Carl Kenny is a writer. For the past seven years he has contributed an op-ed piece to the Sunday Durham Herald-Sun, pieces which sometimes caused a stir within his church. As a former pastor at Orange Grove Missionary Baptist Church and student at Duke Divinity School, Kenney wrote sermons to inspire and challenge his congregation to greater struggles, broader horizons. When his life with the church grew more difficult and complicated, Kenney started writing Preacha' Man, a novel that he describes as "a story of a man torn between the love of his life and his love for God."
A very personal novel, Kenney doesn't dodge any issues with his first book. "I love those who believe enough to risk being comfortable," says Kenney, when I ask him about heroes. With models like Michael Eric Dyson and Malcolm X, he sets his own bar high.
Whether he's directing Compassion Ministries, encouraging their popular Hip-Hop Remix service, or planning the sequel to Preacha' Man ("I know where he's going, but I'll let the readers finish this book first," he tells me), Kenney is constantly reflecting on the nature of who he is and what his purpose is.
He sets Preacha' Man in Durham, where a pastor's future is debated by the congregation and its board of deacons. The church has grown rapidly, music has entered the liturgy and several older trustees question the new earring, hairstyle and lifestyle of their preacher. Personal tragedy strikes when the preacher's younger sister dies. A significant vote of the church membership is called. All this happens as the plot boils in Carl Kenney's book; all this happened in Carl Kenney's life, too.
This is where we start our interview.
The Independent: Preacha' Man is a novel, a work of fiction, but local readers will no doubt recognize parallels between Carl Kenney's life and Preacha' Man's life. How do you see the similarities?
Carl Kenney: Most of what happens in the past is true. Even the names of those from my past are kept the same. This book is part autobiographical and part fiction. Which means Simon is, for the most part, Carl Kenney. The relationship with Jamaica is not real. She is the creation of my imagination. I began writing about her after my first divorce. During that time I wished I had a woman in my life that could take me away from the pain I felt. That woman became a collection of women I have met over the years.
Your book is loaded with plot, action and intrigue; spirituality, sexuality, violence and lots of tears. What parts did you most enjoy writing? What was most difficult?
Given the close parallels to my own life, writing the book evoked a lot of emotions. The sex scenes were a challenge for me because of my concerns around how it would be perceived by readers who have questions regarding my morality. It took a long time for me to publish the book because of those concerns. I had to decide if I would release the book with a pen name. I considered changing some of the wording. In the end, I opted to keep it as I felt it the first time with my name attached.
This is the story of a man who is truly human. It wasn't difficult for me to write that, but it was hard putting it out there for people to critique. I also grapple with some of the material from my childhood. The abuse scene is a true story. I cry every time I read that section.
Was writing the book a cathartic, healing act, coming so close to your leaving Orange Grove Missionary Baptist Church?
The truth is the book was completed one month before the vote at Orange Grove. I spent two weeks at the Weymouth Center in Pinehurst to finish the book. I was forced to take a six week leave from Orange Grove to give myself a chance to rekindle the passion for ministry. So much of what Simon endures is my life story. Like him, I had to decide if I wanted to walk away from the work that had become the center of my being for more than half my life. Like Simon, I had come to the conclusion that I loved God, but had strong negative feelings regarding the church.
Writing the book did help me prepare for the vote that took place when I returned from my leave of absence. In many ways, I wish I had the guts to do what Simon did. I'm nowhere close to being over what happened to me.
You chose Canada's Trafford Publishing, one of a growing number of successful on-demand houses, to be your publisher. What do other first-time authors need to know about the process?
The hardest part about publishing your work is not the writing; it's the business of publishing. I decided on Trafford out of frustration with traditional publishing. My work doesn't fit the neat categories that publishers establish. I submitted the project to BET Books, but it was a bit too risky for their taste. After considering the royalties offered me by publishers, I decided to go with on-demand publishing, sell a few units, and then shop it with a traditional publisher.
My advice to first-time writers is to do your homework. Presentation is important, so do all you can to assure your work stands out among all the others in the market. I used Pandora Frazier, a local graphic artist, to design the cover. I used Rogers Word Service out of Raleigh to edit the book. I had a number of people read the book ahead of time.
I've discovered that it takes more than a desire to write to write. I wanted to be honest with myself. I knew I had a history of writing columns, but that in and of itself did not qualify me to write a novel.
How does writing a regular op-ed column with a solid deadline compare to writing a novel? Which is easier? Which is tougher to edit?
The hardest thing about writing my column is my deadline is set for Thursday and my column appears on Sunday. I have one chance per week to give my view. I have to think through what will be newsworthy on Sunday, on Thursday. I strive to write a column that people will talk about throughout the week.
The hardest thing about writing a novel is finding the time to remain focused. The story takes on a life of its own once you allow the authentic voices to step outside the pages. A column is about my voice. A novel is about the voice of characters.
Writing the novel was easier because it's closer to my true voice. I'm prone to put my feelings out there for people, and a column isn't about what I feel as much as it is about rendering a perspective.
I want people to think when they read my column. I want them to feel when they read my novel.
How about a list? Top five people you turn to for sermon ideas?
Unlike many of my contemporaries, I do not draw from ministers of the pop culture. I don't read T.D. Jakes, Joyce Meyers, Creflo Dollar and other television superstars. My inspiration for sermons comes from Gardner C. Taylor, Howard Thurman, Soren Kierkegaard, Cornell West and Jeremiah Wright. I have to add Johnnie Ray Youngblood. Youngblood and Wright have been my brothers during my struggles.
Contributing writer John Valentine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.