Interview with Claudia Love Mair

Claudia Love Mair, a fiction writer, memoirist, activist, and the coordinator of the Kentucky Black Writers Collaborativehas a sweetness to her that draws you in immediately. She is warm and open and welcoming. She is also very funny. It’s no wonder she was chosen to lead the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning’s (Lexington, Ky.) initiative that centers and celebrates Kentucky’s Black writers. Among other services, the Kentucky Black Writers Collaborative offers “classes at no charge to Black students in recognition of systemic racism, including in education and publishing, where Carnegie operates. Our goal is to welcome Black Kentucky residents to Carnegie, nurture their development, and remove financial obstacles for as long as needed.”

Although her family is Appalachian, Claudia Love grew up in Michigan and came to Kentucky in 2009. She is the author of twelve books, including the popular Amanda Bell Brown mystery series, and her 13th book, Mourning Pages: Working Through Grief the Write Way, is due to release in October, 2023. A graduate of the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University, Claudia Love talked with Still: The Journal about her challenging paths to writing as well as her work with KBWC. 

Still: The Journal:   Could you talk a little about how you got started as a writer? What paths did you take toward writing?

Claudia Love Mair:   My mother and my grandmother moved to Detroit from Middlesboro, Kentucky during the “Great Migration.” I was raised in a little town just north of Detroit called Inkster, which is kind of a fun placename for a writer (or a calligrapher or tattooist). I grew up in a Black neighborhood; I went to all-Black schools until I went to college. There were parts of my childhood that were lovely, but there were also parts that were very chaotic. We lived in a housing project when I was very little, and then we moved into a house directly across the street from the housing project. I felt like the soundtrack for my high school years was constant sirens and police. And there was a lot of chaos at home, a lot of violence in my home, addiction. And I turned to the church for solace. I became a Christian when I was 15, and by the time I was 16, I was actually a minister—a little preacher, a teenage missionary. And throughout that time, I wrote; I told stories; I wrote awful poetry; I wrote sermons, but the novelist in me was definitely being born in that phase of my life. 

I was not raised by my parents. I was raised by my great aunt and uncle because I was a very sickly child, and my mom had nine kids. I was number seven, and she was only 27 years old when she had me. But I had such severe asthma. And my father had a really bad alcohol and drug problem, and my mother was just in over her head. So at 15 months old, my grandmother and my great aunt talked my mom into letting me stay with my great aunt because they had a car, and my mother didn’t. And if I needed to get to the hospital, which I often did, they were able to take me. My mom still feels guilty about that to this day. But I tell her: “All you did was save my life.”

Still:   Did you have encouragement from any of your school teachers to pursue writing?

CLM:   I think this might be the moment I became a writer: I was walking down the hallway at school one day and saw a piece of paper on the ground. And I have no idea why I stopped and picked it up. It had dialogue, like from a play. I looked at it, and I said, “I can do this!”—with no interest ever before that moment wanting to write. I always drew, so my mom said I would be an artist one day, but no one saw “writer” for me. So I wrote a little play, and I asked my fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Wilson, if some of my classmates and I could perform it, and that began my life as both a writer and an actress because I acted in the plays. It was such an escape from the chaos of my life.

Still:  It's easy to see how your early experiences might lead you to writing and even to the church. Do you still have those spiritual or religious leanings? You've referred to yourself as a “Catholic but I’m really bad at it.” Does spirituality tie into your creative self as a writer?

CLM:   I would say that I’m better at being a “witchy” Catholic today. I wasn’t raised Catholic but became one around age 42. I was raised in the Black Pentecostal tradition, in the Church of God in Christ, which is very conservative. But before I became Catholic, I was a practicing Eastern Orthodox because I wanted what I thought was the top, the oldest, form of Christianity. Literally Orthodox, which means “right teaching.” But eventually, I was drawn to a wider, more expansive spirituality, and this is really how my career started.

