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Tami Charles

"I’m responsible for writing books that show the diversity within the diversity."

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Talking with Tami Charles

Critically acclaimed author Tami Charles’s life is defined by leaps of faith, including leaving a successful career as an educator to write full-time. “I give lots of credit to my husband. I was teaching and writing--early mornings, late at night, on weekends. But that takes its toll. ‘What if you go all in on the writing?’ he encouraged me.” Charles finally decided to “go for it” after securing her fifth book advance. “Even then, part of me was afraid to walk away from something I’d loved for years.”

Writing MUTED was its own leap of faith. Begun years earlier, the story had “been collecting dust.” Stuck at 60 pages, Charles shelved her original idea about an ambitious teen seeking fame. But after getting a “close pass” from a major publisher who saw in Charles’s bio that she’d been in an all-girl R&B group as a teen, her agent was told, “If she ever writes a novel about that, I want to see it!” Charles says she was motivated by two forces--her agent pushing her and the #MeToo movement’s momentum encouraging her. “I began to think about men in entertainment taking advantage of girls with stars in their eyes”--a world she knew something about.

“I’d gotten stuck earlier because I wasn’t telling the story authentically. I had to enter a world that I know. I was a singer-songwriter--so make her a singer- songwriter. Then, after creating the character of Denver, there was no way I could write in prose. I wanted the book to feel like an album; I wanted the story to sing. I’m hitting some very heavy topics, but I wanted to make the reading fast paced.” Though she’d written “prose with sprinkles of poetry” before, Charles says writing more than 400 pages of verse that tells a story was challenging.

Invited to narrate the audiobook, Charles couldn’t resist. “But here comes that fear--if I’m narrating, what becomes of the songs?” Her best friend, Stephanie, convinced her to take that leap, sing the songs in her narration--but before she could, she’d have to set the words in the manuscript to music. Doubt crept in again. She’d written a lot of music, but that was 20 years ago. She found herself wondering, “What if I can’t? What If I don’t remember how?”

Remembering how required listening to some old R&B music--and a trip to her parents’ basement. “When I was writing Muted, I set the entire book in my parents’ Pennsylvania home. So I went there, and listened to the old stuff and found my old journals . . . songwriting books. Everything I needed was right there. And I channeled my inner Denver.”

Delighted with her Earphones Award for MUTED, Charles says she’s learned a lot with this third narration. “It’s not a fun book, but I try to inject joy and fun in the performance of it. I’ve learned how to embody the character more. I had to become an actress, to perform this thing, not just the songs, everything from start to finish.”

Narrating MUTED was a “fluid process. Empowering!” She even found herself directing the musical parts. “OK, we need three-part harmony here. Let me go back and add a track. That whole part of it was fun.” Layering the vocals to create the effect of the trio transported her to her teen years in the studio. “What you hear is me, me, and me!”

Charles would love listeners to have a print copy of MUTED with them when listening to the audiobook. As she told the engineers, “I want people to feel like they’re stepping into a concert combined with a poetry slam.” She imagines listeners enjoying learning the lyrics of the four original songs, singing along with Denver. “Again, I’m trying to infuse fun into a book with heavy scenes. Connecting with what’s on the page--to hear it and see it at the same time-- that provides double impact.”

Having made the leap to her dream of becoming a full-time author, Charles wants to add to the body of diverse literature that was unavailable to her when she was growing up. “As a teacher, I was able to read way more diverse books with my students than I myself had as a child; that’s not what I saw growing up. That inspired me to follow this dream. Now that I’ve proven I can, I’m responsible for writing books that show the diversity within the diversity. That’s why I choose to write as wide as I read! Children need to see themselves in multiple scenarios. There’s no one way to be one thing. And I’ll always show that on the page.”—Jessie C. Grearson

[JUNE/JULY 2021]

© AudioFile 2021, Portland, Maine

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Photo by Krisann Binett

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