Diane McKinney-Whetstone is the author of seven novels. She has an amazing way of capturing and hooking a reader’s attention through her novel’s characters, plots, themes, and settings. She can take you on a literary journey where you will lose yourself in the world of story as evidenced in her first novel, Tumbling.
Diane’s latest fiction work, Our Gen, takes place at the Sexagenarian, aka the Gen, an upscale retirement community through the lives of four characters – Cynthia, Bloc, Tish, and Lavia, an interesting group of friends who are enjoying their later years doing things that some folks wouldn’t associate with their age group: line dancing, wine drinking, having sex, and smoking weed. However, past secrets begin to emerge that threaten the harmony of the group’s relationships.
50BOLD recently sat down with Diane, who was twice awarded the prestigious American Library Association Black Caucus Literary Award for Fiction, to discuss her latest novel, literary journey, and tips for those yearning to become writers.
50BOLD: Your writing career began back in the 90s by waking up at 4:30 am to write. You joined the Rittenhouse Writers Group, which led to the publishing of your first novel, Tumbling, back in 1996. Here we are, 25-plus years later, celebrating the release of your seventh novel. Diane, how are you still doing it?
Diane: By doing what helped me get through the first one: turning off the distractions, getting up real early, and just letting my imagination go. Also, being okay with not knowing where I’m headed initially but just following the characters, allowing the place to come into focus, and putting them into situations where they interact with each other. They interact with the place, and things happen.
I don’t often know what will happen, but at this point, I trust the process and trust the imagination. I trust the universe will open, reveal things to me, and I will discover things along the way. It’s frustrating sometimes because I don’t know where I’m going.
My editor will ask, ‘What are you working on?’ I’ll reply, ‘Well, I’m working on something.’ He’ll then ask, ‘Can you tell us what it is? Give me a couple of pages?’ All I can say to him is, ‘I can, but I can’t tell you much. I can tell you generally what it’s about, but I don’t know the whole story.’ And I want to know the whole story. It’s like life, you want to know what’s around the corner, but you won’t know until you get there and turn it. I suppose that’s where faith comes in, and I will figure things out.
50BOLD: What was your inspiration for Our Gen?
Diane: I wanted to explore aging for obvious reasons. I wanted to explore people moving through their 50s, and getting into their 60s and what life is like for my people. We’ve had shows like The Golden Girls and Grace and Frankie dedicated to older people, but not a lot for Black people. I wanted to show that in a way that felt realistic. And the characters feel real to me; I feel like I know them or could know them.
I didn’t know where the novel would take me, but I knew I wanted to break the mold a little bit so that they’re not these sage people who have everything figured out. They’ve worked hard, so they’re somewhat financially independent. I also wanted them to have secrets and still be grappling with and exploring things because that’s real for me, and that’s real for life. Their past then becomes, for me, as salient as their present. I wanted them to have done and gone through some things that they’re holding below the surface.
So, there’s a struggle with what the characters are trying to hide, which is knocking at the door trying to get out, not wanting to release it, but then having no choice but to do so.
50BOLD: Did you receive any criticism about your characters’ indulgences?
Diane: My daughter-in-law went to a book discussion, and some people thought I would be there. She said one person complained how they really liked the plot but didn’t drink wine and smoke weed like the characters. They skipped over these parts because they thought they were overdone. Beyond that, I haven’t heard a lot of criticism about the character’s lifestyles except some people have said, ‘Oh, I don’t smoke weed.’ I wanted to write about older people who did indulge, and it seems they were having fun. Some people who have never smoked weed or who don’t anymore could be critical.
50BOLD: Your characters are friends and people of color within this community, but they become a surrogate family despite their differences with gender, race, and ethnicity. Was that intentional as you were writing?
Diane: Yeah, it happened as I was writing. In every book, community, or the sense of it becomes really strong. It’s not something I set out to do, but apparently, it’s important to me because it happens in every novel. The community becomes its own character. That happened with these people as well. It replicated their college days where they had gone to majority white schools, and all the Black students would find each other.
50BOLD: (sighs) Yes.
It wasn’t intentional, but that’s how it turned out. I thought about, ‘Well, maybe this could be an all-Black retirement facility, but let me make it like the real world. It feels more authentic.’
50BOLD: What were some challenges you encountered while writing Our Gen?
