Interview with author D Watkins

Interview with author D Watkins

In this episode of The Truth In This Art, Rob interviewed D Watkins, the New York Times bestselling and award-winning author of The Beast Side, The Cook Up, Where Tomorrows Aren’t Promised and We Speak for Ourselves. , and discussed his new book Black Boy Smile, working on HBO's We Own This City and much more.

00;00;10;09 - 00;00;33;02
Rob Lee
The welcome to the truth in this art. I'm your host, Rob Lee. And today I have the distinct pleasure of being in conversation with an editor at large for Salon. He is also an award winning professor at the University of Baltimore and an award winning writer, author, founder of the BMA Writers Project. And his recent release, Black Boy Smile, a memoir and Moments, came out in May.

00;00;33;06 - 00;00;37;11
Rob Lee
Please welcome the great D Watkins. Welcome to the podcast.

00;00;38;06 - 00;00;45;02
D Watkins
Hey, what's up? I'm happy to be here, man. Thank you. Thank you for taking your time and calling on me. I really appreciate it.

00;00;45;15 - 00;01;05;21
Rob Lee
I appreciate you making the time. And I think this is long, long overdue. And I want to start off by just shooting a question or whatever you want to tap over real quick and hit you with this question. So we we know, you know, various books out there like just notoriety, professor, just in here in this in the city.

00;01;06;02 - 00;01;23;28
Rob Lee
So could you share, like, you know, how you got started as a writer and describe that experience when you started making money in that kind of space as well? Like, I know it's a weird question to start off with, but, you know, talk about starting off as a writer, how you felt when you like first started getting that that acknowledgment monetarily.

00;01;24;23 - 00;01;33;01
D Watkins
All right. So all right. So am I talking about when I started or what I'm talking about when I started making money? Because these are two very different answers.

00;01;33;03 - 00;01;35;16
Rob Lee
You can give us the rundown of both. I mean, I want to hear both.

00;01;36;24 - 00;02;05;02
D Watkins
When I started, I couldn't pay a person to read what I was what I was doing. But like, I felt like what I was what I was doing was right. You know, I've done a lot of things in my life, and writing is one of the few things that felt right. And I was I was I was I was in a hospital and a nurse a nurse gave me a book and I was playing the short game.

00;02;05;02 - 00;02;29;25
D Watkins
I was I was trying to get a phone number. She was playing the long game. She was trying to enlighten me. She's asking me what I, you know, what am I reading and all that? And I'm like, oh, you know, I'm reading 48 lines of power, even though I wasn't. And even though like, I feel like eight out of ten people who say they read that book, you know, they even they didn't or they don't read, they just have it because it, you know, it looks good for like the power bookshelf.

00;02;29;25 - 00;02;51;06
D Watkins
But anyway, she made fun of me for that, which was cool. I didn't get the number, which was also cool, but I did get the book and I wasn't I wasn't necessarily what you would call a reader at the time. So the fact that I took that book from her, what she left me that book. In fact, I finished it in like, like 2 to 3 days.

00;02;51;24 - 00;03;11;26
D Watkins
300 some pages was it was was super fast for me. Like right now I can read 300 pages in a couple of hours at this particular time. Couldn't, I couldn't do that. And the book was The Coldest Winter Ever in that book led to me reading a lot of other books, and I wanted to know everything about Sister Soldier and you know, who who influenced her.

00;03;11;26 - 00;03;36;13
D Watkins
I wanted to know everything about the people who influenced them, and that just snowballed for me. Reading the street stories to reading stories about the streets from a different time period, to me reading stories on the streets of Russia. You know what I'm saying? I'm tapped in with the gambler, an idiot by Dostoyevsky, and it all came from learning to love Toni Morrison, loving sister, soldier, learning to love James Baldwin and all of these different people that was telling these stories.

00;03;36;22 - 00;04;16;13
D Watkins
Yeah. So this is like maybe I'm going to see at least a good five year period before I cash my first real check. Oh, good. But what I will say about the money portion is writing, you know, like art in general. It it comes fast for some people because we all have different definitions of fast. But I know for me, before I even, you know, published my first essay, there's 100 rejection stories in front of that before I got my first literary agent.

