Crowdfire Spotlight — from hustling drugs on the streets of Michigan to becoming NYT best selling author, this is JaQuavis Coleman’s story.
Crowdfire Spotlight chronicles the stories of inspiring Creators — their struggles and triumphs, how they got to where they are now and where they’re headed next.
Whether it’s a hobby, a profession or a mode of catharsis, writing is tough. It’s tougher when writing is your job and you’re making a living out of it. While it’s easier than ever to become an author and get your works published, making it to the New York Times Best Selling list is as hard as it’s always been. Harder still is laying claim to thousands of five star reviews on Goodreads.
JaQuavis Coleman and Ashley Antoinette fall into both brackets with aplomb. Starting out in the rough neighbourhoods of Flint, Michigan, they created the best possible future for themselves using the most potent tool they had at hand — their words.
Read on to find out how two teenagers fought against the odds to leave behind their criminal pasts and become best-selling writers.
Slow and Steady
JaQuavis didn’t have the best of childhoods. Living in a poor neighbourhood, he got involved in the drug business at a young age, selling drugs to make ends meet.
An orphan, he lived in a foster home and would frequently get into trouble at school, so much so that he caught the attention of his English teacher, Mildred Robinson. Wanting to put the second grader’s time to better use, she made JaQuavis read everything from Shakespeare to Robert Frost and Maya Angelou. She would then make him write short stories, asking him to draw upon what he read.
JaQuavis remembers Mildred fondly. “(She was)… a beautiful woman, a beautiful lady and I actually owe my life to her because she changed the direction that I was going in. She gave me a skill that would bring me more than I would ever imagine. I’m forever humble to her… she’s forever in my heart.”
Sequestered in a class room serving detention, he would read voraciously and write short stories. Growing up in Flint meant writing wasn’t a popular choice of hobby, but that never dissuaded JaQuavis. He’d spend his days selling drugs on the street, his nights reading and honing his writing skills.
JaQuavis remembers an incident that changed his life. Sixteen at the time, he was knee-deep in criminal activity, peddling drugs on the streets of his neighbourhood. The risk for getting caught ran high and one day, he almost got busted selling drugs to an undercover cop.
“I saw his car in the park and I pulled in, got out, and approached the car.” Then JaQuavis heard the unmistakeable sounds of a walkie-talkie. Trusting his gut, he turned around and headed back to his car. Making his way out of the parking lot, he noticed two black cars tailing him.
Not wanting to engage in a high-speed car chase with his clunky old-school drive, he pulled into the parking lot of a church and hopped a fence onto another street. Ditching his contraband behind a house, he ran out to the street. One of the cops tackled him to the ground and handcuffed him. The other cop came up and JaQuavis heard him say, “I saw him throw something in that bush. Go and check it out”
Terrified, JaQuavis knew with a sickening certainty that he was going to jail. He was just waiting for the police to find the confirmation of his guilt. But they never found it. After maybe an hour of questioning, they had to let him go.
He returned home, unable to believe his luck, still feeling incredibly guilty and wondering how he was spared. Five hours later, he got a call from a woman in the neighbourhood. Her friend wanted to talk to him.
The girl introduced herself as Ashley. She’d been watching him from her window, she told him. She saw him throw the drugs in her backyard and hid them. When JaQuavis went over, she handed him the drugs.
“She showed me loyalty and I’m from a place where that’s so rare.” From that moment on, he never left her side. They built a bond that would become the foundation of their days and years together.
So many things could’ve gone wrong that day. But for JaQuavis, “It was the day the stars aligned.”
You and I Both
Ashley and JaQuavis realized they were living parallel lives, though they’d never met before then. Once they started talking, the similarities were striking. They quickly became inseparable.
“We were both avid readers. We had both written short stories and it was kind of, well, it was Shakespearean to say the least.”
