Friday, March 20, 2009

Part 2: A Wish After Midnight

my love is the sun
and you are the a blue lotus
turning towards me*

During Part 1, we focused on Zetta's current work, A Wish After Midnight. In Part 2, I askedthe writer to talk about the work after writing a novel, promoting it, interacting with the various branches in the publishing industry, the lack of diversity in the marketplace and majority readers' response to works by people of color.

BES: You've done workshops with children and since publishing Bird, you've had more contact with educators and librarians. I understand you're going to be working with young adults in the near future? Can you tell us more about that?

ZE: I’m learning to make the necessary adjustments with my writing workshops. Sometimes teachers just want a reading of the book, but even that needs to be age-specific. BIRD has mature content, and the illustrations are so rich—it takes a while to really process everything that’s going on in the story. But children love to peel back the layers, to speculate on a character’s emotions or motivations, and to interpret the use of light in Shadra Strickland’s amazing images. I absolutely love to teach, and hadn’t worked with children in quite a while, so it’s refreshing to hear their perspectives.

For AWAM, I have some workshops lined up for the next month, and I’ll need to tailor those for an older, teenage audience. I was surprised when visiting an elementary school at the number of questions the children had written down. I came in with my own agenda and all kinds of fun writing activities, but the kids really just wanted to talk. So I’m learning to make space for that. I suspect that with AWAM, there will also be a number of questions the students want answered. I believe in creating narrative possibility in my writing, and that means NOT always spelling things out…I think the point of literature is to leave gaps that the imagination of the reader can fill.

I have a character development activity that I’m eager to try out on teen readers. I find that when I start to write a story, I’m most dependent on the VOICE of my characters. I often begin by writing down one statement, or a fragment of conversation. The characters speak, and reveal themselves to me in that way, and then I become a mimic of sorts—I learn their speech patterns and “write out loud” so the story’s told in a way that’s consistent with their point of view. In all of my workshops I want readers to embrace possibility: what if? Be curious, be as persistent as a two-year old! Keep pushing further—what if, what if, what if?

BES: So you've written plays, a memoir, poetry, a children's book, a young adult novel and your academic papers. Each of these veins is a different kind of writing. How did you approach the YA novel? Among YA authors who impresses you and why? What are some of your favorite works?

ZE: Unfortunately, I don’t read a lot of YA fiction, so it would be hard for me to weigh in on today’s authors. Growing up I loved Mildred D. Taylor, and I think that kind of historical fiction really appeals to me; I recently read The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, and was very impressed. I like sophisticated writing and complicated characters, and I do find that some YA fiction is “lite,” but you never know if that’s due to the author’s intent, their limitations, or some editor’s intervention.

I don’t have a particular approach when it comes to writing in different genres; I wait for the voice, and then everything else tends to come quite quickly, organically almost. When I find myself forcing a story, I stop. I started Judah’s Tale as soon as AWAM was done, and got about a third of it done, but then needed to stop. I’m hoping that when I go back to it this summer, things will flow naturally.

BE: Bird is a successful, award winning book published through a traditional publishing house, but AWAM is self-published. Why? In hindsight, was self-publishing the right move at this time? Are you still looking for a publisher to pick up your YA novel?

ZE: I do think it was the right move for me, and no, I’m not looking for a traditional publisher. Even if I found one who liked my book, they’d probably still say, “We’ll publish it in 2011.” Their turnaround time is just awful, and nowhere near the pace of the 21st century. If you want to listen to a song, you go online and buy it—NOW. Same thing with videos or films—it’s almost instant. I don’t see why books should be rationed out to readers every three or four years. Maybe if I have some critical success with my books, it might make some editor somewhere think twice the next time s/he shoves a black-authored manuscript into the slush pile…

The publishing industry isn’t easy to understand or to penetrate. I wrote BIRD in 2002 and it wasn’t published until 2008. BIRD has won numerous awards, and I still can’t get an agent and can’t get my stories into editors’ hands. I finished writing AWAM in 2003, and spent 5 years sending it out to publishers and editors and agents—and got nothing but rejection letters. Many publishers won’t even look at a manuscript unless an agent presents it to them. So if you can’t get an agent, you have no access to those publishers. A few editors read sample chapters and then asked for the entire manuscript, but they all said no in the end. One Canadian publisher said, “We love the book, but we’re a small press and don’t have the resources to market it in the US.” Another Canadian press said they loved the contemporary part of the novel (the first third), but weren’t interested in Genna once she traveled back in time. Ultimately, I decided to self-publish because I met a very wise artist who told me I lacked ambition. And when I really thought about what she said, I realized that my ambition is simply different than other writers’. I’m not desperate. I’m not willing to do “whatever it takes” to see my book in Barnes & Noble.

I don’t feel the need to win awards, or aim for the bestseller list. What I truly want is for young readers to have access to this story. If I can get it into classrooms (which is starting to happen now!) and the public library system, I’ll be satisfied. By self-publishing AWAM, I gave myself permission to follow my own ambition. I don’t have to “play the game” anymore. I respect myself, I respect my work, and I respect my readers. I’m making connections with bloggers, and librarians, and educators, and THEY are the ones getting the word out about my novel. We think we have to wait for the gatekeepers of the arts industries to tell us what to read, and listen to, and watch on screen. But the truth is, technology is transforming the way art circulates. I can write a story today and publish it tomorrow. I don’t have to wait 6 years. YOU, the reader, don’t have to wait six years.

