NAACP Image Award winner, national bestselling author and Arkansan hall of famer are a few prestigious titles for ReShonda Tate Billingsley. It’s been over a year since Billingsley stirred up some controversy when her public disciplinary action against her daughter went viral. She talks with me about her upcoming movie produced by Queen Latifah’s Flava Unit, her social media stunt that went viral and life as a national bestselling author.
Life as an author
You were once a reporter, what made you decide to be an author?
I didn’t leave the news business until my seventh book. My literary career had really taken off and it had gotten to the point where it was hard to balance the two because I was getting more and more requests to speak and make appearances. With this real job you only have two weeks of vacation and it was very hard to balance. I finally had to make the decision to just write full time.
What moment/event in an author’s life signifies the “I made it” moment?
It’s funny you ask that, a lot of people ask me that. I don’t feel like I’ve made it yet; I feel like I’m still striving; every day is a work in progress. But, I do have a lot of readers all over the country and I do get a lot of feedback. To be able to walk into an airport bookstore or a bookstore thousands of miles away and see numerous books there—not just one of my books, but a half of a shelf with my books—that is a very fulfilling thing to see and that makes everything I do worthwhile.
Each author has their own writing process, what is your process like?
I do not write from an outline, I’m more of a creative writer. I do have an outline for my publisher. Overall, I like my characters to take over. I wish I could say I sit in a mountain in Maine and craft these wonderful stories, but I have three small children so I have to get my writing in when I can. I fit it in. I make time to write. I make sure to write every day.
How has the publishing/literary industry changed since you first started writing?
Oh it has changed drastically. One of the good things is that now anybody can get published and one of the bad things is that everybody can get published. It is so much easier to get published now. Now, you have people putting out standard work. They are putting a book out for either a name or print. Now readers have to sift through the garbage. On the flip side, you are able to get some undiscovered voices that may not be heard.
Are any of your books based on true stories?
I’m going to say no, in case this is ever replayed in front of a judge. My family members would say they bare some striking resemblances. It’s funny; there is a joke in my family that says, “Don’t say anything around ReShonda unless you want it in a book.” I am at the family reunion with my laptop open, taking notes. Most people that I know, knows I won’t put anything too despairing in my book. I’ll change the name to protect the guilty. People that know me know, everything you tell me is fair game, unless you give me a disclaimer.
In The Secret She Kept, Tia was battling mental illness. Do any of your characters hit home for you?
Yeah. I’ve wanted to write The Secret She Kept because we have mental illness in my family. Like so many families, in particular African American families, it’s not something that is addressed; we just don’t talk about it. That is why the story was so near and dear to me and why I wanted to tell that story. A lot of that was based on natural events that happened with my relatives. But I’ve done extensive research; I’ll combine that reality with my imagination to create the stories that I do.
You completed an 18 city tour, how was it and what was the best part about the tour?
It was awesome being in a different city every day meeting new readers, connecting with new readers and longtime readers. It was just a wonderful experience, made better by the fact that I was touring with my co-author, Victoria Christopher Murray. We are kindred spirits, like a writing chemistry. It was so much fun being on the road going from city to city and meeting all these people that love and support your work. It was a phenomenal experience, 18 cities in 18 days.
Let the Church Say Amen is becoming a movie! Congratulations. Please tell us who is in it, what it will be about and when we’ll be able to watch it?
We finished filming in October and it is currently in the final editing stages now. We are not sure of the exact release date, but it will be airing in the Fall of 2013. Regina King is directing it; Queen Latifah’s Flava Unit is one of the producers; Steve Harris from Private Practice and Diary of a Mad Black Woman is in it; Lela Rochon, Naturi Naughton, Hosea Chanchez, and Collins Penne. We had a fabulous cast, and I was so excited to have a chance to have a few lines as well, so I’ll be making a cameo. Wonderful experience, it was so much fun.
What are some other upcoming books or projects you are currently working on?
My latest book came out in April called The Motherhood Diaries. It is the good, the bad and the ugly of raising kids in the 21st century. It is a nonfiction book. It is a humorous antidote with my own children and 21 women contributed their stories of motherhood as well. My next novel comes out in July, and it is called A Family Affair.
Balancing Career and Family
You’re a mother, wife, author, and a career-minded woman. How hard is it balancing everything going on in your life?
You know it’s actually not that hard because I try to approach everything with a positive attitude. Of course if I sit around and lament on how difficult it is to make everything work, that will be my mindset. It’s not easy, but you do it. I believe every minute you spend talking about what you don’t have time to do, should be spent doing it. I don’t wallow in the negative. I focus on the positive and do what I have to do to make whatever it is happen. If it’s trying to get the kids to baseball practice, trying to get to a book signing and navigating all of that, I just do it.
Do you believe women can have it all? Specifically balancing career and family?
It’s funny that you say that. Several years ago I wanted to write a nonfiction book called You Can Have it All. My editor kind of passed on it because she didn’t like the idea. I thought it was crazy. But, the more I got into balancing it all, the more I thought she was right. It’s a catch 22. You can have it all, because I do. But there are some things that are going to suffer. The key is cutting yourself some slack. For me it’s if I missed one of my children’s event, I have to tell myself it’s OK, I’m still raising some well-rounded children. What happens when we get this “you can have it all” mentality, we think that means we have to be Supermom and Super-employee. What it is is: give your best to all of those. My children aren’t going to suffer, but I may have to miss an event every now and then, but I cut myself some slack. I keep an open dialogue so they can understand that. I make sure I’m there for the major milestones and knowing at the end of the day, I’m not a perfect mom, but I’m as perfect as I can be to my children and I’m doing what makes me happy as well. If mom is happy, then everyone is happy.