00;04;16;20 - 00;04;40;05
D Watkins
This over 500 rejection stories attached to that before I started my first book deal. There's like another five, four or five years of people telling me no before someone actually said yeah. So it's always funny when I'm out in the world and people say things like, Oh yeah, they want to see pop up out of nowhere. He came overnight and it's like, no dog.

00;04;40;08 - 00;04;53;22
D Watkins
Like, I didn't come here overnight. I've been here. You just didn't know who I was. You didn't know what I was doing. But it doesn't mean I wasn't active, and it doesn't mean I wasn't trying. And it doesn't mean I was trying to become, like, a better artist and a better person every day.

00;04;54;15 - 00;05;12;22
Rob Lee
Now, that's that's huge. And I think we feel that that notion of all of the work that goes into it, all the stuff that's baked into it, all of the rejections, all the experience, all looking for those, not even like actively looking for those validation markers. But you know, there are things that are out there. You're like, okay, I'm moving in the right direction.

00;05;12;22 - 00;05;31;09
Rob Lee
This works. And you know, I say it all the time on here. I've been doing this thing for 13 years and then, you know, it's just like, yo, listen to some of that old stuff. It is wild. Or even looking at some of the earlier episodes of this podcast and some of the questions I ask, then I would definitely not.

00;05;31;09 - 00;05;47;28
Rob Lee
I would be embarrassed to ask. And I was like, Wow, this is this is not anything this is not curious at all. This was tell me about your work. Oh, that's interesting. Moving on to the next thing. And I think people don't see that. It's like, oh, suddenly this guy is now the face of this or doing this or getting these different opportunities.

00;05;47;28 - 00;05;56;24
Rob Lee
It's like a lot of sweat equity, a lot of a lot of those moments where you're not sure if you're, you know, doing the right thing or if your approach is right. All of those things are baked into that experience.

00;05;57;12 - 00;06;23;07
D Watkins
You know? And then it's also not right for another person to try to minimize your journey like someone has said, I heard someone say on an event, the wackiest guy has started a city paper. That's that's not true. I heard someone say DUI. Akins had got had got his start when Freddie Gray died. And, you know, rest in peace to Freddie Gray.

00;06;23;10 - 00;06;42;06
D Watkins
You know, I had two book deals before Freddie Gray died with major publishing companies. I already did television. I had already had been a sought after paid speaker and recognized for my work. So, you know, it's not to minimize that moment and what it meant to the city and the attention that people started to pay to the city.

00;06;42;15 - 00;07;14;10
D Watkins
But we don't have to try to minimize another person's work down to like, oh, well, as if this wouldn't have happened then he or she wouldn't have had a career or because, you know, there's a lot of people who feel like they can do what you do. And podcast is if you have it, you don't. You have 13 years and you've been doing this and you have a name and you have a system, you have a, you know, it looks like a $500 microphone like you have, you know, you have something that you put you put your work in.

00;07;14;10 - 00;07;27;21
D Watkins
And, you know, I will hope that we we could get away from that. But sometimes it's even it's hard for me to even get into that conversation because it turns it turns into conflict. And I'm not I'm like an entire like antique conflict guy.

00;07;28;11 - 00;07;49;13
Rob Lee
And I dig that. And yeah, like I remember it's one of those things where you have conversations with people and you have that comparison thing that comes up. You have just all these different things to, I think to back to your point of almost kind of minimizes what the work is. And with the work that's been going out there and just what that process looks like and it's like I rather not engage.

00;07;49;13 - 00;07;59;20
Rob Lee
I'd rather not even do that. I rather just keep doing my stuff. I'm better served at doing that. That's what I'm good at, trying to change people's minds. It's like, Nah, I rather just do that by making it work, but put other content.

00;08;00;23 - 00;08;13;00
D Watkins
In and you do what you want people. You want people to show love. You want people to respect what you're doing. You want to respect what they do. But we are everyone is a work in progress. So it's all love.

00;08;13;16 - 00;08;40;18
Rob Lee
Absolutely. So one of the things I think with this series and what I've noticed, especially in your most recent book, What Have You, Black Boys Smile. So storytelling, that's big. That's huge. You know, that's really what the crux of this podcast is. So let's let's talk about the process of putting together like you're like your writing process and most, most, most recently your last book.

