Sandra Kitt: A Matter of Hope

(September 11, 2000)

"I guess to some extent I'm a selfish writer, in that I want to write what I want to write! But I do keep in mind that the readers have certain expectations. My books are about relationships, not just love and romance between a hero and heroine. What motivates me is always trying to understand the complex nature of what brings people together, to either love or hate each other. I do believe in a 'positive' and upbeat ending."

How do you classify yourself? Do you see yourself as an author of fiction, genre fiction (romance), or that term that has all sorts of odd connotations - multicultural fiction/multicultural romance?

Of course I'd like to see myself just as a novelist, but I know that the industry, if not readers, will label me no matter what. I started out as a category (series) romance writer, but that was never my intention. When I first began writing I was putting complex themes and issues in my books that were not romance. Harlequin was my first publisher (I did nine books for them). They liked my writing very much, but even my editors there told me my books were really not romances. Eventually I wrote a book that definitely was not a Harlequin book (The Color of Love), and moved on to doing mainstream novels. I don't label myself a multicultural writer, although my stories really are that, in that they are very diverse in terms of characters.

Let's talk a bit more about that last phrase - "multicultural." How do you feel about it? I can remember in college taking a course on women and media and how the teacher felt labeling "women's fiction" ghettoized it, put it in too small a box. Is that something you find with the MC label? Or, is it a good thing, and, if so, why?

I've never liked the term multicultural, but I understand the need to identify some novels that way. It allows the publisher to more clearly determine how to market and promote the books. They get targeted to a specific audience, which is fine if that's the goal. However, my experience has been that if something is labeled "multicultural," it's perceived as being solely "black" or African American. Since Kensington launched the Encanto Line of Spanish novels, multicultural is finally broadening a little.

I think the other problem with being tagged as multicultural is that the reader perception will be that the novels are just for the black or Latino community, and they might not bother reading them. Fortunately this is changing. I know that I have plenty of readers who are not African American. I have a strong audience of men who read my books and email me about them all the time, and the numbers are growing because they tell their friends that my books are "not just about romance." I think the term "ghettoizing" has an unfortunate connotation that might marginalize some authors and their work, but not necessarily. Romances have suffered this for decades.

You often write about romantic relationships between people of different races. Why? In popular culture - in newsmagazines, on MTV's The Real World, on sit-coms and dramas, there's so much negative discussion about African Americans dating non-AA's from the AA perspective that I wonder if your publisher ever asked you not to do it so that you wouldn't offend some readers.

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My idea was again, not to write simply about black and white relations, but to write about people, men and women, black and white, who are accepting change, taking risks, and redefining love. I'm also looking at what will be the make-up of the American population in the new millennium. We are no longer a nation of black and white. There is also "other." People of mixed race, Asia, Indian, Middle Eastern, Spanish, and any mixture of all of these. New York is probably one of the most "multicultural" cities on earth, and I get a lot of my ideas by just observing what's going on around me.

My latest book, Close Encounters, was based on the tense relationship between law enforcement and Black communities. Law enforcement is always perceived as white, and there has traditionally always been mistrust and bias between the two. This story was written before the Amadou Diallo (sic) case in which a young African immigrant was shot 19 times by five white uncover police officers, and killed. It was, arguably, a case of over-reaction and excessive force. I wrote a "what if" story that explores a black citizen being shot by a white cop, and it really is an accident. But how are they, their families, the city and police going to respond? My last five books have explored social and racial issues. If any readers are offended, I haven't heard from them.

Share with our readers the history of your writing career.

I began writing in 1981, although it was not my intentions to become published. My background is in fine arts, and at that time I was both an active graphic designer and illustrator, and a library manager. I began writing a book simply to entertain myself, and didn't consider trying to publish until two years and two more manuscripts later. I had so many ideas that I thought it wouldn't hurt to find out what an editor thought of my work. I contacted Harlequin because I'd recently read an article about the new American Romance line they were starting up in the states, with offices in New York. I had an interview, after which I sent in two of my three manuscripts. They were purchased in a week. The third book I submitted to what was then called Second Chance at Love from Berkeley-Jove, and that also sold (although it was eventually published by Doubleday, not Jove). I was off in running. I did nine books for Harlequin (without having an agent) before I began writing more mainstream ideas. Close Encounters is a romantic suspense.