Would you consider yourself a feminist?
You know, to an extent. It’s so funny because the younger me most definitely, without a doubt. I was always like: I can do this and all for women power. The older me is more, ‘I don’t mind being taken care of.’ I can take care of myself but it sure would be nice to have someone take care of me. I’ve been married almost 17 years now, and in the beginning, I was that feminist. I was trying to prove I can do just as much, now I’m like ‘you got this?’ I think the older me is a little bit wiser and sees nothing wrong with allowing yourself to be taken care of.
Her public disciplinary action that went viral
You seem to be known now for publicly reprimanding your daughter, which has gone viral! You’ve been featured on The Huffington Post and The Ricki Lake Show, to name a few. What was the story behind the situation with your daughter?
My daughter begged and begged for an Instagram account. We sat down and had a conversation about what could and could not be posted. I thought she was mature enough to know that, and I allowed her an Instagram account. She knew with the understanding that I would be checking it, because that is just the type of mother I am. One particular night I was checking it and I see a picture of her holding an unopened bottle of Vodka and it said, ‘I wish I could drink this.’ So when she woke up the next morning, I had another sign for her, ‘I want to take pictures of me holding bottles of liquor. I’m obviously not ready for social media and will be taking a hiatus, bye bye.’ I had her post it on her Instagram account before we deleted it. I have a fan page and I have a private page on Facebook. On my private page I had about 2,000 people and my fan page I had about 12,000 people. I posted it on my private page making a note saying “make sure you keep up to date with your kids.” I just had no idea; I came back an hour later and it had been shared 2,000 times. By the end of the day, it was shared by 13,000 times, and by the end of the week it had been shared 120,000 times. This happened last March and it was on the homepage of AOL recently.
How has your daughter changed from that incident? Has she gotten more mature, wiser or more aware of what she puts out there on social media?
She did. That is what I had an issue with; she didn’t see anything wrong with what she posted. Her response was, ‘I don’t understand, I’m not drinking this. So what is the big deal?’ That is why I wanted to open the dialogue for parents because many young people don’t see the big deal. She begged for a spanking, to take her phone, anything but that told me exactly what I needed to be doing. She learned the most valuable lesson from that. After she saw everything go viral, she read The Huffington Post and she saw her story on there. She was glad she saw that picture of her holding my sign rather than the picture of her holding the bottle.
ReShonda’s opinion on popular cases in the media
Trayvon Martin case
There was no justice and there has not been any justice yet. I’m a firm believer that George Zimmerman over stepped his boundaries and used the Stand Your Ground defense to try and justify it. Had he obeyed what the police said, had he not taken the superior superhero complex, Trayvon Martin might still be alive. I detest the way Trayvon Martin was amplified in the media much like many rape victims today are. George Zimmerman was not the victim, Trayvon Martin was.
Robert Champion & Hazing
I think it is really sad that hazing in general, from the fraternities or sororities to the band has taken a toll to muddy the waters of what they are really meant to do. The hazing has just got to end. I am a member of a sorority and I never got hazed coming in, and I was still a productive member as well as the other members in my chapter. You can still do that without hazing and I just don’t know how we can allow hazing.
As a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Incorporated, how do you think the times have changed from when you crossed/joined in college to now?
It’s funny because when I joined my sorority I almost knew that hazing would be a rite of passage if you will, but they didn’t haze us. It proved to me you can still have these productive organizations. We were dedicated and many of my members are still dedicated, so you can do it without the hazing. I think it comes down to them thinking it’s part of the process, or part of being ‘cool’ and they don’t think about the consequences. I believe that is where so many incidents come from: we have a generation that doesn’t think about the consequences. If all those that hazed Robert Champion had any idea where they would be today, they would’ve thought twice about hazing him that day.
Mayor apologizes to elderly woman who got kicked off the Metrorail in Miami-Dade.
People are saying cut her some slack because of her age. I think there is a way to deal with people. Yes, the woman was singing and she was violating power. My issue is there are many YouTube videos of many people violating this power, including young White men. Why do you choose an older, African American woman to make your stand? I think it could have been handled a lot better than it was. There was no need for him to drag her off of the bus the way he did, especially since this isn’t a policy you enforce all the time.
Should White women grace the cover of Essence Magazine?
I am actually on the fence about that one. There is a part of me that wants us to actually be able to be all inclusive. We want to be on the covers of Vogue and Cosmo; so then yeah, we have to open our doors as well. But, at the same time, the reality is: Essence, Jet and Ebony are all we have. We take those same 12 spots and we give them to other races and then we have two. Even when they put Beyoncé and Queen Latifah on the cover of Cosmo and other magazines, that is very rare. They are just there and not uplifting us. If our magazines are for uplifting us, then they’re losing sight of that. If we had a lot more of ‘uplifting us’ then I’m all for it. While I get the point, I look at my selection of magazines. I don’t see where else Regina King, Kerry Washington or Raven Symoné would be published on the cover of a magazine. That is all we have. Until that branches out and expands I’m not a supporter of that just yet.
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