Thursday, December 8, 2022

Denise Crittendon

Before making the big leap into the world of sci-fi & fantasy, Denise Crittendon held a string of journalism jobs. In addition to being a staff writer for The Detroit News and The Kansas City Star, she was editor-in-chief of the NAACP’s national magazine, The Crisis. Later, she became founding editor of a Michigan-based lifestyle publication for black families. After self-publishing two manuals that empower youth, “Girl in the Mirror, A Teen’s Guide to Self-Awareness” and “Life is a Party That Comes with Exams,” she entered the new-age healing movement as a motivational speaker for teens. These days, she fulfills ghostwriting assignments for clients and writes speculative fiction on the side. Crittendon divides her time between Spring Valley, Nevada and her hometown, Detroit, Mich.

Where it Rains in Color is her debut novel.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

My title is an accurate description of the planet I created and, therefore, should have been a no-brainer. For some reason, it wasn’t. Ironically, I went through a few titles -- some so bad I’m too embarrassed to list. The rejects I’m willing to share are: Mama Indigo, a reference to the blue-black complexion of the protagonist and If She Speaks. If She Speaks is part of a comment one of my characters makes when discussing another character who happens to be mute. Neither of these titles captured the novel very well, and I quickly cast them aside. Then one day, an obvious title suddenly dawned on me. Since the surface of this world is awash in colored mists, I decided to go with Where it Rains in Color. And that has been its title ever since. In fact, the publisher loved the title the minute they saw the manuscript.

What’s in a name?

Originally, my protagonist was named Leala. I have no idea where I got the name, but it felt right, so I went with it. Eventually, I began looking up African names for some of my other characters. Imagine my surprise when I realized Leala was an African name. Not only that, it’s given to girls in the west African country of Mali. I recognized Mali as the land of the ethnic group, the Dogon, a tribe I found endlessly fascinating. Immediately, the wheels of my mind began turning as I asked myself why and how I came up with the name. I saw it as a sign that the inhabitants of the planet I was creating were from Mali. Since this was my first draft, it was very easy to begin weaving the Dogon tribe into the mythology and history of the planet. There were other signs and coincidences that led me to incorporate the Dogon culture into the novel, but the name was a particularly strong one because it seemed to have surfaced out of nowhere and yet, it had special relevance. Once the name Leala served its purpose of awakening me to the possibility of incorporating Dogon legends into the novel, I added a syllable. I know that sounds like a strange thing to do, considering its importance. However, I was bothered by how much Leala sounded like Princess Leah from Star Wars. I fixed the problem by adding the Li and calling her Lileala.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

It varies. I once wrote a short story by jumping right into a scene though I didn’t have a specific idea or plot in mind. It just flowed and took on a life of its own. When I actually have an idea then that’s another story. It’s one thing to not know where you’re going with your writing and to allow a stream of consciousness to guide you. However, when I know what I want to say I’m sometimes a little challenged at first. That’s because I’m not in the zone yet. Once I start writing all sorts of feelings, moods and ideas start to take over and I’m in a better space. I’m a pantser, so I don’t follow an outline and I prefer not to know too much about how the novel will unfold. For that reason, I have to say endings require less change than the beginnings. In the beginning, I’m often finding my way. Toward the end, I’m there.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality or are they a world apart?

I see certain aspects of myself in my characters and certain contradictions as well. It’s on a subconscious level though. I’m never aware of it as I’m writing but later it jumps out at me. For instance, my protagonist in Where It Rains in Color is very rich and spoiled. I have never been spoiled because I didn’t come from a background of privilege and didn’t have indulgent, lenient parents. However, my mother had a tendency to be a bit over protective, primarily because she didn’t perceive our neighborhood as safe. So, suffice it to say I was a late bloomer who grew up rather sheltered and naive. After receiving the first proof of Where It Rains In Color, I happened to zero in on an incident where Lileala trusts someone she should know better than to trust. At first, I was a little taken aback that I had included that scene. My second reaction was one of reflection. I had to admit to myself that I, too, had been known to open up at times when I definitely should have kept my mouth shut. In addition, I can relate to Lileala’s visions. No, I’m not telepathic and my spirit certainly has never traveled through time. Yet, I do tend to have psychic dreams. So, there’s that parallel as well.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Star Trek. I’m a long-time trekkie. I watched the original and was impressed with Lt. Nyoto Uhuru (Nichelle Nichols) the first black female officer in space, but my true Star Trek addiction didn’t happen until I began watching The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. I loved them because they were other-worldly, progressive, visionary and philosophical. I’ve always had an overactive imagination. The Star Trek series helped me unleash it even more. I also harbored a burning desire to write something that could have a positive impact on society. That’s what all of my writing represents. It’s very rare for me to write anything (non-fiction as a journalist or fiction as a sci-fi writer) that doesn’t have a strong social message. So, when I see something in the news that’s racist, sexist, ageist or speciest, my mind begins to fill with alternative perspectives. I start brainstorming new concepts and pondering ways my writing can uplift the underdog. In many cases, black people are still marginalized in this country and beyond which means I’m continually contemplating fantasies that reshape our reality and reimagine our lives in glorious Afrofuturistic worlds.
Visit Denise Crittendon's website.

--Marshal Zeringue