Reading and writing as a child
I was the youngest of three children and I was always left kind of to myself, and that always kind of gave me time to just be by myself and to just fall into daydreaming and following a story in my mind, and I think that really helped influence just that whole idea of being a writer and telling myself a story.
I started writing in kindergarten writing stories, giving myself a publisher’s page, a copyright page, and all of that. My publisher was GI, Government Issue, because my father was in the Army. So yeah, I’ve been writing for a long time. By the time I was 12, I was writing 500 words every night just because I had so much — well, I had so much story to tell and I just couldn’t stop and so I’ve been writing ever since.
Growing up in an Army family
Oh, I had a wonderful childhood in so many different ways. I was born in Jamaica, Queens, New York. We lived in public housing that was called the projects, but my father was in the Army and so when I was very little like two or three years old, we packed up and we drove across the country to Arizona where I got to see Native Americans for the first time and a whole bunch of stars.
So I lived a military life, you know, just a whole lot of kickball, dodge ball, brownies, camping, and all that good stuff and so very outdoorsy and just always on the go. It was a very suburban kind of Army life.
I grew up in Seaside, California. I lived there from about the age of 3 to about 12 and then when my father came home from Vietnam, we moved across the country to Georgia for a little while and then we returned to New York. And by that time I was 12 years old. And I was so used to being outdoors and running around and playing with kids and all of that that New York became something of a culture shock for me because we couldn’t run outside.
There were no kickball games in the street, no gangs of kids to play with in that sense. And so it was grandma’s house, school, and the library, which was around the corner from Grandma’s house. So that all kind of worked out well for me.
My early days as a writer
So, I had ideals about what writing was going to be like, especially after I got out of college. I had a novel that had been read by Richard Price and Sonya Pilcer. I took master classes with them at Hofstra University. And I pretty much felt like I had a novel that I was going to sell and make a million dollars and then get a cabin in the woods like Stephen King and just, you know, and do nothing else but write.
And none of those things happened. I did get an agent right away, and my agent really worked with me, but we had — I didn’t understand children’s literature and which meant I did not read enough children’s books, especially the age category that I wanted to write for.
So it was very painful and I was very headstrong, and my idea of revision was finding a better word for something. I didn’t have the concept of revision. So I had a long, long way to go in terms of really understanding what a writer’s life is like.
My first book
Oh, that first novel had to be rewritten so many times and finally it took about a good eight years, but finally I sold it. And when I did, I thought I have arrived, that’s it, but I had to then do the real work of real writers.
When I wrote that first novel and finally sold it, that was when I learned the work of real writers. That’s when I learned about thoughtful, deep thoughtful revision and but also how to take care of my craft and to start looking at some of the habits that can really detract a reader from following the story. So there were so many different levels of just becoming a writer that I had to learn, and that’s what that first novel did for me.
That first novel is Blue Tights. The original title was Blue Tights, Big Butt. I can’t believe we had to take off the big butt, but there it is. It has been around for almost like 25 years and now it is out of print, but it was a good way for me to start and to learn how to be a writer.
Getting started on a new book
Well, the way that I go from the idea stage to that final, final here it is, it’s near perfect, it always just starts with a burst of something, something small that just becomes bigger. It’s usually for me there’s an image. There’s a picture in my mind and then that picture can just spark so many things that have something to do with the character.
I usually don’t know what that is right away. For example, with One Crazy Summer there was the Timex watch. And every time I thought of that Timex watch tick, tick, ticking, I thought that that poor child wearing that watch had something they had to do. And so that just got bigger and bigger. It became a part of her character. It became part of some of the things that she had to overcome.
And then it kind of really helped to become that ticking time of the 1960s where everything was kind of a ticking time bomb or timeclock. So it usually starts with something small, generally an image or it might be a few words like a slogan or something and then that becomes just bigger in my mind.
The story behind One Crazy Summer
I always wanted to write about the Black Panther period. I thought I would write about it for older readers, but the more that I thought about how I knew it and how I knew it as a young person because I had had a breakfast or two courtesy of the Black Panthers so it just made sense to come at it from the point of view of a child.
