For all her childhood dreams of a footloose life, Bernice McFadden hasn't gone far. But that's in one sense only: She was born in Brooklyn, and in Brooklyn she remains, tied to her roots even as she evokes wild peregrinations of the human heart.
She started life in a two-bedroom apartment in Crown Heights, the eldest of four children of a UPS driver. "My uncle," she says, "traveled a great deal and told fabulous stories. It was from him I learned the world was a bigger place."
Her mother encouraged her to read for the most practical of reasons -- to entertain her baby brother while mom took a nap. By 8, Bernice was hopelessly in love with books, reading and rereading Rumer Godden's The Doll's House , raiding the forbidden stash of Harold Robbins novels in her parents' bedroom. When she presented her mother with her first creation, a story far too sexually precocious for a 9-year-old to have imagined, Mrs. McFadden had the presence of mind to say, "Well, well. So this is what this child is going to do."
Many years passed before that promise was fulfilled. McFadden worked in Bloomingdale's, in RockResorts travel agency, in numerous corporate offices, all the while writing short stories that garnered a stream of rejections. In 1997, disillusioned with her career, she decided to spread all her stories out on the floor and pick one she would turn into a novel.
She chose a wistful tale about a heartbroken woman in the suffocating town of Bigelow, Ark., and the prostitute she befriends. When she finished Sugar two years later, she sent it to a dozen literary agents. "I got a call from one of them on a Monday. By Friday it was sold." Published in 2000, it won McFadden instant acclaim.
In six short years, McFadden's star has climbed steadily. Toni Morrison has called her writing "expertly imagined"; Terry McMillan has said she is "a welcome voice in the literary world." She has produced seven more works, among them This Bitter Earth and, most recently, Nowhere Is a Place . But when she isn't writing as Bernice McFadden, a shy, brainy obsessive, she writes as Geneva Holliday, an aggressive, pulp-fiction phenomenon -- author of a lusty duo of chick lit novels. Few writers would dare straddle that perilous ravine.
But McFadden is not one for respecting boundaries. "I've long been an advocate for marketing across genre and color lines," she says, "but publishers don't get it. They like to put writers in a box. Black? Over here. Literary? Over there. Romance? On the back wall."
Despite the challenges, she has succeeded in juggling two distinct authorial voices and hopes some day to add a third -- that of a white male. So, even though Bernice McFadden has never left Brooklyn, she is managing to go places. As footloose a writer as any kid ever dreamed of.
-- Marie Arana
Causes Bernice McFadden Supports
Hurston Wright Foundation
Girls Write Now
Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS)