Eric Jerome Dickey on Writing Black Best-Sellers

Novelist Eric Jerome Dickey i i

Novelist Eric Jerome Dickey Curtis Wilson hide caption

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Novelist Eric Jerome Dickey

Novelist Eric Jerome Dickey

Curtis Wilson

Novelist Eric Jerome Dickey's mix of black romance and intrigue has made him one of the most-read African American writers in the U.S. He talks to Farai Chideya about his latest thriller, Sleeping With Strangers, and how to satisfy readers' expectations and still keep them guessing.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Best-selling author Eric Jerome Dickey's latest novel will get your blood racing. "Sleeping with Strangers" takes readers on a sexy, violent ride through the U.S. and Europe with a man called Gideon. Gideon is a hit man running from police, a murderous past, and a broken heart. Dickey recently explained why he wanted to create a heroic bad boy.

Mr. ERIC JEROME DICKEY (Author, "Sleeping with Strangers"): A lot of other writers of characters who are hitmen, you know, so for me it was just an extension of trying to find a different character based on what I've done before. You know, I've done con man. I've done grifters. I've done engineers. I I've done stand-up comics. And so for me, Gideon was just this perfect character for this particular type of story that I was craving to do. How much of Gideon do you want, you know.

CHIDEYA: Well, Gideon, I have to say it's one these things where I'm the kind of person who will watch some violent movies kind of through my fingers. And I was like - I was kind of reading through my fingers, I was like, eww, oh. Why did you turn in a direction that was more physical, more...

Mr. DICKEY: I've done physical before. I've done...

CHIDEYA: But this is really...

Mr. DICKEY: Yeah. And I know - but it's - you know, I think when it comes to writing, people say sex and violence are the two hardest things to write. And I don't shy away from either one of them. I've written violent scenes in "Liar's Game" and "Thieves' Paradise" and "Drive Me Crazy." So for me it's still an extension of that. You know, Gideon is a hit man. He's a little more extreme than other characters who've been in different types of fights in other novels.

You know, in the few hits that are there in the book, it's like each time he almost loses as his life. So in some ways for me, even though it's really dramatic, there are these moments where it's just funny because something always goes wrong. There's always this oops, this oops kind of moment. And then things happen to turn back in his favor again.

CHIDEYA: Yeah. There's a lot of it that's funny or at least has kind of a wry sense of humor, like...

Mr. DICKEY: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: ...when you're showing this Atlanta club scene.

Mr. DICKEY: Oh, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: ...and it's just like - you can just - at least for me, I was like, yeah, yeah, that's kind of what you see.

Mr. DICKEY: Well, you know what, because I just...

CHIDEYA: You probably had way too much fun writing it.

Mr. DICKEY: Well, you know, it's funny because, like, that's a real place in Atlanta that serves hot wings. And I'd gone in and out of there like several times and just thought, you know, this would be a great place to write a scene. You know, Gideon coming here to talk over a hit. You know, and you've got that hip-hop underground rap culture, hot wings and beers and...

CHIDEYA: Half naked women.

Mr. DICKEY: Half naked women following the hip-hop culture.

CHIDEYA: What's your job? And what I mean by that is that one of the folks here who comes to NPR to give us coaching on what we do...

Mr. DICKEY: Right.

CHIDEYA: ...he told the story about some news director who said to a reporter, what's your job? And the answer was: to give people something to talk about at dinner, and if they don't talk about anything, that you didn't reach them. You didn't put anything in their brain.

Mr. DICKEY: Right.

CHIDEYA: So on that level, yes, you're a writer.

Mr. DICKEY: Right.

CHIDEYA: But what is your job? What do you try to give to your readers?

Mr. DICKEY: For me, it's always a good story. I mean I'm always trying to write a good story. When I'm writing I'm always trying to write these twists and turns that, as you're reading the book, you get to - it's called these oh-no-he-didn't or no-she-didn't or no-that-didn't-happen moment where, you know, you want to call your friend and say, are you on page 40? Get to page 40. You know, it can be some super twist or it can be some great erotic scene where you go, girl, did you get to page - get to page 100 and call me back. You know what I mean? And that's kind of like...

