Nik Nicholson on Writing and Learning to Love Your Characters

The following excerpt is part of our interview series where we talk to members of the lesbian literary community. A longer version of this interview will appear in an upcoming issue of our literary journal, Serendipity.

Nik Nicholson became an artist as a teen, writing poetry and painting. She became a professional poet after being nurtured and recognized as a performer of spoken word at the West Las Vegas Art Center’s Poet’s Corner.  As a result, she was often contracted to perform spoken-word for writing classes, assemblies, and during Black History Month.

In 2009, Nicholson began research for her first independent project, Descendants of Hagar. In addition to traditional research of the period, she also surveyed and interviewed a number of masculine-centered women. Their responses exposed the challenges of coming to terms with and expressing their sexuality and gender.

Descendants of Hagar, Nicholson’s highly anticipated debut novel, won the 2013 Lambda Literary Award for Debut fiction. It is the first novel of a two-part series, which includes the intoxicatingly beautiful, Daughter of Zion.

What has surprised you the most about being a writer?

For me, finishing my first book felt like an accomplishment and an ending. Finishing a book is just the beginning, which was a huge surprise. After the long process of editing, rewriting, formatting, reviewing, readings and finally publishing from the first draft, I never imagined there was this entire life beginning once you publish. Stories and their characters take on lives of their own. This Tuesday, a reader contacted me to say her grandfather passed and she found comfort in reading about Miemay’s transition. I never expected anyone to contact me to talk about how anything I wrote touched their lives or helped them through something as difficult as death.

At the same time, imagining Zion and writing this story helped me through the transition of my own grandmother. I’ve been humbled and consoled every time someone reaches out to talk about how Miemay’s life and death gave them peace.

If you could sit down with any writer, living or dead, who would it be and what would you want to talk about?

I can’t pick just one, there are so many for so many different reasons… I found June Jordan, years after she passed and mourned. I saw Maya Angelou do this laughing poem, that made me cry and find myself. Her poem was about the way that Black people respond to all the indignities we suffer. I’d like to see Shakespeare and know if he was really a Black man. I’d love to discuss Othello with him. I’d love to discuss the Bible with its many authors, which spanned over three thousand years. I’d like to hear their motivation for certain scriptures.

I’d love to be invited to James Baldwin’s house in Paris, just to have coffee and hear his thoughts. I’d like to speak to Griots from all over Africa, before words were written and recorded. I’d like to know why they told certain stories. Plato, Niche, Socrates are all favorites. I read a lot of bell hooks. It’d be awesome to have a talk with her. Every time I drive through Kentucky I think about bell hooks. I love Nikki Giovanni and Sonya Sanchez, both of whom I’ve seen several times.

Then there are songwriters, muses for other creations I’d love to ask what their inspiration is. I love Alice Coltrane, her harp playing is other worldly. India Arie writes the Black woman’s song. Nina Simone writes Black people’s story. Maxwell, he made feminine energy a beautiful thing in a man. His music is so layered. There are tons of writers… Too many to name, I’d love to sit down and just vibe.

You are both a poet and a novelist, which literary form do you prefer and why?

I love being both a poet and a novelist. I write real fiction. I actually put stories together and plot, they are not stories from my life. I build characters and worlds. I love this, because it gives me an opportunity to live absent of my own baggage– which helps me return to my own world with a larger perspective. I step in to each of my character’s being and ask, “How can I love you? What do I need to know to understand you better?” Even the most hated characters have their reasons.

Honestly, I hated Coley when I started Descendants of Hagar. I pitied Linny’s attraction to Coley. I blamed Linny’s rejection from her mother, since birth, as the reason for her being attached to Coley. I told myself people who have dysfunctional childhoods often remain in that cycle.

Dysfunction can be a cycle, that is true. However, I was considering my characters as incomplete. Even when we are dysfunctional we are whole. Whether we recognize our wholeness is a different story, literally. Linny is whole. She doesn’t need Coley. Coley is an experiment under a microscope. Coley is Linny’s first opportunity to imagine a world beyond Zion. During Linny’s time period, many Black people died in the same area they were born, never venturing too far for fear of being killed. Not to mention, whites passed laws and terrorized Blacks to hold them hostage in the South.

