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Deborah Wagnon talks about her new book ‘Marie Sharp: Made in Belize’

MTSU professor, author, and music attorney Deborah Wagnon chatted about her new book “Marie Sharp: Made in Belize.

Deborah Wagnon
Deborah Wagnon. Photo Courtesy of Deborah Wagnon .
Deborah Wagnon. Photo Courtesy of Deborah Wagnon .

MTSU professor, author, and music attorney Deborah Wagnon chatted about her new book “Marie Sharp: Made in Belize,” the authorized biography. 

She is a woman that wears many hats: lawyer, educator, and author. She is a tenured professor at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU).

What inspired you to write this book?

I think my primary motivation initially was seeking justice for this warrior of a woman, Marie Sharp, unknown to most of the world but for her name and face on a bottle of globally distributed habanero pepper sauce.

As I reference in the Acknowledgements, she was first made known to me and my students in 2014 by the Crown Counsel and Deputy Registrar to BELIPO (Belize Intellectual Property Office), as someone who had suffered the loss of her trademark to a U.S. distributor, and that this loss was a well-known (to Belizeans) story of injustice with Belizean pride in her refusal to give up.

She would rise from the ashes to start all over again with a trademark fully protected and enforced.

The fact that she had refused to share her secret formula– with anyone – was her weapon, no different from Coca-Cola (for whom I had interned as a young Georgia Tech undergrad) and understood completely the power of trademark + secret formula.

When I did a “book tour” in 2018 in Belize with the newly published ICIJ, presenting copies to the Prime Minister, University of Belize, U.S. Embassy Belmopan. I presented one to Mrs. Sharp at her factory on the Hummingbird Highway in Southern Belize near Dangriga.

It was on that day, after reading the chapter, that Mrs. Sharp (and her then living husband Gerry Sharp) told me that their Board of Directors felt strongly that a book about Mrs. Sharp’s life should be written, and would I be interested in doing so?

I was en route to Guatemala City the next day to meet with the Dean of the Law School at Universidad Francisco Marroquin – re expanding my program into Guatemala City.

I asked if I could think about this somewhat overwhelming suggestion, because of the gravity of this woman’s persona in Belize. She is a queen to many, and of course, her magic formula of habanero pepper sauce is on every table in Belize as a condiment alongside the salt and pepper.

Homes, restaurants, food carts, palm-frond covered sheds on the beach and high-end resorts including Coppola’s Turtle Inn at the sea and Blancaneux in the mountains – all have Mrs. Sharp’s on their table. This was not going to be a quick research project. I had to get it right (or never return…)

I thought it through, having never written a biography. My publications have been historical fiction and non-fiction. After pledging to myself that if I said yes, I would deliver – no matter what – I said yes. And, within the year, Covid hit – shutting the world down.

What began in earnest in our first mega-interview sessions in Cancun, Mexico in September 2018 was finally published on her 84th birthday – March 9, 2024.

Did this book teach you anything about yourself?

Let me put it this way, via this direct passage from my Author’s Note postscript dated July 29, 2023, as follows:

On May 26, 2023, I sat with Mrs. Sharp at her home in Stann Creek, Belize. We discussed this project, begun in 2018, and its forthcoming publication. On that day, I reminded Mrs. Sharp of her inspiring words in the final chapter “Women Who Dream.” I have held these words close and often turned to them as a guiding force during these challenging years.

Don’t ever give up. You will have to bend your head down against the wind and go. Never give up. Don’t get despondent or to the state that “I can’t do this anymore” and give up. Don’t ever give up. … You must have faith in your product and faith in yourself also.

I have learned much from the telling of Marie Sharp’s incredible life story. I thank her for sharing it so that others might benefit from her journey’s hard truths and lessons learned.

What do your plans for the future include?

We are working on the audiobook for MS:MIB, with a cool extra of using Garifuna recordings throughout made available to me by Stonetree Records producer and founder Ivan Duran.

I have had inquiries re the life story rights for both documentary and dramatic film – that is an open door now.

My other two major creative goals are the screenplay completion of Neva Majette, my 2007 fiction titled Great And Wide Sea – as I have had multiple inquiries from production companies — but I am holding out for one in particular that is blue chip and I am being asked to hurry up with the screenplay.

I have a second original screenplay – not adapted from a book – called I Am Karina Salazar that is story about a female pilot based in Belize and Guatemala that I am completing for pitch.

