Interviews

An Interview with Natalie Baszile: Writing Queen Sugar and More

Queen Sugar by Natalie Baszile/Photo of author Natalie Baszile via nataliebaszile.com

In 2014, Natalie Baszile — the renowned author whose first novel Queen Sugar quickly became one of television’s most revolutionary series — wrote the following: “Writing will turn out to be the most challenging thing I’ve ever done besides raising my children. I will experience pendulum swings of exhilaration and crushing self-doubt. But I don’t know any of that yet. Bumping over the railroad tracks, all I know is that I’ve leaped off the cliff. I’m terrified, but I can’t stop smiling.” Nearly five years later, Baszile’s unblinkingly honest and vivid portrait of family, legacy, and love is as necessary as it was the day it debuted. The series, brought to life with the help of the legendary Melissa Carter, Ava DuVernay, and Oprah Winfrey, Queen Sugar’s on-screen adaptation has captivated millions of viewers via the same arresting complexity and heart that drew readers to the pages of its literary predecessor. Whether on the page or as a series, Baszile’s narratives feel deeply personal yet universal in an unshakeable and bone-deep way. The worlds that she creates are more than stories. They’re mirrors reminding us who we really are, where we came from, and where we’re headed.

In celebration of the end of “Queen Sugar”’s third season and in anticipation of its fourth, we spoke with Baszile about what the evolution of her novel has taught her, why storytelling and art is a refuge, how she battles self-doubt, and why books that endure are so vital.

SIGNATURE: In the final paragraph of an essay that you published in the 2014 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine, you describe writing as a challenging yet euphoric uncertainty. Has Queen Sugar‘s evolution, as a novel and as a series, changed your emotional relationship to storytelling and craft?

NATALIE BASZILE: First of all, I think that I am even more committed to being honest. I think that the beauty of storytelling — the moment that it’s most magical — is when the reader or the viewer recognizes something in the work that is undeniably true. That happens to me when I read books, and it’s not in every book, but there are books that I’ve come across where every time I read them — it doesn’t matter if I read them two times, five times, or thirteen times — every time I read them, I get a feeling. I have an emotional response because there is something in the work that I recognize from my own experience. That to me is the power of storytelling. It’s when you as the author, or you as the writer of the series, or the director can track the arc of human emotion, the small turns of human emotion, and you can feel that and you can convey that to the reader or to the viewer. There’s no underestimating how difficult that is. It requires a level of vulnerability and keen observation and patience. It’s what I admire in a handful of books that I’ve read and it’s what I admire in in the [Queen Sugar] series, where I feel that truth and that’s just undeniable. That’s what I love about storytelling. It’s what I love about film and art in general. It’s that moment of undeniable truth and it is what I live for as a writer.

The challenge for me in writing and storytelling is to be patient enough and observant enough and open enough to convey those moments of truth on the page, and again, it sounds like it’s easy to do but it’s not. It’s not easy. But it is what makes writing for me, what makes storytelling for me, so deeply satisfying. Because when I do it, I get that reaction from my reader. It’s very similar to the way chefs say that they put themselves and love into their food, and they know that they’ve done it right when they see a certain type of reaction on a diners’ face, when they are able to deliver that experience. That’s what I’m trying to do with books and other projects. To deliver that kind of reaction.

Some of it is instinctive and some if it is craft. You have to understand how stories work. You have to understand how to create a character with depth and dimension and complexity, because that’s what the reader is looking for, and it take a long time to do that. You really have to be an apprentice to the craft. You have to be patient enough to put your ego aside, and your desire to get your story out there, and just study and be a student. It’s all about mastery. I’m not there yet, but I think that’s what we’re all striving for and I don’t think it matters whether you’re a novelist or a short story writer or a writer or director. Our job is to build the world. It has to be seamless, and it takes time to understand how to do that. So when you talk about craft, you have to surrender, and you have to be a student of the craft to figure out how it all fits together so that you can take the idea that you have in your head and translate it so that people can feel what you’re feeling. That’s the challenge.

