Darnell Moore’s memoir, “No Ashes In The Fire: Coming of Age Black and Free In America,” is a lyrical conversation with the world. I first met Darnell when he was making the bold, visionary proposition that one of the best places for real AIDS education was in the family, if parents could tell their queer sons that they love them and care about their lives. I found this so inspiring that I invited him to the first LGBT delegation to Palestine (along with Los Angeles Blade publisher Troy Masters), where he was a bridge builder and a leader. To celebrate this publication, I asked Darnell to detail exactly how this book came to be, not only spiritually, but materially, so that other people with important stories to tell could understand and be motivated.
SARAH SCHULMAN: You have had a long life as an activist and in social services work, and you have distinguished achievement in academics. What was the emotion that began your process of writing this memoir?
DARNELL MOORE: When I began writing “No Ashes in the Fire” I felt challenged. I had a vision of a memoir that could be shaped into something novel—a form that relied less on linear time, one that also combined personal narrative/social history/cultural criticism. I am not sure how well I achieved that goal, but I knew that I wanted readers to engage an honest book about a black life, a black family, a predominantly black city, black boyhood/manhood, and black queerness that did not leave them thinking that I am an exceptional black person from the “hood” who overcame challenges to achieve success. I wanted readers to see how the makings of disenfranchised cities, communities, and peoples is a consequence of the work of many hands—theirs and mine included. I also was writing through immense life changes and grief. My father passed suddenly at the start of my writing. His death inspired me to think more critically about human complexity. It inspired me to write about the lives of family members, and other people in my life, with much more nuance, care, and love.
SCHULMAN: But for people out there who want to write a difficult memoir. What were the nuts and bolts of getting through a first draft?
MOORE: I spent a lot of time thinking about the structure that would best shape the narrative. I worked through several outlines with my brilliant and patient editor, Katy O’Donnell. I read other memoirs to get a sense of the ways other writers crafted their stories. And I also did plenty of research—combed through family histories and news archives that contextualized parts of my life story. I wrote, revised and tested the strength of my drafts by having my writing community, comprised of close friends and family, offer honest suggestions. It was the hardest, and most rewarding, writerly work I’ve done. I’m better for it.
SCHULMAN: Oh you skipped a lot of steps here. Most first-timers don’t start off with an editor already in place with whom they can develop their outline. How did you get a contract at Nation Books?
MOORE: Well, I actually did skip a few steps in my last response. The book I initially conceived is not the book that I completed. I wanted to write a book—something theoretical and impersonal—about black queer and trans youth. But the more I played around with and shared my ideas with others the more I began to understand the critical importance of stories. My mentor, Beryl Satter, challenged me to consider a book that paired analysis and personal narrative a few years before I wrote a formal book proposal. And my agent, Katie Kotchman, who I met through my friend Kiese Laymon, said the same. I feel really fortunate to have had a smooth writing and publishing experience. I landed a contract at Nation Books by way of my friend, Mychal Denzel Smith, whose first book Nation published. I read a chapter in progress at one of his book events. It was a draft I wrote frantically the day of the event. I was so nervous to share my work, but Katy, my editor, was there. We met soon after to talk about the book. And now here I am, on the other side of a blessed process that was serendipitous and communal.
SCHULMAN: Wow, Darnell you are very connected. You got an agent without a book and an editor without a proposal. What would you say to people with important stories to tell, who don’t have that kind of access? What would you advise them?
MOORE: I went for a long time only desiring an agent—several years actually. I felt disconnected from the big world of publishing, which appeared white-centered and straight-oriented, for the longest time. I empathize with writers like me who write from the edges of the margins in the face of an industry that is not always welcoming. I developed friendships and a writer’s community over time. We’ve made it a habit to support one another. I’d tell other writers to: 1. Write because the world needs their words. Write because they love it. 2. Try to publish their works in places that cater to the audiences they are in conversation with. If publishing appears to be an impossibility, forge a path by publishing on platforms like Medium. The point is to develop an audience/conversation partners. 3. Study writers you admire. Research the editors of books you love and agents of writers you love. And reach out to them. Some may not be communicative but some may respond. Take a chance.
SCHULMAN: Thanks. So now that the book is coming into the world, what has been the range of response?
MOORE: The responses have been positive. I wasn’t sure how critics and readers would respond given the fact the book doesn’t necessarily fit the strict memoir form. I’ve been overwhelmed with gratitude because of the positive reception so far. Mostly, I’m moved by the responses of readers, those I imagined as the audience. I wrote “No Ashes in the Fire” for the 16-year old version of me. The experiences of black queer and trans folks who live in urban spaces inspired me and they are the readers I hope to connect to.
SCHULMAN: Thank you. So what is next for you?
MOORE: That’s a good question. I’m trying to follow the advice of a good friend and enjoy this moment. I’m trying to be present, which can be hard when the world seems to demand of us to make real our future in our now. This is my first book. I am trying to breathe and center. I want to honor my labor, my tribe, my ancestors, and the Spirit because they are what made this possible. I’m also going to take time to dream a bit about future possibilities after I finish the book tour. Right now, we are finalizing book events for the summer. I’m anxious. I’m also humbled by the number of folks who wanted to partner with my publisher to organize events. I’m grateful for the support and love. And I will party and use the occasion of the release to pat myself on the back and give hugs to the many people who made this book possible.
Schulman’s new novel, “Maggie Terry,” a tale of murder and intrigue, is forthcoming from The Feminist Press in September.