Karyn Parsons is best known for her role as Hillary Banks on the NBC sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” Additionally, she is a middle-grade author whose recently published book, “Clouds Over California,” is set in a culturally and racially shifting 1970s Los Angeles, California.
Parsons draws from her own experiences as a child growing up in LA during these years and introduces young readers to the themes of the decade — women’s liberation, police brutality and race relations, all through the eyes of her young biracial protagonist, Stevie. As readers, we see Stevie grapple with both the desire for progress seen in her interest in the Black Panthers. She also deals with the very real fear of change via a new school, new friends and her parents’ potential separation.
After leaving acting behind, Karyn has gone on to found and produce “Sweet Blackberry,” an award-winning series of children’s animated films, to share stories about unsung Black heroes in history, featuring narration from stars such as Alfre Woodard, Queen Latifah and Chris Rock. The videos have been screened on HBO and Netflix, and enjoyed by schools and libraries across the country. She is the author of “Flying Free: How Bessie Coleman’s Dreams Took Flight,” “How High the Moon” and “Saving the Day.” Karyn lives with her family in Providence, Rhode Island.
What was the transition from being an actress to an author like? How did your acting experience help you on your path to being an author?
While I was always writing things; poems, scripts, outlines for ideas, etc. I didn’t really get into writing stories until after “The Fresh Prince” ended. A friend persuaded me to take a writing course with an instructor she adored and thought I’d love as well. She was right. I loved his class. Loved all that we were reading and the exercises and writing assignments. I was so invigorated and often when we were asked to do an assignment I came back to class with three. All that time I’d spent on set I was now spending writing. Hours a day. I really loved it. But, I didn’t tell a lot of people that I wanted to write. I still had one foot in acting and, honestly, I didn’t think people would take me seriously as a writer, so I kept my mouth shut.
But much of what I loved about acting I still get to do in writing. I love storytelling. And mostly, I love characters. People. I love our complications. Our immense differences and surprising similarities. When I first studied acting, I used to go to coffee shops and people-watch. Take notes on people’s behaviors and mannerisms. I’d imagine strangers’ stories, what their home life was like, etc. I’d go to my job selling cookies and try out accents and newly discovered mannerisms on customers. And when I started my writing class, I did much of the same: jotting notes in cafes while secretly watching and eavesdropping. Studying people and transcribing bits of conversation and then later elaborating on my observations to create complete stories. And now, as I no longer act, I still feel fulfillment in that particular area. And I do think that my acting background has made getting into characters’ heads and finding their dialogue a little easier as I’ve been training that muscle for so long.
How do you think writing from a younger perspective affects you now that you’re no longer Stevie’s age? Was there anything you learned from writing through a middle-grade lens?
When I’m in a character, I can really feel what it’s like to be them, even if they’re a lot younger. I remember so much of how it felt to be twelve. And I also have kids. I watched them during those years and felt similar feelings to theirs all over again. It’s important to be careful when writing in the first person, not to lose the character’s voice as you try to get the story across. For me to not let Karyn get in there trying to make things clear for the reader. I read what I’ve written aloud all the time and it helps me to hear where things possibly went off the rails a bit, and if my protagonist is no longer doing the speaking.
I do feel like I’ve learned a lot about MYSELF writing through a middle-grade lens. I’m able to better recognize things I was feeling as a kid but didn’t have words for or may have just gone along with as normal, or nothing to think too much about. I revisit times in my life and can now see that “hey, that wasn’t cool that they did that,” or “I didn’t say anything, but that actually hurt.” Maybe it’s distance from the time, maybe it’s because I’m more protective of my characters. Maybe as I look back on things NOW, I’m able to allow myself the fullness of some experiences. I think that I – following the lead of my mother – brushed a lot of things under the rug. Tried not to make too much noise. Nothing was ever a big deal. But now, I want to allow things to be A BIG DEAL for my characters and for the reader. Because they ARE.
Your character in “The Fresh Prince of Belville,”Hillary Banks, is described as “impulsive, shallow…most of the time very dim-witted and extremely self-centered.” What do you think Hillary could learn from your protagonist Stevie?
Funny, I first thought that question was what could Stevie learn from Hillary. And there’s a lot in the way of confidence and being fully yourself. Hillary had that, and I admired that character for it. But what could Hilary learn from Stevie?… Certainly to be more compassionate. Hillary wasn’t the best with that.
How do you think the changes you mention at the end of the book regarding changes of “the 70’s focusing on women and girls” applies when the book is being read by a 21st-century reader?
I think it’s so important to know our history in order to understand where we stand right now. To help give context to our situations, relationships, their dynamics and to our challenges and struggles. For a girl coming up right now to see how the ground shifted for women in the 1970s, that it wasn’t really that long ago that we had such limited rights and how we were solely viewed through a patriarchal lens. I think it helps us recognize WHY some old systems are so hard to dismantle and also to see patterns that could set us back.
“Clouds Over California” is a very personal story to you, according to the Acknowledgements. Were there any personal memories that resurfaced or that you were inspired by when writing Stevie’s story?
When I was first writing the story, the father character, who is based very much on my own father, wasn’t in the story so much, and when he WAS in the story, he was hard for the reader to like. He was such a chauvinist and was so domineering. I had to go back and show how this complicated, “old-fashioned” man was actually well-meaning. That he actually loved and cared very much for Kitty and for Stevie.
My own father was on a rapid cognitive decline as I neared the end of writing the story, and as I revisited the father character in the book, I found myself stumbling upon moments with my dad in my childhood that I’d forgotten about. Really sweet times. It was like I rekindled this whole dimension of our relationship, one I think I’d almost forgotten. I was so grateful to have Stevie and “Clouds” to help me root around and remember and re-live a time with my dad when he was young and I was a child and even though he drove me crazy sometimes, I not only loved him, but I really, really liked him.
Thank you so much Karyn for answering my questions! It’s always so fun to see how authors incorporate mature themes in books intended for a younger audience. As the child of divorced parents, I really related to the personal change happening in Stevie’s life. I’d also like to thank Kelly Moran from Little, Brown and Company and the Hachette Book Group for sending me this interview opportunity along with a finished copy of “Clouds Over California.”