21 questions with NY Times bestselling author, Eric Jerome Dickey
Eric Jerome Dickey. Antigua, circa 2006.
I first met Eric when he visited Trinidad in July 2012.
To say I’m a fan, is a gross understatement so it goes without saying that that encounter is not one I’m likely to ever forget.
At the time, I was a Junior Broadcast Journalist at a local TV station.
On the morning in question, the Producer asked me to take a copy of that morning’s guest list to security at the front desk.
I happened to glance down at the list and a name jumped out at me.
Eric Jerome Dickey.
For a moment I could barely breathe, far less speak.
Could it be true? Could THE Eric Jerome Dickey, the literary genius who authored gems like Milk in my coffee, Liars Game, Sister Sister, Pleasure, Chasing Destiny, Sleeping with Strangers… could it be that he was actually going to be in the building where I worked, breathing the same air as me?!
I couldn’t believe it.
It was no secret that I was a book fiend and a huge fan of his work.
As the elevator was going down I couldn’t help but wonder if this was in fact nothing more than a cruel prank orchestrated by my colleagues.
I’m happy to report that it wasn’t.
When the elevator doors opened, there he was sitting to the right of the lobby, notepad in his hand and the brightest smile on his face.
In short, that day has been documented as one of the best days of my life.
Eric Jerome Dickey & Dionne Baptiste, Circa 2012.
Having spent a lot of time in a number of the islands studying the people and culture, Eric has earned his place as an honorary man of the Caribbean.
Recently, I had the opportunity to enjoy a virtual tête-à-tête with the former aerospace software programmer turned New York Times bestselling author.
Here are his responses to questions about his journey as an author and titbits of his creative process.
- You're a New York Times bestselling author of more than 25 books, which part of the process do you most enjoy?
EJD: I actually enjoy the part that no one sees. The actual being creative, looking at the blank sheet, coming up with characters and plots, just that whole creative process… the part that if someone is reading it while I’m working on it, they have no idea what it’s about. They don’t know what direction I’m going in. I call that part the lady without the makeup and I don’t mean that in a misogynistic way. I’m just saying it hasn’t been dressed up yet and presented to the public. That’s the best part of it. I mean you start with this thing, this idea and at some point it just all comes together and at some point it’s like wow, I’m on the last page!
- On average how long does the entire process take, from conceptualisation to the final full stop on the last page?
EJD: I’d say between six and eight months working full-time. Writing a novel is not always just sitting down and cranking out new pages. Some days when I get to that first 100, I will stop and I’ll go back and read every page of the first 100 make sure I like the direction I’m going, the characters, I move stuff around… every day you go to work can be unique so I’ve never felt like I’m doing the same thing over and over again. When you’re creating characters it’s kinda like creating them from the inside out, not superficially.
- Of all the books that you’ve written, all the characters you’ve thought up and developed, which is your favourite?
EJD: Jesus! You know I sometimes think I have a favourite character then I’ll pick up a different book and I’m like, no I like this guy too. It’s almost like a parent… which one of your children do you like the best? They all have different personalities, you like them for what they are, you like them for being different. I would definitely say I could do a lot more with Gideon and for me personally, you know the travel, the exploration the jumping into different cultures and I would definitely put A Wanted Woman as an extension of the Gideon universe. Being in Trinidad and Barbados, creating the LKs and just sort of dropping it on top of what already exists.
- A number of your books are set in the Caribbean, what do you love most about the region?
EJD: Every island is different but I’ll definitely say that the Bahamas are the most American islands, there was just a lot of familiarity about it. Now I got to Trinidad and it was a whole different world, I love Trinidad. I got there and learned about the food, the bake and shark, then there’s the culture, the people, running around the Queens Park Savannah, hanging out with Nigel and the crew. Barbados was different, when you jump to another island there’s just a shift in culture but you know what? That’ll be no different from you coming here (United States) and moving through the States. I think I stayed in Barbados the longest and did most of A Wanted Woman when I was there. I spent days driving around in the heat, trying to figure out how I wanted this chase scene to go… Oh and Antigua, I had a great time in Antigua I stayed at the Yacht Club for a couple months. I just felt so relaxed, even while I was writing.
