“Russell taught me how to play so he could have someone to beat. Russell was Bobby Fischer and I was Boris Spassky. According to Russell’s rules, Americans went first and Russians last. I got used to being on the black side of the board and waiting for ‘Fischer’ to open while I waited my turn and usual beatings, preceded by taunts and insults to Sputnik. Russell checked out a different chess book every other day so I didn’t think I’d ever win a game.
“Well, one night while we were playing I realized I had gained the advantage in our game and was poised to knock down his king. This was too great to be a good sport. I didn’t know how to close the deal, but I felt a funky chicken victory wobble coming on.
“I was silly enough to mention my great milestone on one of my first college dates. Looking back, I understand why the guy didn’t ask me out again. I still think about that game, but for other reasons. I’ve even included it in a true story titled, ‘About Russell.'”
How did writing first call to you? Did you answer or, at first, run away?
I had a head start. I entertained myself with stories in my wooden playpen and chose writing stories in kindergarten over coloring. To the humiliation and frustration of my siblings, I quit many a dodge-ball or kickball game to think up a story.
At twelve, I found the Writer’s Market and the Writer’s Handbook at the library and learned to write query letters and prepare manuscripts. I wrote stories, sketches, and ideas every day. I loved receiving envelopes addressed to me from publishers. True, the envelopes contained rejections, but I didn’t care initially. I was a writer!
Could you tell us about your path to publication, any sprints or stumbles along the way?
I made my first sale to Highlights Magazine when I was fourteen. My next sale was a short story to Essence Magazine as a junior in college. They never published it, but they sent the check in time to pay for my summer dorm bill.
By the end of college I had a draft of Blue Tights (Dutton, 1998). I hoped to sell it quickly but it was nearly ten years before I had a contract. The timing was all wrong for this story. Joyce made poor choices based on her poor self-image. In the early eighties we weren’t ready to have a black female character who wasn’t a traditional role model. Black characters were still sparse in teen literature so editors were skittish about this character with low self-esteem issues. “Couldn’t she fight racism or have some higher goal?” What was wrong with liking herself as a goal? Unwilling to compromise or revise, I put the manuscript away.
My job as a promotional writer had been cut when my company was bought, so I took the administrative position I was offered to help out at home. I was now married and had my first daughter. That only pushed me to dust off the old manuscript and try again. This time I made revisions I could live with, yet maintain the character’s integrity. I did my research and looked for publishers who sought “realistic” teen fiction. They call it “edgy,” these days.
Rosemary Brosnan at Lodestar/Dutton [now HarperCollins] believed in the story and responded to my query letter–which she really liked! All of those Writer’s Handbook articles paid off. Sure, we had a lot of work ahead of us–only I didn’t know that. There was much to do. I had to narrow the point of view, toss out a chapter or two, and examine my story choices. The plowing, was brutal but I’m glad I did the work. I was finally a writer, soon to be published author!
Could you briefly tell us about your earliest novels–Blue Tights (Dutton/Lodestar, 1987) and Fast Talk on a Slow Track (Penguin/Lodestar, 1991)? What did each of them teach you about writing? About yourself?
Blue Tights was my initiation into the world of publishing for children. I didn’t know what YA meant. I had a picture of my reader, and she was a fourteen-year-old black girl. No one else mattered. Rosemary explained that teachers and librarians were instrumental in putting books in kids’ hands. I nodded, but I wasn’t really receiving. I think the biggest shock was meeting my audience, which was black, white, Asian, Ukrainian, Hispanic, and so on. Females and males of all ages.
Fast Talk was my first foray into writing a male character. I flipped esteem around, giving Denzel too much ego and very little likeability factor. The last thing I wanted to do with this character was blame conditions for his failure at the Princeton summer orientation program. I wanted to give him all of the power, all of the choices, and, yes, all of the blame.
With Fast Talk I learned a hard lesson, which was to breathe and walk away from the work. The symmetries that I aimed for in the ending were too on-the-nose. I’m slow by nature. It took forever for me to be born. I’ve learned to not fight my nature, to read better and to be honest. I still admire Fast Talk.
Though both of your earlier novels were critically acclaimed, arguably Like Sisters on the Home Front (Penguin/Lodestar, 1995) was your breakout book, the one that secured your place as a YA star. Ten years later, what does the novel mean to you? How did it feel to receive a 1996 Coretta Scott King Honor Award for this book?
I didn’t know how Like Sisters would be perceived, but I knew it was needed. This was the story I was born to tell.
Embarrassing but true, although my work phone rang off the hook that Monday after ALA and I heard the congratulatory messages, I was in my work head and thought, that’s nice.
Then Rosemary called. She was excited, bracing me for the news. When she told me Like Sisters was named as an honor book I was more excited for her than I was for myself. I used to tell her, “Don’t go nominating me for any Corettas. I just want to write my stories.”
