Debut author Diane Marie Brown joins Zibby to discuss Black Candle Women, a propulsive, poignant, warm, and wry family drama with a magical twist about four generations of Black women, the secrets they keep for and from each other, and the family love curse that makes anyone they fall in love with die. Diane describes the inspiration behind this story (it involves many childhood summers spent in New Orleans) and the unconventional, twelve-plus-year path to getting it published. She also reveals her favorite books and authors, her best advice for aspiring authors, and what it was like to be the March 2023 Read With Jenna pick!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Diane. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Black Candle Women.

Diane Marie Brown: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Can you please tell listeners what your book is about?

Diane: Black Candle Women tells about a multigenerational family of Black women whose lives are affected by a curse. This curse happens to kill anyone with whom they fall in love. They’ve lived their lives protecting themselves from the curse. They’ve been isolated in their Southern California home. They have to face the curse head-on when the teenager in the house brings home a love interest for the first time. As they grapple with that, we hear about their challenges in present day, but through the family’s matriarch, we go back to 1950s New Orleans to learn about the curse’s origin, which was put into a place by a Voodoo sorcerous.

Zibby: Where did this come from?

Diane: It has a few origin stories.

Zibby: I’ll take them all.

Diane: The first of which is, in my writing program, we had a prompt for a very short story. I don’t even remember what the prompt was. That’s where these women came to my mind. I started writing about them there. Then I really liked them, and so I wanted to give them a bigger story. I started thinking to my childhood. Both of my parents are from Louisiana. My uncle lived in New Orleans. My mom was a teacher. We would go by train every summer to New Orleans to visit my uncle. We’d go by train because my mom didn’t fly. We’d take the long trip from Northern California all the way to New Orleans and would spend weeks there hanging out, cooking, playing with the neighbors. It was always something that I looked forward to. It was so different from my hometown. I always just thought about those summers with a lot of nostalgia and remembered thinking about some of the things that made New Orleans interesting, so of course, the whole aura of Voodoo and Hoodoo. I thought about Marie Laveau, who is the Voodoo queen of New Orleans. As I was older — I’m an only child. I didn’t know my grandparents. My parents being educators, just a huge imagination all of my life. I started thinking one day, what if I was related to Marie Laveau somehow? Marie Laveau, if she had generations that were alive today, what would she have imparted to them through her lineage? What skills or abilities would she have passed along? That got the wheels turning. Somehow, death came into play. It was a sinister story before where they were kind of using that to seek vengeance on people who deserved it, but I changed it because I really wanted to focus on these women and their connections in this family. That’s how the story was born.

Zibby: Wow. Has anybody in your family lost a loved one like that or anything?

Diane: Not that I know of. Again, not knowing my grandparents, I heard stories about them. Seeing my mom and dad be grandparents and knowing that relationship, I’ve always been curious about how a relationship like that might have been for me, and so just making up stories about potential families.

Zibby: This is what novelists do. This is the whole thing, making up the stuff and finding the families. Tell me about the process of writing the book. How long did it take? What was that like? How did you balance everything else in your life? What else is in your life? What are you balancing? How crazy is your life? All of that stuff.

Diane: This path was not a very straightforward path. My writing program, I graduated from in 2011. This was my thesis, the first one hundred pages. After grad school, I worked on it for probably another year. I didn’t have beta readers. I wasn’t in a writing group. It was a draft. Maybe just the immaturity at the time, I don’t know, I was just like, oh, it’s ready to go. I sent it to agents and didn’t really get any interest from agents. It was only then that after going through that process I worked on it a little bit more, revised. Sent it out again. Got a little bit more interest, people who wanted to read the entire manuscript, but agents passing for one reason or another. I had kind of put it away and started working on something else. In 2020 with everything being locked down, I work in public health, so I was busy working for our local health department. George Floyd death that made headlines, it was just a very fraught time. We know that there were organizations who wanted to step up and maybe feeling helpless and wanted to do something. Graydon House, they’re an imprint of Harlequin HarperCollins, they put out an open call for fiction by unagented Black writers. I said, well, I have this book. It’s just been sitting here. I wasn’t able to find an agent. Hey, let me clean it up a little bit and send it their way. I sent the query and the first five or ten pages.

