She hasn’t looked back since.
Now the author of two novels and a core member of a writers group featured in O Magazine, Luckett is an inspiration for those wondering about the possibilities of their lives. “I’ve finally begun to understand that it doesn’t matter how long it takes to get around to fulfilling your dream,” she writes in a blog post discussing her love of Paris and writing, “just as long as we have them and try our best to fulfill them.”
Both of Luckett’s novels – Searching for Tina Turner and this year’s Passing Love – center on women seeking a change. I think you’ll agree that Luckett proves it’s never too late to chase what you want – and that it’s the journey that counts.
Thanks so much to Jackie for coming on the blog today.
Your protagonist, Nicole, dreamed about Paris since the time she was a little girl, yet doesn’t make it to the city until she’s in her mid-50s. For you, what is it about Paris that inspires people to dream? And why were you drawn to set the novel here?
I’ve been in love with Paris for a long time, yet I never pushed myself to visit. I wasn’t adventurous in my twenties and I kept waiting for someone to go with me. That’s partly the basis for Nicole’s failure to fulfill her promise. But she served the old adage—“Better late than never”—quite well.
My mother told me after reading Passing Love, that she always thought I was a natural dreamer and drama queen. Though I’ve never thought of myself that way, Paris inspires me to express what my mother seems to have known all along. Why not?! I love the anonymity I have when I’m in Paris. No one cares what I do, what I wear, or what I look like, and I feel a freedom that’s different from when I’m at home in California.
For Americans, particularly those of us on the West Coast, Paris with its old buildings, its streets cobbled with stones that have been there for decades, if not centuries, is very different from where we live. Sure, there are old buildings in the United States, but in California they don’t date much before the 19th Century. So we’re in awe of what we see in Paris. Movies, books and photographs have fed our curiosity and set our expectations about Paris. So much so that I think we go there prepared to do and be different from our everyday selves.
We gawk at the towering peaks of Notre Dame and wonder about The Hunchback. If it’s raining, we conjure up Gene Kelly dancing in the rain. Or Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier playing jazz in Paris nightclubs. We let our imaginations run free as we wander about the city admiring the fashions, eating the food, listening to French and wishing we’d paid more attention to our high school French teachers.
Because Paris is so culturally different than U.S. cities, it spurs new thoughts and behaviors. It sparks our imaginations because our senses are constantly presented with new images, sounds, and smells: rose petals scattered on a florist’s floor, an afternoon of people-watching and sipping espresso at an outdoor café—especially if it’s a café as well-known as Café Aux Deux Magots. There we imagine what life must have been like for the American authors who sat in those caned chairs writing novels and poetry.
In Passing Love, I wanted to write a story about women who challenged themselves to step beyond ordinary. Sure, this could have happened in any other city. Truthfully, because of my affection for (and emotional connection to) Paris, it was the logical place for my characters to be.
The African-American experience in Paris, particularly the jazz scene, plays a large role in your novel. Can you talk about what that history means to you and what kind of research you might have done to in order to evoke that period of time?
My father was stationed in France during World War II. I know my fascination with that country began in his stories. I’m not sure if my father ever visited Paris, and he’s not around anymore for me to ask. He used to tell me how the French didn’t show the same discrimination he’d experienced in Mississippi or in the Army. He said that French women weren’t afraid to be around Negro soldiers and he spoke fondly of the hospitality and kindnesses of the French.
It turned out to be quite a pleasant surprise when I learned more of the deeper connection between Paris and African Americans. The history, along with the stories my father once told me, and the kind of characters I wanted to write about, all came together like the pieces of a puzzle.
Starting probably before, for sure in the twenties, France was known as a place where African Americans could experience a freedom from Jim Crow laws and the prejudice prevalent in the United States, particularly in the South. That’s why so many icons of music, art and literature ended up in Paris. I mention several in Passing Love to link fiction and reality. The City of Light was the natural place for my characters, Ruby and Arnett, to escape to and the perfect place for Nicole to come alive.
Once they discovered it Parisians, musicians and everyday people, loved jazz. I started out using the Internet to find connections. I found photographs, articles, musicians like Boris Vian who became integral to its popularity and development. I researched books and magazines in the library, lists of books on the Internet. Each book I read referred me to another book, person, or story. I read James Baldwin’s essays (Notes of a Native Son) to get a sense of living in Paris in the 50s—the economy, the weather, the struggle for artists. I read old travel essays, food essays, and books about Paris. I wanted readers to feel what it was like for someone who’d never traveled outside the South to see Paris for the first time and to get a sense of the contrast between what Nicole and Ruby expected and encountered.