But, you know, I didn’t really know how I was going to do that, but once all the smaller pieces started to come together, those very small pieces that start to make the characters, a little doll for the youngest sister and that sense of wanting and crying from the middle sister, then I began to really feel what the story was from the inside out. And so the Black Panther movement became the backdrop and kind of a force, but it was really all about the sisters and their relationship with each other and trying to form one with their mother.
One Crazy Summer and the Black Panthers
One Crazy Summer tells a story of three sisters. They’re young in age, 7, 9, and 11, and they’ve been raised without their mother.
And one day when they come home from school, their father announces that they are getting on a plane to go to Oakland, California to spend the summer with their mother. And what makes this unique is that their mother left them when they were very young.
And so this is a journey for them, it’s full of excitement, but they’re also nervous. They don’t quite know their mother. Delphine only knows her, has these few hazy memories of her. And when they get to Oakland — and it’s just the girls traveling by themselves, they find that she is not exactly enthused to see them and they learn that she’s involved with the Black Panther Party.
So this is 1968 and there’s a whole lot of change going on in the country, a lot of revolution. It’s not just the Black Panthers, but there’s a whole youth movement, an antiwar movement, women’s movement. There’s so many things going on, but this is the drama that they are walking into.
Writing about a mother who left her kids behind
Well, one of the reasons why I wanted to talk about mothers disappearing as opposed to fathers disappearing is because I think we’ve become very dulled by that expectation that the father would eventually disappear. And for a lot of kids that’s not their experience. They experience kind of this kind of ungroundedness or freefall because they don’t have a very strong support.
And so oftentimes that’s because the mother isn’t in the picture in the same way or isn’t in the picture at all. And so I thought about that. What must that be like to not have that person who we take for granted is there to give you just so much of your character and your rules for operating, when that person isn’t there, what is that like and what does that mean to a five-year-old, seven-year-old, eight‑year-old child when everybody else around them at the very least has a mother and you don’t and it’s her choice to be gone?
It’s not that she was taken away; she left you. So that is a whole coping mechanism all its own. And I could see an older sibling kind of really stepping into the role and trying to make it all right for the younger siblings.
Making the past come alive for young readers
I had a fun time just putting together this time period that is really ancient history prehistoric for these kids because this is 50 years ago. And so one of the things that I thought I would do is made sure that I would include things contextually. Yes, it might be a record player or a record to Delphine, but records don’t exist now.
So if I put something in like a phone booth, oh, I’ve seen one of those before. Yes, there’s one downtown. There’s one. We’ve seen it, you know. So a lot of these things become kind of like Easter egg hunts just whether you’re googling them or you’ve seen them or someone has told you about it, someone in your family, and I think kids are having fun kind of discovering that recent history.
So it’s just that — kind of creating that balance of not overloading it with so much that I it just becomes about the remember when and this is how we used to do that. You have to move things along so that you feel like you’re in the day of Delphine’s life doing what Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern are doing and not that they’re going hey, kids, welcome back to 1968, you know, like that.
Telling a story from a child’s point of view
So, one of the challenges of telling a story from a child’s point of view is kind of thinking about how much perspective they actually have. And it’s very cute to give this kid a very worldly kind of point of view and give them all of this language and all of that and then they become a special person in a certain way; whereas, you want them to be a relatable person.
And so with Delphine, you know, I let her have some sense of retrospect but not fully understanding everything that she’s recalling because I think that’s how we process things that have happened to us in the past. We’ve lived through them, we’ve taken those little snapshots of them, and it’s only when you look back at them, you might not know what everything means, but you start to put it together.
And every year as you progressively go on, you have a clearer picture of what has happened in the past. And so it’s just kind of managing how much of her perception, you know, does she really get and owning up that half of this she doesn’t really know. She’s just going to try to make it up, you know, as she goes along because she’s got to keep her sisters in line and she’s got to make everything all right for everybody.
The other thing with a character like that is that she’s finding out — and so as she’s finding out, the reader is finding out as well. And sometimes they’re a little ahead of her and so they’re kind of whispering to her as she goes along or they’re experiencing it with her. So it’s kind of good when she can be caught off-guard when she doesn’t know everything, but she’s telling things as truthfully as she knows how to tell it.
