Back in October, Kim McLarin burst onto the Boston television scene as the new host of the long-running WGBH program “Basic Black.” But those who have grown accustomed to welcoming McLarin into their homes every Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. may not know she is also an accomplished author, a college instructor, an experienced print journalist, and a multifaceted person with amazing insights into the world.
A voracious reader growing up in Memphis, Tenn., McLarin knew at a young age that she wanted to become a writer, a dream she held onto after attending Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and Duke University.
“I wanted to become a novelist,” McLarin said, “but I knew that I couldn’t make a lot of money doing that. As a matter of fact, there are only a handful of writers who actually making money as novelists, like Stephen King.”
So she pursued a highly lucrative profession, right?
“I became a journalist,” she said.
While it didn’t exactly vault her into the ranks of the rich and famous, McLarin’s choice did put her on the right path — she just wouldn’t know it for a little while.
After reporting stints at The Greensboro, N.C., Record, The Associated Press and The Philadelphia Inquirer, in 1993 McLarin became a beat reporter covering New Jersey for The New York Times. For many journalists, the Times is the pinnacle of the profession. For McLarin, it was something else.
Today, McLarin describes her four years at the Times as a “soul-sucking” experience, pockmarked by competitiveness and anxiety among reporters that made the newsroom a decidedly unpleasant work environment. The experience led her to re-evaluate her life’s priorities; soon after, she made the decision to pursue writing novels full-time.
McLarin calls her first two novels a “cleansing” that she used to talk about her sometimes turbulent experiences as a journalist. Her first novel, “Taming It Down,” deals with the meaning of blackness through the eyes of a black journalist dealing with her white editor and black colleagues. “Meeting of the Waters,” McLarin’s second novel, looks at the interracial union of two reporters, one black and one white, as they deal with external bigotry and relationship struggles during the 1992 Los Angeles Riots.
Though her first two forays into the field dealt with familiar topics, the move to fiction was key to McLarin because of the freedom it afforded.
“While many of the things in my books may or may not have happened to me, I really want readers to think about the themes I bring up in them,” she said. “I could have written a memoir, but I write novels for a reason, because I don’t want to be bound by facts.”
“Jump At The Sun,” McLarin’s critically acclaimed third novel, departs from her previous themes in its examination of one black woman’s ambivalence toward motherhood. As a mother of two herself, McLarin said she had a personal connection to the material. While the theme shocked some critics, McLarin said that many mothers have told her they were pleased by the book; before they read it, they said, they had thought they were the only ones who felt unsure about parenthood.
McLarin credits the late writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin not only for inspiring her to become a writer herself, but also for his influence on her development as a good human being — she says she is dismayed that his legacy isn’t afforded a more prominent place in African American history. Many of Baldwin’s books have inspired McLarin’s work, most notably his groundbreaking 1963 novel, “Another Country,” which deals openly with interracial and homosexual relationships in New York’s Greenwich Village during the 1950s.
An interest in another civil rights icon led McLarin to co-write “Growing Up X,” the autobiography of Malcolm X’s daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz. McLarin said she enjoys writing biographies of people she admires because of the additional insight it gives her into their lives.
Her current project is no exception. McLarin is now on leave from her post as writer-in-residence at Emerson College, where she has been a writing instructor for five years, to co-write the autobiography of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Liberia’s president and the first female elected head of a state in Africa. She traveled throughout Liberia in August interviewing Johnson-Sirleaf and her family and friends for the book, due out early in 2009.
In addition to her writing and teaching, McLarin last year made the move to television when she took up hosting duties on “Basic Black,” a job opening she learned about through an e-mail and auditioned for on a whim. Given her lack of on-camera experience, she said she was surprised when she was offered the job, but the producers, impressed with her personality, decided to give her a shot.
After some intensive training, McLarin was ready to take up the mantle when the 40th season of “Basic Black” debuted on Oct. 18, 2007 — though she admits the transition took some work.
“TV is not as easy as it looks,” she said. “Coming from a print journalism background, I used to think that all that TV people do is read teleprompters. But I learned that a lot of research and work goes into putting each of our shows together.”
With several months of broadcasts under her belt and a new year underway, McLarin says being on the show is one of the best experiences she has had in her life, and the pleasantly surprising success has her looking forward to other opportunities that may come her way.
“If you asked me three years ago if I would want to be on television, I would have said no,” she said. “Life has a funny way of happening sometimes. I am happy with whatever comes next.”