She staked everything she had on this book. Everything. Denise Nicholas already had a thriving career, with multiple movies, TV series, Emmys and Golden Globe nominations on her resume -- but she wanted something else. So she gave up acting, blowing off repeated audition requests from her agent, holing up in her house, glued to her computer, living in her pajamas for days on end, hair standing up all over her head. Typing.
"I took five years of my life," Nicholas says, laughing her lyrical laugh. "Spent every penny I had. I'm broke, but I'm published.
"I'm totally broke."
Has it been worth it?
"Oh yes. Definitely worth it."
Call it a second act, by all means. Nicholas doesn't mind. As second acts go, one could do a lot worse. With her debut novel, "Freshwater Road," Nicholas, 61, is garnering stellar reviews, the kind that most first-time authors can only hope to get: Publishers Weekly declared it a "rich, absorbing debut" that marked the arrival of a new talent; The Washington Post Book World said, "It is impossible to praise 'Freshwater Road' too much."
Like many a starving author, Nicholas accumulated a pile of rejection letters before landing her deal with Agate Publishing, a small, independent house in suburban Chicago. But she wasn't a total novice. She had written journals, bad poetry, a few scenes here and there, a two-woman play in which she cast herself. She wrote in the lull between acting gigs after "Room 222," her breakthrough series, ended its five-year run in '74. She wrote after her sister's murder in 1980, when it hurt too much to act. She wrote scripts for her other multi-year TV series, the late-'80s-early-'90s "In the Heat of the Night."
She even went back to school, enrolling in the graduate writing program at the University of Southern California. But the kind of writing that would engage mind, body and spirit -- and transport her far from the vagaries of Hollywood -- eluded her. She had to reach deep into her own past to find the spark, literally. Her inspiration, she says, came after she set fire to the journals she had kept as a young woman during Freedom Summer, 1964, in what she calls "trench Mississippi, gutbucket Mississippi."
"I said, 'You've been dragging this stuff around for years,' " Nicholas recalled on a recent visit to Washington, running her hands through her curls. "I needed a clean slate."
"Freshwater Road" is based on that summer, when, as an actor and civil rights activist, she scribbled down her experiences in journals. So much material to cull from: the time a cop put a gun to her head; the death threats; the constant fear in the back of her throat.
All of that went up in smoke -- but it didn't disappear.
She stopped to drink, delighted to have the cold water in her mouth. It tasted like first snow. As the cold stream flowed down her throat, the deputy shoved her head hard into the fountain. She vomited the water as her mouth slammed into the shining chrome spigot. A quiet crack, then she saw her blood going down the drain as pain shot from her mouth up into her head. Stunned, she moved over to the side, her brown hand slipping from the white porcelain bowl. . . . her feet tangled into a knot and she stumbled to the floor, her head and back bumping into the wall. The black of his police shoes was the last thing she saw.
In the tunnel of a cottony fog, she heard the words, "That water's not for niggers. . . . "
-- from "Freshwater Road"
To be sure, there are similarities between Nicholas and her protagonist, Celeste Tyree: In the summer of '64, they were both 20, young, pretty, green-eyed and light-skinned at a time when the color-caste system in the black community was almost as stratified as that of Jim Crow America. Also: Both are the Detroit-born, University of Michigan-educated, middle-class daughters of black men who first made their money running numbers.
Still, Nicholas says, "The character who looks like Denise is not Denise at all."
The physical similarities are there because she wanted to explore the color question and her own neuroses with it. But it was a jumping-off point, she says, nothing more. She thrilled in not knowing where the character would take her, and learned to trust, slowly and painstakingly, in the lessons of her writing seminar with Janet Fitch, author of the acclaimed novel "White Oleander." Every other Saturday, Nicholas took her freshly minted pages to class, to Fitch's home, where she and seven other students ever so respectfully ripped each other to shreds.
