Natashia Deón is the acclaimed author of Grace (Counterpoint Press, 2016), a Kirkus Review Best Book of 2016, a New York Times Top Book 2016, an Entropy Magazine Best Book of 2016, and winner of the American Library Association Black Caucus 2017 First Novel Prize, among other honors. Deón is a graduate of the University of California Riverside-Palm Desert MFA program in creative writing and the creator of Dirty Laundry Lit. She is the recipient of a host of prestigious fellowships and residencies, including PEN America Emerging Voices, Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, and Yale. In addition to being a writer, she is a practicing attorney and a law professor. Deón is the author of the forthcoming novel The Perishing, due out in 2020.
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Within moments of meeting Natashia Deόn the evening before our interview, I know what type of person she is—she’s the type of person that people want to be their guru. And understandably so. She is both confident and humble, sharing as openly about her failings as she does her success. She speaks with the ease and authority of someone who is firmly grounded, someone who has gone deep within herself and emerged feeling at peace. That’s no small feat. It’s how I imagine Oprah would be if I met her, how I imagine we all would be after decades of meditation, self-reflection, and hanging out with Deepak Chopra.
But what Natashia Deόn is grounded in is her faith in God, and she speaks of it freely, reverently, without fanaticism and mostly without any self-consciousness. After sharing her belief that the story for her novel Grace was given to her by God, she says, “That’s how I feel about it, however that comes out or however that sounds.” As a woman of faith myself, it sounds reasonable to me, but that is not always the case with industry decision makers who often are concerned with more earthly matters. Despite that moment of self-consciousness, Natashia’s identity and her process as a writer are rooted in her faith, and her adherence to it in the face of opposition is the secret to her success.
We discussed this and other topics when I interviewed Deón on December 18, 2018 at the Antioch University Los Angeles campus. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
A.D. Lowman: I’ve got some prepared questions, but I’m totally open to wherever this goes. What I was thinking about as I prepared for this interview is that we read Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer last term, and she says something that I totally agree with, which is that we do students of writing a disservice by not exposing them to the drafts of finished works. We study all of these finished works, but we never really see the process to get there. And so we end up comparing our works in progress to these finished works, and we’re expected to get there without fully seeing the process.
I wrote my questions for you with that in mind, and knowing that we’re all very interested in the circuitous, messy, sometimes depressing process that we hope will lead to an acclaimed work at the end. A lot of the interviews I’ve read that you’ve done have been about the content of the book; I want to be able to do something a little bit different.
Natashia Deón: Great!
ADL: Your novel Grace engrossed me from the very first page and has received almost universal critical acclaim. Did you have a sense as you were writing it, or once you completed it, that you had created something so resonant?
ND: I felt like, if I’m going to be completely honest, I felt like it was a big book. I felt it because I felt that it was given to me. As a writer, I see…myself as a servant first of words, and I think my story came from God. That’s how I feel about it, however that comes out or however that sounds. So I knew that if I could carry it to this imaginary finish line, that He would be there. Because He wouldn’t give me something to fail or not show up at the end. And that’s what kept me writing it, so I knew that it was going to be big. I didn’t know that I was the writer to do it, but I knew that I was going to be obedient and I knew He was going to show up. So it wasn’t really like a confidence in me, like, “Oh, I’m so great that everybody’s going to love what I write.” It was my confidence in Him, that He would come through for me. And so in the middle of the night I’d wake up with these dreams of how to change something, or with these visions [of] “Oh, I didn’t think of that!” It was kind of like [God] was my editor. I just trusted that, so that’s what I always knew is that He would show up.
There was one point in the book where I had a vision of all these slaves standing on the battlefield and they were all frozen and they weren’t moving. It was like it was a photograph and I’m walking through them.
ADL: In an interview with the LA Times, you talked about the powerful vision you had that gave you the setting, story, and opening scene of Grace. How did you get such a firm grasp on both the geographic and historical settings for the novel?
ND: My family is from Alabama. My mom and dad were the first to leave a very small town in Alabama called East Tallassee, Alabama, since the end of American slavery. Pretty much everyone else [in my family] stayed there, or the farthest they’ve gone is Atlanta. But pretty much everyone is still there. They were the first to leave, but in the summers, I used to go there and spend time there, so I knew the setting from when I was young, even though I was born in LA. And I would read a lot, so I was researching, but it was really based on my childhood memories of the place, and it doesn’t look anything like that now. And I didn’t want to go back to it because I didn’t want anything to change in my memory. And I don’t want to correct anything. Anything that I got wrong, I didn’t want to see it differently. And I used to ATV around the woods and stuff, you know? I wanted to remember that and honor that.
