ReShonda Tate is not just an award-winning, best-selling author, screenwriter and movie producer, she’s a cultural icon with the rabid fan base to prove it. Yet, this Arkansas-bred, Houston-raised force has managed to remain firmly grounded even as her sales and stature within the culture continue to rise.
The Defender was able to speak with Tate, who doubles as the Defender Network’s Managing Editor, about her latest book, multiple talents, writing process and future projects.
DEFENDER: “Miss Pearly’s Girls” is your 53rd book. What is it about?
RESHONDA TATE: I’m originally from a small town in Arkansas called Smackover. The story takes place there and it’s about a mother whose daughters are estranged. She falls ill and summons them home, hoping to get them to come clean from secrets and heal from the fallout. It shows how secrets and lies can fester and ruin families. I don’t believe in staying in toxic relationships, but I do believe in healing and that’s what the family is faced with.
DEFENDER: So, in your many books, I’m sure there’s some real life-isms. But you seem really close with your sister. So where did this story come from?
TATE: Yeah, I definitely had to go into the recesses of my imagination because my relationship with my sister is really good. But what I do a lot of research and I get stories from different people and I let my imagination do the rest. This is a common issue in families where, for one reason or another, the family dynamics are broken. So, I just really talk to a lot of people to get the background to make this story authentic.
DEFENDER: What parts of your works really speak to your audience?
TATE: I’ve been called a faith-based, fiction writer, but that’s because I am a Christian who writes fiction. So, my faith is going to resonate in all my stories. But really, the themes of family, healing, forgiveness are common in many of my novels. My books resonate with people because I write reality. I write about real issues that people are going through.
DEFENDER: You have all these books, you travel the country speaking, you write and produce movies, you’re a mother of three, how do you balance it all?
TATE: I believe every minute you spend talking about what you don’t have time to do could be spent doing it. You won’t find me just sitting idly around. When I’m in my car stuck in Houston traffic, I’ll dictate a chapter. I utilize every spare moment. I’ve never been one to be confined to a box. I believe I can accomplish my dreams – all of them.
DEFENDER: Your fans know you have a gift for writing. I would argue that your real gift is the gift of being a master communicator, because you’re an incredible writer/author, but you’re also an award-winning poet and one of the most captivating public speakers I’ve ever seen. So, of all these different ways of communicating, which one is your favorite, which one comes most naturally, and which one is the most challenging?
TATE: I love doing them all. A lot of people don’t know this about me, but I used to be deathly shy. Like, hide-behind-my-mother’s leg, shy. I went to Madison High School and in the ninth grade, they made me the morning announcer. And once they put that microphone in front of me, I just lit up and have been going strong ever since. It’s like I found my calling. So, to me, they all go hand in hand. I love storytelling. I love writing. And then I absolutely love getting in front of people and speaking.
DEFENDER: What’s next for you?
TATE: I’m traveling the country promoting Miss Pearly’s Girls. I’m also doing a lot of things virtually, including an event on April 5. I’m also really excited about the next book that I’m working on. It is called “The Queen of Sugar Hill. It is a biographical novel on Hattie McDaniel. A lot of people know that she won the Oscar, but her story is so much deeper than that. And I’m getting lost in all of the research to write this story. I don’t think that I’ve ever enjoyed the process of writing a book as much as I do this. I’m also preparing to film my first movie that I wrote and produced later this year. I’m working on another screenplay that I hope we can film in Houston. My story never ends.
DEFENDER: For many years you were a news reporter, as well. For those aspiring news reporters, what advice would you give them?
TATE: It’s more than just getting in front of the camera and being pretty. I always looked at it as, “I’m going to be a good journalist” who just happens to have her hair laid while she’s on camera (well, it wasn’t always laid…this Houston humidity could be brutal on a sista’s hair). But first and foremost, I made sure that I was a good journalist. Having that talent alone helped me in every other way.
DEFENDER: You’ve had several of your books made into movies. You’re a screenwriter and a movie producer. You’ve appeared in a few of your movies, as well. Are you trying to tell us something like, is there some big screen academy award-winning, leading role that’s for you on the horizon?
TATE: Acting was my very first love. That’s what I really wanted to do. But my mom was old school and she was like, “No, you can’t go to LA and be a superstar.” But she also said, I couldn’t write books. Then later she was like, “I knew my baby could do it.” But at time, I tried to take the safe route. I’ve taken some acting classes here in Houston and am just waiting on my starring role. If there’s one thing I know about me – it’s coming because I dream it, then I do it.
DEFENDER: Your fans recognize you as a celebrity via all of your well-deserved success, national awards, etc. But folk who know you, describe you as very down-to-earth. How do you stay so grounded?
TATE: I just don’t forget where I came from. I’m just an ordinary girl who happens to be doing a few extraordinary things. And I surround myself with people who support be but keep it 100. They don’t tell me just what I want to hear. I’m naturally grounded, but if I were to ever get out of line, there’d be people right there to help me get back on track. A good support system is crucial.
DEFENDER: Let the church say, amen. Of your many national awards, which one means the most to you and why?
TATE: I value every one. From a small girls organization that gave me an award because I got young people reading, to my NAACP Image Award, because that means my colleagues validated my work. I’m just blessed that I’m able to make a difference and be recognized for doing something I love.
DEFENDER: Were there any experiences at your alma mater, the University of Texas, that helped produce the person you are today?
TATE: Absolutely. I found my calling there, as well. I worked for the UT newspaper. I was able to join Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.. I was in the Miss Black UT pageant. My talents just continued to be nurtured. I mentioned Madison High School earlier, but the nurturing of my talents actually started previously at Dowling Middle School, where my seventh grade reading teacher, Mrs. Lily Lacey, told me I was better than the work that I had turned in. She challenged me to dig deep into my creative vault. So, ever since then, that’s always my approach. I can do better than this. And it’s served me well.
DEFENDER: You’ve been with the Defender a long time, right?
TATE: I started at the Defender in 1993. I’ve ventured out into the world, gone and worked at other places, but this has always been home. Once I finished working as a television news reporter, I decided, “Okay, I’m home for good.” I’m grateful for the amazing publisher, Sonny Messiah Jiles who always kept the door open for me.
Education: Madison High School, University of Texas at Austin
Hobbies: Reading, Watching Law & Order
Favorite book: Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”
Little known fact: Wanted to drop out of school and be a rapper, but my mom said no.
FB & IG: /reshondatatebillingsley