What James Patterson is to the nail-biting thriller, Wahida Clark is to thug romance.
Clark penned her first two books on yellow sheets of legal paper and then shipped the work from her temporary Kentucky address to relatives in New Jersey, who typed the words that would launch Clark's career.
The two books turned into a series of four books, soon-to-be five, which landed Clark a coveted spot on the New York Time's best-sellers list. Now she travels, speaking to groups at juvenile detention centers, halfway houses and trade shows. Another author dubbed her Queen of Thug Love fiction. Clark also works for a non-profit organization that serves at-risk youth and people who have been incarcerated.
You might not have heard of Clark, but a recent search of the Lexington Public Library catalog produced eight titles by her, and most of the books were on hold or awaiting return from patrons. The books have worn covers and creased pages.
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Clark, who hails from Trenton, N.J., is a Kentucky author, which is noted on the spine of her books at the library and in the author biography on the back covers of her books. But she wasn't born in Kentucky and has never lived in Kentucky outside of a federal prison.
Clark, who now lives in East Orange, N.J., where she is national vice president of the non-profit Prodigal Sons and Daughters Redirection Services Inc., started writing from the confines of the women's federal prison camp in Lexington.
The Federal Medical Center on Leestown Road has an adjacent minimum-security camp for women.
Clark's first two books, Thugs and the Women Who Love Them and Every Thug Needs a Lady, were written at the camp. She continued the series with Thug Matrimony and Thug Lovin'. The fifth book in the series, Justify My Thug, is expected to be released next year.
"I didn't know I could write fiction until I went to prison," Clark said.
She said she has no idea where the thug series will end.
"I have no clue," Clark said. "I ask myself the same question. When is it going to end? Is that the last one? I have no clue."
Clark also has written two books in another series: Payback Is a Mutha and Payback With Ya Life.
She describes her work as "entertainment and a unique trip through the streets of everywhere." Her work is laden with drugs, sex, violence and characters struggling to survive and thrive in their environment.
An anthology edited by Clark was published earlier this year. She said editing the collection, What's Really Hood!: A Collection of Tales From the Streets, was a unique experience in a genre that has tremendous financial appeal. She said the book attracted many "heavyweight authors."
"The sex, the dope, the killings and gangs are the same in Chicago, New Jersey, Philadelphia and New York," she said. "That is the reality that leaps at you from reading What's Really Hood!"
Clark said she served nearly 10 years in prison after she was convicted of money laundering, mail fraud and wire fraud while working as a saleswoman for a company in Chamblee, Ga. She was released from the federal prison camp in Alderson, W.Va., in 2007, but she started writing in Lexington around the second year of her incarceration.
"I would not change a minute," Clark said. "Everything that happened was an ingredient to get me where I am today."
Doug Tattershall, a Lexington Public Library spokesman, said Clark's books seemed to circulate well. He said the library has more than 4,800 titles by authors with Kentucky connections.
"People really do care about that local connection," he said.
Sometimes the connection isn't obvious, Tattershall said. It could, for example, include someone who lived in Kentucky but became famous in another part of the country.
Tattershall had not heard of any other Kentucky authors who started writing while incarcerated. Julie Wrinn, director of the Kentucky Women Writers Conference, which starts this weekend, said she knew of an author in Virginia, but not Kentucky.
Clark said she never read much fiction before going to prison. She read business books, self-help books and motivational books. While working in the prison library in Lexington, Clark read a Source magazine article about a man who wrote a book while incarcerated.
Faced with finding a way to support her teenage daughters and make a living for herself after serving her sentence, and having to pay for food and other necessities while in prison, Clark decided to try writing.
She said she read popular and classic street literature and thought, "I can do this. Maybe I can do this a little better."
Clark said a woman who worked as a literary agent ended up serving time with her in the prison and taught a creative writing class. Clark said she took the class and excelled.
After finishing her first book, she started writing letters, attempting to find an agent and a publisher. Finally, she read a book by Carl Weber, who was starting a publishing company, and wrote to the author for advice. He was interested in her work, and Clark's first two books were published by his company.
That company went out of business, Clark said, but she was soon able to find another agent and publisher.
Clark said some prison officials didn't seem pleased when she published a book while in custody.
Rosie Harless, a spokeswoman for the Federal Medical Center in Lexington, said rules about publishing work and maintaining a business were stricter while Clark was incarcerated. However, Harless, who said she has read Clark's work, said the prison encourages inmates to write and take classes "so they can better themselves for when they leave."
Now Clark stays busy with her own publishing company, Wahida Clark Publishing. Clark said she would like to make movies one day. And she wants to start a charter and vocational school with the Prodigal Sons and Daughters organization to help others coming out of prison.
Clark notes that it's tough to get a job out of prison, but it's tougher to find a way to maintain a comfortable lifestyle and make more than minimum wage. She wants to help others in her situation also find success.
"You gotta offer people more than a just a job at McDonald's if you expect them to walk the straight and narrow," she said.