Interview with Briana Lawrence, author of “Treat Me Kindly”

WiHMonth 2014BWIHThis is a part of our Black Women in Horror Interview Series.  February is African American History Month here in the United States. It is also Women in Horror Month (WiHM).  The Black Women in Horror interview series celebrates the place where the two intersect.  These interviews are included as a part of the free eBook “60 Black Women in Horror Fiction.” The Black Women in Horror Interview Series is designed to raise the profile of and bring attention to the more than 60 black women who write horror and related genres of speculative fiction.

The Author

ImageAt the age of nine, like most kids, Briana Lawrence had a dream. She wanted to be the best “WRITTER” in the whole wide world. Her fourth grade class laughed and wondered how one hoped to become a “writer” if they couldn’t even spell the word. Back then her stories were created with crayons and construction paper. As she grew older they progressed into notebooks and colored ink pens of pink, blue, and purple. When she lost her older brother, Glenn Berry, in a car accident, she stopped writing.
Dreams, however, have a funny way of coming back.
Before she realized it she was grabbing her notebook and pens again. She would write stories that ranged from high school romance to her imagination running wild with the likes of Goku, Vegeta, and the other characters of Dragonball Z. This continued throughout college where she would always end up writing about the space exploits of the pilots of Gundam Wing and other works of fan fiction. Soon she realized that she wanted to do more than that. Her head was full of ideas, full of original characters and worlds that she wanted to share with others.
Thus, she stepped into an English Major with some Women’s Studies on the side.
She graduated Iowa State University in 2006 and moved to Minneapolis with her partner. Here, she tried to get into graduate school, but things didn’t pan out the way she wanted. She ended up working retail, her dream becoming buried by Black Fridays and other busy times of the year. Once again, however, that dream returned. She went from immersing herself in geeky fan fiction to actually writing about the geeky things she loved for several anime and video game review sites. However, it was her discovery of National Novel Writing Month that made her go back to creating her own characters and plots.
Now, here she is, an author in the writing world.

The Book

ImageTreat Me Kindly” is a supernatural murder mystery that takes place in current times.  Mild mannered Matthew Sharpton is having the worst existence possible.  He lives in his parents’ basement after his fiancee upgraded to a better man.  To make his father happy, he goes to a charity auction hosted by the company the old man works for.  While there, he ends up bidding on a beautiful bird and taking it home.  It’s here that he discovers that this isn’t an ordinary bird.  The bird has the ability to turn just as human as Matthew — minus the thinning hair.  The woman is more than happy to belong to Matthew as long as he does one simple thing.  “Treat Me Kindly.”
Meanwhile, Alex Sampson is a detective assigned to a case where Frank Marko, an ex-rockstar, has been found dead in his home.  The only evidence is a small butterfly that was found by the body.  The strange thing about the butterfly is that it’s an extinct species.  After some investigating, Alex discovers that the butterfly came from the same auction where Matthew was. The whispered promises of “rare” and “exotic” animals ring true in all of the wrong ways as more people in the city are killed in bizarre ways, the only evidence being some sort of remnant from an animal.

