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In Episode 3.5 of The Turn On, we interview Carol Taylor, editor of "Brown Sugar 4: Secret Desires," and take a deep dive into the origin story of the groundbreaking "Brown Sugar" series.
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Kenrya: Come here, get off.
Kenrya: Today we're blessed to talk to Carol Taylor, the creator of the "Brown Sugar" series, which is where we first ran loose at. A former Random House book editor, Carol is a 25-year publishing veteran who has worked as an editor, coauthor, book doctor, and ghost writer with literary and commercial writers, noted academics, public figures and celebrities. The award-winning author has given us 10 books, including the 2010 novel, The "Ex Chronicles," and the bestselling "Brown Sugar" series. Carol heads up editorial strategy and conceptual development as the editorial director at McKinnon Literary Agency, teaches in the public certificate program at City College, and has taught creative writing at New York University. Carol, thanks for joining this.
Carol: Thanks so much for having me. This is a real pleasure and an honor.
Kenrya: Yay. We feel the same way.
Carol: Thank you.
Kenrya: Before we dive in, what are your preferred pronouns?
Carol: She, her, Carol, Brown Sugar. Always happy with Brown Sugar, which I do sometimes get.
Erica: I love it. We read your bio and it's dope. You do amazing things, but we would love it if you could sum up what you do in one sentence.
Carol: I work with words in every incarnation, from editing to writing to ghost writing. I help people put their thoughts and ideas on the page in a way that helps them and others.
Erica: Wow. That even sounded beautiful.
Kenrya: Right? We're talking in paragraphs out here.
Erica: Take us back to a little baby Carol. What did you want to be when you grow up, when you were growing up?
Carol: I was born in Jamaica, so for me, the whole idea of writing books was just not something I was thinking about. We were thinking about getting out of Jamaica quite honestly. We left Jamaica and came here to the US, and then I found that I could disappear into books. I'm the youngest of four, but I was the one who was always under the bed reading a book with a flashlight. I found these worlds in books, but you don't know where books come from. I thought they came from the bookstore because that's where I got them. I always wanted to be a part of that process. I didn't know if it was writing them. I journaled, but I didn't equate that with being a writer, although that's a start. I assumed, okay, books come from the bookstore. I'll go and I'll work at a bookstore. I did that and very quickly found out that I am not a retail person. Man, that's when I found out I am not a retail person. It's a whole different world.
It occurred to me that, oh, books come from publishing houses and editors get to make those books. That's when I decided, this is way back in the day. God, I'm going to date myself ... when we still had to know how to type. I had to learn how to type 90 words a minute and I decided, okay, I want to get a job in a publishing house. I went to an agency in my little cheap polyester suit, 90 degrees out. I'm burning up and sweating every day with my little briefcase, nothing in it. I learned to type. By the end of that summer, I was sent for a job at Anchor Books. This was before they were a part of Random House when it was still just Random House and not a part of PRH.
I went for a job there in the editorial department and, unfortunately, I did not get that job, but I impressed the human resources person so much because I was nice in the elevator that when she got a job at Random House, she asked to see me. That's how I actually got a job as an editorial assistant at Random House, which was my preferred house. That's karma. That's how I became a book editor. No one tells you about the process of making publishing, producing, acquiring books unless you're actually in the book world. It was a real education for me.
Right now, I work at the publishing certificate program at City College, and it is a program that introduces students to the book publishing world, and it's taught by industry veterans. This is a program I wish I had 20 years ago, 25 years ago when I started.
Kenrya: That's interesting because one thing that I noticed is you didn't say I went to college and studied English or I studied journalism. It was really that you decided you were going to do it and the thing that you felt that you had to learn with typing. At that point, were you ever made to feel as if that was something that was a necessary part of the journey to becoming a books editor or was it never really an issue?
Carol: No, it was never explained. I never could conceive of ... We didn't know what that was. Ask a kid in college what a book editor is. They won't know what that is. We have no concept of it. I'm being really serious.
Kenrya: No, it's true.
Carol: What is it? Where do books come from? What happens in book publishing? We teach whole courses on this to adults who are writers because we really don't know the process. I'm a writer too, and the fact that I can write 10 books, a book a year is only because I was a book editor. I know the process. I know how it works. No. I went to school. I graduated. I was a literature major, creative writing minor, and I had no clue that I was going to work in publishing or be a book editor. I like books. This is interesting. I'm terrible at math. Economics, that's not happening. I wanted to ... I love literature. This was interesting to me.