I've also published with Odyssey Books, HarperCollins, St. Martin's press, Signet, Onyx. I've been listed on several regional best seller lists, Essence Magazine's BlackBoard list, and several on-line sites for best sellers. Significant Others was named among the top 25 romances of the century by amazon.com. Last year I was nominated for the NAACP Image Award in Fiction. The Color of Love has been optioned twice for film, once by HBO. I've written two film scripts, and have done an internship with ABC-TV for daytime soaps. I also have eight or ten unpublished children's books, written when I was in high school, and college.

I've published 20 novels, four novellas, and countless nonfiction articles on library management for trade newsletters or magazines, and on writing. For five years I've been teaching a continuing course at County College of Morris in New Jersey called "Introduction To Becoming A Published Author."

The covers of many of your books are so striking. With your background in graphic design, did you have any more input than the typical author, who has little to no input into the design of their covers? Why are so many of your covers so striking when so many romance covers are not?

I didn't have any say in what kind of covers were going to be designed for my books. that was totally up to the production department, even though they knew I have an extensive art background.

The covers for The Color of Love and Significant Others were very hard-edge and graphic. I love these covers because they are so different, and they stand out, and I have a lot of readers who feel the same. When you see them on the shelf among other books in a bookstore, they definitely stand out. That was the idea, to try to give me an individual look that stood out.

I think the cover for Between Friends is less successful, although the sales reps loved it because again, they said it stood out. Family Affairs (below, center) and Close Encounters (below, right) began to look a little romancie again. By this time the art staff had changed and they had their own ideas about the covers. I think Family Affairs is a gorgeous cover, but it does suggest just romance.

A couple of elements have remained the same on all the covers, and the readers have come to identify them with my books: the heroine has 'wiggly, colorful hair' to suggest that she's African American. There is a silhouetted New York City skyline somewhere on the cover. The figures are somewhat flat and a mere suggestion of a man and woman, with almost no details. I'd like to see the art staff up the ante a bit and go for a new graphic look without a man and woman in an embrace. I suggest ideas, but like all writers, no one pays any attention to our input, except that we do agree on trying to give my book covers a unique look each time.

Only once have I ever done my own cover. It was in 1993 for the now defunct Odyssey Books. It was for Love Everlasting, which was the last black romance published by Odyssey before the business folded. I designed a cover and painted it in watercolors.

Since you mentioned it, let's talk about romance covers in general - is the reason behind the clinch to easily identify it as a romance? I can see that, but on the other hand, while they stand out from other fiction, they don't stand out from each other all that much.

I think they serve the purpose of attracting the audience they are intended for...women readers. Therefore they are going to reflect what the reader expects to find between the covers. Part of the appeal is the visual manifestation of what the hero and heroine are going to look like.

Some publishers have tried different approaches; Jayne Ann Krentz for the last few books had covers that were very art deco and sort of architectural in design. Kristin Hannah, Nora Roberts, and Ann Maxwell have recently had covers that are very pastoral. Kensington for a while was using photographs of their couples for the Arabesque line. So clearly, everyone recognizes a need to do something different. It's just a lot harder than people realize to step away from the norm and come up with something truly fresh and unique. Of my twenty books there were about three or four that I truly hated...but it didn't affect my sales at all. So, while a cover may be seen as important to draw the reader's interest and to tease her/him, what's going to keep their attention is the story itself. It's the only thing the writer can control.

I once told an author, who was absolutely enraged by a cover she didn't like, that she needs to chose the battles she's going to go to the mat for. Authors all visualize their characters a very specific and personal way. And therein lies the rub. Every single reader is going to view the characters a different way. It's unavoidable, because we each bring to the process our backgrounds, preferences, bias, and idiosyncrasies. As I said, I've had covers which have made me groan. But the book sold, and that was the most important thing in the end. One way around the angst is to ask in the contract for cover art approval. But unless you're Nora Roberts, Steven King (you get the picture), good luck!

Can you tell us a little about those early titles, and what you learned about the art of writing when you wrote them?

