The Banal and the Profane: Frederick Smith
Author: William Johnson
February 24, 2015
“Writing a book takes time and money. I’d like consumers—whether they’re friends, family or otherwise—to treat writers with the same respect as other workers and artists who produce a product.”
“The Banal and the Profane” is a monthly Lambda Literary column in which we lift the veil on both the writerly life and the publishing industry. In each installment, we ask a different LGBT writer, or LGBT person of interest in the book industry, to guide us through a week in their lives.
This month’s “Banal and Profane” column comes to us from writer Frederick Smith .
Originally from Detroit, Frederick Smith is the author of three novels focusing on queer people of color – Down For Whatever, Right Side of the Wrong Bed (a Lambda Literary Awards finalist), both published by Kensington Publishing Corp., and Play It Forward, published by Bold Strokes Books. He lives in Los Angeles and works with college students, helping them to explore their identities and social justice issues. Contact him at www.FrederickLSmith.com.
I have a new book coming out tomorrow.
Play It Forward is my third novel and will be published by Bold Strokes Books. My third novel. Sometimes it’s weird to say it, write it, know it, believe it. It’s been a while since my first two novels–Down For Whatever and Right Side of the Wrong Bed, published by Kensington Books–so it’s been equally as long having this “day before publication” feeling.
These used to be childhood dreams–writing to be read; writing for an audience, potentially; or adding something to pop culture, to the world of books, to communities who have little representation in literature, etc.–and for a childhood dream to come true is kind of amazing. I’m grateful. Grateful. Because I know not many have this opportunity to fulfill a dream.
So what’s the day before like? I can’t describe it. I’m excited, yes. I’m nervous, yes. I want it to be liked, yes. I know some will dislike it, yes. I hope that there are more likes than dislikes. Yes, I care about likes and dislikes–many writers and artists do (we’re sensitive about our shit, as Erykah Badu tells us in the preamble to her song, “Tyrone”)–but I’m not consumed or obsessed about it. I’m confident and know I exist and have a life with or without published books with my name on them.
People around me are more excited on the surface than me, which is to say, even more super-excited, and super-supportive, too, almost like they want “success” for me more than they think I want for myself. I’m grounded, though, and realistic. Books, I often joke, are on the low end of the entertainment industry totem pole, and if you’re an author and from an underrepresented community, you’re even lower. No shade, just truth. There’s not a lot of media or coverage. No one throws large red carpet events for book debuts. Entertainment Tonight isn’t sitting outside the coffeehouse you go to in the morning.
But all social commentary aside, the day before a book release feels like any other day, but with a little bonus feeling. Your book is about to be birthed into the world. You hope it will be received with the love, care, creativity, thought and compassion that you put into preparing it for the world. You want to tell everyone, and the Universe, thank you!
Official book release day is here. No bells and whistles, necessarily, except from me. I get up at 5AM, L.A. time, to revel in the day. I send a few hundred texts out in pre-dawn hours to my friends and family on the East Coast and Midwest. I’m sure they’ll love me. Will do the same for my West Coast friends and family later in the day, when it’s a decent time to do so. I don’t want to piss people up with texts coming in too early, because the East Coast/West Coast time zone divide is real.
I’ve only ‘Googled’ myself about forty times today. I’ve done about the same checking my numbers on Amazon. It’s 10AM. I’m checking to see if there are spikes in sales based on the timing of my morning texts or tweets. There’s no exact science to the correlation between a publicity effort and a sale. All I know is that it takes a massive publicity effort and big dollars (and a big name) to make a book a splash. I’m no Terry McMillan or Junot Diaz. So no big publicity push or dollars except for what I put into it.
Although it’s been just a few hours since the official release, I start thinking of all these ‘what if’ questions. Specifically: What if I’d invested in a publicist like my writer friend Tayari Jones advised me to back in the summer of 2013, which would have given me (and the publicist) ample time to drum up publicity through all the efforts and connections they have. Big time publicity. Not just grassroots efforts. 300 million people in the U.S., not 300 people on Twitter kind of, publicity. Lesson learned. No time for regrets now. I know I’ve written a great book, and I know that once the book ends up in readers’ hands, they will love it and spread the word, and I’ll stop having all these regrets about what I should have and could have done in advance.
I like juggling multiple plates, projects and processes. I do. So in addition to being an author; a friend; a son; a very social person; a Student Affairs and Higher Education professional; a scholar; a speaker and panelist; an advocate for ethnic, gender and social justice awareness and equity, I’m shopping around for grad schools.
Specifically, I’m looking at Doctoral programs in Educational Leadership and Higher Education. While I’m concentrating on Southern California programs at CSU Long Beach, UCLA, Loyola Marymount and USC, I’ve had scholar friends encourage me to consider some out-of-state/fly-in-on-weekends-for-classes programs. Yikes! I don’t think that’s possible. And though I like the idea of a fully-funded, no-strings-attached program, I don’t know if I can see myself commuting or moving to someplace like Indiana or Iowa at this time, though I know they could definitely use the diversity of people, experiences and voices.
