This reading group guide for Uptown includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with authors Virginia DeBerry and Donna Grant. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Bestselling authors Virginia DeBerry and Donna Grant are back with a tale of scandal, sex, ambition, betrayal, greed, and politics. Set in the high- power, high- stakes world of Manhattan real estate, Uptown delves into the complex lives of a wealthy and aristocratic African-American family in Harlem. In the center of the story are Avery Lyons and Dwight Dixon, first cousins who grew up as close as brother and sister, but whose relationship was irreparably damaged by the devastating aftermath of one terrible night. When they must finally face each other after years of silence, family bonds are stretched to the breaking point.
1. We first meet Dwight in the prologue as he is announcing the construction of Dixon Plaza at a high- profile press conference. Dwight has to face a large crowd of protesters. Before you knew how he behaved after the incident at Brown, did you sympathize with Dwight? How did your perspective change after you read about the incident at Brown?
2. In descriptions of Avery, it becomes evident that she has issues with closeness. Her job keeps her moving before she can get attached to any person or place. When she first sees her mother in the hospital room, Avery “handle[d] the scene as a movie—a spectacle she could observe from a safe distance, no interaction, please.” With her formerly close friend, Avery admits she “had pushed Alicia away from her life—and had done a pretty good job of keeping her out there.” However, Avery does not think of herself as alone: “she was a solo, not a solitary. It was a choice. She could add other voices or companion travelers any time she chose.” Do you think Avery was really alone? Why is she so uncomfortable with close relationships?
3. Dwight seems to prefer fantasy to real life. He wishes for a “magic BlackBerry—one without a dozen snarling messages from King, and insipid reminders from his wife to stop for flowers . . . or another condescending bulletin from Grace Kidder . . .” When preparing for a public appearance, he puts on a silk tie, “the last step in donning his armor.” When confronted with the many safety problems with the Dixon buildings, he “couldn’t have this problem,” as if it could be wished away. Finally, he has a private fantasy life with Miss Delilah. Do you think Dwight can separate fantasy from reality? Does his fantasy life help or hinder him?
4. Soon after Avery lands in New York, she thinks she is “over the wishbone after Thanksgiving dinner, faded Polaroids, click your heels together, no place like home feeling . . . she’d just as soon reside elsewhere.” When she actually reenters her childhood home for the fi rst time in years, she thinks, “this was the box and she felt like Pandora.” What is Avery’s idea of home? Does it change over the course of the book? How does Jazz influence her idea of home?
5. Avery has a strong aversion to the airplane food coming to New York. A fruit run led to the accident that killed Forestina and injured King; when Avery fi rst enters the hospital, she is met with the lingering “smell of canned string beans and cold gravy.” Are negative connotations of food tied into negative connotations of home for Avery? How are these reactions to food different from the meals she later shares with Jazz?
6. Both Dwight and Avery address the notion of survival. As Dwight traveled to the hospital, “he let the cold air brace him for whatever the hospital would bring. Not exactly Navy Seal training, but survival was survival, and Dwight worked with what he had.” Avery’s take on survival seems more about blocking things out, or creating a sense of distance: “usually Avery could press on through distraction, boredom, temptation and pain. Suck it up and drive on—her father taught her that when she was a little girl—and reinforced it regularly.” Are there similarities in the ways Avery and Dwight try to “survive” their situations in the book? Differences?
7. Avery never tells her mother what happened that fateful night at Brown. Do you think, by the end of the story, she accepts what happened?
8. What personality traits does Dwight share with his father, King? Does Dwight aspire to be like him, or to be different? Does he expect to be more successful than King?
9. In contemplating Avery’s relationship with her parents, “as a kid she used to look for similarities to connect her to these two people who made her, but she came up empty.” Avery is not particularly close to either parent and she ultimately learns something shocking about each: her seemingly cold and ultra-strict father regularly helped his tenants, and her mother had an affair starting well before her husband’s death. How did these discoveries affect her memories of each parent? Does she share any qualities with her parents?
10. Dwight visits Miss Delilah to be humiliated in order to become stronger and better able to handle his life. As described in the book, “Dwight could feel himself growing stronger with every insult she hurled.” Why else might Dwight seek out her verbal abuse? Dwight experiences humiliation from his father and other situations in his life—why does he only get pleasure from Miss Delilah? Later, when Renee finds the marks on Dwight’s chest, he first asks himself, “how did I forget?” He then asks, “why did I forget?” Did Dwight want to get caught?
11. Avery ultimately accepts the fact that forgiving Dwight is the only way she can get beyond her past, which has been like a prison for her for years. Did her confrontation achieve that for Avery? What, if anything, did it achieve for Dwight?