There was one point in the book where I had a vision of all these slaves standing on the battlefield and they were all frozen and they weren’t moving. It was like it was a photograph and I’m walking through them. And it was after my book was already being edited and [I] was like, “I’m missing something, I’m missing something.” And I’m on this battlefield and all these slaves are just frozen there. And it just answered the question that I had which was—because people kept saying, “Well, why isn’t the Emancipation Proclamation this moment of happiness for slaves?”— and it was because obviously they weren’t free, number one, and two, they were released in the middle of the Civil War. So there was nowhere for them to go, they were standing there like, “We can’t go.” They’re literally standing on the battlefield like, “I’m not going to cross the battlefield. I need to stay where I am. It’s safer here.” And it answered that question for me. So a lot of the details that I saw in that vision [answered] questions like, “Why didn’t my family leave?” They were freed, but why did they all stay where they were slaves at one time? So details like that, God just showed up for me.
ADL: Critical acclaim of Grace hails it as “flawlessly constructed,” and I would agree. Can you talk about how you created such a strong backbone for the novel?
ND: You know, I didn’t have a backbone [at first]. My novel just went linearly, and I remember finishing it thinking…it’s not moving. I get it, but it’s not moving the way that I want it to. I always had the opening, because I had that from the beginning. I didn’t want her to go through her life, then die, and then it starts the story of her daughter. And I went to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts to do a fellowship. For two weeks I’m there. They give you a studio to write in and an apartment, and you just sort of do the work. And I didn’t write a single word. They feed you, I went to the gym and I was like, “This was a waste of my time. Two weeks, it’s too quiet! There’s horses…” But the day that I got home to LA, and I woke up the next morning, I knew the structure of it. I knew it was going to go back and forth in time. So that’s sort of how I got the structure. And I thought about death and how people have near-death experiences, so I wanted to do it like that. Because my question is, “What scenes do we see?” Do we get to see this one right now, us sitting in this room? Like, why would we or would we not? So I was always interested in that, and I thought I could tell the story like that, and it worked.
ADL: What was that interaction like with an editor? Is that something you did before it went to that process?
ND: Yeah, but I talked to other editors who didn’t want that. What happens after you get your agent [is] you send it out and your agent will put you in touch with editors who are interested in buying it. So then you have this editorial call with them to see what their vision is because you want to make sure your editor sees what you see. Because Grace was 600 pages, and I had to cut it. So I’m like, “What do you want to cut? Do you want to cut the structure?” Things that you don’t think about as a writer.
Like to get into a book club, usually their page count is limited to 150. If your book is over 150 pages, the big ones like Well-Read Black Girl [look for] those books…to read on the big circuit. You know you’re not thinking about that as a writer, this is a 300-page book. It still made it to book club. I’m just saying…if that’s your eye for people to talk about it in book clubs, stuff like that is what [editors are] thinking of.
So I’m talking to my editor like, “I don’t think we’re going to go from 600 pages to 150 and still preserve this product.” He says, “We can still do it. How do you feel about the time jumps? Can we make the Emancipation Proclamation a happy day?” And I say, “No, it doesn’t make sense.” But there were other editors who were like, “We need to change it so it revolves around one day: the Emancipation Proclamation.” And I’m like, “No, that’s not how the story goes.” Or we need to leave out all the extra characters who aren’t black, and I said that’s not how the story goes. So you have to pass on big houses and it hurts. But at the end of the day, I felt like I wanted the book that God gave me and entrusted me with. Who am I going to give this baby to? So that became my decision instead of a financial one, but I think it worked out because I got the best team.
ADL: Your novel has also been praised for having the “propulsive plotting of a suspense novel,” and “sustain[ing] a murder ballad’s intensity for hundreds of pages.” How did you keep the literary and suspense aspects of your novel in balance? How did you keep one from overtaking the other? The phrase that has been used [at the ongoing MFA residency] is the “contract with the reader.” The opening tells them whether to expect literary, suspense, etc., so how did you handle that?
ND: I had ten days to edit Grace by the time it got—because there’s such a thing as trends. Because Underground was coming out, Yaa Gyasi’s book [Homegoing] was coming out, all these books. And my editor came to me in November, and my book wasn’t supposed to come out until the fall of the next year and the distributor PGW—which is the largest producer next to Simon & Schuster which does all the small presses—they were like, “If your book doesn’t go now, it may not go. So we need you to edit it and have it ready for Winter Institute.” So this is the first week of December. [They said], “We need to have it ready to be printed, galleyed, so you can be in this thing called ‘Winter Institute’ in January.” So we have ten days, and it was over Christmas and everything.
