(bell dinging) (upbeat music) - Hi, I'm Tara M. Stringfellow.
I'm the author of "Memphis", my debut novel.
(upbeat music continues) I really wanted to write like a long epic poem, a sonnet, a love letter to Memphis, to my city to the Black women living in my city.
It's a Black fairytale in a way.
I really wanted to write a Black love story too.
So there's all that in there.
I think it is in itself Black joy.
(gentle music) - You have an epigraph, which I personally love the epigraph.
I don't think there's any better way to frame a story.
Some readers don't even look at them.
But I really want to encourage people to look at this one and read it because it is a poem that you've written to Miss Gianna Floyd.
And, she's George Floyd's daughter.
Gave me goosebumps.
It's a poem, it's a war cry.
It's comforting and gracious and heartbreaking.
Did it come first or did it come last?
(sighs) - It came in the middle.
George Floyd died Memorial Day weekend.
And I was sitting there, I had to do a big major edit of the book.
And after seeing this beautiful Black man strangled on a street for an alleged counterfeit $20, I was enraged.
I was angry, my father taught me how to read, read me stories at night.
And I just kept thinking, who's gonna teach his daughter how to love the written word?
And so I decided, I said, I have to dedicate this to her because I mean, who else is more deserving of a good Black story than that little girl?
And I wrote the poem in like a few minutes.
I just sat down and it kind of poured out of me.
And I thought it would be a great dedication for the book.
But yeah, I just can't imagine anyone else on this earth deserving a story more so than Gianna Floyd.
- Would you read it for us?
- Oh sure, of course.
I'd love to, "To Miss Gianna Floyd, I wrote you a Black fairytale and I understand if you're not ready to read it yet or if your mama told you to wait a bit, and thats just fine.
This book ain't going nowhere.
This book going to be right here whenever you want it.
Whenever you get finished playing outside in that bright, beautiful world your daddy loved so much, child it's just right to set this aside.
Lord knows not a soul on this earth going blame you for being out in it, running, laughing, breathing."
(gentle music) - [J.T.]
It is kind of unbelievable that this is your debut.
- This is my first time writing fiction ever.
I'd never written a short story before.
And you're a poet.
- You're a poet by trade, you're a lawyer by trade.
- Yes, I say poet by birth, that's my birthright.
- I just became an attorney 'cause I needed to eat like food and pay for things.
- That's a very legitimate reason.
- Yeah, but going to law school did teach me how to write I think a lot better.
And so I do owe my law career to being able to write novels now.
I think it really goes hand in hand.
(gentle music continues) - Your dad shaped you as well.
Can you tell us very quickly the story of when you were three years old and he pulled the book off the shelf that changed your life?
- It was a collection of Greatest Poems of all Time, something like that.
And he started reading this poem.
I was three.
I stopped him.
I said, start over.
Like this is the most beautiful thing I've ever heard in my life.
And so he started over and I stopped him again and I said, I will be a poet.
This is for me.
And he said, really?
He said, you wanna do this?
I said, I have to do this.
And the poem was Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven".
And my dad pointed at the book.
He said, okay, well you have to write three times better because you're a Black woman.
And I said, I got that, I got it, I can do it.
And so that's always been my I guess kind of mantra in life.
Like, write three times better than Poe.
That's what I'm thinking of every single sentence I put down like, did I make it sing?
Is this a purely beautiful sentence?
And if so, then I move on.
And if not, I go back.
(upbeat music) - Your description of character and laughter in The Beauty Shop, it was so amazing.
And I loved Miss Jade because you draw in very broad strokes, an incredibly detailed character.
It's very easy for you to say, somebody runs the numbers game.
She wears a blonde mink, has a pearl handled pistol in her coach bag.
It's very evocative, it's very immediate.
We know exactly who this woman is.
Is developing characters easy for you or is that a challenge?
That's a good question.
I'd like to say a mix of both.
Sometimes I can just think of a person, Ms. Jade was based off a podcast, I don't remember which one but the daughter was finding out that her mom ran the numbers game in the neighborhood and she'd keep a little pistol in her purse.
- Stealing that.
- Yes, this tiny little woman with a pistol.
And that always stuck with me.
I was like, I gotta put this in a novel.
Like I just have to, I'll hear something on the radio or a podcast and I'm like, I need to remember this to put this in a novel.
And also a lot of the characters are based on my family who are still living.
So I can just call them up and like be with Auntie August, or be with Maya.
So it's easy and it's difficult in that way 'cause I do want the characters to have very separate experiences and separate voices.
That was hard.
It was hard for me to write Maya and her voice.
Like writing in a child's voice I feel is incredibly difficult to do.
So I hope I gave her like that zest for life that I feel as if all children have that curiosity.
But it was really hard writing her bits.
And it was also hard writing humor in the book 'cause she is very funny, I would say.
But I would write something I said, is this funny?
Is this even funny?
I'm laughing but I'm weird.
(person laughing) Will any anybody else on earth think this is funny?
So in some ways, yes, it's really difficult but in some ways no, it's easy and it's fun.
It's really fun for me.
- I see you in all of the characters, but I see you in Maya most of all because she is.
Yeah, it's funny you say that she was the hardest for you because she's the one that I see you the most in and you gave her some of your really fun talents, you know.
She speaks Italian.
We don't know how she learns Italian.
(speaking in Italian) - So like I just wanted her have like kind of weird quirks to her.
But I feel as if everybody in that family is a savant.
Like everyone has kind of a magical almost power to them.
- So I wanted to keep that too.
But it's funny that you say I'm Maya 'cause I don't think I'm like that humorous.
(person laughing) - Trust me.
- Or fun.
- Trust me when I say, she brings some levity to very difficult situations.
And does it in such a loving way.
It's not like she's being a smart aleck.
She's, well she is a smart aleck, but she's doing it out of a sense of love and devotion and knowing, having that moment that she knows, oh, I've gotta pull everybody out of this.
It's a lot of responsibility for a little girl.
- It is.
And I think that's maybe why she didn't get her own chapter is I get that question posed to me too.
But I really wanted her to be a little girl.
- I'm not done with these characters.
I hope you're not either.
(sighing) - You know, I feel as if I am though.
- I feel as if they're all at home.
- Like looking out the window like who are all these people on our lawn?
And all the people in the lawn are folk who bought the book and now they're obsessed with them.
And Maya's like, get off my porch.
(people laughing) Like who are these folk?
You tell them to go away.
Auntie August got like 200 clients a day now 'cause everyone wants to get their hair done by her.
But I feel as if they're doing their own thing in Memphis.
They did good.
I don't wanna give anything away for the finale in the book but they're doing what they're supposed to be doing and they're living their lives.
And I do have to say Americans are very obsessed with sequels, like even movies and remakes.
- I don't understand that.
Like, I stayed with these folk for years and I love them but I want new people to be in love with.
I don't wanna be another four or five years of my life dedicated to the same people.
I think they're out there in the world.
Jonah is always making art.
Maya is saying something sassy to somebody, they're just fine.
(gentle music) - [J.T.]
You have written a purely beautiful book.
- [Tara] Thank you.
- And I'm really excited for everyone so much to get their hands on it and share it.
And thank you for sharing your story with us.
- Of course, thank you for having me.
This has been a delight.
- And thank you for watching "A Word on Words".
Ellison, keep reading.
(bell dings) - [Tara] I'm really appreciative for the fact that the Marine Corps let me grow up in Okinawa, Japan in a tropical paradise.
I was a black little girl and I could just be that, just a Black little, and no one made me feel less than.