Sankofa Literary Society Interview with Pamela Samuels Young
Ella: What inspired you to begin writing legal thrillers after careers in journalism and law?
PSY: I've always loved reading mysteries, particularly those that involve fascinating legal cases. It bothered me, however, that the legal thrillers I read never depicted women and African-American attorneys. So . . . I decided to fill the void.
I knew pretty early that I wanted to be a writer, having worked on school newspapers in junior high, high school and college. When I decided to major in journalism at the University of Southern California , I didn't give much thought to creative writing. At the age of 18, I didn't have the guts to even consider a career as a novelist. The writers I enjoyed reading – James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, Joan Didion – were incredibly talented literary writers. I knew I didn't have that kind of poetic writing talent. So I pursued a career in journalism and later, earned a law degree. Flash forward several years and I somehow gathered the courage to give fiction writing a try.
Ella: What motivated you to write Murder on the Down Low?
PSY: I often have a hard time recalling exactly when or how the idea for a particular novel originated. For the most part, the ideas simply pop into my head from some unknown place. That's not the case with Murder on the Down Low. I have a crystal clear recollection of watching an Oprah show featuring J.L. King, author of On the Down Low. As I listened to his insider's account of the mindset of men on the down low, I was completely stunned. My emotions went from shock to anger to fear. The next day, while driving to work, the concept of a killer who targets men on the down low, popped into my head.
Writing Murder on the Down Low gave me an opportunity to both entertain and raise awareness about how HIV/AIDS is impacting the African-American community, African-American women in particular. While African-American and Latina women make up 24% of the U.S. population, we account for more than 80% of the total AIDS diagnoses for women. It's my hope that Murder on the Down Low helps people understand that HIV is not a gay disease. Many people – male and female, straight and gay -- don't know their status because they haven't been tested, so they're unwittingly spreading the disease. Until we take our heads out of the sand, it's going to continue to devastate our community.
Ella: What is your process for creating a novel?
PSY: I will spend any where from a few weeks to as long as three months outlining a book before I sit down to write. I also mull over my story quite a bit. I'm thinking about it in the shower, while I'm standing in line at the grocery story, during my 45-minute commute to work. I can almost see each chapter as if it were a scene in a movie. Only after I have a completed outline do I start writing. And when I write, I go from page one to the last page without doing much editing. For me, it's psychologically motivating to complete that first draft, even if it's so bad I'd never dare show it to anyone. Once I have a first draft, then the real writing starts. I revise, and revise and revise some more. That process can last six months or more.
Ella: What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
PSY: Find the writing process that works best for you. When I wrote my first book, I struggled a lot with the writing. I didn't prepare an outline or even have the storyline worked out in my head. I had an idea for the characters and the setting and I just sat down and started writing. I would spend weeks on a single chapter, rewriting what I had written during the previous session. Later, I ended up tossing out several chapters that I spent weeks working on.
Now, I have a completed outline before I begin writing a single word. It can take me weeks or months to complete an outline. Then, I sit down and write my story from beginning to end without doing any major revising. My goal at the start of a new novel is to produce a decent first draft with a solid, engaging plot. Once I'm satisfied with the plot, then I go back and spend as much time as it takes to polish the writing—as long as six months. This process helped me cut my writing time tremendously. It took me three years to write In Firm Pursuit (written, first but sold second) and only one year to finish Every Reasonable Doubt.
Ella: What is one piece of advice you can give to aspiring writers about juggling full-time careers and personal lives?
PSY: Learn to say "no" and don't feel guilty about it. Right now, I'm practicing law, promoting my books every weekend, working on my next novel, and teaching a business law course at the University of Redlands School of Business. I'm also on the Board of Directors of the Southern California Chapter of Mystery Writers of America and I write a column for Global Woman magazine. I love teaching, but I recently decided that I just don't have the time or energy to teach another course this year. I also turned down a request to join the board of directors of a local non-profit group. I wish I could do it all, but there simply aren't enough hours in the day. For now, my primary focus is on finishing my next book and making sure I spend some quality time with my husband, who rarely sees me because I'm gone so much promoting my books.
Ella: What are you currently working on?
PSY: I’m currently working on my fourth novel, Buying Time. In my first stand-alone thriller, a disbarred lawyer finds himself an unsuspecting pawn in a rather unusual murder ring.
Ella: What do you want the world to know most about you?
PSY: hat I grew up in Compton, California, which I'm very proud of. When I mention my hometown, people automatically assume that I dodged bullets on the way to school every day. But it was nothing like that. I had two strong, hard-working parents, who still live in Compton today. The foundation they laid – faith in God, hard work and education – is responsible for who I am and everything I have achieved.
Pamela Samuels Young is a practicing attorney and author of the thrillers, Murder on the Down Low, and the Essence bestsellers, Every Reasonable Doubt, In Firm Pursuit and Buying Time. A desire to see engaging African-American and female attorneys depicted in today's legal fiction prompted her to begin writing despite a busy legal career. Every Reasonable Doubt won the Black Expressions Book Club's Fiction Writing Contest and In Firm Pursuit was a finalist for Best African-American Novel of 2007 by Romantic Times Book Reviews. The Compton native and former journalist is the legal columnist for Global Woman magazine and served as legal consultant to the Showtime television series Soul Food.
Visit her website at www.pamelasamuelsyoung.com