BES: YA is not what it was when I was a young adult. The genre is far more diverse in terms of themes, styles and the number of writers, but in terms of writers of color, there is a gap. Recently, I read about a YA conference in NYC. I was struck by how few writers of color are on the roster. And this event is held in New York, in my mind the most diverse city in the country. I know you aware of the conference, what was your reaction when you saw the event being promoted?

ZE: I certainly wasn’t surprised, but I also wasn’t sure I had my facts straight. It’s hard to critique a community when you’re not on the inside, and I still don’t know a lot of YA authors. When I saw the list, I didn’t recognize many of the authors, but didn’t want to assume that meant they were all white. When others who are better read confirmed that the list of participating authors wasn’t racially balanced, then I started thinking of a way to respond. I think the people who plan these events simply don’t see the absence of people of color as a problem. So they need an incentive to change the way they think, and I don’t know what that incentive could be.

The Cooperative Children’s Book Center keeps statistics on children’s books—in 2007, less than 3% of all books published for children were written by black people. I don’t know if any other industry in the US is as homogeneous as the world of publishing. There’s very little diversity among editors, and a corresponding lack of diversity in published books. Coincidence? I don’t think so. Minority groups have always struggled to get their stories out into the world. Black writers have been self-publishing and starting their own presses—out of necessity—for hundreds of years.

Sometimes, when you’re part of a minority group and you’re trying to effect change, you have to accept that your greatest challenge isn’t direct opposition—it’s apathy. Most people in the majority really just don’t care. You either have to find a way to MAKE them care, or you accept that that’s simply an arena where you aren’t welcome. I commented on a blog that advertised the event—you did, too—and the follow-up comments completely ignored our point about diversity. They just continued to talk around us! You can’t have a conversation with people who aren’t going to acknowledge the elephant in the room. As I said before, members of the majority group have to work amongst themselves on this issue of privilege. I’m content to exist in my own parallel universe for now.

BES: Okay, so the issue of privilege aside, what issues do writers of color have to address regarding multicultural literature?

ZE: To be honest, I don’t think about that very much. I think white privilege has created distortions in the minds of many white people. Some feel they don’t need to know anything about anyone who’s not like them. People of color and other minority group members don’t have that luxury—we could lose our lives if we don’t understand how the dominant group functions. So we know their culture better than they know ours—for hundreds of years, it was a matter of survival.

Now, people are free to make lots of different choices when it comes to what they read, wear, eat, listen to in terms of music…I think reaching white readers isn’t necessarily my job. There’s a lot of work that white people have to do amongst themselves in order to dismantle white privilege. I’ll help anyone who asks, but I’m not going to devote time and energy to “converting” white readers to black literature. I teach African American literature, and most of my students are white. Once they start reading, they usually KEEP reading. But I didn’t drag them into my classroom—they chose to take my course. I’m only interested in meeting people halfway.

BES: I hear you. My hope is that readers at Color Online will discover writers they might not have been exposed to, but the reader has to be interested in broadening their reading habits first.

I read a lot of YA. It's not often I find a work geared towards this audience that challenges young people to critically examine the connections between our past and our current times. Not in the dynamic way AWAM does. I think a lot of readers will welcome that opportunity to discuss the issues you raise in A Wish After Midnight. Please keep us posted how well the novel is doing and keep us informed about your upcoming work. Closing thoughts?

ZE: I think we're in a moment right now that's filled with fear *and* opportunity. I know I'm nervous about the future, but I'm also pretty excited. I think we've got to find new ways of being, new ways of connecting with one another and expressing ourselves. I'm willing to try something new, and I hope other folks out there feel the same. It's time for change!

BES: Thanks for taking time to talk with me, Zetta.

Readers, it's not too late to ask Zetta a question. Leave a comment or question here, and you'll earn an opportunity to win a signed copy of A Wish After Midnight. Deadline is March 25th.

*from A Wish After Midnight


Doret said...

I really enjoyed A Wish After Midnight and look forward to the second book. Is there one state you got a teacher order for AWFM that surprised you? There is a lot of lite YA lit however there is also I a lot of lite adult lit, in any genre its all about balance. YA has more then enough balance to keep every reader happy teen and adult.

zetta said...

Hey, Doret! I've only gotten orders from schools in Brooklyn so far...and you're right--what matters most is that readers have CHOICES and aren't left in the lurch when looking for a good read.

Mitali Perkins said...

Zetta, how do you define an "outsider" when it comes to writing about the African American experience for young readers? And is there an "outsider" who does it better than most? If so, why?

Zetta Elliott said...

Hey, Mitali--defining boundaries is tough, b/c they're constructed and there isn't consensus. I'd say an outsider is someone who is not black. But obviously that's the lowest common denominator: your class, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, region, etc can still make you an "outsider" to a particular experience; I clearly didn't exist in 1863, so I have an "outsider" perspective as a writer of historical fiction; I'm also Canadian, mixed race, and an immigrant, so that impacts my perspective. The "best" outsiders are those who are AWARE of their location, who know where they stand in relationship to their characters or subject matter. I need white writers writing about black history to tell the truth(s) and not whitewash the brutality, the occasional kindnesses, the complexity, and the POWER dynamics that continue to underwrite race relations in this country. Hope that helps!