I am excited to welcome Rita Williams-Garcia back to Cynsations. Rita is the celebrated author of One Crazy Summer (HarperCollins, 2010), Clayton Byrd Goes Underground (HarperCollins, 2017), and Jumped (HarperCollins, 2009). Welcome, Rita.
Tell us a little bit about your newest release, A Sitting in St. James (Quill Tree Books, 2021).
A Sitting in St. James is a necessary broken promise. Early in my career I told a group of girls I would never write about slavery, things of the past. I truly intended to keep that promise, but decades later, my subconscious along with a troubling racial climate conspired against me. The story is mainly set in 1860 Louisiana about a white slaveholding family and the lives they effect.
At the heart of the story is the 80-year-old matriarch’s insistence on having a portrait sitting. If that’s the case, how is this a YA and not an adult novel? In general, especially during this period, the lives of the young are deeply affected by the expectations of the older generation. In that way, A Sitting in St. James is highly teen relatable.
I wrote this story for upper teens so I could be frank about slavery while portraying more multi-dimensional characters. A Sitting in St. James might very well be the only immersive experience many young people have on the subject of slavery.
In my fantasy, juniors, seniors and college freshmen read A Sitting in St. James and Gone with the Wind for essays and discussions. Personally, I think of the novel as Knives Out 1860s Style because it’s part saga and part skewer.
I’ve read in other interviews that the story of A Sitting in St. James came to you in pieces: through a daydream, a dream, and a boy. Will you describe how you then took these pieces and wove together such a rich historical story?
Patience. The narrator always implores the reader for patience while they read. The pieces that inspired A Sitting in St. James didn’t all come together at once. I had to be patient without knowing I was being patient.
Something from a lecture sent my thoughts into a daydream about a teen grooming his horse. The visuals told me the times weren’t contemporary and that his sensuous brushstrokes were about his longing for a lover. Oh! A fellow cadet! I never used the image per se in the story, but the image told me I would be writing a North and South romance in the pre-Civil War era. But first, to pick a southern state!
That was easy. New Orleans and Baton Rouge are my favorite southern cities. My southern cadet would be from Louisiana. That already made the cash crop cane and his ancestry, French. I decided European French and not Canadian French, or Acadian, which would have made him Cajun. As I told myself the story of his ancestry, all of the players came together—Madame, her husband, and son.
The dream that inspired the story came sometime later: A woman running with her infant to evade capture from slave traders. She hurls her baby into the ocean. At that point I hear joyful African drumming and singing, and I wake up. This was the story of minor character, Hannah, who recognizes something culturally regal about young Lily, when she first sees the child. She doesn’t take care of Lily, but serves her queen. This early part of Hannah’s story doesn’t make it into the story, but it explains to me the relationship between Hannah and Lily, and also Lily’s regal bearing.
It all comes together for me months later when a young boy asked, “Why do they hate us?” I was at a panel following the screening of a documentary of filmmaker Stanley Nelson’s Black Panther: Vanguard of the Revolution, when he asked the question. He was seconds away from crying. I could hear the pride and satisfaction in Byron (the West Point cadet) as he proclaimed his love for a life that came to him on the sacrifice, inhumanity and pain of Black people. His justification for the life that slavery affords him is like his grandmother’s justification for having a portrait sitting the family can’t afford, “Because it is done.” Although the story weaves as a tapestry with many threads, I kept this triangle in mind as I put the story together: A) The love of a life b) provided by people in captivity c) because it is done—or entitlement.
The Kirkus Reviews review of A Sitting in St. James says that your “meticulous research processes shout volumes about the importance of taking contemporary inspiration into the archives to unearth sorely needed truths as we continue to navigate questions of equity and justice for the descendants of enslaved people.” Will you tell us about your research process and how you keep track of it all?
The research is a book unto itself! I knew very little about the various subjects that would be part of the storylines, so I took a year off from writing to do the research. You can’t rely on imagination or fake your way through a work that involves actual setting, history, and cultural identity. I knew I would write about two LGBTQ West Point cadets, so I visited the campus, read personal accounts of the era, read about famous West Point graduates.
