A Conversation with
Interview by Joey Pinkney
In urban fiction, crack addicts are usually nefarious side characters. The main character in Never As Good As The First Time, Samai Collins, is a crack addict complete with a family. What inspired you to write this novel from Samai's perspective?
Mari Walker: I've been asked that question a lot, and here's the answer: I wanted to give the readers another perspective. There are a lot of books out there about the "ballers" and "shot callers", all the money, the name brand clothes and the vacations.
I'm not knocking urban fiction because there is a place for all kinds of writing. I wanted to put a face on the person who drug dealers are selling to and getting rich off of. Unfortunately, those people are family members and friends who get hooked on drugs. That's why I wrote it from that perspective.
How would you personally categorize Never As Good As The First Time?
Mari Walker: This novel is really a hybrid. I don't think you can fit it in one genre. It has erotica flavor. It has an urban fiction flavor to it. It also has a spiritual angle to it as well because I've included God in it. Samai turns back to God to help escape her addiction. This novel crosses many lines, and the boundaries are blurred. That's why you really can't put it in one specific genre.
Samai loves music. I could easily see her vibing to the lyrics of Sade's song Never As Good As The First Time. Is it more than a coincidence that both the song and the novel share the same title?
Mari Walker: It's kind of a coincidence. Sade is one of my favorite artists. The original title of my book was Falling Through The Crack. My editor didn't like that title. We had to think of a new title, so she sent me two alternative titles. Although I appreciated the effort, I wasn't fond of either one.
I happened to have Sade's CD on the floor, so I sent my editor two titles I thought might work better. One of them happened to be Never As Good As The First Time. She immediately emailed me back and said, "We're going with that."
I found Samai's name to be very interesting, so I looked up its meaning. In the language of the Incan Empire, which is still spoken by 12 million people today, the word samai means "breath of God". In Arabic, samai is a derivative of a word that means "to rise or to elevate". When you use Samai as a name in Arabic, it means "elevated one or heavenly one". Where did you find the name Samai and what significance does it have to the story?
Mari Walker: Wow, I'm impressed! I can't believe you looked up the name like that.
I love the meanings of names. I know a lot of times when authors choose names for characters, the names have some type of symbolism to the story.
Mari Walker: Well, I wish I could say that my reason for naming her that was that deep. Actually, I have a good friend whose name is Samara, and I really like her name. I was experimenting with her name, and I came up with Samai. So there's nothing deep about it although I wish it were after hearing what you said about it.
Well, next time somebody asks you about it, you can throw that out there. Now you got a little more ammunition.
Mari Walker: (Laughter.) Exactly! My friend Samara said that if her first child is a girl, she's going to name her Samai. She really likes it.
Never As Good As The First Time wouldn't have been as potent as it is without Zane. Where did you find this character?
Mari Walker: Okay, Zane... Zane is 50% imagination and 50% a mix of all of the guys I've ever dated. I threw them in a blender, took all of their good characteristics, took all of their bad characteristics and came up with Zane.
Zane was definitely a rich character. I noticed that he became a different person as the story progressed. Was that planned before you wrote this book, or did this develop as you wrote this novel?
Mari Walker: I kind of planned that Zane would become his own best customer. I wanted to bring a character to life. As you said in the beginning, crack heads are usually seen as the nefarious characters with no life or family. They are portrayed as suckers, for the most part, to be used to make money.
That takes the responsibility and guilt away from the drug dealer. He justifies it by thinking that he can't help it if somebody wants to get high. So I wanted to put a face to the addiction. With Zane, I wanted to show that even the drug dealers get trapped in their own game. I kind of planned it, but I didn't plan for it to go as far as it did before writing the book.
What have your readers expressed to you in regards to this novel?
Mari Walker: The response for the most part has been positive. Many readers have told me that they can related to Samai and to Zane because they are average, everyday people. They are more than characters; they become real people. My readers find Samai's story inspirational.
There have been people who have emailed me and said, "You wrote my life story" or "I was there; I'm not there anymore" or "I cried with Samai. I shared her struggles." If they haven't lived Samai's life, they know someone who has. They tell me that it's really refreshing to see the other side.
Are you going to give your readers a sequel to Never As Good As The First Time?
Mari Walker: I wouldn't call the next book a sequel. It's related in that it revisits Jadyn, Samai's daughter. You know that she had to be deeply affected. She was old enough to understand her mother's addiction. We will see in the next book how all of that affects her.
It will be another adventure that I hope readers will embrace. Many times people expect a sequel only to be disappointed. The next book will present to my readers new characters they will like and revisit old characters without visiting all of them.
Authors usually go one of three ways. Either they self-publish or go with the smaller publishers or they find an agent to pursue the larger publishing houses. How did you go about getting an agent?
Mari Walker: It's funny that you should ask. Nowadays, it's even worse than when I first started writing Never As Good As The First Time. You go online trying to find out what you're going to do with your manuscript. There's like a zillion self-publishers out there. Some of them are legit, some of them want to steal your money and give you a subpar product. You really have to wade through all of that, especially when you're new and don't know much about the industry.
Fortunately for me, I read a lot of books on both traditional and self-publishing. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to see if I had what it took to make it in traditional publishing without spending my own money to get the book published. I heard all of the stories about how you can't break into traditional publishing without knowing somebody. I've heard that all they do is reject people and that they don't let people in. I didn't let that deter me. I found out how to submit to publishers.
