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Returning To Society: New community collaboration, research and federal funding fight to hold the costs of criminal recidivism down

July 2, 2011 4 comments

Having posted an awful lot of fluff or soft journalism stories lately, I thought it time to present something completely different, as in the following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) on reentry programs that work with offenders to prepare and guide them for what is hopefully their successful reintegration in society. I don’t tackle many serious or hard subjects like this, but I do enjoy the challenge. As freelancing for newspapers and magazines in Omaha does not pay well, I can never justify devoting the amount of research-reporting time such a story deserves. The compensation doesn’t come close as it is to compensating me for the time I invest, much less for the time I would like to invest.

 

 

 

 

Returning To SocietyNew community collaboration, research and federal funding fight to hold the costs of criminal recidivism down

©by Leo Adam Biga

A somewhat different version of the story appears in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

As the doors of America‘s overcrowded prisons swing ever wider, sending more ex-offenders back into society, reentry‘s become a major focus nationwide, including Nebraska.

America has 2.2 million individuals incarcerated in prison. That number’s expected to rise with the cost of housing inmates amid already strained resources.

Nationally, thousands enter and leave the corrections system every day. Hundreds of thousands every year. As community corrections, early parole releases and probation sentences send more offenders back into society, there’s new emphasis on preparing them for release and supporting their transition. Nebraska, like the rest of the U.S., is navigating this flood of returnees.

Not surprisingly, corrections is better at confining folks than “fixing” them, which helps explain why prisons see so many repeat offenders. A 2011 Pew Center on the States study found more than four in ten offenders return to state prison within three years of release. Nebraska does better than the national average, at about three in ten, but there’s concern too many end up back in the system or struggle on the outside, thus becoming a drain or risk.

For veteran reentry worker Teela Mickles, the problem is crystal clear. “Even individuals who’ve been in prison will say, ‘If you don’t get us before we get out, it’s a waste of time.’ This cold turkey stuff won’t work,” says Mickles, who works with inmates and parolees through her nonprofit Compassion in Action.

Two ex-offenders now working with returning citizens confirm reentry is an inside game that must start early on.

“Turning your life is very hard, take it from me,” says Ray Kyles, adding it was “only when I finally took an inventory of myself and seen what I was worth that I started transforming.” That change only came during his third and last stint in prison. “I’ve come to the conclusion that in order for a man or woman to be successful once they come out of prison they must start working within the moment they hit the prison system. It’s a learning process.”

“Transition starts on the inside,” says Garry Kern, who was incarcerated 13 years and is now a caseworker for Goodwill Partnerships. “It’s a mindset. That’s where change comes.”

There’s growing recognition of the importance of pre-release preparation.

“By helping an inmate get a high school diploma or GED, help them address their substance abuse and mental health issues, and by helping them become a better parent or learn a vocation, we are giving them a better chance to return to the community as a successful citizen,” says Nebraska Department of Correctional Services programs administrator Layne Gissler.

Reentry programs are voluntary for prisoners. “If waiting lists occur, generally the inmates who are closest to release are given priority for programming,” he says.

 

 

photo of Teela Mickles
Teela Mickles, Compassion in Action

 

 

Ideally, pre-release programs lead to changed attitudes and behaviors inside that persist on the outside. That’s the expressed goal of the UNO Transformation Project. Using The Autobiography of Malcolm X and motivational interviewing as talking points, facilitators encourage inmates to take stock and develop personal life plans. The program, largely funded by UNO grad John Morgan, works with inmates on addressing six stability domains:

housing

employment

education

substance abuse

mental health

social networks

“So, your family, your friends, your health, the people you hang out with,” says project manager Nicole Kennedy, who wrote the curriculum. “We picked those six areas because the research tells us for every one one of those areas you can help stabilize somebody in, you see a reduction in recidivism.”

She says project modules ask inmates to be self-reflective.

“We’re recognizing that until somebody has taken the time to sit down and actually think about who they are, what they value and what they want out of life, all that programming is not really being applied in the most productive manner. What we’re trying to do is get them to think a little more deeply about how do all these factors relate to what plan you’re going to have when you return to the community. We’re asking these guys to take a critical look at some personal and sensitive topics.

“I think a lot of prison programming is very narrowly skill based. What we’re trying to do is much more broad based. You can’t really think about your substance abuse in isolation of your employment or your housing or your social networks. All of these factors, while they have their own unique components, will be impacted by the others. So it’s going to be harder for you to stay sober and clean if you don’t have a job and you don’t have a place to live, because the life pressure that brings will eventually build up. Likewise, if you’re not managing your substance abuse it could be really hard to keep a job. If you’re dependent on your family to provide you housing and are couch surfing, that’s going to take its toll on family relationships.”

