Supporting black artist’s – an interview with indie author Sylvester Barzey

Sylvester Barzey… Author of the Planet Dead series, has joined me today in a candid interview to discuss the Black Lives Matter movement, and the challenges for black authors in the publishing industry.

Pixie: Hey Sylvester, thanks so much for joining me today. Sooooo, me and you go back a few years. We first met in the Reanimated Writers Facebook Group where we chatted all things zombie. Then, over the years, we’ve helped each other out with cross promos…and all the usual ‘author crap’ that goes on behind the scenes. And as a huge fan of your books, and you in general, I’ve followed your career closely and hung out with you on Instagram. 

A large part of your online presence is advocating and supporting black artists, not just in publishing, but in all forms of art. So, to recognise and support the Black Lives Matter movement, I wanted to chat to you today and learn about some of the challenges that you’ve faced as a black author in the publishing industry.

There was one post on your Instagram account that really resonated with me, and actually inspired me to do this interview with you.

You talked about the first time that you took the plunge and started to write a book. In your post, you mentioned that your initial reaction was to write a story that included a white main character… can you talk a little bit about that, and how that decision has affected your writing?

Sylvester: You are one of my favorite authors on social media. I remember when I first saw your setup for Walker Stalker Con, I was blown away. So it has been a pleasure getting to know you. When I first sat down to write Planet Dead, pretty much all the characters were white. It wasn’t something I gave much thought to, it was just something I assumed they needed to be. This was in early 2010 and while I had Ben from Night of The Living Dead & Selena from 28 Days Later to pull from as black zombie genre heroes, that wasn’t enough to overpower the training that my mind had about heroes and final girls in horror.

Final girls are those women who overcome everything, fear, pain, and death of loved ones, all to become this badass survivor at the end. I knew I wanted a final girl in my book that was like Sidney, Nancy, Connor, & Ripley but horror history’s lack of representation with the final girl trope caused me to believe a final girl could only be white. 

So, here I was writing my first book, building my own world and creating my own ultimate survivor and my mind was telling me, ‘She has to be white’ it wasn’t until my wife asked why Catherine wasn’t black that I saw my internal thoughts were just continuing the injustice and lack of representation in the genre.

I love horror and I want to see myself in horror, I want my kids to see themselves in my work. I just want my community to look at the genre and see that we can be survivors too, because history has shown us we are survivors.

Pixie: I recently read an interesting thread on twitter about the lack of transparency in the publishing industry for traditionally published authors, or more specifically, the disparity between advances received for black authors versus white authors. The hashtag #PublishingPaidMe went viral, and many prominent authors such as Roxanne Gay weighed in. 

For those of you reading this interview and are unfamiliar with how advances work; it’s the amount of money a publisher is willing to pay for a book ahead of its publication – It’s essentially an advance on the projected royalties.

Award winning author N.K Jemisin noted: “Advances aren’t an indicator of earnings and they aren’t an indicator of book quality. … What, then, do they indicate? Let’s call them an indicator of ‘consumer confidence.”

She then goes on to say…the reason black authors are receiving less money is: there’s a blatant bias in the publishing industry AND in the general public when it comes to purchasing books by black authors.

As a fellow indie author, we don’t get the luxury of advances. However, as a black author, have you ever experienced this type of bias when it comes to the sale of your books? Or have you found that the indie community is more inclusive?

Sylvester: The indie community is different in a lot of ways and the same as well. In the indie community, we join groups and talk with fans and it builds a personal connection with your readers. But while I have some amazing fans, my reach hasn’t been as wide as other authors. I can’t say if race has played a large role in that or not, but the way I see it sometimes is, I’m in the same groups, my books show up in the also boughts, my covers are great…so why haven’t you picked up my book yet?

The two examples from my time as an indie author that I know race played a role in are these: 

Once I took an online storytelling/selling course and it was done on zoom with three well known writing podcasters. I asked what I was doing wrong and one of the guys told me to send him my cover, I did. He is not racist…he just spoke to what he knows about the genre and indie books and he told me, I’m not selling because I have a black woman on my cover. It was like a punch to my soul. He said they had a set of romance books that sold really well and the only one that wasn’t selling was the one with a black man on the cover. I told him thank you for the advice and decided a black woman was gonna be on all my covers. Because I can’t expect change, if I’m not gonna do what I can for it.