JaQuavis got his own place and Ashley moved in with him. Still high-schoolers, they started their life together. Shortly after, Ashley found out she was pregnant. While a teenage pregnancy can be a scary and unwanted development, it wasn’t so for these two 17-year olds. They came from nothing and they had nothing. The idea of having a child together, a product of their love and devotion to each other, excited them.
“We went to Wal-Mart at three in the morning, bought a bunch of unisex things because we didn’t know if we were having a boy or a girl yet and we were both just happy. We didn’t have a lot of money but we were happy.”
Two months into the pregnancy, Ashley woke up in the middle of the night, sweating, and in pain. There was blood everywhere. The doctors told them it was an ectopic pregnancy — Ashley needed to abort the baby. And that meant surgery and four to six weeks of bedrest.
I Bet You
Strong as Ashley was, she struggled with this devastating loss. JaQuavis, seeing her cry every day, felt helpless. “I wanted to lean on what we love the most and that was reading but she didn’t want to read.” JaQuavis then thought of using Ashley’s competitive nature to get her out of her funk.
“I said, ‘I bet you I can write a better book than you.’” Ashley instantly perked up at the challenge. She smiled and she said, “No, you can’t.”
They started writing two different books. They gave each other a month to complete it, betting one hundred dollars on writing the better book. At the end of the month, they swapped stories. “Her story was so thrilling. It was one of the best stories I ever read in my life. Now she told me the exact same thing. She said, “Yo, this is so good. This is like the best thing I ever read.”
This led to an exciting collaboration as they began to merge both their stories together. That’s how they created their first novel. Huddled in their small apartment in the heart of the ghetto, they created something beautiful together.
“We didn’t go anywhere. We ordered in food. We sat at the bedside together, just typing away.”
They finished writing their first book together in just three weeks. Without telling JaQuavis, Ashley sent the book to a few major publishing houses. Then they both headed off to college.
In their very first semester of freshman year they started getting emails from publishing houses.
JaQuavis was going back and forth from college to Flint, still selling drugs. “I was actually on the road when I got the call and she said, “Turn around, turn around. You don’t have to do this anymore. I just got an offer from a publishing house.”
Turn around, turn around. You don’t have to do this anymore.
JaQuavis used to leave his drugs in Ashley’s dorm room. When he returned to her dorm to look at this offer she told him about, he found her dumping all his drugs down the toilet.
He panicked. “Mind you, we didn’t have that much money. This is all I have. This is what I pay for school with and I grabbed her by the shoulders, I said, ‘Wait, wait, honey! What are you doing?’ She said, ‘You don’t have to do this anymore.’ She’s flushing maybe $40,000 down the toilet. She said, ‘We got a publishing deal.’ I said, ‘Okay, we have a publishing deal.’”
But it wasn’t what they thought it would be. “They flew us out to New York and we come to find out the publishing deal was two books for $4,000. That really put us in a hole. We asked the publisher to give us $40,000 for our first book and he laughed at us.” That much money, the publisher clarified, was for 10 books.
They took on that challenge. They dropped out of college, went home and wrote those ten books together. And the publisher wrote them a cheque for $40,000.
“That was like the Hunger Games for us. It taught us how to write together. It taught us how to write at a rapid pace.”
It was the start of their career. Five years later, they would get to the New York Times Bestselling List. A year after that, they’d hit the USA Today Top 100 list.
Agents, Deals and More Success
Coming from a city of broken homes, JaQuavis and Ashley knew there was no alternative to working hard and churning out their best.
They disagree with the proverb ‘Life is short’. “Life is long and if you work hard, you can enjoy it. We never want to go back to where we came from because… it was the bottom of the barrel, but it’s okay. (Life is) like a rose that grows through a crack in the concrete. If you just apply yourself, without any reservations, you can do anything.”
Life is a rose that grows through a crack in the concrete.
And being best selling authors was not all that lay in their path. They would soon transition from writing books to writing TV shows.
Famous hip-hop rapper 50 Cent wanted to acquire one of JaQuavis and Ashely’s books to turn into a show. That deal fell through, but the agent was so impressed with their work ethic, they paired up again.
