Jenkins on history

Beverly Jenkins has written 30 novels and she is much beloved by her readers. Most of her romantic fiction is set in the 19th century, and some of her contemporary romances (she writes romantic suspense and faith-based romances) are about characters who are the descendants of her 19th-century characters. Her historical books all have bibliographies in the back—and it’s clear that her fans know their history. When they meet up in person or talk online, their conversations about Beverly’s books and about African American history are passionate and well informed. They share information about books and history, but they also talk about their kids, their husbands, their favorite sports teams (Beverly is a huge football fan), the milestones in their lives, and their everyday trials and triumphs.

I interviewed Beverly on a trip she took with her fans to Charleston, SC, and St. Helena Island, where events in her books took place before and during the Civil War.

I asked her, “What shapes your characters? How do you interpret history in the books you write?”

I try to shape them so that they’re real, so that they’re not just cardboard people going around doing stuff. They have past lives. They have dreams. They have things that happen to them that may not be so good, just like we all do in our real lives. And yes, they are shaped by their times. You have the Jim Crow stuff and the travel, so you have to put that in the books and figure out a way to do it so that it’s interesting, but it’s not angering. Okay? I told my friends, “I do the crying for them.” You know? Because you read stuff, and it’s like—we won’t even go into that, but I’ll be here crying. But you try and put the history into the books without too much pain, because there is so much pain there. But even in spite of all of the Jim Crow and the discrimination, we still built colleges, we still had birthdays, we still loved, we still got married, we still had children. So those are the kinds of things that I think have been missing from the African American experience, as told by the larger media. Okay? It’s like the African Americans, we came here as slaves, we were freed in 1865, and then it was like the Borg took us from the planet for another 150 years, and then we are suddenly discovered again, rioting in Watts in ’65. So you’ve got that whole century where there’s nothing. So it seems like that it’s been my ministry—tap, tap, tap on the shoulder—to do that, to bring that 19th century to life in a way that people can access it, people can be proud of who they were, and still see the struggle in a real light—you know, a real light, so that it’s not glossed over. I’m just. . . I don’t know.

In an earlier phone interview, Beverly had told me, “My characters come through me; they’re not from me.” So I asked her, “Where do your characters come from?”

I don’t know where these people come from. I had somebody that told me that they were people who really lived in past lives. That’s kind of scary. Kind of scary. But I don’t sit down and say, “Okay, this is who I’m going to create.” They come to me and say, “Hello.” [laughs] “Can you write my story?” And yes, sometimes I do have to wrack my brain to figure out, you know, where they’re going to go, but I got characters stacked up in my head like planes over LaGuardia, and, you know, it may take me ‘til, you know, another couple lives in order to get them all on paper. But, you know, I’ve got a very, I think, a very strong spiritual connection, so I just think God is—you know, wants these stories to put in Her library. I don’t know. I don’t know. But, yeah, they come through me. They’re not of me. They come through me.

I asked Beverly, “What kinds of heroines and heroes do you most like to write?”—and this is what she replied:

[sighs] People who are pushing the envelope. Women who are not content with their lot in life. Dorothy Sterling says, “The African American women of the 19th century had three gifts.” Let me see if I can remember them. One was we worked, before and after slavery, because we had the work ethic; we had a great sense of community; and we pushed the envelope on race and gender. Because some of the first doctors were African American women— female doctors; some of the bankers; some of the journalists. So, and I always say, “You never tell a black woman there’s something she can’t do.” So I try to give my heroines, if not all three of those gifts, at least one of them. You’ll find very, very strong community ties with my women. You’ll find my women doing nontraditional things, as to doctors and the journalists and the bankers. And my men are just heroes, you know? Handsome and strong and tall and good to their ladies, and, you know, lawbreakers, whether they’re outlaws or whether they’re lawmen, or whether they’re—you know, whatever they are, they, too, have a very, very strong sense of who they are, where they are in America, at whatever point in time I’m writing about. I love what I do. I really do.

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