February 19, 2009

Street / Urban Fic: Terra Little, author of Where There's Smoke

The Author

Terra Little currently resides in Missouri with her teenage daughter, Sierra, and hundreds of books. She is a graduate of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Lindenwood University, and, in the fall of 2009, the University of Phoenix. Her first title, Running from Mercy, was published in January 2008, by Q-Boro Books, and her second title, Where There’s Smoke, was published in January 2009, by Urban Books. She works in community corrections, and she is addicted to reading, writing, blogging, and Coca-Cola (not necessarily in that order).

To learn more about Terra, check out her website, blog, and MySpace page.

The Book

Alec Avery gets an unwelcome blast from his drug-dealing, street-running past that turns his life upside down. Back in the day, he was known as “Smoke” and Anne Phillips was one of his customers. So how did they end up with a teenage son together? You do the math. Dollars make sense, but Anne didn’t always have the money to pay for what she wanted. Now Alec is paying the price.

These days he’s a military vet and a well-respected high school teacher. Just about the last thing he expects to encounter is a son that he never knew he had and a bunch of foolishness that he thought he was done with. His son is out of control, experimenting with drugs, and running with a rough crowd and the last thing he expects to encounter is a long-lost father who is
hell-bent on making his presence felt in a very meaningful way.

Before long, Smoke has no choice but to come out of hibernation to right some wrongs, starting with the thugs who don’t want to turn his son loose. They didn’t count on old school meeting new school, which is their first mistake.

Click the cover above to order Where There's Smoke today!

On Street//Urban Fic

What does urban/street fiction mean to you? Is there a distinction between urban and street?
The dictionary defines urban as “of or relating to a city” and street as “the people living, working, or gathering along a street.” In the context of these definitions, which make total sense to me, there is a definite distinction between the terms urban and street. What seems to have happened is that the term urban has been primarily assigned to what’s commonly referred to as ghetto or street life. But this isn’t always the case. Take, for example, the areas located within a city where upper and middle class people live. By no stretch of the imagination are these areas considered ghettos, and portraying these people in stories that highlight their everyday existence is not indicative of street life. These are upwardly mobile people who reside in urbanized communities, as opposed to rural communities or the “country.”

Still, urban and street life can and does clash at some point, since parts of most cities across the country have areas that are labeled as ghetto or hood, and these are usually the areas where street life dominates. I’ll leave you to your own devices for deciding what sorts of work, life, and gathering is going on in and along the streets in the ghetto or hood, particularly on street corners and in back alleys. I will, however, go so far as to predict that the various deviations between what you come up with and what a city truly is – “a town of significant size and importance” or “an incorporated US municipality with definite boundaries and legal powers set forth in a state charter” – are readily identifiable. I recognize them. Do you?

In literary terms, Urban Fiction should portray people who live, work, and/or thrive in everyday life in cities everywhere, leaving Street Fiction to focus on life on the streets, where there is mostly a survive by any means necessary mentality. I think that lumping the two terms together is yet another way to classify an entire group of people according to the lowest possible estimation frequently attributed to a fraction of the group’s population and justify that classification. Not all street people are there by choice, but some choose criminality and deviant behavior as a way of life, and this fraction of any given population can almost always be found on the streets conducting business as they know it.

Of all the genres present, what drew you to write urban/street fiction?
I don’t write Street Fiction as a general rule. For me, the setting and the characters dictate how a story will be written (1st, 3rd person, etc.) and the message I’m trying to convey dictates the genre that I will dabble in, in order to breathe life into the characters.

My second book, Where There’s Smoke, has an element of Street Fiction in it, because part of the main characters’ pasts are rooted in elements of street life. Now, in their present lives, they are law abiding, working class people, who happen to reside in urbanized communities, and neither of them works, lives, or gathers on the street. At one point in time they did, though. In the here and now they have a teenage son who thinks street life is what he wants, but it doesn’t take long for him to realize that its not. Lucky for him, his parents, who both dabbled in the streets when they were young, are better prepared to deal with him because of their previous exposure.

I had to write the story with a slightly street twist at various points, because of the characters’ histories. That way readers could see how the characters have grown as people, how far they’ve come, and how far they’re willing to go to save their son. Where There’s Smoke is Contemporary Fiction, first and foremost, and the concept of taking negatives and turning them into positives is an ongoing theme throughout the book. Readers need to see where the characters have been in order to fully appreciate where they are now, and the law of nature dictates that we can’t all have pretty pasts. Street life isn’t pretty.

