Renee Simpson has always been writing, even before she had the mechanics down.
“As a very young child, I used to make up songs and sing them out the window,” she said. “Once a neighbor caught me, and I felt embarrassed, so I was very happy when I learned how to actually write.”
Simpson’s first book, “I Can’t Swim,” is a collection of 10 fictional memoirs that look at the lives of The Applewhites family. Mostly set in 1984 in Astoria, the stories are reflections of the author’s own childhood.
The idea to split the book into separate vignettes was taken from her “greatest inspiration,” David Sedaris, particularly his book “Naked.”
“I liked the idea of a non-linear story, one that would invite the reader to study the characters in pieces. It was always important to me to show the reader the characters, and let the reader form their own impressions,” she said. “The short story format allowed me to show the characters in totally different story settings, and that way I could provide different angles on their character. People are not straightforward, and I felt the short story structure of my book should reflect that.”
Simpson’s childhood is also where her path as a writer came together. In 1988, when she was 11 years old, her homeroom teacher at PS 10 unexpectedly became ill and she wrote him a get well card.
Her homeroom teacher later passed away and the art teacher got a hold of the card she wrote for him.
He asked her to write the In Memoriam page for the yearbook that year. By the time she got to New York University, she knew she would be an English major.
As a lifelong resident of Astoria, the neighborhood has completely permeated her writing style.
“It was a tough and beautiful place in which to grow up, which made it – and still makes it – a perfect study in humanity,” she said. “The families I grew up with were mostly single mother homes where survival was a bit of a struggle. The struggle, however, didn’t have the effect of making families angry, but rather very funny.”
Despite her experiences, Simpson still faced the challenges of writing her first book. She said the biggest difficulty was overcoming her own limitations. She was also worried about finding a publisher that would be interested in what she had to say.
“The greatest challenge I had to overcome was to meet all my survival needs and still have time and energy to write,” Simpson said. “I think every writer and artist faces this challenge. I managed through an unwavering determination to complete the book.”
Simpson is now writing a second book about the search for God and a boyfriend. She is also working on an original television pilot.
“I Can’t Swim” is available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.