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BIBR spotlight: Toure: a charmed life.

In 1992, a then-21-year-old who went only by the name Toure--he won't divulge his last name--arrived in New York City to pursue a writing career. The ambitious, and perhaps naive, Boston native hadn't even taken a serious literary or writing course during his three-year stint at an Atlanta college. It would seem like a familiar story: wide-eyed wannabe writer destined for the scrap heap of New York publishing. But then you don't know Toure.

As a child, he says, he was a decent reader. Not the kind of kid who read the whole library, although he has always had a lot to say. At first, he longed to write about politics and social issues, but realized there were no opportunities in political writing for a 21-year-old unknown. During his first summer in the city, he secured an internship with Rolling Stone and opted for a career in entertainment journalism.

Over the past ten years, Toure (who, like many of the music stars he interviews, goes by only one name) has created an impressive body of work that has appeared in The New Yorker, The Source, Rolling Stone and Playboy. Having interviewed the likes of Lauryn Hill, Prince, DMX, Jay-Z, Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur, he is one of music journalism's most in-demand writers. He also holds the distinction of being Rolling Stone's first African-American staff writer. After gaining prominence as a nonfiction writer, Toure boldly steps up to the plate this July with a debut collection of 24 short stories called The Portable Promised Land.

Recently, over dinner at his favorite restaurant, Chez Oskar in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, I talked to him about his writing--past, present and future.

Working at Rolling Stone

"I never did any of the things that interns were supposed to do," says Toure, a slightly bemused grin on his face as he retells this-oft-repeated anecdote of how he began as an intern at Rolling Stone. "I would delegate to other interns by saying something like `She [referring to his boss] said she wants you to answer this phone. I'm just telling you what she said. You don't have to do it if you don't want to.' And they would do it," he says, alluding to his charisma and growing talent for innocent manipulation.

"I wasn't like a pimp. I was just sly," he adds. "Then I would have my free half hour to go and talk to the writers and editors and find out how to become one. Eventually, I got fired, which never happens to unpaid interns."

Being fired actually helped to jump-start his career. While making his rounds as an intern at Rolling Stone, he had become friends with record review editor Anthony DeCurtis, who gave him his first assignment, a 100-word review. Soon after, he was doing short pieces for Elle, The Source and The Village Voice while still freelancing at Rolling Stone.

Honing his craft

After writing about music for several small publications, Toure decided he needed to move on to a better crop of magazines. In 1995, he was assigned to do a feature on 70s music executive Dickey Griffey for The New Yorker.

"They sent me to L.A. for about three weeks and I had an incredible experience," he says of the Griffey feature. When he returned, he wrote the story, but The New Yorker didn't like it. "I said `Okay, no problem. I rewrote the story and they still didn't like it. But this time they were like, `We don't like it. Go away for a couple of years at least.'"

The piece never ran in the magazine, but years later it was reworked and published in XXL. Even after the fiasco of the Griffey feature, he still wrote at least ten "Talk of the Town" stories for The New Yorker about everything from graffiti artists to the n-word.

The New Yorker made it dear to Toure that he was not ready for the big leagues. Instead, Toure decided that in order to move forward as a writer, he would have to have the kind of academic credentials he lacked at the time. With that in mind, he applied to the MFA program at Columbia University and was accepted. He began the program in 1996.

"Being at Columbia showed me that fiction and nonfiction are not so different, he says. "And they showed me how to transition into the other world, and how to take those ideas that I already had and put them into character, a story, a narrative. Until that point, I had never done fiction."

Initially, Toure decided to study nonfiction. But he kept hearing that fiction and nonfiction were so similar that he took a fiction class. The majority of his classmates were writing about relationships. But Toure had yet not experienced a serious relationship at that point in his life. He chose to be different from his peers and penned the story "The Sad, Sweet Story of Sugar Lips Shinehot, the Man With the Portable Promised Land," which is where the title of the collection derives. His classmates loved the short story--which engendered the kind of response his commercial nonfiction had not--so Toure decided to write several other stories.

Discouraged by Daddy Love

After the positive feedback from "Sugar Lips Shinehot," Toure felt like he was on a roll. For a different class, he wrote another story called "A Hot Time at the Church of Kentucky Fried Souls," with a flamboyant main character named Revren' Daddy Love, and read it to his class. "They hated it," he says. So he stopped writing fiction for over a year.

"I thought I had a good one the first time, a funny little Fun. And then the next one, they hated," says Toure, who seems genuinely crushed just remembering the story. "I was discouraged. I wasn't there to become a fiction writer at all." In the end, he didn't complete the MFA program, but Toure credits Columbia with opening doors and a new world in his writing career.

A year and a half after his classmates critiqued the story, "A Hot Time" won the prestigious Zoetrope: All Story fiction contest. Adrienne Brodeur, who was editor-in-chief of Zoetrope: All Story magazine at the time, encouraged Toure to continue writing. "That's a moment that a lot of writers have ... when somebody important encourages you," he says.

His process and work ethic

As a writer, Toure feels like he's always on stage. "There's definitely a performance aspect to what I'm doing. I'm always reading my work out loud. It should work for your ear, as well as your eye," he says.

As for his first experience dealing with book publishers, he says he enjoyed working with editors at Little, Brown and also likes the quality of the other authors at the house. "I wanted to have an association with a good house because it's [the book] so funny. I want to be taken seriously."

What's next

Next up is a novel entitled Soul City. The full story is due out next year, with a few characters returning from The Portable Promised Land. But Toure points out that the town itself, Soul City, is the main character. When asked was Brooklyn inspiration for Soul City? Toure responds with an enthusiastic "yes."

"Being around Fort Green for the past six or seven years, there's so many black people. All the black institutions: the jewelry shop, the barbershop, the nail salon, the soul food restaurant. They're all here."

He points out, however, that Soul City can be Watts, Atlanta or Brixton. Over the next 20 years, Toure hopes to do five or ten books. "I'll be the smart, funny guy," he says. "Not that I'm definitely smart. But it's funny smart. It's not silly funny. With my work, you're going to laugh and think at the same time."

Toure's hope for The Portable Promised Land is that black people will get it. "My whole thing was to create something that seems like an exaggeration, so you laugh and you're drawn in, but at the same time you realize that it's not that much of an exaggeration. It's hard to create something that's way out there because we're [black people] way out there."

Although he welcomes the support of white readers, it's really for black folks. "I left it dense and vague," he says. "Things are not explained or mapped out. And the book is supposed to go very fast. If you're not in black culture, you'll miss a lot."

Visit Toure on the web at Read the review of The Portable Promise Land in our summer fiction special beginning on page 28.
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Title Annotation:author of 'The Portable Promised Land'
Author:Jones, Mondella S.
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2002
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