Romancing the hood

It’s hard not to smile at Vickie Stringer. For one thing, she is beautiful, with soft apple-butter skin, inquisitive brown eyes and a coy flirtatiousness that speaks volumes about her confidence. But the main reason most people can’t stop smiling when they meet Vickie Stringer is because she can’t stop smiling herself.

Still in her 30s, after having been a millionaire, a federal prisoner and a millionaire again in the space of a decade, she has plenty to smile about.

Considering that she made her first millions in the drug trade and her second as a leading purveyor of hard-boiled tales from the ’hood, the sunshine in her demeanor seems surprising.

Four years after completing a seven-year federal prison sentence for drug trafficking and money laundering, Detroit native and Cass Tech grad Stringer has made her mark as author and publisher of some of the most sought-after books among urban readers across the country.

As founder and owner of Columbus, Ohio-based Triple Crown Publications, the nation’s most recognizable publisher of ghetto fiction and hip-hop literature, Stringer, 37, personifies a boom that’s putting more writers of color, particularly young writers, into more bookstores than ever before.

The new popular fiction aimed at African-Americans ranges from a new school of Afro-erotica (epitomized by the pseudonymous author Zane) to religion-in-life tales (like those put out by Detroit-area publisher Denise Stinson’s Walk Worthy Press). But Stringer is the most visible purveyor of gritty street yarns of pimping, drug-dealing and ghetto romance. Her books are selling and landing on New York Times and Essence magazine’s best-seller lists more frequently than almost anyone could have ever expected. Anyone except, of course, for Vickie Stringer.

“They thought the average consumer would be young, black, and they didn’t think we would spend the money,” Stringer says, somewhat exasperated. “Most publishers give our communities no credit for reading — but we’re proving them wrong every day.”

In its third year of operation, Triple Crown Publications has sold more than a million books, with 14 titles reaching best-seller lists; it has 26 writers, and published 10 new titles in 2004 alone. Triple Crown’s business ethos reflects what Stringer learned in the drug trade: stay focused on getting as much quality product out on the streets as possible. “People in the streets buy these books like it’s crack,” Stringer says with a straight face. “When a new book comes out, regardless of what it’s about, if it’s got Triple Crown on it, people are going to buy it. That’s how well I’ve been able to brand my company.”

Roslyn Smith, sales manager for Borders Books’ downtown Detroit store, agrees.

“They can’t print these books fast enough,” Smith says. “We have people calling our store months in advance asking when the next Triple Crown book is coming out. The demand for urban literature in general is so strong right now we can’t keep enough of these books in stock.”

And at a time when reading is said to be on the decline, and when literacy is a problem in the African-American community in particular, Stringer and her battalion of ghetto lit writers hope to encourage more African-American households to invest time and dollars in literature.

“It really flies in the face of a lot of stereotypes,” says Dr. Melba Joyce Boyd, poet and professor of Africana studies at Wayne State University. “On the one hand, we’re always dealing with people saying that we’re an illiterate community, etc., but the fact is, if the books are there, black folks will buy them.”

Unfortunately, there are no reliable sales figures on the genre itself. That’s partly because many self-publishing authors sell their wares as local hip-hop artists do, in the streets, out of the trunks of their cars. Starting out much like Vickie Stringer.

Dressed in a green-and-white tank top, designer ripped jeans and draped in small diamonds (just enough to announce she’s made it without being gaudy), Stringer steps out of her black BMW X5 truck and heads into the office on a Saturday afternoon. It is, by the way, her third Beamer, not bad for a kid from Gratiot Avenue and Van Dyke. Triple Crown’s office, an unassuming two-story building on the northeast side of Columbus, is wedged in between a barbershop, an interior design center, a veterinary hospital and the distribution subsidiary that Stringer founded last year to help meet increasing demand for her books. Inside, Stringer seems surprised at how quiet this place can be when her nine staffers have the day off. There is the typical disarray of small publishing houses, with boxes stacked to the ceilings and sticky notes plastering the walls. But Stringer’s personal office is plushly decorated with fresh-cut flowers and several photos of her 12-year-old son Valen — Stringer’s sole reason for living, she says. On the door is a copy of a June 2004 Newsweek article about her publishing accomplishments. “It’s Gangsta Lit,” reads the headline.