The other thing I did was to look at books that were similar to mine. I looked at the acknowledgment page and looked for the agents and editors. I figured that if this editor took this book, I would have a better chance of getting in. I made a list of people who I felt wrote like me. So I submitted to E. Lynn Harris' agent because I love E. Lynn Harris. I waited two months and got a rejection. You really can't take rejection personally.
Once I got over my initial shock, I went back to the drawing board and sent my query package to the next person on my list who was Kimberla Lawson Roby's agent Elaine Koster. Elaine called me like, "We really like your writing. How would you feel about rewriting the ending and resubmitting to us. We're not making any promises."
It's a process. Either you take advice from people who know, or you hold on to everything like it's your baby and keep sending out the same thing and continue to get rejected. In my case, I listened, reworked it, sent it to agent number two and got picked up. So I only had the one rejection.
What benefits do you see in having an agent as opposed to doing it yourself?
Mari Walker: There are a lot of shady agents out there, so you have to be careful with picking one. It's so slippery out there. A reputable agent can help you negotiate a deal better than you can yourself. They have already been selling to the traditional publishers. They know which editor at which house will like your style of writing.
Having an agent increases your chances of being picked up by a traditional publisher. Another benefit is this: how many people know which rights to hold onto and which rights to sell to the publisher? How many people know how to negotiate a deal that's going to benefit you and not solely your publisher?
Just like in any other business, the publisher is out to make as much money as possible. If you don't know which rights to hold onto, of course, they are going to want them.
Is there any specific advice you can give to our readers who are aspiring authors?
Mari Walker: When you sit down to write a book and you finish it, don't send it out right away. Go back. Re-read it. Make corrections. Make sure it's the best it can be before you send it out because you're going to attract the attention of people in charge. These are people who can help you when you have a good product as opposed to one littered with errors.
Get an agent. They are going to help you avoid the traps and pitfalls out there. I know a lot of people have said, "I don't want to spend 15% of my money. I want to keep all of my money." If you self-publish, you're not keeping all of your money. You have to pay to get your book printed and distributed. Plus, there is no guarantee that you'll be able to get your book distributed. Why not pay someone to get you to where you need to go? Eighty-five percent of something is better than 100% of nothing.
Traditional publishers won't pick you up unless you are able to sell 5,000 copies as a self-publisher. Although it's easy now to get a self-published book into traditional markets, it's still going to take money to do it. Either way you're spending money. Why not spend money and let someone work for you who knows what they are doing?
Are there any books you can think of the titles of that helped you with getting published?
Mari Walker: There is one book that I really like. It's called "Everything To Get Published Book". It lists all of the steps, what to expect when you send your package out, how long you're going to wait to get a response from an agent. It listed everything, and it is so on point. I would recommend that book to anyone.
What do you do to market yourself outside of the efforts of your publisher?
Mari Walker: I try to keep the book out there so much that people get tired of seeing it. You want to stretch the advance you get from the publisher as much as possible. You have to spend money to get your name and your product out there. I try to do local signings in book stores and clothing stores.
I use a lot of internet services. You can post your cover online, sometimes for free. You ask people to review your book. You can set up a virtual book tour. Having a website is a must these days. You have to start a blog at least. You have to have some type of presence on the internet. If you don't have that, you're 80% defeated already.
How do you maintain your day job and your writing career simultaneously?
Mari Walker: It ain't easy! (Laughter.) I've found that I'm not alone. I'm not the only writer doing that. You just do what you got to do. It's like working two jobs. When you get to do a job that you really love and you've always wanted to do, it's really not like work. It's like taking a vacation to come home and do what you love.
Are there any other projects you are working on?
Mari Walker: I am currently working on a project that will target at-risk teenage girls. It's called BriMani and KeMyla's Space. I want to introduce them to creative writing as a means to channel some of their self-destructive behaviors in a more positive direction.
What's your writing process?
Mari Walker: It varies. One thing that really gets me in the mood to write and takes me there is piano music. I don't care what kind of piano music it is. The other thing I'll put on is Africa by Toto or 2Pac. I love 2Pac. I'm not talking about his gangster stuff. One of my favorite songs is "To My Unborn Child". I like the background music and everything.
Name the first 3 great books that come to your mind and why.
Mari Walker: The first one that impressed me is Richard Wright's Native Son. I probably read that when I was 14 years old. I love that book.
It was kind of depressing at first because of the oppressive country we lived in back in the 1930s. It was hard for a black man back in the 30s. That book brought that time period to life. More than that, nobody can build drama like Richard Wright. From the time Bigger Thomas took the job driving the daughter of wealthiest white family around, you knew something was going to happen. Richard Wright was able to capture my attention. It was such a page turner. I've probably read it about 20 times.
The other book is To Kill A Mocking Bird. Same thing. It was drama. It was told from a little girl's point of view. That book just held me from beginning to end.
Finally, I have to say The Color Purple. I love that book. It's better than the movie, and I love that movie. It was one book that translated well to film.
Anything that can keep you up all night reading is a good book.
Joey Pinkney is a freelance writer and book reviewer. He spends most of his time with his family and friends. At night he burns the midnight oil putting together articles for your reading pleasure. For more information visit: www.joeypinkney.com
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