On Novels and Screenplays, Character Tropes, and Black Horror: An Interview with Tananarive Due
A Black horror writer since the mid-1990s, Tananarive Due has an eclectic range of experience, from writing books and screenplays to producing documentaries and teaching at universities.
Due is a prominent voice in Black speculative fiction, best known for her supernatural suspense and mystery novels and short stories, including Ghost Summer: Stories, My Soul to Keep, Blood Colony, The Living Blood and The Good House. Her writing has been included in best-of-the-year anthologies and the Miami native has received numerous accolades, including the American Book Award, an NAACP Image Award, and a British Fantasy Award.
Due co-authored a memoir with her mother, the late civil rights activist Patricia Stephens Due, titled, Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights, and frequently collaborates with her husband, Steven Barnes on books and screenplays. The duo published Casanegra: A Tennyson Hardwick Novel in 2007 in collaboration with actor Blair Underwood. The sequel, In the Night of the Heat, was published in 2008 and won an NAACP Image Award. In the world of film, they wrote a screenplay adaptation of Due’s novel The Good House, which was bought by Fox Searchlight. Due and Barnes also wrote the TV episode “A Small Town” for Season Two of The Twilight Zone, and Due was an executive producer on Shudder’s groundbreaking documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror.
Due teaches Black Horror and Afrofuturism at UCLA and is affiliate faculty at Antioch University. She and Barnes have also adapted several of their lectures for people to take online, including a Black horror course, an Afrofuturism course, and writing classes.
We talked about the difference between writing novels and screenplays, avoiding character tropes in writing, how she got into Black horror, and how the genre has grown in the last couple of decades.
Barbara Platts: From writing books and screenplays to giving lectures and teaching, how do you juggle everything you do so successfully? Any tips for the rest of us?
Tananarive Due: That is a very good question. I’ve had to get more organized than ever before. I realized in 2020, as I was amping up screenplays, pitching, and meetings, that we were going to need to have a better organizational platform. We use Slack, and by “we,” I mean my husband Steven Barnes. He collaborates with me, and we’re co-raising a son. We have a lot of points of intersection. We can’t just sort of go rogue from each other. So, on Slack, we have channel after channel after channel. One for our son, one for finances, one just to check in on how we are doing. Then we have a list of all the different projects we’re juggling. And we generally have a meeting every day to go over the calendar for the next two weeks to make sure nothing sneaks up on us. Sometimes I mark out writing days for certain assignments. So organization is not an accident for me right now. It has become an imperative because I’m not a naturally organized person.
BP: It must be fun to be able to work and collaborate with your husband on so many different projects.
TD: It is. Absolutely. What a blessing. That was part of what we saw in each other. When we first met in 1997, we were both at a Black science fiction, fantasy, and horror conference at Clark Atlanta University. Octavia Butler was there, Jewelle Gomez and Samuel R. Delany were there, all these titans that came before me. I had such a good time, as I like to say, that I married one of them. It was great. It was like a homecoming. And, this might sound a little weird, but even though it was mostly just a weekend conference, it was sort of love at first sight for us, to the point where we were holding hands in the airport. We were saying we could build an empire together. We’ve been laughing about that for twenty-two years because that’s how long we’ve been married now. I wouldn’t say it’s an empire, but this past year is the first taste, I think, of what we thought we would be doing. We’ve got multiple scripts and projects we’re working on together. I think that’s what we initially thought, and we’re just now getting to that point.
We also lecture about writing. We teach three online courses. One is a Black horror course, modeled on the one I teach at UCLA. That’s the class Jordan Peele visited at UCLA, and it kind of went viral. We thought, let’s make an online version so anybody can take it. It’s the same for our Afrofuturism course. It’s a ten-week course that encompasses literature, film, and music. It’s the Black speculative arts is how I would describe Afrofuturism. It’s not just futuristic science fiction. It can be alternate history. It can be horror. It can be a lot of different things, Black speculative arts, the arts of the imagination, the unreal. Then, just from a writing standpoint, we have taught so many different kinds of online writing classes over the years. We were kind of ahead of the curve at the time. We’ve compiled what we call Lifewriting Premium, which is a philosophy of writing that looks at both the craft and the work but also the writer and the writer’s journey. We are compiling lectures—like a lecture I did at Virginia Writers Conference on characterization and lectures Steve did on screenwriting—into weekly modules. All kinds of writers, whether you’re writing prose or screenplays, no matter what level of writer you are, can go and find what we’ve discovered in our journey as writers.
