1. What inspired you to write your novel, “Murder on the Down Low”? What would you like your readers to gain from reading it, what ideas would you like them to walk away with after reading it?
An Oprah show gave me the inspiration for Murder on the Down Low. I can still remember the day I watched in stunned silence as Oprah interviewed JL King, the author of On the Down Low. He boldly professed to sleeping with men, but at the same time, claimed that he was heterosexual. His shocking revelations about the secret world of men on the “down low” really shook me up. The very next day while I was driving to work, the plot for Murder on the Down Low came to me: What if attractive, successful African-African men were being gunned down on the streets of L.A. and no one knew why? For me, it always starts with “what if?”
After reading Murder on the Down Low I hope that women in particular understand that it’s up to them to protect themselves by getting tested, by using protection and by honoring their bodies.
2. Do you believe in the “Write what you know” idea? How would you describe your writing in relation to that?
I definitely write what I know—which is the legal aspect of my stories—but I also like learning new things and educating myself about what I’ve learned. I did a lot of research about HIV and AIDS during the writing of Murder on the Down Low. Frankly, I was surprised about how much I didn’t know. When I started writing the book, I viewed of AIDS as a gay disease. It’s not. You don’t get HIV because you’re gay. You get HIV because you’re available.
3. Do you feel any of your personal views or opinions were changed after doing the research for this novel, or after writing it? How do you feel transformed by the experience?
In writing Murder on the Down Low, my eyes were opened about HIV and AIDS in many, many ways. For instance, before writing the book, I was not aware of the high HIV infection rates among African-American and Latina women. We are only 24% of the female population in the U.S., but more than 80% of new HIV diagnoses among women. There’s a clear message in the book that women must take responsibility for their own bodies. Murder on the Down Low is entertaining people, but it’s educating them too.
4. Your characters, very interesting and certainly attention grabbing, have a religious note to their lives, some more then others. How do you believe their religious beliefs affected their behavior and reactions towards the “D.L.” phenomenon?
African-Americans tend to have strong religious beliefs, and because of those beliefs, we don’t always extend our spiritual teachings of love and compassion to the gay community. That has to change.
5. At some point during the plot, Vernetta is faced with a dilemma: to conceal possible evidence in Special’s case, or to come forth with it. Do you feel Vernetta would have been justified to ‘make an exception’ in that case and destroy evidence?
I would never condone an attorney violating the law by concealing information. But in the real world, it happens. It also makes for good conflict in a novel.
6. What sort of impression do you believe Special makes on readers in this novel? How do you think they react to her?
Readers tend to love Special’s outspoken nature, but I think she drove some of my fans a little nuts with the level of anger she expressed toward Eugene. She’s the type of person who goes with her emotions no matter what the consequences. I wanted readers to feel her rage over her cousin’s senseless death and I think I accomplished that.
7. One character I certainly found interesting was Haley. Did you perhaps base her on someone you’ve heard about or known? What inspired you when you wrote about her?
I didn’t base Haley on anyone I know personally, but she was certainly easy to write. I would suspect that every attorney has run across at least one back-stabbing, brown nosing associate during their career. So he character was easy to create. I like writing characters everybody loves to hate.
8. Nichelle, my favorite character I will confess, had a very strong and reasonable voice, at the same time being sensible and showing a lot of heart. What’s in store for her in the future?
At the moment, I don’t have any specific story lines in store for Nichelle. But I’ll give that some thought. She was a great balance to Special. I’d definitely like to see all four friends reappear in a future novel.
9. I’d like to ask you to share a bit about the “D.L.” phenomenon with our readers, perhaps some of your thoughts on the topic, if you will.
One thing I want to make clear is that the down low phenomenon isn’t exclusive to the African-American community. There are men of all races who have heterosexual relationships as well as clandestine gay sexual encounters and don’t consider themselves gay even though they are sleeping with men. The Centers for Disease Control had to come up with the category MSM—Men Sleeping with Men—because men were more comfortable identifying themselves in surveys as “MSM” rather than “gay”. I think the label is primarily associated with African-American men because of JL King’s book, On the Down Low.
10. And, of course, the chorus of every interview: have any future plans you’d like to share with us? What fabulous books can we look forward to?
The book I’m currently writing is called Attorney-Client Privilege. It’s another Vernetta Henderson mystery and will be the fourth book in the series. (My books in order were Every Reasonable Doubt, In Firm Pursuit and Murder on the Down Low. Buying Time, my most recent book, is my only stand-alone novel.) In Attorney-Client Privilege, a suspicious death, a missing file and an opposing counsel who’ll do anything to win, lead Vernetta on a search for justice—as well as revenge. Special also has a starring and intriguing role. Attorney-Client Privilege goes on sale in July 2011.