Carmen Green

Interview with Carmen (McCray) Green - EDP S'85/English Alum Wednesday November 27, 1996

 
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KB - Carmen, you came to Fredonia when?
CG- 1981 and graduated in 1985
KB - Why/How Fredonia?
CG - I applied to several school in the SUNY system and I was rejected by several of them that I wanted to go to that were further away. When I got accepted to Fredonia, I decided it was far enough away from Buffalo and I had not explored Fredonia initially but after I got accepted I did homework on the school. It was a proximity issue--it was far enough away from Buffalo yet close enough to home. When the other schools didn't accept me, I applied to Albany and Cornell. I also applied to Fredonia at the same time and when I got accepted, I realized this was the place for me to be.
KB - What high school did you go to in Buffalo?
CG - I graduated from Bennett High School.
KB - Did you always want to be a writer?
CG - I really didn't start to write until I took a Creative Writing class at Fredonia with Dr. Barnard (Tristram Barnard/EN). He was a big man, like a line backer and I thought what can this guy teach me about writing? I had so much fun in his class. It was not difficult for me. This is when I actually started writing. Another professor, Dr. Ambrosetti (Ronald Ambrosetti -Professor/English; Assoc. Dean of Faculty). He really encouraged me and I don't know if he even knows this. He had a very positive attitude and was very encouraging about my work when a lot of negative things were happening. Very positive and encouraging about my work and that was when I started writing about my sophomore year at Fredonia.
KB - Dr. Ambrosetti will be surprised because he probably didn't realize that he encouraged you. Often times professors don't understand the roll that they play when they encourage a student and how that will manifest a student's development and career.
CG - That's very true. I think that it was more than just encouraging words, it was encouraging remarks. It was a lack of negative in the responses that he gave me. Things he would write on my papers and that would give me different ideas or help me go in a direction that was more of what he wanted me to understand and go into. He was just a very positive person. And I did well in his classes because of his positive influence. I'm sure he won't remember me from the thousands of students he has taught over the years, but he is someone I remember vividly. Someone who was helpful. That's where it started back then. Then I didn't write for a lot of years. I wrote essays here and there, thoughts, and prayers and things like that but I didn't express myself in a literary way. In 1993 1 started to write more and more. It was just something in me to get out my thoughts. It was a way for me to express myself where I couldn't verbally. I was able to express myself through the written word. And so I started to do that and at that time it was essays and at that time I was reading so many novels and non-fiction books that I thought let me try this, let me try to write a romance novel. This is where I turned the corer into writing romance was in 1993.
KB - Was there any particular author who you happened to work under or who encouraged you in the romance area?
CG - I have always been a big fan of Sandra Brown's. I really enjoy her work. But the first African-American romance novel I read was "A Sheep's Spell" by a friend of mine, Ebony Snow. I thought I could do this. Finding her book in a small Black book store in Atlanta, picking it up, reading it and enjoying it made me go back there. I asked them "Do you have any more?" They said No... I asked why not? It was published by the Odyssey Press, and he said that he believed that the company went out of business and the editor had gone somewhere else. He also said that there were no more Black romance novels. I said that it wasn't possible, that it couldn't be true that there was only the one Black romance novel. This is a good story. It was a story about Black people. I believed that there had to be more because it was such a great story. I read thousands of romance novels. This was the first one with Black characters. I picked up some other books by other authors, Walter Moseley, some books by the "Song of Solomon" author, and Terence McMillian. None of these touched me like the romance novels. So I decided if there aren't any out there and this one got published, I'm going to try and write one. That's where it started in 1993. When I read that book I said I'm going to do this myself.
KB - What was your biggest fear about taking on this enterprise?
CG - I didn't have any fear. I had undergone some struggles throughout those last 2 years, quitting a good job in Chicago and moving to Atlanta, being a housewife and a mom with three children. It was difficult. I was used to making money and I wasn't making any money and I was staying home. I thought "What is happening to me?" I didn't have any fear. I'm not afraid to fail. Failure is just another stepping stone to success. I wasn't thinking about rejection, I didn't care. I wasn't even thinking about it in that sense. I just wondered could I do it. The biggest step I had to take was how do I go about doing this?
KB - You published two books. Tell me about them.