00;08;41;17 - 00;08;45;01
Rob Lee
And what is the most interesting part of that process for you?

00;08;45;01 - 00;09;20;23
D Watkins
Delete, deleting, deleting scenes. Deleting scenes is the most it's the most interesting part for me because for one, it's difficult. It's extremely difficult for to you get the opportunity to really, really, really, really capture the heat of people who, you know, I've I've I've heard conversations of book critics arguing about my book, where one critic is like, yo, I feel like there's some missing pieces that I want.

00;09;21;05 - 00;09;45;22
D Watkins
Another critic is like, yo, but everything in there's fucking moving. It moves like it moves. So you can't, you know, he's like, when you read all these books, it's rare that you get a project you can't put down because it moves. So, you know, I trimmed all of the stuff that was just unnecessary. I trimmed a lot of analysis because y you need my analysis that's that's toxic in a way.

00;09;45;22 - 00;10;08;03
D Watkins
You get to go and analyze it for yourself. Take what you take for the moment. Take what you take for the moment. Take what you would take from that emotional arc and analyze it yourself, you know, and you do that work because it becomes even more meaningful and lasting for you. So for me, I start with a slab and and then I just carve it up.

00;10;09;04 - 00;10;24;10
D Watkins
It's like a glacier, you know what I'm saying? Like you see the little piece on top. But, you know, when you get below sea level, that motherfucker is what you see is only a 10th. The sea is only a 10th below sea level was fucking crazy is vast.

00;10;24;10 - 00;10;28;14
Rob Lee
Once you get past that that peak of it what have you and.

00;10;28;14 - 00;10;28;27
D Watkins
Luli.

00;10;29;11 - 00;10;48;13
Rob Lee
And and I'll say just you know in recently finishing it and I will say the added caveat of having you do the because I did the audio book I consume I'm kind of where you were describing you're reading that earlier. I'm like, it's going to be a month before I finish this three pages real quick. So I'm going to consume in that way.

00;10;48;23 - 00;11;10;10
Rob Lee
And having you do the narration, basically reading, reading the book or what have you, add something extra to it. I was like, All right, this is this right here is kind of funny. This right here has this going on. And in terms of the flow, as I'm looking at, I see things in like adaptation form, like this could easily be something a coming of age, sort of like series or what have you.

00;11;10;10 - 00;11;25;04
Rob Lee
I was like that that's could be a natural application for this. And you're right, you just keep going through it and keep going through it. And like I said, I listen to it twice. So it's like, let me go back. I got to listen to, you know, episode six. It's like, that's a chapter that is. That's not an episode, bro.

00;11;26;09 - 00;11;52;16
D Watkins
Yeah, that's. Wow. I don't know if you ever heard of oh, this, this, this brilliant director who was really known as an actress named Sally Richardson. Yeah, that just has it right now. And she's like, she's like, I'm going to do I want to I want to do something with this. But we have to figure out what it is because I told her I want a miniseries and she's like, No, I want five years of television.

00;11;53;06 - 00;12;16;04
D Watkins
So I was like, you know, that's what you see. That's what I see. Maybe we'll figure it out. And she was like, Yeah, you got that right. We're going to figure it out, you know? And and I think maybe it reads like that in a way, because I was writing TV at the time, I was writing a book, so my whole mind was in it.

00;12;16;06 - 00;12;21;24
D Watkins
But at one and two and three, I want to read the whole time I was working about it.

00;12;22;10 - 00;12;41;25
Rob Lee
So so that's almost a natural Segway right there. Let's let's talk about that a little bit. We're going to we're going to jump back in to some more questions. But I want to talk about that experience in writing for TV and working in TV compared to some of your previous writing. Like how is that environment? What was that environment like being in a writer's room for like, you know, we only sit in the city and so on.

00;12;42;03 - 00;12;42;25
Rob Lee
Tell me about that.

00;12;43;19 - 00;13;25;19
D Watkins
So working working with David. David and Nina and George in a for me was like being in college for so many years. So not to sound pretentious, but one of my jobs has been public intellectual where like people expect me to have answers to things literally book for radio and TV and the universities and think tanks where my job is literally you pay me some money and I come up and I just I demand that, you know, what I'm saying is, like, the most pretentious fuck it ever.

