Q&A with Sophfronia Scott
By Erika Dreifus
(A version of this interview was originally published in the October 2017 issue of The Practicing Writer.)
Yes, it has happened again: I’ve encountered an author online, learned a bit about her/her work via Facebook and other platforms, and happily had the opportunity to meet her “in real life,” too. Sophfronia Scott is another writer whose presence in the writing world enriches my own experiences there, and I am delighted to be able to host her here as she launches her latest novel, UNFORGIVABLE LOVE.
First, a more formal introduction: Sophfronia Scott grew up in Lorain, Ohio, a hometown she shares with author Toni Morrison. Her father was a Mississippi-born steelworker who never learned how to read, and her mother was a stay-at-home mom who always made sure there were books in the house. She holds a BA in English from Harvard and an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Sophfronia spent a big chunk of her career as a writer and editor for TIME and PEOPLE. When her first novel, ALL I NEED TO GET BY, was published by St. Martin’s Press in 2004, Sophfronia was nominated for best new author at the African American Literary Awards and hailed by Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. as “potentially one of the best writers of her generation.” She has forthcoming an essay collection, LOVE’S LONG LINE, from Ohio State University Press/Mad Creek Books, and a spiritual memoir, THIS CHILD OF FAITH: RAISING A SPIRITUAL CHILD IN A SECULAR WORLD, co-written with her son, being published by Paraclete Press.
Sophfronia lives in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, with her husband and son. She enjoys teaching in Regis University’s Mile-High MFA in Denver, Colorado; Bay Path University’s MFA in Creative Nonfiction; and the Fairfield County Writer’s Studio in Westport, Connecticut.
Please welcome Sophfronia Scott!
ERIKA DREIFUS (ED): Sophfronia, let’s begin at the beginning: Please tell us a bit about this novel’s origin story.
SOPHFRONIA SCOTT (SS): I still remember the first time I saw the film “Dangerous Liaisons,” starring Glenn Close, John Malkovich, and Michelle Pfeiffer. The story, the intrigue, the characters and their sexuality burned such an impression into my brain that I felt compelled to read the original novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES, published in 1782. After that I consumed nearly every version of the story that came down the pike, including the modern-day version, “Cruel Intentions,” starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, and Reese Witherspoon.
I keep a television in my office, and there came this time when “Cruel Intentions” was in rotation on cable, and I found I was watching it over and over again. One day my husband came in and asked, “Why are you watching this again?” I said, “I don’t know. I think I’m going to write something.” When I mentioned this to my friend, the screenwriter Jenny Lumet, she said there needed to be a version of the story with an African-American cast. That was my light-bulb moment. I knew I could do it, and I knew it had to be set in Harlem in the 1940s.
Not long after that I befriended a beautiful actress named Leslie Lewis, and we were browsing in the Drama Book Shop in Manhattan. She happened to pick up Christopher Hampton’s play “Dangerous Liaisons,” and we were talking about how great it was and how she would like to play those iconic roles. I told her about my idea–then I had a screenplay in mind–and told her I could write it. She has a fierce presence and bright energy and knowing her gave me a sense of what these characters could be like.
I wrote that screenplay–Leslie and I even held readings for it in Los Angeles and New York–but by structure a screenplay is sparse. You have to leave room for the director and the actors to fill in the spaces. Only about a quarter of my vision made its way to the page. When my agent suggested I write the story as a novel, I was more than happy to do so because I could finally make that journey of discovery that is part of the novel-writing process. UNFORGIVABLE LOVE fulfills my original vision in both scope and story.
ED: Please tell us a bit about the craft process that’s involved when working on a “retelling” project like this one.
SS: The original LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES takes place in Paris and the surrounding countryside and involves wealthy people, titled gentry, playing games of seduction. With a re-telling you can’t just populate the story with similar people with the same things happening and have it all make sense. I had to rebuild it from the ground up starting with my characters and learning who they were and why they might behave in such a hedonistic way. I named them and went through a process of sketching out their backgrounds, their physical characteristics, and possible motivations for how they move through the world. I left room, though, for discovery.
The main elements I kept involved conversations. I wanted to make sure the characters were together and speaking to each other, acting on each other as much as possible. In this story words are wielded like weapons, and I wanted to keep that strategic aspect. My thoughts on this were affirmed recently when I saw “Dangerous Liaisons” on Broadway and I noticed how there was a kind of tension in the audience, how people seemed to be hanging on every single word. I hope that same tension is evident in my novel.
ED: Which of the characters in UNFORGIVABLE LOVE was the most challenging one to write? Why? What helped you meet the challenge?
SS: Cecily was a challenge both because of her age and situation. There’s so much she doesn’t know. I had to let her be that way, making sure her language and actions suited her at every stage of her development, from innocence to experience. In our society today we’re so used to teenagers being portrayed as smart and sassy and sometimes cynical. It was important for Cecily to be different, and she had to be believable. Also, I’ve never been satisfied with this particular character’s depiction–not in the novel or any of the film versions. “Cecile” is often portrayed as kind of dippy or girlish in an almost clownish way. I knew she could be so much more. I do feel the attention I gave her paid off for the novel. I really love the way she turned out.
ED. Readers may not know that UNFORGIVABLE LOVE is just ONE of the books you have on your near horizon. In fact, you have THREE books publishing within a six-month period. Please tell us just a bit about both THIS CHILD OF FAITH (coming in December 2017) and LOVE’S LONG LINE (coming in February 2018).
SS: It’s crazy, right? I didn’t expect these books to come out so close together, but it just worked out that way. THIS CHILD OF FAITH I wrote earlier this year with my son Tain, who is now 13. It’s a spiritual memoir about our faith journey that started when we began attending an Episcopal church when he was 6 and how his faith has sustained him in tough times, including the shooting at his school, Sandy Hook Elementary. I wrote the main narrative; each chapter has a section called “Tain’s Take” where he tells his side of the story.
LOVE’S LONG LINE is an essay collection. I wrote about half of it in my MFA program, during the year I studied creative nonfiction. The rest of the collection I wrote after I finished UNFORGIVABLE LOVE. In the essays I’m ruminating on faith, motherhood, race, and the search for meaningful connection in an increasingly disconnected world. The whole book is inspired by Annie Dillard’s observation in HOLY THE FIRM that we all “reel out love’s long line alone…like a live wire loosed in space to longing and grief everlasting.” I’m acknowledging the loneliness, longing, and grief exacted by a fearless engagement with the everyday world. But I also hope the essays show that by holding the line, there is an abundance of joy and forgiveness and grace to be had as well. I’m particularly excited that the book is being published under 21st CENTURY ESSAYS, a new series from The Ohio State University Press and its new literary imprint, Mad Creek Books.
ED: Anything else you’d like to share?
SS: I love my new author website (http://www.Sophfronia.com)! I wasn’t sure what to expect because I didn’t plan on using a design service. I had designed my previous site and meant to revise it myself. But I’ve been so busy I was forced to delegate, and I’m glad I did! Paul Matthew Carr of WebWorkz Digital Strategies was recommended to me and he really “got” me. The site looks colorful and happy, and I love that he used big pictures. Even the events page has pictures! And the events automatically update so once an event is over it disappears from the page so the site is always fresh. It’s fun to post on it, and already people are using it to contact me. It’s just awesome.
ED: Thank you so much, Sophfronia, for taking the time to answer these questions–and for the sneak peek into your wonderful novel via the advance copy I was given!