 

 

The Nebraska Center for Justice Research

 

Kennedy credits Nebraska corrections officials for supporting a holistic model that serves inmates from the jump. She says there’s wide agreement the more inmates do to address their needs beforehand the more likely they are to make positive choices upon release.

“Corrections gives these guys a lot of tools and resources but this is kind of the mortar that holds those bricks together,” she says. “We’re really trying to get you to take all this information and apply it to yourself and your own unique circumstances.”

The Transformation Project refers its graduates to Ray Kyles and his You Are Not Alone program. Kyles is convinced accountability must first take root behind bars if an offender is to turn his or her life around.

“We need to start working with the choices you make in your life, We need to open your eyes up to what got you there. We need to get you to the point where you understand the trickle down effect of the crimes you may have committed — it’s not only hurting you, it’s hurting your family, it’s hurting the community. Until we understand the people we hurt we’ll still be wallowing in the world of that dumb shit of somebody owes me.”

Similarly, Teela Mickles says her reentry curriculum “is comprehensive and developmental in addressing the real issues in that individual for why drugs became an issue, for why crime became an issue. They have to understand, embrace and begin to work with the reasons why before they get out. That’s where job sustainability comes in, because an individual has to understand that there’s going to be a process of transition.”

Federal mandate and community advocacy are making reentry a priority in today’s more enlightened, research-based corrections field. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry that involves law enforcement professionals, judges, lawyers, corrections officials, probation and parole officers, caseworkers and community-based service providers, both professional and volunteer.

The sheer volume of inmates has increased with get-tough policies in the war on drugs. Nebraska’s projected prison population for 2011 is 4,713, which is near where it’s hovered for several years. From 1995 to 2009 Nebraska’s overall incarceration rate per 100,000 adults increased from 185 to 245.

The cost of prosecuting and detaining individuals, most of whom are nonviolent, has become more of a burden in budget-strapped times. In line with national trends, Nebraska’s overall corrections spending has skyrocketed, from $72 million in 1995 to $181 million in 2010. Nationally, state corrections expenditures are an estimated $50 billion per year. Those costs don’t include what communities spend to house, train, educate, counsel, treat, employ and otherwise transition ex-offenders to law-abiding, productive lives. When a parent goes to prison there are “hidden” costs for welfare, foster care, legal services, family court.

In response to the unsustainability of mass incarceration and high recidivism rates public-private coalitions have pushed for more proactive reentry efforts both behind the wall and outside it.

The 2003 federal Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative (SVORI) and the 2008 Second Chance Act, both made hundreds of millions of dollars in grant monies available to reentry providers. Second Chance also established the National Reentry Resource Center, which offers education, training and technical assistance to providers, large and small.

These measures have brought new players onto the scene of a varied reentry landscape. In Nebraska, providers range in size, approach, scope and service area. Most are human-social service organizations or faith-based groups. The largest is Christian Heritage, a Lincoln, Neb. nonprofit that’s new to reentry yet has secured major Second Chance grants to fund programs that target reconnecting fathers with children and restoring families.

“The passing of the Second Chance Act has made some impact on our reentry efforts,” says Layne Gissler. For example, he says a new parenting program for incarcerated fathers administered by Christian Heritage “has been very beneficial.

“Outside of that,” he says, “our approach to reentry has remained the same. We utilize a multi-faceted approach that includes mental health and substance abuse programming, educational, vocational, parenting, life skills and other programs to address deficits. With the exception of the parenting program in our male facilities, these programs were in our facilities prior to passage of the Second Chance Act.”

The issue’s further come into focus through: a 2008 evaluation of Nebraska’s Serious and Violent Reentry Program by UNO’s School of Criminal Justice; the Douglas County Reentry Task Force, now reformed as the Reentry Initiatives Council; and the monthly Reentry Table Talk series at Metropolitan Community College.

Gissler said both the federal reentry initiative and the UNO study “helped educate, sharpen the focus and provide the necessary foundation for reentry in Nebraska,” adding, “There was a significant increase in the department’s long range commitment to reentry and the subsequent shift in emphasis based on risk.”

Increasingly, corrections works collaboratively with the community. The shared goal is reducing recidivism and improving quality of life outcomes. NDCS had fairly robust programs before, but is doing more with partners like UNO and Christian Heritage now that more dollars are available from Second Chance and other sources.

