Allison's Book Bag

Interview with Rita Williams-Garcia

Posted on: July 10, 2011

After reading One Crazy Summer, I arranged for an interview with author Rita Williams-Garcia. This June, I also read and reviewed several of her other books. Halfway through reading my newest collection, I thought of new questions that I desperately wanted to ask. And so I emailed her a second time. Then because I realized that I had now sent her well over ten questions, I emailed her an apology and an abbreviated list of questions.

You probably don’t need to hear this story, but I am telling you because I appreciate that Rita Williams-Garcia answered every single question I sent her. The result of course is my longest author interview.

I hope you take time to read her thoughtful and fascinating answers. Then head to your library and check out some of her books. Some of them may challenge you, but sometimes we need to be pushed our of our comfort zone. Her books are a good place to start.

Allison: After reading Harriet the Spy as a child, you started keeping a journal. What other books influenced you?

Rita: I read the transcript titled, THE TRIAL OF BOBBY SEALE back in 1971.  From there I read A SOUL ON ICE and DIE, NIGGER, DIE. Although the unjust treatment of black Americans in the U.S. wasn’t new to me, these books had a profound effect on my social awareness. I loved my dictionary, thesaurus and our family’s outdated Funk and Wagnalls Encyclopedia. I could spend hours reading any of these. But I also read my mother’s psychology books.  Each and every character in my work responds to situations according to their nature.

As much as I read for myself, and wrote papers for school, it was Ntozake Shange’s FOR COLORED GIRLS… that awakened true literary thought in me.  And then when I found Toni Morrison I truly loved literature.  Before, I loved books. Story. Words. Writing. But it was with Morrison, and Alice Walker’s THE MERIDIAN, and Toni Cade Bambera’s THE SALT EATERS that I felt the depth of writing and a literary mind at work. Only then could I go back to Milton and Shakespeare and DH Lawrence with a better view of what I was looking at.

Allison: You said that growing up you wrote about an adult world of which you “knew nothing of”. When did you start writing drawing upon what you know?

Rita: While in college I dated an alto saxophone player for two years. I wrote a short story for Essence Magazine about a college student dating a serious jazz musician when she loved popular music and hated jazz. I got paid but the story was never published. But it was when I wrote BLUE TIGHTS that I could draw upon my years studying dance that I allowed me to write about something I knew. I tend to write about what I know to be true in the sense that I can imagine it being deeply true based on a few things I’ve seen in my neighborhood or in the world at large. Sometimes I might draw on an aspect of personal experience (my siblings and I used to count Black people on TV back in the 1960s like the sisters in ONE CRAZY SUMMER).  But I stay away from telling my personal story in my fiction. I might end up writing about some aspect of myself in a subconscious way and then recognize it later, but will I tell the story of a black Catholic tomboy army brat who reads and writes every day and grows into a double D cup by the seventh grade? Nope.  I lived it.  I’d rather write about something else.

Allison: As a child, you tried to read all the black literature that was available to you. What black literature do you recommend to readers?

Rita: I read everything our school and library had to offer, and that’s sad within itself. We’ve come so far in terms of having a selection of books to reflect a range of experiences covering people of color out of the African diaspora in America. I think readers have immediate exposure to African-American literature, be it the early works, the Harlem Renaissance, Black Arts Movement, popular reading, or children and teen literature from the 1980s through current times. No one author can really encapsulate the experience because it is multi-faceted in eras, family origins, class, economics, faith, and so on. Instead, I like to encourage readers to discover emerging writers of color, especially those who are bringing diverse genres, topics and world views to the forefront.  Be in search of a good story and venture beyond your comfort zone to find it.

Allison: Other than The Outsiders and Catcher in the Rye, you did not read much young adult fiction growing up. Do you read young adult books now? What are some of your favorites?

Rita: I do read young adult books!  Serving on the National Book Award committee introduced me to a score of authors and books.  I’m a big MIRACLE’S BOYS and LOCKDOWN fan. FEED, TANTALIZE, THE BOOK THIEF, SKELLIG, HARD LOVE, WHAT I SAW AND HOW I LIED, ABSOLUTELY TRUE ADVENTURES OF A PART-TIME INDIAN are among my faves. I’m rereading BLINK AND CAUTION and starting to dive into some Diana Wynne-Jones titles. Back in the day there were only a few faithfuls on the shelves. Now the YA shelves are bulging. I can barely get to the new books but I try to attend readings and keep up. YA writers today are so on top of things.

Allison: You seemed to have moved around a lot when growing up. Which places that you lived were your favorites? What about your least favorites? What are a couple of memories about those places?

Rita: Seaside, California was a great place to have a childhood. You name it, we played it, and we played hard. I didn’t own a winter coat. Fifty-five degrees was cold weather. Only hard rain could cancel a kickball game.

I also remember traveling by car from New York to Arizona. I was turning three at the time, but the sights are still vivid. I saw an amazing landscape, and my first real Native Americans in New Mexico and Arizona. When we got to Fort Huachuca, the sky was indigo and star dotted. I’d stare at the stars as long as I could.

