Monday, July 20, 2009

This short chapter was supposed to be in the back of The Cassandra Cookbook , but never made it to the published novel due to page count restrictions. For anyone who wants to know the reasons why I wrote the book, this final chapter would explain everything.


A pinch of hard work. A dash of determination. The recipe for this story is very simple: Shawn James tries to create a sweet commercial fiction novel infused with tasteful bits of dark comedy. The end result of the project came out far better than I expected.

I’m not a commercial fiction writer; I’m just a guy who uses African-American fiction to explore concepts and ideas African-Americans don’t usually read about in the hopes of opening up Black people to new ideas. In my first two books, The Changing Soul and Isis, I explored the psychological effects of the ghetto and Egyptian mythology as it related to the African-American family. Having completed both a contemporary African-American novel and a fantasy novel, I was looking for a new challenge. So I decided to write one of those entertaining commercial novels I often read between writing books. With my combined decade of writing experience and reading experience I felt I was ready to try creating a story in the genre.....

The movies Strictly Business, The Apartment, and Clockwatchers and the Simpsons episode “Homer’s Enemy” were major inspirations for this project. I loved the dark satirical comedy Clockwatchers used to make comments about the workplace and how human beings interacted within it. I always got a laugh out of the clever social comments early episodes of the Simpsons made about life in America. Strictly Business was a movie I simply enjoyed watching; the performances were good and its heart was in the right place. The Apartment was an old film that had a tremendous impact on my writing and the development of this novel. After watching Billy Wilder’s great film I realized the workplace had a tremendous impact on the human condition. Watching these movies gave me ideas for a humorous novel that made social comments on the African-American experience in the workplace.

I started writing up a draft of a book called Integrity Sucks. It was a simple straightforward story about the African-American workplace with lots of commercial appeal. I copied the storytelling model of all the movies I had watched to the letter. Following that storytelling formula was my biggest mistake. Most of those movies I watched often showed the workplace from a White perspective. The White view of the workplace was often jaded and cynical; the total opposite of the point of view I experienced in the African-American world of work.

I wanted my story to say something about the human condition within the African-American experience, not be a re-hash of white stories with black characters in it. So I started thinking about my own experiences in the world of work. From what I observed in the workplace, most African-Americans aren’t angry or a bitter about their jobs. African-Americans often see employment as an opportunity for growth and change. To blacks work is a place where poor men and women often oppressed by racism and discrimination have an opportunity to find their true value and actualize their untapped potential.

Focusing on the positive experiences of the African-American workplace I began re-writing Integrity Sucks into The Cassandra Cookbook. The new story I planned would be the recipe for Cassandra Lee’s success working on a licensing deal with ITC Foods. Basically a recipe is a process of combining raw ingredients together through a series of steps to get a certain finished result. Depending upon the experience of the person, combining these raw ingredients together causes them to change chemically, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. While Cassandra had experience in the area of baking and customer service, she was inexperienced in the area of licensing. She has to combine her experience with Simon who is inexperienced with people but experienced with the business of marketing. As these two raw talents work together, romantic chemistry swirls around them. This causes them to change, some sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. However, as she and Simon learn from each other’s experiences they achieve their goals. Simon is promoted to ITC’s baked goods Product Manager and Cassandra expands her business into the Cassandra Brand name.

On the surface of the book would be about a business deal to expand the business of two companies; however the deeper story would be about the personal growth of the people working on the deal. Throughout the story the main characters learn what people are worth. On the quest to preserve the integrity of her family’s business, Cassandra learns how valuable she is. Working towards his promotion, Simon learns what makes the products his company produces valuable are the people behind them. It’s only when he discovers Cassandra’s value as a person, is he able to complete the deal.

With my plot and theme in place, I researched successful business people and their companies so the fictional black owned businesses of ITC Foods and the Cassandra Bakery could be as realistic as possible to readers. ITC Foods was inspired by the Parks Sausage Company, one of the oldest black owned food distributors in the U.S. Established in the 1950s it makes all types of sausage and meat products. The story of the Sara Lee Bakery was the inspiration for the Cassandra Bakery. In the 1950’s the owner of the Sara Lee bakery actually named the store after his daughter and sold it to a corporation. If he only knew his daughter’s name would become synonymous with a worldwide conglomerate that produces everything from cheesecake to handbags!

With the ingredients for writing the cookbook in place I got to work developing Cassandra’s recipe for success. I had a lot of fun writing this story, more fun than I had working on any other novel in my fiction writing career. I looked forward to sitting in front of the computer every day during the two years it took to write Simon and Cassandra’s story. I hope you learned something from reading it.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

I attended the Harlem Book Fair yesterday to promote my books Isis and The Cassandra Cookbook. It was the biggest mistake of my writing career. Five months of planning and organizing for this event, Four Hundred Dollars spent on supplies and books and I only sold one book. Am I disappointed about the sales? Yeah I am. But I’m more disappointed about what the black community is calling literature now.

There was a Street lit table right next to mine. Those guys writing about gangstas, pimps, drug dealers hoes, hood rats and any other racist stereotype did brisk business with people snapping books up all day. I was deeply saddened; At the fair, it looks like black readers have come back to embrace the racist stereotypes so many fought and died for over a century to dispel with open arms. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Paul Robeson, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Lorriane Hanesberry, Dorothy Dandridge, Thurgood Marshall and Michael Jackson are probably all looking down at the Black Masses in disgust and disappointment.

I spent six hours in the hot sun practically ignored by the black reading audience I’ve been wanting to write for since I was 16. My mission back then was to write positive stories about the Black experience. Stories about overcoming the odds, facing adversity and growing into a better person who improved the quality of life for their community. It seems no one wants to read those kinds of stories anymore. In the aftermath of the Harlem Book Fair I have to wonder if the community is committed to change or if its scared of it.

In the aftermath of Electing the First African-American President I wonder if there is any hope for the African-American reader. Instead of taking that step forward with Obama, most young brorhers and sisters on the streets are taking ten steps back when it comes to what they read. I have to wonder: Is the self-image of Black men so poor that all most think they can aspire to is drug dealing, pot smoking, pimping, and being a thug? When did Black women look in the mirror and start seeing a prostitute or a madam? Is the Black Community’s self-esteem so low that it doesn’t see itself as capable of anything but being a criminal?

A long time ago I came to the understanding that what one feeds the mind comes out of the body. As a person thinks, they will act. If the popular black literature is about drugs, crime and all sorts of debauchery today then I shudder to think what will come out of the Black Community in the next 20 years.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

You can meet Shawn James at:


SATURDAY July 18, 2009


FROM 11AM to 5.P.M.
I'll be autographing copies of his books THE CASSANDRA COOKBOOK and ISIS answering questions about writing, print-on-demand publishing and other writing related stuff. Check out sample chapters of his books at