The Interview

Q. Like many writers, you started out in fan fiction before developing your own characters. Do you think fanfic helped you to develop as a writer? How would you advise other budding writers who want to make the same transition?
A. Absolutely!  In fact, this book is something that use to be a fanfic, but I never finished the fic.  Then, one year, I decided to try NaNoWriMo and I reread this fanfic I had written because I remembered that I liked the plot.  I edited it like crazy, changed and added characters, outlined what I wanted to happen, and suddenly… I had a book.
I think people take fanfiction for granted.  Just like fanart.  To me, all artists start somewhere.  When I was a kid I would draw pictures of the cartoon characters I liked.  Or, I would write stories about things I like.  I was writing fanfiction before I even knew the name of it.  I loved Dragonball Z, so I started writing stories about the characters in my notebook.  Later, I found out that doing such a thing had a name: fanfiction.
It’s because of fanfiction that I kept writing.  Writing has always been a dream of mine, but I switched focus after my brother died when I was 13.  But even when I stopped, I still had that notebook about Goku and Vegeta and the rest of the DBZ gang.  I just called it a hobby.  It followed me into college (though the fandom changed from DBZ to Gundam Wing) and I would just write and write and write while telling myself I would go into pre-med.  Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) I was terrible at it.  I ended up finding Women’s Studies, which required a lot of reading and discussion and writing.  That writing, plus the fanfiction writing I kept calling a “hobby” reminded me that, hey, I love writing!  I should be doing this!
So fanfiction went from being a hobby to being a good way to hone my craft.  I learned a lot from becoming an English major and taking writing classes, but I also learned a lot through fanfiction.  If you’re brave enough to actually post your fics online, people will tell you what they think.  Sure, you can get comments from your instructor or your class, but fanfiction exposes you to all sorts of people and it quickly teaches you that you need a thick skin in this business.  Not everyone is going to love what you write, and in the realm of fanfiction, people aren’t afraid to tell you that.  Whether it’s a long explanation as to why they don’t enjoy your story, to quick sentences like “this sucks,” you want to hear the good, but you have to be ready for the bad because it will happen.
I’ve met so many people through fanfiction, from readers to writers, and I’ve learned from reading their stories and talking to them.  The transition from “fanfiction” to “professional writer” happened gradually.  It happened without me even realizing.  At some point I realized that those Naruto characters weren’t really Naruto and Sasuke and Sakura anymore.  I had made original plots, and the characteristics of each character started deviating from how they acted in their series to how they would fit the story I created.
If you’re thinking of going from fanfiction to actual fiction, I do have some suggestions.  There are things you can get away with in fanfiction that you can’t really get away with in actual works of fiction.  You actually need to describe your characters, instead of relying on people to know how the character looks and acts.  Every “Black Butler” fan knows that Sebastian has black hair and wears a suit, but you have to start thinking outside of that circle.  You can’t just say “Sebastian entered the scene” to a person who has never heard of “Black Butler.”  Who is he?  What does he look like?  How does he act?  In your own story, you have to develop your character, otherwise, how will people know who they are?
Also, there are some things done in fanfiction that are completely unrealistic.  I’m not talking about in the realms of fantasy or horror or things like that, but in a more… personal sense.  Let’s sit down and have “Briana Lawrence’s Storytime” to explain what I mean.  I am a huge yaoi fangirl.  Yaoi, for those who don’t know, is Japanese for boy/boy romance.  When I started writing professionally, I always ended up having a gay character in my stories, whether they were the main character or not.  This wasn’t just because of me liking yaoi, but I’m part of the LGBT community because let me tell you, once you’re with a girl for 11 years I think that means you like females.  Anyhow, I remember submitting my gay romance short story to “Dreamspinner Press.”  It got edited, and the editor liked it, but when it came to the sex scene she was like, “This is hot and all but… there needs to be some sort of lubrication, otherwise, it’s going to hurt.  Also, the characters just met a few hours ago, your lead character should really use protection.”  In the realm of fanfiction, things like protection or lubrication and things like that don’t seem to come up all the time.  The sex is hot, that’s all that matters.  But in real life, we use those things with the partners we’re sexual with.  It might be fiction, but there needs to be some realism.
Q. I was excited to read that you got inspired to write your first novel during NaNoWriMo. What can you tell our readers about your National Novel Writing Month experience? Did you finish the entire first draft during NaNoWriMo?