- What’s one thing many people may not know about career writing?
EJD: A huge part of writing is learning and exploration. I love learning so for every book I’ve written, I’ve stretched myself to learn something new. Maybe that’s why I create characters that I have nothing in common with. It makes me go into their world, research their world, talk to other people and find a representative from their world to see how much I got right, I adjust it accordingly. A lot of places I’ve been to, I considered myself to be living there. I would stay places 4,5 or 6 months, I mean sometimes I’m there so long I’ve got a grocery store, I’ve got a place I get my laundry done, I got places I go to eat where I’m a regular and I’m there so long that I’m passing tourists on the road and giving them directions.
- What’s your biggest strength?
EJD: Probably being self-motivated and focussed. I’ve never had anyone have to look over my shoulder to make sure I’m doing my work. At the same time that’s my biggest weakness. I could be so focussed that I tend to ignore basic stuff, you know basic relationships. Everyone in your life deserves attention, but I could get in the bubble and weeks could go by and I haven’t given people attention. It’s not intentional, you’re just like in that zone, ask any creative person…
- When was the last time you cried?
EJD: Probably two days ago. It wasn’t a dream I just woke up in that mode… that’s something that happens off and on. I guess the emotion says “I’m here and you’re going to use me!” I mean nothing triggered it, maybe it was a dream I just didn’t realise when I woke up. Sometimes you just wake up feeling melancholy for whatever reason.
- What’s your guilty pleasure?
EJD: Cookies! Oh my gosh, me and cookies are not friends. If I open up a bag of cookies aint no “oh this bag of cookies is going to last me the week,” it’s a wrap man. It’ll be cookies for breakfast, lunch and dinner and then I’m sitting there looking at the empty bag asking myself “Why you eat all those cookies?” My best thing is to go to a shop and buy one or two cookies and not go to the supermarket and buy a big old bag. Store-bought, I like the Milano double chocolate cookies, but generally speaking I like oatmeal and raisin.
- What’s the one thing that’s missing in your life right now?
EJD: Human contact, thank you Corona!
- What’s the worst thing that’s been said about you on social media?
EJD: Oh gosh, this is really interesting. I don’t really track it, I stopped following because people could say whatever they want to say. Jesus Christ, people would put stuff up about my sexuality and I was just like where did that come from? I would just see a bunch of random stuff out there… I remember somebody posting something about what my house was worth, I was like my house is worth that much? Really? I called my real estate agent she’s like ‘No Eric, your house is not worth that much.’ For me it’s like when you have Thanksgiving dinner in the States you put the children in one room and you put the adults in another, I’m in a room with the adults so I’m not paying attention to what the children are talking about.
- What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received and from whom?
EJD: I had a Creative Writing teacher when I was in UCLA, when I started this journey I was just doing it because I enjoyed it, it was my way of relaxing, it was fun, sometimes it seemed effortless. I remember him telling me that one day I was going to get published, I had no idea what that meant. How was I to go from writing this in a class for fun to getting published? There was no connection and that wasn’t the intent. He encouraged me to keep doing what I was doing and then you know, there was just gradual growth. It was nothing big, but it’s a moment that I remember. He said to me “There’s something there even if you don’t see it.” If not for that I probably would’ve just enjoyed that class and never taken another.
- What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
EJD: Discipline and determination are critical elements, ask anyone you know who is successful. There’s more to writing than putting a pen to paper and filling pages, you’ve got to study your craft. Being a writer, a lot of people come up to me but you can quickly tell whether they’ve done any work or if they just have this fantasy of sitting in a store surrounded by books and people coming to praise them. That’s what a lot of people want right there, they just want somehow to get attention and to look good on IG. Whenever you talk to them about work, the light goes off. People often want to get to where you are, so far as their perception of your success, without doing the work. I’ve read so many books on writing, I wasn’t interested in reading the work of other people more than I was interested in reading about the art itself. I wanted to figure out what I was doing, not look at what you did and try to emulate what you did. Every path is different but every path is the same. Writing could appear effortless but it requires hard work and sacrifice.
- What’s your biggest accomplishment to date?