If I were to summarize the teachings, the centerpiece, and it sounds silly, is a sentence a day. Because, obviously, as writers we all hope we have four or five hours of free time uninterrupted to just fall into our work. But life doesn’t work that way. Generally speaking, we have to work, what I call in the creases. Like, oh, there’s twenty minutes right now before I have to be ready for my next Zoom, so let me go to my work-in-progress. If I can just read over what I did yesterday, that’s better than nothing. And then if I can add one sentence, I’ve kind of stirred the embers so that creative fire doesn’t go out. I got through a whole book outline doing that, one beat a day. And it’s not that you’re usually writing just one sentence a day. It’s kind of a trick on yourself.
If I were to summarize the teachings, the centerpiece, and it sounds silly, is a sentence a day. Because, obviously, as writers we all hope we have four or five hours of free time uninterrupted to just fall into our work. But life doesn’t work that way. Generally speaking, we have to work, what I call in the creases.
The point is a lot of us lie to ourselves and say we don’t have time to write. But often the problem is we have some sort of emotional charge about the process of trying to write. We’ve been kind of beaten down. In my case, I just finished a novel. That was a very difficult emotional journey. I literally just hated even being in that world. The sentence a day is sort of a trick where if you can sit down and actually write that one sentence, of course you’re probably going to write more than the one sentence. But even if you just write the sentence, you’ve fulfilled that contract for that day.
BP: I like that because I think there’s often this assumption that we have to be in a certain spot and in the zone when we’re writing. But then we say we don’t have time to get in the zone.
TD: It’s really a way we self-sabotage as writers. We romanticize the relationship with our muse, like our muse has to be coaxed out and has to have the perfect cabin environment. I rented a cabin in the woods, or it was a wooded neighborhood, for the first time in the summer of 2019. I have to admit, it was pretty amazing. I considered it a huge breakthrough because I could reread through my whole manuscript and plan it out to the end. I’m not going to say it wasn’t helpful, but in my entire writer’s life that’s the first time I’ve ever done anything like that, and I was a full-time writer for fifteen years and I’ve been publishing since 1995.
My first two books were written before I went to my newspaper job. I was a full-time reporter. I would write before I went to work; sometimes at work, if I could switch that screen quickly enough before my editor saw what I was doing. I would write late at night, whatever I had to do. It was better writing full-time, but I didn’t like the financial ups and downs. I didn’t like not being able to predict how much I would make in a year. It was impossible. I had no idea, and it didn’t work for me. I love teaching and I love having that steady income flow. If it means I have to work a little harder to find those moments, that’s okay. I just have to train the muse. The muse works for us. It’s not the other way around. I think working for the Miami Herald as a journalist for ten years was very helpful, because no reporter could ever say to their editor, oh, I just didn’t feel like writing that story. You had a deadline, and the story was due, and that was it.
BP: What first got you interested in Black horror?
TD: I would have to lay the credit at the feet of my late mother, Patricia Stephens Due. She was a very well-known civil rights activist in Florida. In fact, she was inducted a few years ago, posthumously, into the [Florida] Civil Rights Hall of Fame. And my father, who’s still living, John Due, is also in the [Florida] Civil Rights Hall of Fame. I remember seeing my mom’s name in the index of a history book during a history class in college. I came from this civil rights family, but my mother was a huge horror fan. I have very early memories of her sitting us down in front of what was called Creature Features on Saturday mornings. They would play these old black-and-white Universal horror movies, like The Mummy and The Fly and The Wolf Man and all those little old school classics. She just loved that stuff. I’m pretty sure she gave me my first Stephen King novel, The Shining, when I was sixteen. She was encouraging of me as a writer. She was encouraging of me as a horror writer. Given who my parents were, and my father still is, as serious and well-respected as they were, if my mother and father had given me a whiff of disapproval, either about going into the arts or about writing horror, specifically, I don’t know that I would be a writer. Or it might have taken me a lot longer to come to the realization that I wanted to write and that it was okay for me to write.