So we had to have it printed and I remember I was like, “Okay, Dan, I can do this, but I need a week after we edit it. You have to promise me that you’re going to give it back to me, no matter what we do…” And he’s like, “Okay, we gotta send it to the copy editor.” And what you get in a galley is usually not copy edited. So as I was reading through it, there were three chapters at the beginning that slowed it down. So if I’m in this rush, am I still wanting to turn the page, or am I slowing down? And so I had to cut, and I said, “Dan, I need to see it! You promised me a week!” He said, “You got three days!” So I read my book in three days and I just chopped Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, and it just went. And then I added some stuff, changed some stuff. And then it made sense to me, and that’s how it went.
[You and I] talked about this “writer instinct” because you know that something’s missing, so as much as you love it, you want a reason for the reader to turn the next page. There’s no reason, so you have to give them a reason, so that’s what I intentionally did.
ADL: Wow, I don’t even know what to write from that. I’m just going to have to take that from the recording!
ND: Just trust your instincts! Don’t let anybody else tell you, you know already, you know already. It’s just how to do it. Your only question as a writer is, “How do I do it?” I know there’s a problem here, and I know I’m trying to fake it and do all this stuff. Maybe nobody will notice, they’ll appreciate the literary, but they don’t. That’s the reality. And I knew because I was under that gun. I [loved] this character because there was a friendship—a best friendship—I said, but I had to lose her because audiences will close the book.
ADL: You said in the LA Times interview that it took you seven years to write Grace. You also mention in your acknowledgments about it starting out as a screenplay. What did that seven years entail? Are there any lessons you learned during that time that aspiring authors could benefit from?
ND: You know it’s funny…so the screenplay is different than the novel because it’s a different art form, right? But when I got that vision in the beginning, I had never written a novel. I didn’t know how to write a novel. But I had written screenplays for like MTV, so I like knew that form. So when I had that vision and wrote that opening page, I was like, I felt like it was supposed to be a novel, but I was like, “I can’t write a novel! I’m not a novelist. I’ll write it as a screenplay!” So I wrote it as a screenplay in six months. It was done and it was sent out to film festivals where it was winning screenplay [awards]: Charleston, London, Beverly Hills, it was winning all these awards everywhere.
Always trust your writerly instinct. Never take a note that doesn’t resonate with you. There are notes that people could give you that are right, but right now you’re not at a place where you could receive that note.
It won eight awards, and then I went to an option meeting. And I’m sitting at the table with all these famous, powerful people and they’re talking about the book like, “Well, Cynthia, we’re not going to make her Jewish. We’re going to make her this other kind of character. We’ll make her like biracial. She’s not a prostitute because you can’t be Jewish and a prostitute.” I was like, “What are we doing? This is not how the story goes! This is not how it goes!” And then when it was time to sign, I said, “I can’t sign. I need to write this book so that at least it’ll be the story that I was given before you make it the story that you want it to be.”
So I enrolled in Novel Writing I at UCLA Extension Program. And then I just started learning how to write a novel. The rest didn’t come inspired like my opening, but I put in the work to learn the craft of it. And that’s how it became what it is. And it’s plotted differently, but I learned dialogue. Because you learn how all dialogue has to reveal character, reveal emotional state, move the story forward, so it helped me with that.
The first two years was this screenwriting thing because I thought it was going to be a movie. And then I was in an MFA program. So after I finished, I was a PEN Emerging Voices Fellow for a year, so that’s like three years now and two years is in the MFA program. So now we’re talking five years because you’re not really writing. At least in my MFA program, you’re reading other people’s stuff, you’re not working specifically [on your own writing]. So it really took two years in earnest but I had all that pre-time to think about sort of what I wanted to do and learn the craft. So it took about two years to write it and sell it and for it to come out. So seven years is not really [accurate].
ADL: In that process, was there any point where you felt delayed or discouraged, or did you feel—because in what I’m hearing, at least, there is a lot of purposefulness and intention behind the decisions you’re making and what you’re accepting and what you’re not accepting for your story. So I guess I’m just curious what advice can you give to writers in that process?
ND: It’s to always trust your writerly instinct. Never take a note that doesn’t resonate with you. There are notes that people could give you that are right, but right now you’re not at a place where you could receive that note. And it could be three years from now that you’re like, “Oh! That’s why!” But if you take a note because that’s the consensus to make this change, and you do it but your heart is not in it, you won’t see it as an artist, and you’ll end up writing something that you don’t like, that you don’t love and was never supposed to be in there at that moment. It could be a future revision, so you just hold onto it, put a pin in it. Reject notes that you don’t understand or that don’t feel right to you. They could be right but they’re not right for you right then. It’s all a journey.
