Chat With The Author: She Loves the Art of Storytelling – As Both An Actress and Author

If you grew up watching television in the 1990s, you may already feel as if you’ve “met” my featured writer today. Literary advocate and actress Karyn Parsons played the role of Hilary Banks, cousin to Will Smith’s character on the NBC sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, from 1990-1996.

Karyn Parsons
Karyn Parsons

For years, she has operated Sweet Blackberry, an award-winning animated film series that shares little known stories from African American history; and this week, Karyn’s lead role became author, when her debut young adult novel,  How High The Moon, was released. (Congrats, Karyn!)

This historical fiction book tells the story of young girl in the Jim Crow south who is attempting to reconnect with her mother and learn the truth about her father. The novel is based on the experiences of Karyn’s mother, a librarian who grew up in Charleston, South Carolina.How High The Moon

For her part, Karyn (who I had the pleasure of meeting through a mutual friend) is simply delighted that her words are gracing the world in a way that adds meaning and rich perspective. Enjoy this Life Untapped Author Chat with her, and be sure to pick up a copy of her novel (or download the ebook version) just in time for your weekend reading.

In what genre do you write? My most recent book is historical fiction; however, I love short story fiction. I’ve started writing something else that is also historical fiction, but I am feeling the itch for writing a short story. I have a couple things that I’m anxious to get out.

What is your primary goal as an author, i.e., what do you want your readers to take away from reading your book? Mostly I want them to surrender to the world of the book and empathize and relate to the characters in the book. Hopefully, the story and characters will challenge some preconceived ideas and opinions. I know I learn a lot when I write and uncover truths that I didn’t always know were there when I started writing.  And while it isn’t my primary goal, I do love the many lessons that historical fiction offers.

What has been the most surprising feedback you’ve received from readers about How High The MoonThere as a direction that I went in the book – can’t talk about it specifically as it’s a spoiler – that I was pleased to find readers (at least the ones that spoke with me about it) liked. I had been concerned people might have a problem with it. So vague if you haven’t read it, right?! I was also just really excited that people were responsive to the story and its characters. It’s my first book, so it’s new for me to communicate with people this way. I’ve shared stories with small groups before; friends, writing groups, teachers and classes. That’s a different kind of share. A workshopping, really. To hand over something finished to strangers and have them be engaged and invested in the characters and the story, that’s been very cool.

What has been the most surprising aspect of your author journey? Even though I’d always written here and there and had been a big reader throughout my life, I took to really focusing on writing AFTER I’d made a name for myself as an actress. And as serious as I was, I think I expected others to dismiss the idea of me as a writer. I’d been an actress for so long. It’s what everyone identified me as. So, when motherhood came along and threw me completely off course, there was a sadness that shrouded the writer me. I hadn’t given up, but I was becoming embarrassed by not being able to find time to write. And I was even more afraid to tell people I wanted to write because, well…I wasn’t writing! So, when I bumped into an old friend – a literary agent – who knew me for being as much a writer as an actress, and he encouraged me to write something, that encouragement went a long way. It meant so much to be seen. It was hard and clumsy, but I wrote my novel. And now, because of that accomplishment, even when things are tough, I don’t doubt that I’m a writer or concern myself much with what others might think.    

How do you continue growing as a writer? Reading and writing. Reading all sorts of books, reading about writing, and then just writing. Giving myself permission to be silly and messy and bad, bad, bad. And then…more reading.

Who are two or three writers you admire or consider mentors? I truly admire Toni Morrison. At the same time I admire how clean Hemingway writes. I had already known some of Jacqueline Woodson’s work, but in taking on writing for a young audience, I read more of her work, re-read and paid more attention. Her writing really resonates with me and, at the same time, feels so natural and right. I also read interviews with her and saw her speak. She’s so smart and generous and she’s got this enchanting soul. A lovely person. In a way, she’s a mentor. I trust and feel truth in what she has to say.

Do you think you’ll continue to act in coming years? I still love acting. I think if I could do theater, that’s where I’d be. That’s the best place to be able to really act. To not be so encumbered by all of the technical and production distractions. I get nervous in front of an audience, though. Ugh. That’s always been a mountain for me, that part.

What else are you passionate about? If you weren’t an author and actress, what else would you be doing? We’re big movie people in my household. My husband is a filmmaker and I’m a real film geek. I also like to bake even though I’m really, really bad at it. No one eats my stuff. But, I don’t care, I still like it. And I’ll get better.

