Jennifer Phylon Harris has been writing since the age of eight, deciding to pursue writing as a career full-time in 2014. Not limiting herself to one genre, she writes horror, romance and is the fire behind the blog The Ideal Firestarter via WordPress. Jennifer enjoyed film noir, cooking, reading, and gardening. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri with her husband, Phillip, and two daughters.
A little backstory: Jennifer was my first author to be featured on my blog! She was the first author to believe in my vision and be apart of such an amazing space that you all know today. It is such a pleasure to have her on my blog again, and I can't wait to dive into her latest novel, Ruby and more! I appreciate you! Grab her book today on Amazon!
Ruby & More Book Tings w/ Jennifer Harris:
K: What was your muse behind writing Ruby?
J.Harris: (laughter) I am a big classic film noir fan. My parents were fans of Humphrey Bogart. So I grew up watching Old Hollywood movies in black and white, with one of my favorites being ‘The Maltese Falcon.’ But the true muse behind writing Ruby was a mix of classic film noir, the movie Carmen Jones (with Dorothy Dandridge) and my time spent working in long-term health care. In that time in long-term health care, I spent a lot of time with dementia patients. There are some things you believe that you know about people, until they tell you different. When that truth is challenged, especially by illness or death, it is amazing how fast life unravels.
K: Describe your writing process while writing this book? Did you have any fun routines?
J.Harris: Writing Ruby was like being pregnant with triplets! As a mother, I know what being pregnant is like: long, laborious and at the end painful. But what you get from carrying something unique and exquisite? It is worth it. I told my husband this before I ever wrote a page: “What if there was a guy with dementia, and his wife found out she was never really the one that he wanted?” He heard this and said this: “Babe! That is horrible! What book is that?” My gleeful reply was, “I don’t know but I gotta write it!” From that conversation, came a 4-page short story, which I read to him. His reaction immediately was to ask where the rest of the story was! I let some other writer friends look over the pages, and got good feedback, but I didn’t really begin to write it immediately. It stayed on my desktop for over a year! This was 2015. I didn’t start to write Ruby until late 2016, because I was working overnights at a hospital. I needed something to work on and chose to do Ruby. I wanted to see what would happen. I would write it in spurts. I would stop. I would start. I wouldn’t trust my imagination; I didn’t think I would do it! But I fought to get through the first draft. The revision was easier. I had a plan, and I knew moreso what I wanted to say and could direct the plot. The original draft stayed on my desktop another year. This puts me at 2017! When I returned to it, I poured into my book. It was lots of late nights, early mornings. Note-taking. Reassessing. Reorganizing. And there was a midwife for this book, Amanda Wells (of the writing group FLOW-STL) who looked at this draft and told me that I could do it. And to finish it! Without her push, I don’t think the work would be as powerful as it is.
K: What character from this book did you identify with the most? Why?
J.Harris: Babs. Babs is more like me than people think. She is in the world and behind the scenes making sure all things are working, and working together. I have been told I am a strong person, and extremely resourceful. That is how I crafted her, keeping in mind Reuben needed an advocate as well as a someone that could reach into him. I think the Babses of the world are often overlooked because we can be so dependable—but we can break too. And what happens when that pillar is gone? (YASSSS, deep!)
K: What do you want your audience to take away from this book? Do you feel that your message was conveyed?
J.Harris: I want my readers to know that life is not always what it seems. I want them to know their parents had lives they never imagined! I want my readers to think before they accuse older people of not knowing more than what they are comfortable asking. I want my readers to know that trauma is no respecter of generation, or race. The dirty secret that is kind of laid bare in this book, is the effect of trauma on Black families. The effect of the Great Migration. Of racism. Of the denial of being with the person you love. The mitigating forces that surround trying to be with someone you love. The other thing that I touch on is that Black women are desirable. We are beautiful, and worthy of respect. And there are White men that prefer Black girls! This is not a recent anomaly! I think that the message isn’t totally conveyed, but that is because the story is rich and folds in on itself (which is what I wanted). I wanted readers to dig. I wanted them to get involved. To figure out. So, there was a reason it was written like it was! I think the message is conveyed. All my beta readers, and some of my in-person reviews told me they couldn’t put the book down! And I even had my other brother and his wife have a whole other ‘conspiracy theory’ about Katherine and Reuben even got together! They got it, and ran with it! It is glorious!
