Every book has three stories: The story between the covers; the story behind the author’s process; and the story of how it got published. The story behind how Petra Lewis wrote the first book of her novel trilogy The Sons and Daughters of Ham, and why she ultimately decided to self-publish it could be books unto themselves. But more on that later.
After nearly a decade of trying to get the trilogy in readers’ hands, the first of the series became available for pre-order this month. Borne out of Lewis’ despair and frustration after two acts of violence and the gun-related death of a young man she knew, Book I: A Requiem follows a Brooklyn-based family staggering under the grief of their gunned-down son/brother. From December 2012 through December 31, 2013, Lewis says she will donate $3.00 from every print order and $1.50 from every e-book order to Street Corner Resources; the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center’s Save Our Streets Crown Heights (SOS) program; and Families of Victims Against Violence founded by Reverend Herbert Daughtry — three organizations with a history of addressing gun violence.
In addition, visitors to Lewis’ site can submit the names and birth and death dates of loved ones killed through violence. She will memorialize the names in Book I’s cover liners or on a dedicated page. No purchase of the book is necessary to submit names.
Lewis says she has always wanted the Trilogy to inspire discussion about and change regarding gun control. “Of course I had no idea that the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown would coincide with our originally planned December 17th launch for the campaign and website. When we finally did launch on Christmas Eve, it was in an altered landscape — one in which America seems to have genuinely reached a tipping point on gun violence,” she explains her press release. “I pray and hope this watershed moment on gun control is finally real — not simply a moment of outrage.”
What is the Ham Novel Trilogy about?
The Sons and Daughters of Ham is the story of a Caribbean-American family, An African American young man, violence, choice, and destiny. The books’ concept started when I experienced three acts of violence in my early 20s — the final one being the murder of the teenage son of family friends. This led me to question: “Why is it so easy for Black and Brown young men to kill each other — and where did this mindset come from?”
Strangely, in college I had developed an obsession with the murders of young urban kids I [read about] in the papers, and would often clip the articles. Then that violence actually hit home. In the decades since that young man’s murder, I personally know of at least ten people — directly, or a couple of degrees away — who have been murdered. The brother of an ex-boyfriend. The brother of one of my sister’s ex-boyfriends. My aunt’s long-time boyfriend had two nephews who were gunned down in the same shooting — and if they hadn’t pushed their sister out of the way, she would have died, too.
I’d be having normal conversations with people I know, and somehow it would suddenly come out that their child or a relative had been murdered. This had become like a new kind of urban parlor conversation, the fact that these murders had become the “new normal,” with their revelation taking place in the course of mundane, everyday affairs — like asking: “Do you want a cup of tea, and one lump or two?”
I dare to speculate that the vast majority of Black and Brown America knows someone who has been murdered, or knows someone who knows someone. And socioeconomic status does not matter — I am saying this despite the fact that I live a middle- to upper-middle-class lifestyle, which one would think would have insulated me from knowledge of, or direct experience with this violence. It hasn’t.
How long have you been trying to get it published, and why has it taken so long?
I think I started writing what became the trilogy around 1994, because those three acts of violence that inspired it took place in 1993. The trilogy started as my Master’s thesis. I entered the Columbia MFA program in 1994, but did not graduate until 1998… I had to take a year off in between to earn money to cover my second year of tuition. It’s a two-year program. The rest of the time was spent trying to complete my thesis in the time allotted once formal class work had ended.
Before formally graduating, I signed up with an agent at ICM. At the time I was friends with Danzy Senna, the author of Caucasia, and she was being represented by Binky Urban at ICM, who also represented Toni Morrison. Incidentally, it was reading Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye… that made me want to be an author.
Binky didn’t sign me on, but referred me to someone who had been an ICM junior agent, and was now a full-fledged agent. He went on to be a legendary literary agent — the kind so powerful, he was written about in gossip columns from coast to coast. He was a very nice guy, but making serious head-turning power moves.
I had gotten my first full-time job on Wall Street as a senior financial writer, and thought it would be a short pit stop for me — a year or two on Wall Street at most. In the meantime I started writing the book in earnest. We don’t have time here for all the soap operatic twists and turns in between, but let’s just say I went from that ICM agent to an agent at the now defunct LJK Literary agency, founded by Larry Kirshbaum, who used to head Time Warner Books, which dominated the book charts for a long time. Larry is now at Amazon.
Anyway, regarding delays, on my end, initially I struggled with finishing the book. I would write a couple of chapters and give it to my first agent to read. I was trying to sell an incomplete book so I could leave Wall Street and fulfill my fiction-writer dreams. Sample chapters work for selling nonfiction, but for fiction it’s largely a no no — unless you’re some kind of freakish prodigy. I’d finished a complete draft of Book I of my novel with my first agent, but it was the second who started shopping it around.
We kept getting replies back that it was well written, but really dark subject matter — because of the murders. An editor at Grand Central Publishing (which used to be Time Warner books) wanted to acquire it — but could not get her whole team to buy in, so the opportunity faded to black. I was devastated, and hid the manuscript away in the proverbial drawer.
