Bernice McFadden

Ten years ago, after the publication of her first book, Sugar, Pat Neblett interviewed Bernice McFadden for Mosaic. Twelve books later, Bernice remains an important voice in American literature. On a rainy spring evening photographer Marcia Wilson and I visited the author’s home in Brooklyn, NY to document an exclusive reading from her new book Glorious. -Ron Kavanaugh

Bernice McFadden
by Pat Neblett

Jude was dead!

Thus begins McFadden’s engrossing, and superbly written debut novel, Sugar; the book that has readers everywhere exclaiming…”Girlfriend, let me tell you ‘bout this book I just read!” Who is the author of this excellent novel? Everyone’s asking just who is Bernice McFadden?

McFadden, from a warm, close-knit family, was born thirty-five years ago in Brooklyn, where she has fond memories of hearing rich, colorful stories told by family elders about life in the South.

These stories, peppered with her own creative imagination were the seeds of thought McFadden would use years later to conjure Sugar.

Written with the down-home folksiness of Hurston, the provocative thought of Walker, and the art of the master story-weaver Morrison, Sugar is a book about a prostitute—one with a good heart who says she must have been born with her two feet pointing backwards because, “Every time I take one step forward, I go two steps back.” Spiked with suspense, Sugar is also about narrow-minded women and hypocritical men in the small, dusty, fictionalized town of Bigelow, Arkansas.

It speaks to the power of sisterhood. But more importantly, Sugar is about love. The book is laden with haunting lines such as “I ain’t bad Ms. Pearl, I just ain’t had no crossroads in my life.” Crossroads, McFadden explained, are the opportunities one has to make a choice in the path you’ll take in life. She confided that the decision not to give up on writing Sugar, despite numerous rejections, was a crossroad in her life.

After years of writing poetry for her own enjoyment, McFadden honed her craft at Fordham University.

She credits excellent creative writing teachers there with teaching her the art of storytelling and encouraging her to push forward. In 1991, McFadden turned a negative situation into positive one when laid off from her job in the travel planning industry. Having more time to read, she found herself saying, “I’m just as good a writer, if not better. Why can’t I get published?” Several months later, McFadden had turned an unfinished poem she’d written titled Lotta, into the four hundred page, thought-provoking novel, Sugar. (The published book, however, is a powerful two hundred twenty-nine pages.)

McFadden, determined to get Sugar published queried every agent and publisher listed in The Literary Marketplace. A few replied saying, “There isn’t a market for a literary work by an unknown Black author.”

McFadden was also rejected by every Black agent she contacted. However, after being published, one Black agent was gracious enough to write a note of congratulations and expressed regret that she’d been one of those agents who had rejected her.

In early 1999, McFadden received a call from James Vines, a literary agent, asking to represent her, and within two weeks he had obtained McFadden a two-book contract from Dutton Books. Not leaving Sugar’s success to chance, McFadden says she, “Harassed everyone by e-mail. I had announcement cards made up, went to Black-owned bookstores, called on the old-girlfriend network. I did everything I could think of.” Of writing a book, McFadden says, “Well, it’s like my child. It’s mine, and it’s my responsibility. You can’t depend upon anyone else. If you believe in what you’ve written, then you’ve got to play an active role in promoting it.” McFadden’s aggressive marketing paid off. Before the January ’99 publication date, Sugar was in its second printing, and three months later, the sixth printing has since yielded over twenty-four thousand copies in circulation. Since McFadden wrote Sugar with thoughts of seeing it on the big screen, the attention her novel has received from Miramax, Twentieth Century Fox, Penny Marshall’s production company and Debbie Allen, each expressing an interest in producing the movie version, has her excited.

“It’s like a fantasy! When things [first] started happening, they happened very quickly,” exclaims a jubilant McFadden. “I know there’s a lot of people out there trying to get published and you just have to wait until your time comes around. And last year, well, last year was my time.” Despite her new celebrity, McFadden is still just Mom to her twelve year old daughter, R’yane.

Although a sequel to Sugar was not in her plans, demands from fans caused McFadden to reconsider.

Unfortunately, with ideas for her next four books already outlined, the sequel, much of which will be the two-hundred pages edited out of Sugar’s original four hundred pages, won’t be released for a while.

McFadden’s second book, The Warmest December, about the tumultuous relationship between an alcoholic father and his daughter, is scheduled to be released at the beginning of next year. “Writing book two is very stressful,” she says. “You have so much attention showered upon you; on something you’ve done. The level of expectation is so high, and I’m scared.”

This interview originally appeared in Mosaic #9. Click here to download