Caribbean-born and New York City bred, Janete Scobie is a novelist and screenwriter of character driven dramas, powerful heroines, underrepresented voices, flawed motley crews and underdogs. She introduces herself as a “A Francophile at heart”, she traveled to Paris, France after college where she spent nearly a decade. “Committed to developing the storyteller in me, my travels eventually led me back to New York where opportunities in the publishing industry provided an ideal environment to nurture my writing. I am the author of the novel The Seeds of Green Mangoes and the gift book 500 Kisses. Passionate about storytelling, I write fiction and non-fiction, TV pilots (drama/dramedy), and am developing my first feature film based on my novel”, she tells us.
Builder of worlds that explore different shades of humanity, raw and ugly truths, and the beauty in all of us, she agreed to give Zaftyg an interview.
You wrote the television pilot CRACKED. Tell us more about it.
Cracked is a one-hour edgy drama that focuses on the staff of a rehab center. The idea came from my best friend and I thought it was a very interesting perspective to write from. I was excited to explore deeply flawed, complex characters, people who are masterfully navigating their professional lives, but who, behind the mask, are unraveling, fragile, addicted in their personal lives. So, the inciting question for me was how do these two things coexist and when do they eventually clash?
For several years, you worked at a major publisher where you acquired and edited trade paperback fiction. When did you realize you wanted to become a freelance editor/writer?
I loved working in publishing. It was a dream job for me when I returned to the United States. Growing up, my dad would get the New York Times every Sunday and I would grab the Bestseller lists, reviewing the books that would make the top 15. In addition, I was a big reader also. I loved to delve into different worlds, which transported me into the lives of different people and places. It was a journey I always looked forward to and one that saved me in many ways…
Working in publishing really gave me insight into the mechanics of storytelling, the editing and editorial insights that make a novelist’s voice stronger or a story more compelling, and the different stages that go into publishing books. I learned so much and loved being part of the process of book publishing. I enjoyed working with authors and helping them to find their voice or make their work even stronger. I also enjoyed encouraging them along the way. So many people have an idea of what an author should be. I always say if you have a story to tell, sit down and write it. That desire is there for a reason.
What originally attracted you to screenwriting?
The Hours by Michael Cunningham. I loved the book and loved the film adaptation just as much. He was giving a talk and I jumped at the opportunity to attend and meet him in person. I realized that there are different storytelling mediums (prose, screenwriting, playwriting) and that as a storyteller, I could write stories in any one of these mediums and that the structure inherent to each of these mediums could be simply learned. It was the first time the seed was planted that I could write TV or film as well. And my dream got bigger from that moment on.
What’s a typical work week like?
Juggling a hundred things at once. Life always gets in the way, so it’s important to carve out time to nurture your writing. I belong to daily work sessions with other filmmakers and writers and that time is always used to advance one of my creative projects.
What writers have influenced you and why?
Whenever I am asked this question, the first name that always comes to mind is James Baldwin. His writing is fire on the page. Whenever I’m stuck, have writer’s block, or need inspiration, I read some of his work. He is one of the few writers that can take you deep inside of himself and make you literally feel every emotion. He just snatches you into his heart, into his belly and guts, and you feel it, all of it.
I also love:
Jamaica Kincaid – Caribbean American author. Her female perspective resonates so deeply with me coming from a West Indian background.
Toni Morrison – I always loved her work, Sula being my favorite of her books. When I was at the end of my journey in Paris and not knowing exactly what my life purpose was, my best friend brought me a couple of Toni Morrison’s books. I told her that I love her books. Her response – why don’t you write your own!
Jane Austen – I loved her keen eye and how she was able to deftly portray the precarious nature of women’s lives in 18th/early 19th century England.
What makes a great story?
Character. Everything starts and ends with character.
What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career in screenwriting?
Work on your craft. As writers, we can get so discouraged by the years of rejection, of nothing happening. Being a successful writer is a marathon not a sprint for most of us, and sometimes we get caught up with “breaking in” or “making it.” It’s important to keep working on our craft along the way, finding our voice, sharpening our storytelling skills, reading scripts, connecting with other writers, participating in writer groups, networking. This is a fundamental part of the journey and it will pay off in the end.
Who are you as a writer, and how did your career experiences help shape you and make you the kind of writer you are and will be?
I am the product of a university professor, an older dad who was a former RAF serviceman. He was a great orator, a masterful wordsmith who loved Shakespeare and Bach. Mom is truly roots, rock, reggae, filling our lives and imagination with Creole lore, culture, and tradition, our bedtime stories with talking animals and wooden-legged spirits. I grew up in 80s New York City in the heart of hustle and flow, where graffiti-tagged subways snaked underground, where families of every culture and faith navigated a city crawling with crime, where hip hop exploded, where every form of art injected life and hope in the everyday lives of people like me. I luckily had a dad who believed that art is a fundamental part of a child’s development and life. He was such an artist at heart and encouraged my creative side as well as my desire to experience life overseas. True to form, after college, I spent the next decade in Paris, France, a period in my life that shaped me as a woman and a global citizen.
My background and experience is a cultural kaleidoscope that molded the storyteller in me and inspires the stories I want to tell and champion. I love character-driven dramas, powerful heroines, underrepresented voices, flawed motley crews and underdogs, essentially creating art/content that reflects diverse, global narratives that inform, empower, and impact.
Why aren’t black female screenwriters getting their due?
Unfortunately, it took a long time for things to shift, but I do think that the industry is finally changing now. I always like to give a nod to the women who opened the doors. So, special mention goes out to Kathleen Collins (Losing Ground, 1982), Euzhan Palcy (Sugar Cane Alley, 1983 and A Dry White Season, 1989), and Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust, 1991) who wrote and directed their films. Unfortunately, it still took a long time after that for more women, especially women of color, to get their due.
Sometimes, it takes one person to show an entire industry what can be done when opportunity is given or taken. With every project, Ava DuVernay has changed the nature of the game. With her TV show Queen Sugar, she defied industry trends by hiring only female directors. It had to be done, and she had the power to do it. This was a game changer and we are seeing more and more female screenwriters and directors helming TV shows and films. There’s no going back now.
Screenwriting has traditionally been a boy’s club. Are things changing? As a member of NYWIFT (New York Women in Film and Television), what are the changes that need to happen?
As part of the creative community, we each have a part in nurturing and uplifting that community, creating an equitable and inclusive environment, creating opportunities and bridges when possible, mentoring emerging storytellers along the way, opening doors for underrepresented voices in every part of the industry, especially in those areas where projects are greenlit and funded. It has to be a conscious and collective effort for real change to continue to happen.
Of all the things that you’ve done, is there one that you’re really proud of the most?
That I have never given up.
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
I had the courage to be a writer at thirty. It was a long journey finding my voice, believing in my craft, believing a writer like me could bring to life characters and experiences that hid inside my imagination and molded the woman/storyteller I have become. Heroes and heroines look like all of us and my mission is to write stories that become part of the American storybook and contribute to a creative community that creates art/content in which all voices find a space to be heard.
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