Thursday, April 7, 2011

Meet Persia Walker

ROSEMARY: Last night I had the pleasure of helping Persia Walker celebrate the publication of her new book, Black Orchid Blues. I've already read it and couldn't agree more with Publishers Weekly's assessment that it's "Exuberant ... a dark, sexy novel."

I asked Persia to tell us how she came to write the novel and how she would describe what she calls The Harlem Renaissance: Not All Jazz & Gimlets.

PERSIA: The end of the Cold War found me living in Munich, Germany. I was a news writer for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Then RFE/RL shut its doors in Munich and moved to Prague. In doing so, it laid off most of its staff, including yours truly. I found myself at home with my small daughter. For the first time in my life, I had time — time to fulfill a dream, to write a novel. I'd been living in Europe for more than a decade by then. I still visited home, but I felt a bit out of touch with everything that was going on. I actually felt more in touch with the past. So I decided to set my story, in the past. And I decided on a character who shared one important characteristic with me -- that this person was living far away from home.

Having met so many stateless people at RFE/RL, I decided my main character would be a man who lived in exile, but within his own country. Always fascinated by the 1920s, I set my story amid the Harlem Renaissance. Just mentioning the era calls to mind images of elegance and beauty, of sexy gangsters and jazz clubs thick with smoke. This was a time when downtown went uptown to shake it out. As David Levering-Lewis put it, “Harlem Was in Vogue.”

But there’s more to the Harlem Renaissance than just jazz and gimlets. It represented an incredible mix of brutality and tenderness, of ignorance and enlightenment. I decided I wanted to explore different aspects of the period. I would write a tale that would delve beneath the surface, that would reflect the hopes and fears of the times, yet echo with modern readers. But I was in southern Germany. How would I find materials on 1920s Harlem? Most of my research then, as now, was done online. I ordered copies of essays, letters and short stories, as well as novels and memoirs by Harlem Renaissance figures. I spent hours on the Internet researching minute details about daily life. I also digested books by modern scholars, but it was the works of those who had actually "been there" that captivated me.

The result was HARLEM REDUX, a novel Simon & Schuster and Random House vied to acquire. I’ve since written two more novels set during the Harlem Renaissance. Each book has a distinct focus. To some degree, all are about love and betrayal. But each also explores a greater theme. HARLEM REDUX, for example, is about a poor woman’s love for a wealthy man, a man she has loved all her life. On a greater scale, it explores the tensions between light-skinned and darker-skinned blacks. On one level, the first Lanie Price book, DARKNESS AND THE DEVIL BEHIND ME, is about the disappearance of a pianist on a storm-swept night and subsequent burglary of her rich patron’s home. On a larger note, its about the era’s relationships between white patrons and black artists, about power and manipulation.

My newest book, BLACK ORCHID BLUES, concerns the vicious kidnapping of a beautiful transvestite with a very dark past. As part of that, it plunges the reader into the world of gay Harlem, and along the way explores the destructive power of dysfunctional love among families.

BLACK ORCHID BLUES is the second in the Lanie Price mystery series. Lanie is a former crime reporter turned society columnist. She’s sort of a 1920s black female version of Dominic Dunne. Lanie is smart and sexy, strong and compassionate. She’s also brave, but since she’s had her heart broken by death, she’s not so brave when it comes to love. Actually, she’s downright skittish when it comes to loving the new man in her life, her boss, Sam Delaney. Meanwhile, her curiosity about human nature often prompts her to take dangerous risks, much to Sam’s dismay.

For me, the greatest mystery is the human mind, so my stories tend to be complicated. The key clues tend to be psychological, and the solutions are often less the result of logical deduction than intuitive insight. Lanie is like me, in that sense. She isn’t the most logical person, but she is very intuitive. She makes connections based on her understanding of human nature and most of the time gets it right. Of course, she gets herself into a whole lot of trouble in the meantime, but that’s where the fun is at.

My books are not meant to be taken as history lessons, just as tours of interesting places. I like to think of myself, not as an author per se, but as a storyteller. And when I sit down to write, I pretend I’m with my best friend. “Just rest, sit down and be quiet a while,” I’ll say. “And let me tell you what I heard.” That’s always the beginning, the jumping off point. From there, I slip into the world of my characters, of Lanie and the Black Orchid, and the reader and I, we’re both off for what I hope will be a roller-coaster ride of fun-filled adventure.

ROSEMARY: And what a ride it is! Visit Persia at on Facebook and on Twitter.


  1. Persia, I can't believe I haven't picked up your books yet, because you hit on so many things I love as a reader--the historic setting, and the psychological underpinnings behind human behavior and cultural experience. I have an academic background in history (my emphasis was WWI Britain) and am working on a novel set in that period. But I also love the 20s in the US, since it's such a decade of contrasts--the rich and glamorous lifestyles against some very major cultural crises (such as the public perception of differences between cultures and "races," one that often informed people's opinions on politics and even science). I love that you're grappling with those issues in your novels, and you can bet I'll be picking up the first Lanie book as soon as I can!

    I have to add that I love the distinction you make between storytelling as opposed to the broad term "author." I may try adopting that moniker during those times when I get bogged down with being totally historically accurate, to the detriment of the story itself (it's hard to restrain that part of my graduate training, even for the sake of the plot and/or character development). For what it's worth, I once had a creative writing instructor (a former Stegner fellow named Adam Johnson) make the most awesome comment about writing historical fiction: "Writers of historical fiction must take care not to lash themselves to the mast of fact." Very sound advice. I'm adding yours to that list.

  2. Persia, this sounds..completely wonderful. COngratulations!

  3. I enjoyed reading DARKNESS AND THE DEVIL BEHIND ME.

    You can almost hear rumbly jazz playing in the background as Lanie stirs up trouble and saves the day.

  4. Wow, Rhonda, that's a great comment!

  5. Hi Rebecca,

    Thanks for your lovely comment. I really enjoy research but always risk getting too absorbed by it. The storytelling approach really does help me keep in mind what's most important -- the story. Thanks for mentioning Adam Johnson's comment. I'll also now take it to heart.