Painful layoff becomes fodder for novel
Tuesday, February 03, 2009
CHANDA TEMPLE GUSTER
News staff writer
Virginia DeBerry and Donna Grant are best friends who have been writing novels together since 1990.
But when the financial arrangements of a contract fell through for their fourth book in 2003, DeBerry had to find another way to make ends meet.
After finishing the book, "Better Than I Know Myself," with Grant - and getting it published without the balance of their advance as agreed - DeBerry put down writing for a while and picked up a part-time job as a legal secretary in 2004.
It was a painful time for DeBerry, a single woman in her 50s who never imagined her career would take such a turn.
In 2005, Grant, whose husband was employed and provided a financial cushion for her and helped DeBerry, recognized there was a story in DeBerry's plight. She started to develop a character dealing with a layoff and financial hardships.
She pitched the idea to DeBerry, who wasn't interested - at first.
As DeBerry read a draft, her interest slowly grew. The idea took a backseat so they could finish their fifth book, "Gotta Keep Tryin'," in 2007. By this time, they had switched to a different publisher, Simon and Schuster, which DeBerry said wanted them to continue to write the kind of books they were known for writing.
Satisfied with their new publisher, they happily worked on their sixth novel, about a heroine with a pink slip, and finished it in January 2008. "What Doesn't Kill You" was released last month. They'll sign the book tonight at 7 at Books-A-Million/Wildwood.
"I was really determined that we were not going to go out like that. If we chose to stop writing because we didn't have another story to tell, or it's not what we wanted to do ... that's one thing," said Grant, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. "But to be knocked out by an experience that had nothing to do with our ability. I was not going to let that happen."
"So, I bugged (DeBerry) about it."
Instead of writing about a character facing the disintegration of a book contract, they decided to make the character more universal. They created Thomasina "Tee" Hodges, a spirited, 40-something divorcee who loses her job after working at a fragrance company for 25 years.
Seeing how others experienced layoffs, the writers incorporated the feelings of disappointment, denial and embarrassment into Tee's character. But they also showed Tee's strength in times of adversity.
It's a theme that's struck a chord with readers.
"We've been getting e-mails and posts on our MySpace page and Facebook page from people who want to know if we have been eavesdropping on their lives," said DeBerry, of New Jersey. "If you haven't been Tee, you know somebody who has."
"We want people to see they aren't alone. This is something that so many people have gone through and come out the other side," said DeBerry.
Once they finish their book tour, they'll get back to work on their next novel, "Uptown," which is about the real estate business, power and family in Harlem. It will be released spring 2010.
The two are former plus-size models who met in New York while vying for the same assignments. They've been best friends since 1981.
When they met, their personalities clicked. They first started Maxima, a lifestyle and fashion magazine for plus-size women. When publication ceased, they decided to try to write a book as a team. (Both are college graduates and DeBerry is a former high school English teacher.)
Their first novel, "Exposures," was released in 1990 under the pseudonym Marie Joyce. After that, they started using their real names and have written five popular books since.
There are plans to turn their 1997 book, "Tryin' To Sleep in the Bed You Made," into a movie with Regina King playing one of the main characters. They have a screenplay and currently are looking for a director and actors to complete the cast.
They also are working to turn "Not Far From the Tree," into a movie.
As they look back, DeBerry and Grant are glad DeBerry didn't let what happened in 2003 defeat her. They emerged with their friendship still intact, and a book to boot.
"I know that our friendship was important to getting through this time, and real friends are the ones that you can share your happiness and your sadness with," said Grant. "One of the things that Tee finds out (in the book) is that some people she thought were friends, were really not. And sometimes that is a thing you find out when the chips are down."