How Three Acts of Violence Fueled a Career - Meet Petra, the Ghostwriter

The Sons and daughters of ham, book cover

The Sons and daughters of ham, book cover

The “what to do in life” conversation usually starts at the rambunctious age of 7, when first graders scribble on career assignments that they’re going to be a “fiyah fiter” or “noorse” when they come of age. Mix those vague career dreams with parent’s best intentions, and you get a cocktail of murky water in your cup of life. I had the good fortune of a mother whose career advice was, “As long as you’re happy and paying your bills, I don’t care where you work! In fact, if you wanted to pick berries and make jam in South Carolina, that’s your prerogative.”

I don’t like jam but if I did, that’s great fucking advice.  

Many people choose career paths solely not to piss their parents off. They’ve been destined to be doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, and engineer teachers, since they can remember, because their parents said so. What about the times where a career destination is revealed through unexpected circumstances? I had the pleasure of meeting Petra E. Lewis a few years back, during a volunteer event for Black professionals. I always knew she was a writer for people who needed to tell their stories, but wasn't aware about the challenges, including witnessing serious violence, she maneuvered to trek the path she's currently blazing.

We recently had the chance to talk about her journey from Wall Street communications executive to author and ghostwriter (i.e., someone who writes books for other individuals). Read on and be inspired to pursue what you think may not be possible: 

What was the spark for you to get into writing in the first place?

Well, the spark for me was Toni Morrison. Before I was 10 years old, I read The Bluest Eye, and I decided that I wanted to become a writer. When I was in Columbia undergrad, I won a writing prize as I was graduating, and I bumped into a woman who had graduated the year before I did. She talked about the MFA program at Columbia.

I didn't even know what the heck an MFA was, and then I thought, 'Oh maybe this is something I should do.' So I applied for that. I also applied for the journalism program and I missed some aspect of the application process, so then it sealed the deal, because I ended up getting into the MFA.

Are you an author full-time now?

When I got my MFA in fiction writing from Columbia, people were like, "Oh what are you gonna do—be a waitress, or teach?” I was like, “Nah, I’m going to go Wall Street and make some money.” I started my career as a senior financial writer, and I ended up staying in financial services a lot longer than I thought I would have.

Before I even graduated from the MFA program, I had a literary agent at ICM—which was a big deal—and later I ended up with another agent, at a different agency. The second agent pitched my manuscript to several houses. Finally an agent at Grand Central Publishing—which used to be Time Warner Book Group—wanted to acquire the manuscript, but the rest of team did not buy in, so I ended up not getting a conventional book deal.

Every rejection letter I got, they’d say the book was really well written, but the subject matter was very dark, and I felt really frustrated and crushed. Even though my second agent was very supportive. I eventually I broke up with him, which made me a free agent.  So, again, coming back to the investment bank part, I had seen that layoffs were coming at my last full-time financial role, and I thought: What am I going to do next with my life? I decided that I was going to do two things: Finally become a ghostwriter, and self-publish my novel trilogy, The Sons and Daughters of Ham.

The ghostwriting went through all the growing pains of a start up. Now I've gotten traction and gotten incredible clients, and am doing this full time. So it's a combination of me doing my bread and butter which is marketing communications, and then also doing the ghostwriting, and now I am starting to create some workshops around that as well.

There's an attitude that creative endeavors shouldn’t necessarily be monetized. How do you balance wanting to create great things for people, but also not being taken advantage of?

Well you know, I'm a bizarre animal. I was one of those ABC (A Better Chance) kids, so I went to a boarding school. I started a business there, selling food in my room because we didn't have vending machines at the time. Sophomore year of high school, I ended up doing the LEAD business program at UCLA. So I have always had a business background, but at the same time, I wasn't necessarily a hardcore numbers person.

For a long time I would get more excited being in a room full of entrepreneurs than I would be in a room full of writers.  I think there's a certain point where you definitely need to try to figure out how are you going to make money from what you’re doing, and once you do that, then you can begin to outsource to other people. You're trying to wear all these hats, and it's very rare that somebody can wear them all well.

There are a lot of creatives who are afraid of making money, but I’ve always been a shameless capitalist. At the same time, there’s always a balancing act between discovering what you're passionate about, and being of genuine service and of value to your clients.

If someone sees the value they will pay for it. People may say, 'Oh I don't have any money.' But you know what? They will go off to get the latest iPhone, or they go off to pay for Louboutin shoes. They see some value in that thing and they are willing to pay for it, even though they just told you that they don't have any money. We pay for what we value.

So what would you say is your creative process? When you sit down and start ghostwriting a project, how do you begin walking through that process?

I offer a service to clients called a Book Brainstorm Intensive. I’m working with a client now where I flew down to Palm Beach Gardens in Florida, and we were in a conference room for three days straight. I asked him deep, probing questions to gather all of the information I needed to write the book. By the end, we were both exhausted. We were putting in the equivalent of a full work day, 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 or 7:00 p.m. Next, I had to go through the raw transcript, trying to figure out how to structure it.