CG - The first one is a novel called "Now or Never." It's a story about a woman who suffered a loss and vowed to never love again and a man who also suffered a loss, but seeks love. That story was born when I thought of what would happen if two people who would meet in a cemetery. I know it sounds morbid, who would ever go talk to a strange man in a cemetery? That's where the story was born. I thought how can I get these characters to fall in love? I had to create a whole situation and a life for these people, and that's what I did. I had to build a whole life for them in their short story. Actually I had a two book contract for two full-length novels. I have another book called "Silken Love." We call it the missing baby story but it's not about a baby. It's about a teenage girl who finds out that her biological father is alive and that her adoptive mother is falling in love with the biological father. It's a beautiful love story between these two people but the adversary in the story is the daughter. She doesn't want them to get together. The short story, "Whisper To Me," in Silver Bells, my editor called me last year in December and asked me if I wanted to write a Kwanzaa story for this anthology. Kwanzaa?? I don't know anything about Kwanzaa. My editor reminded me that I had plenty of time to find out. I said I want to do it. I did some research at the Kwanzaa Association in Atlanta and researched it and that's how "Whisper To Me" was born.
KB - So you have taken on this career as a journey in your life. What kind of work did you do before you came to Atlanta?
CG - I was a statistical supervisor for an insurance reporting company. We compiled statistics on non-standard drivers who have a lot of points. Say you have a 17 years old guy who has 15 points on his driving record. We compile that data. All it is is a data reporting-type company. We compile that data based on state-by-state which is put into a database and sent on to the insurance commissioner and that's what they set the rates by. It was very interesting work. Something I though I could segue off into different areas of management, which was my goal. But then we moved to Atlanta because of my husband's job and there were no statistical reporting companies in Atlanta and I was pregnant at the time with our daughter and no one would give me a job. So faced with three kids and the high cost of child care I decided to stay home. I could not afford to work.
KB - Dealing with that situation. How did your husband feel about you writing romance novels?
CG - My husband is very supportive of everything I want to do and I'm supportive of him, too. I've moved with him many times around the country when he's gotten a new or better job. It's for our family. Then we got to Atlanta and I really loved it and said I wasn't leaving again. But he has always been very supportive of me. I've failed at a lot of different things. I have tried a lot of different things and didn't achieve and level of success I wanted to attain and I've tried a lot of different jobs and didn't achieve the level of success I wanted. So when I told him I wanted to write romance novels, he said "OK, whatever." I wrote "Now or Never" by hand. We didn't have a computer. He would bring home his computer. He had a portable, not even a lap top, but a portable that weighted about 15 pounds and he would bring it home every weekend so everything I wrote that week I would key in over the weekend. I did so much of the book that by the time it went to press I couldn't believe that I had written so much by hand and didn't even use it. But that's how that first book was written. Then for that Christmas, before he even knew I was published, he bought me a computer. I have a 486 now.
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KB - Tell me about your time in Fredonia and EDP. Do you have any memories of your involvement in the program?
CG - At the time I was there Carmela Dubose Thompson was the director and Ottilie Woodruff was a counselor and Barb Yochym, the secretary. I remember the people and students that I was in EDP with. EDP kept me in Fredonia. There were so many times I was on the edge. My GPA wasn't high. Times that I was struggling. Carm would say come in and talk to us, come in and talk to me. I can't, I can't face that I cannot understand what these teachers are saying. I can't face that I'm not passing this math class. And I started to do that. I thought I was just weighing my whole life down on this lady's shoulders. But I needed that in the worse way. For someone to talk to me and straighten me out and say what you are going through is normal and I would be fine. And that's what she would say and I would look at her like she is crazy. She doesn't know what I'm talking about. But EDP kept me at Fredonia. I had appendicitis right before mid-terms. At that point my GPA was not good and I got appendicitis and I had to go into surgery and stay at the hospital and recover, but all that time was mid-term time and I needed those grades from those tests. And Carmela said "will you talk to those professors. I need for you to do it. I could do it, but I need for you do to it." So I talked to them and hobbled around campus and I was so afraid. That was the biggest thing I would have to say for Carmela was she helped me to conquer a lot of fear just by coming in and talking to her and realizing the problems I was facing were not so monumental that they could not be overcome. It was a lesson but I didn't realize it at the time. I thought Carm was torturing me and go to you-know-where for it. She was telling me to talk to people. I was like "Are you crazy." She said she needed me to do this. Carmela, if you love me, you will do it for me. I needed the services that EDP offered. I needed the tutoring, mainly the tutoring. Some of the services I didn't need. But I needed some of the services that they gave to me that they set up even before I got there.
KB - What happened when you talked to the professors? Did the professors bite your head off?
CG - No, of course these people didn't do that to me. I was mortified that they were going to say no way, just because you had surgery so what you should have showed up for the test I had no idea that they would say OK, you can take the test in two weeks, which every person said and I could not believe it. It was something that I thought there was a trick here, maybe she called them and I was so afraid to step outside of my self and face that fear. That was something I still use in my life when I am afraid of something, what is the worse that will happen. You will face this head on and they will say yes or no. I did not know that the world would not come to an end if they said no. I don't know if she got tired of me or not I couldn't tell you. She has always been wonderful to me and she would say come and talk to me and give me things to think about, and she would say you go think about that, it will be alright and she would pat me on my shoulder. Carmela please help me. That's why EDP helped me to get my degree. Gave me confidence that I didn't have. It gave me that first step into my adult life. I didn't have that before.
