Career Builder & Giveaway: Rita Williams-Garcia

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Rita Williams-Garcia is the author of several acclaimed novels for young adults: Blue Tights (1987), Every Time a Rainbow Dies (2001), Fast Talk on a Slow Track (1991), Like Sisters on the Homefront (1995), No Laughter Here (2004), and Jumped (2009).

Like Sisters on the Homefront was also a Coretta Scott King Honor Book.

In addition, Rita’s middle grade novel One Crazy Summer (2010) was recognized as a Coretta Scott King Book Award and a Newbery Honor Medal recipient, among many, many other honors.

She also has published a picture book, Catching the Waiyuuzee, and numerous short stories.

Rita is a faculty member in the Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives in Jamaica, New York.

What memories of your debut author experience stand out? If you could offer advice to the new voice you once were, what would you say?

I remember wanting to say so much in Blue Tights. I wanted to talk about all the repercussions of low self-esteem waiting to trap teenage girls.

I’d tell the emergent me to have faith in the true arc of the character. This debut novel won’t be my last story. Focus.

How do you define success?

I’ve defined success differently with each stage of my career, but I’m going to say the word no artist dare speaketh: money. I’ve had praise for my work and acknowledgement, but it’s when you can fully think in story, research, promote and write that you experience the grail of all writers: freedom.

I don’t worry if my forthcoming novel will find its audience or win any medals because its older sister has done all the hard work. The sibling novels can run about and simply be read.

Would you describe your career as a hike up a mountain, a winding road, a path of hills and valleys or hop-scotching from rock to rock across the rapids? Why?

It’s been more of a desert with occasional cool springs along the way, only to find a sunny resort with a five-star chef, cabana boys offering umbrella drinks with dark rum at the other end of all that sand.

It took eight years to sell my first novel—two of those eight with agents before I went on my own.

Each novel received some praise, a few stars and have made lists, but it never occurred to me that I’d quit my job and try to write nearly full-time.

I think the reviewing community has always respected my work but that wasn’t enough to guarantee book sales, and honestly, I wasn’t too concerned with book sales at the time.

I just wanted to write what I thought were important, hard-to-tell stories.

 It wasn’t until I quit my job with health benefits that I had begun to think about writing a novel that might cast a wider reading net.

How have you grown as a writer? What skills have you seen improve over time? What did you do to reach new levels? What are areas that still flummox you at times?

I’ve always challenged myself to do something different in each novel, whether it was through taking on subject matter or trying a new craft approach. I’ve never written a sequel, let alone trilogy so I studied what it would entail and I’m now on book three of my One Crazy Summer trilogy.

I’ve never engaged my adventure/geek side, so I began another trilogy with a different voice, world and rules. It’s harder for me because I don’t lean on character in the same way and I’ve had to build everything from the games in the novel, the rules, the world’s history and the world itself.

I don’t like staying in the same place for too long, but I’m learning as a writer how to derive more from my initial story premises.

I’m known more for my language than anything else. I think the hardest thing is spending a lot of time doing something interesting with structure, character or paradox only to hear the same thing over and over: “It has a great rhythm and it’s easy to dance to.”

Okay, that’s what my ears hear.

I’d love to grow as a picture book writer. I hear it’s a glutted market out there, but this doesn’t stop me from trying my hand at writing or selling them.

My current mission is a story set in Brazil to the beat of a samba tom-tom. Okay. You can say it. It has great rhythm and it’s easy to dance to.” Actually, it is!

Have you ever made an affirmative decision to alter your creative focus? What inspired this decision? What were the challenges?

Kekla Magoon
Also recommended.

For me, the decision to write for younger readers, ages 9-12, changed my entire world. For one thing, I do more school and library visits.

I just happened to write about the Black Power Movement, a period that has received little coverage outside of Kekla Magoon’s The Rock and The River (Aladdin, 2009). It allowed educators to bring a different aspect of Civil Rights into the classroom.

The challenge was to write a novel with historical content but to not allow the Black Panthers to hijack the story from the central characters. There was so much research. So many historical comments to make, but I constantly cut away to stay within the heart and perceptions of character. Either I did it myself or my editor would ask me to do it later.

How have you built an audience over time?

Oh dear. You’re looking at a marketing “don’t.” I fall short on the self-marketing side and that is a definite “don’t” in this day and age. My audience has come, gone, and a new audience has sprung up.

It’s important to me to offer this new audience more of what attracted them to me in the first place, but to keep the stories unique. It does help to have three novels revolving around the same characters for the fans of the flagship book.

My school visits have brought the readers to me with their questions and their picks for what should happen next in my stories. I might not follow their suggestions, but my readers still have some impact on my choices. I learn what’s important to them and I’m hoping those readers will follow me down other paths.

I’m particularly aiming at boys as an audience for my next book, The Place of All Games. This would bring yet another new audience to my work.

How have your marketing strategies changed over the years? Could you tell us about one strategy that worked and why you think it was a boon to you?

Rita’s first promotional brochure & fan letter

Marketing strategies, you say…

Uh…I’m playing catch-up. I’m really learning everything from writers and debut novelists hurling their books and presence out into the world. What did we do before book trailers, Twitter and Facebook?

I’ve engaged a team to tackle that for me with The Place of All Games. There will also be an app for one of my games! How cool is that? It paid to have worked with programmers in my other life.

