There have been days where I’ve literally felt like grabbing my favorite snack and watch L.L. McKinney go after folks on Twitter who seem to have made it a part-time job to come for her and her views. I was excited to talk about how much the Twitterverse has changed since she joined the platform in 2009. Specifically related to books and publishing industry talk.
BBS: How different is ElleonWords 2017 than ElleonWords 2009?
She is less naïve about what it takes to be a writer in this world and this industry that, to be frank, doesn’t want to see Black Women succeed at anything. Not really. She is more outspoken, she goes after what she wants, she lets nothing stand in her way. She’s honestly a bit angrier, but it’s more a fire that drives her than some unwieldy emotion that makes her irrational.
Contrary to popular belief—and what the stereotypes would like you to think—this rightful, valid, vindicated anger makes her more focused, on the bigger picture and her place in it, her goals, her dreams, and her willingness to do what it takes to reach them and bring along whoever else she can.
She is older, wiser, a bit more weary and battle-worn, but far more experienced and ready. But even with all that, she’s no match for ElleOnWords 2025, can’t wait to meet that woman.
BBS: Are you ever concerned that being outspoken will adversely affect your publishing path?
No. Not anymore. I mean, I was. I think a lot of people start off that way. We’re fed this lie that standing up for ourselves, for our humanity and that of others, will somehow damage us, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. Of course there are instances where speaking up and speaking out does result in pushback or being exiled from certain circles, kept from reaching certain plateaus, but in the age of social media, things are changing.
There are people who would certainly like to see my outspokenness have a negative impact on my career, who have tried to facilitate that impact themselves, but I’ve surrounded myself with people who’ve got my back the same way I have theirs. And my Granny instilled in all of her grandchildren the understanding that we don’t have to fight our own battles. Woe to those who unjustly and unfairly attack a child of the most high, and I stand on that and other aspects of my faith.
BBS: Can authors be their authentic self on social media (standing by their causes) and separate that from their work? Should they expect librarians, teachers, and parents to compartmentalize and separate the author’s views from the books?
I don’t think so, no, because who you are influences your work. It comes out on the page, whether you mean to or not, that’s just a part of the creative process. And not just for writing, but also for music, for visual art. You can hear, feel, see the differences in an artist’s energy from when they were composing whatever piece you’re interacting with. An author’s racism, phobia, sexism, etc., will be present. Whether people will be aware enough to pick up on it is a different story.
And that segues into another issue with trying to separate the art from the artist in such a way. I’m not saying that if a writer creates a bigot as a main or side character that they themselves are automatically one as well, but that we all have our biases, some more apparent than others. Say you do have an author who is racist, based on their personal statements and opinions, but they are continually rewarded just because they can write a “good” book. We as individuals and as a society need to decide our limits on what is or isn’t acceptable. By separating the racist writer’s work from their actions in order to support said work, you’re still supporting a racist. There’s no way around that, try as people might.
It’s like with everything happening in the Me Too movement, I don’t give a damn about the “positive contributions” these abusers have made, it doesn’t make them less of an abuser and they should be held accountable as such. Full stop.
BBS: What motivates you to implement initiatives like PitchSlam and WCNV? Do you believe remaining active in uplifting other authors and/or helping future writers hone their craft is simply part of the package, these days?
I didn’t get to where I am without help from others, that is fact. For all my ability and hard work—and I’d like say I’m not light on either—there were still people in place, people who I’m blessed to know, who helped guide my path to lead to this point. There are people who’ve been with me since the beginning, people who were there but aren’t now, and people who are here now but weren’t before. I owe them, and I’m thankful to God for putting them in my life to help shape all of this. They gave to me when they didn’t have to. They didn’t get anything for helping me, but they did anyway. It’s helped open doors that, otherwise, would’ve remained closed because, again, Black Women.
If I can help someone similarly, I want to. I need to. It’s my duty. Lift as you climb, you know. Not everyone sees it that way, not everyone works for this. Some folk end up afflicted with Highlander syndrome, there can be only one, and the systems in place help facilitate this. That’s one of the reasons I push these types of initiatives because One is a lie, but it’s also boring as hell.
I like to think I’ll remain active in enterprises like PitchSlam and WCNV. I certainly aim to, but life has a way of being life. I will continuing helping future writers no matter what, though. If these particular avenues cease to provide those opportunities I’ll look for them or create them elsewhere.
BBS: There is a lot of excitement for A Blade So Black. It’s been promoted as a re-telling of Alice in Wonderland. Tell me more about it.