When I learned to love all of my characters, it made them richer. Loving my characters allowed me to acknowledge their struggles. It also allowed me to not just celebrate their triumphs but all the ways they survived. Celebrating their survival allowed me to see their negative traits in a new light and be compassionate. Loving characters I hate taught me to be more compassionate with myself. It allowed me to acknowledge how I arrived at an unfavorable place in my own life.

Coley was sheltered and abused, like so many Black women. She wasn’t light enough, her hair wasn’t naturally straight. She didn’t have what they called “pretty eyes.” She didn’t come from the right family. They didn’t have the right history or connections. She wasn’t cultured enough in a cultured society that was built on self-hatred. Even the term “Colored” was initially started by Black people saying they were just darker people, rather than acknowledging their difference. It is the reason acknowledging difference is so important.

At the same time, Coley was the most refined woman Zion had ever seen. She made men bow to her and prance. While she didn’t meet the standards of her own society, she was the standard of feminine beauty for Zion. Some women hated her for it. Others admired her. Meanwhile, she felt like an imposter in her own flesh. She was trying to make sense of all the worlds she knew colliding within. Coley became this beautiful storm. So I love writing novels, I love putting them together.

I am working on the first draft of Daughter of Zion, which took me to New York. It was amazing to walk the streets and imagine seeing Harlem from Linny’s perspective. I am working on a polyamorous novel as well, the research is amazing. I love research.

Poetry is more personal. I love it because it allows me to examine what I know or don’t know. Poetry lets me be innate, sentient, hypocritical, confused, frustrated, disappointed, hurt, nurturing, wise, funny and afraid… but in this beautiful way that other people say they can relate to. Poetry reminds me of my own humanity and my own space and moment here in time. So I love it because it is my personal journey or my response to my journey.

What have you read within the past year that made you feel differently about fiction or about your own writing?

I read tons of books on how to write and how to be a better person. So I hope my work reflects how I’m evolving as a writer and as a person.

I am always trying different writing techniques and meditations to see what works. What has stuck is this note card stream of consciousness writing. I also like writing with ink or pencil on actual paper first. Everything just flows better this way it seems. I’m still establishing my writing process ,which changes based on how I’m feeling and what is required.

I’m also examining my relationship to writing. I’d love to work full-time as a writer, but I don’t want someone to tell me what to write. I’ve been reading a lot on how to make money as a writer. I need a channel and a publisher to give me full creative control and say, tell us stories that will engage us, teach us, and change us. LOL!!! I don’t want to report news. I want to focus on our spirits and the stories that feed them.

If you could give one piece of advice to an aspiring writer, what would it be?

I am an aspiring writer, so I will share what I wish someone had told me. Don’t allow people to define your work based on its monetary value. Don’t allow people to schedule things during your writing time. Writing won’t beg for your attention the way assignments, deadlines, spouses, and children will. Writing is writing, it’s not your personal time. Just like when kids do homework, no one would say, “Well, you’ve been studying all day, you had your personal time.” Actually, I didn’t. Take breaks, naps, and go for walks. There are tons of stories in rest.

Figure out why you want to write. Figure out what you want to write and don’t feel obligated to pick just one genre, goal, or even audience. Understand target audience and marketing. Just because you are self-publishing doesn’t mean you can dismiss the rules. Write a genre book and market it to the wrong audience they will be upset. They have expectations. You can’t claim artist prerogative because you didn’t do research or because you are too lazy to take your own creations seriously.

I want to write literary fiction. I want my books to be a testament to the time in which I physically walked the earth and how I viewed the past from this point in time. So I am okay that people use to reading erotica and romance novels that perpetuate lesbian stereotypes find my writing strange. I wrote my novel in dialect even though many people suggested I not start with historical fiction and dialect as my first project. I wanted to create the kind of fiction I need, to remind me of myself when I’m lost. So know your purpose. Give yourself permission to be everything you imagined or none of it, and something completely different.

Have patience. I still haven’t figured out what my rhythm is, but I show up to write. One of the most comforting things was reading Maya Angelou’s letter to a friend on a yellow, legal notepad about her frustration with writing. Then seeing pictures of her playing solitaire. I like Free Cell and sometimes, most recently, The Sims.

I’m learning to really enjoy the process. I’m always open to learning. Know that if you write for money it will change your relationship to the work. That’s okay. Make sure you are at peace with what you are creating. Surround yourself with other artists and writers. Surround yourself with people you believe in and who believe in you.