On the outside, ex-offenders encounter many hurdles piecing a life together in a fast-moving world that doesn’t cater to them. Jim Erwin of Christian Heritage advises inmates, their loved ones, sponsors and caseworkers work months in advance of release to line up leads on things like housing and employment. He and others working in the field say a safety plan and a support network is vital, The more on the margin someone lives, the greater the risk for recidivism. Substance abuse, family disputes or just being around negative influences can derail things.

“Folks can become very discouraged quickly if there’s not preparation,” says Mickles.

A big hurdle ex-offenders in Nebraska face is accessing vital records. There’s no central office to get a social security card, birth certificate, driver’s license, work permit. It presently takes days to obtain IDs from far-flung agencies. Support for a one-stop-shop is a hot topic and focus of the Douglas County Reentry Initiatives Council.

 

Image result for chris rodgers uno

Douglas County Commissioner and UNO Transformation director Chris Rodgers

 

 

County Commissioner Chris Rodgers, who sits on the Council’s board, says Heartland Workforce Solutions in Omaha offers the framework for a one-stop-shop and the county’s seeking funds to help consolidate services for ex-offenders under the Heartland umbrella.

“There’s a need,” says Rodgers, who oversees the UNO Transformation Project. He says the Council looks at reentry in broad-based terms as well. “Our job is to identify issues and gaps and solve them within the system instead of reinventing the wheel.” If he’s learned anything it’s that successful reentry is up to the individual.

“It’s not magic, it’s hard work,” he says. “We’re not going to give you this yellow brick road outline to get there. What we do is lay you out a path with opportunity, but you have to put the work in.”

Ray Kyles of You Art Not Alone says, “Just like everything else, what you put in is what you get out. You become institutionalized the moment you get locked up by the police because from there on everything is given to you. Once you’re released from prison you still expect people to keep giving you. But what have you given yourself or what are you willing to give back to society? I’m not going to hold your hand, it just doesn’t work that way. I have a list of services gentlemen can go to for assistance. I get a hot jobs list every Monday.”

Christian Heritage’s Jim Erwin says, “remember to empower, not enable” ex-offenders.

To that end, Metro produces a reentry resources book it distributes to correctional facilities and community service providers to give inmates, ex-offenders, caseworkers and sponsors contacts for statewide programs and services.

“If an ex-inmate has a job, place to live and family-community support,” says Gissler, “the odds he or she will return to prison are much lower. A pro-social network is needed upon release and this has been provided in part by civic and faith-based groups. They have teams set up to assist ex-inmates with securing housing and employment.”

Providers who establish bonds behind the walls are better placed to help offenders once they’re on the outside, say reentry veterans. Consistently being there builds trust. “People need to understand the more they make themselves visible and empower the individuals inside in preparation to come out,” says Mickles, “the more effective their reentry programs on the outside will be.” Neither her program nor any others work in isolation. None has the capacity to address every need.

“We cant do it alone,” Mickles says. “That person coming out needs a job, a place to live. They may need drug rehabilitation. They may need legal assistance to get their kids back. Things like that. We have to work with all the entities to assist that individual with all the areas they need to experience a successful reentry.”

As Mickles does Compassion in Action by herself, she acts as a clearinghouse by referring ex-offenders to needed services she doesn’t provide. Kyles works much the same way.

Regardless of size or resources, reentry providers work collaboratively.

“We all need each other, there’s plenty of pain to go around, and we all have our areas of expertise, and the better we work together the better the population will be served,” says Mickles, who’s hopeful about the momentum surrounding reentry. “In doing reentry here for 30 years this is the first time Omaha is really on task as far as working together and helping each other do what we do best.”

Recently, some facilitator associations and forums have emerged to help bring reentry players at the same table for enhanced communication and coordination. The Reentry Alliance of Nebraska is one. The Reentry Initiatives Council is another. Omaha’s Northeast Weed & Seed program held a spring reentry workshop at Metro that included representatives from the Omaha Police Department, Heartland Workforce Solutions and the Douglas County Department of Corrections as well as ex-offenders and their advocates.

Since 2009 Metro liaison Tommie Wilson has organized the Reentry Table Talk the third Wednesday of every month. At the May 18 forum 48 attendees represented some two dozen organizations, including Eastern Nebraska Action Community Partnership (ENCAP). Some state corrections officials were there. Mickles was present. Christian Heritage’s Jim Erwin was the featured speaker.

Erwin says he attends in order “to build relationships” with other providers. Diane Good-Collins, who with her husband Steve operates ReLeasT transition home for women in Nebraska City, says, “The relationships I’ve made in this room have helped people beyond this room. You never know who you’re going to meet and how that’s going to affect someone else.”