What was my least favorite place?  Probably returning to my grandmother’s house in St. Albans, Queens after ten years of living out west. It wasn’t that I didn’t like St. Albans, but that my siblings and I had nowhere to play. We were energetic outdoors kids and not only was there nowhere to play, but no one to play with.

Allison: For awhile in college, you studied dance and economics. Have you made use of either?

Rita: I tried to be a dancer when I got out of school. I took classes on Broadway and went on auditions. But I’m profoundly tone-deaf, and kept getting injured in dance class so my dance career ended within two years after school.

I studied economics but never found a practical use for whatever I wrote in those test booklets. I needed more of a math background to have a career in that field. The reality was, economics was never a good fit for me so I switched to Liberal Arts in my junior year.

Allison: You dropped out of economics. What ended up being your favorite subjects in college? What nonfiction topics do you like to read about?

Rita: When I switched to Liberal Arts I made Psychology, English, and Economics my areas of concentration, with Modern Dance as my minor. Since I had already fulfilled the Economics portion I focused on the other two areas.  My favorite classes were creative writing master workshops with authors Richard Price and Sonja Pilcer, but I lived in the dance studio and took whatever classes my school had to offer.

Back then, I read essays and biographies by African American, Caribbean and African women authors on my own.  These days I read travel guides, books on botany, history, natural healthcare, knitting, green living and houses.  I’d love to own a small home with a garden.  That’s a dream!

Allison: In one interview, you said you hate to fly. Why? Is there a story behind this? What are some other fears or dislikes?

Rita: There’s no story behind my fear of flying. I’m a control person and I’d have no control over anything catastrophic that could occur in flight. In spite of instructions flight attendants re-enact before take-off, there are no real courses of action in case of emergency. I’m also afraid of lightning. Again, it’s a control issue. I mean, I do the practical things to lessen my chances of getting hit!  But can you imagine, flying through a lightning storm? As for dislikes, people who stand in passageways and people who can’t share a walkway.

Allison: How do you write so bluntly about characters and situations? Your stories are so intensely realistic. Even to the point that you write about not so nice individuals who make some pretty awful decisions. Even to the point that you leave it to readers to decide on a moral. How do you have the courage and confidence?

Rita: I think writers get into trouble when they confuse themselves with their characters. It’s then harder to write truthfully about characters’ lives. I know that I’m engaged in a deeper and I hope richer exploration of the human experience and don’t limit myself to how I’d respond. I imagine my characters’ lives deeply and create immense back story that’s never used on the page, but feeds my understanding of them. The newspapers are filled with the senseless or miraculous things that everyday people do and say. A good exercise would be to take an article and imagine who that person was in childhood or through their teen years.  Then add pivotal events to their back story. I also consider the character’s willingness and ability to tell her or his own story and then I weigh that against real people sharing their side of the story. It’s never as accurate or “correct” as writers tend to render in first person. In that way, I believe my characters are more self-serving even though they bear the burden of having to tell their story to an audience. What they end up doing is revealing themselves and the reader is there to catch them and form their own conclusions. We have to do our jobs as writers, but we have to trust the reader’s ability to read critically and intuitively.

Allison: You grew up in a traditional African American family, but write some pretty nitty-gritty fiction. When did you become interested in tackling issues in your fiction? Given that the situations you write about are outside your background, how do you so fully develop your ideas for them?

Rita: Identity, experience, social awareness all inform my consciousness and the writing comes out of that. But imagination isn’t limited to any of the above.  I’ve always had an active imagination. “What happened if…” and “I can see how this could happen,” have been my writing pals since I was a child. It helps to daydream. To be open to what can happen. It also helps to be exposed to more than what’s immediately before you. I like science and nature for that reason. Studying climates, principles in physics, the habits of animals or watching two people play chess can tell me a lot more about my characters than sometimes writing character sketches. But I do generally start with character sketches. Jotting stuff down about my characters and then imagining their lives.

The ideas come from being open to receive them. Usually, while I’m doing one thing, an idea completely unrelated to what I’m doing will come to me. It’s because I’m not chasing an idea that it comes to me. Now, I get ideas all the time. The ones that I’ll write about must fascinate me beyond what happens. What happens becomes the story, but what it’s about beyond the story is where I find interest. Paradox. Irony. If I can see the story from different aspects, then I’m interested. I want to write that story. But once the characters announce themselves, and the narrative has its own voice separate from me, I’m in. When the characters don’t come, I don’t force it. I just chalk it up as a concept and not a story.

Allison: In an interview, you said that the timing was wrong for the publication of Blue Tights. “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.” How do you see the role of black characters having changed in today’s literature?

