Episode 19: Readings from the Summer Supper & Book Club

Summer Supper & Book Club

This summer, PEN/Faulkner’s Summer Supper & Book Club met weekly for seven weeks at Hill Center where we discussed books by area authors Susan Richards Shreve (Plum and Jaggers)Danielle Evans (Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self)David A. Taylor (Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America)Felicia Pride (Patterson Heights), Derrick Weston Brown (Wisdom Teeth), and David Ebenbach (Between Camelots). We had 15 students enrolled in the course, and each week they came prepared to dine and discuss the book of the week. The authors joined us to answer questions and grab a bite, and they were kind enough to let us record short readings of their work. Thus, Episode 19 is a variety pack that includes the participating authors except, unfortunately, David A. Taylor (we had recording difficulties on the day of his visit).

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PEN/Faulkner’s Summer Supper & Book Club Talks Beats, Books, and Baltimore with Felicia Pride

Felicia Pride author photoLast night, we kicked off our session with a warm-up exercise in which Summer Supper & Book Club participants were asked to imagine that they were in a band and that they had to pick their favorite characters from literature and film as their bandmates. Book Club members also had to pick a literary name for their band, and the results included such gems as Crazed Expectations, Random Sounds, Purgatory (because they’ll never be as good as Nirvana), The Ultimatum, and Man. Bands featured members as diverse as a drumming Atticus Finch backed by a horn-section composed of Little Women’s March sisters to a DJ-ing Cat in the Hat hyped by Thing 1 and Thing 2. Edward and Jacob from Twilight found work in a couple of bands as well. 

We dived into a discussion of Patterson Heights, a young adult novel by Felicia Pride that centers on a fictional Baltimore neighborhood—actually a recognizable amalgam of a couple of Baltimore communities—where stable families and gun violence tragically collide. We talked vengeance and honor, and asked whether violence and withholding information from friends and the police is ever justifiable. Conclusions ranged from Donovan’s assertion that violence is a form of weakness to Mecca’s pithy reminder that “snitches get stitches.” Ultimately, we realized that there are no easy answers when a violent drug dealer lords over a community, as one does in Patterson Heights.

Felicia Pride stopped by to talk about her transition from journalism to fiction, the occasionally necessary pressure of writing under deadline, and the nightmare of switching her novel’s point of view from third-person to first-person when she was three quarters of the way through her draft. Asked by Amuche if she’d change anything about the novel, Pride admitted that she tends not to reread her own work once it’s published. Asked if a film was in the works for Patterson Heights, she joked that students were always more interested in the idea than she was.

Patterson Heights book jacket

“And who would play Avery?” asked Pride.

“I’m an actor,” Ta’Kwon subtly volunteered to laughs from the Book Group.

Pride questioned Book Club members about their own writing interests. Sanjaya volunteered her love of fantasy, Tiara talked about writing short stories inspired by her life, and Mecca revealed that while she writes poems, she finds it challenging to be asked to perform them.

Pride, who writes about hip hop and got her start by writing a Mary J. Blige review, went on to discuss the book she considers her baby—The Message: 100 Life Lessons from Hip-Hop’s Greatest Songs. Asked to pick the song she’s living by today, she quoted a verse from Common’s “They Say”: “Writin’ for my life cause I’m scared of a day job.” And she’s doing a good job avoiding one. Right now she’s collaborating on a screenplay, working on a mutli-media project about her family’s history in Baltimore, and doing consultancy through her company, Pride Collaborative. In the future, Pride says, she might like to switch it up again and attempt a Malcolm Gladwell-style idea book—possibly about the pull towards the creative and the challenges of balancing one’s creative inclinations and practical realities.

When Pride asked students if they played instruments, we discovered a host of surprising musical talents. It turns out that Manny plays the cello and violin, Takirra sings and plays the saxophone, Donovan plays guitar, and Tiara sings, plays piano, and even drums a bit. In no time, it looks like we’ll have a PEN/Faulkner Book Club Band.

Oh, and Ta’Kwon reminded us once again that he’s an actor. Keep an eye out for him if Patterson Heights ever comes to the silver screen. He will, of course, be playing the lead role of Avery Washington.

— Jack Nessman

The Quotable Felicia Pride

Last week, author and communications entrepreneur Felicia Pride visited five different sections of instructor Samantha Vacknin’s class at Northwestern High School in Baltimore. Pride, who grew up in Baltimore after spending her early years in New Jersey, knows a thing or two about the city, and her 2009 novel Patterson Heights is a head-on look at an incident of violence and its aftershocks that ripple through the community. As so many of them do, this Writers in Schools visit represented a rare opportunity for readers of Pride’s work to meet the author and to ask her questions about her life, her work, her time in college and graduate school, and her use of the vernacular in the novel. Below are just a few of the many questions posed to pride during her visits to Northwestern, followed by Pride’s answers. 

