On my blog today, I’m delighted to be in conversation with the lovely Bonnie Lee Black, a woman who has been Peace Corps volunteer in Gabon, Central Africa, who has conducted an independent economic development project in Mali, West Africa, and who has been a professional writer and editor for over 40 years. She currently lives in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico,
Here is Bonnie’s bio:
Bonnie Lee Black earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University in Los Angeles in June 2007. An honors graduate of Columbia University in New York (BA, Lit./Writing, 1979), she has been a professional writer and editor for more than 40 years and an educator in the U.S. and overseas for over 30 years.
In addition to her recently published collection of essays and recipes, Sweet Tarts for my Sweethearts (Nighthawk Press, 2020), she is the author of the historical novel Jamie’s Muse (Nighthawk Press, 2018) and of the memoir How to Make an African Quilt (Nighthawk Press, 2013), which is the sequel to her Peace Corps memoir, How to Cook a Crocodile (Peace Corps Writers, 2010). Black is also the author of the memoir Somewhere Child (Viking Press, NY, 1981), which was instrumental in the creation of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Black’s essays have appeared in a number of published anthologies and literary journals. Among them: The Ekphrastic Review; Solamente en San Miguel, Vol. III; Eat, Darling, Eat; Alimentum; Persimmon Tree; Red Mesa Review; Under the Sun; Chokecherries; Storied Recipes; and Farmer-ish. At the age of 70, Black retired to the beautiful colonial city of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where she continues to share her thoughts and experiences in her award-winning weekly blog, The WOW Factor. (For more, visit her website: www.bonnieleeblack.com .)
Why do you write?
BLB: In every writing course I’ve ever taught or writing workshop I’ve ever led, I’ve always begun the first class by asking the students to answer this question as an in-class writing exercise — following author Terry Tempest Williams’ template. After my students read aloud their responses, I shared mine with them. This just about sums it up for me:
Why I Write
I write to right wrongs
I write to shed light
I write to preserve memories
I write to share experiences
I write to make food out of thoughts
I write to feed others food for thought
I write to make sense of the seemingly senseless
I write to untangle the knots
I write to lighten my burden
I write to memorialize loved ones
I write to reach out to loved ones
I write to bridge the gap
I write to offer gifts
I write to give my life purpose
I write to prove I am – or once was.
At what moment did you decide you were a writer?
BLB: I’ve always felt more comfortable writing than speaking. As a young child I’d get nervous and tongue-tied trying to explain myself to anyone; I’d often stutter and stammer. Writing my thoughts out, however, gave me the time and quietude to find the right words that expressed my feelings. So I think I’ve always leaned toward the written word. But it wasn’t until I was a in the writing program at Columbia University in New York as a scholarship student in my early thirties that I felt I might claim the title “writer.” When my instructors and classmates admired and respected the pieces I’d written, I thought, “Maybe now I can call myself a writer.”
What genres do you work in?
BLB: Four of my five published books are in the Creative Nonfiction genre, the genre in which I received my MFA and which was the subject I taught at the college level at UNM in Taos, New Mexico. More recently, I’ve tried my hand at a novel, Jamie’s Muse, which was published in 2018 and was great fun to do. Now I focus mostly on writing my weekly blog, The WOW Factor, which consists primarily of short personal essays, like meditations, on whatever is on my mind. I love the freedom of this, as well as the challenge.
How do you come up with book titles?
BLB: The working title of my first memoir, about the abduction of my baby daughter, was “Soliloquy,” because I felt that no one was listening to me, I was talking to myself. But a few days before Viking Press in New York was about to go to press with that book in 1981, the Marketing Manager announced to my editor and me: “’Soliloquy’ has got to go! Nobody knows what it means! Nobody knows how to spell it or even pronounce it! You’ve got to come up with a better title!” So, inspired by the Beatles’ hit, “Nowhere Man,” my editor thought of Somewhere Child. And that’s the title that stuck.
My second memoir, about my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Gabon, Central Africa, in my early fifties, after having been a caterer and food writer in Manhattan for ten years, is titled How to Cook a Crocodile. This title was a takeoff on M.F.K. Fisher’s World War II classic, How to Cook a Wolf. Both books are about learning how to adapt to difficult circumstances, and both include recipes for doing so.
My third memoir, How to Make an African Quilt: The Story of the Patchwork Project of Segou, Mali, about my independent economic development project in Mali, West Africa, after my Peace Corps service, took its title from Whitney Otto’s bestselling novel, How to Make an American Quilt. Neither Otto’s nor my book is a how-to on quilting; rather, both are stories about quilters and their love for quilting: hers in the Deep South, USA; mine in Mali, West Africa.
Jamie’s Muse, my one and only novel, fictionalizes the lives of my Scottish great-grandparents, Helen and William Black, who were from the same small village as and contemporaries of James M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan. The “Jamie” of the title is James Barrie, and the “Muse” is my great-grandmother Helen, whom I imagined Jamie loved and was inspired by.
Who or what is your muse?
BLB: In the years I was writing (and rewriting and revising) Jamie’s Muse, my great-grandmother Helen was definitely my muse. She became very real to me and very insistent that I write her story even though I had so little to go on — which is why I had to imagine so much of it. The bones of the story are true: Helen and William Black emigrated to South Africa from Scotland in the early 1880s as newlyweds and had one son (who much later became my grandfather). Helen and William died there, mysteriously, but their baby boy was saved and sent to an orphanage in Edinburgh, from which he ran away at 13 and became a stowaway on a ship bound for New York. In doing research for this book, I became deeply attached to Helen’s spirit and sensitive to her “wishes,” so to speak. I felt she didn’t want to be forgotten, so I tried my best to respect that.
Do you travel to research your books?
BLB: I traveled to Edinburgh and Kirriemuir, Scotland, to do research for Jamie’s Muse – Kirriemuir being the village north of Edinburgh where Helen and William Black and James Barrie were from. This trip was invaluable to me because I was able to visit all the places in this charming, well preserved village where Helen, William, and Jamie lived, worked, went to school and church. For my three Africa memoirs, I relied on my detailed journal entries made when I lived in Africa. I’ve always been a faithful journal writer, and these journals were invaluable to me in writing the books. My most recent book, published in 2020, Sweet Tarts for My Sweethearts, is a collection of essays and recipes drawn from my New York catering days.
How much time do you spend writing each day?
BLB: I write every morning, for at least an hour, maybe two or three, depending on the project I’m working on. I don’t always write with a view to publishing. For me my Morning Pages (as Julia Cameron calls them) are like a pianist’s finger exercises, a way to stay nimble. And I need to put in writing, for myself, what I’m thinking and feeling and observing, to center myself before I go off into the day. In addition, I spend many hours each week on my blog posts: reading, researching, drafting, revising, sanding, polishing. Some bloggers are able to dash their posts off in no time; I’m not one of them.
What does your writing space look like?
BLB: My writing space is my bed. I write every morning in bed, with all that I need – books, notebooks, papers, and so on — spread out in front of me and a tea tray beside me. Very quiet, comfortable and private. I wouldn’t have it any other way.