K: What is a surprising moment that you learned from creating each of your books?
J. Harris: The surprising moment that I have learned from each of the books that I have written is that I get to a point where I must either keep going or trust my own talent. RUBY made me trust myself. It made me realize that the depth I wanted as a writer, that I thought I couldn’t have, I do! In that discovery, I get to stretch my talent. I get to deepen the story—and still find my way back to create more.
K: What characteristics do you admire in other creative authors? Do you find these characteristics manifesting in your work?
J. Harris: What a question! The thing that I chase and admire most in other creative authors is imagery and dialogue. I love the way Toni Morrison captures conversation. I love the settings that Anne Rice creates. I also love the way Octavia Butler crafts complex characters! This is why writers need to be readers! You need to see what you can work on, what you can take, or even mimic! I think these characteristics manifest in my work as tools to shape the work I am involved in. With RUBY, I hope readers see that this story was not just written, but crafted. I think without those elements I picked up, the work wouldn’t be as powerful and absorbing as it is.
K: What was the hardest part about writing this book?
J. Harris: Without a doubt, the hardest part about writing this book was delving into my personal history for elements of separation between Reuben (Keys) and Ethylene (Ruby). I had to remember what it was like to love someone, and yet not be with them. And those feelings never going away—yet you have to act as if nothing is wrong. Like your heart isn’t broken. Like you don’t think of this person everyday. That you don’t ache for them. I had to relive that knowing that the most powerful, integral part of the work was the hardest for me. And that pain, when I tried to hedge it, ignore it, or ‘write around it’, didn’t give me what I wanted. I had to break the dam! I had to go back to that relationship. That passionate love. That element of wanting, needing and not coming together and being ripped apart. That was hard.
K: Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with good and bad ones?
J. Harris: Yes, I read every review. Good and bad. I take the good ones as rocket fuel and the bad ones with a grain of salt. I know that there is a kernel of truth in every ‘bad review’. But I also know that everything I write everyone won’t love, like or read. But the fact that they don’t like it, can’t paralyze me! I am a writer. Not everyone will like what I write or read it. But those that do, I appreciate. Which is why every book I try to write a dedication or a letter to my potential reader. I don’t take it lightly when people read my work, and I want to thank them—even if I never see them.
K: This month, my book club is reading Black Privilege x Charlamagne tha God, and in this book he talks a lot about failures. Reflect back to a time where you experienced your biggest failure. What did this moment teach you?
J. Harris: Man, my biggest failure? Honestly, the ending of my first marriage. That experience taught me that I cannot fall in love with a man’s potential. That isn’t enough. That doesn’t sustain. It taught me that if someone loves you, they should love all of you. Like, I knew my relationship wouldn’t last when he tapped the back of the book I was reading, asking me what I was doing. I had children with a man that wasn’t equipped to love me, didn’t know how to love himself, and for the rest of my life I must deal with this. My failure was not recognizing that he wasn’t ready. That I wasn’t ready. That we weren’t ready. I married a man I loved, but he couldn’t be the man I needed him to be, because he couldn’t be. Moreover, it taught me to value myself. To embrace every part of myself, and take ownership of my part in problems. I realized that even when you fight to keep something, God still may not let you have it. In the end, it made me grow up…
K: In this read, you created an interracial family. Why was this an important aspect of your novel?
J. Harris: I needed layers to this story. I needed people to not be cocky when they started RUBY. Creating the interracial family gave me an element of surprise, as it were. This ‘Citizen Kane’ thing. I needed to be able to deconstruct and reconstruct and unveil all at the same time. I needed the reader to see Reuben as a complete person. I needed the reader to see Ethylene as she was and is! That she wasn’t defined by her trauma or her beginning. There was a post by a Facebook friend of mine, more like a sister now, who had to check a Becky a while back. This Becky told her, and I quote, “White men don’t like Black women.” When she shared this on her wall, I remembered cackling. I laughed so hard! There are White women that desire a Black girl esthetic, who can, get bamboo earrings, but cannot conceive that the upper echelon of malehood in this country, White men, could possibly EVER want or prefer Black women to them! RUBY is proof that not only does or did this happen, but it may have even happened in your family. (laughing) These dames could be Katherine Lewis and never know it!
K: Recently, I did a live stream with my girlfriend and we discussed various important aspects of really great books. Being the amazing author that you are, what do you feel distinguishes a GOOD book from a GREAT book?
