Evelyn C. White is a dual Canadian and American citizen and a resident of Halifax, Nova Scotia. She holds degrees from Wellesley College, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Harvard. Coming from a background in journalism and civic advocacy, she is now a celebrated writer of nonfiction. Her most ambitious project to date was the ten years of research she put into her authorized biography of Alice Walker. Booklist wrote that Alice Walker: A Life (WW Norton, 2004), “meticulously traces and analyzes the stages of Walker’s life, emphasizing the impact on and importance of her literature in American culture.”
White’s writing is informed by feminism and African American culture, as well as her ceaseless curiosity. She is passionate about ping pong and okra.
I was fortunate to correspond with her by email recently.
At what moment in your childhood/adulthood did you understand that you needed to be a writer? Not so much that you wanted to make money being a writer, but that you were one of the tribe who has to write things down. Where did you go from there?
I started writing book reviews (of my own volition) while living in Seattle in the late 1970s. I wasn’t assigned, wasn’t trying to make a name for myself. Would just go into the used bookstore on Capitol Hill and buy a book and write a review. I believe that my first published piece was about The Coming Out Stories, an early gay/lesbian anthology. Some pioneering feminist publishers in Seattle who’d started Seal Press saw my book reviews (in papers such as the Seattle Gay News) and (long story short) invited me to write the first commercial general market book on the physical and emotional abuse of Black women — Chain Chain Change: For Black Women Dealing with Physical and Emotional Abuse. (In later editions the subtitle changed to “For Black Women in Abusive Relationships.”)
These pioneering feminist publishers took me to what was then called a “fern bar” in Seattle: a quasi-fancy restaurant with fern plants decorating the interior. Before this, I had received a check for $13 for one of my book reviews. That was like magic money as I hadn’t asked for any payment. I can still see the check. It was printed on goldenrod. Anyway, the feminist publishers took me to this bar and showed me the contract for Chain Chain Change. The advance was $500. They gave me a check for $250 immediately after I signed my name. This was even more amazing than the $13 check because I hadn’t written a word. The deal was that I got half of the advance upon signing, half upon delivery.
I realized then that I had an innate talent for writing, that people would pay me to write, but I had no formal training in journalism. Hence, I decided to go to journalism school. I applied only to Columbia and was accepted. Had I not been accepted, I would have taken it as a cosmic sign that I wasn’t meant to be a reporter.
What journalism skills do you think carry over into other spheres of writing?
The major skill I carry over from my journalism training is to NEVER MISS A DEADLINE. I am RELIGIOUS (not the real word, but you catch my drift) about turning in clean copy IN ADVANCE of deadlines (except for my biography of Alice Walker which is a whole other kettle of fish). Also, from journalism training, I make an effort to conduct as many interviews as possible, IN-PERSON. In the age of the internet, this is increasingly rare. One learns a lot — extra — when interviewing/meeting/conversing with someone in person. But the main thing is that I never miss a deadline and editors LOVE reporters/writers that they can depend on to deliver clean copy, without fail.
What is the single most inspiring advice/encouragement anyone ever gave you about writing? The single most disheartening/infuriating event or advice?
The most important advice re: writing for me is this: THE BEST WRITING IS RE-WRITING. It is all about revision and giving yourself enough time to revise whatever you write. That means that you cannot wait until the last minute to get started. I begin every piece of writing knowing that I will re-write. Re-writing is where it’s at. Don’t ever let anyone tell you different.
As for your latter question. On more than one occasion it has been suggested (by white male journalists) that perhaps I lifted copy from somewhere, that I plagiarized. HA! This, in my view, because they just could not believe that a black woman had scored an in-person interview with “famous” people or influential people in locations that they (from their racist perspective) perceived as being “off-limits” for women and minorities. That somehow I had poached on their WHITE MALE territory. And so they hinted that perhaps I had not been where the story indicated I had been or that I hadn’t really interviewed the famous person, etc., etc. You catch my drift. I intend to write an essay about this — eventually. This air of suspicions and doubt trails women and minority journalists. As the old saying goes, we have to be twice as good. I secure interviews because I work hard. I don’t sit on my ass and phone or text it in. I show up in person, often on my own dime. Case in point, my recent trip to Scotland where I interviewed INSIDE the royal and ancient golf club at St. Andrews Links (the “birthplace of golf”) a pioneering black women golfer. I don’t pitch ideas and wait to be assigned. I do my work and send my finished copy to editors with whom I’ve developed positive relationships. They know they can depend on me. And I value their respect for my training, intellect, energy, independence, and self-motivation as a journalist.