At Antioch, I taught students, one who was lying to his parents about what he was doing in the United States because studying writing wouldn’t have been respected. I’ve taught students who told me their parents would disown them because they wanted to be writers. Even my husband’s late mother used to burn his manuscripts sometimes because she was so afraid he would starve in the arts. Her husband had been an artist, a singer, so she was afraid for him. Even with all that conspired to give me permission, it took a while for me to find horror going through traditional creative writing programs, like the one at Northwestern University, where I was an undergraduate. I got my master’s degree, not an MFA, but a master’s degree in English literature with an emphasis on African literature. I was being steered towards a sort of canon that was not genre specific. It was contemporary realism with emphasis on language, which is beautiful, but there’s not a lot of emphasis on plots or story structure, like they do in screenwriting.
The other thing about my mother steering me toward horror is I used to believe it was despite her status as a civil rights activist, that she still loved horror. But in the years since then, especially in more recent years since Get Out and Horror Noire, which I executive-produced for Shudder, I’ve come to realize that the trauma my mother suffered in the civil rights movement steered her toward horror. It’s not that she was a horror fan despite being a civil rights activist. Maybe she was a horror fan because she was a civil rights activist, because she feared for her life on marches, because a police officer threw a tear gas canister in her face when she was 20 years old and she wore dark glasses for the rest of her adult life until the time she died. She had actual physical trauma, and she definitely had emotional trauma, from the civil rights era. I never got the chance to talk to her about this because it’s been a late realization, but I’m pretty certain that that trauma helped inform her love for horror, and Black horror in particular.
I didn’t know there was Black horror for the most part when I was a developing writer. But in the 1990s, I look back on some of my work and I can see shades of Candyman. Before the nineties, I hadn’t ever seen what I would call a Black horror movie. I didn’t even know that it existed. Maybe Night of the Living Dead, which now I realize we consider Black horror because it had a Black lead in Duane Jones, but I didn’t get that there was any such thing as a Black horror writer. I didn’t have any role models until I read Gloria Naylor’s book Mama Day, which I wouldn’t call horror, but it has some metaphysical aspects that told me, oh, as a Black woman writer who wants to be a respected writer, it’s okay to write about the metaphysical. That was a big eye-opener for me. And then, secondly, while I was working for the Miami Herald in about 1994, I interviewed Anne Rice by phone. I was fascinated by this idea that she was this huge, commercially selling writer, but there had been a whole New York Times Magazine story basically dissing her because she wrote about vampires. So one of my first questions was something like: How do you respond to criticism that you’re wasting your talents writing about vampires? I braced for her answer and she was like, “Oh, that used to bother me, but my books are taught in universities.” And that was it. She went on about the lofty themes you could write about. That was it. Within nine months after that, I had written my first novel.
While I was working for the Miami Herald in about 1994, I interviewed Anne Rice by phone. I was fascinated by this idea that she was this huge, commercially selling writer, but there had been a whole New York Times Magazine story basically dissing her because she wrote about vampires. So one of my first questions was something like: How do you respond to criticism that you’re wasting your talents writing about vampires? I braced for her answer and she was like, “Oh, that used to bother me, but my books are taught in universities.”
BP: So you were working on that novel while being a full-time journalist?
TD: I was, literally in the creases, I’m not kidding. I got serious after that interview. I gave up my after-school rollerblading. The Miami Herald was right across the causeway from the beach, it was a distraction. Every day I had my roller blades in the trunk, and I would just skate up and down Ocean Drive and hang out with my friends and go to movies and watch TV. And then I decided it’s time. I had been writing short stories and sold one. Then the magazine went out of business, so it was never published. I literally was an unpublished writer at the time I started working on The Between, which was about 1994. I finished it. I submitted it in one contest, which I didn’t win. I submitted it to one agent, who rejected it. On that basis, I stuck it in a drawer and I started working on my next novel, which is called My Soul to Keep. I was about midway through it when I felt like everything was caving in on me.