What did I know about painting? Nothing! I read about mid-19th century oil painting techniques. What paints were used, how were they made, how to prepare a canvas, etc. I looked at portraits. I visited sugar cane plantations. I kept coffee table books of Louisiana plantations and Creole living to properly render layout, salons, outer buildings and the grounds. I was lucky enough to grab the right books from the gift shop at the Magnolia Mound Plantation, that would serve as my guides and bible—specifically, Richard Follett’s The Sugar Masters (LSU Press, 2005), and cookbooks.
Although I don’t speak French nor Louisiana Creole, I studied them online and by reading period literature to get a feel for them. I visited online sites, watched film, and read on Louisiana Creole identity—complex and evolving! I read newspapers of the period, which includes English and French archives.
I spent a lot of time scanning and reading narratives of people who had been enslaved in Louisiana. I did an overall study on economic and political histories relevant to the story (pre-colonial Louisiana, French, and Haitian). I know there’s more.
I wrote what I needed in Moleskin notebooks. Yes, handwrote versus typed. I can type without being conscious of what I’m typing. You type long enough, you develop muscle memory. Your fingers strike without the need to subvocalize the words. When I hand-write I have a direct conscious relationship with what I’m writing. Or maybe it’s an ego thing—I think I own it because it ekes or flows out of my handwriting. I place colored tabs on pages to denote subject.
I don’t always research in order. I wake up thinking about one aspect of the story and then I gather my research tools and dive in. Research makes place, scene, dialogue and characters tangible. I’d scribble pieces of dialogue between the research notes because I could see or hear it as the research laid out the detail.
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?
To many who read and buy books for children and young adults, I am a relatively new writer and One Crazy Summer is my first book. In my early publishing career 40 years ago, I wrote books I believed in; I never had a sense of audience or industry. While I received starred reviews and made notable lists, and a Coretta Scott King honor, my books didn’t do big numbers. It never occurred to me to quit my job of 25 years at a software company. And live off of what?
When I did quit in 2005 and joined the faculty at Vermont College (now VCFA), I struggled to make ends meet. I had a few books under me and a master’s in creative writing, but I lived in a world of data and software files, and not in the world of writing. I had to learn how to talk about what I did—writing.
A few years later, Jumped had been named a National Book Award Finalist. My electricity had been turned off when I got the good news. I had lunch with my longtime editor and told her I would be looking into getting training as a sonogram technician and write my novels on the side. (Why sonogram technician? Medical field equaled stability, and I might as well make myself happy doing gestation sonograms. Yes. This was my grand plan.) I had to face it; writing was a hobby.
In the meanwhile, Rosemary Brosnan had read One Crazy Summer and told me to have faith.
Still, I looked for medical training programs. The week before the midwinter announcements I was in housing court facing eviction. I am like so many writers. Having my book or books published is only part of the writing dream fulfilled.
What did you read as a child? Who were the early formative influences in your writing?
My sister slid my first book through the slats of my playpen. It was Dare Wright’s The Lonely Doll (Doubleday, 1957), a picture book in black and white photos that wouldn’t make it past today’s gatekeepers. A spanking wasn’t an unusual thing in the ’50s so I followed and enjoyed the story of the lonely doll and her two bear visitors.
I read a lot of biographies in grade school. Phillis Wheatley, Jupiter Hammon, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Juliette Gordon Low— founder of the Girls Scouts, and Thomas Jefferson, a writer whose birthday I shared–a sign!
By middle grade my view of Jefferson began to crumble as I learned more about his life.
As a child I read fiction for its heroines: Karana of Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins (Houghton Mifflin, 1960), Harriet, from Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy (Harper and Row, 1964), and Nomusa in Reba Paeff Mirsky’s Thirty-One Brothers and Sisters (Wilcox and Follett, 1952).
I read poetry and adult novels after the 6th grade. Harold Robbins, Ayn Rand, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, any New York Times bestsellers, and anything about the Black Panthers. Then I got bitten by the drama bug in the eighth grade and read Shakespeare comedies, Neil Simon and African American playwrights. At the end of college I found Ntozake Shange and feminist scholar Michele Wallace.
