The Root Interview: Susan Fales-Hill on Women Who Write Their Own Rules

The memoirist-philanthropist-TV producer talks about her debut novel, Bill Cosby, Lena Horne and the philanthropic life.

Susan Fales-Hill Signs Copies of her Novel "One Flight Up"

The intrigue in One Flight Up, the first novel by Susan Fales-Hill, begins before the story does. Just after the title page, the dedication reads “to Aunt Diahann, Aunt Eartha, Aunt Carmen, Aunt Lena. … ” These marquee names aren’t just the inspirations of Fales-Hill, the former TV writer and producer who worked on The Cosby Show, A Different World and Linc’s. Rather, these women were frequent guests of her parents’ at their apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side when the author was growing up in the ’60s and ’70s. They were friends of her late mother, Haitian-born singer and actress Josephine Premice, and the dedication thanks all of them for “teaching me that a woman must write her own rules and that blondes don’t necessarily have more fun.”

One Flight Up, which was published last month, is the fictional follow-up to Fales-Hill’s first book, Always Wear Joy: My Mother Bold and Beautiful, a memoir. In it, Fales-Hill writes movingly and with humor about growing up amid such illustrious company at her family’s frequent salons. One Flight Up relates the sagas of four upscale professional women. Before you begin thinking about Sex and the City or Waiting to Exhale, consider two things. First, in Fales-Hill’s work, the foursome is multiracial: Monique Dubois-Dawkins, an African-American doctor; Abby Rosenfeld Adams, a Jewish gallery owner; Esme Sarmiento-Talbot, a Colombian heiress; and India Chumley, a mixed-race lawyer — all classmates from a private school much like the one that Fales-Hill attended. Second, the story is no chick-lit race to matrimony.

“I was so frustrated with literature and movies where getting to the altar is the whole story,” Fales-Hill said one afternoon over lunch at Sardi’s, the famous Broadway-area bistro, where a caricature of her mother adorns the wall. “To me,” she continued, “the real drama begins after you say ‘I do.’ “

The India Chumley character will be the one most readily identified with the author. Both share a Harvard education and mixed-race backgrounds. Although Fales-Hill says the character was the hardest one to write, she enjoyed working through certain memories of her moments of racial validation. “A friend of mine called me one day while making dinner and said, ‘Get out your Ebony Cookbook.’ ” She laughed as she continued, “I was so flattered that someone would just assume that I owned the Ebony Cookbook that I was nearly speechless.”

Her mother and so many of her mentors faced struggles in the entertainment world because of their race, but Fales-Hill faced a different struggle because she didn’t readily conform to conventional definitions of blackness. She was born in Rome to Premice and Timothy Fales, the son of a blue-blood shipping magnate. When the young family moved to the States, few New York landlords were willing to rent to a mixed-race couple. So the family settled just north of the Upper West Side’s most desirable addresses and sent their daughter to the renowned Lycée Français on the East Side. The experience taught Fales-Hill to assert that “you are more than an address.”

She was finishing her undergraduate studies at Harvard when she met Bill Cosby through her family connections. He asked her to write something; in response, she crafted a satire of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Impressed, Cosby first tried to score her a gig on Saturday Night Live. When that didn’t work out, she was assigned a low-level job among the writers creating The Cosby Show.

The gig enabled her to see the inner workings of putting together a script; it also provided her with a clear-eyed understanding of how the industry worked. Even so, she says, she ran out of patience with the world of television in the late ’90s, when she pitched a pilot about the industry. The white male executives she met with acted as if she knew nothing about women in the entertainment business — never mind her long list of producing and writing credits.