As an ex-felon, Good-Collins is among those who’ve “been there-done that” and now work with ex-offenders. Entrepreneur Rodney Prince is another, though his role is more as advocate and watchdog. His was among the few critical voices heard at the event as he challenged those present “to be coordinated and streamlined,” adding, “We need you to be on the same page.” Activist Eliga Ali and Black Men United president Willie Hamilton expressed concerns about the effects that mass incarceration of black males has on families and communities.

Wilson says some sessions can get rather heated. It’s all in the name of continued dialogue.

“We started out with four people talking about what we needed to do,” says Wilson, who has a grandson in prison, “and now the meetings average 45-50. I gather people here to talk about what’s going on with reentry, to bridge that connection to find out where resources are, to learn who’s doing what, to collaborate. I also bring to the table ex-offenders. If they’re having difficulties finding things they can connect with people and get into programs.”

Programs are one thing, reality is another. Because life happens, how an ex-offender responds to events or situations will ultimately determine his or her fate.

Rodgers cautions change is “not a one size fits all” proposition. “People transform in different stages.”

Mickles agrees, saying, “The term for each individual to experience success is quite different. Also, the definition for success is quite different. It may not be no recidivism. The person may need to reoffend in order to be successful. I’ve learned to redefine certain things.” She says a woman she worked with reoffended several times before going straight, “and she’s now giving back to the community in a major way” as a reentry provider.

Good-Collins, tells a similar story of a chronic reoffender who’s finally turned her life around. After hundreds of lock ups, then being homeless, Good-Collins says the client is now in a stable home environment and working. “She got her first paycheck in over 30 years. She’s doing awesome.”

“With that individual acceptance and lack of preconceived anything,” Mickles says, “individuals tend to find themselves. But society needs to know there is a cost.”

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Rich music history long untold revealed and celebrated by Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame

July 2, 2011 26 comments

Six years ago an enthusiastic gentleman by the name of Vaughn Chatman introduced me to his missionary zeal for our shared hometown of Omaha and his mission to bring attention to its rich black music heritage. He founded the Omaha Black Music as a public celebration of the large gallery of black music artists who have come from this place. Soon, the event morphed into honored not only blacks who distinguished themselves in music but in other fields of endeavor as well, and thus the event came to be known as the Omaha Black Music and Community Hall of Fame. I have interviewed many of the inductees in the Hall, including:

Preston Love Sr.

Buddy Miles

Arno Lucas

Lois “Lady Mac” McDonald

Helen Jones Woods

Cathy Hughes

You’ll find their stories and the stories of other inductees on this blog site. The event took a sabbatical a while back but is returning this year, July 29, at the Slowdown during Native Omaha Days. My story below appeared on the eve of the inaugural Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame .  I hope to write about this year’s event.

Rich music history long untold revealed and celebrated by Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The fact that jazz and blues greats often played north Omaha’s live music haunts is well known. What’s not is this inner city’s huge roster of high-caliber musical talents. Enough Omaha artists have impacted the industry to rival the legacy of homies from historical music hotbeds like Kansas City. The contributions of these O-bred and born cats may add up to one of black music’s largest untold stories.

Bringing this weighty heritage to light “before it’s lost” motivated native Omahan Vaughn Chatman to create the new Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame, which honors 40 artists in an inaugural awards dinner August 4 at Harrah’s Casino in Council Bluffs. The inductees range from such swing era figures as the late Preston Love, big band leader Lloyd Hunter and rock pioneer Wynonie Harris, right on up to such modern artists as percussionist Luigi Waites, jazz guitarist Calvin Keys, songwriter-singer Gene “Booker” McDaniels, drummer/vocalist Buddy Miles, sideman/songwriter Arno Lucas and drummer/vocalist/keyboardist Lester Abrams.

“When you look at the overall picture, Omaha’s influenced all kinds of music and still does. Half the inductees are still out there playing and influencing the world,” Chatman said. “Buddy Miles came out of Omaha and went on to play with Jimi Hendrix (not to mention Stevie Wonder, David Bowie and a host of other legends). Lalomie Washburn started with Rufus and hooked up with Chaka Khan.”

The “awesome” Keys has played with everybody from Earl “Father” Hines to Ray Charles to Ahmad Jamal. McDaniels has written standards for many top artists, including the mega-hit Feel Like Makin’ Love for Roberta Flack. Lucas has collaborated with Luther Vandross, Al Jarreau, Michael Jackson, et cetera. Abrams headed the Omaha-based grand funk group L.A. Carnival. Lois “Lady Mac” McMorris has shared the stage and earned accolades from the likes of B.B. King.