Rita: When a group traditionally outside the mainstream is initially being introduced or included, the objective is to say, “We’re here” and also to educate the mainstream and promote tolerance. In the next wave of writing, we see members of that group or story integrated into mainstream storytelling. In the third wave, the obvious ideas of “other” or “different” are less important, and the characters get involved in their own peculiarities and self-interests without having to answer questions of identity and dealing with issues of tolerance. Those concerns don’t really go away, but become more naturally integrated into the character’s consciousness. Take for instance newcomer Christopher Grant’s TEENIE. Yes, there’s some introducing the mainstream to Caribbean family life going on, but ultimately, this is about the title character’s inner resolve in a funny and universal story. The characters are richly filled in and full of their own foibles. No character should have to carry the weight of their race, gender, religion, ethnicity, etc., strapped to their story. I think characters are now deeply and naturally themselves without having to announce identity or divorce themselves from it. They’re telling their unique story.

Allison: When revising your first book BLUE TIGHTS, you made the statement: “This is my last Young Adult.” Why did you feel this way? What changed your mind? Why do you continue to write for the young adult market?

Rita: I was very disillusioned by what writing for teens meant. I felt I couldn’t write truthfully. I couldn’t say what my character would say or portray her at her relatable worst. I felt like I was being asked to consider the feelings and reactions of people who weren’t my intended reader. Frankly, I didn’t care about them. I wasn’t writing for them. By “them” I mean well-meaning adults who might frown on Joyce’s behavior, and kids who were too far removed from her experience. I didn’t want to write with so many constraints when I’d look out at everyday kids in my neighborhood and say, my book is nothing compared to the real thing.

Part of my problem was I didn’t understand anything about writing for teens for schools and libraries. I didn’t get that my primary buyer would be librarians and educators. Or that as a debut novelist, I should make a good impression. But also, a lot of my biggest roadblocks lie in my writing and storytelling. There was a ton of work that needed to be done with that novel. A ton. I’m sure that added to the frustration, but I wanted to be published so I dug down and learned a thing or two about writing.  Thank goodness!  I had and have a great editor (Rosemary Brosnan).

I changed my mind as I began to meet my readers. I learned they weren’t all like my character, or lived in my character’s neighborhood. They were as diverse as they could be. What a shocker! But then one day while I was on my way to lunch with Rosemary and I saw a guy I went to college with working as a Wendy’s manager. Nothing wrong with that, except this person was a leader and activist on the fast track to a political career. I thought about all the high school valedictorians who didn’t graduate college and suddenly I wanted to write about the male ego. I began to write FAST TALK.

Allison: FAST TALK was your first foray into writing for a male character. How differently do you find writing from the female and male perspective?

Rita: I find writing in the male voice and perspective very different and liberating. Males and females not only communicate differently but they listen differently. Men compartmentalize in ways that females don’t.  At the risk of stereotyping, I like being able to cut it short. Not go on and on about things female characters might obsess over. It’s not to say that male characters aren’t terribly self-conscious, but chances are, when I write in a male voice I prefer to make the character more goal oriented and on the surface.

Allison: EVERY TIME A RAINBOW DIES was your first foray into writing outside your culture. How differently do you find writing from another cultural perspective?

Rita: Actually, my first published short story written as a teen was about a boy in the Philippines. I didn’t have enough sense to know or care about misappropriation or authenticity.  My original characters were African American for RAINBOW. But the more I walked around Brooklyn the more I knew my protagonists were Caribbean and I dreaded writing this story. I thought about Thulani. His brother and his sister-in-law. I dreamed my back story. I thought of his mother, and then the father he hadn’t seen since he was “tree.” I began to hear him as a Jamaican teen. A young man. A person not fully engaged in his life. I understood how he was connected to his rituals of freeing and caging his birds. I threw out everything I knew or thought and followed him.

Allison: In the midst of all your brutally realistic stories, how did you come to write Catching the Wild Waiyuuzee?

Rita: I’m a big kid who well remembers her childhood.  I love a child’s story and I work at writing them. CATCHING THE WILD WAIYUUZEE is inspired from chasing my daughters around the house to comb through and braid their hair. They were always clever about their hiding places but they’d giggle if I was in range of them. My youngest finally hid the brush that we nicknamed “Raker 2000.” I didn’t find that brush until she was a junior in college. I write picture books when I reach an impasse with my novels. Picture books are hard, let me tell you! But they’re rewarding. THE BOTTLE CAP BOYS OF ROYAL STREET will be published by Marimba Books in 2012. And I’m looking for a home for ANGELINA CARMELINA AND THE SAMBA PARADE. I’m going to be a grandmother one of these days. I don’t want to wait until my grandchildren are ten before I can share a story with them!

Allison: Besides writing, what are your favorite things to do?

Rita: I love food. Eating, not cooking.  I love to dance but I can’t partner dance to save my life.  Still, I love watching couples dance—Latin especially.

Allison: Last, what are you working on next?

Rita: THE PLACE OF ALL GAMES is up next and will hopefully be published in 2012. It’s set in an alternate time and place about a group of boys who are raised away from their society to do nothing but game. By age 12 each boy hears the call to battle in a mortality-free war at the Place of All Games. They only need one to win against a formidable opponent. But right now I’m writing the sequel to ONE CRAZY SUMMER, titled PS: BE ELEVEN. This story follows the girls to Brooklyn and ushers in many changes in their home on Herkimer Street.

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