Clearly, I didn’t know how the process worked. My paperback deal from Viking editor Sharyn November was the first real money I received as a writer. I soon received offers from other publishers. I was very flattered to have met with editor Andrea Davis Pinkney, who was spearheading Jump at the Sun for Hyperion. It was an amazing time.
My ex-husband and I had visited Atlanta where we met Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz (widow of Malcolm X). During her speech, Dr. Shabazz even remarked that she and Coretta had become Like Sisters—unrelated to my novel, but oh, how that resonated with me. I felt like Gayle, overwhelmed by The Telling.
My favorite of your novels is Every Time A Rainbow Dies (HarperCollins/Amistad, 2001). What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?
It is rare that violent crimes against black women receive media coverage. When the Tawana Brawley incident broke about fifteen years ago, I was interested in the continued victimization she endured as a young woman and as an African American. Even though her account proved problematic, I remained interested in public attitudes toward sexual assault victims.
I intended to write a story about our failure to help an African American girl and the reluctant friendship she forms with a young man. I was cleaning up Fast Talk and writing a draft of Like Sisters when I began notes for Rainbow. I didn’t get to Rainbow until about 1997. It just wasn’t working. I worried that I had lost the drive for the story.
I went for walks in Crown Heights, the Brooklyn neighborhood where the story would take place. The more I saw and heard the neighborhood, the more I realized my characters were not African American but Caribbean. Ah! The girl was an enigma to me, but the boy, Thulani, was clear. I knew his back story instantly. I understood his afflictions and his responses.
The focus of the story changed as my characters became real. I had to abandon revictimization as a focus. Most women or girls don’t report rape and most women of color don’t receive any form of justice. I could work that angle, but that wasn’t where my heart was. I did know what Thulani and Ysa were to each other and that this was stronger than formula.
I think this is why I admire Chris Lynch’s Inexcusable (Atheneum, 2005)(excerpt)(author interview from BookPage), because it gives us more insight beyond the realm of a traditional story centered around rape.
I also thought about how young people relate to each other and felt sorry for them. So much indiscriminant sexual behavior. What is the point in indulging in what you can’t feel? In Rainbow, I sought to create body and soul healing in two people with walls around them. I wanted the reader to appreciate the difficulty in getting to the point of being ready.
What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?
Oh, gee. I’ve been derailed so many times. The writing didn’t really take off until about ’98 and then I had it right by ’99. There was so much going on in my life. The divorce and the death of my mother-in-law, plus my mother’s grand stroke made it hard to stay focused.
At one time I said the writing was horrible, but it was actually quite good. Things had to calm down before I could read my work.
What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?
I was nervous about writing outside of my culture and didn’t want to exoticize my characters. I immersed myself in the sounds and expressions of Kreyol (Haitian Creole) and Jamaican Patois to give my characters distinct voices. Although I didn’t use a lot of the expressions, knowing them gave me a feel for my people. Expressions reveal humor and perspective. Thulani’s sister-in-law, Shakira, was one of my successes. She wrote herself.
I learned a lot about birds and bird keeping, but for all of my reading and standing on rooftops with bird keepers, I used just enough material.
That’s a discipline within itself, learning when to pull back on research. Research material adds to the authenticity, but does it heighten the story?
When I was a teen, I read Ayn Rand‘s The Fountainhead, devouring every inch of the architectural detail. I thought that was so cool that Rand knew all of that stuff. This made sense. I was into knowing as much stuff as I could. These days I ask myself, “So Rita, do you need this?
Crown Heights was the perfect location for Rainbow. I stretched location to enhance Thulani’s ability to see all the named streets from the top of his brownstone. I chose a brownstone to overlook Eastern Parkway and the West Indian Day Parade. There was that beautiful Grand Army Plaza Library. The Botanical Gardens. A great cultural mix, depending upon what side of the Parkway you stood. Caribbean, African, Orthodox Jewish, African American, Asian, Islamic. People were giving up Brownstones owned by families for generations. Every element of the story was in Crown Heights. This was the place!
If you look closely at any of my characters, you’ll see a consistent thread of psychological behavior. I always have to know why–and sometimes I don’t until I’m far into the writing. Some characters’ behaviors are more on the surface, while others’ behaviors are deep-seeded to mimic true behavior.
I run the risk of having that character misunderstood, but I think some murkiness in teen literature is okay. Kids are better readers than we give them credit. Thulani and Ysa can be easily misunderstood, but their behaviors make incredible sense.
Given his emotional experience, could Thulani behave like a classic hero for Ysa? He could be heroic, but only on his own terms. A male teacher I met at a seminar expressed frustration at how Ysa treated Thulani when all he wanted was to help her. “I know,” I said, “but all she wants is to hit someone, and as long as Thulani offers himself up, she’ll take a swing.”
