor. Don't sign any contracts without allowing an attorney to go over it for you. Get as big an advance as possible at the outset because it's nearly impossible for an unknown author to buy a cup of coffee from his/her royalties, let alone make a decent living!
Okay, now write, write, write!
How can readers contact you?
They can write me at Post Office Box 811, Mascotte, FL 34753, or e-mail me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Readers may also visit my website at http://romantictales.com/janicesims.html
January 15, 2001