I was 40 years old, my husband needed surgery, and we were dirt poor. He wasn’t working; he had a raging drug habit; and I had just gotten diagnosed with fibromyalgia. I was in pain all the time. We were so impoverished that we went to his surgery on the city bus. In the waiting room I saw a copy of Today’s Christian Woman, and it had a Black woman on the cover, something I had never seen before on Today’s Christian Woman. I was so shocked. It felt like a sign, almost. There was an article inside about Brennan Manning’s book The Ragamuffin Gospel—kind of a gospel for outcasts and misfits and spiritually broken people. I read every bit of the magazine. I stole it. I took it home. I read it again, and I held it to my heart and said a prayer, “Jesus, if you will let me write for you, I promise I will tell people like me that you love them.”

Still:   So did you get your start in the Christian publishing market?

CLM:   I felt like there was no place for me in Christian publishing. I didn’t see anyone who looked remotely like me. I didn’t fit the profile. In 2004 I started a blog called “Ragamuffin Diva,” because I really resonated with Brennan Manning’s book. I didn’t have a thing to lose. So I decided to tell the truth: what it was like to live with mental illness, chronic pain, a drug-addicted husband, poverty. So I wrote about my own messy spiritual journey.

But Christian fiction really was segregated: a White Christian fiction market and a Black Christian fiction market. There was a White “drinking fountain” and a Black "drinking fountain” in Christian fiction.

I told five people about the blog, including Christian fiction writer Lisa Samson, and she linked my blog to hers. She had a huge platform, so people started reading my blog who would ordinarily never know I even existed. So one day, out of the blue, I get an email from this man named Don Pape representing WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House, and he asked if I would be interested in writing a book for them. But Christian fiction really was segregated: a White Christian fiction market and a Black Christian fiction market. There was a White “drinking fountain” and a Black "drinking fountain” in Christian fiction. He was representing the White “drinking fountain” and I was writing for the Black “drinking fountain,” and I could see immediately when I started to pitch that he wasn’t interested. But I was like, “I can’t lose this opportunity.” 

I started making stuff up on the spot. CSI was a big TV show at the time, so I told Don my novel was a forensic mystery (and I’m making this up as I go!) And I had studied psychology at the Master’s degree level, so I knew a lot of psych theory, so I said the main character is a forensic psychologist, and there’s a romance at the center of it with a cop. Right? Don Pape thought that sounded amazing. He said send it to me, and I had nothing. So I got to writing and within a few months, I sent him the finished book.

Still:   Whoa! The anticipation must have been exciting, nerve-wracking?

CLM:   Yes, but Don called me, crying, to tell me he was leaving the press. It was like an episode of Good Times. Just when you think, “Oh, we’re about to get out of the ’hood,” it all falls apart, and that’s what it felt like. But he called me again in a couple of weeks and he’d gotten a new job as an agent at the biggest Christian literary agency in the country, and he wanted to take me on as a client. A few months later, he sold that mystery series (the Amanda Bell Brown mystery series) and another series called Exorsistah, about a teenage girl who hunts down demons. I ended up getting a six-book deal.

But wait: Plot Twist! Don Pape left the literary agency, and I got a new agent who called me one day to say he had “news.” Now so far, most of the news I’d gotten about the Amanda Bell Brown mystery series was good news: the first book was very well received, and critics were loving the second book. My new agent said that the press was cancelling the mystery series because the books were “too sexy.” There was not a single sex scene in any of my books, but there is desire because it’s a romance. I mean, I wasn’t writing a squeaky-clean Amish novel. I was writing about a Black woman who had been abused and had become a psychologist, and she had issues. The cop, her love interest, was divorced. These were people who had been through life. And even though I had toned all that down for the market, my publisher decided the work was too sexy. They made me pay back $10,000 of the advance.