Everytime A Rainbow Dies is about a boy who falls in love with a rape victim, and your latest title, No Laughter Here (HarperCollins/Amistad, 2004), deals with female circumcision. You handle such sensitive themes with grace and truth, yet many authors would shrink from such a challenge and responsibility. What leads you to the hard places? How do you find your way out?
I promise you, I don’t have a wheel with hot button topics that I spin and where she stops Rita writes. Seeing a story in a unique way is the bribe that works for me.
Once I have story and character, the surrounding issue must bend to the character’s needs. Gayle in Like Sisters is a teen mother who has had an abortion, but the story follows her and not the abortion. With No Laughter Here, it was the sound of girls giggling that immediately suggested the reverse to me: girls not laughing and why.
The longer I entertain an idea, the greater the likelihood a novel will follow. It’s like being in the wooden playpen telling myself a story.
I had to do No Laughter Here because I could. I knew I could do it in a way that no one else would. I loved those little girls more than I was uncomfortable with the subject.
Little girls made me brave. I worked with this premise; if you can see the face of a little girl, you can be brave.
I’m really speaking to adults who immediately say, “I can’t handle this topic.”
For me, it’s simple; over a million girls undergo the ritual annually. Some with great pride and acceptance while many with terror and trauma.
I’ll go anywhere that children go. It’s that simple.
I’d love to write a sister book to No Laughter Here from Victoria’s point of view, but I don’t know that the market can bear it. I’m sure I will do it, even if I have to self-publish. Victoria and Mrs. Ojike have not yet left me.
Don’t let my publisher see this, but No Laughter Here isn’t a classroom set book. Yes, classes use it, but I see it as a personal book, one that finds her reader. The letters I receive from readers, mainly 12-14, all appreciate being enlightened and trusted with this story.
Where do our activists come from? Look at the faces of these young girls.
Though best known for your YA fiction, you’re also the author of a picture book, Catching the Wild Waiyuuzee (Simon & Schuster, 2000), which really shows off your wonderful sense of humor. How did writing this picture book compare to crafting fiction for teen readers? What muscles were up to the job? Which ones perhaps needed more development?
Unlike my novels, I didn’t incubate, outline, make a map, get inside the characters. None of that. My first draft came out in one thirty minute splurt. I pitched it to Rosemary but she and a few other editors felt the story wasn’t strong enough.
Renowned Clarion editor Frances Foster suggested that I have more fun with the words and I did! I played with alliteration, onomatopoeia, and made-up dialect to give it an African-Caribbean sound. I learned to make a picture book dummy when I took a course with editor Olga Litowinsky (Writing and Publishing Books for Children in the 1990s (Walker, 1992)). The hardest thing was placing the right scene on the center spread. I added text to trick it into place!
Eventually, I came to my senses and cut the excess. It didn’t work. It was just stuff. After I went as far as I could with it, I put it away and concentrated on my novel. Then I met Simon and Schuster editor Kevin Lewis who said, “I am the Wild Waiyuuzee!” and offered me a contract.
You’re also a well-published author of short fiction, and your stories appear in numerous anthologies. Do any of the short stories have ties to your books? Of them, which would you first recommend to a prospective Rita fan and why?
So far none of my short stories are related to my novels. I use this form to experiment with form or subject, even though I tend to raid my personal experiences to come up with short stories. “Clay” (Second Sights: Stories for a New Millennium (Philomel, 1999)) was an experiment that came from my mother stirring cornbread. One of my favorites, “Crazy as a Daisy” (Stay True: Strong Stories for Strong Girls edited by Marilyn Singer (Scholastic, 1998)) is about a girl who dances wild because she never learned to partner dance. To this day, I can’t dance with a partner to save my life. It just throws me off. It is easier if I lead, but how many guys put up with that? “Food From the Outside” (When I Was Your Age, Vol. 2 edited by Amy Ehrlich (Candlewick, 1999)) is the very true story of my sister, brother and my desperation to keep our mother from entering her home cooking into the International Food Fair hosted by our school. Mommy could burn, and I do mean burn, with the best of them. We lost Miss Essie to cancer a few years ago, but we never stop talking about her culinary hits and misses. My favorite short story is “Chalkman” (Twelve Shots edited by Harry Mazer (Delacorte, 1997)(author interview), about kids who reenact a shooting at a playground. Kids want to play, even under the most difficult circumstances.
How has your writing changed and grown since you began publishing in the late 1980s? How have you changed as an author?
Let me count the ways! I had such a hard time getting in that I viewed all of publishing with great suspicion. I’m learning more about the world of children’s publishing and enjoying the book offerings, especially in the teen market. During the ’80s, that market wasn’t there. Now it’s plentiful and diverse. We could use more diversity, so if you have a great story, don’t hold back.