That article is typical of the national and international coverage she’s received. A week earlier, Stringer was in Japan to celebrate a joint venture with Aoyama books to translate Stringer’s first novel, Let That Be the Reason, into Japanese. While overseas, Stringer fielded 21 interviews in three days. She laughs as she says, “Those folks treated me like I was J-Lo for an entire week.” MTV has broadcast a segment about Triple Crown Publications, and The New York Times sent a reporter to chronicle Stringer’s publishing success as well. Publishers Weekly recently declared her the “reigning queen of urban fiction.”

She says they’re all drawn to her amazing story. Since being released from prison, she’s gone from waiting tables to hawking her books in the street to getting a standing ovation at last summer’s BookExpo America, one of the industry’s marquee events. She’s also inked a two-book deal with Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, to publish her own novels, one of which, Imagine This, is already a best seller.

“Vickie Stringer is a publishing entrepreneur and a writer, a broker and all-around literary hustler,” says Susan McHenry, founding editor of Black Issues Book Review, by phone from New York. “She knows the stories that she publishes almost firsthand, and that type of experience is invaluable in this industry.”

Quite often, former federal inmate 63752-061 is forced to laugh at the irony of all this. “I tell my son all the time, the same story that made us sad now pays our bills,” she says.

Stringer grew up on Detroit’s East Side, the youngest of seven in a struggling middle-class family. Her father was an engineer and her mother was a Detroit Public Schools special ed teacher. Vickie Stringer attended Miller Middle School and graduated from Cass Tech in 1985.

Michael Haggen, now the principal of Benjamin E. Mays Male Academy, is her godbrother and a lifelong friend.

“Let me tell you, Victoria was very prim and proper, very churchgoing back when we were kids,” he says, laughing. “She wouldn’t even curse back in high school, that’s how uptight she was.” Stringer laughs, too, when she recalls her younger self: “I was up in high school with a Bible in my book bag every day.”

After graduating, Stringer attended Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo where she pledged Delta Sigma Theta, one of the nation’s premier black sororities, and excelled in all of her classes.

She transferred to Ohio State University in Columbus after her freshman year and, shortly thereafter, fell in love with a drug dealer, the man she calls “Chino” in conversation and her novels. She met him at a sorority step show.

“The first time I laid eyes on Chino, it was a wrap,” Stringer says. “Here I was being raised in the church my entire life, and as soon as I met a drug dealer, I thought he was the best thing since sliced bread.”

Stringer says she never attended a single class at Ohio State, instead choosing to learn street hustles as part of her boyfriend’s gang, the Triple Crown Posse. The couple lived lavishly, drove nice cars, opened a hair salon together and got engaged in the early ’90s.

But when Stringer got pregnant, she says her knight in shining armor turned out to be a toad. He denied he was the father, became abusive and left Stringer penniless to marry another woman he’d been seeing all along. Never having worked a real job in her life, Stringer became a mess. She lost the beauty salon and, at her lowest, turned tricks in the streets of Columbus just to put food on the table for her newborn son. But she didn’t turn many.

She scraped together enough money to start her own escort service — placing provocative ads in newspapers and recruiting girls who were tired of being screwed over and underpaid by pimps. Using the street alias “Carmen,” Stringer then began supplying her clients with drugs, first in small amounts, and eventually with kilos.

With a zest for success, Stringer became the Columbus connection for an interstate cocaine and heroin trafficking operation that, by all accounts, moved close to $6 million worth of narcotics a month from New York City to Ohio. Her Dominican supplier, now doing 16 years in federal prison, was entrusting Stringer with 20 to 30 kilos of narcotics per shipment using a fleet of special vans configured with hidden compartments. While Stringer doesn’t discuss exactly how much money she made, the main character of her largely autobiographical Let That Be the Reason brags about earning more than $2 million.