It's interesting, because my Pastor said in a recent sermon that anything you're going to build requires three components: the first is design; the second is the right materials; and the third one is time. And that is completely correct. With a book, you want a narrative that continues to move the reader forward. You want it to be a page turner. You don't want it to stop. So it's figuring out how to tell a story, with acceleration and momentum.

I've been reading the draft of your latest project, about a Black CEO who rose from the Jim Crow South to build multi-million-dollar businesses, and it's interesting to see how humble his beginnings were, probably more humble than most people even of my age. I didn't have to worry about certain realities that he had to face. Everybody wants to hear the story of how somebody has come to where they are. And not necessarily, "Look I'm perfection!" How you tell that story is really important.

I'm really interested in working with people who have really good stories to tell. Even when I was in marketing and communications I would always say have mercy on the reader. You don't want something dry. You have to have something that's compelling for the reader to hold onto, even if it's a marketing communications brochure or some Web copy. I feel like my MFA does come in handy, because it's always about storytelling for me.

Exactly. Do you feel like your background or experiences as a Black woman has affected your creative process at all? Has it hindered it or improved it as a ghostwriter?

I think more and more I see how amazing we are as Black women, to be honest. We really are spectacular, like, give it up! We constantly have the double adversity of gender and race. And in terms of our creativity, you even look at the natural hair movement, and I think how the heck did we come up with this stuff? We are like Lifehackers. We have been Lifehackers for hundreds of years.

Definitely, that's why I get so excited about telling these kinds of stories, because there's a lot of celebrating to be had with people who have made something out of nothing.

How would you say writing has improved your life? Would you say once writing became a central part of what you do, things shifted for you in any kind of way?

I definitely feel more fulfilled. I feel the happiest I've ever felt in my life now. It's like you're in this corporate job, you're making this big salary, but you know there are aspects of it that were absolutely miserable. Now it’s like the sky is the limit. The success or the failure—it’s really on you. I see the potential. It's an amazing feeling.

You know we all want security. There's fear. The other thing, too, it's not just being a creative, you can be a creative all day long and still not be able to support yourself, so there's definitely an aspect of entrepreneurship. There are moments when you long for the safety of a full-time job and knowing there's a check coming in two weeks, but then you remember the bigger things that are at stake and the fulfillment and the pride in what you have and what you're doing.

I think you bring up really great points where, creatives should have some business acumen and take some ownership of the commercial side of what they’re doing. If an artist or creative thinks the thing they're producing improves someone’s life, entertains them, informs them, educates them whatever it may be, they should value that at the level it deserves. Thinking about the business side shouldn't mean that it's not really art and you're selling out.

I mean...I'm a total sellout. Do not be afraid of money as a creative person. Do. Not. Somebody else will take your creativity and make money off of it, and that person should always be you.

For sure.

The first novel in your self-published trilogy, The Sons and Daughters of Ham: Book I A Reqium was inspired by three acts of violence that you personally witnessed or experienced in life. Could you tell me more about that?

When I graduated from Columbia undergrad, I went to a nightclub. We're dancing, and all of a sudden, I saw a fight break out.Suddenly there was this mob of people upon me, and I was thinking, "Oh my god, I'm going to get crushed to death!" Finally it was over, I was like, "Oh my god, let me get out of here."

So after that happened, I started walking with the woman who had invited me to the party. All our other friends we were partying with had left before the fight broke out. I hadn’t left with one of our other friends who was headed back to Brooklyn because I had just applied to the Columbia MFA program, was about to start a paralegal job at a law firm, and had no money to split a cab with her—and was too embarrassed to say so. So the woman who invited me and I started heading to the subway on Astor Place. We made a pit stop at a bodega, and she went inside. I lifted my skirt because my leg was hurting me.

I saw I that I had a hole in my stocking. I was like, “Aw crap. I ripped my tights.” Then I pulled at the hole, and I saw the white inside of my leg. When she came out I was just standing there, stunned. I had already graduated from Columbia undergrad, but she was still on campus. And this woman looked at my leg, and was like, "Come up to my dorm, I'll put some peroxide on it.” I couldn't believe she had said this. I was so angry.

I went to the Astor Place stop on my own, and was standing on the subway platform, waiting for the downtown train, and there was blood dripping down my leg. Some cops who were in the station came over to me, and they called an ambulance. While I was in the ambulance, I found out from the EMS workers that some people at the party were slashed in the face with box cutters. I know this is bizarre, but I almost felt lucky that I had been slashed in the leg. My best friend from Columbia undergrad at the time came to St. Vincent’s Hospital in the Village—which no longer exists—and stayed with me in the hospital while I got stitched up.