A. Ha!  No, I didn’t.  I’ve never won NaNoWriMo (I’ve participated twice so far) but it really helped me work on the book and take it to where it needed to be.  Sure, it’s great if you complete that 50,000 word challenge, but the most important thing NaNoWriMo does for you is that it pushes you to write.  I know people who won’t do it because “they don’t have time.”  You don’t have to make it to 50,000, but let that month help you flesh out your story, get something written down, and motivate you to keep going.  That’s what it did for me.  Before NaNoWriMo, my book was completely different.  It wasn’t a murder mystery at all.  Alex wasn’t a detective, and there were no crimes to solve.  With NaNoWriMo, I sat down and looked at what I had written, read over it, and started to really think about what I wanted the book to be.  It helped turn it into what it is today — along with my mother and partner, who helped give me some ideas.
This also happened with my second book, a joint story with my partner.  She used NaNoWriMo and actually finished it!  So she won, not me.  But once she wrote the draft, I went in and reread it and added to it, and we ended up creating what I think is a fantastic book.  This particular book with her goes back to your first question about fanfiction.  This book is actually something we created together, we use to chat online because we were long distance, and we would roleplay with different anime and video game characters.  Then, suddenly, we realized that those characters were completely different than how they act in their series and the plots were our own, so we put together a book.  This one isn’t horror, though, it’s more urban supernatural adventure.
My third book, which is a supernatural horror gay romance, is also fleshed out thanks to NaNoWriMo.  I signed a contract for it about two days ago, but thanks to NaNoWriMo the last couple of chapters were finished.
Q. You were introduced to me by Kinitra Brooks, who is using two of my articles listing black women in horror as reference material for her academic paper on the subject. In my research, I was only able to find a little over 40 women. How do you feel about being part of such a select group, and why do you think black women in horror remain rare?
A. I feel great about being in this sort of “small” group, because I hope that people take notice to what I’m trying to say with my work.  I hope they see it as something unique and want to give it a chance because of it.  I jokingly told my partner that I should use my black lesbianess to my advantage to get my book out there!  I’m kidding… sort of.
Honestly, before Damnation Books published it, I didn’t really see it as horror.  But my mom read it and told me how creepy it was (she enjoyed it though, she meant it as a compliment).  So, suddenly, I realized that yeah, it is kind of creepy.  There’s some disturbing moments and grotesque imagery, I guess I wrote a supernatural murder mystery horror novel somehow, but it’s what I had in my head.  I didn’t really start thinking about the lack of black female horror writers until my publisher, Kim Richards, brought up talking to Kinitra.  Then suddenly I was like, “Wow yeah there aren’t many of us.”  Then Kinitra brought up Toni Morrison, who I read in college, but I don’t remember her being called a horror writer.  However, when Kinitra brought it up I thought back to books like “Beloved” and thought “yeah that book is creepy!”  So not only is it a small group to begin with, but not everyone sees it as horror.
It may be the predominant assumption about what a book by a black woman, or a story with a black female lead, will be about.  I talked to my dad before the book’s release and he told me how his girlfriend reads the “angry black woman” books.  And, you know, that’s not a bad genre, I just think that it’s this huge idea that people have about black female writers, period.  That all of our work is going to be about us being pissed off.  Now I’m not saying that black women don’t have a reason to be angry, I just think — no, I know — that there’s more to us than that.
I think I surprise a lot of people, because I’m so incredibly geeky, and my book isn’t about what people think a black woman would write about.  I use to work at GameStop for 6 years and the looks I would get, oh man!  Not only because of my gender, but because of my race, and not just from white people but black people too!  I’ll never forget these two black guys who came in and said, “We just didn’t think a woman like you would have time for this kind of stuff.”  So it’s like… even my own race doesn’t see me coming!
Granted, there are some women in the book who snap (and one is black), but it’s not because of their race or their struggles because their women or women of color.  They’re treated like crap because they’re shifters who are presented as pets, so their owners assume they can do whatever they want to them.  The animals in the book are all different in human form: black, white, male, female, it doesn’t matter. And each one is mistreated in one way or another, whether it’s abuse, or neglect, The abusers are also different, too. They’re not all part of the majority (white male), they’re all different, because it’s not always the majority that hurts us, sometimes, it’s minorities who hurt each other.  In the end, you should treat EVERYONE with respect.  Men, women, black, white, gay, straight, whatever.  This book is just a different way to show that. I didn’t set out to make a book with that message, it just sort of happened while I was writing. Honestly, I set out to make a cool, unique, supernatural story, then suddenly this whole “Treat Me Kindly” message took off!
Q. First novels are exciting for most new writers. How do you feel about the accomplishment?
A. I think the easier question would be “how don’t I feel.”  There’s such an array of emotions that it’s hard to list them all.  Incredibly happy, of course.  But there’s also this nervousness with it.  The creative field is one of the hardest things you can do.  It’s hard work getting your book out there and even harder to get people interested.  Your publisher helps, of course, but you have to work at it too and it’s hard.  Then you start to wonder what people will say about your book.  It’s really emotionally draining, but honestly, I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.  I’ve always wanted to do this, and now that I’m at this point I have no intention of ever stopping.