And lastly, I have rights to pursue film adaptation of another life story that is confidential but a legend in the music industry – to be set in Savannah.

I have involvement as Portia Entertainment Group LLC with client projects as well, with highly diverse content and of course, confidential.

How does it feel to be an author in the digital age? (Now with streaming, technology, and social media being so prevalent)

I find myself thinking of Yogi Berra – the infamous originator of the quote “its déjà vu all over again…” As I teach in my Entertainment I/P courses, intellectual property is the currency of the world, and most particularly of the creative world. When looking at our world of “industries” — music/recording, film and literary — it seems that the literary industry is now dancing the same dance that the music industry stumbled through in the late 90’s/turn of the millennium.

The “majors” went from 7 to 6 to 5 to 4 and now 3; and the “gatekeepers” were essentially dissipated into a Darwinian everyone for themselves, survival of the fittest. There is no sitting on a stool at Schwab’s Drugstore on Sunset Boulevard and hoping to get discovered (Lana Turner’s story).

So, the corporate machinations of the book world are now dancing that same dance – just later.

Mergers and acquisitions, have us now with essentially three major book publishing conglomerates owning a zillion imprints. Same results also – dissipation and survival of the fittest, in whatever format short of carrier pigeon you can come up with.

The best hope, however, is that just like a great song, a great story will somehow find its way to its true audience. I still believe in word-of-mouth power; whether delivered digitally or via the human voice. That is what keeps works alive over time.

What motivates you as an author? Where do you find your inspiration from?

I usually see things, a single frame vision if you will, that sparks the flame. And I have an extremely powerful sense of place — as all reviews of Great And Wide Sea (Neva Majette) referenced over and over again (1906 coastal Georgia lighthouse).

I believe natural beauty and a potent attraction of a physical place drives my stories. In Marie Sharp: Made In Belize – as evidenced by the title – her story is 100 percent about place – she is Belize, and Belize is Mrs. Sharp, from rainforest to the sea.

What is your advice for young and aspiring authors?

Get a degree so that you can move the pieces on the chessboard with some freedom and power. I went back for my MFA in creative writing from Goddard in Vermont (a highly lauded program with NY editors/writers as faculty) well into a highly successful entertainment law career — I was among students who were in their 20s and all intent upon financial success from writing — which meant an insane pursuit of publishers and literary agents, rather than pursuit of content.

I would advise to find a way to have some power so that you can be free and entrepreneurial with your writing. There is no freedom

in being a slave to a major publishing agreement granting exclusivity for your life plus 70 years. And if it is not selling, goes out of print, — you have no recourse (unless you know how to recapture it at the 35 year window).

What does the word success mean to you?

Independence, freedom to pursue whatever I have the talent and drive to pursue.

As you might guess – I did not love big law firm life, with collective think and pressure to conform. I have always had two lanes in my brain going concurrently – I sang my way through Stanford Law School, doing gigs at Tahoe and driving over the hill to Palo Alto for classes on Monday morning. (That was a first for SLS).

Most of all, success means completing the mission, whatever it is. Just like Marie Sharp’s “never give up” mantra. Giving up is utter failure to me and an untenable misery; completion of a “project” begun and well-executed, is the truest definition of success for me.

What would you like to tell our readers about your book? (What’s the one thing you want them to get out of it)

Mrs. Sharp’s journey from a 1940 British Honduras barefoot girl living on San Pedro to present day global exporter of her creative inventions, with the rising and crashing tide of life she went through in between, is a real example of someone to look up to.

If you have stopped dreaming for some reason, Mrs. Sharp’s story will kickstart you back to those dreams. The final chapter is called “Women Who Dream” and it is straight from Mrs. Sharp as practical sage advice, for staying in the game and claiming your place in the world. And of course, to “never give up.”

Her book “Marie Sharp: Made in Belize” is available on Amazon by clicking here.

To learn more about Deborah Wagnon, check out her official website.

Markos Papadatos
Written By

Markos Papadatos is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for Music News. Papadatos is a Greek-American journalist and educator that has authored over 21,000 original articles over the past 18 years. He has interviewed some of the biggest names in music, entertainment, lifestyle, magic, and sports. He is a 16-time "Best of Long Island" winner, where for three consecutive years (2020, 2021, and 2022), he was honored as the "Best Long Island Personality" in Arts & Entertainment, an honor that has gone to Billy Joel six times.

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