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'The African-American Sidney Sheldon'

Carl Weber knows his audience, and he's writing for them. They want entertaining, dramatic novels populated with black characters.

By COLETTE BANCROFT
Published January 19, 2006


Even before he began writing books, Carl Weber sold a lot of them.

Several years ago, he owned three bookstores in the New York area that specialized in books for African-American readers. His customers often asked him for entertaining, dramatic novels with black characters.

"They wanted something like the African-American Sidney Sheldon," Weber says.

"So I thought, "I can do that.' I got a couple of books about writing, and next thing you know, here I am."

He is chatting by phone from Atlanta, in the middle of a 40-day tour of 30 cities to promote his sixth novel, So You Call Yourself a Man (Dafina, $24).

The story of three men who are lifelong friends struggling with marriage, fatherhood and their own flaws, it's a sometimes funny, sometimes harrowing, often steamy page-turner.

Weber's first five novels, Lookin' for Luv, Married Men, Baby Momma Drama, Player Haters and The Preacher's Son, have sold a total of almost a million copies. Not bad for a guy who was, by his own admission, "not the best English student."

He was good enough in other classes to earn an MBA in marketing from the University of Virginia. He first got into publishing from the business end and now owns Urban Knowledge, a growing chain of 10 bookstores, and Urban Books, which he says is the largest African-American-owned publishing company in the country, with about 85 authors.

He even has his own production company, aimed at creating television shows and movies.

Married for 10 years and the father of three, Weber, 40, says finding time to write can be difficult. "Sometimes I just have to lock myself away for a couple of weeks."

Writing a novel takes him about a year, and he promotes them personally. "I've always been one of those writers who do a crazy amount of touring."

But he considers meeting his readers essential to his writing process. "Most authors write for themselves, I think, and hope their fans like it. I want to find out what the fans are interested in, what's going on in their world."

Weber says his novels are not what is called hip-hop fiction or urban fiction, although he publishes many of those books. "Those are aimed more at Generation X, at African-American young people. They tend to be about inner city life."

His books are populated with characters often based on his own family and friends. He grew up in Queens, N.Y., and lives on Long Island.

"A lot of people in Queens say they know the people in these books," Weber says with a laugh.

For the most part, his characters are in their 30s and 40s, married and middle class. "I like to stay away from characters being rich. You know, the guy starts out a beggar and then he's a millionaire. That's not most people's lives."

In So You Call Yourself a Man, his three main characters are a computer analyst, a commodities broker and a UPS delivery driver.

They take turns as first-person narrators of the book's chapters, telling interwoven stories in direct, sometimes profane language. Weber usually writes from the male point of view, an interesting twist on the relationship-driven stories of the genre.

"I haven't met a woman who doesn't want to know what a man is thinking," he says.

"I want to make women understand how men think, and I want men to think, "This guy is right on. He gets it.' "

Weber knew when he began writing that most of his readers would be women because they are the most dedicated readers of fiction. But he says about a quarter of his readers are men, which he takes as a sign that he is getting it.

One writer who was a model for him was Terry McMillan, the bestselling author of Waiting to Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back.

"She had a really great voice for women," Weber says. "But her male characters showed the women's point of view. I thought if I could write like that from the male point of view, and be funny - I've been the class clown since I was 10 - that would be great."

In all his novels, Weber says, he tries to deal with issues his readers face in real life. "I've written about the baby mama issue, guys on the down-low."

In So You Call Yourself a Man, characters deal with domestic violence, sexual identity and the consequences of infidelity. Readers respond, he says: "People love to see other people in trouble."

Responsibility is also a theme. "For this book, I wanted to deal with what it means to be a man. With the Iraq war, all kinds of people are questioning the idea of manhood, what it means to be a man - whoever they are, black, white, yellow, green."

Weber says personal appearances help him find out face to face what his readers are thinking about. "I get 100, 200 people at these signings.

"Sometimes we close the Barnes & Noble or the Borders down" because readers don't want to stop talking about his characters.

"That's when you know you're doing a good job."

- Colette Bancroft can be reached at 727 893-8435 or bancroft@sptimes.com

* * *

As Carl Weber's So You Call Yourself a Man opens, James, one of the three narrators, gets a call from a woman he had an affair with several years before. James has been putting his marriage back together since they broke up, but Michelle has news for him: Her 3-year-old son is James' child. In this excerpt, he goes to her home to discuss the situation.

"Damn, James, you gettin' fat," she spat as I walked past her.

I turned to see her staring at me with a less-than-desirous look on her face. I immediately sucked in my gut with a frown. Her smart-ass comment had not just hurt my ego, but my feelings as well. Yeah, I'd gained a few pounds since I'd seen her last - probably closer to ten or fifteen - but it wasn't as if I was totally out of shape. In retaliation, I eyed her from head to toe, lashing out in a calm yet condescending demeanor. "Thanks, Michelle. You're lookin' good too. I see you did your hair just for me. . . . Oh, and is that a new outfit? 'Cause that gray in your sweatshirt matches your black rollers perfectly."

She touched her rollers self-consciously, obviously embarrassed by my remark, but that didn't last long. "Was that supposed to be funny, James?"

I smirked, but again I didn't reply. Michelle rolled her eyes, then plopped down on the sofa with an attitude. "Well, tell me if you think this is funny." She lifted a piece of paper from the coffee table and handed it to me. I looked at it and shrugged. All it had was some math problems scribbled on it.

"What's this?"

"That is seventeen percent of the average UPS driver's monthly salary, multiplied by thirty-six months. That's what my social worker says I'll get in back child support if I take your ass to court."

"Thirty thousand dollars? Are you insane?" I shouted. I looked down at the paper again as I eased myself into the love seat.

"Children are expensive," she replied nonchalantly. "Now, if you don't like it, he's in the bedroom taking a nap. You can take him home to your wife and you ain't got to give me s---."

IF YOU GO

Carl Weber will be signing So You Call Yourself a Man at 3 p.m. Sunday at Books for Thought, 10910 N 56th St., Tampa; and at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Barnes & Noble, 11802 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa. His Web site is www.carlweber.net