Renee Daniel Flagler is living the life of her dreams. After over a decade of settling for a stable career, she left her corporate job to establish herself in the thrilling, yet unpredictable, world of writing. Now, as an award-winning freelance journalist with six published novels under her belt – including the recently released Still Raging, and another that has been optioned for film – she finally refers to herself as a full-time writer. Her success doesn’t stop there –her passion for youth empowerment and global literacy has led her to be named Chairperson of the Board of the Literacy Empowerment & Action Project (LEAP).
We talked with Flagler about the exciting advancements she has made in her career, and the importance of literacy and self-expression through writing.
How did you get started writing?
I’ve always loved it. I spent 15 years in marketing, and I wrote everything from ads to press kits and media kits. I have a master’s in film and television production, so I’ve written treatments and screenplays as well. I’m also an award-winning journalist, having written freelance for several publications for a number of years. My favorite type of writing has always been creative writing, though.
Where do you get the inspiration for your novels?
I get cues from life and constantly ask, “What if?” My novel Raging Blue is inspired by the new research about women being the primary breadwinners in more and more households, and it shows how that creates a whole different dynamic in relationships. In the book, the wife is actually the primary breadwinner – even though she’s married to an athlete she’s also a trust fund baby, so she came into the situation with her own money. My books have a little bit of a reality spin to them, and focus on people who prefer to keep up with the Joneses, even if it’s killing them in the process.
Speaking of Raging Blue, you recently released the sequel, Still Raging. How has your writing process changed with the second novel?
I’ve been writing a lot faster recently because I’m more focused on a full-time writing career. I’ve been a lot more disciplined with my writing schedule, aiming to write a certain amount of words in a certain amount of days. I would say that in the last two years I’ve done the most writing out of my entire career.
You have another novel – Society Wives – that has been optioned for film. How did that come about?
I am so excited about that! That’s a dream come true right there. Two award-winning authors, Victoria Christopher Murray and ReShonda Tate Billingsley, started their own publishing company called Brown Girls Books. Je’caryous Johnson – a filmmaker with his own production company, I’m Ready Productions – approached them about turning a certain number of books into films. Victoria and ReShonda asked if I would I be interested in Society Wives being pitched as a film, and I said, “Of course!” Next thing you know I got a contract, which was the option to turn the book into film.
You’ve been very successful in the non-profit world as well, especially with LEAP. How did you get involved with that organization, and eventually become Chairperson of the Board?
LEAP is an organization that I’ve had the pleasure and honor and being a part of since its inception. Kwame Alexander, a fellow writer, was invited to a village in Ghana, and he came back with this vision of working with the schools and creating opportunities for the students. He pulled together six people – including me – to be a part of his project, and in September 2012 we journeyed to the village of Konko. We brought supplies, and even raised enough money to send a young lady named Lydia to school. When we came back, we had this brand new perspective and this understanding that we had to do more. We went back last year with Nikki Giovanni, and she invited some of her peers and students from Virginia Tech. As of early September, we had received 501(c)(3) status, a new board was elected, and I was asked to be Chair.
Congratulations! Now that you have this new leadership position, where do you envision the organization going?
I’m working very closely with our new executive director, Lindsay Young, to steer the strategic plan of this organization. We want to be able to send more students to high school and to impact the students’ lives. We have 12 students who graduated this year and they have all passed their exams and been placed into high schools across Ghana. We would love to work with global universities to see what scholarship opportunities may be available to the students after high school. Our goal is for these students to get an education and to be empowered by world exposure, then return to help their communities. Once Lydia finishes school, for example, she’s going to teach in the community that she grew up in. We aim to get to a point where, no matter how many students are graduating that year, we know that we’ll have the resources to send them to high school and help them acquire an education beyond that.
Will LEAP expand to other countries?
Yes, actually. We’ve already identified some organizations that we may be able to work with, either in other areas in Ghana or other countries altogether. We would love to help expand literacy and empower youth on a global level.
Youth empowerment seems very important to you. I know you do some mentor work and teach writing locally.
Yes. I’ve taught writing in a lot of different environments, like at Victory House in the Bronx. It’s a group home environment for runaway and pregnant teens. I’ve done writing workshops with the girls there in order to give them the opportunity to express themselves creatively. I’ve also worked with organizations that go into group homes, non-secure placement centers, drug treatment centers and detention centers to teach writing. We don’t really hammer down on grammar or spelling, but just give the young people an opportunity to have a voice. I’ve been an advocate for youth for many, many years – it’s something that’s a part of me. I’m a huge advocate of exposure as well because it can help people see that there are opportunities and possibilities beyond the situations they’re currently in.
Having a voice must be a huge confidence boost for the teens. Do you see a change in their demeanors once they get comfortable expressing themselves?
Oh, absolutely. One day, I was doing a writing workshop at a non-secure detention center. I don’t know what happened before I got there but the girls were just in the worst mood. To get them out of that angry space, I told them, “Write about what tomorrow looks like.” This one particular girl started writing, and it was as if a dam had been broken. From that point forward, whenever she was going through something she would write. She had the most rhythmic and lyrical writing style I had ever seen from a young person. I started working with her to enhance her work, pointing out the strong metaphors she used and how brilliant her writing was. It was so validating for her and such a boost of confidence. That was one experience that will never leave me.
I think young people have a phobia of writing and don’t realize how cathartic it really is. It’s great that you’re helping them see that.
A lot of these young women were in prison or don’t have much of an educational background, so it can be a little scary for them when we ask them to write. They feel like they don’t have what it takes. That’s why we tell them, “It doesn’t matter. Who cares if you can spell it right or not? Just get it out.” At the end of the day, it’s not how you write it; it’s what you have to say.
Still Raging is available digitally at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Society Wives will be available November 18th. Learn more about LEAP at leapforghana.org.