Where black families live and love

In her novel, 'P.G. County,' a Maryland author hopes to ride a wave of interest in stories about upper-middle-class African Americans.

September 29, 2002|By Mike Morris | Mike Morris,Sun Staff

Connie Briscoe hopes to do for the literary world what Bill Cosby did for television. That is, realistically portray middle- to upper-middle-class African-American families, a demographic she feels is all too often ignored.

Her latest effort, P.G. County (Doubleday, $24.95), which hit bookstores last week, is a dishy novel that exposes the secrets of five women living in a fictional Prince George's County community. It's filled with enough drama, betrayal and sex to fuel a season's worth of soap operas.

"The black middle-class and upper-middle class is something that I've always wanted to write about, particularly because it's not written about that much," says Briscoe, who grew up in Silver Spring. "Generally, people write about poor blacks, and the images are usually negative. There's very little said about middle- and upper-middle-class blacks, yet there are certainly more people who are living like that."

She happens to be one of them.

Her elegant Ellicott City home showcases African-inspired art and is surrounded by six acres, complete with an antique barn and gated swimming pool. She's 49, but her glowing skin makes her look younger, particularly as she talks animatedly about one of the most important things to her -- family.

She compares her upbringing to that depicted on The Cosby Show. Although she has only one sister and was not quite as well-to-do as the television family, Briscoe says her family is very close and supportive of each other. Most of her relatives actually now live in Prince George's County.

Briscoe chose that as the setting of this book because the last U.S. Census reported that Prince George's County is the wealthiest black-majority county in the nation. She lived there for six months in 2000 to research P.G. County.

While researching Barbara Bentley, the novel's main character, Briscoe read books on infidelity and alcoholism to depict Bentley's insecurities. The author even went so far as to read astrology books for her character's personality types, saying they give her a jumping-off point as to what a character is like. She adds that most of her characters are composites of different people she has known or read about.

Appearing in Baltimore

Briscoe's three previous novels have sold nearly one million copies in combined sales after appearing on numerous national best-seller lists, launching her into the ranks of successful fiction authors.

She will appear today at 3:30 p.m. during the Baltimore Book Festival to discuss P.G. County at a question-and-answer session with the audience.

A sign-language interpreter will be at the festival, since Briscoe is deaf, although she has become an expert lip reader. Hearing loss runs in her family, and hers occurred in her mid-20s. By graduate school she needed a hearing aid, and eventually she learned sign language.

"I've never let my hearing loss hold me back from the things I wanted to do," she says. "I just adapt and move on."

Briscoe is the first to admit that P.G. County is a departure from what she's written before. She says the "gossipy" novel shows conflict within the boundaries of a neighborhood, prompting one reviewer to dub it the "black Melrose Place."

With passages like this one, it's easy to understand why: "Good sex was the bait that lured the big fish like Bradford out of the sea. Then you could go in for the kill -- the ring, the marriage, the whole bit. The key was to get him to feel that he could get his every need satisfied with her and only her."

Briscoe says, "Some of my fans are going to be surprised because it's not quite what I've written before, although I hope they'll be happy with the change."

But Clara Villarosa, a prominent African-American bookseller who owns Hue-Man Bookstore in Harlem, said P.G. County's characters may cause a backlash among fans.

"There could be some negative response from readers since some of the characters appear snobbish, although the novel does cut across socioeconomic lines," says Villarosa.

She credits Briscoe with helping to develop a more sophisticated market for African-American commercial fiction.

"The contemporary audience is living in urban areas, and they want novels that reflect their working-class lifestyle," Villarosa says.

Emma Rogers, co-owner of Black Images, an established African-American bookstore in Dallas, admires how Briscoe's plotlines have grown more layered and her writing more fluid with each book.

"I can see how she's grown in each of the novels," Rodgers says. "She captures that middle-class kind of lifestyle and family dynamics so well."

On a national tour

Briscoe's own family dynamics have changed in recent years. She met her husband, Roderick, through an Internet dating service, and the two married in 1999. (She had a brief marriage while in her 20s.) In her 40s, she says, she had to come up with creative ways of finding a partner after friends stopped playing matchmaker and the bar scene had become "played out."

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