Author Interview: Christopher Paul Curtis on Writing & the 25th Anniversary of The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963!

By Stephani Martinell Eaton

Today I am thrilled to welcome Christopher Paul Curtis to Cynsations. Christopher is celebrating the 25th anniversary of his debut novel The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963! (Delacorte, 1995), which was named both a Newbery Honor and a Coretta Scott King Honor book in 1996.

Other notable titles by Christopher include Newbery Award and Coretta Scott King Award winning Elijah of Buxton (Scholastic, 2007) and Bud, Not Buddy (Delacorte, 1999). He is also the author of The Mighty Miss Malone (Wendy Lamb, 2012), The Madman of Piney Woods (Scholastic, 2014), and the National Book Award Finalist The Journey of Little Charlie (Scholastic, 2018).

First, let me say what a fan I am of your work. I am so honored and excited to be able to celebrate your work on Cynsations. Most importantly, my kids, who also love your work, think I’m quite lucky to get the opportunity to interview you! When I told them it was the 25th anniversary of The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, my son said, “That is the best book!”

Thank your munchkins for me!

Happy 25th anniversary to The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963! As you celebrate this milestone of your debut book, what reflections have you had on the life of this book so far?

I find it hard to believe. I get through life by having very low expectations, so I’m overwhelmed.

In other interviews, you’ve mentioned that you don’t necessarily have a problem finding ideas, but “weeding out things and just coming up with one thing.” You tell students that “ideas are like seeds—you get very small things and you plant them and they grow.” Will you tell us more about how you grow a story? What’s important to your process?

I’m not sure when I made that analogy, but today I’m going to change it up. My approach to writing can be compared to the launching of a space shot. I start with the shell of an idea, which is somewhat analogous to a rocket sitting on the launch pad. It might look impressive, but it’s nothing but potential energy, and there’s not really much to it.

Next I add the fuel, which are ideas that are swirling around in my head. Still impressive-looking, but not much action involved. Finally, when the fuel (ideas) mixes in such a way that it’s obvious the rocket is getting ready to blow, that we’re about to have ignition, I sit back and watch it go.

Some of the time the writing will soar; most times it will either blow up soon after launch or explode on the launch pad, or worst of all, just let out a teeny-weeny little fart sound and tip over. It’s important to keep that in mind and not get frustrated.

Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

I violate one of the immutable, iron-clad rules of writing: Know your audience. I write what I’d like to read.

What writers have influenced your writing the most?

I’m not certain if it’s naïve or narcissistic or straight-up foolish, but I really don’t believe my writing is influenced by any one particular author.

There are many writers I admire—Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Mark Twain—but I know it would be folly to try to imitate or even be influenced by their writing. I think the best writers are originals, who tell a story in their way.

That’s not to say subconsciously I’m not influenced by anybody, I’m sure I am, but it probably doesn’t go much beyond making minor tweaks.

If you could tell your younger writer-self anything, what would it be?

I’d quote the song I adopted as my anthem when I became a teenager, by a group called the Five Stairsteps.

It’s the perfect song for a writer-in-waiting because early writings are always unsatisfactory to their author, and nothing seems to go the way you want it to. But with patience, practice, and dedication, your writing inevitably improves.

I needed to hear that because I was often frustrated by what I wrote. But by waiting until it all came together, by knowing that a time would come when I would get out of the way of my own writing, I was able to make my “head much lighter.”

It took a long time, but it panned out. And even if the professional writer thing hadn’t worked out, I did develop the skill to be able to communicate.

What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

Language has the ability to be used for good or bad. My father went to the 1963 March on Washington where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke.

When he came home, he told us that King’s speech had the crowd so electrified that if he had told the attendees to go burn down the White House, they would have done it. Given recent events, I’m sorry my father didn’t live to see how prophetic his words were.

Most of the books you’ve published are historical fiction. What can you tell us about your research process?

What I’m looking for when I do research is the ability to grasp the way language was used at a particular time in history. Speech is very fluid and constantly changing. People today speak differently than people did twenty, thirty, forty years ago.

A way I’ve discovered to catch the differences is to listen to song lyrics from the era I’m writing about. I have a better feel for my characters if I can “hear” the way they sounded.

In children’s and YA writing and illustration, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field. Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer-artist’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

Wow! Great question! I’m not certain I’d agree that maintaining a career is more difficult than breaking in—for me, uncertainty is always more haunting and harder to deal with than inertia.

After the great reception for The Watsons, I was constantly asked what I was going to do to top it. I’d never even thought about it, but I realized if I was going to write another book, I needed to be in the exact frame of mind I’d been in when I wrote The Watsons. I tried to replicate as much of my mental and emotional state of being as I could and came up with Bud, Not Buddy. I’ve repeated the procedure with varying degrees of success ever since.

The field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world of children’s and YA writing, illustration, literature, and publishing? What do you think of them, and why?

I’m in the process of judging 150-some books for a writing contest. I’m not sure I can accurately answer this question because I wasn’t ever a reader of young folks’ literature before I became a writer of the same. I have to say that the quality of so much of what I’ve read for the contest is out of this world! And diversity has improved—there are more “other” voices than ever.

Tell us about the individuals who encouraged your writing early on.

Miss Henry in third grade, Mr. Alums in sixth grade, Miss Dimmock in junior high, and Mrs. Harris in twelfth grade.

Teachers—what an underappreciated group of human beings. I was with each of these people for only nine months, yet they all had a tremendous impact on me. I believe the thing they did was let me know I was doing well but could do better. They gave me confidence. Which, since we’re speaking about underappreciated things, has to be high on the list.

How did connecting with young readers through The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 affect how you approached writing subsequent stories?

When I submitted The Watsons Go to Birmingham to Wendy Lamb, my editor, and she told me it wasn’t a young adult book, it was a middle reader, I thought, “Oh, okay, I’ve never heard of that before. But if you publish it, I don’t care what you call it!”

I learned to write the story, then “tune” it to a younger market.

What new and up-and-coming voices are you excited about or do you think will especially resonate with your readers?

Varian Johnson

There are two people in particular who come to mind–they are far too accomplished to be considered “up and coming,” but I think they both are on the verge of much, much more: Nic Stone and Varian Johnson.

I’ve cried while reading each of their books, which is a good sign in my eyes.

Cynsational Notes

Christopher Paul Curtis won the Newbery Medal and the Coretta Scott King Award for his bestselling second novel, Bud, Not Buddy. His first novel, The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, was also singled out for many awards and has been a bestseller in hardcover and paperback. His most recent novels for Random House include The Mighty Miss Malone, Mr. Chickee’s Messy Mission (Yearling, 2008), Mr. Chickee’s Funny Money (Yearling, 2007), and Bucking the Sarge (Wendy Lamb, 2004). He lives with his family in Windsor, Ontario.

Stephani Martinell Eaton holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts where she won the Candlewick Picture Book Award and the Marion Dane Bauer Award for middle grade fiction. She is represented by Lori Steel at Raven Quill Literary Agency.