'Big Girls,' big league Air of success: Since Connie Briscoe's breathtakingly successful debut novel, 'Sisters & Lovers,' fans have been just waiting to inhale her next effort.

April 29, 1996|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,SUN STAFF

Connie Briscoe assumed her writing life would follow this script: Her first novel would sell a few copies. Enough to do modestly well. She'd keep her day job as managing editor of American Annals of the Deaf while banging out novels two and three. And then, maybe, just maybe, she would break out from the pack of authors and her third or fourth novel would really take off.

This is what really happened: Connie Briscoe's first novel "Sisters & Lovers," was published by HarperCollins in 1994 in the wake of the phenomenal success of Terry McMillan's "Waiting to Exhale." African-American women were hungry for fiction that reflected their lives, and Connie Briscoe was one of the authors providing it.

"Sisters & Lovers" sold about 500,000 copies. And when she signed the contract for that book, she inked a deal for two more. That day job at Gallaudet University in Washington? Adios and adieu.

Her second book, "Big Girls Don't Cry," just hit the bookstores, and though it hasn't been accompanied by the same hype as Terry McMillan's latest, "How Stella Got Her Groove Back," it was launched with a $150,000 advertising and promotional tour that included a full-page, color ad in the Sunday New York Times book review section.

Girlfriend, you have arrived.

Connie Briscoe's rapid ascension to the ranks of successful authors took her own breath away.

"I thought I would have to build up some fans before it really took off," says Ms. Briscoe, who grew up in Silver Spring. She didn't have to build up fans; they came flocking to her.

She knows she owes a debt to Terry McMillan for that. But she doesn't always fare well in the inevitable comparisons between the two.

Kirkus Reviews wrote of "Big Girls Don't Cry" that Ms. Briscoe is not in the same league as Ms. McMillan. Publishers Weekly said pretty much the same thing.

Ms. Briscoe has had enough of the comparisons to Ms. McMillan, thank you very much.

"I understand the comparisons, but it can be frustrating," she says. "When there are a lot more African-American women writers being published, I hope the comparisons will stop."

A petite, attractive woman, she talks easily in the sunny kitchen of her home in Falls Church, Va. But she watches the face of her interviewer intently during the conversation.

Ms. Briscoe is deaf, though she wasn't born that way. Deafness runs in the paternal side of her family, and her hearing began to fade when she was in her 20s. She is now totally deaf. But Ms. Briscoe is an expert lip reader who began learning sign language in her 30s.

She says "Sisters & Lovers" "almost wrote itself." The story takes place in Silver Spring and revolves around three very different sisters, their relationships with one another and the men in their lives. Like a lot of first novels, it had plenty of autobiography in it.

She had to dig deeper to write "Big Girls Don't Cry." It begins with a girl growing up in Washington during the '60s and follows her through relationships, racial politics in the workplace, child rearing and more relationships.

Like her first book, "Big Girls Don't Cry" centers on middle-class African-American life. It is a setting she believes her readers appreciate.

"I have been out speaking somewhere and have had women come up to me and thank me for writing about their lives," she says.

Her fans can not seem to get enough.

At a book signing earlier this month at the North Star BookStore on Liberty Road in Baltimore, it was mostly black women standing in line to buy her novels and meet the author.

"I love her writing," says Lauraetta Tucker, a 36-old bank teller. "She writes a lot of what you see in everyday life. And she does it with a lot of humor. I lost a lot of sleep reading her book. I couldn't put it down. She's a wonderful black voice, and I assume she is somewhere near my age."

She is. Ms. Briscoe is 43 and single. And like the characters in her books, Connie Briscoe has had her share of problems in the romance department. She was married briefly while in her 20s. "That marriage was a total disaster for me," she says. "It's been so long ago now, it's almost as if it didn't happen."

She dates sporadically now, but it's been about four or five years since her last long-term relationship. But, like the women characters she writes about, optimism reigns supreme. "I know he could be right around that corner!" she says smiling. "I just have to turn around the right corner!"

Pub Date: 4/29/96

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