Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Welcoming new MFA faculty member Sophfronia Scott

On today’s blog, we feature novelist, memoirist, essayist, and new MFA faculty member Sophfronia Scott. A graduate of Harvard and a former writer and editor for Time magazine, Sophfronia was nominated for best new author at the African American Literary Awards when her first novel, All I Need to Get By, was published by St. Martin’s Press in 2004. Her work has appeared in publications including Killens Review of Arts & Letters, Saranac Review, Numéro Cinq, Ruminate, Barnstorm Literary Journal, Sleet Magazine,, More, and O, The Oprah Magazine, and her new works are forthcoming from William Morrow/HarperCollins and Ohio State University Press/Mad Creek Books.
We are so pleased to have you join the Bay Path University MFA in Creative Nonfiction faculty. Can you tell us a little about your path to becoming a writer?

I’ve been writing since childhood, but I didn’t know it could be a career and vocation. My father never learned to read so that kind of living was never on my radar. I only knew I had to be able to support myself when I grew up and that led me to want to become a doctor. At Harvard I was struggling along as an unhappy biology major. But I loved writing and in my junior year I took a nonfiction writing class called Introduction to Rhetoric that required you to write five pages a week. I felt if I wrote five pages a week something might happen for me and it did. My mentor in the class, Carl Nagin, one day said to me, “What are you doing? Don’t you know you’re good enough to get paid for this?” I didn’t know and his words shocked me. He eventually connected me to a recruiter for Time magazine. Time Inc. hired me right out of college and, as they say, the rest is history.

You have written novels, personal essays, and a memoir. What are the unique challenges—and what are the rewards—for a writer who works in multiple genres? Do you find they inform one another? 

I didn’t set out to write in multiple genres. I enrolled in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) to study fiction, but one of my friends suggested I study creative nonfiction as well. I’d never heard of the term before and, honestly, I thought it sounded like something that would have gotten me fired in the magazine world! However, the more we talked about it the more I realized I didn’t have to stay mounted in one genre. I began to see myself not as a fiction writer or an essay writer or a poet but as a writer, period. The more avenues I have of transforming what I want to say into the written word, the better.
The genres do inform one another because they all have the same source: me. Everything in me, everything that has influenced me, everything that has touched me will find its way onto the page, sometimes whether I realize it or not. But there is one big difference between working in fiction and nonfiction: I like to say that when I write fiction I’m planting seeds. I know these seeds, they are essentially the outline of the story I know I want to tell. But I don’t know what these seeds will look like once the characters grow until their full expression. That’s exciting.

With nonfiction I’m not planting, I am digging. I’ve started an essay with a thought or a question in my mind and I don’t know where it will take me. I don’t know what I’m going to dig up. Nonfiction can take a lot longer to write for that reason. It takes a lot of soul searching, a lot of thinking, and that takes time. Recently I was asked to write an essay for an anthology being published by Simon & Schuster next year and I took every bit of time they gave me right up to the deadline to write it—not because I was procrastinating, but because I needed the time to sift through my thoughts and make the piece coherent.
This anthology also illustrates one of the rewards of writing in multiple genres: you get many more opportunities to publish and to teach.

You have a new novel, Unforgivable Love, being released September 26. How would you describe this book and your process writing it?

The novel is a retelling of the 18th Century French novel Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. I set my version in Harlem in the 1940s so instead of drawing rooms and opera theaters you have nightclubs and churches and the Brooklyn Dodgers! I’ve had a simmering obsession around this story for years going back to when I first saw the film Dangerous Liaisons starring Glenn Close and John Malkovich. I’ve consumed every version that’s come down the pike, including Cruel Intentions, which starred Reese Witherspoon. When I mentioned my preoccupation to my friend, the screenwriter Jenny Lumet, she said there needed to be a version of the story with an African American cast. That lit the flame for me—I knew immediately I could do it and what I wanted it to be.

I originally wrote the story as a screenplay because the film had been my first influence. But by structure a screenplay is sparse—you have to leave room for the vision of the director and the actors. Only about a quarter of my vision made its way to the page. When my agent suggested I write the story as a novel, I was thrilled because I could finally make that journey of discovery that is part of the novel-writing process. Unforgivable Love fulfills my original vision in both scope and story.

Your memoir, This Child of Faith, due out in December, was written with your son. What was that experience like for you as a writer and as a mother?

The material in the book is emotional—it tells the story of our family’s faith journey from the time we started taking my son to church at the age of six and how his faith managed to sustain him and us in the aftermath of the shootings at his school, Sandy Hook Elementary. So sometimes it was hard. He’d come into my office in tears because he was thinking about the friend he’d lost or because something he’d read often when he was younger had moved him in a different way now that he’s older and can understand it on a different level.

But all this allowed my son to be privy to what I do every day as a writer and sometimes that includes sitting at the computer crying over what I’m trying to write. I’ve made sure to involve him in every step of the book’s production process—from signing the contract, to reminding him of our deadline, to sharing emails and notes from our editor, to the session to shoot our author photo. He has a great window now on how it all works. That has been a tremendous gift.

Many writers find that the publishing industry today expects authors to do quite a bit of their own book promotion. Is that your experience and, if so, what can you share about it? Will you be going on tour, giving readings, speaking at events?

It all depends on the publishing house. My novel is being published by William Morrow/HarperCollins and they are doing way more on the promotion end than I could ever do on my own. My forthcoming nonfiction is being published by a small press and a university press and there’s no way they could do the same level of promotion as a HarperCollins because the budget just isn’t there. However that doesn’t mean those books are left to shift in the wind. It’s been my experience with publishers large and small that promotion is a team effort. The publicity/marketing department brings their ideas and connections to the table and I bring mine, and together we do the best we can for the book.  And the author should have something to bring to the table—this means not waiting until you finish the book to start making connections and establishing a social media presence. The sooner you start, the better because it takes time to develop a platform that can help move your book.

We’re now in the process of scheduling appearances to promote the novel. I’ll be giving readings, doing radio interviews, and speaking at events. I also have a new website and blog that I’m thrilled about,

Is there anything else you would like us to know about you or your writing practice?

I have a writing buddy! I write in the mornings and two to three times a week I’m joined via Google Hangout by my friend and writing partner David Hicks who lives in Colorado. We each discuss what we’re working on and then start writing. It’s kind of like sharing an office. We keep each other company while we write. We’ve both published books this year so we’re celebrating. He wrote about our buddy system in the October 2017 issue of Writer’s Digest so you can check that out.