KB - So many times our students face that fear and it seems like that fear is overcoming and it is something that a lot of them would be so much better off in life to meet that head on. In your department how were you received? Were there any other Black English majors in your department or in your class?
CG - I was an English major. People took English as an elective. There were a certain amount of English classes that were a requirement but there were no other Black students or EDP students that I was aware of that were English majors.
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KB - Did you and the other English majors form a group?
CG - No, I never matriculate into the mainstream of the English department. I had a difficult time blending. It was very hard for me and I felt very isolated. I felt less than smart for lack of a better word. Because they all seemed to get it and I didn't. What was the problem? I wondered is he saying something I can't understand. I just did not feel that welcome then. Someone was not saying come to me and I will help you. I took a class with Dr. Ambrosetti and he was so casual. He was very friendly and talked with a smile in his voice. I just identified with that. I was looking for that. It made it easier to approach him and say I don't understand, can you help me to understand this. He would explain it forward and backward until I got it and I would say OK, OK, OK, and he would know I still didn't understand and say I don't want you to leave until you understand it. I just wanted to say "let me out of here." That helped me. In a way it was like a few people were forcing me to grow up and I wanted to stay in the shadow, the comfort of the unknown. Now I get scared sometimes but I'm not afraid of a lot of things. In fact there is not much that I actually fear. I know if I have to talk to my kids' teachers I just go in and talk to them where before that would have intimidated me but I don't feel that way any more.
KB - You said you remember other students in the program. Did you do things together as a group?
CG - No, I was the only English major I'm aware of. Some were Communications and ROTC like Ida (Boyd). I had other friends that were in EDP but we were sociable but not social. We saw each other at meetings, I think once a week on a Wednesday and we talked and eventually before we graduated we were friends but at that time that initial first year I didn't know them and I didn't come to the orientation program which would have helped me. I think you needed to pay something and I didn't have the money at the time to come so I didn't go.
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KB - Where are you going with your career now?
CG - I have one book coming out in September 1997 and that book entitled "Silken Love" and that book is written and handed in and done. I have two books for release in 1998--March and September-- and I am in the process of writing that book for March. It is difficult. It is something that I took on a challenge of writing about something I don't know about so I have had to do a lot of research which is very interesting because I like that but after that I am really aiming for a hard cover book, something more mainstream, something with suspense and with intrigue. I'm hoping for a hard cover book and then down the road the NY Times best seller list. I hope to make the Blackboard List. Blackboard is a list that is in Essence. "Silver Bells" made the bookshelf for Ebony this past month. There has been a lot of really positive things that have happened to me because of these books. And I really appreciate it. Just getting the acknowledgment from my peers, family, friends and strangers. I get fan mail from across the county saying we love this work. People have signed on to my dream and I really like that.
KB - There is a void. In my mother's house in her bedroom there is a box of romance novels, White romance novels. They read those, they will read yours. They read what is available. The public is looking for someone to fill that void.
CG - Pinnacle is the company and I hope Pinnacle continues to grow and continue to publish these stories and they are so necessary. Once upon a time the mentality was that we were not readers. That is not true, absolutely and unequivocally not true. And then, well they are not readers so who would be interested in reading what they wrote. But when they published that first line with this other company and there was this interest. That was the birth and now this is the rebirth. I feel that Pinnacle and Arabesque is the rebirth of Black romance and it is booming. Our writers have been inundated with mail and my editor has been inundated with mail to "give us more." So much so that the line started at two books per month and then grew to three and now in July it is going to four books that they publish every month. Now we have national distribution with book stores ordering our books. But the thing is people have to go. People just have to go in and ask for them. If a store doesn't have them don't just walk out, ask them to order it. That's the way people will continue to see us is if our books are on the shelf. I had a book signing today and I sold out. I have no books on the shelf. My husband was there and we talked to the manager and she is going to order more books. That's the way you keep on selling is if your face and name are out there. That's where you get the exposure and then word of mouth. Pass the word on. People can get their own books, it is only $4.99. We need that support. Pass the word on.
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KB - You said that you felt there was a negative connotation from the Black students for being in EDP. What about the faculty? Did you perceived that they felt that you were less than because you were in the program?
CG - No. They never said anything negative to me. If anything, they didn't know. I wasn't aware that they knew or did not know.
KB - They may not have but now the special admit program students are coded.