In September 1994, one of her couriers got busted and, in an effort to save his own neck, offered the details of Stringer’s operation to federal prosecutors and agreed to work as an informant.

For days, detectives spied on Stringer and eventually nabbed her outside of 2-year-old Valen’s daycare just minutes after she dropped him off. “Sometimes Valen still talks about how I dropped him off at daycare and never picked him back up — to me that was the worst part of it all,” she says.

According to reports, agents found $26,000 in marked bills the informant had paid Stringer for a kilo of cocaine; they also found $218,000 in a gym bag and $12,000 more hidden behind the driver’s seat. Some 200 grams of heroin and 22 pounds of powdered cocaine were also found in a van bearing New York plates, and an additional 100 grams of heroin were later found in the apartment of an unsuspecting relative where Stringer’s brother Rodney was also arrested.

Ironically, Chino was nabbed as well; the two had spoken on the phone the morning of Stringer’s arrest and a kilo of cocaine was subsequently found in his apartment as well.

Now branded the “cocaine queen of Columbus” — which she hates — Stringer’s face was plastered on the nightly news. “I think to reach the heights that I reached in the drug game, to be the largest single drug dealer in Columbus’ history, even to this day, I think that all added to the shock value of my arrest,” Stringer says.

Her old friend Haggen recalls how shocked he was to get a call from Stringer after she was released on bond. She had worked hard to keep her new life a secret from loved ones back home. “Of all the people that I knew in the world,” Haggen says, “Victoria would have been the last person I could foresee becoming a drug queen-pin. No one in her previous life could have thought it.”

Stringer faced a maximum penalty of life in prison, and her parents were granted custody of Valen. A year later, Stringer, then 27, pleaded guilty to one count each of money laundering and conspiring to traffic narcotics. Prosecutors agreed to a lesser sentence in exchange for her testimony against her co-defendants, including her brother Rodney. All of the defendants pleaded guilty, however, and Stringer avoided the stand.

Behind bars in Bryant, Texas, Stringer says she often wept realizing the glamorous life that she once knew was history. Gone were her expensive jewels; her cars; the four-bedroom house; the maid, cook and chauffer; all of her clientele; but most importantly her son.

“I was so angry sitting in prison for all those years,” Stringer says. “I had put so much shame and disgrace on my family name, my mother, my son, and I said, ‘Your legacy has got to be greater than this.’”

So Stringer began writing her life story. She was inspired by the late Donald Goines, author of 16 classic novels such as Whoreson and Dope Fiend. Commonly seen as the patriarch of the “street lit” genre, Goines also grew up middle-class on the East Side of Detroit — and also did time.

But the writing was more therapy than a career move. She toiled away, writing in longhand in a tiny cubicle in the prison library, and within six weeks had finished Let That Be the Reason. Her fictional alter ego, Pamela Xavier, goes from choirgirl to boss baller. Stringer gives her audience sex, drugs and what some might see as a glorification of the street life. But a careful reader will see that Stringer is leaving clues, warning others not to follow the path she did. The personal pain, domestic abuse and the cutthroat competition Stringer experienced first-hand in the drug world are clear.

For instance, there’s this scene where Chino gets his comeuppance:

Tightening the grip on my hair, I knew that I had to fight, but not with my fist, but with a woman’s mind. I looked up into his face with eyes full of tears and said, “Chino, baby, please don’t hurt me. ...”

As Chino relaxed and prepared to be sexed, I reared my hand back with a balled fist and punched him between his legs hearing the smack of his balls against the knuckles of my fist. He bellowed over in pain, holding his dick falling to his knees. I stood above him, grabbed his gun in the chair, shifted the gun placing one in the chamber and said, “Now, mother fucker, who is the Bitch? Looks like you the Bitch, Chino. If you only knew how to control your dick, we wouldn’t be in this predicament in the first place.” ... Placing the nine to the back of his head I screamed, “Now, mother fucker. What?”