My first nine books were written for Harlequin and the newly established American Romance Line. I think I was the 13th writer that was bought for the line. For me being part of that particular line turned out to be fortunate because the length and purpose of the line fit into what I was writing. Stories about American women in contemporary American society. My stories have always been very reality based, very emotional and character driven.

The things I learned with those early books was character development, and how character drives motivation, and motivation, action. In simple language, there has to be a reason why characters do what they do. The other thing I learned was pacing. How to provide just enough forward movement with the plot and character development in each chapter, to keep the readers wanting to know what happens next. My writing is very logical in that I don't put in anything just for the sake of putting it in...including sex. It is rare for me to have my main protagonist engage in intimacy in the first half of the book, simply because in my reality, it takes time for two people to get to know each other and to trust each other in the most personal of human interaction. This again speaks to pacing. I want to have established through character development that when a couple makes love, it makes sense in their relationship. That is was time. I enjoy the emotions of the characters, and I learned how to make them connect emotionally in the Harlequin books so that it's believable.

Since moving into writing single title fiction, what had to change in your writing, beyond the obvious length differences. I think I'm particularly interested in pacing - so many series titles are so dramatic, perhaps overly so, because so much has to fit into so few pages.

I think what changed is that I made the stories less linear. In a strict romance, either series or single title, the emphasis is on the development of the relationship between one man and one woman. They are together in one way or another in each chapter. I may have been among the first series writers to break that unspoken rule by deciding that it was ridiculous for the characters to be together that often, and that they needed time apart with other people to reflect on the feelings they were developing for that one person. Also, when I went to single title it was important for me to establish for the reader that each character had a life that was separate and individual from that emotional relationship developing. So they had jobs in which they actually worked in the pages! They had other relationships, whether it was family, friends, co-workers, whatever. This, by the way, is why my books, even the early series, were always peopled with diverse characters.

The world is not black and white, and I think it makes sense to recognize that in fiction. Again, the challenge was in being able to relate those other relationships or activities to the main story, so that those other scenes didn't feel tacked on. I also have always enjoyed the technique of using subplots, particularly in making them connect or entwine with the main plot. To me this gives a story depth, more interest, and more story. Just another point about pacing, especially since you mentioned some books being over dramatic (I hope I'm not guilty of that!), is to use humor whenever possible. I don't do the laughing out loud, belly laugh kind of thing. My humor is more in repartee between characters, ironic or unexpected things that happen, or in a character's reaction to things. I like using children in my books for this reason. You can always count of a kid to add comic relief because their view of the world is so limited and simplistic.

As you continue to write your single title books, what issues do you want to explore? How does the need for an HEA ending fit in, if it fits at all? And, what do you say to readers who often read fiction and crave a bit more "romance" - our reviewer enjoyed Family Affairs but thought it would have been even better had there been more of a resolution for David and Gayla at the end. We realize real life doesn't wrap things up in a nice bow, but for romance readers following romance authors into the mainstream, this is an issue of some importance.

I guess to some extent I'm a selfish writer, in that I want to write what I want to write! But I do keep in mind that the readers have certain expectations. My books are about relationships, not just love and romance between a hero and heroine. What motivates me is always trying to understand the complex nature of what brings people together, to either love or hate each other. I do believe in a "positive" and upbeat ending. I don't know if I'd term if a happy-ever-after ending. I like to at least give the reader an ending in which they can figure out for themselves that the main characters are going to continue to develop as a couple and make a life together. I don't particularly feel the need to paint in out that he asks her to marry him (or vice versa!).

When I wrote The Color of Love, the hero proposes to the heroine while he's in the hospital recovering from a gunshot wound. There was no question that they loved each other, but I didn't go any further than her responding tearfully with an enthusiastic yes. I thought it was better to let the reader's imagination carry the story on after the last page of the book. Although I have gotten dozens and dozens of requests for a sequel because everyone wants to know what happens next. Well, if I'd told them everything in The Color of Love, there would be no place to go with the characters. I will plead guilty to maybe not putting in enough "romance" for some readers, but I think that's okay. I don't know if I have to appeal to every romance reader, or just enough romance readers. I've actually only ever received one letter in which a reader said she wished I'd concentrated more on just the couple.