Alice is the first time I dared to write myself, to write what I’d been looking for in books my whole life. I love science fiction and fantasy. Love, love, love, it’s my escape. Other worlds and realms or secret ones parallel to ours are great for escaping. But I never saw myself in those stories. I was starved of that representation, so malnourished that, even when presented with the opportunity to feed myself, I didn’t. The first books I wrote were about white boys. I loved those stories, still do, I’ll probably revisit them, but Alice . . . I awakened in her narrative in a way I never was able to before.
As far as inspiration, it literally started with a What If. What if Buffy fell down the rabbit hole instead of Alice? Well, she’d killed shit, right? So that’s where it all began. I loved slayer type characters, monster hunters, vanquishing evil in the veiled corners of our world. Alice was everything I wanted to be but never saw for myself in the books that peppered my childhood. And she was in my head, it was exciting. And I looked at my niece, she was barely one at the time, and I promised her with my whole heart that if she grew up to be a geek like her aunty—who dreamed of dragons and far away lands, who hunted for magic in the shadows, who wanted to be the fierce warrior saving the day—she wouldn’t go wanting of seeing herself in what she loved.
The Buzz on A Blade So Black
See an excerpt from Entertainment Weekly
It’s been a long one. If I remember correctly, I first started writing A BLADE SO BLACK maybe five to six years ago. It took roughly a year to finish the story and polish it. Then it was another year of querying. I’d queried two other books prior, one having received an offer of representation then some interest from editors but that went no where. I want to say it was just under three years after starting that Alice was repped. A few months of polishing and then she was off on submission. It would be two years before she found a home.
There were a few almosts, editors who really enjoyed my writing but didn’t connect with the character, some requests for revisions and resubmissions. It was difficult, people saying they loved the story, they thought it was great, but they didn’t want her. That connecting thing really bothered me, because I’d heard the same thing while querying. In fact, I’d watered down Alice as a result. She was too . . . I was gonna say niche, but I’ll just tell it like it is, she was too Black, but not in a stereotypical way media likes to portray Blackness. It wasn’t “marketable” Blackness. Ridiculous, I know.
It wasn’t until the story landed in the hands of a woman of color, my now editor Rhoda Belleza, that things clicked. We talked about a lot of things in that first phone call, but there’s one thing I remember clearly. She said something to the affect of she didn’t know how much of Alice’s essence I had taken out of the story, but she could sort of tell there’s was more at one point. She didn’t know how political I was ready to be, because simply being Black in America and telling my story is a political act, and she was ready to go as far into that as I wanted, or didn’t want. It was up to me and she wanted to support my narrative.
A Blade So Black in the author’s words:
A BLADE SO BLACK is about dealing with trauma of all types, about finding yourself again and how you go about that, and about literally slaying what scares you. Alice fights Nightmares, which are physical manifestations of humanity’s fears. She’s for real out here killing creatures that grow out of what scares us. The story is about a girl who’s hurt and angry about various circumstances, both in her personal life struggles and in the world around her, and her coping mechanism just happens to be saving that very world that frightens her, that doesn’t seem to give a damn about her sometimes. Most of the time. It’s about standing up for yourself and being there for others. It’s about making mistakes and being okay with that. It’s about a lot more, you can find out in September.
State of the Industry
Has there been progress? Yes. Absolutely, there are women of color and Indigenous Women, Black Women especially, who’ve been doing this work and pushing this industry forward for decades. We stand on the shoulders of giants. Titans who shaped the landscape. They’ve done so much, and the only thing that could even begin to measure how much they put into this is how much pushback they and their ideals received. The strides the industry has made as a result are present, but they’re not enough. They don’t even come close to being halfway to even beginning to start to be enough.
I mentioned Highlander syndrome earlier, and it stretches beyond writers to stories. The industry is still very clearly invested in Black stories that satisfy the white gaze and it’s demand to be entertained by our collective anguish. It’s like you said, we don’t get to have the Gossip Girl, the Harry Potter, the romance, the happily ever after. Black narratives are equated with the struggle, as if our pain is the only vessel through which we can be empathized with. We’re denied pretty much every other type of narrative. We can’t be Buffy, but we can be Buffy’s magical negro for a few episodes before getting killed off. We can’t do the saving, but boy can we be saved. They can save us so good.
There is progress, but it is slow. Too slow. And I’m not interested in hearing the tired excuses about discussions happening behind the scenes and back channel talks. I’m done listening to “publishing is slow.” That slowness is out of tradition and by choice, not any sort of necessity. Have patience, we’re told. Change takes time. Time was given by those who came before is. The cost was presented and has been met. Now it’s time for publishing to pay what you owe.