Joyce Carol Thomas

Joyce Carol Thomas
House Of Light

Interviewed by: Lauretta Pierce
March 2002

1. How did you come about the title for the novel "House of Light"?

I live in a house of light. Light sparkles and shimmers through the rooms. I welcome light touching my face, my hands when I write. It stirs up my imagination. To see my characters more fully I have placed them in the book HOUSE OF LIGHT. Each character, Abyssinia, Zenobia, Pearline, Vennie, and Isaiah live and move within rooms and down roads flooded with light within the small, closely-knit Ponca City community. The title HOUSE OF LIGHT came to me more than twenty years ago when I finished my first novel, MARKED BY FIRE.

2. What inspired you to the write the novel "House of Light"?

A lifetime of watching, listening to textures of voices, rhythms of language, and paying attention to everyday folks inspired me.

3. Who is Joyce Carol Thomas?

I am a mother, grandmother, and a California woman from a small Oklahoma town called Ponca City. I return often to the setting for many of my novels, poetry, and plays.

4. How long have you been writing?

I have been writing for as long as I can remember. I started when I was around three and continued through grade school, middle school, high school, marriage, raising children, going to college, and teaching. My ideas for books, stories, and plays persist and will continue I hope until I’m ready to quit the earth.

5. How did you come about the plot surrounding Pearline and her abusive husband Isaiah?

The Pearline and Isaiah plot came to me from listening to the harrowing accounts of the many maltreatments that women find themselves suffering at the hands of men they love and whom they thought loved them. I wanted to see if Pearline and Isaiah could grow beyond their abusive relationship and find a healthy way to share their humanity, even if it meant divorce. Through Pearline and Isaiah’s troubles an entire church has to look at itself in an introspective way. I wrote about Pearline and Isaiah’s love, their anger, the physical threats, Isaiah’s acting out the threats, and lastly Pearline’s resolve to save herself.

6. How did you come about the relationship with Zenobia and Norman?

The Zenobia and Norman relationship was unlikely. She was a woman who liked her men black as coffee. He was the widower of a woman whose skin was white as cream. She sang gospel. He sang country. I think contrasts make for interesting story. I ask myself when I’m writing, “What would happen if?” In Zenobia and Norman’s case, tragedy struck.

7. How did you come about the spectacular last chapter surrounding Abyssinia?

The final chapter surrounding Abyssinia reminds me of our shared humanity. It is to Dr. Abyssinia Jackson that Vennie, Pearline, and Zenobia come with their physical complaints. Abyssinia sees and attends to their physical and emotional pain. The final chapter lets us look within the pain that Abyssinia herself suffers. We understand that all of us have our hurdles, even those of us whom we perceive to be strong. In the final chapter, Abyssinia goes about healing herself and her own family.

8. How did you come about the plot surrounding Vennie Walker?

Vennie Walker’s episodes grew out of the injuries that my Mother of the Church Aunt, Corine Coffee, sustained when she worked as a housekeeper/cook in the homes of more affluent whites. The overwork (they paid her for one day but expected her to do a week’s worth of work in that one day), the endless washing, ironing, cleaning took a physical toll. She stood at ironing boards and washing machines and stoves so long that her feet became damaged. The employers’ hiding of money under pillows to test her integrity was a slap in the face, the unwanted attention from the employers’ husbands who thought there was nobody who cared enough about her for him to worry about repercussions was a wound to her spirit. Aunt Corine did not only endure all these burdens but so did many of her female friends. The hearing of the sacrifices these women made for their families troubled me. I decided to write about a Black woman who gets tired of being insulted, who rises up, and says NO. No more! That’s Vennie Walker.

9. Does any of your characters have your personality?

Little bits of my personality, including my “quirky” sense of humor, are found in many of the characters. We share human qualities of love, sadness, loss, hope, and compassion.

10. Why type of atmosphere do you require to write?

I require a simple desk and the right light. I relish a peaceful space in time and place to listen to the voices and the thoughts of my characters. Time enough to report my characters’ actions when they’re mellow, belting out songs, or acting up and acting out.

11. Are you currently working on another novel?

Yes, I’m working on another novel. I don’t talk about the manuscript while I’m spinning its tale.

12. What message would you like readers to receive from reading "House of Light"?

I hope that after finishing HOUSE OF LIGHT, readers will discover that we hold the answers to our own questions. We can be saviors to ourselves as well as to our communities.