What has been - if any - some of the positive and negative comments you have received from readers?
For the most part, readers have positively embraced my books and relayed to me how much they’ve enjoyed them. Where my first book, Running from Mercy, is concerned readers told me that they loved the town, the people, and the story itself. I found that Running from Mercy dug up some unresolved issues with childhood, parenting, and sibling relationships for some readers, making it hard for them to read, but still enjoyable, and I take that as a positive, as well. If that’s the case, then I’ve done what I set out to do, which was move readers in some way.

By contrast, some readers found that Running from Mercy wasn’t exactly the kind of story they were expecting, based on who the publisher was (Q-Boro Books). I received emails from people who admitted to almost having passed on picking up a copy, because of the preconceived and largely incorrect notions they had formed about the publisher. But they were glad they did pick up a copy and were very happy with their visits to Mercy, Georgia. I also received emails from people who thought there should’ve been shoot ‘em up, bang-bang from cover to cover, because of who the publisher was, and they were a little disappointed that there wasn’t. I’ll tell you a little secret…there wasn’t supposed to be. Running from Mercy is Contemporary Fiction

Any negative feedback I’ve received, though not very much, has primarily had to do with misconceptions centered on the words urban and street. That’s why I jumped at the chance to participate in this discussion. I’d like to hear from readers on what these terms mean to them. What should readers expect when they’re reading in one genre or the other? From personal experience, I know that Urban Fiction publishers will and do publish titles that are classified as Contemporary, Christian, and Non-fiction titles, but the stigma of being perceived as exclusively Street Fiction publishers is holding fast, slowing progress and preventing readers from discovering new talent.

You didn’t ask, but I’m going to say it anyway. I would like to see readers of every genre become a little more open-minded and willing to come outside of their houses once in a while. Case in point: A book club for women age 30 and over recently reviewed Where There’s Smoke. The reviewer emailed me and admitted to being reluctant to read my book, because of the cover graphic. But she was glad she did. She wrote that she was waiting for someone and decided to crack open the book while she waited. It turns out that she loved the book so much that she read it in half a day’s time. She told me that she couldn’t put it down for wanting to find out what was going to happen and that she was now rethinking her habit of judging books by their covers. Another reader wrote that she, too, was reluctant to pick up Where There’s Smoke, but after reading it, she wanted to know if there was going to be a sequel.

Is that positive feedback or what?

In the branch of Black literature, what do you think urban/street fiction brings to the table?
As a combined genre, which I don’t happen to think is always the case, Urban/Street Fiction brings confusion and, in some cases, anger to the table. There are truly urban, working class people who take offense at being perceived as having anything to do with street life by society’s standards, myself included. And there are those who are confused about what it means to be urban and what it means to be street; those who think one is unequivocally the same as the other. Along this vein, I think Urban/Street Fiction can bring stereotypical fuel to the table. We can all eat at the same table, but let’s not confuse corn with mashed potatoes, even if mashed potatoes is capable of covering up corn when we want them to.

On the other hand, when Urban Fiction is separated from Street Fiction, two different, but still related items come to the table. They come via two different routes, but those routes do intersect every now and again, as we see in Where There’s Smoke. Urban Fiction brings the trials, tribulations, joys, and dreams of everyday people who hail from urban settings. Street Fiction depicts life in the streets - the realities of living in the ghetto or hood.

The Excerpt

From Where There's Smoke

Just last night I’d told Isaiah that he was grounded for two weeks. Straight home from school every day and no television or phone privileges. So why did I come home from work and he was nowhere to be found? He had my cell phone and I called it, and immediately got the voicemail, which meant that either the phone was turned off, or he had rejected my call because he knew his behind was supposed to be in the house. I looked at the kitchen trash, then at the sink. The trash hadn’t been taken out, and the dishes hadn’t been washed. Again. A quick trip upstairs confirmed that his room looked like a tornado had whipped through it, and he’d left a pair of his funky drawers in the middle of the floor.