CHIDEYA: You specialize in that, too.

Mr. DICKEY: I love erotica. I love writing erotic scenes. It really exposes the individual. And when I'm writing, I'm not writing just purely for the sake of erotica. There's something - you learn something about the characters through that interaction. You know what I mean?

For me, when I'm writing it, you know. And like I said, sex and violence are two of the hardest things to write and I think people don't think that there's any craftsmanship behind, you know, writing those sex scenes of a novel.

CHIDEYA: We had a very interesting exchange on here, on our show, about the nature of black literature.

Mr. DICKEY: Okay.

CHIDEYA: You know, street lit versus...

Mr. DICKEY: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: ...lit lit, or however you would want to describe it. And it got kind of heated. It got kind of heated. And so one of the things that came up, of course, was - I mean basically sex and violence.

Mr. DICKEY: Right.

CHIDEYA: And is, for lack of a better word, highbrow black literature being overtaken by people who can put together a perfunctory sex scene and perfunctory shooting? And why aren't more people reading the classics? And how do you fall on that debate?

Mr. DICKEY: You know, I don't know. I mean, because I haven't read any street lit. I mean, a lot of people will ask me about street lit. Now, granted, I've picked up a couple of books and I flipped through a couple of pages and the writing was nothing that made me want to reach in my wallet.

My thing has always just been across the board. You know, understand the craft, learn how to write. That's just it, because you have so many people now who have books out. I mean, I can't tell you the number of writers I've met. And I do mean "writers" - and that's in quotes, you know - who have never had a class, who have never read a book on writing, don't know the difference between dialogue and narrative, and yet they have a book on sale. I mean, honestly.

CHIDEYA: And some of them can sell it, too.

Mr. DICKEY: Yeah, it is. I mean, there's a difference between being a writer and a being a salesman.

CHIDEYA: Yeah. And yet at the same time when we had this debate over street lit versus high lit, one of our guests was saying, look, my sales speak for themselves. And as you said, some people are good salespeople.

Mr. DICKEY: Yeah. You're right on that.

CHIDEYA: So, let me...

Mr. DICKEY: But at the same time, who's the end user? Who are buying their books? I mean, you know, you go to the thing and look at the audience. I mean, is it full of people with Ph.D.s, college educated, or not. You know, who's buying the books.

CHIDEYA: Yeah, but if you have 20 bucks, does it matter to the author?

Mr. DICKEY: Well, you've got to remember there's a lot of a street literature - it's the paperback genre. You know, because I think when Sister Souljah did her wonderful book that really exploded...

CHIDEYA: "The Coldest Winter."

Mr. DICKEY: "The Coldest Winter," you know, which really exploded. But what it is is you get a lot of people come in - even, say, Terry McMillan and others - people come in and they try to duplicate something. They don't have an original idea. They try to duplicate something that worked without really understanding why it worked.

CHIDEYA: Is there any truth to the rumor that you may stop writing?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DICKEY: No, there's no truth to that.

CHIDEYA: Apparently, you were quoted in Black Voices - oh, it's the black British paper, the Voice: "There may come a point in my life, and it's getting close, when it's time for me to move on and do something different...

Mr. DICKEY: Ah. Yeah.

CHIDEYA: ... that means I might get away from the novel world."

Mr. DICKEY: Well, yeah. You know, I love storytelling. It may not always be in the form of novels. You know, I love what I'm doing right now, but I always give myself permission to evolve and grow in something else. And if it ever comes to a point when this is no longer fun and I'm not loving it, I'm not going to beat myself up and continue doing it.

CHIDEYA: Well, Eric Jerome Dickey, thanks again.

Mr. DICKEY: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Eric Jerome Dickey's latest novel is called "Sleeping with Strangers." The sequel, "Waking with Enemies," hits stores in August.

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