SIG: Your novel and its on-screen adaptation has given so many readers and viewers solace. How has the success of your novel helped you when you’re feeling stuck with a new project or even just a paragraph? Do you still experience moments of self-doubt or frustration when faced with the actual blank page? How do you grapple with creating something new?

NB: I’m actually in the midst of writing a new book and have experienced more anguish and self-doubt with this book than I experienced while writing Queen Sugar. When I sat down to write Queen Sugar, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I had an idea for a story and I had no real expectations except for the remote hope that one day I would publish it. There were two moments of doubt. First was when I started to send the book around, the first time that I thought it was finished, which was after 10 years of writing it. I got rejections from agents and that was devastating because I knew that the book wasn’t perfect, but I did believe in my heart that there was  a nugget of something there that would resonate with readers if I could just find them. The devastating thing that we all experience when we start to send our work out is that the world doesn’t necessarily understand what we’re trying to do or what we’re trying to say.

Queen Sugar came out on the front edge of this new renaissance of Black literature and film so it’s not like publishers were really looking for these quieter stories about Black people, so that was the second hurdle. I was trying to say something about a wider range of the Black experience than what we’re used to seeing, but I didn’t know if anyone would get it; I didn’t know if what I thought was so important would be important to other people. So the self-doubt that I felt most of the time was about how my beliefs and my experience of being a Black person squared up with what the world of publishing wanted to see. That was my doubt and I had bouts many times along the way, certainly during those last eighteen months between that first round of rejections and when I did two major revisions and sent the book back out. Of course, I had doubts about how I was going to craft the book so that what I imagined in my head would be on the page. I have a dear friend in NYC who’s also a writer and sometimes I would call her and say, “How am I going to pull this off, maybe I’ve bitten off more than I can chew,” and she would say, “Natalie, you thought of it. Who else is going to write this book? It’s your idea, so give yourself the space and time to write it.”

To answer your question more directly, that is the lesson I carry with me now. It’s when I find myself saying, “OMG, how am I going to write this new book, where do I start, what’s the voice, what’s the tone, how am I going to figure out how to enter this book,” the only thing I think I know, and that I tell myself, is just trust your instincts. Trust your instincts and know when to step away. There are times when I’m at the desk and I’m gutting it out and literally trying to force the words onto the page and the only thing I know now is that sometimes the best thing for me to do is not force it, to get up from the desk and read something else to allow my mind to work the way it needs to work. Sometimes that’s the only thing I know. While writing this new book, the first nine months I put so much pressure on myself, telling myself that I should know what I’m doing, I should be able to answer this set of questions up front rather than in draft ten, I should have the answers to these questions in draft one. I put so much pressure on myself that I ended up not being able to write anything.

It wasn’t a matter of having writer’s block because I didn’t have any ideas, but a matter of the expectation that as a writer I should know more, when the truth is every book is different. And I’ve read writers who’ve said that, but I didn’t quite get that, and so I got to the point where I had to take all the pressure off myself. You have revision. That whole process of crafting and carving and sculpting is to make it what you see in your mind, but you cannot go into this process with the weight of all of that expectation on your shoulders. Otherwise it’s too much pressure. I wasn’t even thinking to myself that book two has to do what Queen Sugar does. I’m not even there yet, but it’s my own expectation about making the story rich and making the characters complex and multidimensional and nuanced. It’s about figuring out: how does this story sound? How does the narrator sound? All of those things take time to figure out and I’ve had to remind myself that this is a process.

Every time I sit down, every revision, I learn something new. I’m paying attention to something new. And I have to remind myself of this every day. That’s the struggle. Every time you go back to the work, you have a little more clarity about what you’re trying to do. You have a little bit more experience. You know what you’re trying to say just a little bit more and so you bring a different awareness and a different intention every time you do a revision.

The same friend I mentioned earlier also used to say, “Natalie, when a surgeon operates on a body, they don’t operate on the whole body at once. They cover most of the body with a sheet and they have one patch of skin that is open and that is where they focus their attention,” and that’s what you have to do with a story, a novel, or a memoir. You’re carrying this whole universe around in your head and if you try to think of the whole universe at once it’s too much. Sometimes the only thing you can do is focus on that little patch of skin, that little section of a chapter. Sometimes it’s even just a paragraph. And if you think about it that way, it allows us to get through, because that patch of skin connects to the next patch and the next, and then it’s manageable.