12. What do you see in Avery’s future? What do you see in Dwight’s?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. Check out the authors’ website, www.DeBerryandGrant.com. Sign their guestbook as a group and tell them about your book club discussion! Keep tabs on what the authors are up to on their blog, www.TwoMindsFull.blogspot.com.
2. Learn more about the complex and rich history of Harlem using an online search engine or searching your local library. Use an online mapping program, such as GoogleEarth, to locate the area where Dixon Plaza was planned.
3. Bring a bottle of Barolo to your discussion to share with the group—it helped get the conversation flowing with Avery and Jazz!
4. Uptown brings back two characters from the earlier novel Better Than I Know Myself. Read this book to get a better backgroundon these fascinating characters. Also, check out otherDeBerry and Grant books like Gotta Keep on Tryin’, Tryin’ to Sleep in the Bed You Made, and What Doesn’t Kill You. Visitwww.SimonandSchuster.com for more information.
A CONVERSATION WITH VIRGINIA DEBERRY & DONNA GRANT
Uptown is a departure for you both: many of your other novels have a much lighter tone and are centered around one or two strong female characters and their relationships. Why and how did you decide to take this new direction? Was the experience of writing Uptown significantly different than your previous works?
We enjoy stretching ourselves in our writing—working a new muscle group. For example, What Doesn’t Kill You, our last novel, was our first attempt at writing in first person. We had a ball and will undoubtedly do it again—hopefully with Tee. Readers got her, and she has much more to say. And just as with Tee’s economic woes, we wanted to be ripped- from-the-headlines current. The real estate bubble—mortgages, foreclosures, speculation, bankrupt developers—has been all over the news and affects lots of us, and Harlem properties were hot. When we were hatching a story about secrets, wounds, and a family real estate business rooted in Harlem, we realized we had already created the Dixons for Better Than I KnowMyself and that their moment was now. So this time the men came first, definitely unusual for us.
The cold, manipulative Dwight and the overbearing King made a strong impression with readers and they were juicy for us to write. Dwight needed a foil—a female character with Dixon family history. We had already introduced Aunt Forestina when we met Dwight and King. That gave us the opportunity to bring her daughter, Avery, into the picture. Once we came up with Avery and her self-imposed isolation from her family, we knew she had to have a friend to bring her out, someone she could talk to, someone who knew her before she withdrew. That’s when Alicia appeared, just when we needed her.
We wrote Uptown pretty much the way we always do. Whether it’s the doll business in Gotta Keep on Tryin’ or the cosmetics business in WDKY, we always research our background subject. In the case of Uptown, that was Manhattan real estate development—not an area we knew much about.
Then we develop our characters. Both Avery and Dwight have deeply layered personalities. What you see on the outside is not who they really are, and we needed to create each buried level in the way it might have occurred naturally, then place the next on top—so we could then have the characters reverse the process as they maneuvered through the story which took place in a few months, but really covered many years of family history.
Once the pieces are in place, we get down to the real nitty gritty, telling the story.
How do you think your fans will react to this departure?
As always, we hope our readers enjoy Uptown and that the story keeps them needing to turn the pages to find out what happens next. Our male characters have always gotten a lot of attention—either because people want to know if they’re real and have an available brother, like Marcus and Ron (we hope Jazz has joined that crew), or because they can’t stand them and want to see them get what they’ve got coming, like Dwight and Ramsey. The rest is about coming along for the ride. We do our best to craft a good story, with compelling characters. In the end we hope readers feel satisfied and get something they can carry with them.
You have written as a critically acclaimed and bestselling team for years. Are there any particular challenges or rewards that you face as a team, rather than writing solo? What is your writing process like?
The greatest challenge we think is that with two of us it does not, as some have assumed, mean we write twice as fast. Actually, it is the opposite. Our writing and editing process happens simultaneously which is good and bad. Good because mostly when we’re done, the first draft has been redrafted so many times already, it’s pretty much the finished product. Bad because it does take so much time and unlike other teams, we need to be physically in the same place—no e-mailing chapters back and forth for us. So while we are writing, we end up checking out of our personal lives for long stretches of time. Because Virginia lives alone, Donna stops being a city girl for a while and moves to her “country home” in New Jersey where our rhythm is whatever we choose for it to be. Days start and end according to a schedule that is totally of our making. We don’t divide the book by chapter or character—we really do write together, side by side at one desk—check out our video at http://simonandschuster.com. And at the end of a book, we have written and re-written every single word—together.
You have a wonderful and very active website. Especially entertaining are the photos you post in the gallery, including one when you met with President Barack Obama. Can you describe that experience of meeting him?
