Author and journalist Sherry Jones is best known for her international bestseller The Jewel of Medina. She is also the author of The Sword of Medina, Four Sisters, All Queens, The Sharp Hook of Love, and the novella White Heart. Sherry lives in Spokane, WA, where, like Josephine Baker, she enjoys dancing, singing, eating, advocating for equality, and drinking champagne.
Her latest novel is Josephine Baker’s Last Dance.
From the author of The Jewel of Medina, a moving and insightful novel based on the life of legendary performer and activist Josephine Baker, perfect for fans of The Paris Wife and Hidden Figures.
In this illuminating biographical novel, Sherry Jones brings to life Josephine’s early years in servitude and poverty in America, her rise to fame as a showgirl in her famous banana skirt, her activism against discrimination, and her many loves and losses. From 1920s Paris to 1960s Washington, to her final, triumphant performance, one of the most extraordinary lives of the twentieth century comes to stunning life on the page.
With intimate prose and comprehensive research, Sherry Jones brings this remarkable and compelling public figure into focus for the first time in a joyous celebration of a life lived in technicolor, a powerful woman who continues to inspire today.
Purchase Josephine Baker’s Last Dance in paperback, ebook, and audiobook formats on Simon and Schuster’s website (available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, BooksAMillion, Indiebound, Kobo, and other sites). Learn more about Sherry’s books at www.authorsherryjones.com
Thanks for this interview, Sherry. Congratulations on your new book! Would you say it’s been a rocky road for you in regards to getting your book written and published or pretty much smooth sailing? Can you tell us about your journey?
I had a contract with Simon and Schuster/Gallery Books before I started writing JOSEPHINE BAKER’S LAST DANCE, so that part was smooth sailing. Writing the novel was challenging, though. Writing about her life from her childhood (she was born in 1906) into the 1960s, when she spoke at the March on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King., Jr., meant I needed to become an expert on six decades of European and American history and culture, not to mention Josephine Baker’s life story, which she herself revised a number of times. And structuring the book as I did, following the structure of her last performance to tell her story in music, dance, costumes, and art, resulted in my rewriting the book several times in effort to figure out how to do this just right. Fortunately, my editor, Kate Dresser, and my literary agent, Natasha Kern, were enthusiastic and supportive about how I wanted to tell Josephine’s story, and provided me with great feedback. Kate’s help was so critical to the book’s success that I dedicated it to her!
If you were to pen your autobiography, what might the title be?
I’m working on one called I’VE HAD A STRING OF MEN. But I’m envisioning a series of books, because it seems that my life has been far more eventful and interesting than Karl Ove Knausgaard’s, for instance.
When not writing, what do you like to do for relaxation and/or fun?
I love to read, play classical music on my piano, socialize with friends and my fiancé, Tom; eat and drink wine, and travel.
What makes your book stand out from the rest?
Josephine Baker! Hello! Not only is she one of the most iconic figures of the 20th century—everyone knows her as the topless African-American dancer in the banana skirt—but she had an amazing life offstage that few know about. She fought racism covertly and overtly throughout her life, not only striving to prove that black women could do anything white women could—and do it better—but working as a World War II spy against the Nazis, risking her life, and using her fame to speak out against racial segregation in the United States. Ms. Baker was one of the very first civil rights activists in America, and she succeeded in getting many nightclubs, theaters, restaurants, and hotels to integrate for the first time. She raised so much hell that, when she left the country, the FBI told her not to come back.
Can you give us the very first page of your book so that we can get a glimpse inside? (Just the first page please)
Sleep? How can she sleep when there’s so much living to do?
She’s never needed much rest but it eludes her now and no
wonder, her name in lights in Paris again, the first time in
years, big stars filling the front rows night after glorious night,
the critics raving like she’s pulling off some kind of miracle,
like she rallied herself from the grave to sing and dance her
life’s story across the stage. But she’s just sixty-eight, not dead
yet! She only looks it right now, running on fumes and just a
lick of sleep after what might be the greatest performance of
her life. How will she top it tonight? Never mind: Josephine
Baker always finds a way.
“I heard you come in at five this morning.” Lélia, her maid,
stands behind her in the bathroom and pins Josephine’s wig to
the scant sprigs poking out from her scalp. Dear Lord, look at
her in the mirror, the feed sacks under her eyes, she looks like
a Saint Bernard. “Are you trying to kill yourself?”
“By dancing all night with Mick Jagger? I can think of worse
ways to die.” She has never had a wilder premiere, nor one
as star-studded: Sophia Loren, Alain Delon, Princess Grace,
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Diana Ross, Carlo Ponti, and,
of course, Mick. The standing ovation lasted fifteen minutes.
She’d thought it would never end, her legs quivered like jelly
as she’d staggered to her dressing room to collapse. Afterward,
the reception in the Bristol Hotel with the cake like a tower
to celebrate her fifty years on the Paris stage, the 50 on its top
making her cringe, it would only remind Mick of her age. But
the gleam in his eyes hadn’t faltered for an instant, he’d made
her feel like sweet cream in her silk Nina Ricci dress, and he
the tiger licking its chops.
If your book was put in the holiday section of the store, what holiday would that be and why?
It would appear under “Black History Month,” because, although she was an entertainer until the day she died, Josephine Baker’s entire life was about race and eradicating racism.
Would you consider turning your book into a series or has that already been done?
All my novels comprise a series about “Kick-Ass Women in History.” A’isha, wife to the Muslim Prophet Muhammad who became a great political adviser, warrior, and “mother of the believers”; the four sisters from Provence who became influential queens of France, England, Germany, and Italy; Blanche de Castile, the formidable “white queen” of France; Heloise, the scholar who loved Abelard: these women prevailed against incredible odds (stacked against them because of their gender) to reach their highest potential and make a difference in the world. Josephine Baker holds a prominent, rightful place among them.
When you were young, did you ever see writing as a career or full-time profession?
I’ve wanted to write books pretty much since I learned to read them, when I was 4. My second-grade reading teacher made the dream real for me by asking me, in front of my entire class, to keep my given name if I ever became a published author, so she would know it was me. (I did.)
Did any of your books get rejected by publishers?
My first novel, THE JEWEL OF MEDINA, got rejected by Random House/Ballantine Books after they accepted it. When they’d sent it to a history professor for an endorsement, she flipped out! “A national security issue,” she called my book in an email. “More dangerous than the Satanic Verses or the Danish cartoons.” Random House executives dropped the book like a hot potato, and no other mainstream publisher in America would touch it. A British publisher planned to bring it, but his London home office got firebombed and that put an end to that. Ultimately, though, THE JEWEL OF MEDINA came out in 19 languages, was a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award finalist, and a best-seller in seven countries. It found a home with a tiny U.S. publisher. Today, it’s available today via ebook or by writing to me—I have print copies at home and am happy to share them.
What is your view on co-authoring books; have you done any?
My wasband and I co-wrote THE HIKER’S GUIDE TO MONTANA’S CONTINENTAL DIVIDE TRAIL in 1990 and nearly divorced over it.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a proposal for Gallery now about an amazing woman in history who presented as male. His story is so inspiring and, like all my books, offers important lessons for our times. This matters to me because, like my heroines, I live to make a positive difference in the world.