The next one was a review I got that said they thought my book was gonna be POC (people of color) Propaganda but they were happy to learn it wasn’t. So, because I had a woman of color on my cover, this reader wasn’t going to read it because they thought it was propaganda for…I don’t even know what for. Aside from that, indie publishing for people of color is different than it is for white authors. I have to hunt for a post apocalyptic cover of a black woman…there are tons of covers with white characters and zombies. Editors are interesting as well because sometimes a white editor doesn’t get my dialogue…like if I write ‘Nah’ they say I should write ‘No’ but that’s not my character’s voice. It’s slowly getting better…sadly, a writer of color just has to spend more time finding their tribe and building their team.

Pixie: Looking ahead at the future of the publishing industry, this whole movement has forced many of us, including me, to completely re-evaluate our approach to racism. It’s not enough to say that we aren’t racist, we all need to stand up and be actively anti-racist – especially if we have any chance of changing systemic social bias. Companies have published their stance on the BLM movement, and many have released bold statements on how they plan to tackle racism going forward. And on a grass roots level, many authors have come out in solidarity to help cross promote and elevate black authors too. Based on the increased awareness we’ve seen online; do you think that, eventually, we could see something good coming out of this for black authors in the industry? Have you seen any positive changes? Or is it too early for that?

Sylvester: Maybe it’s too early to really tell. My fear is all this is for the moment and once the hashtags stop, then the help will stop, but that’s just me. The authors I normally promote with or talk to have reached out and have asked how I’m holding up and I’ve gotten some interview proposals and things…which I think is great and I’m gonna do my best to keep it going, but after fighting and posting and doing all these things on twitter and Instagram, I went to some of my normal horror and zombie groups on Facebook and it really hit me hard to see no one was talking about what was going on. I heard that these groups are an escape from the real world and I understand that, I’m not telling people to post videos of protest, but take the time to speak on it or share black authors in your group, maybe post about black survivors in fiction. 

It’s an escape, but for black fans and authors it just feels like we go from being ignored in one world to being ignored in another. I’ve been trying to post more but it sucks to feel like it’s on my shoulders because I am one of a few black authors in these groups.

Pixie: So, I want to talk a little about your writing over the last few months. First, we had the global Pandemic, and many authors online have said they struggled with concentration and creativity, which is hardly surprising… home schooling kids, changes in work patterns… even losing jobs. And now following the barbaric death of George Floyd, we have riots and marches, spilling out into our streets. Emotions are running high across the USA, so it must be tough time for you and your family. Can you talk a little bit about what’s been happening locally where you live in the US? What’s the mood like? And how is it affecting your creative process?

Sylvester: I live in Lawrenceville, GA…it’s not too far from Atlanta. I’ve seen small groups of protesters and I’ve heard about the big ones in Atlanta, but I haven’t been to any. With the virus going on, I don’t want to risk bringing anything home to my family, so I do my part donating, sharing and speaking out on social media. We just had another shooting of an unarmed black man and that lead to a Wendy’s being burned down. I find it hard to really do anything with all this going on. I have a new book coming out, but I don’t feel right promoting anything. I can’t bring myself to really write because I normally write action, horror with comedy, so, like ZombieLand, but nothing’s funny right now.

I’ve been in a pit when it comes to my creativity, but my wife just put together a small office in one of our closets and I’m going to use it the best I can to do something. I have a lot of anger and pain in me right now and I feel I need to get that on the page in one way or another.

Pixie: Let’s talk about Planet Dead and inspiration. In a statement online, you mentioned that; there’s a distinct lack of strong black women in horror. For those of you that haven’t read the Planet Dead series yet, Sylvester’s main character Catherine, is about as badass as they come. Where did your inspiration come from? Is Catherine a creation of your own, or is there a real-life Catherine?

Sylvester: When I describe Catherine, I always compare her to T2 Sarah Connor. She’s this rough and tough badass who’s only care is her family’s safety. So, I like to think that Catherine was birthed from that type of female hero, but as I look back on book one and the whole opening scene and first chapter, I can also see Ben from Night of the Living Dead in her as well. She was this random black woman with a shotgun who kept this hysterical woman from being eaten by the dead.

I wouldn’t say there is a real-life Catherine, but I would say that everyone has a little Catherine in them somewhere, and she comes out when they need her the most.

Pixie: And lastly, before we go…where we can find your amazing books and what do you have planned next?

Sylvester: You can find all my work at my website: www.sylvesterbarzey.com

And as for what I’ve got next. I’ve got a few plans for future projects, some dealing with zombies, some dealing with vampires…some dealing with both. You’ll just have to wait and see, I’m not giving anything away anymore. I loved talking with you, this was awesome, thank you.

If you want to learn more about the #BlackLivesMatter movement, you can donate / learn here:

https://blacklivesmatter.com

https://www.joincampaignzero.org

https://www.innocenceproject.org

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