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How Wahida Clark Became the Queen of 'Street Lit' From Inside a Prison Cell

We talked to the originator of the street lit fiction genre to discuss how she pioneered a nuanced take on the romance novel from within a federal prison.

by Seth Ferranti
Nov 1 2015, 2:00pm

All images courtesy of Wahida Clark

Wahida Clark is the reigning O.G. of street lit, also called "urban fiction." Best known for her Thug and Payback series, Clark writes nuanced takes on the schlocky romance novels you see at grocery stores, replacing the cheese with guns, cash, gangs, and drugs. And Clark isn't just fabricating inner-city tall tales; she's writing about what she's lived through.

Born and bred in the streets of Trenton, New Jersey, Clark was involved with the New World, a crew of black separatist bank robbers known for beheading their rivals,and served time as a result. While doing a sentence of 125 months in federal prison for money laundering and wire fraud, Clark began writing fiction while locked up. She wrote her first book, Thugs and the Women Who Love Them, using a pen and yellow legal paper in her cell, but was released from prison in 2007 and has published 14 books in the time since, including Thuggz Valentine this past June. In the case of her latest, Clark is remixing the familiar story of Bonnie and Clyde, but tweaking it so it reflects her own experiences while involved with a real crime syndicate.

After opening her own publishing house, Wahida Clark Presents, she's put out 70 plus titles from incarcerated authors like CA$H, Victor L. Martin (author of A Hood Legend ), and others. Clark has also signed deals with major publishers like Kensington and Hachette, been hand-picked by Birdman to have her books distributed through Cash Money Records, and is now entering the movie and TV game with Wahida Clark Films, which currently has two projects in development based on her Thug series. We gave Clark a call to talk about her rise in the publishing game from within a jail cell, as well as what she's done since being on the outside.

VICE: How did you get into writing?
Wahida Clark: I started while serving my ten-and-a-half-year federal prison sentence. When my back was up against the wall, when I discovered that all my money and possessions were gone, when I discovered that it takes money to live in prison, and when it hit me that I have to do something in order to walk out of prison with a cushion, I prayed for guidance and was blessed to recognize and act on the guidance when it came. The guidance was to write street fiction.

My husband was also locked up and our daughters were teenagers, so I had to somehow get my hustle on. My husband wrote a book called Uncle Yah Yah and then I saw a clip about Shannon Holmes, who signed his first book deal while in prison, and I said I could do this.

What did your husband say when you told him you also wanted to write a book from inside?
At first, my husband didn't respond. I had to holla at him again and again, saying, "Yo, I'm thinking about writing a book. I'm serious. What do you think?" When he finally got back to me, he said what [publishers] are interested in from people in our position is sex, drugs, murder, and crime. I had experience in that word, and what I didn't experience myself in New Jersey, those around me experienced. I wrote about what I knew.

My husband said if I sent him a little sample, he'd give me his advice. I was working in the prison library and studying the craft, and began writing and sending things to him. On top of his encouragement, an inmate who was previously a literary agent gave a creative writing class, and the rest slowly became history. I was blessed that my time in prison was time well spent.

What was it like to sign a book deal while you were incarcerated?
I signed two deals with two major publishing houses while I was serving time—it was crazy and awesome. I was writing those books with paper and ink, too! I hit the Essence Magazine best sellers list multiple times while incarcerated. I was such an inspiration to so many sisters and brothers on lock that many of them wrote and told me that I was the reason many of them started writing. I would get letters seeking advice, plus receive words of encouragement from authors who are now publishers and are now moving into film. It is a wonderful thing to inspire others. On top of being a four-time New York Times Best Seller, it feels like a wonderful accomplishment.

What separates street lit and the Thug series from the typical romance novels that middle-aged suburban moms read?
Two different environments produce two different mindsets. They are the same, but they are seen differently. No one can say that there isn't violence in romance novels.

Your latest release is Thuggz Valentine. What did you do differently with this one?
Thuggz Valentine is the story of a modern day Bonnie and Clyde—natural born killers who go out in a blaze of glory after taking on the city's police force. The first thing I did differently was write the book in reverse—it opens with the ending. The second was collaborate with David Weaver, the King of e-book publishing. We had agreed to do an experiment, so I had him publish the e-book version. Needless to say, it worked out well.

Your Thug series is now being turned into a film, right? How far into the process are you?
I'm excited. My fans are excited. Since the series is so popular the producers and directors haven't decided which route to go first: a play, a TV series, or a movie. We are going to do something. In December, we're having a party/talent search/networking event in Atlanta. We are going to find our direction and our stars there.

Do you have any other film projects in the works?
Blood Heist , written by NuanceArt, hasn't been published under Wahida Clark Presents yet, but the film rights were picked up immediately. It's about Angelo and Michael, two brothers joined in the hunt to take the reigns as heir of their father's kingdom.

It's a good look to move into film, a natural progression. I'm a storyteller by nature; that's what I do. I am constantly looking for different mediums to tell my stories. Film is just the latest and it also happens to be the biggest art form. There's a lot of crime drama on TV these days, but if I have my way, God willing, I will clean up the whole industry and make something better.

Do you ever think that street lit romanticizes or even glamorizes crime?
We try our best to follow personal principles and literary principles that demand that good triumphs over evil all of the time. However, the demand today is for junk food—both physically and mentally.

My husband taught me that it was easier to write books for money than to write books to educate. So of course we took the road for money, in hopes that it would put us in the position to educate. It's a constant grind and hustle. If you are not constantly pushing your business it will remain stagnate. And of course, content is King. Or, in my case, Queen.

For more on Clark and her publishing house, visit her website.

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