Hall-Crews, a native of Tampa, Florida, began writing short stories as a hobby in 1975. Ms. Crews was recently inspired to write GFB Grown Fokes Bidniss in her mother’s memory, thus commemorating her mom’s knack for making lemonade from life’s lemons. This is Hall-Crews’ first published work. Her future plans include publishing her second novel, Tea With Aunt Lizzie.
The author has earned several degrees at University of Florida and University of South Florida. Although she enjoyed a long and rewarding career as a public school educator and administrator, Hall-Crews now devotes her time to the writing profession. She is happily married to Douglas Crews.
- You have been writing short stories for some time. What led you to write a novel?
After hearing little bits and pieces of some ancient family GFB (grown folks business), a story began to churn inside my belly–at times, it was downright distracting! The longer I toyed with the idea of actually putting together the plots and developing the characters, the more I yearned to put my thoughts down on paper. It was clear from the beginning that a short story would never do justice to the kind of tale I wanted to write.
- How was the process of writing a novel? What were the most rewarding and difficult elements?
Metaphorically speaking, writing a novel is like taking the l-o-n-g scenic route to a destination. The author gets to take his or her own sweet time to build the main plot as well as develop the supporting plots that make up the story.
Somewhat difficult, yet tremendously rewarding was the process of folding into the story a number of obvious and subtle historical elements. While writing GFB, many long gone historical treasures were discovered as I excavated pertinent information from the internet, interviews, old newspaper articles, and books. The main reasons for including these facts in GFB were manifold: To add a measure of authenticity; to capture nuances of African-American life in the south at that time; to write a story with a message relevant for today, though contained within the developmental constraints of the 1950’s time period; and to portray lifestyles and backdrops specific to the Tampa Bay area.
I found the most difficult part of the writing process to be remembering to keep consistent the little elements of the story . . . like peculiar traits and sayings of some of the characters, names of places where things happened, and small, but important, details disclosed in previous chapters. For example, over the eighteen months of writing GFB, every time the action of the storyline took me to the church house, I inadvertently switched the name from Mount Zion Church to New Zion Church or First Community Church. It was almost as if that particular house of worship was going through an identity crisis of sorts. Likewise, Betty Jo Lawrence, one of the supporting characters, was sometimes Betty Lee Johnson, and the local newspaper, the Tampa Courier, was occasionally dubbed the Tampa Bulletin. Of course, these name variations were corrected through the editing process, but remaining consistent with names and small details is one of the trickier aspects of the lengthy novel writing process.
- As a former educator, did you call upon any experiences? How much do your personal experiences reflect in your books?
As an administrator of an elementary performing arts school, I authored many musical dramas for various student performances. Without a doubt, this ongoing experience helped me to become very proficient at writing believable characters and interesting storylines.
In regards to personal experiences, the prologue of GFB is nothin’ but truth. The plots are indeed grown from crumbs of hot gossip I picked up while eavesdropping during my childhood. So, throughout this novel, much liberty was taken with a few dollops of hearsay. I admittedly blurred so many lines and embellished the truth to such an extent, it’s hard to say where facts end and fiction begins.
- Is writing easy for you? Or, do you have to enforce a discipline to write, to review, to re-write?
Writing a novel takes a lot more discipline than writing a short story or one act play. For years, I thought about writing a book, I talked about it, but I didn’t actually start writing until my brother gave me a wonderful piece of advice. He said, “Write a little bit everyday…even if it’s only one word.” Now that was certainly doable. So, with that wise counsel, I set out writing a little bit of GFB each day. Sometimes two or three chapters were written, sometimes two or three words. But, without fail, for eighteen months, every single day, something was put in black and white.
- How do you go about creating your characters and your plots? What inspires you — Do you start with characters or with a plot?
Once I have a sketchy plan for the A storyline, the characters are next. To make the tale convincing and appealing, I believe characters should have distinct personalities with somewhat predictable behaviors. When I write, oftentimes my characters are modeled after interesting people I grew up with or folks I have met here and there. One of my majors in college was psychology, so I’ve spent years observing people’s quirks—you know, the uncle who chews his tongue when he’s worried or the aunt who giggles even when she’s thirty-eight hot. Some people have signature dialect or phraseology. In GFB Grown Fokes Bidniss, Gramma Mae frequently emphasizes her opinion by adding, “B’lieb dat!”
Surprisingly enough, many people fall into very apparent personality types—sassy, timid, boisterous, bossy, edgy, fun-loving, obsessive, spontaneous, easygoing, etc. I like to take personality traits such as these, and then add a few oddities and habits, to create a very colorful cast of characters. Consequently, most people reading my stories or plays will “know somebody just like” this or that character in my writings.
