Growing up in the 1960s, Denise Patrick knew she wanted a career in writing.
The Natchitoches native graduated from Northwestern State University in 1977 with a bachelor’s degree in communications. She left for New York City right away.
“I knew from the beginning to even get my foot in the door, I was going to have to leave because there wasn’t any opportunity for me,” she said of pursuing a writing career in Natchitoches.
“There were limited opportunities in the first place, but there wasn’t an opportunity for me as a black person locally to develop as a feature writer.”
Patrick is perhaps best known for writing historical fiction stories for American Girl. Some of her stories include “A New Beginning: My Journey with Addy” about a little black girl living in the time of the Civil War and “Cecile’s Gift,” which is about a Hispanic girl living in New Orleans during the time of yellow fever. Patrick lives in New Jersey.
Patrick started out writing poems as a young girl, and then her love for writing progressed into stories.
“I was always interested in the words that people and the characters,” she said. “It just kind of happened.”
Patrick thought she was going be a feature writer, and NSU’s communications department had three focuses she had the option to major in. As she remembers, they were all in journalism: magazine, newspaper, or TV/advertising.
“I thought I was going to do feature writing for magazines, maybe newspapers, but really feature, like a storyteller,” Patrick said.
Through an internship, Patrick found herself in New York. She says it was luck.
“It was random,” she said. “I applied for this internship and I got it.”
Patrick came back to NSU to finish her last semester, and then returned to New York. She worked in the publishing industry for about 10 years at the time her first trade picture book, “Red Dancing Shoes,” was sold. That’s when she began to look at her own writing not only as author but as an editor.
“I’m not sure now when I first heard or probably, read ‘Kill your darlings,’ but I understand very well that sometimes a sentence (or even a character) that Writer Denise loves, Editor Denise knows has got to go,” she said.
She spends most of her time thinking about her characters and their lives in her stories.
“I spend far too much time on (my characters). I consider the age, the setting, the point in time—and the meaning of most names. I have two books that I start with, one African and one ‘Best Baby Names,'” Patrick said.
“I also collect names that I hear and like or find interesting. It can take days. Some stories that hang around for a few years might get complete name changes as part of a revision.”
Patrick also teaches. She feels that growing up in small town like Natchitoches, she would have enjoyed teaching.
“I come from a family of teachers,” she said. “It’s funny because when I got ready to go to Northwestern and I was talking with my parents about my major, I was still in high school, and I said ‘journalism,’ and my father said ‘journalism education’, and I said ‘no, journalism’,” she said.
When she visits schools now, she looks at kids of all races and genders. She says that they are fortunate because she never met anyone who was a writer at their age.
“It wasn’t like I was modeling myself after someone I admire or someone I met,” she said. “In many ways I modeled myself after the teachers who raised me.”
Patrick says she didn’t have that direct example growing up, but she did have the support of her family, as her parents always encouraged her writing.
Although the American Girl stories are aimed at little girls, Patrick writes for all ages.
When she writes for younger people, she’s aware of the way kids process different kinds of information and experiences.
“If I’m writing about a difficult topic—say, the 16th Street Bombing in Birmingham in 1963 — I do spend some time thinking of how best to get across the devastation of such an event on a basic human level without undue fear,” she said.
“It’s a scary thing, yes, but my thinking was what might go through an average child’s mind,” she said.
Patrick never worked as a writer in Natchitoches.
“Once I got to New York and met all kinds of people, doing all kinds of writing with many black writers, it was kind of an eye-opening thing,” she said.
“I never felt I could not be a writer because I was black,” Patrick said. “I felt at the time there weren’t any opportunities for me to do what I wanted to do at the time at home.
Staying in Natchitoches, I don’t know if I would have become a writer in the way that I have.”