Interview with Margaret Clark, by Brandon Cook

Interview with Margaret Clark

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by Brandon Cook

“I left my Heart in Harlem”

INTERVIEWER

Your experience is about you growing up with twelve people in the house (twenty one total). Tell us a little bit about that.

CLARK

You’re talking about twelve kids, and then you come down and you’ve got the parents and the grandparents; you’ve got almost fifteen, and then another four children. Eventually it just became twenty-one people in my life.

INTERVIEWER

What was the experience like? What was the attention like?

CLARK

We had some older [siblings] than me and some younger, so we used to try and fight the older ones. It was hard living, but we could bear each other.

INTERVIEWER

Did you have an alliance of the older versus the younger?

CLARK

Yeah, and I wanted to beat the older ones up who kept on telling me what I could say and what to say. [Eventually though] I got to the point that I agreed with them.

INTERVIEWER

What provoked you to finally write your story?

CLARK

You’ve always got something to say. I wanted to leave my experience there. Even though I took the title “Harlem” from New York, everything else was basically the same: you’ve got an uptown and you’ve got a downtown. I had to write about something that I knew…and I had been to New York too so I knew what it looked like. It just shows you how some people even though they’re down and under. In the ghetto, they get out. Some get out. And they actually make it successful.

INTERVIEWER

Was it a realization that you had to write this down, or did someone tell you that you should?

CLARK

Well I was going to Weightwatchers, and someone would say: “write me two more papers…write me three more papers” and I got so into it I wound up doing it. I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t stop after I got into it.

INTERVIEWER

Had you ever had passions about writing when you were younger?

CLARK

I didn’t even like writing. But I really did want to express my feelings. Everybody talks about what it’s like for them. I think I had something that I wanted to talk about. It ain’t always about other people; it’s about you too. And it’s true: everybody has a story. I wasn’t really ever interested in writing but I knew I had to write.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give us a quick summary about your story?

CLARK

Well I always wanted people to know that even though you’re living in a background that you never think you can get out, there’s always someone there to help you. People do see you for who you are. The story basically talks about a girl and even though all the things around her was unbelievable…and that [she was] never going to do anything, that wasn’t really true. Everybody has a point in their life when they actually do peak but that depends on their ability to want to.

It wasn’t necessarily all about myself. It was the experience: the funny things, the laughs, the jokes, the slang, the dances, the music. It really took you back in doing it. It really gave me purpose. So it was fun. It was really fun.

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INTERVIEWER

To what degree is Liz a biography and to what degree is she a fiction?

CLARK

She’s fiction in a sense that, she is me, but a lot of things that she did wasn’t exempt from her; it was from another person. Sometimes you can’t write a story about other people but you can take some of their characters and personalities. Liz was basically me, but some things I heard and some things I did, so I just took it from there.

Brandon Cook and Margaret Clark, the Brandon Blakely

Brandon Cook and Margaret Clark, the Brandon Blakely

INTERVIEWER

What can a reader who has no experience of you or your book beforehand expect from your book?

CLARK

It’s all age. There’s not a whole lot of violence, though there’s some in there. Everything was violent. It actually talks about the girl who ran away. It talks about the situation. Young people have read it and they like it. Old people have read it. There’s no age balance. And it is funny. It’ll make you laugh. Every emotion I had—it came out in that book.

INTERVIEWER

You talk a lot about how a theme of your book is the self-discovery. Could you talk a little about how you explore and develop that?

CLARK

Making characters. People that I know. Things that they did—the background of each and every one of them.

INTERVIEWER

Did you find when you started making characters that they assumed a life of their own?

CLARK

They assumed a life of their own in the sense that you took one person’s look and his background, the way he speaks, and you’ve made him a character. So you find who he is through what you see. Everybody’s got their own personality and everybody sees everybody different.

INTERVIEWER

Did you try to keep the personalities of the people you knew as close to them as possible, or did you make it a bit more fictitious.

CLARK

Well you don’t want to get sued, so you don’t have too much. So you make them crazy if you have to. You give them disabilities if you want to, but you have to grow the character according to what you’ve seen in that person. But you don’t take the whole character from the person.

INTERVIEWER

Who’s inspired you the most?

CLARK

Friends. My family and my friends…I think about a lady in the cafeteria who gave me the brand new dress that she made.

INTERVIEWER

Could you talk about that story?

CLARK

I always thought that I was so poor, and we were. But this lady took my face and she took me to the mirror and she said: “look at you. You are beautiful. You are absolutely beautiful.” And she combed my hair and she told me little things about me. And I got the chance to see her before she died to say “thank you.” And we would talk all the time.

INTERVIEWER

What was her name?

CLARK

Miss Jones. I just felt like I had to keep in touch. I found her—and I just kept in touch until the day she died.

INTERVIEWER

Could you talk a little about your creative process? Was it easy to write? Was it difficult?

CLARK

Very difficult. You had to either add or subtract, and then decide who would be the dominant player or who you would be the player that you really wanted to oversee. Each character had their own personality. Who’s going to stand out? That was the hardest. I knew Liz was going to stand out, but it was other people in her life that stood out too to make Liz a better person.

INTERVIEWER

Could you describe your feelings when you learned that there was going to be a film version of your novel?

CLARK

I was shocked. I didn’t believe it’d ever happen. I’d always wanted it to happen, just to let somebody like me be in that situation.

INTERVIEWER

How did you learn about it?

CLARK

We kept talking and talking about it. And they said: I have to have a movie. I want somebody’s who actually been in that situation—who knows to never give up. 

INTERVIEWER

What advice would you give to readers who might be growing up under similar circumstances or who might have some of the problems that Liz faces?

CLARK

You have to be realistic. You have to know that you are who you are. Things don’t change just like that. So you have to work on the positive things about you.