There’s one scene that’s not in the book that I held onto for a very long time, till the very end. People were like, “You can’t do this, people will close the book.” I was like, “Nope.” Because this was reality, this was how it happened in my life. I was using a real-life experience, and I’m putting it in there. And even the rape scene that’s in the book, I had to pare it down, but I wouldn’t. I was like, “Nope.” Because I want people to understand that rape is not only date rape. I need people to really understand this thing. And then finally I was like, in those ten days of editing, my editor was like, “Natashia, it’s too much for some people,” but I was like, “This is real! This is real life!” This was my client, somebody who was torn from one end to the other. I was like, people should see what we talk about when we talk about rape. It’s not just a word people throw around, you know? There’s violence. He was like, “I just think it’s too much. We need to pare it down.” I was like, “Alright.” So I pared it down, and he was right. But I had to understand it at that moment, but it didn’t resonate with me until right then that it didn’t have to be that harsh. And people still complain about that scene.
ADL: After sitting with your novel for that long, what was it like when it was finally published?
ND: It was great! You know, it happened so fast. You know how people say that? It literally [did]. December we’re editing and January I’m at Winter Institute and they hand me my galley while I’m sitting with booksellers at a table before we go in and I’m just crying. So this is like January 13th and remember December 27th [I was] editing this thing. And they’re like, you need to go in this hall with all these writers around this huge hall in this hotel. And people are coming and asking me to sign it, and I’m like, “What?” So I’m signing books, and there’s a huge long line of people and it just doesn’t make sense to me, but I’m just like, “Okay!” And then they sold out within the month.
So February I was in my second printing. That same month, Amazon and Blackstone went into a competition for the audio rights, and then Blackstone blocked Amazon. And I’m like, “What?!” So all my advance and everything is paid off before I even start. So I don’t have to pay any money [back]. So I make money with the first book. And then Lisa Renee Pitts—[the movie] Straight Outta Compton had just come out—she was Dr. Dre’s momma, and she’s the actress they choose to voice it. So now we’re only in February/March and then it was in the fifth printing by August and I’m traveling the twenty-two cities. So there was never a time where I got to sit and [contemplate]. And at my book release, all my friends came out and it was exciting. But I didn’t feel like it happened. I’m signing books like, “What is this thing that they’ve given me?” So that’s how fast it happened.
ADL: In addition to being a writer, you’re a practicing attorney, law professor, wife, and mother. Do you have any advice for those of us writers who also balance families and/or alternate careers about how to keep the plates spinning?
ND: First of all, you just have to give up hope that you’re going to have time to just sit down… especially if you’re a mother. You’re not going to have the time that single people have, so stop comparing yourself to single people or people who don’t have children because your life will look nothing like that. Be with [other] people who are moms, who are even spouses, because you’re responsible for taking care of other people, and [being a spouse is] like taking care of a child or someone else, and your schedule is not based on what you want to do. It’s based on working [around] everybody else who affects you. So if you’re moms, specifically, don’t compare yourself to people who are single. And it’s hard to do. You have to…look straight ahead in your own lane.
[Just] give up hope that you’ll have time. But schedule time, even if you have to do a little writing retreat. Save money, or take your tax money or whatever, [and] make your own retreat. Because you know, you miss deadlines, because the deadlines are like nine months for all the good retreats, so you forget them. Just set up to go to another city in a hotel and just write. Make your own retreat. And also write whenever you can. Whenever you have an idea, put it in the notes section of your phone. Just put it in there. I wrote most of Grace in the notes section of my phone waiting for my children to get out of school. You have to trick yourself. Even if it’s one scene, I just want to write the conversation with Cynthia and Naomi. Any way that you can move forward.
Every day you should try to move forward, even if it’s a bad sentence. Like, for instance, in the book I just sold. The last thing I wrote before I sent it to my agent was something that came to me when I was walking and it was, “I’m a fragile instrument” [and] something about being used by God. And that was it. And it ended up being the opening. I redid the opening and made that the opening line, sent it to my agent, and that’s the one that they bought. So even if it was a weak sentence, you never know. Just write it. You make your own schedule. You’re your own boss.
ADL: When people are asked to reflect on their lives, a lot of times they’ll say that good or bad, they wouldn’t change a thing. I completely disagree with that, and there are many things I would edit in my life story, given the chance! What about you? Is there anything you would change on your writer’s journey if you could?
