Welcome to the Literary Road Trip and my Spotlight On . . . Lori Tharps. Lori is not a native Pennsylvanian, but I am happy to welcome her to both my blog and my state. Her debut novel, Substitute Me, was published by Atria Books just this month.
Lori's novel deals with several complex and intertwining issues concerning women's roles, race relationships, self-esteem, and the conflict of wanting both children and a career. These are universal themes that almost all of us can relate to.
Writers have their own list of hurdles to overcome. Let's learn about some of Lori's.
When I left my hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for college in a small town in New England, I knew I wanted to be a writer. Unfortunately, when I got to college, my English professor gave me a C on my first short story and I immediately decided my literary dreams would be just that, dreams. But four years later, having spent a reflective year abroad in Europe, I was ready to pursue that dream again. I moved to New York City convinced that just by living in the Big Apple, I would magically transform into a great novelist.
But that didn’t happen. I did however manage to get a graduate degree in journalism while I was there and over a decade of experience working at a variety of different popular magazines. I was well paid, led an exciting life, but still stumbled and mumbled when I tried to claim the title of “writer” when people asked me what I did for a living. Even after I published my first book in 2001, I still felt like a fraud calling myself a writer. Real writers in New York didn’t still work as fact-checkers so they could pay the bills. Real writers could afford luxurious brownstones in Brooklyn and their publishers sent them on 10-city book tours. That wasn’t me.
And then I moved to Philadelphia. By then I had a husband and two young children. Our move was completely based on the fact that we wanted a simpler, less hectic, and less expensive lifestyle. And we wanted a home where our guests didn’t have to sleep in the kitchen and our children didn’t have to tiptoe in their socks whenever they were indoors. Philadelphia was a move of convenience, but I worried that when I left New York City, I might be leaving my chance at a real literary life behind.
But I was wrong.
Being a writer in Philadelphia has been one of the biggest blessings I’ve ever given to myself. Philadelphia is home to so many great writers; after almost five years here, I’m still amazed to discover the literary talents living in my own backyard. (Sonia Sanchez lives across the street from my hair salon!) Seriously, I started my own writers group with just women in my neighborhood and within our ranks we have two New York Times best-selling authors, a Nautilus Award finalist, and two nationally recognized poets.
Moreover, beyond the density of great writers here in the City of Brotherly Love, there is a supportive community among literary types. It’s really easy to meet a writer you’ve admired from afar simply by telling someone of your desire. I mentioned to my next-door neighbor in passing that I’d always been a huge fan of the writer Lorene Cary. The next week I got to meet her when my neighbor introduced us at a high school function. Now we’re friends. It was that easy.
So with this amazing support and inspiration, and the tranquility of life outside of the big city, I finally wrote my first novel. It’s called Substitute Me and it takes place . . . in New York City. I know, it feels a little traitorous to claim to love my new city and then set my novel in New York, but that’s what the story called for. Substitute Me explores the relationship between a highly motivated White career woman and the Black woman she hires to be her son’s nanny. Park Slope Brooklyn pre- 9/11 had to be the backdrop for the story. It’s where the inspiration for Substitute Me was born. But, and I’m making this a big BUT, both of my main characters are from Philly. And proud of it.
Thank you so much, Lori, for sharing this story of how you ended up in Pennsylvania. I can certainly understand your motivations for moving out of the city. But I can't even imagine what it would be like to be a member of such a fabulous neighborhood writing group. And I can't help but wonder what that college professor is thinking this month with the release of your first novel.
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Lori Tharps is an assistant professor of Journalism at Temple University. She is the the author of two critically acclaimed non-fiction books, Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America (St. Martin's) and Kinky Gazpacho: Life, Love & Spain (Atria). Substitute Me (Atria) is her first novel. Tharps lives in Philadelphia with her husband and two children.