I also tried at an alternative startup small press venture — half the editorial team involved wanted to acquire my first book, the remainder passed, and overruled. I think that venture only published one author and has since folded. So the issue may not have been my book. My second agent loved the book and was really supportive, but I was so frustrated by the entire experience, I “broke up” with him, and have been agentless since.
Why did you ultimately decide to self-publish?
I had still been toying with the idea of giving mainstream publishing a final go, but after doing a crowdfunding campaign in the summer of 2012, I decided that mainstream publishing was way too clumsy for me. I’m an artist with a very strong entrepreneurial bent, and a corporate background. The idea of launching my own publishing enterprise really appealed to me.
My last corporate job was Head of Internal Communications for the Asset Management division of a top-10 global investment bank. There were a lot of changes afoot since spring 2012, and I knew regime change was impending, and that, as a result, the possibility of my being laid off was strong. I was right. December 31, 2012 is/was my final day. Since spring, when I was out on medical leave, I had started laying down the groundwork for starting Bookstar Business Ghostwriting + Development. My business partner on that, Julie, the owner of an award-wining boutique publishing firm is also helping me with all cyber and publishing aspects of launching my novel—from website, to printing, to e-book.
I feel like I’ve become my client — as we plan to offer similar services to entrepreneurs who want to self-publish, and my own launch has given me a stronger sense of the best practices for our offering to that client base. I mentioned to Julie that, down the road, we should consider Bookstar Creative, which would handle things like fiction.
How/where can people get a copy of the Trilogy?
You can pre-order the first trilogy novel, The Sons and Daughters of Ham, Book I: A Requiem via my website, www.hamnovels.com. The book formally launches in May 2013. At that time, people can still go through my site, but the formal purchase and processing will be handled by Amazon.
Are you just trying to jump on the Newtown Tragedy bandwagon by offering to donate sales proceeds to gun control charities?
No, not at all. The idea of donating a portion of the proceeds from the publication of my book is one that I had since the early ‘90s when I began undertaking this trilogy. Over the decades since, I became an armchair anti-violence and gun-control activist. On Sundays I would listen to community talk shows like The Open Line, which used to be on KISS FM, but is now on WBLS. There I learned the names of all the key anti-violence activists who were doing the hard, real groundwork throughout the Tri-State area.
The key issue each of them faced was the same: funding. Their varying methodologies were effective, but they needed money not just to keep their work going, but to expand their platforms. My book campaign slogan is Save Lives –“Literally.”
Another idea I’ve had since the ’90s that I integrated into the campaign, and very dear to my heart, is that anyone can submit the names, and birth and death dates, of any loved ones who died through violence, who I’ll then memorialize in the book’s cover liners or on a dedicated page. No purchase of the book is necessary to submit names. People can submit the names on the “Memorial Pages” section of my website, www.hamnovels.com
You’ve experienced highs and lows in the industry — securing two high-powered agents, then difficulty getting your books sold and ultimately having to part ways with said agents. What has the experience taught you about the publishing industry?
That it sucks — is that an answer? Again, the word that comes to mind is “clumsy” — what I’m interested in is nimble. I also think that in the DIY, cyber age we’re living in, there’s no more room for scepters and king or queen makers.
I recently learned this week that Fifty Shades of Grey was originally self-published before being picked up by Random House. It’s like, for mainstream publishing, there’s only room for one or two elephant behemoth books per year per house, like Fifty Shades of Grey, and all the remaining books are akin to dung.
On the flip-side, Amanda Hocking, the self-publishing darling who sold a million+ e-books before getting a lucrative, conventional publishing deal, said she went for the mainstream publishing deal because DIY meant she was spending all her time on marketing instead of actual writing.
Based on my own launch, I can attest to how time consuming it is — but it’s also incredibly fulfilling. If you’re not going to have major marketing muscle behind you or a huge advance from a mainstream publisher, then being with a mainstream house no longer makes sense. You get pennies on the dollar, and you’re still expected to go out there and get sweaty shilling your own book. I’m creative, a design freak, and have a very strong point of view on just about everything, so self-publishing is a perfect fit for me — it’s very hands on.
What has the experience taught you about yourself?
For this particular trilogy, I did a lot of research in the ’90s, including interviewing parents whose children had been murdered who had spoken to no one formally about the experience… [who] agreed to let me interview them. It’s wanting to honor those parents that has kept me going, even through so many obstacles.
The epidemic of urban murders for the past three decades+ has been an American tragedy hiding in plain sight. But in general, now that I’m self-publishing and launching my ghostwriting business, I need no motivation to keep me going — I absolutely love what I do!
What’s next for you as a writer?
Book III, Baby! As I said in one of the videos for my crowdfunding campaign, Book III will be all about my inner dude. Even though I’m against gun violence in the real world, ironically, I’m a huge action film fan — and love directors like Scorsese, John Woo and Takeshi Kitano. I’m also obsessed with Kurosawa. I want to create a complex, testosterone- and action-driven book primarily told from a male perspective in which there are twists and turns and betrayal. Actually being able to successfully pull off that kind of book is very frightening to me — something I find totally delightful.