“If Omaha’s looking for something to be known for, this is what we should be known for. That we’ve turned out a number of artists who’ve achieved recognition everywhere in this country and all over the world. There was an era when this was a great place for musicians. They all influenced each other,” Chatman said.

Miles, co-founder of the legendary Band of Gypsies with Hendrix, said he and his contemporaries earned their chops “doing a lot of jamming.” He and many of the other inductees were peers on the burgeoning music scene here. “Everybody was into music. We all shared ideas and information. Any type of musical adventure or experience that presented itself, we went for it,” Keys said. Mentors abounded, too. Keys recalled how jazz master Ed ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson “lived in Omaha for awhile. He used to come down on the scene, too. He taught everybody. He was the guru. There was another guitar player here named Luther ‘Guitar’ Woodruff. We called him Papa. He was a big influence.”

 

 

Alesia Rae

 

 

Keys and company were schooled, too, by former Count Basie sideman Preston Love. “He helped a lot of us,” Keys said. Visiting artists infused more inspiration. “Every time Wayne Bennett, who played with Bobby Blue Bland, would come through town, he had stories we would listen to and he had some new chords he had learned. That made us hungry to work. Omaha was a melting pot. We were right in the center of everything and we were a window for a lot of stuff going on.”

Chatman, a musician-turned-attorney living in Fair Oaks, Calif., was among the young bloods learning from the hepcats, including his late older brother Percy, an inductee. Back in the day, music was everywhere. It was in the streets, the projects, the churches, the bars, the barbershops, the theaters and the nightclubs — the Dreamland and Carnation Ballrooms, the Showcase Lounge, the Elks Club, the Off-Beat Supper Club . These spots were proving grounds, launching pads, classrooms and stages where innovative chord changes, oh-so-sweet riffs and hot new licks tickled the night.

While some of Omaha’s brightest talents remained, most, like Keys, left to chart music careers — in jazz, blues, R & B, soul and funk — in a myriad of back rooms, studios, concert halls and stadiums, both here and abroad. Whether on stage or in sessions, on the road or back home, the artists took a piece of Omaha with them.

 

 

Calvin Keys

 

 

“Contrary to popular belief, Omaha was not just about jazz or Preston Love. A lot of genres thrived here. A lot of music developed here. A lot of remarkable talent trained here. Cats like Buddy Miles and Lester Abrams created a unique Omaha sound, a big bass sound, that they introduced wherever they went,” Chatman said.

The Hall of Fame awards dinner, which costs $35 a plate, is reuniting O-artists separated by years of touring and recording. McDaniels and fellow inductee Richetta Wilson, who perfomed with Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald, are to do a duet that night. Coinciding with Native Omaha Days, the biennial African-American homecoming, the banquet promises a nostalgic celebration of the city’s fat music times. Proceeds are to fund music scholarships for minority youths. Chatman, whose event is slated every two years during the Days, is working with local educators in the hope that a curriculum will be designed to teach Omaha’s rich black music history in the public schools.

The local talent pool runs so deep there’s no end of potential future inductees. Among the leading contenders are sax man Buddy Tate and bass fiddle player Alvin “Junior” Raglin, who went on to fame with Count Basie and Duke Ellington, respectively. “The list goes on and on, A whole lot of talent has come out of Omaha,” Keys said. “Yeah, Omaha was a mecca to be reckoned with,” Miles added.

Lit Fest brings author Carleen Brice back home flush with success of first novel, “Orange Mint and Honey”

July 2, 2011 12 comments

Another Omaha native writer enjoying breakout success is Carleen Brice, whose first two novels have done very well. This is the first of a few articles I’ve written about Carleen and her work. My story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared shortly after her first novel, Orange Mint and Honey, announced her as a major new voice to be reckoned with, and she soon proved that debut novel was no fluke with Children of the Waters. More recently, the superb Lifetime Movies adaptation of Orange Mint, which goes under the title Sins of the Mother, won NAACP Image Awards for Outstanding TV Movie and for Jill Scott in the lead role of Nona. Now. Brice’s sequel to Orange Mint, which she calls It Might As Well Be Spring, is due out this summer, and she’s at work on yet another novel, Calling Every Good Wish Home.  I feel a personal investment in Carleen because her late grandfather, Billy Melton, was a vital source and good friend.  He always spoke with great pride about her accomplishments.  Go to my Billy Melton category to check out some of the stories I wrote about him and his various passions and adventures.

You can find my other Carleen Brice articles, including one about that Lifetime adaptation, by clicking on her name in the category roll to the right.  I expect I’ll be adding more pieces about her as her career continues going gangbusters. Billy’s smiling somewhere.