From the start, Fitch says, Nicholas was an accomplished writer with a knack for getting inside the heads of multiple characters in a single scene -- a skill no doubt honed through her acting and screenwriting. "Only now is she understanding that the energy that she put into that book, every sentence, is being unpacked by every reader, and is having an impact," Fitch says.
"What's common among very talented writers is that there's an extreme gap between their perceptions of their abilities and their abilities. They frighten themselves into working harder, trying harder. . . . . It's not a pleasant thing, but it pushes you onward."
Nicholas cranked out endless drafts until eventually Celeste's story came to the fore. Celeste is a character with a mind of her own struggling to find her own place in the racial firmament. Partly to establish her own black bona fides, Celeste strikes out for the fictional town of Freshwater Road, Miss., to form a "freedom school" and register African Americans to vote, though most are terrified to do so.
She comes to Freshwater prepared, or so she thinks, taught by civil-rights organizers the rudiments of nonviolent action as espoused by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: Drop to the ground, protect your head, go into a ball. If the fire hoses come out, forget it. There's no protection.
There, in Freshwater, alone and far from her family, she learns that there is more to fear in Mississippi than fire hoses. Some folks don't take too kindly to Northern interlopers, white or black.
Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and their blue Ford station wagon disappeared near Philadelphia, Mississippi, on the night of June 21, gone like a moonlight rainbow after a summer evening storm. The news flew through the trees, over the creeks, and down the mud-brown rivers on the rhythm of a talking drum . . . . On Tuesday, the second day, their station wagon was pulled from the swampy waters of Bogue Chitto Creek near Philadelphia. The car had been burned to a crisp.
At 19, Nicholas had dropped out of the University of Michigan to join the movement. Theater seemed like the best way she could contribute, so she signed up with the Free Southern Theater in New Orleans, headed by the late Gilbert Moses, who would briefly become her husband. She spent two years, beginning in that famous summer of '64, touring the South.
"We were scared all the time," she says. Fear was "always just there: 'This is a place you can die in.' "
CBS sent a crew to document the Free Southern Theater's work. The Swedish actress Viveca Lindfors saw the report and invited Nicholas to tour with her in a play, "Three Boards and a Passion." From there, Nicholas went on to work with the renowned Negro Ensemble Company, which counts among its alumni Rosalind Cash, Ron O'Neal, Samuel L. Jackson, Denzel Washington, Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett and Phylicia Rashad.
Hollywood beckoned with "Room 222," a sitcom with a multi-culti cast, an anomaly in 1969. She played Liz McIntyre, a high school guidance counselor. Movies followed, in the heyday of the blaxploitation renaissance (though she always kept her clothes on, mindful of her father Otto's admonition that he didn't want to go to a movie with his friends and find his daughter butt-naked up on the big screen). She had roles in "Blacula," "The Soul of Nigger Charley," and "Let's Do It Again" and "A Piece of the Action," directed by Sidney Poitier and starring Poitier and Bill Cosby. Then more TV work.
Along the way she had two more marriages, but neither lasted. Her second husband is the singer Bill Withers; her third, a Los Angeles anchor named Jim Hill. The divorces brought turmoil, but nothing like the day her baby sister, Michele Burgen, a 26-year-old editor at Ebony magazine, was found shot to death in a rental car at New York's LaGuardia Airport. The murder, which was never solved, unmoored Nicholas. Still does.
"It's still as raw as if it happened last week," she says, looking away.
She started to write an "investigative memoir" about her sister's death, but now she's not sure that she can go there. She says she's searching for a peace that cannot be found. Better to make peace with the fact that she'll never be over it.
She figures her next work will be another novel. Writing "Freshwater Road" took her to dark places, forcing her to plumb her grief (the book is dedicated to her sister and her late father). Acting seemed impossible. She went on a few auditions, but "it was so debilitating, it makes you feel so blah," she says.
As a writer, "I'm happier now," she says. "Because this is my baby. It uses me, all of me. It doesn't diminish any part of me, mind, body, soul."
Will she ever act again?
"Not if I can help it."
And she laughs.