What inspired you to become an author?
It started with my love of reading at a young age. Before middle school, I was voraciously reading anything I could get my hands on. I especially enjoyed African-American writers of the Harlem Renaissance: Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, and Richard Wright, to name a few. I felt a connection with the works of the Harlem Renaissance. But I was born in the civil rights era. Prior to the advent of the Internet, websites, search engines, and social media, reading was my gateway to the world. Reading was how I learned about everything from history, politics, sports and entertainment to the stories and experiences of those who came before me. There were two books in particular that ignited my desire to start writing. They were: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou and Black Boy by Richard White. After reading these books, I knew that I wanted to tell stories. I wanted to share experiences. I wanted to write.
Entering my teenage years, I enjoyed being physically active, playing freeze tag with my friends, and participating in team sports. But I found that the act of writing ignited a remarkable energy within me. Sitting by myself, expressing thoughts, ideas and stories in written word was my flow state. Just as I explored the world with reading, I found I could catapult myself into any space I chose when I wrote. The more I wrote, the more I developed a vision for my writing. I wanted my writing to invoke emotion, connect experiences, and elevate others. Though the Harlem Renaissance was decades before my time, I've often felt I should have been born in that era. Ultimately, it was the writers of the Harlem Renaissance who inspired me to write.
What was your process like writing your first book?
My process wasn't exactly strategic, but it was somewhat methodical. I knew I wanted to tell a story, so I wrote a sentence about the story I wanted to tell. Just one sentence. (I later learned that sentence would be called a tagline.) After I came up with that sentence, I focused on characters. With a variety of notebooks, I began creating characters. Many of them were based on real people with whom I had interacted in my life. My imagination developed the rest, adding to the characters physical traits, complex personalities, and interesting back stories. Then I created the framework for the book, a loose outline and a narrative arc. Building this foundation took quite a while. I spent close to two months developing the outline and story arc.
What followed was several months fleshing out the biographical elements of the book, reflecting on memories of real conversations and real experiences in my life, jotting down thoughts and ideas whenever and wherever inspiration hit. It didn't matter if I was in the grocery store, sitting at a stoplight, or on a date. Whenever I felt inspired, wherever I was, I would pull out my notebook and record my thoughts. Eventually I had quite a selection of notebooks in various locations as well as countless yellow Post-it notes upon which I had jotted things down in church.
It was early in the process that I knew the title I would give the book. Unfortunately, the title came from tragedy. Shortly after college, my brother Stephen suddenly passed away. It was one of the most difficult times of my young life. Stephen and I had a special, yet eerie, bond. It was special because we were able to confide in one another and found comfort in that. It was eerie because what we shared was the same types of dreams. We both had dreams of our own premature deaths. At Stephen's funeral, I shared about these dreams and how we confided in each other about them in my poem "Letter To God." Despite the eerie dreams and the horror of Stephen's untimely death, my gut told me it wasn’t my time to leave Earth yet. Though I stopped having those dreams, the visions of drowning remained in my memory. Thinking about Stephen, our dreams, and that sensation of drowning, I came up with the title, Ten Feet Deep.
With tagline, characters, outline, narrative arc, title, and a plethora of notebooks and Post-it notes of raw material, I was ready to start the actual writing of the book. I bought a brand new box of number two pencils and a notebook, and I began writing the story. The first draft I wrote in the form of a movie script. I then organized a script reading with family and friends to open the story to feedback. When the feedback was that the characters were intriguing and the story compelling, that was all the greenlight I needed. I began the process of putting “meat on the bones.” With creative exploration and a vivid imagination, I transformed the script into the novel it is now, Ten Feet Deep.
Share your synopsis of the book.
Ten Feet Deep is the story of faith, family, friendship, and ultimately forgiveness. Set in Oakland, California, a close-knit African American family is forced to examine the depth of their morality, and consequently, the very nature of their relationships as life’s challenges come to their middle-class home to roost.
Our story begins with a recurring nightmare that awakens Jules Simmons, the third boy born into the Simmons clan. Jules is both handsome and bright, and, yet he struggles with insecurity. As is the case with many middle children, Jules doesn’t boast a unique trait, which leads to his identity crisis and deep-seeded feelings of worthlessness. As he looks at himself, in comparison to the rest of his siblings, he does not feel that he measures up.
His older sister, Charlene, is a Stanford graduate, an entrepreneur, and family matriarch-in-waiting. Jules barely passed his classes in high school and summarily dropped out of college.
Dexter Jr, or DT, is an authoritative presence, and his prominent family stature is inescapable. DT has not only been bestowed with his father’s name, but he is a former professional basketball player, husband, father of two, and successful businessman. Jules never played sports, never held a steady job, and doesn’t have the inclination to be in a long-term relationship. Consequently, DT casts another daunting shadow from which Jules can never fully remove himself.
Mario is a hustler who has managed to become a productive entrepreneur. He is the jokester of the family, and his advice is always timely and sound. Jules lacks the personality and clarity of thought that Mario possesses.
Joey is the youngest but represents the biggest reason why Jules continues to dream that his place in life is drowning in murky water. Joey has good looks, is intelligent, and may potentially be the best high school basketball phenomenon since LeBron James. Jules never made a team in high school.
