Midway through an interview with Denver writer Carleen Brice, I glance at my notebook to find a page overflowing with a list labeled, "Check out these authors." Though Brice could be talking up her own new novel, Children of the Waters, she's eagerly helping me add to the list.
"If you like women's fiction, I recommend Pearl Cleage or Bebe Moore Campbell ..." she says. "And there's a really good mystery writer who just had a novel come out, Attica Locke. Her book is Black Water Rising. I'd also recommend The Book of Night Women, by Marlon James, which is an amazing book."
She stops herself and laughs.
"I could go on and on, but you might just want to point readers to my blog."
Her blog, "White Readers Meet Black Authors," at welcomewhitefolks.blogspot.com, includes more recommendations; book giveaways; posts on topics like "Buy a Book by a Black Author and Give it to Somebody Not Black" Month; plus a YouTube tour of a bookstore's African-American section, which bears the disclaimer "No non-black people were harmed in the making of this video."
Some of the discussion on Brice's blog addresses whether having a separate African-American section is even helpful. Though labeling a book "African-American" may guide black readers to it, other readers may assume it's not for them.
"I think sometimes if you put it under the name of race, people feel like it's medicine or something," she says.
To counteract this, Brice suggests booksellers lure readers into the section with, say, the smell of cookies, or confetti showers, or champagne punch.
Her approach is often tongue-in-cheek, but Brice's aim is earnest.
"I started the blog ... to try to widen the audience for a lot of good writers out there," she says, adding, "It's especially tough when you fall into multiple sub-categories. I'm an African-American author that sort of has one foot in commercial fiction and another in literary fiction. So they're not always sure what to do with me."
What you don't know
Though issues of race appear in Brice's novels, they don't necessarily star. Her latest book blends family secrets, adoption, ill-fated pregnancies, teenagers, male-female relationships, ancestry and even a little hoodoo.
"I think if I had to say what I write about, it would be connection, reconciliation and dealing with the past," she says.
In Children of the Waters, released last month, a white woman discovers after her grandmother's death that she has a bi-racial half-sister. Likewise, the half-sister, who was adopted by a black family, is surprised to learn she is not her parents' biological child and has white family members.
"Anybody who finds out that their family isn't what they thought it was is going to struggle with identity," says Brice, who points out that as families become more diverse, race is often not just a societal issue, but a personal one. "My husband is white, and sometimes race comes up in our household, you know, and within our families," she says.
"Actually, one of the funny things I found about writing fiction, is that you reveal things about yourself that you didn't quite know you were revealing."
After she noticed her first two novels included half-sisters, she says, "Seriously, I had not thought about it — but I have a half-sister who I've never met."
Though she's 46 now, Brice says she learned about her sister when she was 19 or 20: "I've known for a long time, but it was just one of those things in our family that we didn't talk about. So after I realized that it was coming up through my subconscious, I called my father and he put me in touch with her."
Living the life
Of course, some secrets are easier to reveal.
"I just got some good news yesterday," says Brice. "Lifetime is going make the movie for [my 2008 debut novel] Orange Mint and Honey.
"They're going to change the title — it is Lifetime, you know — so it might be something like Sins of the Mother," she says, laughing, "The head of the studio has signed off on the script and they're going to start casting. Shooting could begin as soon as this fall."
But the TV network isn't the first entity to recognize Orange Mint and Honey. It recently earned her the First Novel Award from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association, and the Breakout Author of the Year Award from the African American Literary Awards Show. It also made her a finalist for a 2009 Colorado Book Award, her third such honor (with two others having come in nonfiction).
This year's fiction prize went to The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, a first-time novel by David Wroblewski, which received strong reviews from top critics, lots of media attention, and became an Oprah's Book Club selection.
"When I saw that Edgar Sawtelle was nominated, I thought, 'OK, we're done here ...'" says Brice wryly. "He's got Oprah and the New York Times and now the Colorado Book Award, and I still can't hate him. ... it's a really good book."