EJD: Being a black man who grew up in the south, Memphis Tennessee, my biggest accomplishment would’ve been graduating from high school and going to college. We still had a lot of people who weren’t graduating high school. On my side of town, you graduate high school, you’re going to college/university and no one in your family has been to university so you’re basically on your own, you have no one to advise you on what to expect. You’re going on a campus that your mother or your father, your grandparents have never been on. You’re going to experience a life that they’ve never experienced and to get through that period you’ll have to readjust. You’re leaving your high school friends behind to move into a whole new section of society. I moved from my side of town which was 99% black, to living on the other side of town that was 4% black. The transition was tough.
- Given the opportunity to start over, what if anything would you do differently?
EJD: I would’ve added to my knowledge of Hollywood and being my own film maker. It’s not necessarily to turn my books into movies but I would love to have been able to write other stuff that would’ve been fun. I’ve been an actor on a very small level that no one will ever remember and whatever film they have of me I hope they burn. I saw something I did not too long ago I was like oh my God, what was I thinking? But all of that helped me as a writer, reading scripts whether good, bad and there are some bad script… you’re learning storytelling, you’re learning pace, you’re learning characterisation… all of that was in my tool-book when I started to write. When I have to describe, or not a character, I’ve never described Gideon and that’s been intentional from day one…
- How do you respond to people who for one reason or another say “Eric, you can’t…”?
EJD: I keep saying, there’s a lot of intellectual stupid people out there who will say you can’t because they can’t. I’ve run into editors who have told me you can’t do this, and I said no, YOU can’t do this. I’ve run into a teacher at UCLA, he told me I could not write a book that had that much dialogue in it. I know what I’m trying to do, what I need is somebody on team Dickey to help me get where I need to go and obviously you’re not that person because all you see is what you think I can’t do. That’s why a lot of stuff you do, you don’t talk about it or announce it, just do it. When I was published, 95% of the people I know didn’t even know I was writing a book. They were like you were writing a book? I said yes, why would I talk to you about it you don’t even read?
- What do you want legacy to be?
EJD: You know I haven’t really thought about it… Right now if I wrote something and you enjoyed it, I’m good. There are a lot of people who would read your stuff and enjoy it, but every now and then you’ll meet somebody who will read it and really get it, that’s nice. I’ve had people who would read a book at 20 and like it for whatever particular reason, then they read it again at 30 or 35 (yes I’ve been around for a minute,) and all the nuanced stuff they get it.
- What brings you the greatest joy?
EJD: Kicking it with friends, work the last thing on my mind and just watching a game, breaking bread and being us. Enjoying life! Brunch with friends…for me a nice number would be ten because I don’t gravitate towards large crowds. It’s funny because my job pushes me to be in front of large crowds. I did stand-up comedy a long time ago but that was different, you were in front of a crowd and when you come off stage you don’t have to interact with the crowd. With the book you do your thing and you interact with everybody. Well used to, before corona. I’m not even sure how that’s going to work out now.
- What’s the best gift you’ve ever received?
EJD: Life, the gift of life from my Mama. I don’t really cling to material things. I had a home in Atlanta once and they broke in and stole everything and the only thing I was worried about is my laptop because it had my work on it. I’ve seen people freak out over material things way more than I would. My Timex keeps the same time as your Rolex so I’m good.
- What’s at the top of your bucket list?
EJD: There’s a comedienne called Leighann Lord, I want to see her do stand-up, but again that’s something else corona killed. I just think she’s so funny, she has this real easy-going, intellectual, well thought-out humour that makes me laugh.
- Given the opportunity to address black men in your country, what would you say?
EJD: You’ve always got to watch your back. Even the simplest activities and even when you’re doing nothing, you’re forced to live like you’re in a battlefield. You don’t know where the enemy is coming from and the enemy doesn’t have to have a reason so always watch your back. Get educated, that doesn’t necessarily mean going to University but find something that you want to invest those 10 000 hours in and pursue that. Respect women! I look at the world leaders today and my goodness, toxic masculinity will kill us all.
- What’s one thing most people don’t know about you?
EJD: I’m not as tall as they think I am, I’m only 5’9. I’m an average height guy, with average ways, trying to do extraordinary things.