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Bridgett Davis

by Susan Henderson on February 13, 2008

My guest today is Bridgett M. Davis, author of SHIFTING THROUGH NEUTRAL (Amistad). This debut novel, set in 1970s Detroit, focuses on Rae Dodson as her parents’ marriage and father’s health disintegrate. It’s a compassionate story about what a young girl holds on to when her family comes up short.

Bridgett is also the writer, producer, and director of the award-winning independent film, NAKED ACTS, the story of a young actress, Cicely, whose mother starred in Foxy Brown-type soft porn films. Now Cicely must make a choice about whether to shed her clothes for a film she’s been cast in, and where things go from there will surprise you.

I hope you’ll give this smart and big-hearted writer a warm welcome!

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I wanted to talk to you about some of the themes that run through both your movie and your book. The heartbreaker for me was seeing young women wanting so badly to have a sense of belonging and to know they are valued by others, particularly their mothers. In both cases – though in different ways – these young women do not get what they need. Can you talk to me about this, about yearning for something you may never get?

I’m fascinated by how women become whole, how they become who they are. I think on a fundamental level, it begins for most of us with a quest to gain our mothers’ approval, and by extension, their love. That need, that desire never goes away, and it’s certainly more acute, I’m sure, in women who don’t get the reassurance they need. As a writer, I like to explore what those women must do to compensate for what their mothers couldn’t give them, and what they must do ultimately to accept their mothers’ limitations and move on.

This brings me to a second theme that runs through both works – about women seeking to feel whole despite their circumstances. How do these women find happiness and self-love when it’s not necessarily what they’re taking in?

In my novel, the main character, Rae, had her father to compensate for what her mother didn’t/couldn’t give her, and that love from him was enough to sustain her after all. In NAKED ACTS, Cicely also had someone else who loved her in a more healthy way, her grandmother. I believe that it’s less important, finally, who loves a child (mother, father, sister) than how much that child knows she’s loved.

That’s a really lovely thought. I’m going to remember that….

After he returned to me, I slept every night atop Daddy’s broad back. He was a soft, wide man, and miraculously he remained still throughout our slumber – never rolled over, never pushed me off. How that sleeping arrangement came to be I do not know, but it felt as natural to me as play. – SHIFTING THROUGH NEUTRAL.

Talk to me about the theme of body image in these two works.

Body image is obviously a big theme in NAKED ACTS, as I wanted to explore how an African American woman gains a sense of her own sexuality and relationship to her body against the backdrop of a very particular sexualized history for black women in this country. To me, they go hand in hand – themes of self realization and body image. How do you accept yourself until you accept your body?

“If you start crying now over every little thing, you’ll be crying for the rest of your life.” – Lydia Love to her daughter, NAKED ACTS.

Both of your works take a very compassionate stance toward the characters who come up short – the absent parents and cheating lovers. Where does Bridgett Davis get that kind of compassion?

You ask about my compassion. As a writer, I’m completely uninterested in blame and easy targets. The real challenge and interest for me is in trying to understand each character’s complexity. I care for all of my major characters. Even the minor characters whom I wouldn’t want to hang out with are compelling to me as a writer, because they each have a point of view, a way of seeing the world, something they’ve been through that informs their actions.

The biggest compliment I’ve received for SHIFTING THROUGH NEUTRAL is from folks who say they loved the father character. That suggests to me that I captured his humanity, that it came through despite his myriad flaws. I also love it when someone says they “felt for” the mother. As the writer, it’s never my job to judge a character, nor is it my job to make them do what they “should” do. I want them to do what’s probable given the history I’ve created for them. That’s what excites me about writing!

I could, if I stood on tiptoe, peek through the triangle of colored stained glass at the top. Blue, pink, and yellow. I imagined this was how the world looked to Mama when she took one of her pills – warm and tinted. – SHIFTING THROUGH NEUTRAL

Did you find a big difference between writing a novel versus a screenplay?