Diane: Just figuring out where the story was going, how to reveal things, and what was going to happen. For example, Lavia was a particularly challenging character for me because I didn’t know her and who she would become. I actually toyed with leaving her to be a bit of a foil and not fully developing her.
50BOLD: Oh, wow!
Diane: Lavia took up a lot of space in the book, and any characters that take up space must have dimensions. If a character does not have dimensions then, off the page, because you’re flat! And she had this sense of wanting to stay in the novel and be in every scene. I was like, ‘Okay, where are you from? What’s your secret? Help me out.’ And when I started delving into Lavia, I was fascinated as I did the research for her. She could’ve been her own novel.
50BOLD: Did you have a favorite character from Our Gen?
Diane: (laughs) Whichever character I was working on at that time was a favorite.
50BOLD: (laughs) Okay.
Diane: Whichever one I was working on at the time became my favorite of the main characters. I really liked Cynthia. Gosh, I loved Lavia. I loved Bloc. And even Tish, with her mild narcissism. I loved her. I think Cynthia was probably my favorite since she’s the main character and took up most of the space in the novel.
50BOLD: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Diane: When I was a little kid, we were raised to believe we had a talent and to just figure out what it was. I didn’t have an obvious one. I can’t sing or dance, but I think I could’ve made a good actor because I can project my voice. As far as talent goes, I had a sense that I could write. When I was 10, I won a Bible at vacation Bible school because I wrote an essay that won a contest. We went to The Franklin Institute Museum (in Philadelphia, PA) and wrote about the experience. I wrote an essay about the heart exhibit and how you can walk through it, what it was like, and to describe it. So, my entry won the contest, and it was somewhat validating. I thought, ‘Eh, maybe I can write.’ It was always something I loved and that I worked hard at doing. I won’t say writing comes easily. It’s not like work. It’s hard to explain.
50BOLD: You’re doing what you love to do.
Diane: Exactly. Writing takes a lot of effort, but it’s coming from a place that feels good and right, even though it can be exhausting and draining. It’s something that engages me in a way that nothing else does.
50BOLD: Has your writing process changed since the release of Tumbling?
Diane: Since the release of Tumbling, I now have history on my side. There’s more confidence that I didn’t have initially, but there’s also a little self-doubt. I think a little self-doubt is healthy because it pushes me. If I’m in the middle of a novel and it’s a wreck and all over the place, I can remind myself, ‘I’ve been here before, and this is what I did to get out of it.’ I don’t meander quite as much, but I still do a fair amount because I have to figure out where I’m going. I’m better at pulling myself out of jams when I write myself into a corner.
50BOLD: Well, alright!
Diane: It’s been consistent, though, because I still love the early morning for writing. I’ll even work on a piece at different points of the day if I have to do so. I feel those first thoughts first thing in the morning are my best because they’re the freshest; they feel the most honest and haven’t been filtered through the day at all. They make the sentences come out to me in a clarifying way. That hasn’t changed. I was amazed when I first began writing, and stuff started spilling out on the page. Now, I expect it, and it still happens. That’s the part that still feels like magic.
50BOLD: Wow, that was beautiful. Philadelphia, the city and community, is the setting of your novels much like Pittsburgh is to an August Wilson play. It’s also a supporting character in your literary works? Would you agree?
Diane: Yeah, I would. Definitely! I know the city, the neighborhoods, and the eccentricities. I don’t know much about the characters when I’m beginning a novel, but I can always start with a block that I know, see, or feel. Those details will at least get me going until the characters come a little more into focus. Yeah, Philadelphia is a real character.
50BOLD: Speaking of the late August Wilson, when I read your novels, I feel like I’m watching one of his plays occurring during a particular decade in history. Your dialogue and attention to detail about the past are so on point. Do you enjoy writing from that perspective?
Diane: I do. In some ways, it’s easier because I have to rely more on my imagination. I’m startled sometimes by how accurate it can be when I imagine something and then research it to see what I got right. My imagination gets pretty darn close, so if I’m writing in the past, it’s a paradox, and things are more focused. If I’m writing contemporary, it’s like looking around and chronicling; it’s much more of a generality. If I’m writing about the past, my imagination attaches meaning to things in ways that are harder to do if I’m writing contemporary. For example, someone is sitting on the steps talking, something I haven’t done in years, and I’m like, ‘What do the steps feel like? What’s the air like?’ Those kinds of things fall into the description.