J. Harris: What will always distinguish a good book from a great book will always be these three elements: The put-down factor. How fast can I put it down? Who do I need to tell to read this? How apt am I to recommend it? Resonance. Can I see myself in the work? Does it keep me up at night? Do I know people like the people in this book? Crafting. This shows the writer’s passion in pulling your into their worlds: they suck you in. They sit you at the table. In the weddings. The crime scenes. The bedrooms when the magic happens. The crafting of the story will always determine a good book from great book. A good book can have amazing structure, plot and characters. But it if doesn’t grab you, evoke emotion, make you mad at least once? It’s not a great book. Great books do that.
K: You truly have a gift of storytelling. Where do you feel this stems from?
J. Harris: This stems from my childhood, and being fascinated with languages. With accents. With the stories that the adults around me told. I learned to read at four, and there were always more books at my house than televisions. I was a quiet kid, and I would people watch. I would watch people’s facial expressions. Their tones. The settings I was apart of. And I loved the way my father and his brothers told stories; he would wrap you up in it with just a turn of a phrase. An emphasis of a syllable. A leaning on a word. It was magic. I wanted that.
K: This book takes you on an emotional rollercoaster! I am curious to know, do you believe that time is an important factor in love?
J. Harris: Yes, I do. I think you can meet the person you want to be with and not in any way shape or form be ready for them. Time, in the mercy it gives, can either bring you back to them or push your further—or into the arms of another. Not everyone is as lucky as Reuben and Ethylene. And I have to emphasize that. I think that when you love someone deeply—what I like to call ‘ocean deep’—only God can stop that. That person is a part of you, they have made a home inside of you. This, I think, is how you know it’s real. That it wasn’t a fling. That it wasn’t a dream. Love that you are fortunate enough to get back, that circles back to you, is a treasure. Time allows to see what you want, what you need, and be whole within yourself before you look for someone to ‘complete you’. Real love, lasting love compliments you. It supplements and holds up. Ethylene made a whole life without Reuben. She had to! And she found a great, lasting love with James. Yet, she never forgot him. Does that diminish James’s memory? In my opinion, no. It just means she loved someone else before. Love, like people, is complicated.
K: What advice would you give aspiring writers?
J. Harris: Be brave. Keep writing. The first person to believe that you can write should be you. You need to become serious about writing if you really want to be a writer. The best advice I could give, I got from Nikki Giovanni. “You know you’re a writer because you can’t stop writing.” The last piece of advice is don’t be scared to be told, “No.” Or don’t be scared to make your own space. There are sites and blogs and other media to get your work seen and read. But, you first have to believe that you can write. If you can’t believe that, all hope is lost.
K: What can we expect to see next from you?
J. Harris: Oh, my! I’m a blogger, mentor, Mama! (laughter) I still look back on how I do all I do. But the things I am working on now are a several books. I think I’m turning into Eve Ewing! I am working on another series of poems and essays titled, For A Black Girl. I am working on a devotional for writers. I am also working on my first horror novel, The Deacon’s Girl. It was my first published story on the podcast, Nightlight. The executive producer and I decided that the protag had more to say. So that short story is going into development.
K: How can readers discover more about you and your work?
J.Harris: I have two blogs: The Ideal Firestarter (http://theidealfirestarter.com). It is a nicheless blog that I founded in 2016, and currently has 3 contributors for. The other blog is I Breathe Fire (http://jenniferharrisbreathesfire.com) where poems, work under my pen name is, essays and reflections are! Feel free to follow and share and start conversations! That is the reason The Ideal Firestarter exists! I Breathe Fire is all my exclusive work as well. And I can always be found on social media! Check me out:
I would like to thank Jennifer for taking time out of her busy schedule to interview with me! I love finding powerful and inspiring women kicking ass in the world, and it is really inspiring to have each and every one of you amazing authors on my blog! Your wise words of wisdom and free-flowing conversation are super inspiring to follow. I can't wait to see more amazing work from you! Thank you for sharing your light with us! If you loved this interview, check out her book Ruby available for purchase via Amazon! Thank you for reading, and thank you for allowing me to share my soul with yours! Happy Wednesday!
Welcome to the launch of my new book blog! Thank you all soooo much for reading and I can't wait to hear your thoughts, ideas and comments! Enjoy! :)