I love writing fiction for different reasons from why I love writing screenplays. With fiction, the work feels a lot more visceral and internal, and personal. Not that the subject matter is personal per se, but the process is deeply so.

With screenwriting, I love the structure. Screenplays are all about structure and that allows me to use a different side of my brain, to think about what story to pour into a given paradigm vs. with my fiction when I write all this stuff and then try to figure out what prism it demands to be told through. I like going back and forth with the two genres as a way of balancing the two processes.

I’ve been working on a novel now for over 4 years and it’s been a long haul. About a year ago I started co-writing a screenplay, and that was just the antidote I needed after so many years fixated on this internal, solitary work. The screenplay is collaborative by nature, and I find that refreshing. I’m a novelist but for years I was a journalist and I find screenwriting the perfect marriage of those two different pursuits.

They dug a grave for him in the backyard, beneath the apple tree. That misfortune was like a pothole on a dark road. An old clunker could charge right through it, but a new car, its axle untested, never rides the same again. – SHIFTING THROUGH NEUTRAL.

Did you learn anything in the process of editing your book or your screenplay that you could pass along to a writer who’s editing her first book?

My advise? First, put some distance between you and the book. Let a month, even two go by before you return to edit it. Distance is key. And then, when you do return to it, read it aloud. And if you’re not already, join a writer’s group of a few fellow writers whose sensibilities and style you admire. I’m in a group of just 3 women at the moment and it works beautifully. Their feedback is enormously helpful to me.

Worst of all were any telltale signs of low-class living on the outside of the house, the greatest offense being car parts strewn across a back lawn. Mama was very conscious of the responsibility of living next to white folks, even after most of those who’d been our neighbors had moved away. – SHIFTING THROUGH NEUTRAL

What are you working on now?

My new novel is entitled LAGOS and it’s the story of a young African American woman who embarks on her first trip to Africa, where she discovers herself in ways that have nothing to do with finding her roots.

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Bio:

Bridgett M. Davis is an associate professor of English at the City University of New York’s Baruch College, where she teaches creative writing and literature. A graduate of Spelman College in Atlanta, she is the director of the award–winning feature film Naked Acts and author of the novel Shifting through Neutral. Davis’s journalism has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Philadelphia Inquirer, Columbia Journalism Review, Detroit Free Press, New York, Newsday, and the Chicago Tribune. In 2007, she was honored by the New York Association of Black Journalists with its Excellence in Education Award. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and son.

{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

RachelF February 13, 2008 at 12:18 am

She is also, though she may not remember, a fabulous person with whom to share margaritas at an airport Chili’s in Orlando…

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cungena54 February 13, 2008 at 7:08 am

Great interview. and a very interesting person.
As Soon as i can get the book I shall suggest it to my literary group here in Berlin. We read and discuss a book every 2 months. The book recommennded does “the round” until the meeting .,

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lance_reynald February 13, 2008 at 8:24 am

wow.
lovely.
the insights on editing and screencraft. are priceless.
just lovely. Thanks for coming to the Park.

xo.L

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Aurelio February 13, 2008 at 9:59 am

I especially liked Bridgett’s description of the difference between writing for novels and the screen. “Naked Acts” is available on Netflix, BTW, because I just added it to my queue!

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Carolyn_Burns_Bass February 13, 2008 at 10:26 am

I’m going to make a fast dash to B&N to buy DRIVING THROUGH NEUTRAL today. I am fascinated with the relationships between parents and children, having been one of each.

The para that begins with this “Worst of all were any telltale signs of low-class living…” captured my attention, with the simple and non-judgmental way Bridgett describes what I believe was termed “white flight” back in those days. Having grown up in a racially diverse area of SoCali in the ’60s, I remember this all too well, and sadly, from within my own family. As my WIP occurs in this very setting, racial discrimination plays a supporting role in the theme.