Anyway, I ended up writing Zora and Nicky: A Novel in Black and Whitewhich is probably my most successful book, nominated for a Christy Award and a Carol Award. Then I wrote Wounded: A Love Storyand my agent eventually was able to sell my books to Simon & Schuster

Still:   You’ve faced many grave personal challenges, Claudia Love, including the death of your son, Lumumba in 2021. Yet, you seem so prolific with thirteen books under your belt. Do you have a regimented writing process?

CLM:   I am not prolific at all. I am an ebb and flow writer because I am neurodivergent, with ADHD and bipolar disorder, as well as in chronic pain. When the creative tide ebbs I don't write, no matter how long that period is, and I don't feel guilty about it. When the creativity flows, I write. 

Still:   What other genres have you explored as a writer?

CLM:   My last book was a memoir called Don’t You Fall Now that I wrote here in Kentucky. In 2012, when my son Kamau was 17, he had a psychotic break and two months later he jumped from the top of a parking structure in Lexington and survived. It was so traumatic, I don’t think I could have gotten through it without writing, even though I didn’t write about it initially. I enrolled in Spalding University for my MFA in 2015 and started working on the memoir while at Spalding. Don’t You Fall Now was published in 2018. And I’ve also written a biography, of sorts, about St. Teresa of Avila. (God Alone is Enough: A Spirited Journey with  Teresa of Avila, 2010.) 

Still:   Tell us about your work as the Coordinator of the Kentucky Black Writers Collaborative at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning.

CLM:   A friend talked me into looking at the job posting for this position, and I thought this sounds amazing, but they would never give me that job. I felt like I wasn’t qualified. I still suffered from depression, and I felt like I wasn’t connected enough to the literary community. I applied, and I was granted an interview, and I got the job. It was a job that we built up from scratch. And we just reached 150 members.

Our programming includes "Black & Lit," the bi-monthly book club, as well as the monthly "Burn the Mic" series, an open mic and reading series (curated by my KBWC partner JC McPherson). We got everything in line for a prison writing curriculum, which we could not implement because of COVID, and we’re still struggling to get that going. We have a partnership with the Lexington Writers Room; we have access to dedicated space there. We have a partnership with radio station WUKY for the “Say It Loud” reading series which features KBWC members. Some of our members had never had an opportunity to publicly share their work. We have launched members’ books. Our very first event was a “Say It Loud" memorial reading for Breonna Taylor. 150 people joined us. It was the most-attended virtual event the Carnegie Center put on during the entire pandemic. 

Kentucky Black Writers Collaborative has commissioned two social justice art projects, the first being "At the Clearing," the Breonna Taylor piece by Kiptoo Tarus. Over 230 people interacted with it by writing their prayers, hopes, poems, and lamentations, and adding them to the crevice of the piece. This year we are unveiling a bookshelf created by LaVon Williams—our journey from the Carnegie Center being a segregated public library to Black Kentucky writers being celebrated the world over. The piece, called "The Story: From Segregation to Celebration," is located at what was once the entrance to the colored reading room. The unveiling will be on June 30, 2023. Next year I hope to get funding to feature three public art projects that celebrate contemporary Black women writers, one in Lexington, Louisville, and Hopkinsville. All of our programming next year will center Black women. I’m so excited.

Still:   We’ve heard you say before that your best advice to writers is to read. What’s on your reading nightstand currently?

CLM:   I am reading Amelia Zachry's memoir Enough: Memoir of Mistakes, Mania, and Motherhood, for the second time right now. She's our featured author for Black & Lit on July 10, 2023. There are very few memoirs about dealing with mental illness written by people of color, so her book is vitally important. She's also a KBWC member and launched her book with us at the Carnegie Center. I will shamelessly recommend readers join us for Black & Lit to explore the best of Kentucky Black authors. Registration info is on our website. I also hope that people will explore all the Black Kentucky writers. We've got notables like bell hooks, Gayl Jones, Crystal Wilkinson, and Frank X Walker. It's a rich canon of literature.


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