Right now, Ashley and JaQuavis are developing a television show with Warner Brothers. They’ve also scored a deal with NBC Universal to develop an original show. “It’s so different from our norm, but we love it. We’re in a great creative space right now.”
With around 50 books under their belt already, JaQuavis and Ashley show no signs of stopping. JaQuavis is very vocal about the trajectory of their career.
“There are two deaths. You die when you pass away and then you die again when someone mentions your name for the last time.”
“I don’t mind the first death. The second one is what I’m chasing. I want that prolonged as far as I can make it. I want to make history. To make history, you have to do things that people have never done before.
That’s why we want to write 50+ books. That’s why we work so hard. We dedicate our life to writing and the end goal is just to be the greatest ever. No colour barriers, no genre barriers. Television, book writing — we want to be the best writers and I think we can accomplish that. We’re both 31 and we have so much more to give.”
One of the biggest barriers they’ve had to face in their years writing urban fiction has been the lack of acceptance of “streetlit” as a respectable genre of literature. Still in its nascent stages (the first hint of it rising in the 1970s), urban fiction as a genre gets a lot of flack for not being serious literature.
Which makes them even more determined to write the best street fiction. “We’re going to tell these street tales, but we’re going to tell them with elegance. We’re going to tell them with proper grammar with these twisted plots that really bend your mind and make you fall in love with the characters.” Ashley and JaQuavis take pride in busting down barriers in this way.
They understand that the characters they write about — robbers, murderers, drug dealers — may not seem like they appeal to a large audience at first, but once they get to know these characters, they’ll be hooked to their stories.
“I just think we (street fiction) get a bad rep because in every genre there’s an upper echelon and there’s the bottom. There are bad romance books but there are the best romance books as well. I never want a reader to read a bad urban literature book and call the whole genre bad because of that one rotten apple.
Go to the top of the list and try some of that. That’s what we play at and hopefully we can change the perception and let people know that we’re here to stay. We do it with intelligence, with tact and with great storytelling.”
Writers like Ashley and JaQuavis are helping put street fiction as a genre on the broader map of literature. Thanks to their efforts, the genre is being taken up more seriously by the wider public. “When we hit The New York Times, they had to start paying attention.”
Building Houses, Building Lives
For all the aspiring writers out there, JaQuavis has some real pearls of wisdom.
“If you can tell a person, ‘I want you to build this house’ they will look at you like you’re crazy. But if you tell that same person, ‘I want you to lay this brick as perfectly as you can,’ that’s not a bad or a hard task. That’s how writing is.
Every single day if you just write a little, by the end of the year, you may have three complete novels. But you have to stay consistent. Lay the most perfect brick that you can. Never mind the house, lay this brick. Look at your chapters, paragraphs — those are the bricks. Then build that house.”
It also doesn’t hurt your chances of success if you’re part of a great team and you’re working with your life partner. JaQuavis gets to do what he loves with the person he loves, every day of his life. He considers his wife, Ashley, his best friend.
“Our whole house is surrounded by creativity. We talk about plots and characters. We watch movies, discuss books, listen to jazz.”
Funnily enough, JaQuavis hates weekends. “Most people, they look forward to the weekends but I hate them because we don’t work on the weekends. I can’t wait till Monday comes so we can start talking about this next plot or I can catch her up on this character that I had a dream about.”
While JaQuavis and Ashley haven’t forgotten where they came from, it’s all about the way forward and ending on the right note.
“My wife and I always have that mentality. We never settle for less, there’s nothing we can’t do. We love each other, we love the people around us. It’s a mixture of good karma, talent, and hard work. It doesn’t matter where you come from, it just matters how it ends.”
Hear this story from JaQuavis himself on our podcast show, the Crowdfire Stories:
From Drug Dealer to Acclaimed Author was originally published in Going Big — The Official Crowdfire Blog on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.