BTW, was there a question missing in between that para and the one above it? Maybe it’s only because it resonated so in me, but it didn’t seem to follow the question.

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jessicaK February 13, 2008 at 1:04 pm

Hi, Bridgett,

Your novel sounds wonderful. What you said about mothers and how they shape our expectations slapped me hard. Especially what you said here: “As a writer, I like to explore what those women must do to compensate for what their mothers couldn’t give them, and what they must do ultimately to accept their mothers’ limitations and move on.”

I also enjoyed what you said about writing fiction versus screenplays, the satisfaction you derive from both.

Did the idea for Driving Through Neutral come quickly to you or did you stew over it for years before writing it?

Jessica

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SusanHenderson February 13, 2008 at 2:22 pm

SHIFTING Through Neutral. I think my question of the week got the word “driving” stuck in everyone’s head.

I loved what she said about compassion and characters who fall short. Her whole book is full of that kind of heart, but not sentimental at all. I think you’ll like it.

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SusanHenderson February 13, 2008 at 2:25 pm

Are you reading straight off the site? Because if the quotes I pulled from the book aren’t off-set as block-quotes, I can see how it would look like the questions and answers don’t match.

If I’m missing something, point it out real clearly and I’ll fix it, asap.

And thank you for buying the book!

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SusanHenderson February 13, 2008 at 2:25 pm

You can come back and give a review!

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SusanHenderson February 13, 2008 at 2:26 pm

Hope you had a safe flight. Drop me a note when you land.

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SusanHenderson February 13, 2008 at 2:28 pm

Here’s a cool feature for book groups!

http://www.shiftingthroughneutral.com/info/bookclub.html

You can schedule Bridgett right in to chat with you… though I’m not sure if she’s fluent in German!

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SusanHenderson February 13, 2008 at 2:29 pm

I would like to drink margaritas with both of you.

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Carolyn_Burns_Bass February 13, 2008 at 2:47 pm

Yes, I was reading straight from LitPark.com. Here is what I see:

Did you learn anything in the process of editing your book or your screenplay that you could pass along to a writer who’s editing her first book?

My advise? First, put some distance between you and the book. Let a month, even two go by before you return to edit it. Distance is key. And then, when you do return to it, read it aloud. And if you’re not already, join a writer’s group of a few fellow writers whose sensibilities and style you admire. I’m in a group of just 3 women at the moment and it works beautifully. Their feedback is enormously helpful to me.

Worst of all were any telltale signs of low-class living on the outside of the house, the greatest offense being car parts strewn across a back lawn. Mama was very conscious of the responsibility of living next to white folks, even after most of those who’d been our neighbors had moved away. – SHIFTING THROUGH NEUTRAL
. . .
Maybe it’s just me, but these two paras don’t seem to segue and I thought maybe a question was dropped from in between them. That’s all.

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SusanHenderson February 13, 2008 at 2:54 pm

Eek! Thank you thank you thank you. That second paragraph is a quote from her book and is not meant to read as part of her answer. Thank you for pointing that out to me… and sorry, Bridgett!!

Look better now??

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Carolyn_Burns_Bass February 13, 2008 at 3:01 pm

Yes, yes, that makes a difference. And makes me want my book even sooner.

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SusanHenderson February 13, 2008 at 3:08 pm

I forgot to block quote it. Thank you so much for catching that and for speaking up.

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Kimberly February 13, 2008 at 4:12 pm

OOh! Can’t wait to discover another new fabulous filmmaker! NAKED ACTS is now also in my NetFlix queue!

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Tish Cohen February 13, 2008 at 5:54 pm

Wow. Bridgett, your answers really socked me with my own journey with my mother. I, too, had to come to a place of accepting that she simply could not have given me what I needed and I had to look elsewhere to get “filled up.” She had limitations based on her own upbringing, her own shit. It’s so important women and girls get to that place of understanding, rising up above anger and blame. Thanks for writing this novel, I’m definitely going to pick it up.