SIG: The epigraph for Queen Sugar comes from a quote by the photographer Anne Wilkes Tucker. It reads: “I have a field on my mind that needs plowing.” Can you talk a bit about what that quote means to you now? Does it connect to the series for you in any way, or your hopes for the future?

NB: I just love that quote. To me it captures everything about the series and the book but also what it means to be a writer. Our minds are always working. It’s that idea of having a vision of what you’re trying to say and how you want this thing that you are writing and creating to connect and impact your audience. It’s always with you. For me, that’s the beauty of being a creative person. I will never retire, I will never run out of things to think about or contemplate. I’ll always be engaged in some kind of conversation with ideas about life and people and what’s beautiful and what gives this life meaning, and it’s a tremendous sense of satisfaction for me. I’ll always have some conversation that I’m engaged with, some idea that I’m trying to work out. It’s just aspirational to me, you know? That’s what I love about it, in addition to the literal for Queen Sugar. I carry that place and that story and that world with me all of the time. I’m always revisiting it and I’m always plowing it. It’s a literal thing but also this bigger statement about creativity.

SIG: One of the most stunning things about Queen Sugar is how vividly it depicts the way history — whether it be familial, regional, or national — can shape a person and how it can determine their dreams and legacy. Has this series shaped or changed your relationship to legacy, history, and reclamation?

NB: Based on my family experience and my lived experience, what I’m trying to pass on to my own kids is it’s all about history and really understanding where we are in this present moment and how that relates to everything that has come before us. For example, in the series one of the things I am glad that they continue to incorporate into the story is the experience of Black people and our connection to the land, because I think that over time we have lost that. We have forgotten our connection to the soil, to farming, and to just being rooted in someplace and having land that we own. That’s a theme that’s run through my own personal experience. It’s what my grandparents tried to hold onto and build so that they could pass that on to my mother and it’s what my mother is passing on to me and it’s my obligation as a parent to pass on to my kids. It’s this larger question about the wealth gap and how even mediocre folks are able to get ahead over a generation because they inherited a little something. I’m not talking millions of dollars, but I’m talking about that $10,000.00 that someone’s grandmother left them that allows them to go out and buy a little house someplace that they then pass onto their children.

When you look at the wealth disparity in this country between Black folks and white folks, it’s not a question of intelligence. It’s not a question of talent or any innate skill. Sometimes it comes down to some folks have a little bit of a foothold or a leg up because somebody who came before them left them a little something. It’s really about information and access that dovetails into a certain type of privilege over a number of generations. This is what I’m all about in my personal life but also in my creative life. Its telling black people and POC to think ahead. Take the long-term view. It’s not just about you and how much money you can spend. It’s about ensuring a place for generations to come… it’s about holding onto what we’ve fought so hard to achieve and having a long enough view to pass that on.

SIG: Being Black in America has never been easy, which is something we’re reminded of daily, especially since the 2015 election. How has writing served as a source of solace throughout this year? How have stories — creating and consuming them — helped you cope with our current cultural moment?

NB: First of all, I think that art has always been important but art and artists — writers, filmmakers, abstract artists, whoever — the work that we do is even more important. I think what’s so exciting about what’s happening now in this insane era that we’re in is the way artists, but particularly artists of color and Black artists, are being so bold and unflinching in calling it like it is. I’m sure you remember that essay that Chimamanda Ngozi Achide wrote in the New Yorker where she says that now is the time to tell it like it is, that we must tell the truth in the most fierce and undeniable unflinching way. I think that as Black people and as people of color, we are on the front lines when it comes to naming things for what they are. That’s what we’re doing. If you look at the work of Kara Walker for example, she is naming things unflinchingly unapologetically in a way that other aspects of this culture have been slow to. God knows politicians aren’t doing it. We’ve seen for the last almost two years the way this administration is vilifying journalists, and only now are journalists banding together to call it like it is. Finally people have the guts to stand up and say what artists have known and have been saying all along. It’s gratifying to see how artists have been being bold without apology. It’s exciting and reassuring to me.