00;13;25;27 - 00;13;55;14
D Watkins
Like, for so long, you get you get you get tripped up in your head into thinking you got the answers for everything when really, you know, nobody. No one has the answers for everything. And I will want to be quiet, but to feed my family, I had to run my mouth. So in this situation, I was so happy to just be the youngest person in the room, the most inexperienced person in a room hearing George say, No, you did that.

00;13;55;14 - 00;14;12;27
D Watkins
You should've did that here. And David said, No, you're being too tight, cut loose here. I mean, to say, oh, no, you got this one thing going on. I was set up your next day was transformative for me. I didn't want to say anything. I just wanted to learn. But they were like, No, you. You ready? You need to write an episode.

00;14;12;28 - 00;14;36;08
D Watkins
And I'm like, I never bet. You know, I never back down from a challenge. I was I was ready to take that challenge on, but it was just it was special for me to just just to be a student like it. So it feels so good to just shut the fuck up and just listen to people who are more experienced and who have accomplished way more than you and I, you know, I'll forever be grateful to them for that.

00;14;37;07 - 00;14;55;09
Rob Lee
Yeah. As I'm listening, you know, you know, we have that, that mutual connection we have. So have you a mutual connection there. And it was just certain things just, you know, in the conversation back and he was just like talking you have what have you and he's like, Yeah, yeah, same shit. Yeah. You know, because, you know, as I was like, Yeah.

00;14;55;18 - 00;15;25;08
D Watkins
Akeelah, that's my dog, man. You know, it was his journey. I've just been honored to just watch watching your just grow as an artist, as a person, as a thinker and his confidence. Like, I really, really, really enjoy watching the way he grew as a as you know not to say he I don't I never like call him a person to lack confidence, but I've watched him become more confident because his work has always been A-1.

00;15;25;13 - 00;15;46;25
D Watkins
Yeah. So for him to even know he knows his work is a one, but I feel like he knows it at a higher level now and it comes with it as an artist. It comes with being validated by other people trying to, you know, book you and connect with you and build what you you build their confidence. And I'm just I'm fortunate that I got a chance to just to see him grow, man.

00;15;46;25 - 00;15;48;17
D Watkins
I'm honored to know.

00;15;48;17 - 00;16;14;07
Rob Lee
Yeah. And it was really funny. Like, you know, we happen to be in, like, the same boat and working in the same office. And I was like, I know, you know. Evans And, you know, it's one of those things where you you kind of understand in a I like the way you describe that experience and being in a writer's room and being having that opportunity to kind of just kind of sit back and then, you know, observe, like and be pensive, you know, I think that's one of the things.

00;16;14;12 - 00;16;31;21
Rob Lee
But also recognizing that I got to chime in. I got to say something here. I got to do something. I got to contribute in this way. I like those opportunities and I look at like, you know, more than me. So what can I learn? How can how can I be helpful? And, you know, I think that that's a really advantageous spot.

00;16;31;21 - 00;16;44;02
Rob Lee
And I think you can relate to this maybe of it's not always the most familiar thing. It's like, I know what the fuck I'm doing. I need you to tell me what I'm doing. But sometimes you got to sit back there and listen. If somebody knows a lot more than you and has a lot more experience in that area than you.

00;16;44;18 - 00;17;18;06
D Watkins
Yeah, I think one of the reasons that we had a good experience and we were able to make a show that that was received well by a lot of people. Was everyone in the room was intellectually curious, a researcher in Hungry, not a bunch of traditional TV writers. And I think adding me could have been a gamble because sometimes everyone in their work going to I was the only person that did so added me was like a gamble because, you know, I could have came in with an ego, instructed dynamic go.

00;17;19;11 - 00;17;45;04
D Watkins
I'm accomplished in my own right, you know, you know, people who are accomplished sometimes they're terrible people. But I didn't come in on some walk soap box you won't listen to me and we going to because only I could tell a Baltimore story. I came in like, Yo, I'm here alone and searched where I need to insert and and earned opportunity to be able to create and add to that so different ways you do it.