Although Stringer classifies her first novel as fiction, she says more than 90 percent of the book is based on fact. The book’s sequel, Imagine This, which was also completed while Stringer was locked up, portrays the scandalous federal grand jury process Stringer underwent while awaiting trial, and highlights drug sentencing laws that she feels are detrimental to urban communities. Stringer purposely tested out both manuscripts with her fellow inmates and says they often responded with tears of anguish and admiration.

Released after serving five years of a seven-year sentence, Stringer focused on making a living as a writer while working as a bartender and trying to regain custody of her son. She figured her final drafts were a shoo-in for a lucrative book deal. Then came 26 rejection letters from mainstream publishers.

Undaunted, Stringer borrowed $2,500 from a friend, printed books herself and began peddling them at the car washes, corner stores and hair salons where some say the bulk of urban fiction books are sold. Her initial printing of 1,600 copies sold out in three weeks. Upstream, a small publishing house in New York purchased the book in 2002 and gave her a $50,000 advance. Atria books, a division of Simon and Schuster, has since bought Imagine This as part of a two-book, six-figure deal.

“I never found that any of the book companies that I’ve done business with were wary of my past,” Stringer says. “All they care about is dollars. By the time Simon & Schuster approached, I’d already proven myself and was publishing best sellers under my own imprint — they respected that.”

Before either of her own book deals were finalized, Stringer founded Triple Crown Publications with a $5,000 personal loan to keep up with increasing demand for her first novel. Other writers, many of them incarcerated, began sending her their manuscripts. Gangsta, the first book by her first signed writer, who goes by the name of K’wan, sold 10,000 copies in its first month. Self-published writers who had reached “best-seller” status in the hood, such as Shannon Holmes and Nikki Turner, soon followed, and Triple Crown quickly became a major player in the burgeoning urban literature industry.

Asked what she loves most about publishing, Stringer says it’s giving opportunities to writers who would otherwise be passed over as she once was. Stringer brags that she currently has five writers serving time in federal prison and estimates that at least half of her 26 authors have done time. Knowing from experience the lack of rehabilitation within prisons, Stringer understands the importance of second chances.

“When I was a hustler, I used to put packages in shorties’ hands, and I thought I was giving them a chance, but really I was dealing them death,” Stringer says. “There’s people that I gave packages to that are doing life in prison, people who wound up getting murdered trying to sell drugs that I gave them, so now, when I’m able to give someone a book deal, I’m giving them life. God gave me a second chance so I use that opportunity to give others a second chance too.”

Observers of the publishing scene say Stringer takes risks mainstream publishers never would.

“Vickie is great at finding the diamonds in the rough and tapping the vein of literary talent that Manhattan publishers can’t discover,” says McHenry of Black Issues Book Review.

Stringer has since gone on to broker six-figure deals with major publishing houses for some of her top-selling authors, and she says she enjoys working as an agent just as much as she enjoys publishing. She estimates her office receives close to 100 manuscripts weekly.

“Almost all of the manuscripts that we get come in handwritten,” Stringer says while zipping along the highway, running errands and planning a family picnic. “We type them all up, edit them and select the best writers out of the bunch — a major would never do that.”

But Stringer admits that she can’t lift up every ex-convict in search of a book deal or a job. For instance, there was her former events coordinator who was arrested for robbing banks on his lunch break.

“This fool had a straight-up prison mentality,” Stringer says, holding back a laugh. “Here he was out of prison for six months still calling people collect from land phones.”

In all of Triple Crown’s current releases, and in most hip-hop literature, protagonists confront drugs and the prison system, the very forces undermining the black community at large. Defenders of the genre argue that the writers offer unique perspectives on street life — each story ending with a twist. Critics argue the writing, which has grown increasingly bold since Sister Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever was published in 1999, has become “too ghetto” and is littered with enough bad grammar to make W.E.B. DuBois turn over in his grave. Stringer says many of her authors are merely writing in the colloquial voice most familiar to them, and respects their courage to do so.