Author photo of Felicia Pride

Q: How did you become a writer?

Felicia Pride: Well, after high school—I went to Milford Mount—I went to Towson. I decided to study business. I liked to write, but I didn’t know how I was going to a make a living by writing full-time, so I ended up working in corporate America. That was really, really hard, and I found myself writing during the day. […] Later, I got an internship at a community paper in New York, and I was writing about music. I found that I loved writing about music. That first review was of a Mary J. record, and I remember seeing my name in print […] That was an incredible feeling, and it made me want to continue writing, so I eventually went to graduate school in Boston so that I could study writing. 

Q: What keeps you writing?

Felicia Pride: For me, writing is just one of those things I can’t help but do. For some people, there’s sports or making music, and for me, that creative outlet has always been writing. 

Q: How do you avoid writers’ block when you’re working on a story or a novel?

Felicia Pride: Fiction’s tough for me this way. There’s just so much that you have to include and to know in order for the story to make sense. In nonfiction and journalism, I feel like I have more control and can be more succinct. There’s not so much to invent. Really, the drafting process is hard, too. The truth of it is that the first things I generally write are terrible, and I have to go back over that draft and work to craft it and shape it in order to make it work. 

When I teach, I have to tell my students not to worry about getting stuck. I do a lot of free-writing exercises with them to help get them used to the idea that not everything has to come out perfectly and that, in reality, it almost never does. 

Q: Were you confident when you decided you were going to write this book?

Felicia Pride:  No, actually! Not at all. Writing this novel was an entirely new experience for me. I started really writing in 2001, mostly because I didn’t like my job and wanted to find something else to do with my time. I wasn’t confident about my writing then, and sometimes I’m not confident about it now, but I think that’s true for a lot of writers. 

Patterson Heights jacket image

Q: Why did you title the book Patterson Heights?

Felicia Pride: Well, you might be able to guess this, but it’s a combination of Park Heights and Patterson Park. My editor asked me if the name was a real neighborhood, and I told her what I’ll tell you: it’s sort of a combination of names and places. [I did it that way] because I wanted it to be recognizable as Baltimore, but I didn’t want to limit myself to one particular neighborhood, so I used my own, fictional neighborhood in the book.

Q:  When you were writing the book, did you ever think that it would have an impact on the younger people who read it?

Felicia Pride: No, actually. Writing a book is hard work, so I was just trying to get through the process of that and tell the story of this family. That was hard enough, so I didn’t really imagine how it would affect readers. 

Q: So, when you’re writing a book like this, one that features young people, do you think that that’s how we [younger people] actually talk and act?

Felicia Pride: Actually, not exactly. I’m invested in hip-hop culture as a fan and as a writer, and when I’m writing, I try to utilize the things I think and feel and see in hip-hop and to use hip-hop methods—like remixing and sampling—in my own work. So, I guess I’m just as interested in seeing how to incorporate some of those things as I am in depicting thoughts or speech that perfectly mirrors how young people in 2013 speak. 

Q: Why do you use the word “cats” to describe people in the book?

A: I just love that word, I think! It’s sort of old school, and I’d like to bring that one back. It’s a great word. 

Q: Do you have a favorite author? 

Felicia Pride: Oh, I have a lot of favorite authors. One of them that I keep mentioning to classes here is a writer named Percival Everett. He’s immensely talented. He wrote an entire novel [American Desert] about a man who has been decapitated. To write that such skill and imagination is really tough. I mean, the main character has no head, but because Percival Everett is such a talented writer, you just sort of go with it. 

Q: Why did you set the book in Baltimore?

Felicia Pride: Well, I think it’s a really unique city. We get a lot of shine but not a lot of respect. Even with the Ravens—I mean, we won the championship, but that team and this town still get criticized for so much!

Q: How does it feel to have a job that you love?

Felicia Pride: It feels like freedom. Really. Doing things that make you happy feels like freedom, but having to monetize the things you love can have the opposite effect. […] So, in my case, I think it’s all about finding balance so that you can support yourself without feeling too trapped.

Q: Are you working on another book now? 

Felicia Pride: […] I’m working on a project about my family, but I don’t think it’s a book exactly. I think it’s a story that will have to be told through a variety of media. I imagine it including pictures and music, things that will give the story of my family members and of ’60s and ’70s Baltimore more texture […]  I think every story has to be told in the right way, and so I’m working on that multimedia project now.

Q: What are some of your goals for the future? 

Felicia Pride: Good question. I think that, as you live, you have to keep setting new goals for yourself. I  think it’s important to celebrate accomplishing your goals, but it’s important not to sit back for too long. You’ve got to keep moving forward.