No, I never connected any of those dots, never knew the questions to ask. Of course, I had a guidance counselor. It never occurred to me to ask them, so how can I work with books? I was like, oh, I'm content to read them. I had no idea of what I would do with that knowledge until ... I don't even remember how I figured out that I should be a book editor. I think I was reading something about the book world and it said book publishers and then I just did my research from there.
Kenrya: Wow. Now, you are.
Kenrya: Where you are is that you really created a genre that didn't, not in a really substantial way, at least to me, exist before. We started this podcast, The Turn On, because we want to explore erotica that centers Black women and femmes and really anybody that doesn't identify as a man and Black bodies and Black sex. I'm wondering what pushed you to curate and create this series. What's the origin story of "Brown Sugar?"
Carol: Well, on my home planet Krypton ... I loved the origin story. I loved the way you phrased that. It's an interesting story and it comes from publishing. When I was an editor at Random House, I did a lot of books that had to deal with the Black world. For me, that's my interest. I'm interested in immigrant stories, Black stories, brown stories because I don't center white culture. For me, Black culture is the center. Although I acquired, which means I bought books, not all editors acquire books, some acquire them and edit them. I bought books, acquired books, fiction, nonfiction, self-help, pop culture, for color books, lifestyle books, all under the umbrella of multiculturalism because that's my interest.
When I was at Random House, that was a huge house even before it merged with Penguin. There were about, I don't know, five editors of color. I did a lot of the books of color that were published, not only by the imprint that I worked at Random House but the other imprints as well. I was a reader for a lot of those books. You would call them now sensitivity readers, but I was reading books that they wanted to know if the Black market would be interested in them. In one of those meetings, I ended up actually publishing a lot of books by Essence editors. One of those books dealt with Black love. After I left Random House, because the culture had become very corporate and editors were doing far fewer actual editing of manuscripts than going to meetings and marketing, and it really wasn't what I had signed up for.
So when I left Random House, I acquired one last book from Essence on love, and I had done a lot of research from one of their editors to acquire it. I got a call from an editor who said, "Do you think that there is a market for a book about Black erotica?" I was like, "Who are you talking to? What do you think? You're a Black lady. What's happening here?" I was like, of course there is an audience for a book about Black love, Black sex, Black relationships, erotica because we are seen by white America as being monolithic, but within the Black world, we have so many diverse stories. Just the three of us are so different, and yet we're all three Black women. Of course, I knew there was a market and of course I had a lot of information from the research. She was like, "Okay, you're an editor. Put together a proposal."
I put together a proposal, and I called up an agent, and I said, "So and so wants to see this. Will you send it out?" She sent it out and the book was bought. It's an erotic anthology of Black fiction. Imagine back in '99, this whole concept is high concept, a collection of erotic-like fiction written by people of color for people of color, gay, straight, what have you. This is high concept. To me, I'm like this is Saturday night. This isn't high concept. This is just real talk. I was blessed to actually have them. This was Penguin. Plume did the first Brown Sugar. Put together a gorgeous package with a beautiful woman on the front, so tastefully done. I had amazing writers as you know.
We put together a really rich collection of stories that really told the tale of love in diverse communities, in many different voices. I had poets. I had novelists. I had nonfiction writers. It was just so raw and real that I think the first week it was published, it hit the LA Times bestseller list at number two. They were astonished. They had to just keep rolling out and rolling out books. They sent me on a 10-city book tour because of it.
Kenrya: Get out of here.
Carol: Get out of here. We created a genre with this package. I'm a book editor, so we created a package that I knew would suit the market. For me, that was a small format, trade paperback at a particular price point that looked a particular way, and it worked. You saw so many other different, I mean in addition to the three others that we did, there's Brown Sugar two, three and four. There were so many other erotic Black anthology collections that popped up. Some did well. Some did not. This is really the benchmark, I think, for these types of collections. I was thrilled they weren't competing with me. I was happy, very happy to see them.
Kenrya: You said that this is just what you do, but can you dig a little deeper and tell us why you think it's important to tell these stories and what draws you to this type of work?
Carol: Here's the thing. For me, erotic Black fiction was a way to encapsulate what it was as a category, but really these are stories about us, stories that were not being told in this way, in this voice, in this style. It's important to me as a Black woman to be able to talk about sex, sexuality, feelings and emotions around that and communicate that in a way that allows me to feel empowered and to tell my story and to let others do it. Black people and people of color were being depicted only as one dimensional, in one way. Women were like this, and men were like that. That is really not the full kaleidoscope or mosaic of our lives. In these different stories, we're showcasing those different worlds in really interesting ways.
