Sealed With A KISS, author Joe Okonkwo discussed latest book

Recently we had the pleasure of talking to author Joe Okonkwo. Joe’s short stories have appeared in The Piltdown ReviewThe New EngagementStorychordPenumbraPrometheanShotgun HoneyLove Stories from AfricaBest Gay Stories 2015, and Strength. Joe served as Prose Editor for Newtown Literary, and he edited Best Gay Stories 2017. He earned an MFA in Creative Writing from City College of New York.

Joe Okonkwo’s debut novel Jazz Moon, set against the backdrop of the Harlem Renaissance, won the Publishing Triangle’s prestigious Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction and was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. His current book, Kiss The Scars On the Back of My Neck, from Amble Press, is a collection of nine short stories. The eclectic stories in this collection are bound by the threads of desire in its many forms, above all, the desire for love and a place of safety in a world where being Black and gay can thwart the fulfillment of that longing.

The Syracuse-born/Queens, NY resident elaborates on the difference between erotic and erotica, why he’s interested in writing characters who are complicated, and his next project.

PrideIndex (PI): Thank you, Joe, for the interview this afternoon. Introduce yourself.

Joe Okonkwo (JO): Sure. Thank you for having me. This is Joe Okonkwo, co-writer, novelist, short story writer. I just came out with a new short story collection called Kiss the Scars on The Back of My Neck. It is from Amble Press, and I’m thrilled with it. 

PI: Is this an erotic book of short stories?

JO: No, not at all. Sex does play a role in some of the stories, but it’s not erotic. I’ve never dabbled in that.

PI: I guess I was going by the title of the book. Or what I thought was the title. Kiss the back of my neck and do something else to me. I’m thinking, let me go out and grab this book right away!  

JO: Laughs.

PI: The title sounds a little bit erotic. 

JO: Well, there is a certain amount of eroticism to it. This book is not what I would call erotica. No.

PI: If you were tasked to write erotica, could you do it?

JO: I probably could. There’s a difference between erotic and erotica. Something erotic can be very sexual or romantic. I’m pretty good at that. I guess I would probably be okay at erotica because some of my work gets a little graphic, a little visual. So I probably could, but writing erotica is not my first choice.

PI: What is your first choice for writing? Which genre?

JO: My first choice is for writing is literary fiction. And within that, I like to write historical fiction. My first novel Jazz Moon took place in the Harlem Renaissance. My next book, which I’ve already started working on, also takes place in the Harlem Renaissance. In terms of what I want to write, I’m interested in writing characters who are complicated, just like human beings are complex. I like writing characters who are not necessarily all that likable. Some people have a problem with that. My feeling is the characters in our lives are not always likable. They don’t always do the right thing, say the right thing, or feel the right way, so characters in literature should also be complicated, layered, and not always doing the right thing.

PI: Why did you become a writer?

JO: I’m good with words and very creative. As a kid, I was very imaginative. I was an introverted and shy only child. I didn’t have siblings or friends around, so I had to entertain myself. I made up

games, imaginary friends, and stories that I acted out by myself. That’s how it started. My love of reading and a love of creativity led to a writing career.

PI: Does Kiss the Scars on The Back of My Neck include works from other writers? Or are they all your works?

JO: I wrote all the stories. This is not an anthology that I’ve edited; it’s a collection I’ve written myself.

PI: Jazz Moon was your first book and your next book after Kiss…Neck talks about the Harlem Renaissance. Why did you choose to take a break from writing about the Harlem Renaissance? 

JO: I like working on a variety of projects and things. I do love the Harlem Renaissance; I don’t always want to write about it. I’m interested in race and black-white relations, resistance to change, technology and the craving for connection, and writing about loneliness. Those are all things that are very interesting to me, in addition to the Harlem Renaissance. I think it’s important for writers or for artists, in general, to be eclectic and write about a variety of things or create art that’s spread across topics, and not just what might be the writer’s or the artist’s comfort zone.

PI: How did you determine which stories to include in Kiss…Neck, or which ones you wanted to explore publishing at a later date?

JO: There are nine stories; at least six were previously published. I wanted this to be a cross-section of my work. I wanted to start working on the new novel, but I wasn’t quite ready to. I decided to take some

stories I’ve already written, polish them up, and put them together in this collection.

PI: What were some of the challenges faced as you were putting this book together? 

