This is an excerpt from the new book The Creative Curve by Allen Gannett.
Beverly Jenkins was nine years old when she started walking the fifteen blocks to the Mark Twain Library at the corner of Gratiot Avenue and Burns Street on the east side of Detroit.
Growing up poor and the oldest of seven children, early on she discovered that books were a great means of escape. “Books could take you all over the world,” she told me. “They could show you other people. They could show you other places. We were poor economically, but not in love, or spirit, or support, or any of that, and the books were free.”
For the next seven years, Jenkins went to the library every Saturday to get new titles. When she stopped going, it wasn’t because she’d lost her love for reading; rather, she had managed to read every book in the library. At first, I thought when she told me she read every book in the library, she was using hyperbole to make her point. No, she was serious: “Science fiction, Martian Chronicles, Dune, nonfiction, Westerns, Zane Grey . . . I read everything in the library. Doesn’t matter what it was.”
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Jenkins had gone through an intense period of reading that left her with an unquenchable love for both books and libraries. After graduating college, she got a job at the reference desk for a drug company, but still continued to read voraciously, especially the emerging category of romance novels that began appearing on bookstore shelves in the 1970s.
Many of the most popular romance novels belonged to the “historical romance” genre. Readers devoured stories of queens, princesses, and forbidden Victorian love. It didn’t take Jenkins long to see a problem: Almost all the characters in these books were white. There were no well-known African-American historical romances.
In response, she made a decision: She would create the book that she wanted to read. The book as she conceived it would tell the story of an African-American soldier in the all-Black 10th Cavalry during the Civil War who was in love with a rural schoolteacher.
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Jenkins finished the book, but was resigned to the fact that mainstream publishers weren’t exactly open to acquiring African-American-centered fiction, not then at least. One of her coworkers was also a big fan of romance fiction, and had been writing her own romance novels. When she managed to sell her book to a publisher, Jenkins, impressed, told her colleague about her own book.
The colleague insisted on reading it and a few days later told Jenkins that she needed to find a publisher now.
Jenkins was skeptical, but found a literary agent who began submitting the manuscript around town. After enough rejections to paper her entire home, one day the phone rang. It was an editor at Avon Books. Recalls Jenkins, “The rest, as they say, is history.”
When her debut novel, Night Song, was published, it leapt off the bookstore shelves and into the mainstream press. People magazine published a five-page spread on Jenkins, and the reviews were glowing. Jenkins, it seems, was at the vanguard of an entirely new genre of books: historical Black romance.
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Without knowing it, Jenkins had hit the sweet spot on the creative curve.
She had produced something familiar (a historical romance novel) but different (one that included Black characters). And, as we have explored, if you’re able to strike a balance between “new enough to be exciting” and “conventional enough to be popular,” you have a good chance of hitting the creative jackpot.
When readers buy a romance novel, they expect a familiar structure that incorporates narrative characteristics classic to the genre. These recurrent features have led to the charge that romance novels are unoriginal. But Beverly Jenkins disagrees. “I don’t think it’s any different from any other fiction,” she says. “Can’t have Westerns without a bad guy and a sheriff. Or a bunch of horses. Can’t have mystery without a dead body and somebody trying to figure out who done it.” They’re not unoriginal; they’re familiar!
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Jenkins managed to take these familiar romance structures and spice them up with a novel twist. This turned what could have been just another formulaic romance book into a smash hit. Jenkins succeeded because of her mastery of the interplay between the familiar and the novel.
How did Jenkins develop the ability to so successfully master these forces? She read and read and read!
Though she didn’t realize it at the time, all her hours spent reading in the library as a child served as a masterclass in high-quality literature. By following the first law of the creative curve (Law I – Consumption), Jenkins was able to grow an intuitive sense of the type of story that readers would love. She knew in her bones what was old and what was new, so balancing the two was much easier than it would have been had she spent her childhood bobbing in the pool instead of buried in a stack of books.
Jenkins’ story serves as a powerful reminder. If you want to create, you’ll need to consume.
Adapted from THE CREATIVE CURVE: HOW TO DEVELOP THE RIGHT IDEA, AT THE RIGHT TIME © 2018 by Allen Gannett. Published by Currency, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
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