Pamela N. Harris was born and somewhat raised in Newport News, VA—also affectionately known as “Bad News.” A former school counselor by day, she received her BA in English and a Master’s in school counseling at Old Dominion University, her MFA in creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and a PhD in counselor education and supervision at William and Mary. When she isn’t writing, Pam is re-watching Leonardo DiCaprio movies, chasing after her toddler son, and pretending to enjoy exercising. When You Look Like Us is her debut novel. She lives in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Voyage: What was the inspiration behind your novel, When You Look Like Us?
Pamela N. Harris: Great question! An editor at Alloy reached out to my then-agent about whether she had a writer that would be willing to write a mystery/noir from a Black perspective. I’m a HUGE fan of the movie Brick with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and I’d always wondered what it would be like to have a story similar to that but featuring kids from the neighborhood where I grew up. I wrote a sample chapter–and was flown to New York to collaborate with the editors! And it truly was a collaboration. I felt like my voice was heard from the very beginning of the process. We changed the setting to the setting where I grew up, most of the characters represented people I knew throughout my childhood, and I got to integrate some of the structural racism that both my community and I have faced as part of being Black in America.
V: When you write your stories, what is the one thing you hope readers will take away?
PH: Wow, another great question lol! I’m not sure if I think of one particular thing I want readers to take away–it usually changes from story to story. I mainly write for myself and for my former students when I was a middle school counselor. We didn’t really get to see people who looked and sounded like us on the pages. A small part of me wishes that I was coming of age during this time period because there are so many wonderful authors out here capturing the voice of the Black child and teen experience–everything ranging from Black pain to Black joy. I just want readers to see themselves in my stories. And if they don’t see themselves, I want them to take in another perspective that maybe they haven’t considered before.
V: What was the hardest scene of When You Look Like Us to write?
PH: Hmm, I’m not sure if there was one scene in particular–and I’m not just saying that because I don’t want to give any spoilers! If anything, I probably had the toughest time writing some of the internal dialogue when my protagonist, Jay, had to deal with something truly tough or heartbreaking. I think maybe I was scared of feeling some of that myself, as I’ve experienced similar pain as him. But I had some amazing editors at Alloy and HarperCollins that truly pushed me and helped me break through Jay’s shell. It was actually pretty therapeutic for myself.
V: If you could tell your younger writer self anything, what would it be?
PH: Persistence! It took me a looooooong (did I say LONG?) time to reach this milestone. I’ve dreamed of being a published author since I could hold a pencil and write my own name. When I got my agent almost a decade ago, I thought the rest would fall into line right after that. I had a couple of close calls, but also had a lot of doors closed in my face. Well, maybe not closed, but at least slightly ajar. But during that time period, I worked on my craft. I went to several writing conferences, watched author’s interviews, read novels, etc. But yeah, I’d tell myself to hang in there–your time is coming!
V: What are your writing must-haves?
PH: I’m not really sure if I have any must-haves. I used to like making playlists, but I realized that was just a way for me to procrastinate lol. I can’t even listen to music while I write because I end up just wanting to sing along. I also can’t write in public places because I tend to people-watch too much. I think the main things I need are quiet and a notebook. The notebook is for me to jot down ideas: plot lines, characters, and so forth. I also need to have at least three chapters outlined before I can begin writing. Yes, I’m a plotter!