Novel approach 

Atlanta author Pearl Cleage balances luck, loss and life after 'Oprah'

Pearl Cleage believes in fear. She also believes in luck. Cleage's fear of flying shaped the book tour for her new novel -- she and her husband, novelist Zaron Burnett, are driving all the way to San Francisco. But it was luck, she says, that made the tour possible.

In 1998, Cleage's first novel, What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, was touched by the hand of Goddess; Oprah Winfrey chose the book for her slavishly devoted book club. The title soared to the top of bestseller lists with expected celebrity, and the 52-year-old Atlantan instantly went from a moderately well-known playwright and essayist to a household name for millions of Oprah-philes.

Thanks to the Winfrey windfall, Cleage's new novel, I Wish I Had a Red Dress, published this month by William Morrow, is virtually guaranteed a healthy response from readers. Fame, however, is not something Cleage fears. In fact, she says it hasn't really changed her life at all.

Accidents and activism
I Wish I Had a Red Dress is a sequel to What Looks Like Crazy. Joyce Mitchell, older sister of the first novel's protagonist, takes center stage this time, struggling with her Sewing Circus, a support group for young, unwed mothers, and with her own loneliness. Enter Nate Anderson, a tall, handsome stranger who just may be able to fill the void in Joyce's life.

Joyce's string of personal tragedies -- her husband, parents and two children have all died at the book's start -- hits home for Cleage. Life since the first book's publication has been tempestuous. Her father, father-in-law and best friend died while she was writing Red Dress.

Cleage, a spare and sprightly woman whose eyes tell you everything you need to know about her unsinkable charisma, greets her own misfortune with a steadfast optimism. "You know how sometimes when bad things happen, people act like the universe singled them out to say, 'This is going to be a bad day for you'? I don't think the world works that way. Random things happen. Sometimes people have bad luck. But I don't think it's because God is mad at you or the universe is mad at you or any of that."

In Red Dress, Cleage cooks up a tale of overcoming tragedy with a healthy dollop of social issues on the side: domestic violence, racism and drug abuse, to name a few. Joyce describes herself as a "true '60s voodoo child," a champion for "free women." It's rhetoric lifted directly from the author's life, whose activist upbringing definitely informs her work.

"Joyce is so dedicated to her community and working with people, and I've got some reformer kind of missionary stuff in me too," Cleage says. Her father, the Rev. Albert Cleage, founded the Shrine of the Black Madonna Church in Detroit in the mid-'60s, with ministries in Atlanta and Houston, and she grew up in a household constantly engaged in political discourse over African-American nationalism and the Civil Rights Movement. After moving to Atlanta in 1969, she continued her involvement with community activism, working as Mayor Maynard Jackson's press secretary and later marrying Michael Lomax, former Fulton County Commission Chairman, with whom she has a daughter, Deignan. The two split in 1979.

Cleage's first taste of fame came through her writing. She published two nonfiction works, Mad at Miles: A Black Woman's Guide to Truth and Deals With the Devil and Other Reasons to Riot, and secured a position teaching playwriting at Spelman. While running the Just Us Theater Company, Cleage formed a friendship with a young actor named Kenny Leon, which led to her prolific run of three plays at the Alliance Theatre in the '90s: Flyin' West, Blues for an Alabama Sky and Bourbon at the Border. All three went on to productions across the country.

Fear and form
After such success, going from playwright to novelist might seem like a natural move. But Cleage says she made the transition "with great trepidation" and with lots of help from her husband in perfecting the fiction form. The risk, though, was worth her initial fear. After Oprah anointed What Looks Like Crazy, sales exceeded all expectations, with more than 1 million copies currently in print. And William Morrow has already launched a second printing of Red Dress after a healthy 80,000 first run.

Cleage says fame hasn't affected her much. "I think of Madonna as being famous. I'm not famous like that. People saw me in the grocery store after I was on 'Oprah' and they were so surprised. And I kept saying, 'Well, I still have to eat. She didn't give me a personal shopper.'" Book sales allowed her to put a new roof on her home and fund a writing award at Dillard University, where Lomax is now president. Other than that, Cleage says her life was "already going in a really wonderful way. I didn't move, I didn't buy a new car. I didn't do a lot, because I was already living just the way I wanted to." That includes maintaining her residence in West End, where she's lived for more than 20 years.

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