And the other thing I will say is that art has been a sanctuary for me and a refuge. It’s allowed me to maintain my sanity at a time when you look around and it’s like, where are we? How did we get here; what is this world where two years ago we were headed off in a totally different direction, a direction that felt like it was the right direction, and now we’re in some house of mirrors? Art has been the place where I’ve been able to reorient myself, to remind myself of what is real. Just last week I was at this writers retreat called Kimbilio, and it was so beautiful and to be in a place with thirty other fiction writers, Black fiction writers, where we’re all trying to do the work, to tell stories, to be honest and brave, to put our stories out there. It was so wonderful and such a relief, you know? So right now, I feel like that’s what I need personally. To find my people, to find other storytellers and fiction writers, poets, and filmmakers, who just remind me of what is real at a time when otherwise you look around and you’re like, what happened, where are we? It’s finding that community of people who see what you’re doing and get it, who will encourage you to keep going. That’s what art is doing for me these days. It’s a refuge and it’s also a source of strength and courage.

SIG: What’s one of the biggest lessons that collaborating with visual storytellers like Melissa Carter, Ava DuVernay, and Oprah Winfrey taught you?

NB: The biggest lesson is to be bold. To just go for it, to try, in those moments of doubt or fear, to just step out there anyway. It’s not about having all of the answers at the time that you start. It’s about having a vision of what you want and just figuring out how to make it happen, you know? There’s this saying about how if you take that first step, life will rise up to meet you and I really think that’s true. I think that when you make the decision and start to move forward, life has a way of rising up to meet you and giving you what you need, and you don’t really recognize it all the time. It’s happened in my life so many times. I see it happening now at this phase in my life with the book that I’m writing and the other projects I’m trying to get off the ground. Life has a way of rising up to meet me and I try to be aware of that, especially in  those quiet moments of reflection. I try to recognize what’s happening, to be prepared and remain open.

SIG: What advice would you give to emerging novelists, especially those who are women of the African diaspora who are still writing their first novel or searching for a publisher? What is a piece of advice that you’d give to your past self?

NB: My advice would be two things. The first thing would be something that someone said to me: Keep your skin thin for the art and thick for the business. They’re two different things. As an artist and as a writer, no matter what genre you’re writing in, you have to leave yourself open. There’s a certain kind of openness and porousness that we have to have in order to be honest, but as you move from that space and into the world of publishing, you have to take off your artist hat and put on your business hat. You have to understand that publishing is about business. It’s not about friendship. It’s about understanding that your work, as much as publishers may love it, is a commodity. I think that the more you can understand that, the more prepared you will be for the business of publishing, which means that, for example you’ll want to put your work out there when it is the very best work that you can do. When it is the very best version of what you were trying to say, because what you understand then is that the publishing world is all about the bottom line.

They have to be able to see what you’re doing, they want to be excited about it, and they need to know that they can sell it, which means that you as the artist don’t want to give them something that’s half-baked because you’re in a rush to get it out there. You have to be patient. You have to have done the work. You don’t want to give them an opportunity to say no, so you don’t want to put something out there because you’re in a rush to get an agent or get something published, because sometimes you only get one shot. Why squander that opportunity because you’re in a rush and the product you’re putting into the world isn’t the best product it can be? So what I always try to say to young artists, especially now in this era where you might have a platform and you might put mediocre work but have 10k followers, is to slow down and make sure that the work is good first, because if the work is good people will respond. And again, it doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be the best version of what you can do because publishers will understand what you’re aiming for and help you move forward with that.

So that’s probably my biggest piece of advice… I would also say it’s also about what’s going to endure. I’m all for the person who writes a mediocre book and gets the big advance, because we all know how hard writing is and how much money can help support a writer, but we’re all still talking about Toni Morrison’s books. Those kinds of books endure and I have to think that there is value in that. There is value in the book that is saying something meaningful that people now people five, ten, or twenty years from now will still be talking about. That’s the reason why James Baldwin is so popular, because he was saying something that had depth and there was a quality and wisdom to his message. I still think about Giovanni’s Room in a way that I’ll never think about a book by xyz author that came out a couple years ago. It’s about books that endure.