Toni Kan in Conversation With Nicole Dennis-Ben who says – “I like to write in the morning with my steaming cup of coffee.”
TONI KAN: For the record, please state your name and what you have written.
Nicole Dennis-Ben: Nicole Dennis-Ben, Jamaican now live in Brooklyn, New York. Author of ‘Patsy’ and ‘Here Comes The Sun.’
TK: Thank you. So, we will talk about your process but first of all, how did you know you had to be a writer?
NDB: Oh my God, my journey has been a long one, you know, I came out and I really was going to be a doctor. That was what I studied in school. In undergrad at Cornell. I was pre-med, then I went on to do my Master’s in Public Health at the University of Michigan with the intention of applying to the MD programme in Michigan, or the PhD programme. I was going to be a doctor either PhD or MD, because also my family wanted a doctor in the family and coming from working class Jamaica, that was the expectation. So, I really was writing undercover, and no one knew I was a writer. I was journaling mostly. So, I was doing poetry and the poetry became longer and longer and suddenly I had short stories and then, you know, novellas and it was more of like just me entertaining myself, and also trying to get over my homesickness because I was really homesick. I came from Jamaica at 17. So, I was really young,
TK: By yourself?
NDB: By myself, and I felt like writing really helped me to cope with being in a new country.
TK: Writing as therapy.
NDB: Yeah, exactly it was therapy for sure. Yeah. So I really enjoyed it. And so I didn’t know that there was a career path. I didn’t know any writers. In fact, I didn’t even know writers who even looked like me until I discovered Toni Morrison’s book. I actually discovered Tony Morrison’s book, ‘Beloved’, in high school on a table just lying there and I stole it and not realising the impact of encountering that author saying, oh, one day I’d love to be that but I just didn’t know how to get there. And so fast forward and after grad school and working at Columbia as a public health researcher.
TK: So, you finished?
NDB: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. After being there and working there as a researcher, I realised wait, I’m not enjoying my job, but I’m still writing And that’s the only thing I look forward to when to get home at night and just writing. And I ended up meeting my partner and the conversation was like, wait, are you a writer or a researcher? and that’s when I really looked into myself and said, actually, I’m a writer. And that was really what propelled me to be in workshops here in Brooklyn. Then the workshops led to getting my MFA in fiction at Sarah Lawrence College and I never looked back.
TK: So are you still a doctor?
NDB: Not exactly. No.
TK: So maybe you’ll get an honorary one someday.
NDB: Yeah, someday (laughs)
TK: So, now you’re a writer, right? A short story or a novel. How does it start for you? Is it an idea, an image, a character, a sound, a quote?
NDB: It’s everything that you just said. Yeah, for me, I’m not a very visual person. So, an image couldnt definitely set me off or give me a good idea. Also, like interacting with people, so I could be in a public setting like in a park or on the subway, wherever and I see someone And somehow kind of focus on them in terms of wondering what their internal life is like. I wonder who they are, what their background is. And somehow that curiosity would lead me into stories and that’s really how I get started.
TK: So how do you write? Do you write every day? Wake up in the morning and write or go into seclusion, write at night or in the morning?
NDB: Yeah, I write everyday in the morning.
NDB: Well, okay, so it depends on what you think about writing. So for me, writing could also be me just holding my edits. So lets say that I’ve got two good pages from yesterday, it could be me printing out those two pages. And I’d probably sit down and just, you know, go line by line and then sentence by sentence, And that, to me feels like writing as well, because I kind of tidy up what I need to tidy up in the foundation. And that would lead me to another writing process, maybe next week or so. So I kind of take it as it comes.
TK: But when you write. do you have a preference between morning, afternoon or night.
NDB: Mornings mornings. Yeah, with my steaming cup of coffee. I feel like am more alert.
TK: Your mind is clear.
NDB: Yeah. You know, everything is silent. And in fact, it’s so interesting. I just saw the Toni Morrison documentary. And she said, Oh, I woke up early in the mornings to write and its the same with me. Yeah, like during the day right now, I don’t think I can because my mind doesn’t work as sharply.
TK: So, last question would be, when is the next book coming out?
NDB: Oh, that’s what am working on now. That’s a lot of pressure that you just put on me but I’m working on that right now as we speak, and it’s a process so I’m taking it step by step.