I was having a nervous breakdown, and I think I was realizing that I wasn’t fulfilling my dream. I was lying to myself. I seemed to be doing everything right. I was writing every day, but I wasn’t submitting. This is one of the three places where writers really trip themselves up. They call themselves writers, but they don’t write. Secondly, we write, but we don’t finish what we’re writing. Then the third one, and this is a big one, because of fear of rejection or fear of success, when we finish it, we don’t submit it. I was stuck in this place where I had written a novel I thought was pretty good. It had been rejected a couple of times, but had I really given it a chance? Well, it turned out that I hadn’t, because when I submitted it to another agent, she literally sold it within two or three weeks. All that time it was sitting in the drawer all ready and I didn’t know because I hadn’t been submitting it.
BP: Is that something you’ve kept in the back of your mind for every project? Just to get it out there?
TD: Get it out. And that’s what we’ve had to do with scripts. I’ve been transitioning into screenwriting slowly for some time. Now, I spend the majority of my writing time working on screenplays that are paid for. Some are still spec scripts, but a lot of what we’re doing right now is paid screenwriting work. It was a steep learning curve to get to that point from being on the outside of the process. I was seeing people option my books, being all excited and thinking I was about to be rich. Then, fast-forward ten years later, the project never got made. Over and over and over again, it was stuck at the script stage. So I thought, let me learn screenwriting, then maybe I can help move it along. Now, that was kind of a naive thing back when I started. I first really started in 1998 to really write screenplays, or try to write screenplays. At that time, most producers and executives never wanted the author even involved in the conversation, much less would they ask the author to adapt it. They said to the author, yeah, we will option your thing, but now you go away and we’ll take care of it. That was really the mindset. I didn’t know that though. I didn’t have sense enough to know that.
So I thought, let me just learn screenwriting and I’ll get in the room. And then I started getting in the room. My real screenwriting education has been in practical experience. It’s been producers and executives teaching me how to write. Now I’m at the point where I consider myself a professional screenwriter in the sense that it’s a system I can replicate. Like, sometimes you can write one short story that is amazing, but then you can’t reach that level of professionalism on a regular basis. I feel finally like I’m a professional screenwriter in the sense that I can, with different drafts, input, and notes, create a script that is worthy of being produced on a regular basis. Now they aren’t getting produced yet because, even if a production company loves your script and they’re trying to get out there and sell it, that doesn’t mean it’s going to get made. There are plenty of great, well-written scripts that never get made because they can’t get the financial support, which is always the big hurdle. But I finally, in 2021, feel the confidence that I’m a professional screenwriter. That’s not to say I don’t still have a lot to learn. Every process is still a learning process, but I feel more confident in my screenwriting now than I ever have.
BP: What would you say are the main differences in writing a book versus writing a screenplay?
TD: There is a different audience in mind when you’re writing a script for the very fact that, unfortunately, most screenplays never get shot. It’s kind of this weird heartache you just have to live with, that you could put months of your life into writing what you think is a great script and the only people who will ever see it are a few executives, readers, and friends, and it will just sit in the drawer. So as an artist, I have to find deeper meaning behind the writing process than just, oh, this is going to get out in the world. I mean, you hope it will. But given that, except for that Twilight Zone episode my husband and I wrote in 2020 and a short film we shot ourselves in 2013, I’ve only had two things produced. It has to be another reason. It has to be, let me learn how to do this better. Let me learn how to do that better. Let me work on my dialogue. Let me work on my larger cast and the script. You really have to find personal reasons for why you’re writing screenplays. I’m not saying it’s easy to sell prose. I know very good writers who are struggling to publish.
The steepest learning curve for a prose writer is that we don’t know screenplays. A lot of writers think watching movies is the way to study how to write a screenplay, and that’s only half of it, not even the most important half. The most important thing is to read scripts. If you really want to learn how to write screenplays, read the script while you’re watching the movie. Maybe watch the movie once for fun, but then when you’re studying it, read the script, watch the movie, notice what’s different in the script, how they edited it, notice what isn’t in the script. Like, every piece of clothing the character is wearing, that’s the costume designer. So when I’m writing a script and I’m describing this character from head to foot, including the red shoes, that’s just me vomiting out useless information. A script is just a template for a movie. You’re not describing everything in the setting. You’re describing a few items of visual significance that will teach you about the character. There’s a reason for everything you write in a script.