50BOLD: Who are some of your favorite writers?
Diane: Hmmm… I love Gloria Naylor; a wonderful lady. Mama Day is one of my favorite books by Naylor, period. Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin. Just the structure of the novel is very instructional for me to spend a whole novel writing about a day. The circular nature of it and what Baldwin does. I love what Toni Morrison does with language, and even when she was here, to me, she was not a mere mortal. I read her still in an aspirational way just to see what’s possible with human language.
As far as contemporary writers, I like Brit Bennett. I love her. She’s written two novels so far. The Mothers, which was so well done even though her second one, The Vanishing Half, sold more books. I just like the way she tells a story.
50BOLD: Out of all your novels, do you have a personal favorite?
Diane: Hmmm… When you have a lot of children, you can’t say who’s your personal favorite.
Diane: They each are for different reasons. Tumbling is my favorite, obviously, because it’s my first. Tempest Rising was so difficult to write after the tremendous success of Tumbling. I felt I had to outdo it in some ways and put an enormous amount of stress on myself. The internal critic was on my shoulder during much of the writing, and I had to work hard to knock the critic off. With Tumbling, I was writing freely. I didn’t know what I was doing and whether anyone read it or not was OK.
With Tempest Rising, I now had an audience, a contract, and an advance I had already spent; it was pressure. The fact that I was able to do what I had to do to navigate everything that was going on internally, then write the novel, I was really proud of myself. That’s my favorite for that reason.
Blues Dancing, I learned so much from that novel about human nature and how to write about things I hadn’t experienced directly, like drug addiction. That was my favorite for that reason. That one took me to places where I lost a good friend in college. He didn’t die but lost his potential as a result of his addiction. I began writing the novel still angry at him for doing drugs and throwing his life away, but it wasn’t going anywhere. I then reflected on my time at Pen. I was able to go back and revise it from a place of not, ‘how could he?’ but to ‘there but for the grace of God…’ I wrote it from a place of empathy. Blues Dancing taught me a lot about empathy and compassion. They say you’re supposed to change the reader, but the writer also needs to change, and Blues Dancing is the book that really changed me.
Leaving Cecil Street was set on this block that I knew. I loved writing about those young girls and what happened.
Trading Dreams at Midnight was a bit of a weird book but was challenging to write. The fact that I wrote the novel and got through it, made it a favorite for that reason.
Lazaretto was very historical. The research was intense. It takes place in the 1800s. Getting through the intensity of the research, I’m proud of that one.
And Our Gen because it’s the me generation. It’s my favorite for that reason.
All my Penn classmates think that Blues Dancing is my best book, that’s their favorite. It’s my husband’s favorite. So, it can also be a generational book.
50BOLD: That’s a perfect segue into my next question: are you married?
Diane: I am. My husband Greg is my biggest fan.
50BOLD: Any children? Grandchildren?
Diane: I do. I have a set of twins – a son and a daughter. They each have two children, so I have four grandchildren: three granddaughters and one grandson.
50BOLD: What advice would you give to any of our 50BOLD readers that are interested in writing but may think they’re too old or it’s too late to do so?
Diane: It is never too late! As long as there is breath, there is a possibility. The time is now, just start writing. Carve out a time that doesn’t have to be negotiated with anybody or anything, and show up at the time you set. If you show up consistently, your muse will show up too, and help you through. You must be committed and train your imagination by saying, ‘This is our time! C’mon, let’s kick into gear!’ If I go in at 7:00, my muse will say, ‘You know I was here at 5:00, and you weren’t! Bye!’
Diane: When you have discipline and commitment, things will happen. And also read. Read a lot. Reading is the most instructional thing that anybody wanting to write can do. Read all kinds of things to see how people put words and sentences together.
50BOLD: What’s next for Diane McKinney-Whetstone?
Diane: I’m working on something now, and it’s so early. I don’t know what it’s about yet, except that it’s set in Philly. It’s contemporary and will probably pull from the past, like how Our Gen started out as a contemporary novel, but it pulled from the past. It’ll be a novel.
For more information about Diane’s novels visit her site–www.mckinney-whetstone.com/novels/