Q. In your novel, “Treat Me Kindly,” your protagonist Matthew Sharpton becomes involved with a potentially dangerous shapeshifter. Can you tell us more about his relationship with her?
A. The thing about Jazzmyn — and all of the animals — is that they’re not actually very dangerous.  Not until you mistreat them.  If you treat them with respect, like people, then they’ll treat you well too.  Matthew is a nice guy, he’s just down on his luck.  Him and Jazzmyn have a good relationship.  It’s Matthew’s father that makes things difficult, and Matthew is stuck in this position of wanting to keep his father happy, but absolutely loathing him.  So does he make sure his father treats Jazzmyn well or does he let him be the asshole that he knows he is?
Q. What kind of mythology have you created in your story regarding these humanlike creatures who transform from exotic creatures purchased at an auction? Is a failure to treat them kindly, as the title suggests, connected to the deaths?
A. Failure to treat them kindly is connected to the deaths, to a certain extent.  What makes it complicated is that the people who are killed aren’t necessarily the best people in the world.  They did hurt these creatures.  The fact that they can turn into humans further illustrates the hurt, I think.  No one wants to see a person abused, especially if that person thinks they deserve it.  The animals are loyal to their masters, they tend to hold out pretty long before they snap.  Sadly, that’s something that animals — and even people — do sometimes.  They endure the pain because they think they have to. However, these creatures are different.  They make sure to tell a person, “If you treat me kindly, I’ll do the same for you,” but if they reach the breaking point then that’s it.
As the story progresses you find out that the animals are actually from a different world than ours.  You also learn that this whole concept of auctions and being pets to humans is something introduced to them, not something they’ve been doing on their own.  Before the auctions, they pretty much lived just fine on their own.
Q. A detective, Alex Sampson, is investigating these mysterious deaths. Something about the bird and the detective bought to mind the Maltese Falcon. Is your horror story at all like a detective noir story?
A. Sort of.  There’s definitely some sleuthing going on.  Alex gets assigned to a case where a former rock star is found dead.  It’s up to him to find out what happened, then things get more bizarre with the other murders.  They’re much more brutal than the rock star’s murder was, but all of the murders are weird.  Frank Marko, the rock star, looks to be poisoned, but all that’s at the crime scene is a butterfly.  Butterflies don’t bite or sting people, nor are they capable of poisoning a person to the point of killing them.  Also, the butterfly found on the scene is an extinct species.  It’s one of those stories where everyone around Alex seems to know what’s going on, but he doesn’t.  His friend on the force, Nicholas, figures out the mystery behind the animals, but how do you tell a guy that animals can turn human? It also gets personal for Alex because his sister is involved. She runs the company where the auctions take place, and this puts her life at risk. Alex has a lot to lose in this book, so it’s important to him that he solves the case. At the same time, he can’t work on the case after a certain point because his family is involved.
The story does focus on the strange and supernatural more.  The case is important, but there’s more focus on the animals and what they can do, and whether or not they’re in the wrong.  Alex is important in that aspect too, because he does have a job to do, but are these creatures wrong in wanting to fight back against the people who’ve hurt them?
Q. Is there anything you would like our readers to know that we haven’t covered yet?
A. The book has a diverse set of characters.  That was something that was important to me.  White, black, gay, straight, all sorts of characters, because that’s how it is in real life.  We’re not all the same, so I wanted everyone to be different and to have different backgrounds. At the same time, I wanted to make them go beyond being “the gay guy.” Yes, Nicholas is gay, but that’s not his main role in the book you know? Cassandra, one of the animals, is black, but her main role isn’t “the black woman.” They’re still people, and are all important in the course of the book. But I suppose the most important thing about the book is: enjoy reading it!

~ by Sumiko Saulson on July 1, 2013.

5 Responses to “Interview with Briana Lawrence, author of “Treat Me Kindly””

  1. Wait, people have told you your book is not what they’d expect a black woman to write about? The hero buys the heroine at an auction. When he wakes up, he sees her as a person. The other buyers don’t treat their “pets” well and somebody is going all Django Unchained on them. This book could easily have been titled I Know Why The Caged Bird Kills. And people are honestly saying it’s not relevant to the black experience?

  2. Reblogged this on Sumiko Saulson and commented:

    This should have been in the book 60 Black Women in Horror Fiction. In fact, it will be… so we are officially up to 62. But no, not changing the title. 🙂

  3. […] Briana Lawrence […]

  4. […] Briana Lawrence […]

  5. […] Briana Lawrence […]

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