As Jules awakens from another nightmare, we meet his long-suffering girlfriend, Jasmine, who loves Jules but finds that her love is not enough to curb Jules from his philandering. The couple scurry off to First AME, the church where parents Dexter and Lilian first met. The entire family, sans Mario, listens to a fiery sermon on forgiveness from Pastor Marbury who is a close family friend.
After church, the boys rush to legendary Mosswood Park, where they have been playing together for years. Joey suffers a minor injury, and DT decides to cease playing. This subtle decision leads to an unexpected outburst from Jules, and we first come to see the disdain, and eventual hatred Jules seems to hold for Joey.
Jules broods as he watches his youngest brother, who had the prestigious talent, being coddled and protected in ways that he felt he never was. With no discernible skills so to speak, Jules becomes proficient at the skill he most personified, seducing women.
Jules distances himself from his family, while he and his band of friends, Tone, T-Rog, and Short Change, do their best to ‘bed’ a greater part of the female population. They discuss and debate their rampant conquests at Charlene’s hair salon, Ladies & Gent’s. Frequently the conversations would become heated when the discussions focused on the dichotomy of male and female sexuality and how differently men and women were judged concerning their approach to sex.
Meanwhile Joey began feeling the pressure of being anointed the next phenom. He felt a pressure to become not only a representative for his entire family, but he felt that he needed to become a man as well. For that he was not ready. His passions were his family, video games, and basketball, in that order. But he knew that he could not communicate his true feelings, as he risked disappointing all those that looked for him to become the next superstar from Oakland. Rather than confide in his family, he grew close to a teammate of his EK, and the two grew close.
Unsure of their feelings, the two young men began a relationship, a bond that Joey knew nobody would accept nor understand. Feeling burdened, they told their high school coach. Coach Goines was caught completely off guard and did not know how to deal with the news. He decided he had to call DT. DT saw all the time and effort he had put into Joey potentially being thrown off track and hastily called an impromptu family meeting. That night, at the big reveal, the family would soon find themselves wrestling with their own morals and prejudice, weighing against their spiritual values and long standing social constructs.
Meanwhile Jules’ irresponsible sexual practices led him spiraling towards a path of destruction. His anger towards his younger brother had intensified with the discovery of Joey's sexuality, but he never made time to deal with his own demons. Jules' hate for Joey reveals the fact that who Jules really hates is himself. His careless and reckless ways lead to his contracting HIV, and his life now had a clear expiration date. Jules knows that he needs to make amends for the callous ways that he had dealt with people.
Jules finds solace in writing and learns how to adequately express himself, and Joey learns how to be comfortable within himself. In the end, both Simmons' brothers realize that they are quite alike. Two brothers had unwittingly become vessels for change in their own lives, and in the lives of all that knew them.
Ten Feet Deep is about family, about guilt and the absolution of guilt, and about unity. It is a tale of jealousy and what occurs when envy and resentment rip at the very fabric of family. It is a story of redemption. Ten Feet Deep is about a family who has faced hopelessness and despair. The Simmons' family’s reaction to life’s turmoil is what binds them and ultimately bonds us all.
What would you like for people to take away from your book?
Ten Feet Deep is a story that I want to unite people. I’ve often heard it said that we only grow through uncomfortable experiences. Ten Feet Deep weaves together a string of uncomfortable, yet common, everyday experiences. The way that the Simmons family comes through these experiences shows the growth of a modern, everyday African-American family. But the experiences are so common that ethnicity is not the prevailing issue. Instead the reader will mull over his/her thoughts on teen angst, peer pressure, the dynamics between siblings, questions about spirituality, and sexual exploration.
That said, my hope is that the readers experience a story that will make them embrace the three F’s: Family, Faith, and Forgiveness.
Why is it important for black men to tell their stories?
As black men, we have so much depth of life experience that we don't share. Our stories must be told. Our experiences must be examined. Hopefully, one day, more people will understand what life is like for us. Hopefully, as we share our stories, our feelings will be better understood. I grew up under the rule of an old fashioned parental model. My dad was the strong silent type. And although my mother was a schoolteacher, we did not have the type of bond that fostered my being verbally expressive. Make no mistake, I spoke well and could express myself, but I normally used a pen and paper to do so. I remember complaining to my mother about something that happened, and she told me, “Alvin, being a man is hard.” I took that to mean that I needed to learn how to face obstacles, suck it up, and get through them. So consequently, I didn’t do a lot of complaining or expressing myself. Instead, I learned how to write. Writing helped me express my emotions. I’ve talked to a lot of black men who have been conditioned to suck it up and make a way as best they could. This is not uncommon, but it certainly is not healthy. With Ten Feet Deep and my other writings, readers will see a black man baring his soul. Readers will understand the essence of me by reading my poems, short stories, and books. Black men are a foundational section of our community, and our stories must be told.
What are your thoughts on legacy?
I’ve grown up in the shadow of an NBA basketball Hall of Famer, so I know the pressures Of legacy.
Legacy is a standard of excellence created for the generation to follow. I am striving to create a legacy of excellence through written words. My words will stand the test of time as my proof of life. My body will slowly deteriorate, my looks will fade, and at some point I will lose my hair and possibly my mind. My legacy will be forged and determined with every page turned.
My writings will stand forever as my receipt of creative greatness.