50681587_2230760680302384_8356357223718322176_nKaryn Parsons is best known for her role as Will Smith’s cousin Hilary Banks on the NBC sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. After leaving acting behind, Karyn has gone on to found and produce Sweet Blackberry, an award-winning series of children’s animated films, to share stories about unsung black heroes in history, featuring narration from stars such as Alfre Woodard, Queen Latifah, Chris Rock, and Laurence Fishburne. The films have screened on HBO and Netflix, and are enjoyed by schools and libraries across the country. Karyn’s debut novel, How High The Moon, hits bookshelves this month March 2019. To learn more about Karyn and her body of work, visit  sweetblackberry.org or friend her on the following:

Twitter: @Karyn_Parsons or @swtblackberry

Facebook: KarynParsons or SweetBlackberry

IG: KarynParsons or Swtblackberry

How Hip Hop Serves as a NYT Bestselling Author’s Muse

Angie Thomas’ love of Hip Hop fueled her passion for storytelling, and just like the rappers she admires have sought to perfect their art form, she has sought – and succeeded – at doing the same.

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Bestselling author Angie Thomas

Her debut novel is her evidence, and when the movie version of the book hits the big screen in October 2018, her desire to give voice and humanity to a sector of Americans who often feel they have neither is expected to reach fever pitch.

Thomas is the bestselling author of the award-winning New York Times bestselling young adult novel The Hate U Give.  In addition to reaching the No. 1 spot on the New York Times list, the book is being sold in more than 40 nations, and Thomas has traveled the globe to expound upon its themes, including the narrative that Black Lives Matter and that every child deserves to be heard and valued.

In late July 2018, several hundred residents of metro Richmond, Virginia – including teens, librarians, book club members, readers and writers of all backgrounds and ages, and me – converged onIMG_0713 the Chesterfield County Public Library‘s North Courthouse Branch to see Thomas and hear wit, wisdom and words of encouragement pour from her lips.

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Angie Thomas spoke at the Chesterfield County Public Library North Courthouse Branch

Time seemed to stand still during her 90-minute talk as she mesmerized the audience with the story – her story – of being a 6-year-old girl reading Jet magazine (which she called that era’s “Facebook for black people”) in her home and stumbling upon the picture of Emmett Till in his casket – an image her mother took time to explain in depth, leaving Thomas with the message to “know your worth, but know that not everyone values you the way I do, simply because of the color of your skin.”

She also shared her memory of being an 8-year-old enjoying the swing set in her not-so-safe neighborhood park when she heard Hip Hop lyrics for the first time, in the verses of  Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s The Message, which described the very reality of her hard-knock life. Then, there was her pivotal memory of seeing the late Tupac Shakur for the first time, in news coverage that cast him as a rebellious yet intelligent rapper. Soon after, she heard his music and his commentary, including the explanation for his THUG LIFE tattoo: The Hate U Give Little Infants F—s Everybody.  “Meaning (that) what society gives us as youth, bites (society) when we wild out,” Thomas explained during her talk.

While acknowledging the downsides of Hip Hop – its often controversial and profanity-laden lyrics and many verses that disparage females – Thomas still gave a nod to the musical genre for waking up generations of people who often feel invisible, forgotten and frustrated, and helping them (including her) find their voice.

Throughout her childhood in Jackson, Mississippi, she heard stories of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, who was assassinated in his own front yard, not far from where she lived; and in 2015, as the reality of Florida teen Trayvon Martin‘s killer being acquitted of murder stunned her spirit, so did her desire to become a social justice warrior.

Rather than pick up the weapons she so despised for their role in harming people of color, she decided to model the rappers she had long revered and use her words as her sword. The Hate U Give was born as a short story for a college senior project, then grew into the novel we know today.

Thomas’ captive Chesterfield County library audience thanked her for her willingness to write a story that scared her; and one Caucasian middle school student asked for advice on how she could encourage her friends and classmates to read the book and try to understand kids who differ from them in some way.

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Angie Thomas during Q&A

Thomas told her to keep being herself – a brave “book recommender” – and serving as an ambassador for what it looks like to be accepting of others.

It’s a path that Thomas is determined to continue walking, with each new story she births and each new audience she introduces to her personal experience of being a little girl who had everything going against her until she heard herself reflected in lyrics (musical storytelling) that legitimatized her existence.

Because she believes “books can change the world,” Thomas intends to be that light for a whole new generation of young minds – whether they read her novels, watch her movie, hear her speak or encounter others who have been transformed by the messages in her words.

Her library talk was an invitation to everyone in the audience to individually and collectively become literary citizens who create meaningful paths to knowledge, understanding and connectedness.

Stacy Hawkins Adams