The second thing that happened was my Uncle had a friend, and supposedly this friend had some sort of domestic dispute with his baby mama. My Uncle came over to visit him, and they were sitting in the car. This part is totally crazy: Apparently the guy’s girlfriend hired some amateur hit men to come after her boyfriend, and they shot out the back of the car, and the bullet went through the headrest and entered my Uncle's head. He got out of the car, stumbled, and fell face forward, and shattered some parts of his teeth. He was in a coma for many weeks, but he lived.

The third thing that happened was that we had some family friends, an older couple from Trinidad, and my mother would talk to the mother. They had a teenage son, named Sean. Whenever she spoke to my mother, she would always brag about all the girls who liked Sean and kept calling him, and how tall he was growing. And she would always say that we should come by to visit and meet him.

When we finally saw Sean, he was lying in a coffin with a bullet hole in his head.His parents had moved away from the rough area they were living in, and his mother told him not to go back there. He went back to visit some girl and this jealous kid shot him. These three acts of violence made me say, "Why is it so easy for Black and Brown young men to kill each other? And where did this mindset come from?" That was the evolution of my trilogy. The novel actually started as my MFA thesis at Columbia.

Wow those situations are so, so crazy. Do you feel the book itself was a tool, not only for your own healing through those situations but also, to bring attention to this issue?

It's a complex issue because, Black folks have a real knee-jerk reaction when you talk about Black-to-Black violence. We get up in arms when it is a White cop shooting us, but it's like, we really get defensive when we have to talk about these murders in our communities, and what we’re doing to each other. We have to talk about both simultaneously. I know a lot of people who don't mean well towards our communities, where, if you talk about police brutality they go, "Oh what about Black-on-Black violence?"

And so, it’s like people in our communities almost don't want to acknowledge that this violence exists—and that it’s a serious problem—because they don't want to give validation or fuel to what the other side is saying, because when it’s said, it's said disingenuously, because the other side isn't concerned about our communities.

But the bigger toll is what the families are going through. My trilogy looks at the aftermath of that gun violence. We see the headlines, but we don't see the way it destroys families, marriages, and communities. Like Sean’s parents. They were an older couple—and Sean was their only son. They eventually got divorced. The murder and the trial destroyed their marriage.

Yeah, Black-on-Black crime is also used as a tool from groups that want to invalidate police brutality, so I can understand why people are like, “No, police brutality is a real issue we need to discuss.” Crime in Black communities is an issue but it's a complicated one that stems from the results of our system of White supremacy this country has operated under for hundreds of years, quite honestly. There's gotta be open conversations, especially from people who have experienced it, because you're a first-hand witness to the issue that's happening. You're part of this experience.

Yeah, there's a huge gun culture here in the U.S. Prior to writing this book, I had been an armchair activist on the topic of gun violence for a really long time. When I analyzed what is driving this violence in Black and Brown communities, I came up with two root causes: Low self-esteem, and economics. It's driven by an economic reality, but at the same time, when you look in the mirror, if you don't value who you see, when you go out, it's so easy for you to blow away a person who looks like you, because you think your life has no value—subsequently, that person’s life has no value as well. So I also wanted to examine that in the context of family. I really believe that slavery is the genesis of these issues. You see it passed on inter-generationally in families. So the book looks at that dynamic.

Why did you chose to create a fictional story around this violence, versus an autobiographical recount of those incidents?

People read the tragic headlines about these murders daily, and they’ve become inured. I also think that getting into the nuances and complexities of family dynamics, and the minutia of how this really affects people, it's better done with fiction. I also wanted to create a sustained dialogue about the effects of this gun violence, and I felt like looking at it through the prism of this specific family, and being able to incorporate history—and history’s long reach—all of this was better done through fiction.

That makes sense. Sometimes people hear non-fiction and they immediately think, "I'm not gonna pick that up, that's gonna be boring." Sometimes it's a good way to introduce topics that they may not have wanted to touch or read because it's within a story that feels less personal or also just more accessible or interesting to them.

If you could only read one book and listen to only one album for the rest of your life, which would they be?

Those are great questions. In terms of the book, it would be the Bible. Shonda Rhimes has nothing on the Bible. You got your incest, you got your philandering, murder, betrayal—I mean it's pretty darn juicy. But the other thing too, there's also wisdom and guidance in there.

In terms of albums, I'm a massive, massive David Bowie fan. I've been a Bowie fan since I was 13 years old. So at first I was going to take the easy route, and do the greatest hits. But thinking about it, it would be either Hunky Dory or the The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars

Those are like two big classics. You're like, "The Bible and David Bowie" hahah. Going back to the source.

Final question, what do you think it means to live a creative life?

To me living a creative life means living a life that feeds you on every level. One thing I noticed over the years, as a writer, is that my creative juices always flowed from other art forms. It could be dance, film—whatever. So I go and work on my client projects, and I work like an animal, and then I go off and see a production of Shakespeare’s Pericles, or I see an amazing once-in-a-lifetime performance by Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil at BAM, or I’m reading Baldwin, or I'm listening to NPR. It's a constant feeding of self and the mind—to me, that's what it means to live a creative life.