You probably know Karyn Parsons best from her role as Hilary Banks on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, the beloved ‘90s sitcom that still lives on today through its memorable dance sequences and catchy theme song. Though she hasn’t been acting as much, Parsons has kept busy. She runs a production company, Sweet Blackberry, which aims to tell stories of history’s forgotten African-American heroes in a way that is digestible for young children.
More recently, she’s become a published author with her novel, How High the Moon, a 1940s-set young-adult story based partly on her mother’s experiences growing up in the Jim Crow South. The book, which follows 12-year-old Ella and her friends coming of age in South Carolina in 1944, has drawn universal praise for its fleshed-out characters and ability to capture an important moment in our nation’s history.
Parsons will appear at the Baltimore Book Festival’s Literary Salon on East Pratt Street on November 3 at 3 p.m., alongside Ava Joy Burnett of WJZ. In anticipation of her festival debut, we spoke with Parsons about her novel, plans for a second book, and those Fresh Prince spinoff rumors.
You’ve said it took you around three years to write How High the Moon. What was that process like?
I didn’t have the pressure that I have now. At first it was like nobody was really watching. Sometimes I wondered what I had gotten myself into. I always try to remind myself and tell other people, my one little grain of knowledge is to give yourself permission to suck and be terrible.
Now, I’m expected to write a book. Before, I was writing and I knew what I wanted to explore. And then I found myself bumping up against things. Things kept calling my attention along the way and the story starts to tell you what it wants to say, or characters get fleshed out that you didn’t intend on having, and they start to become very important. It’s a beautiful gift.
When moving to your second novel, was there any muscle memory that started to kick in? Or is it more about rediscovering the process?
Both things co-exist. I’m rediscovering it, but it also feels very different than the last time. I had a hard year. My book came out, but I also had the tragedy of my mother passing away. They were happening simultaneously. It’s been an odd year filled with incredible highs and the most ridiculous lows. I would be locked into the book, and then I would be so detached from it. That was nothing like my relationship before where I was able to be with my story. It’s been harder for me this time to be able to have that relationship with it. It’s made the process very, very different. But the other part is true, too. It’s not so much muscle memory as it is knowledge that I did this before.
You’ve spoken about how with How High the Moon, some of the stories that you gathered to inform the novel were from talking with your mother about what it was like for her growing up. Has your relationship to the book and discussing it changed since her passing?
In the beginning, it was hard. I was right in the middle of talking about the book as she was dying and right after she passed. It definitely deepened my gratitude for having had that time with her, and her getting to experience the book and read it and be in the hospital shaking it at everybody that walked by—“Look what my daughter did!” The fact that we got to go down memory lane together and she got to unveil so many things to me I didn’t know until I was writing the book. I never knew about her upbringing, which was so important for me to know. I’m forever grateful for the experience and for her getting to see it all the way through.
Your production company shines a light on historical figures in animated films for children. How has How High the Moon similarly allowed you a platform to further speak about issues you’re passionate about?
I like getting the word out about the importance of history. I’m not a historian. I just kind of accidentally fell into this stuff. Again, my mom’s to blame, turning me on to stories that were so enlightening and exciting and inspiring. And that’s what made Sweet Blackberry happen, as well as the book. I’m not intentionally political by any means, but of course, it’s hard to avoid what’s going on with you when you’re writing.
What are you most excited about for the Book Festival?
I love Baltimore. I’ve been a few times. I’m not sure how much time I’ll have to explore. I’m excited to be a part of the festival. This whole thing has been very exciting for me with this being my first book, and I’ve loved the welcome that I’ve received. It’s been tremendous.
We have to ask—there have been reports that Will Smith is working on a Fresh Prince spinoff. Have you been contacted and would you be interested?
Well, it’s a spinoff not a reboot, which is important. I read it like everybody else. I have no idea what he’s thinking about. I’m curious, obviously, but I have no idea. My guess is that I’m not involved. I’m sure I would have heard something by now. If I was asked to do something, sure. I had such a great experience with everyone doing that project that it would have to be pretty lousy for me to say no. And he wouldn't do anything lousy.