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SusanHenderson February 13, 2008 at 6:11 pm

I’m planning to announce this Friday, but might as well announce here, too, that Tish’s TOWN HOUSE has been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize for Best First Book in the region of Canada and the Caribbean!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commonwealth_Writers_Prize

Also: Film rights to the book were optioned to Fox 2000 with Scott Free Productions, and Pulitzer Prize winning screenwriter Doug Wright (Quills, Memoirs of a Geisha) is adapting it to screen.

You rock, Tish! xo

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SusanHenderson February 13, 2008 at 6:17 pm

Hopefully, you two filmmakers can meet!

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Tish Cohen February 13, 2008 at 10:22 pm

No, you rock, Sue!

Thanks for the two-fisted shout out nonetheless, you’re a sweetie.

PS – Patry is back to a solid writing schedule and loving it – such gorgeous news.

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Carolyn_Burns_Bass February 14, 2008 at 12:16 am

Here’s to the LitPark gang:

Hoops & Yoyo Do V-Day

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Bridgett February 14, 2008 at 8:00 am

Oh I so remember those margaritas Rachel! And I remember the great joy of being a first-time novelist, surrounded by young, energetic women (you!) who loved literature and loved writers. Really, that was one of the highlights of my book tour. So cool that I can say thank you all these years later.

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SusanHenderson February 14, 2008 at 10:29 am

So glad you stopped by, Bridgett!

I had a very emotional night, one of my friends who loves me best reamed me in a way I probably needed, and I think I have figured something big out about my book. So I’ve got my comfort food (canned corn, unheated – yeah, I know it’s hard to explain why I love it so much) and I have a big writing day ahead of me. I’m not much for Valentine’s Day, but this link to Post Secret gets to me, for sure:

http://postsecret.blogspot.com/

Have a great day, everyone. Hopefully, I’ll have written something that’s a keeper by the end of the day.

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SusanHenderson February 14, 2008 at 12:08 pm

Totally unrelated, but many of you know I have big interests in robots and NASA and the Pentagon…

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/23166344/

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ErikaRae February 14, 2008 at 12:56 pm

“I’m completely uninterested in blame or easy targets.” This is a fantastic insight into the mind of an interesting writer.

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ErikaRae February 14, 2008 at 12:58 pm

As a sort of unrelated PS, I ran into this site and have to share. You can make up your own lyrics and then have Isaac Hayes “sing” them to your valentine by voicemail or email (for free). Sooo fun. (And really, I should be getting back to work now…)

http://www.sprintspecialoffers.com/sendlove/?id9=vanity:sendlove

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SusanHenderson February 14, 2008 at 2:03 pm

Hey, Erika. I should be getting back to work but I just remembered that today, besides being Valentine’s Day, it’s also the birthday of my friend since first grade – who is also my son’s godmother.

So here is to the one I won’t name because she’s so private, but she is awesome and we’ve been pals since my biting days (her mother was worried I’d give her rabies) through Jane Fonda workouts through lots of boyfriend breakups and crew regattas. And now she is both a physicist and an oceanographer. And she is married to another physicist, who I will link, you can scroll down to the Global Carbon Cycle specialist:

http://www.climate.noaa.gov/index.jsp?pg=page_contact_cpo.jsp&query=all

And most importantly, I am also her son’s godmother, and a rockin’ one at that. So there, happy birthday, and once again, back to work.

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Betsy February 14, 2008 at 6:50 pm

You had me at ‘mother’s approval.’

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Betsy February 14, 2008 at 6:51 pm

Wow, congrats, Tish!

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mark February 25, 2008 at 11:51 pm

So glad I found this site. This is a wonderful post and perfectly said. I love the structure and the confining nature of putting a story, dialogue and full characters on view in 120 or so pages. I love fiction just as much and have found, for me, the disciplines of both make me stronger in each one of them. Really enjoyed this. Thanks!!

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