I sat at the kitchen table nursing a glass of lemonade and wondering what the hell I was going to do about my son. He was spinning out of control and I was getting more and more tired of dealing with his crap. The scene from last night had nearly moved me to violence as it was. He clearly had no earthly idea who he was messing with, and I had almost shown him before I caught myself.

He came stumbling into my house in the middle of the night, smelling like a brewery and looking even worse. Pupils dilated to the point that the whites of his eyes were barely visible and marijuana smoke thick in his clothes. I wanted to slap him and hurt him the way he was hurting me, but I hadn’t done that. I had simply informed him that he was grounded, laid out the rules for his grounding, and took myself to bed. What else could I do?

I thought he’d gotten the message last night that I meant business, but after two hours passed tonight, and he still wasn’t home, I conceded the fact that he simply didn’t give a shit. I tried the cell again. Still no answer. Then I got up and took a package of chicken breasts out of the freezer. I put them in the microwave to thaw, and snatched the phone up when it rang.

“Isaiah?” I barked. Whoever was on the other end said nothing for several seconds, which further convinced me that it was my son. I started in. “You’re supposed to be home doing your chores, boy. Where the hell are you?” I took a breath as alternate possibilities floated through my mind. “Are you all right?”

“This isn’t Isaiah,” the caller said. It was a man, but damned if I could catch his voice. Not many men called me, and if this was one of the select few, I would’ve recognized the voice instantly. I didn’t recognize this one.

“Then who is this? Has something happened to my son?”

“Your son is fine, unless you factor in the forty ounce I just saw him pulling from. This is Smoke, Breanne.”

“Smoke?” My voice went high and strange sounding. Smoke?

“Smoke,” he said definitively. “I got your little greeting card and I thought we should talk.”

“Oh . . . well, now isn’t a good time,” I stalled. “I’m waiting for my son to come home, and then I have to kill him. He was supposed to come straight home after school but—”

“But he hung out at school, shooting hoops and guzzling beer straight from the bottle. No class, your boy. I’m coming over.”

“Smoke, listen . . .”

“I’ll be happy to once you open the door and let me in.”


“I’m pulling into your driveway now. Daddy’s home. Open the door, Breanne.”

He hung up on me and I raced to the living room and pushed the drapes back to look outside. I recognized the car instantly, the one from the other day, the one I had admired without realizing that it belonged to him. The man had been sitting in front of my house, staking me out like I was a common criminal.

I was insulted and it showed on my face as I marched to the door and swung it open. We stood on opposite sides of the storm door staring at each other before I finally turned the brass knob and let him into my home. This was my sanctuary, and Smoke Avery was about to violate it.

“I can’t believe you’ve been sitting outside my house stalking me.” I backed away from the door one step at a time. Smoke stepped into my house and sucked up all the free space around him. I looked in his face for the first time in almost seventeen years.

“I can’t believe you had me served with child support papers.” The look in his eyes told me that he wasn’t quite as calm as his voice suggested, and I took another step backward. “I haven’t seen you in I don’t know how long, and suddenly you want me to be your baby’s daddy?”

“It’s not what you think. I didn’t want any of this, Smoke.”

“And stop calling me Smoke,” he snapped irritably. The next thing I knew he was brushing past me and walking through the living room toward the kitchen. Walking through my house like he had every right to do so. I closed the door and hurried to catch up with him.

“You identified yourself as Smoke when you called,” I reminded him as I came into the kitchen behind him. I busied myself with taking the chicken from the microwave and setting it in the sink.

“Momentary lapse of memory. Smoke is dead, Breanne.”

“So is Breanne. I never liked that country ass name anyway. I go by Anne now, so please call me that from now on.”

“Fine, Anne.” He rolled the name around on his tongue, took a seat at the kitchen table and watched me intently. “How did this happen, Anne?”

1 comment:

Zetta Brown said...

Thank you Terra for the education (and definition) of "urban" and "street" fiction.

Funny how no one ever considers SEX AND THE CITY to be urban fiction--because that's what it is!

To be honest, I've avoided urban/street fiction because I lumped it all together as street fiction. But your post helps make things clear.

I agree to your call to step outside our houses and try something new and WHERE THERE'S SMOKE sounds like a fine place to start (I still have RUNNING FROM MERCY on my to-read list!).

Going from your definitions, I think I'd prefer urban fiction over street.

Regardless--I need to get your books and catch up on my reading!