Tell me about yourself as a writer. Who are you?
That’s a rough first question. As a writer, I identify as a Black woman. Everything that happens for me is filtered through that lens. I am so in love with Black people. I think we are so dope, and so, everything I write is to serve our community. I write from a place of love. Even though we have flaws, I want to show those things, but not in a way that dishonors who we are as a people.
I want to let that stand for a second.
Your debut novel, Looking for Hope, took 14 years to publish. What prompted you to take the leap?
Self-doubt and imposter syndrome had me locked up for a very long time. I felt like, who wants to read my work? Who’s gonna care? So, there were two mentors who believed in my work and told me I was a good writer, Tina McElroy Ansa and Suzette D. Harrison. They thought the story was good, my writing was good, and I just needed to push through. That gave me the extra kick to say, ‘Okay. I’m going to finish this.’
Once I got focused, it took three years, and that started with Tina McElroy Ansa giving me first steps of things I needed to do, then going through the process of her reading a chapter and sending back notes to help me get my flow, and then finding a publisher.
I’m glad you mentioned publishing. Why did you choose an independent, vanity press, instead of going traditional?
I sent out some query letters and got a few requests for the full manuscript, but they didn’t know what to do with the violence in the first chapter. One publisher struggled with how to balance it. We had already set some ideas around dates, but she couldn’t get past it. She couldn’t stomach the violence against a woman, especially one with a child.
That is interesting. The rule of writing is to start off capturing the reader’s attention, and with all the violence going on nowadays, I’m surprised that would give someone pause.
That is a thing. That publisher was like, nah, I can’t do this. So, I decided, let’s self-publish. Then, when I said that to Suzette D. Harrison, she started rattling off all these questions, and I was like, ‘Say what now? You’re overwhelming me.’
Right, it’s a lot.
It is. I just wanted to write. I didn’t want to do all of that. So, I told my aunt I was writing something, kind of dibbling and dabbling, and I sent her part of it. Around that time, my aunt mentioned that an author she knew was doing a talk at the Jacksonville Public Library. I went, and that’s where I met Nikesha. She mentioned she was a publisher. I sent her the first few chapters and she decided to take me on. That was why I went to NEW Reads Publications.
Then, my aunt and I hatched this plan to do a big reveal. The pressure was on. Now, I had to do it. My aunt would call and say, “You’re not finished with that book yet?” She and I are very close. For her to read it encouraged me to keep going. That was the nudge that made me finish. I was like, Okay. I think I can do this.
Thank you for sharing about this process. A lot of times, we think rejection is personal. Most of the time, it’s because the work isn’t a good fit.
Okay, so what obstacles did you face when you were writing Looking for Hope and how did you overcome them?
Definitely imposter syndrome…feeling like do I really have this in me? Can I be a really good author? I’ve been an avid reader since I was a young child. I read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye in middle school, and it changed my life. What middle school kid is reading The Bluest Eye? You know what I’m saying? I had a very high standard of what good writing looks like, and you know, I still think I have a long way to get to Morrison’s level, but that’s what I want to do. I want somebody to read a book of mine and be like, “Oh my God! I want to do that with words.” I had to overcome allowing imposter syndrome making me feel small, like there’s no possible way I can get to that place.
Also, when I was writing Looking for Hope, I was working as an instructional designer, writing educational content. I was writing all day for work. A lot of times I didn’t want to write when I got off work. So, I had to find my process and figure out when is the best time for me to write? When was I most creative?
I’m also a musician, and Suzette D. Harrison would ask, “Do you play music when you write?” When my brain is working, I can’t listen to music if I’m trying to focus. I tried the music thing. I just kept trying and trying, until I found my process, which is meditating and praying first.
Spring 2021, Celestial and her aunt, JayBee hatched their plan. Holmes released her debut novel, Looking for Hope under the pen name Mbinguni. U.S.G.I.R.L.S book club, gathered 60 unsuspecting women to have lunch and discuss the novel at Epping Forest Yacht Club. Afterwards, her aunt revealed that Mbinguni was in their midst. Celestial took the podium and was met with a standing ovation for her work.
How do you think the novel has impacted readers? What have you heard?
