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Penny Mickelbury

      . . . is a journalist-turned-novelist who thinks of herself as a playwright. Her lifetime of "firsts" began in1970, when she was the first African-American reporter at the Athens, Georgia Banner-Herald. A former reporter for the Washington Post. Ms. Mickelbury was a political reporter for the ABC-TV affiliate in Washington, D.C. She was co-founder and managing director of New York City's Alchemy: Theater of Change. Ms. Mickelbury's mystery heroine, Carole Ann Gibson (a wealthy African-American woman lawyer and part-time sleuth) appears in thrillers including One Must Wait and Where to Choose.

Excerpts4:38 secs

      What does it take to write an excellent novel? Get out of the way of your characters so they may tell the truth! Be respectful. Listen to them. Know that you -- the writer -- are the characters' vehicle, not their creator. A writer's ego only gets in the way of letting characters out, Penny Mickelbury declares. She's a critically acclaimed mystery novelist, playwright and onetime journalist -- in short, a storyteller. What's the writer a vehicle for? Realizing and actualizing the truth of the characters who present themselves, who barge into stories, complete with dialogue.

      Clearly, the Muse is very real to Ms. Mickelbury. Try to force characters, she assures us, and you'll end up with a mess on your hands. Ms. Mickelbury doesn't sit down saying, "Well, I'm going to create a character that does this and is that." Characters present themselves. What Ms. Mickelbury does think is, "That's interesting. I wonder who that is? What's she going to do? Or he? Who is this?" Writers get to play with the language, she insists, but not with the characters.

      So how does the writer wrestle all these forces into a book? Discipline and practice (in the classic sense) are essential, especially in this world of immediacy, according to Ms. Mickelbury. We all have so much available that discipline is required simply to make selections and meaningful choices. Then practice hones because, Ms. Mickelbury believes, the truth really is eternal and she's quite sure there really isn't anything new under the sun. That's why the great stories are forever. It's a writer's job to find fresh ways to tell them.

      In her heart, Ms. Mickelbury is a playwright because she is entirely smitten with language. In a play, she's found, the audience has a concentrated commitment to hear as actors perform language. Everyone is involved and engaged in theater, a public event which Ms. Mickelbury compares favorably to a church service.

      What applies to writers, Ms. Mickelbury is confident, also applies to musicians and painters. Creative people don't just live, they engage. That engagement allows the artist to hear what unbidden characters have to say, know what's going on in their heads, what they want, and what motivates them. Then, like any good medium, get out of the way!

Conversation 1

Penny Mickelbury tells Paula Gordon Paula Gordonand Bill Russell Bill Russell what she, Penny, believes is the job and the magic of fiction. She recalls the powerful effect newspaper men like Ralph McGill had on her youthful desire to be a writer, back before there was a "news business."

Conversation 2

Ms. Mickelbury compares the story telling functions of journalists and novelists. She recalls the time when journalism was a noble calling. She explains why context is vital to getting to the truth of a news story and/or of a novel. She remembers her lifelong desire to write plays and suggests why she feels drawn to telling stories. She recalls when journalists had no expectations of making more than a decent living, comparing that time to today. She elaborates on DAVID HALBERSTAM's concern that egos get in the way of telling the truth. She bemoans sound-bites which dominate today's news media while suggesting where they do serve a legitimate purpose. She believes that the public is not stupid and describes what she believes is a backlash to current trends.

Conversation 3

Long-format news and information programming is what the public wants, declares Ms. Mickelbury, who expands. She connects that desire to her novels, in which she works to entertain people while giving readers a chance to explore today's complex culture. She describes things she writes about which make people uncomfortable, including race, using her Carole Ann Gibson mysteries as examples. Ms. Mickelbury describes real life strong women she's known and others who challenge stereotypes. She explains why it's important for people to re-engage with language, especially as expressed in the theater and in books. She discusses the purpose of language and of what she characterizes as a person's earth-walk. She makes the point that plays are literature.

Conversation 4

Discipline is a necessary part of life, declares Ms. Mickelbury, who explains why that is particularly true in today's world of immediacy. She considers the discipline of religion and the role of community in shaping people's behavior for the better. She gives examples of how students and others yearn for discipline and expands that idea to include practice. She describes how she applies both the concepts of discipline and practice to her own work, turning out two books a year. She describes what it is about plays that appeals so very much to her.

Conversation 5

Describing her role in writing a novel as more that of vehicle than creator, Ms. Mickelbury amplifies on how the Muse works for her. She describes how characters show up in novels, uninvited, and how they effect entire books. She considers a writer's gift, which she believes must be coupled with a willingness both to let go of ego and simultaneously to engage in the world. She gives examples from her years as a political reporter, expressing a powerful dislike of any authority which makes victims of citizens. She explains why novels must be, among other things, social vehicles. She describes the power she finds in adhering to the notion that there really is nothing new under the sun. She gives an idea of how her mind works.

Conversation 6

Ms. Mickelbury finds life less simple than we might like and explains how she makes use of that complexity in her works. She summarizes why she left the news business, characterizing herself as a chronicler who likes life's stories -- sordid, good, ugly and beautiful -- because they are all part of valid story-telling. She concludes with her love for her work and what she considers her charmed life


Thanks to The Commerce Club The Commerce Club for playing host at lunch to Penny Mickelbury's students who joined our audience as we recorded this conversation. These students are promising young writers from public and private schools throughout Atlanta, Georgia, part of "ArtsCool," a project of the City of Atlanta's Bureau of Cultural Affairs.

Related Links:
Penny Mickelbury's "Carole Anne Gibson Mysteries" are published by Simon and Schuster

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