Thirteen years ago, Sister Souljah introduced readers to Winter Santiaga and family in her bestselling debut novel, The Coldest Winter Ever (Atria, 1999). Winter, the book’s 17-year-old narrator, is the eldest daughter of prominent drug dealer Ricky Santiaga, and sister to Porsche and twins Lexus and Mercedes. Since then, readers have waited to hear more about the Santiaga family—through five printings of the hardcover, 25 printings of the paperback, and 37 printings in mass market (totaling 1,436,559 copies in print).
Atria is publishing Souljah’s A Deeper Love Inside: The Porsche Santiaga Story, the fourth entry in the series, a coming-of-age story told through the voice of Winter’s middle sister, Porsche. But don’t try to get a synopsis out of Souljah; as she tweeted recently from @SouljahBooks, “Wouldn’t you like to know lol. Only hint, Winter & Midnight are both in the novel.”
Even though A Deeper Love Inside is Souljah’s fourth in the series, she actually began writing it after completing The Coldest Winter Ever. “There was a groundswell of reaction, and I was bombarded with readers wanting to know ‘What’s next?’ So I started A Deeper Love Inside. But after I wrote about 100 pages, I put it down.”
At the time her intention was to write about Porsche, but Souljah, known for her activism and her commitment to raising the consciousness of the global literary community, realized that her novels could have an influence on the male population. So she shifted the focus of the book from Porsche to Midnight, one of Ricky Santiaga’s trusted lieutenants, Winter’s love interest, and an African immigrant who is critical of what he sees as irresponsible African-American male behavior. “Because the female character was focused on Midnight, I thought it was important for there to be a book for our sons, brothers, and fathers, and that Midnight would be a book they might enjoy.
“I did two Midnight books,” she explains (Midnight: A Gangster Love Story, Atria, 2008, and Midnight and the Meaning of Love, Atria, 2011), “because I feel that he’s a complicated character with a powerful, compelling voice, and that any young man—in Brooklyn, Soweto, São Paolo—can pick up that book and learn about manhood, fatherhood, culture, how to love women and how to protect women.” Souljah notes that she hears from hundreds of men who profess gratitude for the confident male voice of the Midnight character, and she is writing another book continuing his story.
Between The Coldest Winter Ever and Midnight and the Meaning of Love, there was a 10-year period during which Souljah traveled, lectured, and created cultural and academic programs for urban youth. She is also a wife and mother, so she says that in 2007, when she began writing Midnight and the Meaning of Love, she scaled back her schedule so that she could write full-time. Only after that book was done did Souljah think it was time to return to Porsche’s story. Asked to provide a synopsis, she declines. “I don’t answer questions about the book,” she teases. “When they tweet me and ask what the book’s about, I say, ‘Read the book.’ At this point, you have to trust me when it comes to writing. If you love great storytelling, you will get this book and go on the adventure.” Although the three novels are connected, Souljah assures that they can be read as stand-alone books.
The hardcover edition of A Deeper Love Inside features a deep crimson cover that Souljah was intimately involved in creating. “I tend to be a bit of a challenge to a major publisher because I want to be involved in every aspect [of the publishing process],” she admits. “The cover depicts beautiful movement: a dance pose in an elegant dress. I hired the dress designer, chose the fabric for the dress, and chose the model. On the inside cover and endpapers there are photographs portraying the main character in different moods and movements.” Similarly involved with the audiobook, Souljah reports that she selected and directed the talent, interacted with the studio, and was in the studio every day.
These days, the publishing process is quite different from the way it was when Souljah was a debut author. Her first book—a memoir, No Disrespect (Crown, 1994)—came five years before The Coldest Winter Ever. “When I first went to Random House, I asked if they wanted a biography or an examination of male-female relationships and family. No Disrespect was my take on what was happening in our communities in terms of love, having relationships, and families.”
A few years later, when she was shopping the manuscript for The Coldest Winter Ever, the reception surprised her. “One of the questions was ‘How can you switch from nonfiction to fiction?’ It was like, ‘Wait: she’s a nonfiction writer and she’s got a novel—can we trust her?’ At Henry Holt, I remember meeting with the staff around a rectangular table, and they had all read an excerpt. They thought it was a great story, but they said, ‘We’re a literary house.’”
“I asked, ‘Are you saying that you all don’t like to make money?’ Because I’d had people in my own realm who’d read the stories, and I knew it would be a moneymaker. After that, Tracy Sherrod, an editor from Henry Holt, introduced me to an agent who would take the book around to different houses, and I ended up at Simon & Schuster. I think that there’s a challenge in the publishing industry for publishing professionals to understand our journey and relate to our struggles.”
Genre categorization of her books is another battle that Souljah has fought. “I’ve said that I didn’t like the ‘urban fiction’ category—because mine is a global story. My stories travel the landscape of both urban and suburban society. Midnight is from Khartoum, goes to Brooklyn, marries a girl from Kyoto, Japan. It’s very intricate storytelling, and I moved to all of those countries to do my research. So ‘urban fiction’? What are you talking about? I’m a writer who writes to people from all different backgrounds—I get e-mails from readers in Ghana, Namibia, England, Germany. I have a global audience. African-American writers are seen as being only domestically lucrative, and I think that’s absolutely false.”
Will any of the Sister Souljah novels become films any time soon? “Not right now, [although] I think that the story of the making of the The Coldest Winter Ever film would be bigger than the book! The book is just me, my pen and the paper; a film is a team effort, [the effort] of a team who must synchronize their talents to make a film. As some see it, the book author should beg to get the film made. But I think the books are the beauty, and the film industry should be happy to be involved, not the other way around.”