JO: Short stories are very different from full-length novels. You would think that they’re easier because they’re shorter, but not necessarily. Think of a full-length novel as a cake and a short story as a slice of cake. It can be challenging to get an entire world into a short story. I think that’s probably the biggest challenge with putting this together. I made sure that I had true short stories, not just novels disguised as short stories.

PI: COVID has changed our world and the way we do things. How do you promote or how have you promoted this book in light of COVID restrictions?

JO: I’ve done a lot of social media, participated in events both in-person and online or live-streamed, and done interviews like this one. Social media has played a big part in my marketing. I’ve published short blurbs about the reviews that I’ve gotten for the collection. I have several endorsements from prominent writers. 

PI: Recently, Amble Press had a Lit Crawl in San Francisco. What was that event like?

JO: It was fun. I had not been in San Francisco in several years. There were many writers from my publishing company Amble Press. All of the authors have published books this year or have books upcoming in the next several months. We gathered in San Francisco at a cafe called the Make-Out Room. The Lit Crawl consists of literary events happening all over the place. People crawl from one event to the next. Each author read a five or 10-minute selection from our books and received great feedback from the audience. This was the first time that many of us had seen each other. We had never met the other authors or our publisher in person; everything was done over the telephone, email, or virtually. It was an excellent experience. It was wonderful to be in San Francisco; that city has character.

PI: Are there plans to at some point have all of the Ample Press authors published in the single book or series of short stories or something of that nature?

JO: That has not been talked about, but I would be open to it. 

PI: I’m looking at your website, and there are three pictures where you appear to be singing. Do you also sing? 

JO: No, I do not. I know what pictures you’re talking about. I was at a reading in Long Island City, Queens. I was reading from my work, and I guess I was really into it. My mouth is wide open. That’s why it seems like I’m singing. Laughs.

PI: For all of those A&Rs out there who might be reading this article, no, Joe does not sing. 

JO: Laughs.

PI: What do you like to do when you’re not writing or contemplating what to write about next?

JO: When I’m not writing or reading, I’m working at my nine to five job, I’m at the gym. That’s all I do.

PI: Regarding your next project or working on it, talk about that a little bit. And when and where, when will it come to the marketplace.

JO: My next novel is King Gladys, a historical fiction piece about a real-life Harlem Renaissance icon. Her name was Gladys Bentley. Bentley was a blues singer and nightclub performer. She was also a crossdresser, dressed in men’s clothes, both on stage and her personal life, and was openly lesbian. She was also 250 pounds, so a big woman. Bentley’s signature costume on stage was a white tuxedo, top hat and tails, and a walking stick. She was known for her bawdiness. She would take popular songs of the day and change the lyrics and make them naughty. More than once, the nightclubs where Bentley performed were raided by the police because of her obscenity. She was violating obscenity laws with these lyrics, and so these nightclubs would get shut down. It was great publicity because primarily white people from downtown couldn’t wait to get up to Harlem and be scandalized if a club had been shut down for obscenity, which was a marketing point.

PI: Films such as Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the short film Smoke, Lilies and Jade, and others have brought the Harlem Renaissance to the forefront. Would you be open to someone making a film version of one of your books?

JO: Sure. A television series on a streaming service would probably be the best option for one of my novels. Often, in Hollywood, they take a 300-page novel and try to cram it into two hours, so you

have to cut a lot and change a lot. A television series, limited series, or a mini-series would have more unlimited hours to tell a story with little need to truncate things. A television series or a limited series would be the best option for making a film from one of my novels. In terms of the short stories, I don’t know. It would be interesting to see how a full-length movie is made from a short piece of fiction.

PI: If Hollywood were to make a film based on your life, who would you want to see portray you?

JO: Laughs. Um, um. I’m not that familiar with many movie stars. I guess Daniel {Kaluuya} the actor from that movie, Get Out

PI: Where do you see yourself ten years from now? And in the future?

JO: I see myself hitting my stride as a writer and becoming very successful as a writer, whatever that might look like.

PI: Does that success include multiple Lambda Literary Awards, Publishing Triangle Awards, or other LGBTQ writing awards? 

JO: They could include that. It could consist of some bestsellers and some that would become cult favorites or iconic in some way. I’m not sure what that success will look like, but I’m aiming for it.

To purchase Kiss the Scars on The Back of My Neck, visit 

Twitter: JoeOJazzMoon