How I write
I spend a couple of months just imagining my story and doing the research of the story, just pulling together what is going to be in the story or the pool of information that might be in the story.
Then I start to write a lot of scenes and dialogue and then I stop doing that and I write a draft. After I write that draft, I write another and yet another and yet another. I can write about maybe five to seven drafts, and each one I’m looking to accomplish something different. The first one I am dealing with the very big issues of what is going to be in the story and what is going to be thrown out.
And then I start to deal with shaping the story and all of that and then refining and then language is the very last thing and the very last thing is all the housekeeping and then just double checking all of my references, just making sure that they’re correct. And even with all the double checking I will miss something, but that’s the reason why I have an editor and a copy editor thereafter.
The legwork behind every novel
These days a good deal of research goes into my work and so it might even be things that I will not even use or go into detail with the story, but it helps me to really feel the weight of the things that the characters wrestle with. For example, in the third book of One Crazy Summer series, which is Gone Crazy in Alabama, one of the characters milks a cow.
Well, in order for me to understand how important it was for him to be home in time to milk that cow, I had to really see a really full cow’s udder, you know, the milk sack and the udders and all of that and to know oh, he better get home, you know. So just the whole learning how to milk, how to approach the cow and just all of those different things I learned so much.
But and even though, trust me, only maybe a tenth of it went into the story, I had to know it in order to get to that one tenth and to do it right. And to my satisfaction, someone who actually grew up on a dairy farm said hey, how did you know all of that, and I didn’t even put in like half of what I knew. So research, it really does count.
So, my most recent novel, Clayton Byrd Goes Underground is about a boy who plays the blues harmonica with his grandfather. What do I know about the harmonica, let alone the blues harmonica? Nothing. So I had to get a harmonica and take lessons and start to learn, at least just learn the fundamentals and listen to a lot of harmonica playing.
But it didn’t really make sense to me until I had to start drawing and blowing and, you know, spitting up all over that harmonica in order to get it to play. So, you know, a lot of those things that writers do, you know, it’s a lot of fun. You get your hands dirty, you get in there, and you do some of it and it’s fun.
Connecting with your readers
What is it about writing that makes you want to just do something over and over and over again until you get it right? Well, eventually you meet your readers. And you know when you have done a good job or when you have left something undone because there is nothing like a child audience, a child reader. They will hold your feet to the fire and ask you why did you let this happen, you know, or if heaven forbid if you make a mistake that got by editing or what have you and they know about it because they will tell you.
But I think for the most part for me the most satisfying part of having written a novel and knowing that people are reading it is when people connect and they let you know in ways that really just blow your own mind. You can never anticipate how your book is going to connect with someone or who it’s going to connect with. That’s always a surprise.
One reader I’ll never forget is a girl who came to us. After the program is over, you give your presentation and you answer questions. But, you know, she had to linger behind and she said she read One Crazy Summer and during that time, you know, her father had been away and she had not met him. And so all of a sudden she heard that she was going to meet her father.
And so she thought that the book brought her father to her just like the story brought Delphine and her sisters to finally meet their mother. So she was identifying with the story and just the whole magic of storytelling, that it could have something to do with her life. And so she just truly believed that because she read the book, that that’s what brought her father to her.
Why I write for young people
So, with topics like teen pregnancy, female genital mutilation and what have you, why write for young people, why not write for adults? You know, I’ve read those topics as written by adult writers, and I’m drawn into those stories, but for me, I think once a young person walks that path, I know that that means that’s a green light for me to follow them, for me to write that story, that I don’t have to wait for that person to mature in order to write that story for them.
They’re going through it now so why don’t I write that story now and try to write it in terms that maybe someone who is totally underexposed can grapple with it a little and to not write for shock value but to write something that I think that person who’s going through the experience can recognize some truth in it and someone who has no idea can start to see something that they’ve never seen before.
Talking with middle schoolers about sensitive subjects
I did write a book that talks about the custom of female genital mutilation, and I’ve received so many letters from young girls, young men also but a lot from young girls ages 11, 12, 13.