 

 

 

 

Lit Fest brings author Carleen Brice back home slush with success of first novel, “Orange Mint and Honey”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Denver author Carleen Brice, an Omaha native who left here after graduating Central High School in the 1980s, is getting raves for her first novel, Orange Mint and Honey (One World Ballantine Books, 2008). It follows three nonfiction books and numerous newspaper-magazine essays-articles that earlier established her as a wry observer of the African American experience and the larger human condition.

Now Brice is returning as an invited author at this weekend’s (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest. That makes it sound like she hasn’t been back in awhile, which isn’t so, but now she’s riding the momentum of her novel being an Essence Magazine Recommended Read and a Target Bookmarked Breakout pick.

She’ll appear on a Saturday noon panel at the Bemis about music as an influence on writing. That’s apt as music’s a family legacy Brice inherited “by osmosis” from her beloved late grandfather, Billy Melton, or “Papa,” whose best friend was the late jazz musician and her surrogate uncle, Preston Love Sr. Her jazz-blues bassist husband, Dirk, jammed with Preston at Papa and grandmama Martha’s 50th wedding anniversary. Papa’s vast music collection led Brice to jazz singer Nina Simone. In Orange Mint Simone’s presence appears to the embittered, traumatized daughter, Shay, as a guide to find healing with her recovering alcoholic mother, Nona.

Shay, portrayed as a fan of classic jazz-blues, gets involved with a younger man she works with at a Denver music store. He schools her on contemporary artists.

Then consider Brice often uses music when writing to evoke moods she wants to convey. There’s plenty of mood swings in Orange Mint. The strained mother-daughter story is infused with pain and humor. Forgiveness walks a rocky road. The messy reconciliation between two strong wills rings true. The relationship is fiction but draws on the dynamic Brice had with her own mom. Just as Nona bore Shay as a teen, Brice’s late mother bore her at 15. Like Nona, her mom was a pistol. Unlike Nona, she was no alcoholic. Brice’s folks divorced when she was young.

“We had kind of the typical mother-daughter, love-hate so-close-that-we-drove-each-other-insane kind of relationship,” Brice said by phone. “We were more like sisters. What it’s like to have a young mom that you sort of sometimes feel like you’re raising her instead of she’s raising you comes out in the book.”

Brice’s novel never devolves into melodrama or soap opera. It satisfies and surprises in ways only a gifted writer and old soul can deliver. The book’s being adapted by a producer for a Lifetime Television movie and one hopes it’s treated with the care and sophistication it deserves. On her blog, The Pajama Gardener, a compendium of Brice’s musings about working in the earth and writing, activities she sees parallels in, the author votes for Angela Bassett to play Nona.

Nona’s passion for gardening reflects the kinds of creative, expressive outlet many black women have sought in lieu of limited opportunities for careers in the arts.

 


 

 

Orange Mint confirms the promise Brice has long exhibited as a storyteller.

Her first book dealt with African Americans and the grieving process and her next offered affirmations for people of color. More recently, she edited Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number (Souvenir Press, 2003), a collection of writings by black female authors, including icons Alice Walker, Terry McMillan, Niki Givoanni and Maya Angelau, that Brice put together on the subject of black women navigating mid-life. Brice contributed two pieces of her own to that well-reviewed compilation. One comments on the unrealistic expectations black women like herself face when young and how, in middle age, she’s attempted to free herself and her expressive soul from the bondage of myth.

Just don’t mistake those projects for advice column fodder. They’re much more than that. Brice writes with an eloquence and depth that put her on the same plane as the literary lionesses she shares the pages with in Age Ain’t Nothing. It’s only fitting that Brice, who grew up reading many of the very authors she’s now immortalized with, should be recognized as a serious new African American voice.

Early on she evidenced a love for the written word. “My mom liked to read,” she said, “so when I was really little I learned the joy of reading and storytelling, and I think that’s what led me to want to be a writer. I used to tell stories to other kids. I’d just make things up. I wrote my grandmother Martha stories. When I was in high school I studied creative writing. In college I studied journalism. Most of my job jobs involved writing. So it’s something I’ve always enjoyed.”

Brice no longer works a day job. She writes every day, a discipline she credits Dirk with inspiring in her. “Kind of like building my chops as a writer,” she said. “When not laying down “the bones” or “the heart” of her stories, she interacts with a literary community via book clubs, readers’ circles, writers’ groups.

She’s in-progress on a new novel, Children of the Waters, due out next July. It explores issues of race, identity and what really makes a family, she said. The story explores what happens when a pair of biracial sisters raised in separate families — one white, the other black — find each other as adults.