These days I don’t write as dense as I did. Look at a page of Blue Tights or Fast Talk. Dense. When I was a child and a young woman, volume was important. I wrote a lot all the time. I now cut as much as I can to free the text and scenes. Back then I wrote as “writerishly” as I could. Yuck! My thoughts about where the author stands in relation to the work haven’t changed. Even in third or omniscient I let the character direct. Semi-omniscient viewpoint was always comfortable to me, but if my notes are in first person, the novel will be in first person. If it doesn’t work, I change my approach. In the beginning I didn’t question. I just plowed.
I’ve become too aware of the outside world these days when I write; editor, social attitudes, sales, bills. My editor gives me room, but I tend to worry about editorial concerns that I shouldn’t think about during the writing process. I need to let it go. I envy the Blue Tights writer. She had not a clue! She just wrote.
I like to venture out into the world more. I’ve learned to get on a plane–which I was always reluctant to do. I encourage my readers to get off the block, so I leave Jamaica, Queens every once in a while and write about Brooklyn. Okay, so that’s only a subway ride away. One thing that will never change; I’m slow. Events do affect me and throw me off track. My incubation and research period is always long so I’ll never have one book quickly follow another. I’m a turtle.
What are the challenges of your writing life?
I’ve finally quit my job of 25 years to live a writer’s life, a dream come true. I thought I’d churn them out, but I’m as slow as ever. I do rewrite more.
In the past year, my youngest daughter came down with an unexpected and undiagnosed illness. I lived in her hospital room for two months, so all writing and thoughts of writing ceased. My editor was completely supportive through that tough time. My students were understanding and worked around me. Several months later, my daughter is back on track. She graduated high school, attended the prom and is starting college this fall.
I’m now back to work on Jumped, my sixth novel. I’ve always had characters with likeability issues, and this novel is no exception. My main characters are a witness, a bully and a victim. There are no heroes in this story and no personal victories. This has been very hard to finish, which is why I might ultimately like this book. No Laughter Here was easy; this is kicking my butt.
Honestly, I can’t wait to move onto my seventh novel with characters I absolutely love. Couldn’t I just change the focus and plot in Jumped? Make these characters comply–dig deep into my bully’s soul, or play up the victim so we feel the injustice, or embolden my witness? I could, but nah.
I can’t lie. These days I’m more concerned about making a living than I was when I worked for my former company, but I have to believe in the quality and appeal of my work. I do what other writers do; I take on more appearances and I’m teaching part time. I notice I’m shyer with age. Back in the day, I’d speak anywhere because the subject was my book!
What do you love about it?
I’ve never really had a block of time to think about my work. With a fulltime job and a family to care for I had to steal time. Well, the job is no more and the kids are out of the nest, so it’s just me! I just love sitting down and thinking about one piece of my story, then scribbling all day long. It reminds me of being 12 and having all of my writing regimes. One of my colleagues was talking about taking a course. That sounds like fun! I can take a class if I want to. School’s never out.
You’re teaching now through the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. What about teaching appeals to you? How do you balance it against working on your own manuscripts?
The MFA/CW low residency program at Vermont College was ideal for me. The students are writers, so the student-teacher relationship is different than with other classroom settings. I enjoy talking to other writers about their work. We respect each other’s time; they’re busy fulfilling work requirements for that month, which gives me time for my work.
I have to admit, I enjoy the lectures during the residency. The faculty and graduating students’ presentations are intense, diverse, and stimulating. I’m always exhausted and invigorated after each ten-day residency.
When I get stuck or am challenged, I have a great resource in my fellow faculty members. Being on faculty keeps me out of my vacuum, which is a good thing. I am a hermit. It’s good to get out and talk to other writers. I learn so much.
What advice do you have for beginning authors?
Keep it simple. Write a little bit each day. Keep your requirements lo-tech so you’re always ready. No idea should ever wait until you get home or when you finally get that upgrade to your laptop.
Take care of your craft. If you can’t take a class, create one for yourself. Find the author whose work you respect, and let them be your “mentor.” Don’t go emailing them–if they’re still with us. Instead, read their work. Look at the approach. Take a few topics (pacing, plotting, beginning, conflict, etc.) and study your mentor’s choices to these aspects of craft. Think about it in relation to your own work.
Surround yourself with a writing community to keep you going. Workshops provide opportunities for feedback and to learn how to take criticism. True, I didn’t and don’t have a writer’s group, but I see the benefits.
Write a story that you’re dying to tell.
What do you do when you’re not reading or writing?
These days I walk a lot and knit to relax. I love to watch sports.
What can your fans look forward to next?
Jumped should be ready in 2008. No promises, but One Crazy Summer (both to be published by HarperCollins) will follow shortly after. I’m going back to the sixties for that story. It should be fun.
Author-Editor Dialogues: Rita Williams-Garcia and Rosemary Brosnan from CBC Magazine.