ND: Yeah. Real talk? I would change being upset when things didn’t happen for me that I thought that I deserved, and doing it publicly. I had this moment, this very embarrassing moment where Grace, it was requested by a prominent magazine that I love. And I didn’t win, let’s be real. [She laughs] But I knew—or I felt, true or not—that my book was stronger than this other book that did win. And I [said it] was just because this person’s popular, just because they’re a male, all those other excuses that could be true or not. And I went to social media and I said something about it. It was up for maybe five minutes and then I took it down, but enough people saw it. And two years later I went to a conference, and someone says, “Can you believe someone would do that?” as she’s looking at me. And I had to tell her, “I did that.” Because I thought at the time that it was true, but you know what? It doesn’t matter.
I wrote most of Grace in the notes section of my phone waiting for my children to get out of school.
And I know that more now because I’m a judge for the LA Times Book Prize. I have 275 books to read. If those first few pages aren’t good, I’m like “Thank God, I’m moving on to the next book.” And that’s what life is like. And I know a lot of the people in my pile. And I feel horrible because a lot of these people are my friends and I’m not choosing [their] book and that hurts. So there’s a lot of things that come into play. Is this book too big? Like you have Bill Clinton’s book, and he’s doing first fiction (one of the Book Prize categories). You have so many things that go into play and you can’t worry about contests. You just have to worry about writing the best book that you can write. Because 100 years from now, somebody will open up the pages of your book and be like, “Who is this person? When did she live? Is she still here?” That’s all you have to worry about. Did you write the best book that you could write right then? And don’t worry about what other people are doing. And then learn how to applaud when other people get [recognition]. And if it’s not natural, just start practicing. Just say, “Good job!” until it becomes who you are. So that’s what I had to do, and I have a whole different attitude toward it, but I had to make that mistake to learn it, fully.
ADL: Do you have any ongoing or upcoming projects you’d be willing to share with our readers?
ND: The book that I just sold is called The Perishing, it comes out in 2020. And it’s about a black woman…in 1930s Los Angeles, [who] basically becomes aware that she may be immortal just as she finds a love in a city worth dying for. So it’s all about the 1930s, between the two World Wars here in LA, and it’s not about Hollywood. I mean, there’s parts that reflect [that], but it’s about the people who lived here and what they went through.
ADL: Are you still working on Dirty Laundry Lit and some of the other projects that launched you?
ND: Well Dirty Laundry Lit is on a long hiatus because I wanted to focus [on something else]. I have a commitment to mentoring and bringing up the next generation of writers. Like, there was nobody for me saying, “Come on, Natashia,” so there was a lot of floundering, figuring things out, getting it wrong, offending people. “Should I be mad at this, should I not?” There was no sounding board, so I’m trying now to make myself available for other people and give them a platform.
And I’m redefining friendship in my life. You know, I’m at an age where I want friends not just to commiserate with me and say, “Oh, look how terrible it is,” but people around me who can help, who can do something about it. Because they want to, because they can. Because I’m a giving person anyway, and I’ll show up for people, so now I’m asking people to show up for me. So let’s be friends, but I have people to commiserate with. I need this kind of person, now I’m hiring!
You have so many things that go into play and you can’t worry about contests. You just have to worry about writing the best book that you can write.
I also want to be able to help people who are coming up. I’m not like Toni Morrison or somebody like that, but I have something and I want to share this one little piece with somebody else. So I started The Table Reading Series, which is at Hollywood Hotel because they called me and told me they wanted to host Dirty Laundry, so I said how about I do a new reading series and I bring in up-and-coming producing groups to produce their own readings. So I have my black women writers, then I have the LGBT, the ex-prisoners, we have all these different groups to come [to The Table]. I show them how to contact their readers, how you make an invitation and all the bits and pieces of how to do it, so they can create their own, so hopefully they’ll be able to multiply that way.
ADL: So what are you reading these days?
ND: Everything! I told you I’m doing the LA Times Book Prize! The books I’m reading for the LA Times are all books that were published in 2018. The books I chose for my [MFA mentoring] group are books that I think are really well-done but reflect something different:
- The Road by Cormac McCarthy because of its strong setting.
- How Are You Going to Save Yourself? by J.M. Holmes because of the difficult racial issues it raises. (“Writers are the conscience of the nation.”)
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I close our interview by asking Natashia if there’s anything I didn’t ask that she wished I had. She turns the question back on me and tells me she wants me to ask her if she thinks I can become the writer I think I can. It makes me blush a little, but I ask her. In response, she feeds back to me the qualities that she’s picked up about me in the short time since we met as evidence that I have what it takes to succeed as a writer. It’s when she starts talking about the sacrifice I’m making as a mother to pursue my writing career—a sacrifice with which she is intimately familiar—that I start to tear up.
This probably wasn’t the most auspicious way to end my first author interview…but guess who just found their new writing guru?