And I’ll never forget getting an email from a girl in the eighth grade who said you have to come to my school. I have had this done to me. And you have to come to my school to talk about it. And I said well, well, well, let’s get your teacher involved. I can’t just show up at your school.
And so the teacher invited me. I came and I spoke and we shared the book. And so I thought that this would be a session where the girl would talk, and she did talk, and that girls would talk, but it was — it really surprised me that it was the young men in the classroom who really spoke on behalf of FGM, female genital mutilation. It just really amazed me.
With such maturity. These were eighth-grade boys and they talked about — one boy was from Yemen and he talked about how his family as now in this country because the family did not want their sisters to undergo that. So, you know, young people are aware of things. And if you give them the language to talk about things in mature ways, they can do it. They can do it. We have to trust them.
The writer’s life
I used to not know what real writers did and now that I know, gee like my life will never be the same. There’s so much to do. There is so much. You want to answer all your emails. You want to make sure you have a presence on social media. You’re trying to keep up with, you know, with the fact that people actually read your books and then you want to make sure that you’re getting your writing done.
And so, you know, just trying to have that balance and do all of those things because this is writing in the 21st century and you do have to let your readers know that you are there. You’re a real writer writing every day or writing every other day and that you, you know, that you are connecting with them and appreciative that they are reading your books.
I think the other thing that’s so hard about the writing is the actual writing. Don’t let anybody tell you any different. Like even when I have really great productive days, I make sure I don’t read what I have written because chances are it might not be all that useful or good, but, you know, just the kind of — just keep writing even when the writing is really bad or just not ready.
Writing even when the story just isn’t there. You still write. And I think that’s the hard thing. It’s a hard thing that gets every writer I think because we’ve written it and we’ve seen it and we go oh my goodness. But, you know, it’s always thank goodness for the revision. Thank goodness for that time to get back to rewriting it to kind of figuring out what really is the story and to making it better and to, you know, making it that book that someone can read and will want to read.
Draw on your own life… or use your imagination?
Oh, the misconceptions people have about writing. I think especially where I’m concerned is that my work is autobiographical. And there’s nothing wrong with writing from your own experiences. I mean those are some of the really good stuff. But I spend so much time noodling around in my head that, A, yes, I’m flattered that people think that yes, this is my story or yes, this is my grandmother or my mother or what have you.
But no, no, I’ve made that all up in my little noggin, you know. So that’s kind of hard, you know. And also I want to encourage young people to imagine, you know, to really just go as far as they can go and not feel that you have to mine your own story. You can make it up. I do it all the time.
Seeing the world with a fresh eye
How do you become 14 again and write from that point of view without kind of winking or betraying that 14-year-old with your cynicism or your whatever you have, your experience?
I think it — I think yes, I think every time that you drop into a character that isn’t you, that isn’t your experience, I think there’s always challenge, but I think it is especially hard to be — to write in the heart of a young person, especially from a generation that is so removed from where you were at 14.
So, sometimes I think you have to think about what are the essentials and then make them more catered toward that particular character and what it is that’s going on in their life. I don’t even begin to try to mimic the speech patterns of young people. It changes too fast.
I think it’s hard. I just think it’s very hard. And I think once I begin to like something in that young character or not like something in that character, then I have something that I can hold onto and that can help pull me through.
I think there is something in me that has not quite grown up yet that is still looking out at the world waiting for something to happen. I do look up. I do look at things. I do notice things in the way that you would notice something if you’re seeing it for the very first time.
And I think that’s the way that I am. I think that I can be delighted and surprised and intrigued by things and I am not afraid to show it.
I mean I think so much is wasted on cool and being a certain fixed age or an expectation.
You’ve got the rest of your life to be mature. Be silly and enjoy. Enjoy whatever magic is in front of you because sooner or later you’re not going to look at leaves the same. That’s too bad.
Getting a story out to the world
Ever since I was a kid in a playpen, I just wanted to tell a story. And I’m still the same person. I remember when I was just breaking in, I wanted to write these stories in these voices for these kids of color because they didn’t get to see themselves in books. And I still feel that way.
But there’s something in me that once I hook onto a story it becomes my toy. It becomes oh, I can’t wait to get to this part or oh, I can’t wait to do that or oh, how am I going to do this.