I’m inspired by dreams, slivers of gossip, interesting incidences, or make believe scenarios in my head. Once I’m primed with one of these, my imagination takes off by pulling together a primary plot. The little side plots take much more mental energy.
- Do you have a favorite character? Will we be seeing more of that character in your books?
Hands down, my favorite character in GFB Grown Fokes Bidniss is Gramma Mae. She is a classic—everybody’s big mouth, opinionated, Ebonics talkin’, “Big Mamma” . . . the one who says what’s on her mind and yours, too! Of course, Gramma Mae, aka Mae Mason, will have an opinion or two to be heard in my upcoming novel, Tea with Aunt Lizzie.
- What are your plans for your next project?
My next project, Tea with Aunt Lizzie, is about the evolution of an unlikely companionship which begins when a cantankerous old aunt extends an invitation for tea to a niece with a troublesome angst of the elderly. To the niece’s surprise, the episodic tea parties with her aunt are more than occasions to sip flavored teas and eat crustless sandwiches. Indeed, it is during these times that Aunt Lizzie meticulously spins a most revealing tale of her life and her frowned upon relationship with a man more than ten years her junior.
- What are you doing to market and promote your books?
Promoting my book has been a venture in and of itself. GFB Grown Fokes Bidniss, my first novel, was launched in late June 2009 with my publishing company sending almost 300 personalized emails to announce my new book and to direct potential buyers to my website. A couple of months later, I hosted a book signing party in an old cigar factory here in Tampa’s historic Ybor City. This was an effective catalyst for interviews, photos, and articles in the largest Black newspaper in the Tampa Bay area, the Florida Sentinel Bulletin. A local bookstore hookup has also been an upshot from the party.
The internet has been a great source for stirring up interest in my book, too. My niece and my brother, who are both tech and business savvy, have helped me set up a Twitter account, another website (Hallcrews.com), You Tube recordings, and a blog (which was used mostly to chronicle my book signing event). I have also written a couple of e-articles to promote interest in GFB Grown Fokes Bidniss.
My publisher, Eloquent Books, will be promoting my book in upcoming book fairs. There’s one soon in London and another in New York in the springtime.
Then, there’s good old fashioned word of mouth! It’s amazing how word travels when it comes to a good book with relatable characters and an engaging plot.
- How much input do you get from your fans and critics? Do they influence your writing?
My fans have helped out tremendously. As a matter of fact, a couple of trusted and brutally frank friends, who are also avid fiction fans, agreed to read GFB as I pumped it out, chapter by chapter. This was helpful on many levels. First, it gave me immediate feedback along the way. Second, if after reading a couple of chapters, my friends were left scratching their heads in confusion, an immediate assessment was done before moving forward. Lastly, having these readers gave me a chance to participate in book chats which sometimes impacted a few aspects of the action in the story.
GFB’s primary storyline is a love triangle between Ben Cash (eligible bachelor and local entrepreneur), who cunningly uses his charm to pursue Gerry Withers (a gullible, young, married woman) while her husband, Sergeant John Withers, is away fighting in the Korean War. After reading the novel, GFB fans have voiced opinions that are strong, but very diverse. These views confirm that I have successfully written characters who “feel” like real people and a storyline that seems authentic to the readers. Also, the most frequent comment made by GFB fans is, “I can’t wait for the sequel!
- Tell us about some of your favorite experiences from your signings and interviews. (We’re hoping this one will rank up there, too!)
The book signing party in the old cigar factory gave me a chance to introduce GFB to the Tampa Bay Area, get together with fans and friends, and to bring in a nice harvest of sales. The ambiance cast by the venue, the 50’s style entertainment, GFB themed decor, and the scrumptious spread of soul food, made it a night to remember.
Likewise, I’m extremely appreciative and excited to have this chance to interview with a quality website like Books of Soul. The questions set forth by the interviewer are certainly provocative enough to make me lay a finger against my brow and go, “Hmmm . . .,” with deep reflection about my writing. This definitely hits the top spot as my favorite interview experience.
- What are your favorite reads or authors? What books are on your shelves?
Amazingly enough,although I write fiction, my general reading preferences have been professional, non-fiction, and motivational books. A blast from the past on my bookshelf is Richard Wright’s, Black Boy. Most recently, writings of President Barack Obama, like The Audacity of Hope, have been a great inspiration.
I’m also a big fan of old classics like Theodore Dreiser’s human drama, An American Tragedy. The plot of this work, with its twists, turns, suspense, and surprises is masterful.
As a book collector, I like to scour used book stores and antique shops for first edition and author signed books. This practice has brought to my shelves a wide range of authors and books of every kind—from brightly illustrated pop-up books to 19th century poetry books.