Monique Patterson, editor at St. Martin’s Press, shares that sentiment. “If the books weren’t written in slang, the readers would not see them as legit,” she says.

And while it may pain some African-American literati, Lisa Lennox’s Crackhead and Nikki Turner’s Project Chick, not the works of Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, are apparently winning over young readers.

“My students are always reading these books instead of doing their homework,” says Julia Putnam, a seventh-grade teacher at Detroit’s University Preparatory High School. “Every now and again they mention Maya Angelou or Langston Hughes, but that’s about it.”

“I can remember in the 1970s when among a lot of black literary circles, people would turn their noses up at Donald Goines,” Boyd, of Wayne State University, says. “They said he glorified the street life and disliked him for the same reason some people don’t like today’s urban fiction writers. But if Goines and even a former pimp like Iceberg Slim could inspire so many future writers to pick up the pen, who says today’s generation can’t do the same?”

But along with the popularity of the genre comes exploitation. Scores of writers attempting to follow in Goines’ footsteps pen poorly written tales about “dirt” they’ve seen in the street. Stringer says she tosses hundreds of manuscripts the moment she senses a lack of hunger and sincerity.

Detroiter Eddie B. Allen Jr., whose biography of Goines was published last year, wonders whether Goines’ footsteps are being worn to a rut.

“I’m not sure if it’s good for publishing houses to exclusively print books that deal with street life and crime, because it really suggests to the average urban person that there is no distinction between a truly gifted author and someone who lives in the ghetto, who happens to have access to a computer,” Allen says. “Unlike in Mr. Goines’ day, when it was rare or unheard of to see books with names like Whoreson and Dopefiend, the prominence of so-called urban novels today influences some youth to wonder if there’s anything else worth reading.”

In between fielding interview questions and answering her cell phone, which rings constantly, Stringer takes every free breath she has to brag about Valen. Stringer says the 12-year-old is her protector and one of the best judges of character she has in her life. The two have been through a lot. Stringer says that although Valen is the spitting image of Chino, Chino still does not recognize Valen as his. She claims to have sent Chino copies of both Let That Be the Reason and Imagine This to no response. All she knows, she says, is that since being released from prison last year, he is now a minister at a church in Columbus. Rolling her eyes in frustration, Stringer raises her voice as if to curse, then stops, calms herself, smiles and brags more about how lucky she is to have Valen in her life.

She says she only saw him once during her five years in prison, and the pain of that separation has lead her to establish the Valen Foundation to help children of prisoners visit their parents. Using $30,000 of her own money, Stringer flies kids all over the country, puts them up in hotels with meal vouchers, and arranges two-day visits at facilities — as long as the parent is serving at least a two-year sentence and lives more than 100 miles away.

Having seen some difficult times, Valen does public speaking, mentors other youths and recently gave a speech in front of Ohio Gov. Bob Taft. Stringer also does a considerable amount of public speaking with youth groups and female prisoners.

“Every time I get to the podium, when I speak in prisons, I just stand there for the first five minutes and cry,” she says.

While satisfying a craving for ice cream across town, Stringer hints that she wants to move to Mexico by the time Valen heads off to college. She has a two-story penthouse in Cozumel picked out and eats her fair share of Mexican food to get used to the cuisine. She says she doesn’t regret any part of her past, not even prison, because it’s given her the strength to be the mother, author and businesswoman that she is today. Her next book, Dirty Red, which Stringer says is scandalous enough to enrage almost every man alive, will be out on Atria books in the fall.

“My life has truly turned out to be a dream come true,” Stringer says almost in disbelief. “I had to walk through hell to get here, but finally I’ve finally reached the other side.”

Read more:

A Triple Crown sampler
Ripped from the pages of Triple Crown lit.

Jonathan Cunningham is a former Metro Times intern. He is currently in the Academy for Alternative Journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Chicago. E-mail [email protected]
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