So I think that first and foremost I have to give as much excellence as I can give into the craft and into the story and to then push that out into the world because I think what’s happening for me is that the world is coming back and it’s coming back to me in ways that I could not have imagined.
So it’s kind of better for me to not try to craft what that is but to make my offering and hopefully, you know, other people can experience the stories in ways that I could never imagine but wow, really, oh, yeah, I knew that. No, I didn’t. But, you know. So I think just being my natural self and writing these stories and, you know, maybe opening possibility to so many kids.
I think if that’s something that I can do and tell stories that maybe they’ve never heard before or not heard quite like that, then I think I’m doing what I’m supposed to do.
Advice for young writers
If a teenager said that they were very much interested in writing and if I had advice, I would say do what you are doing right now. I suspect you are reading. Continue to read, but read beyond what you know. Sometimes just kind of spin the dial and pick something you would not pick.
Eat food you’ve never eaten. Go to a part of town — be careful but go to a part of town that you’ve never been to. Make sure that you’re looking out at the world as if you’ve never seen it and then take a little bit of time each and every day and write something, even if it’s just for yourself. Make sure you are writing for yourself and then write something that you might want someone to see.
And for each I say do no more than a hundred words. And then when you find yourself being too confined by that one hundred word, start pushing past those boundaries, start breaking those rules, just start writing.
Dealing with writers’ block? I box!
To people who talk about the writer’s block and, you know, all those kinds of frustrations, I shake their hands and I say welcome, be one of us. You have found your people. Now this is what you’re going to do. You will take whatever it is that’s not working and put it aside and do something else, write something else.
If you are writing prose right now, write a poem. If you are writing a poem, write some dialogue for a play. But get out of the structure of what it is you’re writing and do something else. Make your brain rewire itself and then kind of take to bed with you what you think is working or not working and then wake up and start writing. But you have to write.
There’s no other way around it. For me, I go to the gym and I hit the body bag. When I’m having problems, I tend to have I feel like they’re the weight of the world. So I put on my boxing gloves and I start to hit the body bag and that helps me a lot. It gives me a lot of clarity. And then I start to put things in perspective.
I go to the gym a lot when I’m going through those rounds of editing with my editor. I go to the gym and hit the bag a whole lot. I’m hitting the bag. Not a person, the bag. And then I start to see something. I see something that I haven’t seen before. It’s like coming out of a fever.
Dealing with rejection
What would life be without rejection? We wouldn’t understand the value of our work without rejection, although I wish I could have done without so much rejection. Well, you know, I was lucky. I got rejection letters when I was 12 years old. And so I kind of took those as a badge of honor. There were too many badges accumulating in my desk.
But when I started sending out my manuscript or when my agent started sending out that first manuscript and I was getting a lot of rejection, oh, it didn’t feel so great because my identity was tied toward my manuscript. I was working for a software company, a marketing media software company and so it wasn’t a great job. It was very low-level pay. And so my writing was my identity. And so every time I got that rejection, I knew that I was going to be that office worker bee for the rest of my life. And so it meant a lot to me to be able to sell that book.
Rejection is — it’s hard but it’s a fact of a writer’s life.
But for the most part, you just really have to believe and push and you have to keep writing.
You have to convince the writing world that you belong, and you convince them that you belong by having other work to write. We lose so many people because they stay so tied to the one work. And if you can’t put that aside and then write something else, what will you do? You know, what will you do as a writer?
So you have to really dig down and believe in yourself. You have to believe that you have stories to tell, not just story.
What I’d do if I wasn’t writing
So if I wasn’t writing, I would love to have a dance school where I taught like octogenarians and kindergarteners or pre-Ks. That’s one thing I would like to do.
I’d love to have a boxing gym. That would be another thing or I’d be a promoter and — yeah, yeah, and — Yeah, I’d be a good Don King. I’d be a good Rita Queen. What else? I love — I love food. So I think I would have to have like an eatery of some kind and, hmm, and come up with different dishes and have people try them and stuff like that.
I love food. I love food. I love boxing. I love dancing. There we go. Somehow to get all those things combined, that would make me very happy.