The steepest learning curve for a prose writer is that we don’t know screenplays. A lot of writers think watching movies is the way to study how to write a screenplay, and that’s only half of it, not even the most important half. The most important thing is to read scripts. If you really want to learn how to write screenplays, read the script while you’re watching the movie.
In novels, I spend a lot more time set dressing, dressing my characters. And the most significant difference is you lose your interiority. If prose writers wrote most movies, you’d have a lot of characters just walking around with voiceovers all the time. That’s not a thing. I mean, it can be, but you’re not going to get far. You’re not going to get far with any producers or executives if you write your screenplay the way you would write your prose, with your character thinking about stuff and staring out of a window. So that’s the first thing is to learn how to tell your story through visual symbols, primarily, and dialogue. As Robert McKee teaches, a lot of us think screenplays are mostly dialogue. They’re not. McKee’s technique teaches that you write it without the dialogue first. That’s what Steve and I do, we expand our ideas from a treatment. And this is another thing that’s different. A lot of prose writers aren’t used to outlining. Screenwriting, you almost have to. There are exceptions, but you usually have to, starting with the beat sheet. That’s literally: This happened, this happened, she comes home, she opens the door, the murderer shows up, the murderer kills her, the murderer runs away. It’s a list of events. Then you expand that out to a summary synopsis. In the world of television, a page-and-a-half synopsis can be worth tens of thousands of dollars. That’s called a story. That’s a story step in a sale. You can make a ton of money from a page-and-a-half because you’ve outlined the story. Then we expand that out to a treatment, which is generally longer, more scene by scene, how we picture the movie. But again, without dialogue, for the most part.
Steve and I just wrote a low-budget horror film for Miramax where we wrote an outline. We expanded it out for our producers because we didn’t want to go down any blind alleys. They see everything we’re planning to do and the rest is just expansion. You know what your basic story is in and out, you can tell someone the story almost beginning to end before you ever write a word. That’s why it takes a while to pick it up. But I will say this, if anyone who reads this is intimidated by the form, has maybe always wanted to write a screenplay but you don’t know anything about it, don’t wait. There are so many platforms now, so many executives are trying to feed the beast in terms of story. We need story. People from unlikely places are getting staffed in writers’ rooms. This is the time. People who were supposed to be too far outside of Hollywood, some of those rules are changing, especially when it comes to marginalized creators who have traditionally been shut out. There’s this real drive to bring more women, more Black writers, more queer writers. Don’t let yourself be intimidated by the form. I almost wish I had started writing screenplays sooner, so I wouldn’t have been clawing my way from nothing.
We need story. People from unlikely places are getting staffed in writers’ rooms. This is the time. People who were supposed to be too far outside of Hollywood, some of those rules are changing, especially when it comes to marginalized creators who have traditionally been shut out. There’s this real drive to bring more women, more Black writers, more queer writers. Don’t let yourself be intimidated by the form. I almost wish I had started writing screenplays sooner, so I wouldn’t have been clawing my way from nothing.
BP: Would you say that Hollywood is ahead of the publishing industry as far as inclusivity goes?
TD: I don’t think so. I don’t think it is in reality. I think if you looked at the percentage of books published and the percentage of produced film and television, I have a feeling publishing would still come out on top, just looking at YA alone. YA is having a lot of marginalized storytelling and a real honeymoon period right now. But I think in terms of intention and having their feet held to the fire, Hollywood is being forced to be more responsive because, let’s say on any given hit TV series, there are way more people who watch that than might’ve read a book. So there’s pressure coming in a different kind of way from fans. There’s pressure coming from filmmakers themselves who have a little power to flex and can shame people. You have directives from a network. CBS said that twenty-five percent of its script development budget is going to be marginalized people. I don’t think publishing has created a lot of dictates like that. We’re going to see the fruits of that in the next three to five years. We’re starting to see it now.
BP: In some of the lectures you and your husband have given, you talk about tropes to avoid with Black characters in horror. Could you talk a little bit about that?