They said they would give feedback to anyone who met the criteria. I’m like, at least that. That would be wonderful. They didn’t promise that they would represent or publish anyone’s manuscript. There was an editor there who took interest. She asked for the whole manuscript. It was months and months later — I never got the feedback. I’m like, maybe that’s a good thing. March of 2021, she reached out and said that Graydon House would be interested in publishing my novel. She wanted to be my editor, but I had to get an agent to sign the contract. She helped me find an agent, who is wonderful and I wouldn’t have been able to connect to otherwise because she was closed to queries. Since then, it’s just been a whirlwind. We spent quite a bit of time revising, but then all the other things that go along with publishing. Over this twelve-plus-year journey, my children are now all — my youngest is in college. They’ve seen me go through this. I can’t imagine publishing ten years ago. I think the timing was just right for this book. Not that I wouldn’t have wanted to publish a long time ago and not go through all of this. Just thinking about how crazy things have been now these last two years, I think if I had younger children, it would’ve been a lot harder to balance along with my full-time job.

Zibby: I can attest to that. What a great story. It just speaks to, timing is such a huge factor in books in general, when it’s meant to come out, when it’s not, what pieces you can take from past stories. Everything you do, it’s never a waste. It’s never a waste.

Diane: I definitely believe that. It can be hard, especially for new writers or writers who really want to get their work published, to think that, I’m working so hard on this, and maybe it’s not going to happen right away. I definitely feel like that time that I had was valuable for me. Some people, things happen very, very fast. That is just their timing. I have to kind of be at peace with believing that this was the right time for this book.

Zibby: I think that the fast-timing stories are much more rare. I feel like I should go back through all these podcasts and get some stats out of the conversations. I think you would find that those stories are few and far between. Yet the allure of them is so intoxicating. Everybody thinks, maybe that’ll happen to me, when in actuality, that’s quite rare.

Diane: Definitely. That’d be interesting.

Zibby: In my spare time, I’ll work on that on the side. Then of course, this became a Read with Jenna pick on top of everything else. How crazy. That is amazing. What was that story like? How did you find out? Did you have to keep it a secret? Tell me that whole story.

Diane: I did. That was definitely unexpected and overwhelming. I finished a pretty good version of the book probably around this time last year just because the publisher, they need time for sales and marketing and all those things that go on behind the scenes along with final edits, but a pretty good version of the draft. They said, “We need this to send out to all the book clubs.” I’m like, okay, and just didn’t really think much of it because I know how hard those opportunities are to come by. In August, I was going back and forth with my editor. She emailed me. She said, “By the way, do you have a chance to chat a little bit later? I have some nice news.” I was like, okay. If she wouldn’t have said the nice news, I would’ve panicked. We had only spoken on the phone one other time before. We have a billion emails going back and forth, but rarely talk. She said, “I just need to find a time when Cherise –” who’s my agent — “can meet.” They call me. They ask me if I’m sitting down. Then they ask me if I have any champagne handy. I was up north visiting my dad, and so I didn’t. I’m like, “I can get some.” They told me the news that it was going to be a selection for March. They said, “We might have to move the date up.” I was like, “That’s totally okay with me.” I was just thrilled. Then I thought we were ending the conversation. Then they’re like, “Wait, there’s more.” I’m like, “What?” That’s when they said that she was also starting a production company, and she was going to buy the rights because she wanted to make this into a — I didn’t know what at the time. It ended up being a television show. It was incredible. Then said, “And you can’t tell anyone.” The biggest secret I’ve ever had to keep like that, for seven or eight months.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Now you can write a book about the pain of the secret-keeping.