As soon as school was over, I began my apprenticeship with Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Cade Bambara as my literary mentors. No, I wasn’t in communication with these authors. I read their works, their papers, thought about my own point of view, and how I wanted to present my characters. I went on to read African writers–both men and women, and Caribbean writers.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
Even with siblings, I was alone a lot and daydreamed and thought about words, their sounds and meaning. I remember my mother saying both, “Leave me alone,” and “We need a loan”—one statement after another. It was confusing! How would I know when to use which?
Later, I realized I was doing it without thinking about it: see, sea, and the letter C. I had no formal understanding of context, but the idea was taking shape and sound in my little head. By the second grade my teacher introduced us to “homophones,” which we now call “homonyms.” I found all of this fascinating.
My other big find? I realized I was saying “birfday” and not “birthday.” Birfday, in my mind, was a party with cake, candles, pin the tail on the donkey, and the birfday song. It all changed when my friend’s dog, Queenie, was having her pups. I was probably seven.
Anyway, I saw the pups being born. I looked at my card from my Grandma with the grandmother rabbit and grandchild rabbit and read the word “birthday”—which, up until that point was a “birfday” card. But now I saw the word. Birth. It made a different picture; Queenie giving birth to puppies. Goo. Blood. Birth. How we are born. The day we are born.
The discovery didn’t knock me off my axis, but it made be aware of sound, the images we connect, and actual meaning (in my seven-year-old terms, of course, which was probably “neat-o”).
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?
One thing that has changed for me, is that I do have to think twice about what my characters say and do (but not while drafting). I never thought about that in a “policing myself” sort of way. My characters were always who I saw, living in their experiences and their truths. My characters are always human, capable of the range of human actions and responses.
Today, I have to temper that with sound judgment. I either deal with it in the third draft or when I get the editorial letter. There have always been gatekeepers, but I don’t think I cared thirty or forty years ago. Social media and cancellation has changed that—and some for the good. But also, let’s credit some maturity! I’ve changed my point of view about what is acceptable and unacceptable over the years because I look at life differently.
I don’t think stories are as anchored by genre and audience as they had been in the past. Writers don’t paint themselves into a corner. While some are dedicated picture book, YA, middle grade, or nonfiction writers, more writers simply write everything! Cyn and Jackie Woodson are the OGs of writing the world. I think “everything” when I think Renee Watson. Jason Reynolds, Meg Medina, Kekla Magoon, Tami Charles, and Varian Johnson.
Along with flexibility, I think we’re seeing more mash-ups in storytelling. Horror and humor. Sci fi and romance. And of course, the main mashup—the magical real. I think we’re moving toward greater flexibility in storytelling.
What new and up-and-coming voices are you excited about or do you think will especially resonate with your readers?
Supriya Kelkar‘s That Thing About Bollywood (Simon and Schuster, 2021) keeps it light-hearted with a touch of magic, but then she follows it with the dramatic Strong as Fire, Fierce as Flame (Lee and Low 2021)!
Rita Williams-Garcia, a Queens, New York native, is the celebrated author of novels for young adults and middle grade readers. Her middle grade novel, Clayton Byrd Goes Underground won the 2018 NAACP Image Award for Literature for Young People and was a 2017 National Book Award Finalist. Williams-Garcia is most known for her Coretta Scott King Author Award winning Gaither Sisters trilogy that begins with One Crazy Summer, recipient of the Newbery Honor and the Scott O’Dell Prize for Historical Fiction. She is a three-time Coretta Scott King Author Award recipient and a three-time National Book Award Finalist. Her YA+ historical novel, A Sitting in St. James, set in 1860 Louisiana, has been named the 2021 Boston Globe Horn Book Fiction Award winner. Rita Williams-Garcia served as a faculty member at the VCFA MFA Writing for Children and Young Adults program from 2005-2015.
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. Connect with her at stephanimartinelleaton.com.