TD: I think this is an important conversation. First of all, I recommend everyone watch Horror Noire. I don’t get paid for saying that, but it really does break down a lot of these tropes. Let’s say you have an inspiration to add a character to your story who is not from your own community. That’s called writing the other, that’s diversification, that’s great. I think that’s something we want everyone to do, but I think we have to stop a moment and ask ourselves, why do I want to bring this character into the story? And sometimes the reason is because that character is a trope. For example, let’s say you want to bring in a character who’s Native American, but it turns out that the only reason you really want to bring in the Native American character is because you want him to know something about rituals and magic. That is a character called a spiritual guide, a side character who doesn’t have much of his or her own life. Their only purpose is to serve the main protagonist. And if that character should put him or herself in danger and even perhaps jump in front of danger to save them, then it becomes a sacrificial Negro. If it’s a Black character, we call it a sacrificial Negro. If you saw the movie Annabelle, Alfre Woodard’s character is both a spiritual guide and a sacrificial Negro. She’s the warning. She’s like, be careful, I think this is happening. But when it really came down to it, she’s the one—sorry spoiler—who grabbed that doll and jumped out of the window. She sacrificed herself to save the white characters.
This is something that happens over and over, and this is true of Black writers, too. I’ve written about cultures that aren’t my own in my books like The Good House. I had a Native American character in there. If I had it to do over again, rather than being a long-dead mysterious grandfather, I would have had a living, breathing Native American character who was not at all involved in magic. It’s not that you can’t ever have a character who knows magic that your protagonist doesn’t know from another group; it should be more than that. If you’re going to create a character, make them a fully fledged character. And make sure to counterbalance that. Another example is monstrousness. If you’re creating a work where the marginalized character is the monster, especially if it’s not your group, you darn well better be sure you have representatives in your story who are not monstrous, who have impactful roles.
If you’re going to create a character, make them a fully fledged character. And make sure to counterbalance that. Another example is monstrousness. If you’re creating a work where the marginalized character is the monster, especially if it’s not your group, you darn well better be sure you have representatives in your story who are not monstrous, who have impactful roles.
An example is the Candyman. The original from the nineties is very problematic. It’s a scary movie. I like it, but it’s very problematic racially because of the way it sets up this monstrosity of a Black man lusting after a visually white woman, which is a stereotype that has led to lynchings in the early twentieth century and beyond. That’s a stereotype in and of itself. The movie is full of other stereotypical roles for Black people. The only Black woman who isn’t a stereotype, who’s the friend of the white protagonist, gets killed needlessly, almost as a sacrificial Negro, even though she didn’t even say Candyman five times. I mean, she didn’t even say it. It’s those kinds of tropes. I just think that all of us as writers have to be aware of our own biases and prejudices. All these tropes are coming because we’ve seen it done over and over and over again and we don’t even realize that’s what we’re doing.
There’s an example I like to use for a Latinx character. I’m from Miami. Miami is a minority majority county. We have a huge Cuban American population there, and I never could understand why movies from Hollywood depicted what we call Hispanics in Miami as domestics. That was not our experience. There are some domestics, but they’re also bankers and lawyers and your boss, which is something I never saw and still don’t see, for the most part, in 2021 in Hollywood. And the reason for that, which I found out after moving to LA, is that in LA, it’s a different population. Immigrants who are struggling for a better life are taking the best jobs they can find and those tend to be domestic jobs. People don’t have friends who happen to be Mexican, a lot of times, or friends who happen to be Black. There’s a lot of insulation in LA, and it gets reflected in those screenplays. It’s stereotypical, it’s tropey, and it doesn’t reflect actual reality. It reflects a very narrow slice of that writer’s reality, but it doesn’t reflect actual reality.
BP: What advice would you give to a writer who is looking to put characters in their story who are not of their race?
TD: It’s a good exercise. I know some writers are nervous because people will jump on you if you don’t do it. It’s almost like, well, why should I bother? There is a great book called Writing the Other: A Practical Approach by Nisi Shawl. It’s also a series of ongoing courses. Shawl and her partners provide resources, teachers, classes all about writing anyone because we’re going to run into our blind spots. And I want to make a point that Black creators are not immune from this. If I’m a Black creator and I want to write a Mexican-American character, I have to assume that I’m bringing in some stuff from tropes. I need to actually either know people in my life, that’s the best thing, although you can’t base it on one person because the person you know might fit a stereotype. Stereotypes exist because there are people who act that way, but fiction has a higher standard than that. If you’re going to go out of the way, you better bring it, you better bring a fully realized character. That means doing your research, having a sensitivity reader, more than one because you’re going to have differences of opinion. Majority opinion is the one you listen to. Even that isn’t perfect, but you have to go through some basic motions to make sure you’re weeding out the tropes and the stereotypes.