I recall Blythe Barnhill's review of Family Affairs, and I admit that the ending was subtle. I did establish that Gayla and David would eventually marry and form a family, but it was a kind of throw-away sentence or two, probably easily missed if someone was looking for a big moment between the two characters. I think I was much more explicit in the ending to my current book, Close Encounters, in which the main characters, Lee and Carol, actually discussed what they each wanted for their relationship for the future.

Where do your ideas come from? Do you see story first, or character? I interviewed Connie Brockway a while ago and she said her characters don't spring fully formed out of her head the way Zeus birthed Athena. Just a few weeks ago, Linda Howard shared with me the voices she hears and the scenes that play out like movies. Those are two ends of the spectrum. Where do you fit?

I get my ideas by paying attention to simple and ordinary things that complicate people's lives. I've never been a big fan personally of the books where the hero and heroine are always drop-dead gorgeous, and the live somewhat charmed lives with wealth, titles, great possessions and power. I feel that some of the most intersting stories are of people who just go about their business but who have these unexpected encounters, and moments which provide opportunities for heroism and personal growth. I do tend to explore a lot of social issues such as racism, identity, redefining family, love, friendship - in that sense I challenge my characters to adapt to change, to be less than perfect, to take risks. Some of my ideas come from topical news, like Close Encounters which is similar in premise to the Amadou Diallo case in New York. Family Affairs is fashioned very loosely on personal family history. Between Friends explores the issues of being biracial (something that is becoming prevalent in our society); Significant Others is about racial identity and the color complex within the black community where skin color is used to try to define a person. These can be considered serious subjects, I guess, but I always develop one strong love story as well. That's, as you say, what the readers are looking for.

I think I fall into the Linda Howard way of thinking about my books. I am very visually oriented, and I do see the scenes in my stories as if they were part of a film. In a way this makes it much easier to write, because I can see what's going on in my mind's eye. This, by the way, is one of the reasons reading is so pleasurable for me. I can see the scenes and characters in my head. On the other hand, when I'm actually thinking of what idea to do next, it mostly is the character that plays out the story that comes to me first. The details fo the story fall into place around the character(s). I don't start writing until I know how the book will open, and pretty much how I expect it to end. I will also have about five or six pivotal scenes where things are happening to helf establish or resolve the conflicts. After that I have to wait for the characters to tell me how it's all going to happen!

I think it must be very difficult for an author to balance light and dark elements in a book, to create a balanced tone - some books are unremitting in their despair or too frothy to count for much. As an author, how do you create balance? Given the toughness of the issues you tackle in your books, I think this is a particularly important question.

One of the things I've always believed, and which I learned early in my life, was that almost any situation can be dealt with if I remember to have a sense of humor, and try to see the other person's side. That's not to say I won't meet people who are completely intolerant, truculent or unreasonable. I can't do anything about the kind of person they are, but I can certainly manage my own behavior and outlook; I am responsible for my own person. This is what I remember when I'm writing a book. I may be writing about a difficult subject (racism, dysfunctional families, abandoned or neglected children, abuse, etc.), but I always remember that I want the reader to come away with hope at the end. That no matter how bad things may have seemed at the beginning of the book and toward the middle, the ending was going to promise something positive.

My current novel, Close Encounters, is about a black woman who is shot and wounded by police, and her pet dog is killed. Given the terrible relationship in this country between minorities and law enforcement, the premise could have been a box I could never write myself out of! What I did was to take a path of conciliation, hope and forgiveness. Humor was provided by the relationship between the heroine and her older brother, and the camaraderie between the police officers at their precinct. There were also moments between the hero and heroine when the only thing to do about a situation which seemed impossible was to joke about it. It may seem insensitive, but humor is a great equalizer.

Also, I don't let any of the important main characters take themselves too seriously. They are heroes and heroines, only because they can admit to having frailties and shortcomings, and finding good ways of compensating and growing beyond them. They're not perfect, and both they and the reader should know that. I don't particularly like frothy novels because I'm not very patience with characters who have no substance, or challenges to overcome.

Anyone who writes books seems to be as much of a reader as they are a writer. Can you share some of your own "bookie" experiences with us? And, what was the first book you ever fell in love with?