CG - Once I was identified through my test scores by a "D" in Biology as a clear indication that I needed help and I had Dr. Fox (Kevin Fox/Dist. Teaching Prof./Biology). I recall him and he called me down after class was over and I was shaking and I was like what does this man want. And he said well, do you need some help, tell me now. And I was like help with what. He said I saw your score and I can help you get a tutor. If you feel that you need this help. I said I would like to try it on my own because I wasn't good at accepting people's help. So I got a "D" on that next test. And I said "Let me get some help now" and he helped me get a tutor. I'm not sure how I did in that class, I'm sure I didn't do well, but I passed it but I needed the help that EDP offered me. I had a problem with math, even to this day. I can balance my check book but beyond that I'm not too good at it. Multiplication and all the basics, but trigonometry and geometry I really don't understand. I went through the whole EDP roster of tutors. I tried everybody. They really tried to help me.
KB - We have some now who have more than one tutor for the same course until they get it and there is no shame in that. Did you get tutoring in other subjects?
CG - I got a tutor in biology, philosophy, math. I never got it (math/Algebra). I had to go all the way to the president of the college to get a waiver to take a science. I was a senior and I had failed this math two or three times. I could not get it. This was one of those things in life that you face that you say no matter how hard I try I'm not going to get it. I went through all the tutors and I could not get it.
KB - But there is another way.
CG - They made me try and I failed and I tried and I failed and they made me try with a professor. They gave me to a Black man. He was a special studies professor. I don't know what he taught, I couldn't even get it with him. I tried every tutor EDP had for this Algebra. Carmela said what are you going to do. By then I was a senior and I had to make a grown up decision. I had to go talk to the Dean and I said I have not been able to pass this yet. He said try it again. I said I failed it twice. I have gone through all the tutors. He get said a TA, teaching assistant, get a professor--I did all of this. I wanted to learn it because I needed this to graduate. He looked at me and said I can see you have given it your best and there was nothing more that I could do because I need the math to graduate and so he gave me a piece of paper and sent me to see Mr. Coon (Robert Coon, retired Vice President for Student Affairs) and had to go to the president of the college and explain that I could not pass this class. I just felt like he would shoot me out of his office. I was so fearful that I would not graduate. I had gotten this far in college and this would be the biggest failure of my life and here I was 21, 22 years old. We talked about it and he signed off on it and said I would have to take something in its place, you can't not take these credit hours. Go back to the dean and tell him I had to take a science in its place. So that's what I did. I took a science in its place and I passed. There was another way but I had to overcome every single obstacle in order to get that other way. At that point I found out that these men are not ogre. They are not really horrible men with really sharp teeth. But that was my fear that they were going to take a big chunk out of me and then say no. So I was able to get through from that. I'm glad. It was a good experience. I had some tough years at Fredonia. But it was a good life experience and that's why I'm proud of going there and proud of having completed no matter what I went through because I will always have a degree. It is something I am very proud of because I worked so hard for it. Labor, go to school, labor, go to school. I don't know if I want to go through either one again. One of the things that I wish I had done while at Fredonia is I wish I had tried harder. I wish that I had utilized the resources that EDP provided for me especially the time that I got sick and I wouldn't have needed with such an urgency to go and see those professors but I know that when my back was against the wall I got a great GPA that semester because I had to try and I had to stay in school. Because at that point if I had left school I don't know if I would have ever finished. My family was encouraging me to leave school. Leave from that semester. I already had a bad GPA. I should leave and reapply. I told Carmela and she came and saw me in the hospital. I said I think I'm going to withdraw because I'm not doing good this semester and she said how many tests did you take and I said only one or two and she said Carmen you don't have to leave. All you have to do is come back to school. I was in the hospital in Dunkirk at the time. I thought about that and my mother said to come home. Carmela said I don't have to leave. You have to try real hard to stay here. I think I grew up that day. Because I knew then that no matter what the physical condition of my body, I knew I had to try to stay. That was one of my best semesters at Fredonia because I had to loose so much and that's when I started to participate. I realized the value of what EDP was offering me. They gave me my freedom. There are doctors and lawyers and now a romance writer to add to this whole array of success stories. That makes me feel really wonderful to be part of that crowd, even as a housewife, before I was a romance writer, I'm still proud of that group of people that succeeded from EDP at Fredonia. I guess the biggest thing/best thing to tell students now is to TRY and encourage them to overcome their fears. From writing I had to overcome the fear of rejection thinking well maybe they won't like it, but what do I have to lose. Mail it any way. Go talk to this editor anyway. You have to overcome your fears in order to succeed. Because you are going to fail but it is no indictment against you personally, it is just at this moment it is no, it won't be no forever. EDP offered so many safety nets to not fail. I never failed there. And that is something that I realize now that we are talking that I was not allowed to fail.
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