A couple of weeks ago introduced you to Renee Bess through a review of her book, The Butterfly Moments. This story teetered on the brink of love, lust, and murder and threw a curve ball with every turn. After reading her book I couldn’t wait to sit down with Renee Bess and discuss the book and her craft. I encourage you, if you haven’t done so already, to not only pick up a copy of The Butterfly Moments but also her other works: Breaking Jaie, Leave of Absence, and Re: Building Sasha.
Spoken: After completely reading The Butterfly Moments I really must know where the idea for the story came from. It touched on so many different issues we have within our community and then the end was truly a dramatic twist I didn't expect.
R. Bess: I sat myself down, determined to write a romance novel about two mature women, Detective Johnetta Jones and Alana Blue. After a couple of false starts, I gave in to the temptation of writing a "romance-with-intrigue" story. The murder which is mentioned on page one, is based on a real-life crime that occurred near my home. I was still teaching Spanish in a Philadelphia high school when an academically and athletically talented eleventh grader who attended a suburban high school was savagely killed by her mother's boyfriend. Of all the crimes I'd read/heard about, that one seemed to haunt me; perhaps because the victim had so much promise, perhaps because the murder happened less than a mile away from my front door, in a usually quiet neighborhood, perhaps because the girl's body was found on a property that backed a home where my partner and I had lived some time ago.
I want my novels to touch upon different issues. We don't have the luxury of living single-issue lives. I want my characters to be believable, so they have to confront multiple situations as well.
If you didn't anticipate the twist at the end of the book, I've done my job.
Spoken: Do you consider yourself a writer?
R. Bess: I don’t consider myself a writer in the same way that I used to consider myself a teacher. I tend to take many things in life very seriously, so I’m trying to give myself permission to look at writing in a more relaxed way. It’s difficult for me to do that because I spend so much of my time either writing or thinking about what I want to write.
Spoken: What inspires you to write and what type of environment is better suited for those moments when you decide to sit down and write?
R. Bess: Listening to people, encountering new experiences, seeing new places, and taking the time to reflect about the past as well as the present…all inspire me to write. I can write anywhere or in almost any environment, but my favorite place is in my home office, where I can sit at my desk and gaze at the flowers, or trees, or the snow outside the window.
Spoken: How long have you been writing?
R. Bess: I’ve been writing for most of my life…poetry and a play when I was a teenager; short fiction when I was a young adult, and now longer fiction.
Spoken: What projects are you currently working on, have completed in the past, and possible endeavors you would eventually like to undertake?
R. Bess: One of my current projects is one of my contributions to an annual writers’ conference I attend. I’ve organized a mentoring program for aspiring writers. This is a project that feeds my “teacher soul.” As far as my own authoring is concerned, I would like to write at least one more novel. Characters and themes are on the edge of my imagination.
Spoken: As writers at some point and time we experience rejection and bouts of doubting our abilities. If you have ever experienced these things how do you handle them?
R. Bess: Five years ago, two prominent lesbian-owned publishing houses rejected my second book’s manuscript. Unfortunately, I tended to fold under criticism. This time I didn’t do that. I didn’t buckle when I received those two rejection emails. I believed in my story and in the quality of my writing, and I refused to acquiesce to the advice of one editor who told me, “No one is interested in reading a story about an African-American woman coming out.” Her opinion of my manuscript lit a fire in me. I dug in my heels, revised a couple of the book’s flashback scenes (on the advice of the owner of that same publishing company,) and submitted my work to a third publisher who then offered me a contract and helped me give birth to “BREAKING JAIE.” So I suppose one can say that I rejected the rejection.
Do I suffer bouts of self-doubt? Unrelentingly. Writing is a solitary activity. It can take years of little or no feedback between the day that you jot down that first sentence and the day that you see your book in print. I routinely doubt I’ve written well until I receive a good review or a positive email or phone call from a reader.
Spoken: How would you describe your writing style?
R. Bess: I’m fond of writing descriptive phrases that involve all of the senses. I strive to create fully-realized characters, and to use well-crafted language. I seem to have predilection for using first person narrative for my protagonists and third person for the other characters. While I’m careful to have a consistent point of view in each chapter, many times the chapters alternate from one point of view to the other.
Spoken: What words of encouragement do you have for fellow writers?
R. Bess: The following thoughts are gently offered suggestions. I am not an expert writer, only someone who is feeling her way through the world of fiction writing/writers.