Before settling in to write Passing Love I spent a month in Paris. I put together pictures and story ideas, and tried to get comfortable and lost there. I took tours of the city with the specific goal of finding out what the jazz scene was like in the 50s. I visited the Casino Royale and the site of the old Haynes’ Restaurant. I walked around Little Africa, the streets of the 6th arrondissement and Montmartre to get a feel for those areas of the city.
I listed several tours and books at the end of Passing Love in hopes they would provide resources for readers were interested in doing research on their own.
I’ve read in other interviews with you that you started writing on a dare. That dare has turned into 2 novels! Can you describe your journey from beginner to published author?
It’s truly a blessing to have discovered my passion and to be able to live the writing life.
I don’t have an MFA and my BA is in Sociology. I set out when I first returned to writing after many years (I was a great storyteller as a child) by enrolling in classes at the local university and participating in writing workshops.
Once I believed my story was ready, I researched, then approached those who represented work similar to mine. It took several inquiries before I found an agent. Once I did, he sold my first novel, Searching for Tina Turner. That novel, and an unnamed second (which turned out to be Passing Love), was accepted by Grand Central Publishing (Hachette).
The journey wasn’t easy, but I loved (still do) every minute of it. I was anxious to have my work published. I put my eagerness aside took my time to learn craft and to revise until my manuscripts were telling the story I wanted to tell.
Passing Love weaves together two narrative threads – Nicole in the present and Ruby in the 1950s and how their lives interconnect. How do you approach the plot and structure of your novels? Do you outline? Do you know the full story going in or do you discover it along the way? I always love hearing about each writer’s process!
With both novels, I outlined after writing a messy first draft.
In Searching for Tina Turner, I had an idea of where the story would begin and end. The challenge was the middle—how the character Lena went from sad and undirected to content and focused and what that meant to her.
Searching for Tina Turner is a straightforward story: a woman who’s torn between her family and her desire to follow her dreams leaves her cashmere cocoon. The outline helped me with character development more than plot.
I knew the basic story of Passing Love and I knew that there were secrets. My process was completely different.
I outlined Passing Love for plot, character and story. It was important that what was learned by Nicole was never in front of what Ruby knew. In other words, I couldn’t let Nicole reveal the secret she discovers after Ruby’s story had already described her life.
As a new writer, I knew the process was complicated, but necessary. I used oversized post-its, made charts, and drew timelines to keep track of both stories. The outlines helped me understand what scenes needed to be added to both stories.
I love discovering who my characters are and what they want. That usually doesn’t happen until after my second, or maybe third, draft when I begin to let go of control and allow my characters to do what they want to do. I’ve been surprised, shocked, and saddened by the characters in both of my novels. I think that Ruby (Passing Love) probably shocked me more than any of my characters. She’s bold and does what she believes suits her best, sometimes at the expense of others. She didn’t start out that way, but that’s who she showed herself to be.
In your acknowledgements you thank members of “the Finish Party” (great name!) How important to your work is it to have a critique group or a community of writers? Why do you think it’s important?
In 2005, I started a writing group along with seven other women. (We were featured in O Magazine November 2007.) We call ourselves The Finish Party. because our goal is to help each other, through all barriers, real or intellectual, that prevent us from finishing our work-in-progress. Several of writers have been successfully published. The group was, and continues to be, a source of inspiration and information. These women are friends, and tough, loving critics. It was because of them that I stuck (and stick) to writing.
Writing is a lonely job. Even when a writer is in a crowded room, telling the story, writing the story the effort is a solitary one. It’s important for me, and there are writers who agree, to have a sounding board, a community, for your work and your ideas. I connect with a few other writers outside of the group to simply have the chance to be a “geek” and discuss about ideas, the recognition (or lack of it), the things to love or can’t stand about writing and the publishing world. It helps to know that I’m not alone.
I always suggest, when asked, that writers find or form writing groups. I encourage writers to test and interview, sort of like when you’re in love, before giving your heart away. A writer has to find her “group groove” with personalities, styles, interests, and levels of skill. But once the right one comes along and there’s a good fit, it can be helpful and inspirational.
Any advice for aspiring writers? (How about on the craft level, but also on the business side? Publishing is changing so fast!)
Take your time.
Write what you want, not what you think publishers are looking for.
I wish we could all be JK Rowlings, but that’s highly improbable. Love what you’re doing for the sake of the words and the art, because there’s no guarantee of money, success, or notoriety.
I’ve started my third novel that will take place in California in the mid-sixties. That’s all I’ll share for now. I’d love to stick to Paris and maybe I’ll find another story that feels right for that place in the near future.
I’m also working on a couple of ideas for plays.
Anything that involves writing.
And, of course, another trip to Paris!