Thursday, January 21, 2010

Interview with Claudia Mair Burney

Thank you so much for doing this. I know it's a new blog but it was
needed. We are gaining momentum for this cause and I appreciate your
willingness to answer some of the hard questions.

I'm grateful to be here. Thank you for having me, Pam.

Why do you think the major publishers white wash the covers?

White wash is a strong term, Pam. LOL.

I can't speak for all of publishing, but I will tell you about some of the experiences I've had: books are a team effort, with writers, editors, copy editors, sales teams, marketing teams, and a whole bunch of other folks. And every publishing house I've worked with had a bottom line: they wanted to sell books, the more, the better. A few companies I wrote for had very few African American authors, and didn't particularly cater to a demographic that looks like me. When I signed on, these companies had to ask themselves how they could best serve me and the consumers who keep their lights on, who in many cases, may not have been people of color at all. Everybody says they want diversity, but frankly, nobody wants to invest in producing a great book, putting it on the bookstore shelves, and having White readers take one look at it--if it has an African American on the cover--and assume the book isn't for them. I've had people say that to me. "Oh, I didn't think that book was for me." Others said they didn't get the cultural references I wrote about, as if African Americans are foreigners! I mean, I've read French novels, Scottish ones. Those aren't my culture, but they were good stories. I learned from them about those cultures, and I found the universal in the specific. One woman told me that reading a sample chapter of one of my novels "wore her out." It would have been comical if it wasn't so sad. But I keep trying to make my writing as diverse as my life is. I've got a real multiculti tribe, and I like it that way. I also want to keep it that way, so I refuse to write just a "Black" book. But I am a Black woman, so I'll never deny that. It's all about being who I am, and saying, "Hey, let me tell you a story." And I don't care who's listening, especially if they're aching, hurting souls.

I've said before that Christian publishing seemed to be like a social system that still had a White's only and colored drinking fountain. Yet, we drink of the same, soul-quenching waters. But it isn't just Christian publishing that so divided. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that he was appalled that the most segregated hour in Christian America is Sunday morning at 11 a.m. So African Americans tend to go to church with other African Americans, and Whites with other Whites, and African American Christians tend to read African American books, and White Christians read books by White Christians. There are exceptions to this, thank God! And I'm one of them.

The reasons I have heard are so archaic, what do you think it is going to
take to change their way of thinking?
Money makes the publishing world go 'round. When books with Black faces on the cover sell very well to the White majority, you'll see more of them. But that may be a long time coming. I mean, there's an African American section in the bookstore! Even bookstores are segregating us, but some people like it that way. And honestly, as opposed to not having any books written by people of color in the stores at all, I'll take it. But it's complicated. Oversimplifying this matter doesn't serve anyone.

Your covers are so beautiful and feature PoC images. Do you demand this
from your publisher or do they just get it?

My publishers have been very thoughtful, and brave. I don't think they'd have taken a chance on a hard to market writer like myself if they weren't. And they made difficult decisions. One company's marketing and sales team said, after going around and around on the matter, "If a person won't buy this book because an African American is on the cover, we don't want their business." But they didn't sell a lot of my books. And now they don't want my business. LOL. Publishing isn't black and white so much. It's green, and I don't mean earth friendly.

Boycotting publishers who white wash, helpful?

You'd be very limited in the books you buy! I think what is more helpful is buying books that tell stories that really are universal, even though they have people of color on the covers. Telling publishers you appreciate their choices is great, too. You can tell me you like the cover and, yeah, that's great, but when you tell my publisher, they pay attention, and doing that just may keep me working.

Can you tell us more about your books and characters?

I write Christian fiction mostly, and I've been fortunate enough to write stories featuring characters that are diverse. I was a bit of a surprise to some of my publisher's readers, and sometimes; I got in trouble about the honesty in my books. A lot! But I've been mostly well received, and was nominated for the top awards in Christian fiction my first big year out there. What you'll find in my books are people who struggle, and who possess tenuous, yet resilient faith. The common ground in my books are the wounds we bear, that are no respecter of skin color, or even religion.

As a writer how do you feel about when other authors fight for their
covers they are considered 'hard to handle, unpublish-able" and lose the
houses support for their book?

I believe in choosing your battles wisely, and knowing what field you'd be willing to die on. I'm too new in my career to be that difficult. If I'm not in the game at all, I'm not changing the face of it. Fortunately, some of the companies I worked for did that whole cover thing right! I never had to fight too hard. Almost all my covers have people of color on them. Again, I was fortunate. People fought those battles for me, and spared me the pain of having to deal with those matters directly.

Any other words of encouragement or advice?

Things really are changing. Stay the course, be who you are, and be that perfectly well, and be willing to love beyond your boundaries. That isn't easy, but you'll make the world a better place that way. If you are a writer, write big love, with people who are truly living Dr. King's dream: Black and White together. Everybody together, but be honest. You must be true to what your real story is. I don't put token characters in just to be multicultural. Stories must be truthful. Fiction is the lie that tells the truth. I believe that.

Thanks for having me, Pam. Your website rawks. Hard!

You can find Claudia Mair Burney's books here!


  1. i LOVE claudia's books! thanks for the great interview. it's sad to hear about all those people who feel that can't read the book simply because they can't relate to it b/c it's not their culture

  2. what a fantastic interview! Claudia was one of the first with Deborah to open my eyes to this issue in publishing. And what she says really inspires me!

  3. Such a great interview, spotlighting an issue that is usually hushed up. I'm going to check out Claudia's books -- thank you!

  4. I enjoyed reading this interview.

    I just finished reading Zora and Nicky about three weeks ago. I really liked this book a lot. I have been recommending it to family and friends. Claudia worked this story.