Oh, some of my favorite quotes have been: “It’s like a movie is playing in my mind.” “I feel like I’m there.” That really touched me as an author. I didn’t necessarily expect that response. I didn’t know that’s what I was doing. I was just writing. Before I sit down to write, I meditate and pray and ask to be used as a writer. When I went back and read the proof copy, I was like, Oh, I didn’t realize I had written certain things, so the biggest compliment to me was when people said, “You know, I could see this as a movie or it played out like a movie,” because I’m such a fan of all sorts of storytelling.
I have to share this with you. I lost my mother when I was 16, and there was a part in the book where Mouse basically says, You know, all these mother figures are cool, but I just wish my mama was here, or something like that.
It was right after she had her cycle for the first time.
Yep, and her point was, I’m grateful for all this mothering, but I just need my mama here right now. That’s real. I felt that.
It’s funny you said that. My mother and I are close now, but my mom didn’t raise me. She was a young mom. She gave me to my grandparents and went into the military. So, I often had that feeling like I love my grandmother, but I wanted to know my mom. I wanted to have a closer look at my mom. So, it’s funny that just triggered that thought, like wow. Maybe, that’s where that came from.
Like you said earlier, you want readers to know that information but not to disrespect your mother and the choices she had to make.
Right. My mom and I are close, but that’s interesting. I looked at the book after and thought there’s a whole lot of little therapy type stuff in here.
Little nuggets! So, what was the best part about writing?
Falling in love with the characters. I fell in love with Ms. Sookie, with Mouse. Learning the characters and watching them unfold as I was writing and figuring out things about them as I was writing. Being open to the process of writing because there were things that I thought I was going to do in the book that didn’t happen. RJ was supposed to be a girl. She was supposed to have a little sister, and in my mind, their relationship was not going to be good. But that’s not how it played out.
I heard that’s how fiction writers process. You all have these characters in your brain that kind of just live there, that hang out. That’s crazy!
I thought it was crazy, too, until I read something from an author explaining that [it] was a common experience for authors. I was writing something one day and a character said something, and I said, ‘I’m not going to put that.’ My characters reveal themselves to me, sometimes visually. I saw Mouse. I saw her clothes. I saw Ms. Sookie, and I’m like ‘What in the world? You just showing up in my mind?’
That’s wild! What advice would you give to someone who has never published but wants to?
Find a mentor. That was the best thing that happened to me. If you believe you’ve been put here to write, then that’s what you’re supposed to be doing, but you just gotta figure out how to sharpen your skills. A mentor will help you do that. I’m still sharpening. I have two books that are vying for my attention, but I know once it’s time to send that to someone for editing, that’s a process every single time. There’s always going to be feedback. There’s always going to be changes.
Oddly enough, my job taught me how to take ego out of the writing process. As an instructional designer, I had to send content to an editor, a guy we called “the shredder” because we knew it was coming back with red marks, no matter how good it was. That taught me I can’t be attached to that part of it. At the end of the day, if I want the product to be better, it’s gonna take somebody else.
By the time I got to someone giving me feedback on Looking for Hope, it didn’t sting. It didn’t feel personal. I went into it knowing this is gonna make my writing better.
There are different types of editors and people don’t often know that. My best friend of several years has a doctorate in English. I was so hesitant to send her a draft. But she started asking me questions that made me think deeper about the writing. For example, when the traumatic event happens in chapter one, and Mouse stops calling her father “Daddy,” I had her calling him “father.” And my best friend said, “That doesn’t feel right. Why is she saying ‘father?’ What would she call him?” I had to think, and that’s when I changed it, and she started calling her father by his first name. But it was my best friend asking me that question that made me think through it.
That’s a good example of how something small can make a huge change.
Okay. Last question…What advice would you give to a budding author?
When the voices start, tell them to shut up! I don’t mean that (laughing), because I let them live there for a very long time. What I’m learning over and over again, these last few years, is I’m just supposed to do what I’m supposed to do. I gotta show up and God will do the rest. It doesn’t matter if I think nobody’s going to read it. If this was given to me to write, then that’s what I’m supposed to do.
I have a firm belief that everything happens when it’s supposed to, so in the end, trust your voice.
I think we’ll end there. Congratulations again, Celestial! Looking for Hope is a wonderful novel.