Ten Questions for Nicole Dennis-Benn

by Staff

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Nicole Dennis-Benn, whose second novel, Patsy, is out today from Liveright, an imprint of W. W. Norton. The novel tells the story of two women, Patsy and her daughter, Tru. After leaving behind Tru for a life she’s always wanted in New York, Patsy ends up working as a nanny caring for wealthy children while Tru rebuilds a faltering relationship with her father back in Jamaica. Jumping back and forth between narratives in New York and Jamaica, Dennis-Benn has created “a stunningly powerful intergenerational novel,” as Alexander Chee writes, “about the price—the ransom really—women must pay to choose themselves, their lives, their value, their humanity.” Nicole Dennis-Benn is the author of Here Comes the Sun, a New York Times Notable Book and winner of the Lambda Literary Award. Born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, she teaches at Princeton and lives with her wife in Brooklyn, New York.

Nicole Dennis-Benn, author of the novel Patsy.

1. How long did it take you to write Patsy?
For me, the process begins way before I put pen to paper. Patsy was conceived in the fall of 2012, when I started as an adjunct at the College of Staten Island. I was writing Here Comes the Sun at the time, but would scribble notes about my early morning travel on the subway and the Staten Island Ferry while commuting with other immigrants going to their various jobs. I began to wonder about these peoples’ lives—what versions of themselves they brought to America and what they left behind in their countries of origin. Here they were in America, hustling to get to their jobs on time, their heads bowed underneath vacation ads displaying white sand beaches in places some once called home. Struck by this irony, I began to write. The character of Patsy came to me and refused to leave, even through the publication of my first novel and well after. So, this book has been with me for seven years.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
Writing the story of a woman, a mother who defies cultural and societal norms by abandoning her daughter in her quest for personal freedom, and by choosing to love the way she wants to love with her childhood best friend, Cicely. It took me some time to get comfortable with that angle of the story, but I realized early on that I couldn’t judge Patsy the way other people might. I had to be open to telling her story and portraying her as authentically as possible, knowing that there are women who grapple with this very same dilemma—feeling forced into motherhood by societal pressures, unable to live up to the high standards of the maternal role. Patsy didn’t have the opportunity to explore her own identity before becoming a mother. Her greatest desire is to find her place in the world, trying to define herself in a world that already defines her. Once I started to listen to that, I no longer found it challenging to step into her shoes and walk the miles with her. 

3. Where, when, and how often do you write? 
Lately, I’ve been writing on the New Jersey Transit during my commute to Princeton, where I’ve been teaching this past year. But I mostly write in my study. Early morning and mid-afternoon are the perfect times for me. I try to write every day. If that isn’t possible—since we’re human and we need breathers—I read, watch television, and spend time with my loved ones. I find that the majority of my inspiration comes from just living my life, so I take my non-writing time as seriously as I do my writing.

4. What was the most unexpected thing about the publication process? 
I was once that reader who devoured books without ever thinking about the process of how those books got to me in the first place. I didn’t know the sheer amount of work it took behind the scenes for a book to get on my bookshelf. I’m grateful for the team I have and for the opportunity to reach so many people. 

5. What are you reading right now? 
I’m reading Warsan Shire’s Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth. It’s one of the best poetry collections I’ve read in a while.

6. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition? 
There are so many authors who I think deserve wider recognition. There’s Sanderia Faye, author of Mourner’s Bench; Tracy Chiles McGhee, author of Melting the Blues; Mecca Jamilah Sullivan, author of Blue Talk and Love; JP Howard, an exceptional poet and author of Say Mirror; and Cheryl Boyce Taylor, who has written several collections of poetry, including my favorite, Arrival. 

7. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started writing Patsy, what would say? 
I would tell myself to relax, breathe, and trust the process. 

8. What is the biggest impediment to your writing life? 
When I was first published, I used to read reviews on Goodreads and Amazon. But a very good mentor, who happens to be a renowned author, told me never to do that since reviews are really conversations between readers—that an author has no business being in that conversation unless she’s invited. That made perfect sense to me. Once I was able to block out that extra noise—both good and bad—I was able to completely focus on my next project.

9. What is one thing you might change about the writing community or publishing industry?
That would be diversifying the gate keepers, not just in terms of race, but also class and culture. Expand the industry so that we have all different types of people of color; that there would be no such thing as a model minority of the year, but a celebration of everyone. Though I’ve been lucky to be surrounded and championed by people who understand me and get what I’m doing, deep down I question my belonging. I know that many writers of color who are in the game are anxious that the door might close soon—that our time might be up when the industry yawns and moves on to the next thing. 

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard? 
Elizabeth Strout once told me to keep my head down and write. That’s the greatest advice I’ve ever gotten. At the end of the day, we have to remind ourselves why we write and why it’s important for us to tell these stories. The universe will take care of the rest.