Diane: I know how to hold onto a secret now, definitely, and can maybe translate that to a character.

Zibby: Exactly, the book club-winning character in your next book. That’s funny. That’s so exciting. It was so nice meeting you at the Read with Jenna celebration and all of that. It’s so cool. She’s really gotten so many wonderful authors and stories. It’s really fabulous to use the whole Today Show platform for that and all of it. It’s great.

Diane: Yes, it’s amazing. Having that type of a platform as a debut is incredible. I’m just incredibly grateful to her and all the people that work with her. It’s been a nice ride so far.

Zibby: Wow. Now are you working on another book?

Diane: I am. I teach at a community college. I’m in my office right now. We have one more week in the semester. Then I am off for three months. I’ve been doing research on my next book. I’m looking forward to sitting down and just really getting that muscle again of writing every day and getting a good draft or close to a full draft of something by the end of the summer. Something that’s kind of similar in tone. It’s a story that’s very grounded but maybe has a teeny bit of magic that people, hopefully, can suspend their disbelief for.

Zibby: Interesting. I love it. Do you have some go-to books or authors that you really love? Are you reading anything great now?

Diane: I definitely am inspired by Zora Neale Hurston. She definitely had a little bit of her influence in some way in Black Candle Women. Always love Terry McMillan. What she did for sharing stories of Black women in contemporary life, I always appreciate how she kind of paved that way. Right now, I’m just reading a lot of books. I read on my Kindle. I read hardcover books or paperbacks. I listen on my way to work. I listen to a lot of books. Just finished a book by a friend of mine. We have this little writers crew in Southern California. Jasmin ‘Iolani Hakes, she just published a book called Hula that I in a week. It’s wonderful. It’s incredible. I had a good time listening to that. I just started this morning, Yellowface, which I think just came out today.

Zibby: I have that here. I have to read that.

Diane: Those have been keeping me occupied.

Zibby: Amazing. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Diane: Definitely, doing something that I didn’t do, at least initially. Having a writing community I think is very important, a trusted writing community, people that you can talk to about writing, that you can get resources from, that can encourage you, and then people that you can trust to read your manuscripts along the way. Maybe not super early because we know how those early drafts can be, but somebody that can, depending upon what you need from them, can give you advice or tell you what they like or the ways that maybe you can strengthen things or, again, just encourage you and tell you to keep going. I think that’s super valuable. I plan on relying on that with any other projects that I work on.

Zibby: Amazing. When you think about the summer and getting to work on this next book, do you have anything that you keep next to? I always have chocolate-covered almonds that I kind of mainline when I’m trying to get anything done. Do you have things like that? Any go-to snacks or routines or rituals or whatever?

Diane: In the mornings, I like to have my coffee. I make my little homemade latte with my vanilla cream. I have to have that. Then in the afternoons, I love to snack on kettle corn. There’s a farmers market on Thursdays by the house. I pick up a big thing of kettle corn. That usually lasts me over the weekend if I’m writing over the weekend. Those are my two things that I really like to have. Apples and peanut butter, that’s another snack that I like. Lots of things to power me through.

Zibby: I like bananas and SunButter too, sort of a spinoff, if you want to mix it up. That’s my morning breakfast. I don’t even know why I’m talking about this. Thank you, Diane. Thank you for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thank you for sharing your experience. Again, it was so great to meet you. Just so excited for you. I love hearing inspiring stories like this of perseverance and timing and having all the things work out and having good things happen to nice people. It’s really awesome.

Diane: Thank you. Thanks for all that you do for writers. It’s amazing and wonderful. Congratulations on your Webby Award.

Zibby: Thank you. We had fun. I hope our paths cross again, especially in Southern California in the store and everything.

Diane: Definitely. I plan to visit soon.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Diane: Bye.

BLACK CANDLE WOMEN by Diane Marie Brown

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