The author is musing with the idea of continuing Nona’s story in a future project.

Brice is among that vast exodus of blacks who’ve left this place over the years to realize their dreams elsewhere. But like many of these expatriates she’s never really left. She has lots of family and friends here. A contingent even came to Orange Mint’s release party in Denver. They’re a tight bunch and they’ll be representing at Lit Fest. They’ll have a good time, too, she said, as her “larger-than-life” family knows how to party — another legacy of sweet, ebullient Papa.

His music, she said, speaks through her.

The Sept. 19-20 (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest is its usual eclectic self, with a mish-mash of events that address diverse literary themes, some with more than a wink of the eye. The BIG theme this year is Plagiarism, Fraud & Other Literary Inspiration. Fest events take place at some of Omaha’s coolest venues, including the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, the RNG Gallery, Slowdown, Aromas Coffee House and the Omaha Public Library’s W. Dale Clark branch.

Some of Omaha’s and America’s hottest writers converge for readings, panel discussions and other litnik activities. Brice fits the bill to a tee. Think of the fest as a progressive mixer for readers, authors and artists engaging in a literary salon experience — Omaha-style. A scene where laidback meets high brow. For a complete schedule visitwww.omahalitfest.com.

The Worth of Things Explored by Sean Doolittle in his New Crime Novel “The Cleanup”

July 2, 2011 4 comments

Omaha is home to many fine novelists and I have the opportunity to sit down and talk writing with some of them from time and time. One of these is Sean Doolittle, a crime novelist of the first rank and a man who leaves all pretensions at the door. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is the first piece I did on Sean and his work, and the second will soon be posted on this site as well. If you’re looking for a good summer read that engages your mind and your adrenalin then I highly recommend his intelligent page-turners.

 

 

Sean Doolittle

 

The Worth of Things Explored by Sean Doolittle in his New Crime Novel “The Cleanup

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Sean Doolittle has you join him in the very booth at the very Omaha watering hole, the Homy Inn, where the violent denouement of his new novel The Cleanup (Dell) unfolds. Just as you slide in, he mentions you’re about to sit where Gwen, the wan victim in his tale of ever escalating misdeeds, nearly loses her life. The fact he looks a bit like the towering Red Dragon character in the film Manhunter gives you pause. Within minutes he reveals the same disarming tone of his classic crime fiction, which sardonically, not gravely, lets characters stew in their own juices.

In The Cleanup the Omaha-based author has his cop protagonist Matthew Worth discover a murder and rather than call it in, clean it up, which throws into motion, ala Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan, a cascade of unforeseen results that keep forcing Worth’s hand, raising the stakes each time. Things get complicated when it turns out the corpse was a mule in an illicit racket short a quarter million bucks. The question becomes how far will Worth go to cover his and the murderer’s tracks and how far will those after Worth’s neck or the loot, or both, go to get answers?

“I really like stories where the plot is dictated by the choices the characters make. It’s a continual reaction against cause and effect. That feels to me the way life is,” said Doolittle, whose previous novels DirtBurn, both set in L.A., and Rain Dogs elicited warm words from some of crime fiction’s top names. The Cleanup, due out October 31, is getting similar raves. His agent is in negotiations over a potential feature film deal. Unlike many crime authors, Doolittle’s “been lucky” to avoid pressure by editors/publishers to do a series or sequel. His are stand-alone books.

The new novel grew out of a short story, Worth, Doolittle wrote years ago that ended where The Cleanup begins. The character of Worth, a burned out cop reduced to supermarket patrol seeks to redeem himself, gnawed at him.

“I like the idea of this character really trying to do maybe the wrong thing for the right reasons,” he said. “He’s driven to do it. In a dream sort of state, he keeps going. There’s definitely a point of no return in a situation like that where once you step far enough over the line, you have to keep going and keep going. The impulsive action quickly becomes unreturnable. No matter how much he tries to dig himself out he just keeps digging himself in deeper and deeper and deeper. To me, it’s more intriguing than a mystery per se, where you’ve got some clues and you’re trying to piece together a puzzle of who-did-what.

“I’m much more interested in the way people respond to circumstances, what that leads them to do and how those actions compound on each other…There’s really not any sort of mystery in The Cleanup, except wondering how it’s all going to play out for the characters. There are little surprises along the way.”

As a nod to classic noir, Doolittle has Worth cross the line for the sake of a woman (Gwen) who, while not quite a femme fatale, draws the cop into a dark place where his one rash act has dangerous consequences in a kind of domino effect.