BP: I heard you on a podcast recently saying that when you really started getting into writing, you found yourself writing white characters and had to stop and ask yourself why?
TD: Well, yeah, canon. I started out writing Black characters as a child. I started writing really when I was four, little picture books. As I got into elementary school, I wrote fantasy and science fiction – a talking cat, kid on a spaceship, a Black girl trying to get in the book of world records. But as I got older and older, especially through college and then through graduate school, the canon that you’re fed is a very specific type of writing, not just in terms of race but also in terms of non-genre. I was trying to fit myself into what a writer was supposed to write like. Before I knew it, I was writing white men. I had to check myself on that. There’s nothing wrong with having versatility and sure, I write white male characters all the time, but why should I choose that as a central protagonist when there’s so much other art out there that does that? When I have an opportunity to amplify my own voice and experience, I’m going to write my best stuff.
BP: You’ve said before that a lot of the core stories you’ve written start from real life experiences. Can you speak a little bit about this?
TD: I’m trying to think of one now, actually. I have a deadline that I’ve already blown, but I got an extension, and I literally don’t have anything. Death and loss are good triggers. The last time I didn’t have anything, I remembered the day of my mother’s funeral. My husband, son, and I were lost on our way to meet with people for a meal afterward. It was in the rural south. My husband was so lost he wanted to stop for directions, so that will tell you how lost we were. We saw a turnoff. We thought there was a house but it turned out it was a whole compound of three or four houses off to the side with a flagpole and a huge Confederate flag flying. We thought, oh, I don’t think we’re going to stop here. That’s what I came to. That’s the real life experience: you’re driving, you’re lost, you’re feeling vulnerable and alone. You want to ask for help, but the first sign of life you see is life that looks, on the surface anyway, that it would be hostile. Now you’re feeling less safe than you felt when you were just lost.
I expanded that into a short story I called “Last Stop on Route Nine,” which was just published in Nightmare Magazine. It’s about a Black woman driving her nephew through a rural town. They drive through a fog bank, which is almost like literally going back in time. There are no Confederate flags in the story, per se. I have a little homage to the original inspiration by mentioning that you can barely see a faded Confederate flag on a bumper sticker, but it’s mostly about what that flag represents, especially flying it so high and so proud. Because that flag, to me, was flown by people who wanted to keep the institution of slavery, by people who participate in lynchings. It represents hate, it represents violence, it represents an ideology that should have died a long time ago, but it’s still kept alive. So I tried to write a story about what that would look like, the barking dogs, the mysterious figure behind the screen door who makes an inhumanly loud sound when she sees you, she’s so angry to see you. What does it feel like to be in the midst of sort of boiling hate and barely escaping? That was where that story came from.
BP: You’re making it into something that feels otherworldly, but it still has these strong connections to real life?
TD: Yeah, and there’s a lot of this right now in horror. I think Jordan Peele has really helped a lot of filmmakers who wanted to make socially grounded horror get their films made. There’s a Shudder original called La Llorona that’s about genocide in Guatemala. That’s the horror, but the story is an exploration of what that could feel like or look like in horror form. The same with His House on Netflix, which is about immigration as horror. Under the Shadow, which is an Iranian film about war as horror. It’s about making it personal. What does war feel like when it comes into your house and how scary is that?
BP: How do you feel like the genre has changed since you started writing in 1995?
TD: Tremendously. I didn’t know of any other Black horror writers. When I started publishing, I was just very lucky to get in. Terry McMillan, who wrote realistic fiction, was doing so well that a lot of publishers wanted to try different kinds of commercial fiction to see what would stick. Now there are tons of Black horror writers. There’s a great novel called The Devil in America by Kai Ashante Wilson. Niecey Shaw is writing horror. Tonya Liburd is writing horror. There are a lot of Black horror writers right now. One of my goals is to help them get their work adapted. I have several projects in the pipeline, some farther than others. We’ll see how long it takes. But while that door is open I’m trying to get as many people through it as I can. Even though I’m writing screenplays now, I also love my prose writers, and I want more prose writers to have their work adapted. If fifty percent of Hollywood is adaptations, where are our adaptations? That’s the thing that hasn’t changed so much, but what has changed is there are a lot more of us. I think with that pressure against the door, we’re going to see a lot more adapted Black horror in the next three to five years.
