Brenda Jackson writes the diversity-filled novels she always wanted to read
By Charles Hallman
Nora Roberts is known worldwide for her romance novels, but among Black romance lovers, so is Brenda Jackson, who has written over 90 books since 1995. “My 100th book will be out next year,” says Jackson, who spoke recently to the MSR by phone from her Jacksonville, Florida home.
A longtime reader of romance novels for relaxation after work, Jackson often complained about the lack of cultural and ethnic diversity in the characters to her husband Gerald. He encouraged her to write her own novel, and in the early 1990s he registered her at a romance writers’ conference.
“From then on, I would go to different writers’ conferences,” she recalls. “I got to talk to Nora Roberts and several other well-known authors. They gave workshops, and I would pick their brains. One of the things they told me is if you really want to start writing, write sequels or series — for example, if someone reads book number five and they like it, they will go back and read book number one, two, three and four. That stuck with me.”
Jackson, however, always has been a writer — she wrote stories for her junior high classmates to read back in eighth grade. She became a professional writer in 1994, and Jackson’s first novel, Tonight and Forever, was published in 1995. That novel was the debut of a series centered on the fictional Madaris family, a clan based in Houston, Texas. She has written nearly 20 books featuring them: “I think I’m up to book number 19.”
Jackson is the best-selling Black romance novelist of all time, according to Nielsen Bookscan. She has sold over three million copies, and several of her books reached the New York Times and USA Today best-sellers list as well.
“Writing relaxes me,” says Jackson. “I write [while] listening to Motown … I have [many] collections of Motown from Time [-Life]. I put on my Smokey [Robinson], my Marvin [Gaye], and my [Temptations]. I get ideas for my books from listening to music” especially to 1970s soul music.
“The best time for me to write is late at night, after midnight,” she explains. “It’s quiet — my husband is asleep, and my two dogs are in for the night and they’re asleep. There’s nothing on television that can pull me away, and I’m in my own world.
“I can write 20 pages between the hours of midnight and four in the morning,” she continues. “If I write in the daytime, it would be a struggle just to do 10 [pages] because I have different things to do.”
Before she became an author, Jackson had a successful management career with a leading insurance company. “I started working with State Farm Insurance… They had a program when I was 17 that you could go to school half a day and work half a day,” Jackson says, adding that she originally had planned to attend Tuskegee University.
“My great grandfather was part of the Tuskegee [syphilis] experiments,” in which Black men who had syphilis and didn’t know it were denied treatment for four decades. “Because of that, any person from my family who wanted to go to Tuskegee, they’d get a special discount toward the cost of their [college] education.
“But my mom died the year I was supposed to leave, so I stayed [home] and helped my dad raise my other sisters and brothers,” says Jackson, the oldest of six siblings.
However, State Farm offered to send her to college and pay for it as well, she notes. “They sent me to a private college here [in Jacksonville], then I went directly into management” after she graduated with a business administration degree. “I loved the corporate world because I wanted to be the Black female who broke the [glass] ceiling. I started working as a file clerk and was working my way up to the top.”
Then came Jackson’s writing career, which began while she still with the company. When her employers first learned it, “They were pleased for me” and supported her “second job.” “They would send me to a lot of [Black events] to represent State Farm in doing the book signing. They sent me to the [Congressional] Black Caucus every year.”
After several novels, Harlequin, a leading romance novel publisher “tried to get me to write full time when I turned 50, but I still had a few things I wanted to accomplish at State Farm,” says Jackson. However, “I didn’t want [my husband and I to] grow old working, and I wanted us to retire in our 50s once our sons got out of college.”
Therefore, when Jackson turned 55, her husband was retiring from his job, and her company offered her the opportunity to retire early as well. Then Harlequin offered her a five-year book deal in 2002 that made her the first Black author as part of their Silhouette Desire line.
Jackson has found her niche in a genre not known for Black writers. But her books aren’t always on the same shelf as other romance novels. They are put in the “Black section” where books are sold, she points out. “I see it as segregating the books, because you are not going to see Whites going into the Black section looking for [my] book,” she surmises.
Ironically, her biggest supporter, husband Gerald, “has read only three” of her books. “He told me if I put a fight and blood in it, I’ll read it,” she joked. Therefore, she wrote three books: one with a serial killer as a character, one with a CIA agent and one with a former Marine turned terrorist fighter.
“He liked all three of those books,” Jackson says proudly.
Next in an MSR Online exclusive: Jackson bankrolled an independent film based on one of her novels.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.