For me, it's a reclaiming of my sexuality as a woman and being able to talk about it. There's nothing wrong with talking about sex. We're all having sex. We may as well talk about it. There's a way to write about sex in a way that is sexy as opposed to being "pornographic." I think Isabel Allende said erotica uses a feather and pornography uses the whole chicken. That's true. There are different layers to erotic writing. When you are able to convey those different layers in a really nuanced way, you can write something that is incredibly sexy, sexual and erotic without one sex scene. There's not a lot of sex in these books, but that's the funny part. There's not a lot of sex happening on the page. It's really erotic, sexual, sensual couplings between people.
Kenrya: Wow. You talked a little bit earlier about how you've acquired and edited books across several genres. Did you ever, and it sounds like no, but did you ever struggle with the decision to include erotica in your portfolio?
Carol: That's an interesting question. It really is because I think of all those nuances I just talked about. Here's the thing. Brown Sugar has made me a Times bestselling author. I've had a fantastic career behind it. These are books that I'm really, really, really proud of. My very first book was a collection of the best Black essays, the best 100 Black essays. That's my first book, Sacred Fire. I was writing nonfiction essays. I don't have any misconceptions or misperceptions about who I am or what I write or any of that. I was hoping to demystify the idea of a Black woman who is, I hope, sexy and certainly sexual writing about sex and intimacy. There's as much intimacy in these collections as there is sex, probably more, not a whole lot of sex actually in these.
I've published people like, gosh, I've published nearly every Black writer in these four collections plus Wanderlust literally. Edwidge Dandicat, Tananarive Due, literally almost everyone who has come up.
Kenrya: Folks that we don't necessarily associate with erotica.
Carol: With erotica. Because erotica is not what people think it is, erotica is not necessarily sex. Erotica is the eroticism around the act itself. The act doesn't even have to be there. Erotica is almost the buildup to it. Erotica has gotten a bad rap in many ways. It's really the art of writing about intimacy and emotion and maybe there's sex involved. It's almost all of that buildup to it without the sex on the page. I could probably count on one hand, maybe with three fingers, all the books in all four of the series that actually have the act of sex in them. Most of these don't.
To answer your question, my website is called Brown Sugar books. My company is called Brown Sugar Limited. Brown Sugar means so much to Black folks. I got Brown Sugar from D'Angelo. Brown Sugar is a saying that we have. It's an emotion. It's a way that we are. It's a feeling. When you walk down the street and someone calls you Brown Sugar, you know what that means. For me, there wasn't really any shame because, one, I'm kind of shameless in the best possible way. I am without shame. It's hard for people to shame you when you are without shame because you stand on your truth. I look at this collection, and they have defined a generation of writers. You look at the writers I've worked with, and every one of them is working in the industry right now.
Zane. When I worked with Zane, Zane wasn't edited. First she couldn't find a publisher and then her book sold so well that she was then pretty much packaged by her publisher now. She's not really edited. When I worked with Zane, it was the first time she had worked with an editor, and her story and Brown Sugar is very different from what you will find in things for self-published books and some of her books now.
There's a difference to working with a book editor, to be honest. Again, not at all ... On my website, you'll see all my books. Also, I'm a ghost writer. I write for a lot of other people, and they can go and see all the books that I've written. If someone would rather not work with me because I can work in a particular genre very well, then that's probably not someone I should work with.
Kenrya: Yes, that's fantastic. I think it's heartening at least for me to hear. I think when we first started talking about doing this podcast, I had a little bit of hesitation because it can be seen as a deviation from the work that I typically do. It really came down to, what you were just talking about, it's a part of a whole, and it is a way that you bring your whole self to the table when you do this work alongside all the other work that you do. Making that conscious decision to not shame yourself and not let anyone else bring shame into the equation is pretty powerful, I think.
Carol: I agree. It's part and parcel with who we are as women, as mothers, as sisters, as daughters, as wives. It's this emotionality, the sexuality, the sexual part of who we are is part of who we are. As writers, we have to be able to explore that as people. We have to be able to explore that and have conversations around it. That is actually what intimacy is. Quite often, that's what's missing from the sexual equation. I'd rather we bring more of that in than anything else, then everything else would be better.
I agree with you. Sometimes you do have to think a little bit about it, but honestly, it depends on what you're doing and how you're doing it and who you are. That's what informs your work.
Kenrya: Speaking of shameless, when we first met in person, I told you that I had Brown Sugar in my special pile in my room.
Carol: I remember.