“In a way, we’re looking at this character of Worth on the day he did something he might not have done on any other day. It ends up changing his life,” Doolittle said of his disaffected hero, who in the course of the story moves from apathy to conviction. “He comes from a long line of police officers and so he goes into that profession as sort of a family trade. But he doesn’t have the temperament for it. He’s not cut out for it. He’s a laughing stock in the department.

“Here’s this guy who became a police officer for this sort of civic minded idea of being useful to the world and found much more self worth in the simple act of bagging people’s groceries than he ever had in the frustrating job of being a cop. In wanting to save her (Gwen) she represents what he wanted to do in becoming a police officer in the first place. This temporary savior complex that overcomes him has lots of levels in it that he puts all together in Gwen.”

What Worth doesn’t know is that his quest to find self-worth in helping Gwen out of a jam is really about saving himself. But, as Doolittle said, his redemption comes “at a fairly high cost by the time it’s all over.”

Although long “drawn to kind of darker stuff,” Doolittle’s not sure why and feels the reasons for it may be best left unexamined.

“It’s the sort of thing where you don’t really want to solve that mystery because it is your fuel and once you learn the secret maybe you lose the fuel,” he said. “The old chestnut is good drama is based on conflict and I think crime novels provide a very visceral, bottom line conflict you can start with and work from. I like what you can do within the general framework of a crime novel or a noir novel in terms of exploring human behavior. I think the way people respond to extreme pressure or in extraordinary circumstances is an interesting dramatic place to play around.”

He recalls the first story he wrote, for a school class exercise, was in the hard-boiled, first-person vein of a P.I. narrator. A kind of, “I was sitting in my office when…” tease. Strangely, he’d not yet read any crime fiction, “but I must have osmosed that sort of iconic story through my skin or something,” he said. “I don’t know if I caught pastiches on television…You just pick that stuff up everywhere.”

 

 

 

 

Among his earliest influences was Stephen King. That led him to Robert Bloch (Psycho). Then about the same  time he was exposed to the neo-noir of Quentin Tarantino’s films and the breezy mayhem of Elmore Leonard’s novels, which led to old masters like Jim Thompson, Dashiell Hammett, Philip Chandler and James M. Cain. “I kind of started like a lot of people do,” he said, “by finding somebody in the mainstream and then reading my way back into the margins from there.”

Born and raised just outside Lincoln, Neb., Doolittle began as a journalism major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln but switched to English under the tutelage of Gerald Shapiro and Judith Slater. As an undergrad his first “pro fiction,” a short story, sold and paid “real money.” He intended on an academic career teaching college English and writing, but after getting his master’s, he said, “I decided what I really wanted to do was write fiction. I got a regular job and just kept on writing.”

Married now with two young children, he still holds down a regular office gig, writing technical manuals for First Data Resources, but he hopes his books will catch on enough to “relieve the need for that day job.”

He credits his wife Jessica for cutting him slack over the odd writer’s life he leads. “When I’m in the middle of a book it’s not just that I’m physically away at the computer typing, when I’m walking around the house my head is somewhere else,” he said. “It’s very difficult to explain, even to a very supportive spouse…that sitting in a chair staring into space is working. You know, there are tough weeks when everybody’s had long days and any human being would lose their patience. With The Cleanup I was very much behind deadline and the end of that book got very tense. I was really having to lock myself away…to try to finish the book. Jessica was very understanding but by the end it was clear that something had to give.”

In his acknowledgements he thanks his mother for coming to the rescue in “the perfect storm” of deadlines, travel commitments and family illnesses that hit all at once. “Everything just fell apart,” he said. “Without my mother I don’t know how we would have gotten through that.”

Where Rain Dogs was set in Valentine, Neb. and The Cleanup in Omaha, the book he’s working on now is set in a fictional Iowa college town. For this as yet untitled “suburban thriller” he doesn’t want the distraction of adhering to a specific place but instead an Anytown USA readers can project their own experiences onto.

Just as he doesn’t like showing his work until he has a finished piece in hand, he dislikes talking about a book still in embryo. “The idea is kind of fragile for a period of time,” he said, “and you can really crush an idea by talking about it too much.” It’s why he’s reluctant to say much about a big screen adaptation of The Cleanup other than there’s “pretty strong interest” from “a fairly well known writer-director. It’s the first book that’s drawn interest prepublication. Things look fairly promising for a deal, but everything in Hollywood is talk until something happens.”

Doolittle may have left Omaha and environs for his new work but he plans to revisit Nebraska again in his fiction. “I’ve really enjoyed writing the last couple of books closer to home and I want to continue to work around this area.” Besides, it’s so much fun to track blood lettings in the very places one haunts.

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