Ten years ago countless readers were struck by Virginia DeBerry and Donna Grant’s true-to-life novel, Tryin’ to Sleep in the Bed You Made which became an Essence magazine best-seller, was named Blackboard Book of the Year and won the Merit Award from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association.
Requests for a sequel poured in as fans couldn’t get enough of the easily relatable trio of characters. After a decade-long hiatus, best friends and bestselling authors DeBerry and Grant revisit the lives of Gayle, Pat and Marcus in “Got to Keep On Trying.”
With five novels to their credit, Virginia DeBerry and Donna Grant, best friends for 25 years, have turned a friendship into the most successful and enduring writing collaborations in African American fiction.
DeBerry and Grant have also joined forces with other investors to form a production company titled 4 Colored Girls Productions. Currently DeBerry and Grant are in the process of bringing the novel “Tryin’ to Sleep in the Bed You Made” to the big screen. Regina King has already signed on to star in the film. In fact, King is a huge fan of DeBerry and Grant’s literary work and has been quoted as saying “Gotta Keep On Tryin’ is an incredibly well-written and truly inspirational read. Donna and Virginia are gifted and their writing is timeless.”
(Sentinel) How did you get involved in writing with one another?
(DG) It started when we met as large size models… We did a newsletter for Hanes hosiery. It was for their queen size fitting pretty line. And that’s when we realized that we think inside each other’s heads and that there is some kind of connection that we have never had to work at.
(VD) The newsletter led to the opportunity to do a magazine. Some people came to us with a wad of cash and said “do you want to do a fashion and lifestyle magazine for women size 14 and above”. And as was typical for us, we said “Yeah.” We will figure out how to get it done but the answer was yes. So we worked really hard on the magazine. It was our joy. It was going to be our future… We worked at the magazine for almost two years and the guys with the money called us one day and said, “Thank you but we’ve decided to do something else, we’re not going forward, bye bye.”
(DG) That happened on a New Years Eve. So we had to regroup because it just came out of the blue and it kind of devastating. But we realized that we had to keep working together. That was what we were supposed to do. We did get work and we always had fun doing it. That’s what we had to keep doing. So we did a lot of brainstorming about other kind of opportunities we could make. We did some research about starting a “women’s wear daily” for the plus size industry because there wasn’t one at the time except we kept going back to this idea about writing a novel together. We were both English majors so it’s not something that was foreign to us. It was always something that I wanted to do. And even though it didn’t exactly make sense we decided to give it a try.
(Sentinel) How did you know you could do this together?
(VD) We didn’t know that we could...We kind of have this theory that if you don’t ask or if you don’t try, the answer is no and you have already failed. So we don’t let being afraid stop us. We don’t let the possibility that it’s not going to fly stop us. We just have to try. And they say you are supposed to write about what you know so we plotted out a story about the fashion business. There were no African Americans characters in it because we wanted to see if we could write something that somebody would publish. This is pre-Terry McMillan knocking down the doors of the publishing world so they realize, “oh my god, black people buy books”. So we wrote about a young white fashion photographer in New York City and about the fashion business. The book sold to Warner Books in about two weeks.
(Sentinel) How long did it take to actually write your first novel?
(DG) It was really fast. In a way that was crazy. We had done the synopsis and about the first 100 pages and Warner said, “we really like it, but it has to be done in 4 months,” because they had a book that didn’t show up so this was our chance and we said, “sure”. We wrote day and night. We lived on coffee and candy and anything else that could keep us awake. We finished, they published it, and people bought it. It was published in Spain and Russian as well. And it let us know that okay, we can do this.
(Sentinel) Gotta Keep on Tryin’ is the sequel to the first novel Tryin’ to Sleep in the Bed You Made. Was it challenging writing the sequel or did you feel the pressures of living up to the first novel?
(DG) It was terrifying. It was absolutely terrifying. We have had readers send us their floppy disc with what the next part should be.
(VD) They had very specific ideas of what they wanted to happen. They were so invested in these characters. We get people that write us and say. “I just finished my annual re-reading of Tryin’ to Sleep in the Bed You Made. They had been reading the book, once a year for ten years. And that’s hugely flattering but it also creates an awful amount of pressure to bring these characters back and make them still feel the same way that they felt to the readers before. And so we kept waiting and kept waiting and kept waiting. We wrote other books in between.
(Sentinel) Describe the process of writing Gotta Keep on Tryin’?
(DG) It all came together with in the last two years. It feels really quick. But it wasn’t until we actually decided, this is what we want to do that we focused on okay what’s happened in these peoples lives and it actually gave us a lot more territory we could work from by having it be ten years. They’ve had a chance to do some things and we could pick them up from a different point with different kinds of challenges and that’s what we did. Gail’s daughter is now a young woman who is making her own bed and much to Gail’s chagrin it has way too much to do with the bed she made.
(VD) Because you know young people you tell them what they are suppose to do but they look at you. You really do lead by example. Vanessa is much more like her mother than her mother is happy with. Allowing the business that Pat and Gail started to have been in existence for a while meant that we didn’t have to go through the whole start up process. We could write two sentences to tell you this is how it was in the old days and this is where we are now.
(Sentinel) Did you base the two main characters business and personal relationship on your real life friendship?
(DG) It’s a question that we are asked often, what’s it like when you are in business with your best friend? Do you argue? That’s really where the question comes from and we are really sorry to tell people we haven’t had any. But it does create an interesting perspective because two people who are friends can absolutely have very different ideas on how the business should work and how do you resolve that and we were able to show that through Gail and Pat’s friendship.
(Sentinel) What should people look to get from this book? What can the audience look to take home?
(VD) Well we did a radio interview a few days ago and the man that interviewed us said something very insightful, he said all of your books end at a new beginning. And they do. So we’ve already started to get letters and e-mails from people who have read Gotta Keep on Tryin’’ who say okay, now what is going to happen with Vanessa? What is going to happen with Tiffany and Dijon? They are ready for the next part and so we know we that we can’t take another ten to eleven years because that wouldn’t be fair even to us. But we try to bring the characters through whatever set of circumstances and messes that we create for them and then we get them through that but everybody is poised for the next thing because that’s how life is.
(DG) And there’s always kind of health or wellness messages that are kind of stuck in there somewhere because there just always are, not meaning to preach or anything like that but if there is a way we can bring something to light it means that people have the opportunity to talk about it. In this book there is a character that has a very unhealthy relationship with food. And whether people have that specific one or some other relationship to food its still brings the issue to life.
(Sentinel) Can you tell me how this book will connect with readers?
(DG) This is also a story line in this one that has to do with forgiveness. There is someone that has had a serious wrong done to them. It just jacked up her life in a real life threatening kind of way. How do you learn how to forgive that and move on? Can you forgive that? And there’s one character who doesn’t understand how you could possibly forgive. That is an issue that I think affects a lot of us. A lot of us walk around with some major angry knots that we hold on too.
(VD) And it is unhealthy. Failure to forgive only hurts you. It eats away at your soul, your spirit, your body, and you energy. And you just really have to get over it and go on with it. And we always like to believe, its not just things about taking care of your physical self but its also stuff about taking care of your mental and emotional well-being because if your mother can slip the vegetables in something and the little kid doesn’t know it and they get them anyway, that’s what we try to do with the books that we do. We need to slip the vegetables in there.
For more information on Donna Grant, Virginia DeBerry and Gotta Keep On Tryin’ please visit http://www.deberryandgrant.com and www.simansays.com