Kenrya: How does it make you feel that your work is with people in some super intimate times?
Carol: I love it. I love it. It's been almost 20 years and I went on a 10-city book tour. This book speaks to 18-year-olds and 55 and up. I had women of every generation talking to me in a real way, and they would clutch my hair and say thank you. That's how I do know. Auntie and grandma, like thank you, for just talking about real relationships between Black people just told in different ways. We were so tired of these flat one dimensional characters and women only looking in a particular way and men only acting in a particular way. We know that's just not the truth. I feel at this point ... I got over it my first few readings and signings. Of course, you judge the crowd. They're going to be different in Atlanta than they will be in Houston or Dallas. You judge the crowd. I know what I'm going to read and I know what I'm going to talk about.
Inevitably, at the end, it becomes a discussion about relationships between men and women. That's exactly what I wanted it to be. That's very, very exciting for me, but that's what it's really about. Communication, talking about things that we don't talk about and didn't talk about or was only talked about in one way.
Erica: Let's just dive a little deeper and talk about the story that we're reading for this episode, Luzette. Why did you choose to include that story in the collection?
Carol: I think that I included that story in the collection more because I loved the writer, to be honest. I chose my writers and then they sent in the stories, to be honest. It just really resonated with me in a way that it was something I had not read before and really felt the voice was wonderful, the characterization was amazing. I hadn't seen anything like it before, and it was very exciting to me. Really that's what I did with all of my writers and their stories. Some names you will know and some names you will not know, but they brought something to the table that I had not seen, and that's what I saw in Luzette.
Erica: Cool. This story is a little different from some of the other stories that we typically read for the show. This one is written from a male porn star's point of view, but we were really interested in Luzette and her being a boss who just took what she wanted. Tell me a little bit. Do you relate to her, and can you tell me about maybe a time where you had to have something or someone and just went for it?
Carol: I think that's like all my life. It's all my life, quite honestly. I am the trifecta. I'm a Black immigrant woman. It's the trifecta. Leaving a place ... When I was in Jamaica, it was a third world country and there was curfew. There were militia. It was a place where you wanted to leave. Jamaica is beautiful. Please go. It's gorgeous. Back when I was a young girl there, it was a very different place. When you actually get out of a place and get somewhere else that you really want to be and you travel in a plane at five years old and you end up in a whole different country in a whole different place and then you have these struggles with language, with identity, with culture. I was Jamaican before it was cool to be Jamaican, and there were all of these dynamics between American Blacks and West Indian Blacks that is I don't think it's as bad as it used to be, but it was certainly there.
Ending up going to a school that was very white, I went to South Hampton College on Long Island, very white, and working in corporate America, which is also very white. I have always had to push myself in a way where not getting to where I wanted to be was simply not an option. I would get there by any means necessary. That's not this huge dynamic thing. It's really just keeping it going, like going and getting a typing test all summer and being able to get that other job because I didn't get that other job. Just keeping it moving. We're Black women. We know.
Kenrya: That's what we do.
Carol: We figure it out. We'll get it done. That's always been my MO. Whether it is a relationship, a job, an apartment, a situation, whatever that is, you just keep it moving and you get it done. Perhaps that's a part of my immigrant background, where things look really bleak but you just keep it moving. I have taken that background with me wherever I go. You just get it done.
Kenrya: It's actually one of my favorite things about you.
Carol: I do know if I can't get it done this way, I'll get it done that way.
Erica: A very important quality to have in an editor.
Carol: When you're a Black woman, absolutely. I like surprising people. I've learned there ... I seem really laid back, but I am a very strategic person. I read about strategy. I practice strategy. It is very interesting to me. I know all about Machiavelli. I know all about the makings of the court. It is really intriguing to me on many levels to see how people operate. I've read the 48 laws of power 48 times. This is a part of my character that I don't think people know a lot about, but I'm always working behind the scenes, getting things done. I love having a sense of purpose, and I love figuring out creative ways to get things done. As an editor, you have 50 different jobs all at the same time. It's good to know how to work and how you work best. Yeah, it keeps me creative and allows me to do what I love, as I said, in many different ways, in many different incarnations. It's exciting to me.
Kenrya: The story of Luzette is based in an optometrist's office. Our final question for you is what's the most unexpected place you've had sex?
Carol: Oh. You know I'm a Scorpio, right? I'm a Scorpio.
Erica: No such thing as an unexpected place for a Scorpio.
Carol: We are faithful. We are kind. We are the best friends you could ever possibly have.
Kenrya: That's true.
Carol: We've got you. Just don't fuck with us.