Launching a book and completing school application processes–both of which are happening simultaneously this month–is a fun juggling act. I knew it was coming last summer, and I knew the time could coincide and be one crazy mess. I did the GREs again last week—a complete mess! I hadn’t touch geometry or trigonometry in over a decade. Hey, they give you a score for just sitting down in the chair! I need to finish writing statements of purpose and gather recommendations, and I need to do events to promote Play It Forward. And that’s on the side of being a full-time professional at a University.
I’ve always been an overachiever, wanna-do-everything, like-staying-busy-type of person. I’m hoping I can stay above water with multiple and equally important processes in my life.
Oh my! Let’s not get started with trying to fit in a love life. Or shall we?!?!
Night. I might only be getting into bed by 12:30 or 1 AM. Late nights are my time to send out reminder tweets and emails about my new book. I don’t want to overload people’s Twitter feed in the daytime with trying to ‘sell’ them anything (though I am). So nighttime is a good time to do this.
I also gotta finish up my LMU doctoral application by the weekend and finish up prep work for Jewel Diamond Taylor’s ‘Super Goal Saturday’ event at the University.
Work after work. My life and theme. Even if I wanted to fit in a love life, it just wouldn’t be possible. No one wants to be an item on a to-do list, and that’s most likely what any potential partner would be. I’m married to being productive.
Hosting a really great event today, and I’m excited about it. I need to jot down a few words about it; it’s a symposium on the FAIR Act.
In 2012, California’s legislature passed the FAIR Act in Education. It calls for fair, accurate, inclusive and respectful education about LGBT communities in K-12 public education in California. I’d heard a bit about the FAIR Act, but it wasn’t until doing research and background while prepping for the symposium that I learned and appreciated all that it will call for.
The idea of young people having an opportunity to learn about the contributions of LGBT figures while in school is amazing. My hope is that with California being as diverse, with its multiple communities, we’ll have inclusion of Black, Chican@/Latin@, Asian Pacific Islander and Queer People of Color communities.
I’m happy to present this workshop for students who are aspiring to be teachers for L.A. Hopefully, one day, this workshop will resonate with them, and they’ll see the importance of including education of all communities as something meaningful for their students.
I’ll be sure to slip some Play It Forward bookmarks in their information packets. LOL. I’ll be sure to slip in the importance of including literature by and about LGBT authors in their class curricula. Another way to do publicity with a captive audience.
A week after release day. Yes, I still ‘Google’ myself a few dozen times a day. Yes, I still check my Amazon numbers a few dozen times a day. I’m wondering if all my friends and family who know about the book—and they have to know, with my constant self-promotion—have actually bought it. Based on the numbers I’m seeing, I think more have thought about buying a book than have actually bought a book.
One pet peeve of authors—and I’ve talked to many of my author friends, and we all concur—is friends and family who ask something like, “So when am I gonna get a copy of your book?” Back in the day, I was super-generous with my advanced copies; I literally gave them away with no expectation, no reciprocation, no guarantee of anything. Now, I’m much more strategic about who gets my limited supply of advanced copies. I’m much more proactive about sending my advanced copies to the niche, genre-focused media and social media who are likely to latch on to the content or me.
So now, I turn the question, “So when am I gonna get a copy of your book?” around and let them know the specific online retailers they can go to purchase a copy. After all, no one would ask Mary J. Blige or Beyoncé for a copy of their latest CD, so why treat writers’ and authors’ work as if it should be given away for free?
Writing a book takes time and money. I’d like consumers—whether they’re friends, family or otherwise—to treat writers with the same respect as other workers and artists who produce a product.
When I first came out with a novel in 2005, there was a wonderful Black Queer Renaissance of films, novels, blogs and websites devoted to the Black Queer experience, and many of the artists involved in it are my friends and in my social circle, and they’re still producing work that’s relevant to the Black Queer community. Keith Boykin, Rashid Darden, Fiona Zedde, Sheree L. Greer, Brian Banks, Dayne Avery, Rebekah Weatherspoon, Daniel Black, Trent Jackson, Skyy, Quincy LeNear, Deondray Gossett, Nathan Hale Williams and many more come to mind as contemporary inspirations and favorites.
Now, there are some wonderful podcasts I’m loving, which speak to the personal or academic realities and experiences of the Black Queer community. Among them: Strange Fruit, 2 Guys and a Girl and For Colored Nerds.
