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Interview with Sybil Nelson!

Friday, May 6, 2011
Tell us a little about yourself:
I live in Charleston, South Carolina with my husband and two little girls. I attend the Medical University of South Carolina where I’m getting my PhD in Biostatistics. I absolutely love to write and try to do it at every opportunity.

Do any of your characters contain your own personality traits?
Oh, definitely. I think my major personality trait is determination. I have always been a determined person and always strove to reach beyond my perceived expectations and limitations. I think the same can be said of Sonya and Sasha in The Queen Bee of Bridgeton. They are both strong willed characters in different ways. I think there is a little of me in both of them.

Did you include many of your own experiences in your novels (Sonya and the Academy or Garrett and his scholarship)?
I attended a predominantly black and Hispanic high school and then I attended a prestigious and predominantly white university on scholarship just like Garrett and Sonya. So there are definitely some similarities there. There were so many times when I felt completely out of place. Sonya said it well when she said she wasn’t black enough for the black kids, but she would never be white. I, too, had trouble finding my place and where I fit in.

Did you dream of being a dancer, like Sonya?
I think most little girls want to be a ballet dancer at some point in their lives. But when I was little I loved taking ballet lessons. My mother cleaned the ballet study in exchange for lessons for me much like Sonya cleans the studio for lessons in The Queen Bee of Bridgeton. That’s where I go that idea from. I took dance lessons for most of my life and when I became a high school teacher I even taught ballet, tap and jazz for a while. Once at a parent conference, I told a woman that I also taught dance at the school and she says: “Oh, African dance?” I was like, no, ballet. I guess because I’m black she just assumed the only thing I could teach would be African Dance. I think that conversation motivated me to write Queen Bee as well. How many little girls out there grow up thinking ballet is not for them just because of their skin color?

You handled the clique theme very well in The Queen Bee of Bridgeton, have you experienced them in school?
Actually, no. I mean, I remember there being bullies. And I remember the black kids claiming that I was trying to “act white” because I was smart, but I don’t remember there being a specific clique of popular girls. But that could just be because I was such a nerd that I was too clueless to really know what was going on. I was a complete book worm. I was kind of a combination of Garrett from Guardian of Eden and Sonya from Queen Bee. If I wasn’t dancing, I was reading a book. I was so far removed from the “popular” crowd, I might not have known if there even was a clique.
I got most of the ideas for The Queen Bee of Bridgeton from when I was a teacher. My students constantly gave me ideas and even read early versions of it and helped me tweak it. By the end of the first draft, all of my students decided they wanted to be in the book in one way or another, so all of their names are used. The main mean girl Lauren DeHaven was one of my favorite students and after she read an early draft, she made me change the character’s name from Whitney to Lauren DeHaven. And just like in the book, everyone called this girl Lauren DeHaven and not just Lauren.

Do you have any advice for an aspiring writer or any book recommendations?
My best advice is just to read everything. Some people like to stay in just one particular genre, but as an author, I think you really have to read everything. Even books you think you might hate. Some of my best ideas come from reading books that I really didn’t care for. I see what’s wrong with a book and I know what NOT to do. As I’m reading the story I think, “I could have done so much better with this character.” So then I close the book and I start writing.

Now for some quick, just for fun, questions:
Favorite ice cream flavor? Rocky Road
Favorite vacation place? Disney World. I go about three times a year! My five-year-old has been 18 times. My three-year-old has been 10 times.
Best book you’ve read? I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe. It’s the story of a poor but brilliant teenage girl going off to a prestigious college. Even though the girl is white, I related to her on so many levels. All though I‘ve read so many books that if you ask me that question tomorrow I’m likely to say something different.
Are you waiting for the second installation of the Harry Potter movie too?
Believe it or not, I have not read any of the Harry Potter books nor seen any of the movies. I think I should win some sort of award or something for that.