There are a lot of Black horror writers right now. One of my goals is to help them get their work adapted. I have several projects in the pipeline, some farther than others. We’ll see how long it takes. But while that door is open I’m trying to get as many people through it as I can.
BP: Do you think having someone like Jordan Peele, who has seen such incredible success in his work, helps the genre?
TD: Absolutely. He kicked it open, not just because Get Out was such a good film, which it is, you can rewatch it ten times and still see something new every time. But because it made $250 million. Hollywood can’t ignore those kinds of profits. They have figured out that marginalized audiences are starved for images of themselves, and it’s profitable right now. So as long as that is the case, we will see a lot more.
BP: You’re focusing on screenplays, but you also recently finished a book. Can you talk a little about that?
TD: It’s called The Reformatory. It’s based on a true-life history. Right after my mother passed away, I discovered she had a great uncle who was buried on the grounds of what was called the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, which made national news. It was one of these institutions where the children were subjected to all kinds of abuse. Survivors have written stories about sexual abuse and horrific beatings. I interviewed survivors about beatings that they underwent. I really wanted to write a story to fix that history. I don’t know that my mother ever even knew he existed. Maybe the family never even talked about it because it’s such a heartache when you send your kid to a facility and they just don’t come home. What do you even do with that grief? It came out in the news because there were a lot of families who suffered that grief. Colson Whitehead wrote about it in his novel The Nickel Boys. That was a little dispiriting, honestly, because I’d been working on the book for years, and it was such a difficult and personal book for me. When I heard about his book, I thought, should I even keep writing? My agent said, yes. Thank God I finished it during the pandemic, in panic that I might not live. That was a good incentive to finish it finally, after all those years. I’ve sold it, and it’s supposed to come out next year.
It’s set in 1950, and it’s a haunted reformatory. So, again, I’m using the horror. The real horror is mass incarceration, which to this day, the fact that we even have such a huge juvenile so-called justice system, that is the horror. That we’d rather lock kids up or put them in foster care where we pay other people the money that his or her own family could have used to provide a better life, that’s the real horror. And sexual abuse, most of which is perpetrated by guards in real life, not by other children in juvenile facilities, that’s the real horror. So rather than writing about that, I have ghosts in my story to represent the abuses of the past and to acknowledge the violent history of this place. But it’s more a friendship between a living boy and a haint, and their uneasy alliance, because haints are a little prickly and they have their own culture. But their uneasy alliance helps my character escape.
I published an excerpt in the Boston Review, which I would advise. Most MFA students are working on novels. I get that, but it is difficult to learn how to write and learn how to write a novel simultaneously. I always tell my students, break off a piece of that novel as a short story. Get it out there, start circulating it. You could spend five years working on this novel. Meanwhile, you could have been published in six months if you had broken off a piece as a short story and started selling it.
BP: And will The Reformatory be in a screenplay anytime soon?
TD: As a matter of fact, it’s the first time I’ve ever optioned the book before it was published. I have optioned The Reformatory for development and TV before it’s even out yet. I don’t know what will happen, but so far so good.
BP: Thank you so much for chatting with me today. Is there anything else you want to mention?
TD: I just really, as a fan, even if I weren’t a writer, just as a fan, this is the time I’ve been waiting for in Black horror. And the fact that I also love to write this stuff at a time when it’s becoming popular is just amazing. I’m pinching myself every day.
Barbara Platts is an award-winning columnist, the online editor for Sweet Jane Magazine and the blog and content director for Lunch Ticket. She’s worked in many forms of journalism, from public radio to newspaper, and is thrilled to be pursuing her MFA for nonfiction writing at Antioch University. She lives in Boulder, Colorado with her fiancé and two adorable pups. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @BarbaraPlatts.