We had the good fortune and honor to meet Barack Obama at a private reception during a fundraiser prior to his election as the 44th President of the United States of America. In person, Mr. Obama was present, sincere, funny, smart—all the qualities we had seen on TV. We’ve met a number of important, influential people of all stripes—actors, singers, governors, senators—and we can usually feel the “spin,” tell when we are talking to the persona and not the person. But with the President, there was no posturing, no pat political clichés. We had a genuine conversation, mostly about the books we’ve written (he was interested as a fellow author) and our relationship with the mutual friends who had invited us to the event. We were truly taken with how relaxed he was in such a high pressured situation. After our meeting we were both convinced that he was the real deal and more committed than ever to doing our part to help get him elected. And now that Mr. Obama has taken office, we are working to answer his call to service.
Through your website or at your many book and speaking events, do your fans ever share their own stories with you? Do any of these stories (or aspects of them) work their way into your books?
Yes, readers often share their stories and experiences with us—not only at events, but also through e-mail. Most of the things they share are about how situations and/or circumstances we wrote about mirror similar incidents in their lives. They will often say “You wrote about my life!” “How did you know?” “You two must have been following me!” Of course we did not really write about them or their lives—we make our stories up—they are fiction—really! But over the years these kinds of comments have proven to us that nothing we make up is too far out of the norm for readers to connect or identify with. Most importantly these reactions remind us that most of the challenges we struggle within our lives are universal and that we all, to some degree, feel better because of that connection, the feeling that we are not alone.
Do either of you have experiences in real estate that helped influence Uptown?
No, not really. The infl uence was more about connections to neighborhoods in New York that were changing radically. We had no real estate moguls in our families though Virginia’s first New York apartment was on the 110th Street block we write about in Uptown and once upon a time she worked for a real estate law firm. Donna’s Mom grew up in a walk- up on 143rd St and Seventh Avenue. The family maintained connections to the area even after they moved. Donna has memories of going with her mom to Miss Helen’s beauty shop around the corner for a press and curl. Or making rounds uptown with Grandma. Donna would sit on a barstool sipping Coca- Cola with extra cherries while her grandmother caught up on the neighborhood news—but that is a story for another day.
What do you see happening to Avery and Dwight after the end of the story?
We did leave them both with a lot on their plates. We like to bring our characters through the mess we made of their lives and point them toward a new beginning. After that, they’re on their own to take the next steps—unless you want to know more. So, if you want to know how Avery adjusts to her life back at home, how her relationship with Jazz progresses, if Dwight picks up the pieces of his life or becomes a bitter, vindictive man, let us know.
Here you brought back King and Dwight Dixon from Better Than I Know Myself. Do you have plans to write a sequel to Uptown? Ifnot, will some of these characters show up in future stories?
We have a habit of slipping characters from one book into another. Sometimes they are mentioned by name, other times just by profession and a description. There have even been a few readers who have discovered our predilection (hope you enjoyed a glimpse of what Ty and Regina are up to)! But if we’ve already “invented” a doctor or photographer and need one in the book we are working on, if the timeline fits, we borrow them without hesitation. We also have a practice of giving even minor characters a pretty detailed backstory, so there is always more to them than is revealed in the book where they first make an appearance (Alicia certainly has more stories to tell). Gotta Keep on Tryin’ is our only sequel and Uptown is our first experience spinning characters off—though we have thought about it as a possibility for several other characters. We’re not saying yes or no—we just have to wait and see how Uptown does—how readers like it before we contemplate a sequel. But if we need a diplomat turned real estate queen, an investigative reporter, an owner of a fancy uptown boutique, or even a dominatrix—who knows?!
What would you most like readers to take away from this story?
Well, there are a few things. Virginia’s grandmother had a saying—“There’s more room out than in.” She meant that if an event or situation is gnawing at you, changing who you are and how you live your life, you need to find a way to get it out, talk about it, cry about it, whatever it takes. Avery’s life was altered by keeping a painful secret. So was Dwight’s and ultimately the pain he inflicts on himself costs him. Alicia, on the other hand, is pretty much the opposite. She says what she feels, deals with the consequences, and goes on without the burden of the misunderstandings and anger caused by not revealing the truth.
We are also in a time when success is often measure purely in terms of money. Whomever has the most wins, no matter what they did to get it—cheat, lie, or put others in danger. Is that really what we feel makes someone successful? Is it okay to turn whole neighborhoods and people’s lives upside- down to turn a profit? Does ownership grant you the right to do what you want? We wanted to raise the questions and give folks a chance to think about how they feel.
What are you working on now?
We’ve been checking out the headlines again. This time we’re doing research on a subject that affects about two thirds of Americans, and it’s a subject we know lots about from personal experience. We’ll keep you posted.