I've been voracious reader since about age six or seven, so it's hard to say which was my first favorite book. There are a few which stick in my mind, probably because the stories were so visual to me. Pippie Longstocking was one, Peter Pan another. I remember reading a poem called "Babes in the Woods" when I was about nine or ten, which has left a life-long impression because it was about two children who get lost in the forest and eventually die! The poem never uses the word die, of course, but it made it very clear that the children were there forever. I didn't particular like stories about animals that talked, because I knew they couldn't. Not that I didn't have imagination, but those kinds of stories simply had no appeal (you can imagine how I felt about the old 60's TV show, Mr. Ed). My only exception was Disney's Lady And The Tramp. I was fascinated by Grimm's Fairy Tales, but the stories were always rather dark and violent!

The books I began reading as a adolescent left more of an impression over all. I discovered Elizabeth Sheffield (nurse stories), Mary Stuart, and Victoria Holt. I read everything I could get my hands on by these authors. This was when I was starting to recognize and be interested in the relationship between men and woman, and which probably helped to form my ideas of what kind of relationship I wanted for myself. For suspense I enjoyed Helen MacInnes. The only male authors I was reading was Isaac Asimov (whom much later as a librarian I would become friends with, and illustrate two of his books!). And there were only black literary writers widely available, like James Baldwin, Richard Write, Nora Zeal Hurston, etc.

I discovered Georgette Heyer in high school and just adored her books. Again, I not only read everything she wrote, I kept my copies! I loved the details of the Edwardian and Regency era in her books, and her terrific sense of humor. My first big romance novelist stars were Kathleen Woodiwiss, Robyn Carr, and Janet Daily (I think her Harlequin books were her best). I eventually found Linda Howard, who remains a favorite, and one of my favorite book was written by Ginna Gray (Golden Illusion). There is also Maura Sager (sic) who only wrote three or four books, but they were spectacular (i.e. Moment to Moment).

What do you like to read today? Please share some titles and authors of the books you liked best this past year or so.

I'm a fan of Kathleen Eagle, Tess Gerritson, black authors Chassie West (mysteries), Valerie Wilson-Wesley, Elizabeth Berg ...but I've left out a lot of other writers who I also enjoy.

Earlier you told us about your professional history. Can you share some details about your personal life? Explain how you ended up collaborating with Isaac Asimov!

I was born and raised in New York City, and currently live in a rather lovely area of the city called Riverdale, in the borough of the Bronx. I graduated from the Music & Art High School and got my undergraduate and master's degrees in fine arts at the City University of New York.

I've worked in advertising, free-lanced as a graphic designer, have exhibited my work around the country, and I'm included in one museum, and a few corporate collections. I'm a librarian in astronomy & astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, which is where I met Isaac Asimov. He used to research there and was on the Planetarium Science council. In 1986 when he was writing a book on the return of Halley's Comet, I was suggested as an illustrator. He was a lovely man, very smart and very funny. He had a beautiful baritone singing voice! He died about ten years ago, but I'm still good friends with his widow, who is also a writer. I also was acquainted with Carl Sagan before he died a few years ago.

I love to travel (I've been to China, Japan, all over the US, New Foundland, and I hitched-hiked across Canada when I was 21, from Montreal to Vancouver, also visited the former Soviet Union on a library exchange), I love to watch movies, read (of course), entertain; my favorite 'sport' is swimming. I also meditate and I'm looking for a good class in yoga to take. I've had to give up some other hobbies for lack of time: quilting, silver-smithing, pottery, photography, bookbinding. You can see I'm very interested in the creative arts, and love making things with my hands. I love to cook.

I'm divorced, with no children (although I'm a terrific aunt to all my friend's kids); currently no pets, but I'd love to get a cat.

Things I've always wanted to do but haven't so far: get a private pilot's license, learn to speak fluent French, get certified in SCUBA (I just need to take the open water dive).

What's up next for you professionally?

Right now I'm revising my 21st novel, and will soon sit down and flesh out my next two proposals. But I also have about five or six ideas for which I've at least made notes. I'm looking at another TV opportunity to do scripts, and I'd like to make submissions of some or all of the children's stories I've written. I'm working with a new agent, and we're exploring some other possibilities. But rest assured that no matter what, writing strong emotional stories will be at the center.

--Laurie Likes Books

 




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