I’d like the number of artists to grow. I’d like the general public’s love and acceptance of Black Queer work to grow. That’s a whole conversation to be had. How to make Black Queer lives matter to the LGBT community as a whole. How to let the LGBT community know how it can benefit by embracing, seeing and knowing its Black Queer community members. Not that I want Black Queer artists to ‘seek approval’ from others. But I want Black Queer work and people to be accepted and normed by the LGBT community as a whole, and our community not to be ‘othered’ or ‘exoticized,’ just loved and appreciated for our brilliance and excellence.
So I need to clean my second bedroom like there’s no tomorrow. That’s because Sheree L. Greer and Fiona Zedde will be flying to L.A. from Tampa and Atlanta, respectively, for our upcoming reading at Skylight Books in L.A. Rebekah Weatherspoon will be joining us at the reading, too, but not my place. I’m excited about the reading, but not about the cleaning part. That second bedroom serves as my office and storage area. I don’t have many guests stay over, overall, so seeing it as a guest bedroom is going to be challenging as I spend all day Sunday getting it ready for my author-friend guests.
My neighbors will love the Beyoncé and Diana Ross/Supremes concert they’ll get while I’m cleaning. Yay!
I’ve been keeping the Facebook invite for Friday’s Skylight reading alive by posting fun facts about each of the writers and excerpts of our current novels with Bold Strokes. I’m sure the folks on the invite are tired of my self-promotion, but hey, that’s the gift that comes with having a published author who wants to be a bestselling author in your circle.
I’m excited about our reading, which is being billed as ‘A Tribute to Black Queer Literature’ and features Sheree, Rebekah, Fiona and me. We all write different types of literature about Black characters—from romance to erotica, to serious literature, to vampire. We’ll have something for everyone on Friday at Skylight.
We’ll be sharing our Black Queer literary influences before reading from our current novels. For me, it’s E. Lynn Harris all the way. His Invisible Life and Just As I Am were just absolutely life-changing. His work was the first I’d read featuring modern Black (gay, queer, same-gender-loving, DL) men characters who also happened to be college-educated, working-to-middle class, and very much pro-Black in their identities. It was eye-opening for me, much like I’m sure James Baldwin’s work was for those in the generation(s) before me—unapologetically gay and Black.
So I’m nervous about how Friday will turn out. We’ve got almost three hundred people on the invite list. About seventy have said they’re coming. Of course, with both the NAACP and Grammy Awards happening, I’m not sure how important a book-reading event will be. But it’s important to me. So I’ll keep publicizing the heck out of it. I want this to be a success for the four of us reading, as well as for Skylight Books, and I want to sell out of all our books. That would be a wonderful way to kick off Play It Forward’s book launch at a public event.
The Skylight Books was a success—a big success. About eighty people showed up. Sheree, Rebekah, Fiona and I were amazingly awesome. We had some great Q&A conversations. And our books sold multiple copies. That’s very important: moving products off the store shelves and onto people’s book shelves.
In addition to playing host to everyone at the event, I’m playing host and tour guide to Sheree and Fiona; Rebekah recently moved to L.A. I’m loving it because I’m getting to experience L.A. as a visitor would. We walk the Hollywood Walk of Fame, over all the stars on the sidewalks. I take them to Inglewood to my cool dentist office, New Image Dental, and my new favorite restaurant, Orleans and York Deli. We go up to old-monied Pasadena. I even give in to red meat and ate at In-N-Out Burgers. Oh, and taking that cheesy tour bus in Hollywood Hills, Beverly Hills and other celebrity neighborhoods isn’t so cheesy, after all.
I’m planning to include a little bit about how the ‘other half,’ or should I say the ‘1%,’ live in my next project. The bus tour is research, as well as fun. Tonight, we’re heading out to hip-hop night at Micky’s. More research, I say. LOL.
I write about love and romance among Black Queer characters, and some Chicano/Latino Queer characters, too. With all that writing about love, it’s a wonder that I haven’t turned fiction into reality by finding some love myself.
Fiona, Rebekah and I eat lunch at Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles in Hollywood and see lots of cuties that we like for me, LOL. We also lament on the state of books, how writing about Black Queer characters is working for us, and about what we’re working on next for Bold Strokes in terms of our LGBT fiction. Great conversation—so great, in fact, that we decide to head over to West Hollywood for an early afternoon drink to talk some more. Author talk is fun talk, especially when you’re Black and just want to talk with others who get and see life without explanations being needed. Besides, as the cliché goes, it’s five o’clock somewhere.
We end up at Rage, which is open early for lunch and low-cost beverages, and lament more about men, women, fashion, weight and the state of Black-on-Black Queer love. Good conversation. Inevitably, the conversation comes to me and my perpetual state of singlehood. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. I call it being focused, work-after-work and enjoying being productive.
As we head out the bar and back to our respective places to work, I get checked out. Fiona and Rebekah notice. Then, I get to thinking: maybe one day, fiction will become reality. There’s someone for everyone. Or is that a cliché, too?