Author and activist, Dennis R. Upkins was born and raised in Nashville, but calls Atlanta home.
He calls himself, "a lifelong geek, and a hopeless comic book addict,"for the short time I've known him, I know this to be true and he takes his interest and craft very seriously".
Dennis received an academic scholarship to study English at UTC in Chattanooga, TN. He worked as a reporter for a local newspaper shortly after moving to Atlanta, GA, and then furthered his education in media arts and animation by attending the Art institute in Atlanta. Fast forward to 2011 and first book Hollowstone hit shelves!
Released by Parker Publishing, Hollowstone was at the forefront of Urban Fantasy. Urban Fantasy is a genre that has been on the rise for some years. No longer focusing on cookie cutter characters, in affluent, or rural areas, urban fantasy is a plethora of diverse characters from metropolitan areas. At the dawn of the release of his second urban fantasy novel West Of Sunset, Dennis sits down with me to discuss his book, his struggles as a writer, and what the future holds for writers of color.
What was the inspiration for the story, and the characters of your second book West of Sunset?
There were so many factors that went into making West of Sunset a reality. One of the reasons I knew West of Sunset had to be written was because there is too many instances of LGBTQs being talked about, talked at, and talked down to when the issues of diversity arose. There are examples of cis-straight white female authors profiting off of our identities and posing as gay male authors.
More than that, I noticed that each time I spoke out on my identity as a queer person of color, I had one bigot or another moving heaven and earth to attack me.
If it wasn’t for white supremacists like Kraig Blackwelder and Phil Brucato sabotaging the diversity forums they co-founded because they didn’t like the “tone” of the uppity colored Southern boy, (http://dennisupkins.wordpress.com/2013/08/28/geek-culture-is-for-white-people/), then it was a racist white gay publishers ordering me not to include gay characters in a story for a Civil War anthology. All because they want me to appeal to a straight market (http://dennisupkins.wordpress.com/2014/05/06/we-need-diverse-storytellers/) If it’s not, then it’s homophobic self-loathing sellouts that throw personal homophobic attacks about my taste in men because they can’t sell a book (http://dennisupkins.wordpress.com/2014/04/13/the-enemy-within/).
In each of those cases, I realized their privilege is being challenged when people like Monica Roberts, George Takei, and I put in the work, speak out, and embrace our own power. Bigots fear that. This fueled me to write a story that provided a more accurate view of what LGBTQ, and the excellence of people of color resembles. The amazing and prolific Toni Morrison said it best, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I like to think I’ve done that twice now with both Hollowstone and West of Sunset.
The story was inspired by my experiences and the experiences of loved ones while I was living in Atlanta. The second half of the book is actually inspired by a vacation trip to Los Angeles, with my best friend Will, who both Grant and Van (supporting characters in my book) are partly based on. While Will and I were headed to our hotel room in L.A., we passed a street named Van Ness Blvd. This was a sign for me as Grant’s last name is Ness and Van’s full name is Evander Knight. So some of our misadventures in California may or may not have been included in the novella. *Laughs*
Brecken (the main protagonist), was a new take on the poem and song Richard Corey. As an overachieving perfectionist, Brecken is also a double minority. We see that he’s constantly trying to find his footing in a world where stacked decks and goalpost shifting is the norm for minorities. We live in a society that boasts success is strictly contingent on hard work and fairness. Only for Brecken, who is black and gay, has to work twice as hard as his white peers to gain a fraction of what he’s earned. His journey in that regard is definitely a conversation that’s been long overdue.
Regarding some of the characters, Jacob and Joshua Phoenix were based on two middle school buddies who are fraternal twins named Jacob and Joshua. The character Shayna is inspired by one of my old roommates and good friends, CC. For those who follow me on social media, I’m sure they figured out that Shawn, the bartender at Slade’s, is a nod to my good friend and internet better half, Playwright Shawn Harris. While the story is as much about urban fantasy (Brecken about the intrepid wizard detective, it’s also about celebrating minorities doing the impossible and celebrating the people who’ve made this writer’s life a rich one.
Is West of Sunset the end? Or should we expect more from Brecken Everett and supporting characters from West of Sunset?
As far as the story focusing on Brecken’s journey specifically, I would say this is the end………For now. I seriously doubt that this is the last you’ve seen of Brecken and some of the others. In fact, don’t be too shocked if any of those characters appear in a story in the not too distant future!
Why do you think there is such a lack of diversity in the fantasy genre? How do you think that can be corrected?
It’s simple, the industry is run by bigoted whites and they are gatekeepers of sorts who have shut out people of color and the LGBTQs community anytime we attempt to take our own power and tell our stories. For example, the garbage that transpired with Steve Berman….
Anytime a racist gay white publisher feels inclined to tell a queer writer of color that he cannot include gay characters in a Civil War anthology because I should want to crossover to appeal to the straight market. That should tell you everything that is inherently broken and corrupt about this genre. Make no mistake ignorance is not the reason total reason for the lack of diversity. It is pure malicious intent.
In order to correct this grievous injustice, I think minorities need to stop wasting our time on privileged bigoted white folk. They have no intentions of changing a corrupt system that they profit from. If they did, they would’ve already done so. Taking back our power is the way to go. We need to create our own publishing houses, our own markets, vote with our dollars, support, promote, and networks with artists and storytellers who are working to bring diversity into the speculative fiction genre. Many of us are doing this now and that’s why there’s been so much pushback from people like Steve Berman and other racists. The old gods know their time is up and their terrified and they should be!
What other projects should fans look forward to from you?
I’m about to start exploring superhero fiction. Anyone who knows me will recognize I’m a lifelong comic book nerd. The fantasy genre isn’t the only genre that continues to be virulently opposed to diversity.
As I’ve stated previously inspiration/muse can come in the unlikeliest of forms.
I’ve also got some urban fantasy young adult stories I want to finish before I start on my next novel. As is my standard, people of color and LGBTQ protagonists often take center stage in my work. In any event, I’m having a blast writing the stories and can’t wait to finish them and share them with the world.
Where would you like to see the genre of Urban Fantasy headed within the next 3 years?
I wouldn’t mind the genre of Urban Fantasy catching up with the rest of the world. You know how ‘urban’ is usually synonymous for black and brown people in major metropolitan areas. Unless it’s urban fantasy and then it’s WHITE, WHITE, STRAIGHT WHITE!!!!!!
What advice do you have for those looking to get into writing their own stories?
Writing is not for the weak or the faint of heart! It’s often grueling, painful, taxing and is the most disrespected and unacknowledged of art forms. When you’re sharing your truth, your message, that story that you know God put you on this planet for, to immerse yourself in that world, with the characters you create, you go on that journey with them. You discover a profound truth about yourself and about the world, and to share that with the rest of the world is the GREATEST FEELING EVER.
My buddy James Artimus Owen said it best, “Yes, writing a book out of duty will yield a good book of an appropriate word count. Writing a book out of love will yield an extraordinary story that will touch hearts, move minds and change lives.”
My motto: Don’t follow the trends. Be an innovator. Be true to yourself and be true to your art.
Well, well....With what I have learned, I could definitely see West of Sunset coming to big or small screen in the future. The door needs to be opened a bit wider for diverse story telling.
Please check out Dennis R. Upkins official website for more information about West of Sunset, or Hollowstone, his future convention dates, and all other upcoming projects. Both books are available for purchase on Amazon.com. Lets’ help him make urban fantasy a reality and bring it to the masses!