 I’m definitely putting on my Lieutenant Uhura uniform and boots, and I’ll be taking my show to Comic-Con when my book comes out.

For PS Be Eleven, I’ll be putting together a trailer and leaving little PSBE notes on Facebook and Twitter. Giveaways will be involved.

Did you ever consider giving up? What happened? What kept you going?

I was looking into training as a radiology technician just before One Crazy Summer went crazy. In spite of getting good reviews for Jumped, I had a hard time staying afloat.

When I told my editor I might be leaving children’s books to find employment plus benefits, she kept saying, “Keep the faith.” She had a real feeling about One Crazy Summer.

I had one foot planted in poverty and possible eviction when I learned the book had been named the Coretta Scott King (Author) Award winner and a Newbery Honor Medalist. That meant I’d get a royalty check, my teeth fixed, and I’d breathe.

How have you handled being a player in the world of youth literature?

As a child, Rita wrote 500 words a night.

The readers have been incredible! It’s great to have written a good book. Even better to have written one that readers love to read.

I’ve actually seen someone reading my book. It never gets old. I do the inner shriek, as not to scare them.

A player? I don’t know about all of that, but I’ve been treated to some pretty savory dinners and lunches at conferences. I try to blurb emerging writers when I can.

I’ve felt more support and love from the writing community. There’s been a few cracks about the medals, but honestly, I have no say in those decisions. It was all a huge surprise.

There’s a video of me jumping around when I learned One Crazy Summer was named a National Book Award finalist. In spite of the buzz, I was shocked by it all. There are so many stellar books out there that don’t get spotlight or sales. It’s all very fickle. No one is guaranteed a thing.

And if someone thinks an award is a foregone conclusion because they’ve won previously or because they have good hair, they’ll only be disappointed.

I’ve had my time in the spotlight and I’m incredibly grateful. It saved me. It saved my writing career.

Do you have any regrets? Is there anything you should have done differently? What and why?

Early draft of Blue Tights

I didn’t get a degree in creative writing or take a lot of writing courses as an undergrad at Hofstra. With the exception of master classes I took with Richard Price and Sonia Pilcer, it didn’t occur to me to sit in a classroom and study writing. I just thought, “write every day and read really good books.”

I didn’t want to know about craft in academic terms. Instead I wanted to write and make my own discoveries about craft. All of that is all well and good, but geez. I wouldn’t have eaten up so much time discovering “psychic distance” only to learn later that John Gardner had beaten me to it.

What advice do you have for the debut authors of 2012?

My advice is hypocritical, but it is still good. Put at least one third of your energy into creating your online presence when your book comes out.

I know, I know. I shrink from blogging, I tweet modestly, and you won’t catch me on radio. But do these things, anyway.

While you’re doing that, you should be deep in the throes of writing your next book. Write 40,000 good words every year. Always have a story going.

What do you want to say to established mid-list authors about staying in the game? 

I’ll pass on what my editor said to me. It’s always just at that point that you’re ready to toss it all in that your breakthrough comes.

It helped me a lot to switch audiences and to write about a period that I remembered with fondness and passion.

What changes are you willing to make to be seen? How close is it to your passion?

What do you want to say to those who call themselves “one-book wonders” or those who otherwise feel the market has left them behind?

Stop watching the market and write a story that excites you. Isn’t that what you want to do in the first place—write a novel that’s impossible to put down? The market loves the market (books that all don the same jacket).

We’re back to passion, but tap into your passion and cultivate readers who share that passion. Who knows? The trend could be following you.

Of all of your books to date, which one are you the most proud of? Why?

I’m most proud of No Laughter Here, which is still available electronically. Even though this book won no medals and made no lists that I’m aware of, I still hear from readers who’ve needed this book.

I’ve heard from those who are awaiting extradition to their ritual-practicing countries and from those who’ve escaped to safer shores. They are holding onto No Laughter Here for comfort.

One Crazy Summer might have saved my career, but No Laughter Here has an incalculable reach. I’m glad to offer it.

Cynsational Notes

Find Rita at facebook and Rita at Twitter (@OneCrazyRita).

The Career Builders series offers insights from children’s-YA authors who written and published books for a decade or more. The focus includes their approach to both the craft of writing and navigating the ever-changing business landscape of trade publishing.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win one of three paperback copies of Rita’s One Crazy Summer. Publisher sponsored. U.S. only.

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9 thoughts on “Career Builder & Giveaway: Rita Williams-Garcia

  1. Such a great interview. Rita is an inspiration. I especially love the line, "It's always just at that point that you're ready to toss it all in that your breakthrough comes." What a great, encouraging editor!

  2. I had the pleasure of sharing my manuscript-in-progress with Rita many moons ago. She was full of nurture, praise and guidance and said words about my work I will never forget. ONE CRAZY SUMMER is one of her finest and one of the books I turn to often when I want to remember how to write a great novel. 😉

    Put me in for a contest entry, please. I'd be honored to be a RWG Winner. ;>

    -Pamela Ross

  3. I can't wait to read PS Be Eleven! I just know it's going to be one of those books I read slowly as I can, to try to stretch out every minute I get with those hilarious and heart-string-tugging girls.

  4. Loved listening to this video and remembering Rita leading my first-ever workshop at Vermont! Rita – you always make it real and keep it real. I hope that someday I have guts like yours to quit my paid-job and make my life 100% about writing. Listening/watching/reading here put me one step closer…

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