SEVEN QUESTIONS FOR THE WORKING WRITER: NICOLE DENNIS-BENN
Nicole Dennis-Benn’s DEBUT NOVEL, HERE COMES THE SUN, was published in 2016 to nationwide critical acclaim. Her work has been published in Kweli Journal, the Red Rock Review, the Jamaica Gleaner, and Elle. Her short stories "God Nuh Like Ugly" and "What’s for Sale" were nominated for 2016 Pushcart Prizes; she has received recognition and fellowships from The MacDowell Colony, Hedgebrook, the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund for Women Writers, the Lambda Foundation, the Hurston/Wright Foundation, and Kimbilio. She is a Sewanee Writers' Conference Tennessee Williams Scholar. Visit her website at www.nicoledennisbenn.com or on Twitter: @brooklyn_soul10. Dennis-Benn's book launch for here comes the sun will be at brooklyn's greenlight books on july 19.
Nicole Dennis-Benn! Do you ever publish your work without compensation or for a nominal fee? If so, why, and how do you feel about doing it?
When I first learned that I could get paid for doing what I love, I was ecstatic. The first literary journal that offered me payment was Kweli Literary Journal. I never expected that it would be the case! While I write, I never think about the money or the accolades. If I do that, I might not write as freely or write what's important to me.
Does your craft alone provide you with a livelihood?
Yes. I sold my first novel this spring, which is a huge deal. But I also teach writing. I'm a college writing professor, and I run my own writing workshop—Stuyvesant Writing Workshop in Brooklyn. This gives me the freedom to write. While the money from my book deal is helpful in so many ways, I think having a steady flow of income from teaching, and from grants and fellowships, is great. Especially when we add family, investments, and a 401K to the mix. Another essential thing is having a supportive spouse. My wife, who is a Biostatistician, has been very supportive throughout the entire process, which helps a lot. So when I transitioned from public health researcher to full-time writer, she made all that possible. It wasn’t easy, but we did it.
If you have to hold a day job to supplement your income, or just make a living at all, do you feel you have enough time to write?
In all honesty, I am one of those writers who can write anywhere and anytime. I’m always writing. On the subway I am constantly daydreaming, which in my eyes qualifies as writing too. I like to scribble ideas wherever I go, or snap pictures on my iPhone of people who I think fit the description of characters I’d like to explore, or places where I could see my characters immersed. By the time I lock myself away in my home-study I end up with the first draft of a story or the beginning of a novel. In fact, most of my second novel was written on the Staten Island Ferry.
How do you know for sure when something in your work still needs another revision?
I tend to take my drafts everywhere I go and read them in different settings—on the train, bus, waiting in line somewhere, etc. Sometimes I see different things when I walk away and come back. I’ve learned that it’s best to put a story down for a week or more and come back with a fresh, objective lens. I also have a great agent and editor. But even before sending out projects, I read out loud to my wife and to a close friend—both wonderful, analytical readers who could care less about my ego.
When revising something in your work, how do you know for sure when it’s truly time to stop?
That’s a tricky question. You never know. What I’ve learned is that I might think it’s done, but then I go away and come back and realize there is something more to the story. Usually another reader sees this more clearly, given that we tend not to see flaws or missing elements when we’re too close to our story or have been with it for a long time. This past summer, I was fortunate enough to work with author Richard Bausch at Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and have heard him say over and over again that doubt is natural.
Do you feel that being a writer was a choice or a calling for you?
It was a calling. I always knew I wanted to tell stories. My challenge prior to arriving at this reality was defying my previous mentality that having a more conventional career was the be-all and end-all to success and happiness. I was pre-med in college, then went on to do a Master’s in Public Health. But I wasn’t happy with doing that. I was always writing, always seeking ways to tell stories. Finally, I took a leap of faith and went for it. I’ve never been happier.
BONUS ROUND FOR PURE PLEASURE: What book did you probably read too young and it therefore haunted you forever after?
I read Beloved by Toni Morrison really young. I found it in a library. All I took from it then was a scary story of a baby ghost haunting a mother after she killed it. I didn’t get the concept until college when I read it again—same book with the “used” tag still on it!—and it resonated with me in more ways than one—tackling race and identity and the price of freedom. Morrison opened up my eyes to the craft of storytelling, delving into complexities of characters and situations, telling a truly haunting and tragic tale of redemption.