00;17;45;19 - 00;18;06;23
D Watkins
There's a lot of talk, a lot of noise around diversity and inclusion and stuff like that. And we we need to have those conversations. But what we're seeing a lot is people who are really talented, bullying their way into situations and then creating fucked up art. And then when they're not getting booked or rehired as well, you didn't take the time to learn.

00;18;06;23 - 00;18;33;00
D Watkins
You walked your way into some grant money or you walked away an opportunity. And now when somebody said, Ari, you cried, motherfucker. Now his is the here's the money, here's the situation, here's the shit you say, Oh, this bitch. Yeah. You never took the time to learn how to sail the ship. So I'm like, yes, give, you know, yo, yes, we we've earned opportunities that we should have things, but no, what the fuck you doing?

00;18;33;19 - 00;18;35;04
D Watkins
It's like it's like.

00;18;35;05 - 00;18;47;14
Rob Lee
You use football as the analogy, right? Like, yo, you might want to sit for that first season, you might want to get in there for a few packages here. But if you come in and you're on a team that's trying to figure it out, you don't want to be on the Browns like I'm a rookie. Starting for the Browns.

00;18;47;25 - 00;18;49;06
Rob Lee
You're roasted, you're done.

00;18;49;16 - 00;18;52;27
D Watkins
Get the shit cracked out. You.

00;18;52;27 - 00;19;14;08
Rob Lee
So your writing is authentic, familiar and progressively more personal. Have you? So tell me about some of those risks that go into like your writing, whether it is, you know, kind of inserting experiences, you know, cause they're baked in and in TV or even in your own like books or even in lectures and things of that sort. Like, tell me about that.

00;19;14;08 - 00;19;22;14
Rob Lee
And being progressively more personal and being able to like crack that shell and really like present you and your experiences. Tell me about those risks that are there.

00;19;22;14 - 00;19;54;03
D Watkins
Um, you lose, you lose a piece of yourself that you from East Baltimore, you know, resiliency is currency what you've been through your back story, your family's back story, how feral you are. It means something to me, something. So if you're from a place where nobody has trust, why nobody has a pony, nobody. You know, a couple of people make it to private school, but it's rare.

00;19;54;04 - 00;20;19;14
D Watkins
Nobody really has anything. People aren't passing us down a hundred houses and shit like that, you know, we coming out the street. Your resiliency is you ever doing your chest like it's it's the most like it's the most important part of you being vulnerable. You sacrifice that. So people who are, you know, who may have, you know, say, I love Duke is because he's been through a lot, but he still has a sense of humor.

00;20;19;24 - 00;20;54;17
D Watkins
He still a positive guy. He still has love in his heart. He still tries every day. You know, it might be like, damn, I didn't know. Dugas feels weak at times. I didn't know the Watkins feels depressed. I didn't know what gives struggles. You know, I have struggles with addiction and dealt with all kinds of pain and abuse and uncertain need and all of these different things that crumble oppressed people, all people, but really oppressed people because we ain't got no money to fall back on.

00;20;54;29 - 00;21;20;08
D Watkins
But it crumbles. It crumbles. So now I'm stepping down off this this this fictitious superhero stage to say, oh, hey, young lady. Hey, young man, I'm just like you. I'm terrified of certain shit, angry at certain things, certain times. You know, I could have made good decisions and I've made bad ones and all of the messed up things that goes into a human experience.

00;21;20;08 - 00;21;39;18
D Watkins
I'm guilty of that. How you doin? Nice to meet you. Let's. Let's have a real conversation so you lose the superhero status, but at the same time, you gain the opportunity to be to this, to be real. And that's you know, that's and lucky for me, that's that's currency, too.

00;21;40;08 - 00;22;00;17
Rob Lee
Yeah. It, I think it makes, it makes us more accessible in that way. And I think at a point, you know, I, I have a pretty packed recording schedule, right. And I might do, you know, three interviews in a day or what have you. And look at the course of the week, I've done 12, 15 interviews and at a point I wasn't giving myself like gaps between it.

00;22;00;17 - 00;39;52;01
Rob Lee
And you're having these conversations that vulnerability experiences, traumas, all of that stuff is baked into what someone's story is and what someone's worth.

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