Author Interview

by Leonard Pitts, Jr.

Listen to the NPR interview

Intimate Conversation with Leonard Pitts Jr.
Hosted by Black Pearls Magazine

Leonard Pitts Jr. 
won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary for his twice-weekly syndicated Miami Herald column, which appears in more than 200 newspapers, and has won numerous other journalism awards. Pitts has a readership in the multi-millions across the country, and his columns generate an average of 2,500 email responses per week. 

His books have been widely praised as well. Tavis Smiley called him “the most insightful and inspiring columnist of his generation” in writing about Pitts’ 2009 collection of columns, Forward From This Moment.  Publisher’s Weekly described his 2009 first novel, Before I Forget, as a “rare, memorable debut.”  

And the praise is already building for Freeman. Gwen Ifill of PBS called it “a story of love and redemption which challenges everything we thought we knew about how our nation dealt with its most stubborn stain.”  The acclaimed author and journalist Herb Boyd called it “a beguiling, cinematic love story.”  And Sybil Wilkes, who chairs “Sybil’s Book Club” on radio’s top-rated Tom Joyner Morning Show said simply, “I so love this story.”

Leonard Pitts Jr. was born and raised in Southern California. He was awarded a degree in English from the University of California at the age of 19, having entered school at 15 on a special honors program.  Since 1995, he has lived in Bowie, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D. C. with his wife and family.

BPM: Mr. Pitts, how did you get started as a writer?
Well, I began to think of myself as a writer from the time I was five years old, which was a good thing, because it gave me a lot of time to be bad at it. I started sending poems and stories to magazines when I was 12 years old, first became published when I was 14, and first got paid for being published when I was 18. I spent the next 18 years working primarily as a music critic for a variety of magazines and radio programs. 

I was editor of SOUL, a black entertainment tabloid, did freelance work for such magazines as Spin, Record Review and Right On!, co-created and edited a radio entertainment news magazine called RadioScope and was a writer for Casey Kasem's radio countdown show, Casey's Top 40. 

BPM: What are your goals as a writer? Do you set out to educate? Entertain? Inspire? 

I think you write to entertain, first and foremost, to tell a story a reader will lose herself or himself in,. You try to create characters that will seem real to the reader and then put those characters into situations of physical or emotional danger. Secondarily, you hope that in entertaining people, you can also manage to say something of value, make some observation that will touch them or inspire them or cause them to see old things in new ways. 

BPM: What are some of the benefits of being an author that makes it all worthwhile?

Writing a novel is a year, two years, or more of lonely work, staring at blank screens and not really knowing if what you're doing works or makes any kind of sense. So the best thing about being published is receiving feedback from readers. When somebody tells me they were hurt by something one of my characters did, or a situation a character found him or herself in made that reader cry, that is the highest validation and best compliment I can ever receive. It means the characters seemed real and the story works. Feedback is what makes that lonely year or two worthwhile.

BPM: Introduce us to your book, FREEMAN and the main characters, Tilda and Sam Freeman. What message does his book share with the readers?

I envisioned Freeman as a love letter to African American women. That does not mean the book will not be accessible to other readers or that I don't want other readers to enjoy it. But I conceived the story as a romance that would speak most directly to my sisters who, let's face it, are often overlooked, left out, and flat out invisible in this culture. 

Freeman is about a former slave named Sam who, at the very end of the Civil War, embarks on foot from Philadelphia to Mississippi in search of Tilda, the wife he has not seen in 15 years. He doesn't know if she is still in Mississippi, he doesn't know if she still alive, he doesn't know if she has another man, he doesn't know if she wants to see him again; when they parted, there was a tragedy between them and she blamed him for it and hated him for it. 

Along the journey, Sam meets Prudence, a beautiful white abolitionist who has gone to Mississippi to open a school for the freed slaves. He develops feelings for her and she for him and the question becomes: does he continue his impossible search for Tilda, who he may never find and who may not even love him anymore, or does he stay with Prudence? And then... Well, I've said enough.

BPM: Is this the book you intended on writing or did it take on a life of its own as you were writing? How do you stay focused?

It is pretty close to what I intended it to be when I started out, but you always have to leave room for things to surprise you and there were a few things that happened here that I did not expect. As to focus: you write a novel in order to tell a story you yourself want to read. If I didn't finish, I would never get to enjoy this story as a reader. That has a way of keeping you focused.

BPM: Which character or topic in the book can you identify with the most? Why?
I can identify most with Sam, I think. He is a romantic, which I am, but he is also a highly educated black man who uses his education and his facility with words sometimes as a shield against people who presume to judge him as less because of his color. I can relate to that. While this book takes place in the slavery years, this book is not about slavery. It's about relationships, freedom and claiming ones own identity in this world. I can relate to that too.

BPM: Ultimately, what do you want readers to gain from reading your book?

I want them to gain enjoyment and entertainment obviously. I'd love for them to think about some of the issues the book raises. But I would also like them to be aware that there was once a time in this country when black men and black women felt such a powerful need for one another that would walk, like Sam did, a thousand miles simply to be together again. I think that is an important thing to know. 

If you or your readers would like to set up a Skype visit to discuss Tilda and Sam, contact me here via email.  I'm available for blog tours as well. 

BPM: Tilda and Sam will become the new IT couple! Readers, you can read an exclusive excerpt from the book, HERE. Thank you, Mr. Pitts, for sharing a little bit about yourself, your journey and FREEMAN with our readers!  

Books by Mr. Pitts can be found at:

Read Leonard Pitts Jr.'s  entire column at the Miami Herald, go here:

Before I Forget

"Bold in spirit and scope, this is a rare, memorable debut…"

- Publishers Weekly
Forward From This Moment: Selected Columns 1994-2009

    "The most insightful
     and inspiring
     columnist of his
     - Tavis Smiley
Becoming Dad: Black Men and the Journey to Fatherhood

“A must-read for anyone who has ever had a father—or has not.”

- The Miami Herald
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