Qwantu Amaru, author of One Blood, agreed to answer some questions for me about his book, his writing career, and his life. I hope you enjoy his answers as much as I did.
One Blood was an amazing debut novel. What gave you the idea for it?
Thank you Lisa! The idea came from a creative writing assignment back in 2000. I originally was writing a story about a group of teenagers trying to regain control of their neighborhood from a ruthless gang and that idea eventually morphed into One Blood as I began to discover the characters.
When did you realize that you needed to write this book?
Back in 2000 as I began to investigate the characters, it soon became clear that this was a story I was built to write, and I couldn’t give up on it, even though it would go on to take nearly 12 years to go from concept to completion. I am not a trained author (no MFA) and had never attempted anything this ambitious from a writing perspective, but I felt strongly that this was a story I was born to tell.
It took you many, many years to complete this novel. Did you ever get discouraged and think about giving up? Were there people who encouraged you to keep writing?
I never really considered giving up, although there were times when I walked away from the manuscript for months at a time. I actually didn’t write for 11 months at one stretch. I think that because I was so young (23) when I started. I needed to do some growing to be able to meet the demands of the story.
In terms of encouragement, I was actively involved in the now defunct writer sharing site Urbis.com and got continual positive feedback from authors and readers. I enrolled in writers workshops so I could compare my work to others and get help in areas of weakness. I attended writer’s conferences to learn about the business of publishing. And my early readers gave me a big boost of confidence, even when my book was 164,000 words and 600 pages!
Do you plan out the entire book before you begin writing? Or do you just sit down and write?
A big part of One Blood was discovering my writing process. I learned that I cannot type directly into the computer or else I will agonize over edits before I even have a story. So I now write out everything freehand and then type it up. I also learned that I need to invest time in crafting as many characters as I can anticipate before I start writing the story so that everything else occurs much more organically. Once I have my characters and basic story arch (inciting incident, climax, resolution) mapped out, I get to writing. Then there’s the rewrite, refine, and editing process where I invest the majority of my time.
How much research, if any, did you have to do for this book? Did you spend time in New Orleans? How did you learn so much about this Voodoo religion?
Because I lived in Louisiana for 7 years, I knew enough about New Orleans, but to get underneath the exterior I informed myself by reading a ton of books. One book that was particularly helpful was Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins. He captures the essence of New Orleans better than any other author I have read.
There were three main areas that I really had to learn much about to effectively tell this story: the colonial history of Louisiana, The Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, and the Vodou religion. I read books on each subject, watched movies to capture the atmosphere, and interviewed prison officials and Vodou practitioners. A very informative movie on the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola was The Farm. I watched it over and over to get a sense for what the prisoners there go through. Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn was a book on Vodou that really inspired my knowledge of the religion and how I wanted to portray it. I primarily used online research to inform myself on the colonial history of Louisiana including much research into the pirate Jean Lafitte who became the basis for the Lafitte clan.
How did you decide on the names for your characters?
Character naming is always tricky to explain. Overall, there is a logic I use for character naming that relates to who they are and sometimes who they are meant to be. Sometimes a character is an amalgamation of names of people I know; other times there is more significance to the name. Lincoln Baker for example is named after two college friends of mine (Lincoln Chandler and David Baker) but also has the last name of Abraham Lincoln as his first name purposely. Malcolm Wright follows the same logic. His first name is Malcolm for Malcolm X and his last name is Wright for Richard Wright. His moniker of Panama X just came to me…but it was informed by his backstory of going AWOL from the Vietnam War and traveling to Brazil, Haiti, and Panama before returning to Louisiana, as well as his conversion to The Nation of Islam. Randy Lafitte’s first name was based on the father of a high school friend who was a local charismatic politician I knew growing up and Lafitte came from Jean Lafitte who is intrinsically linked to Louisiana history. I had a neighbor whose parents gave each of their three children names that started with K so I used this idea for Kristopher and Karen.