Erica: My mother is a Scorpio. I know that.
Carol: We got your back. Still waters run deep. Okay? We're cool, but I got my shank so I will shank you if you deserve it. If not, I will give you the shirt off my back. We get a bad rap. Yes, we're very sexual, but we can go without sex for a really, really long time because sex is important to us. I don't want to waste it. I've gone for two years without sex. I'm a Scorpio. I've gone for two years without sex. I nearly killed a man I got with. My point is I don't want to squander it. I would rather have no sex than bad sex. I'm not gonna lie to you. I have other things I can be doing.
Kenrya: You can be doing it yourself. Let's be honest.
Carol: Let's a lot of other things to do. Exactly. I can do it myself. The strangest place I have ever had sex. I really have to think about that because I'm not really prudish about sex. I started out that way. We were colonized so we have a lot of these British influences that I grew up with my parents. My mom was a prude, and I grew up with this idea that you don't have sex until you're married. Sex is not fun. Sex is a chore. You do it to get it over with. You do it to have kids. I came into it with all of these negative stereotypes. I was a virgin in college. Luckily, I started at 15 so I want to get that out. Yeah, I started at 15, thank God. I was a virgin when I got to college, but I wanted to experiment. I was like, what is all this sex stuff? I had no idea. Nobody talked to me about it. I didn't know anything about it.
I've had sex in a number of different locations. However, I have not actually had a lot of partners. I was that girl who was in a 10-year relationship three times.
Kenrya: Same. With niggas that didn't deserve.
Carol: For real. In the back of trucks. I went to South Hampton so we would drive out on to the beach and the back of a truck, at the top of the Statue of Liberty.
Carol: That's when we had to walk all the way up. That was something we wanted to try. On the pier at Red Hook. That was cool. I like water, so I've got a water thing. I am a water sign. During a birthday shower. Was it a wedding? A baby shower, during a baby shower, we were in the closet. We did that. For me, it's not really like I'm thinking about the place.
Kenrya: It's just what you want to do.
Carol: It's either a plan or the moment hit and we're like, where are we going? I can't really think of a place that was-
Kenrya: Those are great places.
Carol: To me, that's normal. The strangest place might be my bed. I've got so many other places to go and so many other things to do. For me, sex is about being comfortable, being intimate, experimenting, having fun. There's nothing sexier than having fun in bed. That makes all the difference.
Kenrya: That's dope. Thank you so much for joining us. That was our last question.
Carol: Thank you for having me.
Kenrya: Where can people find you and your work?
Carol: My website, brownsugarbooks.com, you can find all of my work there. You can also find me on Facebook as well. I post about writing. I post about editing. I'm always happy to chat about any type of book ideas. Please take a look at my website, and I hope you are continuing to read the Brown Sugar series. They're still out there and doing really well.
Kenrya: We have all four.
Carol: Don't forget "Wanderlust," which is about travel. These are erotic travel tales, "Wanderlust."
Kenrya: I might end up going somewhere from there too, just be forewarned.
Carol: Yeah, travel. That's a good one.
Kenrya: Your own Twitter @CarolATaylor117, right? I said two, as in also. That's my bad. Thank you.
Carol: That's my 117. Thank you, guys. I really think this is wonderful what you're doing. It's sad that we feel like we have to have a separate space or a safe space to be able to talk openly about sex and sexuality. That to me is just a part of hegemony. We need to be able to talk about anything that we want to talk about, especially something as intimate as sex.
Kenrya: Unfortunately, that's not there. Like you created it, we're trying to carry that on.
Carol: Keep it going. Absolutely. You are. Thank you guys very much for this. I do appreciate it. Keep fighting the good fight and doing the good work.
Erica: Thank you.
Kenrya: Thank you.
Carol: Thank you.
Erica: This episode was produced by us, Erica and Kenrya, and edited by B'Lystic. The theme song is from Brazy. Every five-star review posted on Apple podcasts between now and July 31st, 2019 will be entered into a raffle to win a copy of one of the books we read on the show. We're giving away five books. Just post your review and email a screenshot to firstname.lastname@example.org to enter. Please subscribe to the show in your favorite podcast app. Follow us on Twitter @theturnonpod and Instagram @theturnonpodcast and find links to books, transcripts, guest info and other fun stuff at theturnonpodcast.com. Holla.
The Turn On
The Turn On is a podcast for Black people who want to get off. To open their minds. To learn. To be part of a community. To show that we love and fuck too, and it doesn't have to be political or scandalous or dirty. Unless we want it to be.