Writers always talk about the importance of routine – as a way to start taking oneself seriously, as a way to let the creative flow enter, etc. How do you balance routine and a personal life? How do you keep routine from becoming a rut?
Every writer has to find her/his/their own rhythm and style. I compose best between 9:00-11:00 a.m. Exercise is a critical part of my writing process. Walking, aerobics, golf. Personal life can be difficult for those who have partners who don’t understand the processes (varied) of professional writers. Most of us need quiet, no interruptions, extended periods of concentration, perhaps travel, exploration (for what might seem like no good reason whatsoever). We are driven by our curiosity. Speaking for self, I’d rather thumb through old magazines than hang up my clothes. Luckily my beloved partner doesn’t care as long as my mess doesn’t spill or creep into our shared space. I tend to agree with Oscar Wilde who notably said (or at least the quote is attributed to him): “If you can go four years without cleaning your house, it doesn’t get any worse.”
You have become the designated guardian angel to emerging writers. You have a special outfit and everything. What do you do for them? Protect them from? Tell them? What’s that one thing you wish a writerly angel had told you?
Emerging writers should not spend a second thinking about getting paid. No writer will ever be compensated adequately for what she/he goes through to deliver a fine piece of writing. I’d encourage the emerging writer to embrace a fitness routine and stick to it. I wish I’d gotten hip to the importance/impact of exercise at an earlier age. Also, emerging writers would be well-served to develop/cultivate an ADDICTION to saving money. And/or start working with an honest, ethical, brilliant financial planner/advisor to help them maximize their pitiful earnings. A penny saved is most definitely a penny earned. Or whatever that saying is. It was just by a fluke that I began direct deposit while on staff of the San Francisco Chronicle. I chose a random number ($12) and had them deduct that amount every pay period and deposit into the credit union. I was clueless. I didn’t miss the money (re: spending it) and I for real became addicted to watching the numbers grow. Over time, I increased the amount automatically deducted from my paycheque. So, I saved a bunch of money (for me, relatively speaking) and then the cosmic forces led me to a superb financial planner who helped me invest it, wisely. Within my comfort zone re: risk. I will never be wealthy. But I have managed to live within my means. I have zero debt. So debt reduction is important for writers — indeed, for everyone. This is my view. I cried and resisted (big time) paying off my student loan, but got good advice from someone who effectively told me that I needed to do it. I did and that was a very good thing.
Do you think things are harder for writers starting their careers today? If so, how?
Yes, fewer media outlets. And a bunch of people (bloggers, etc.) who want to see their name in print, online, etc. who are willing to “write” for free.
Biggest, brightest moment in your career? The moment in your career that almost made you say “fuck it all”?
Best moment. 1 – Interviewing Rosa Parks in person at San Francisco State University. One day I opened a piece of mail (real mail) sent to me at the San Francisco Chronicle. It was a photograph of me interviewing Rosa Parks. I was so bedazzled that I hadn’t a clue that there had been a photographer (must have been traveling with her) in the room. The photograph is among my most prized possessions. Interviewing Oprah in person re: her role as Sofia in The Color Purple movie was also a highlight. Interviewing pioneering black woman golfer Renee Powell inside the clubhouse of St. Andrews Links, Scotland.
2 – Seeing Buffy Sainte-Marie perform in person (twice, in Halifax and in Charlottetown) and then conducting a phone interview with her for cover story in Herizons’ Summer 2015 issue just hot off the press.
“Fuck it all.” Waiting for HOURS inside a chain linked parking lot across the street from the Mission Dolores Church in San Francisco during the visit of one of those other popes — now dead and gone, I imagine — was a total drag. This must have been in the late 1980s. Don’t know which pope it was. Didn’t care then. Don’t care now. Was part of a huge staff dispatched to cover his visit. Saw a glimpse of his white robe. That was it. Boring, boring, boring. A huge waste of time. But yes, I have “covered” a papal visit.
What three books would you take with you to read after the Apocalypse?
Paris Trout by Pete Dexter. The Color Purple by Alice Walker. Sula by Toni Morrison.
You can rewind time to the exact moment you started to become a writer. There are two paths in front of you now. One path is the one you already took. The other is a guaranteed path to wealth. You can’t have both. Which would you take if you could do it again? Why?
Same path. Our health is our only wealth.
Clara Chandler is a writer based in Vancouver, BC. She is in the last year of her Creative Writing BFA at the University of British Columbia.