Allison's Book Bag

Interview with Lynn Joseph

Posted on: April 17, 2014

LynnJosephMost of Lynn Joseph’s books take place in Trinidad or the Dominican Republic for natural reasons. Joseph herself was born and raised on the island of Trinidad in the West Indies. In our below interview, I ask general questions about her life. Her guest post, which will appear here tomorrow, will focus on the topic of diversity in young adult literature. On Saturday, I’ll review her newest book, Flowers in the Sky. Save the dates: April 18-19!

Like many writers, Joseph grew up surrounded by books. Her mother loved then and read Shakespeare to her and her sister as bedtime stories. According to The Brown Bookshelf, from the time Joseph was six, she was making up stories in her head and often telling them out loud to herself. She began writing creatively at eight years old, starting with poetry.

Her About Me states that when Joseph was not yet ten, the family moved to Maryland. Growing up, Joseph attended an all-girls high school in Baltimore, where she wrote for the school newspaper and the literary magazine. At 16, she got a summer job with a magazine in Trinidad and they featured her stories on life in an American high school.

After graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in English, Joseph moved to New York to work in the publishing industry. She ended up in the Children’s Book Department of Harper & Row , where she learned everything about children’s book writing from editors there. However, she felt too shy to give them her first novel and so she sent it to another editor who accepted it.

Lynn went on to attend law school because she was fascinated by how laws develop and change to reflect or create history, especially constitutional and civil rights laws. By 1993, she had graduated from law school, was married, had a son, and a job at a top law firm. Along the way, she wrote children’s books.

Then tragedy struck, September 11th, 2001, a day no one will forget. The family left New York and relocated to a tiny island in the Caribbean. The tragedy stayed with Joseph. She never did another trial. It was also years before she started writing again.

Now Joseph is back in New York, loving the beaches of Long Island and the mountains of the Catskills. She works as a part-time lawyer, but is also a writer. Joseph reveals in her About Me that one day her son left his Recovery CD in her Jeep by accident, Joseph heard Eminem’s song “Not Afraid,” and the intensity of the music got her to write seriously again.

ALLISON: Talking about growing up in Trinidad.

LYNN: Growing up in Trinidad, I lived next to the Diego Martin River and from about seven years old I began taking long rambles by the river by myself (it was quite safe to do so) and I’d see all kinds of adventure stories playing in my head. The memory is vivid and to this day I still take long walks mostly along beaches in order to slip into my story world so I can see what will happen next. I hear entire dialogues and see whole scenes unfolding in my mind as I walk. That’s why it’s imperative that I live near a beach so I can go on these magical walks. Growing up in Trinidad I rode bicycles, climbed trees, hiked the mountains, swam in the sea and read a lot of books while laying on the cool porch steps.

ALLISON: What foods do you miss? What new foods have you discovered?

LYNN: The food I miss the most is roti. I also miss the homemade ice-cream from the local fruits such as sapodilla and passion fruit.

ALLISON: What activities do you miss? What new activities have you discovered?

LYNN: I don’t miss any activities, because all of the fun outdoor hiking, biking, and swimming I did there I continued to do wherever I went. When I attended the University of Colorado, I hiked the Rocky Mountains and learned to ski and ice skate. When I lived in New York, I hiked the Catskill Mountains. I also lived in Long Beach, NY, just a block from the Atlantic Ocean, so even if I couldn’t swim in it because of the cold, I could still see it and walk on the sand. Recently, I’ve lived in Bermuda and I am now moving back to Tobago after a very long time living away from my home.

ALLISON: Talk about your experiences of attending an all-girls Catholic school. Have did it contrast with a public school? What was valuable about the experience?

LYNN: Attending an all-girls Catholic high school was awesome as I made life-long friends. Compared to my sons’ public high school in Long Beach, my Catholic School was not very different. We wore uniforms and it was all girls, but other than that, the curriculum was very much the same and the extra-curricular activities were the same in terms of sports, cheerleading, gymnastics, the school newspaper and literary magazine. There were two all boys Catholic Schools near my all-girls one so we had school dances and intermingled a lot. What is different of course is all the social media and texting and Facebook and Instagram connections with friends, which is distracting to me. I’m not sure I would have done as well in school if I had access to all these different distractions in my time.

ALLISON: How do you balance having two homes? (I kind of relate, being originally from Canada but having lived in the United States now for fifteen years.) Do you ever return to Trinidad?

LYNN: I have two homes because I maintain a U.S. residence to be close to my sons who are now in college. I spent a lot of time during the colder months in Bermuda, where I was researching a new novel and teaching writing workshops. Now I am working on a book set in Trinidad & Tobago so I am moving back home to immerse myself in the culture again and prepare to write that book.

ALLISON: As an adult, you moved to New York to work in publishing. What is the most memorable lesson you learned from this job?

LYNN: The most memorable thing I learned while apprenticing at a publishing house in New York right out of college was that stories — children’s and YA’s and all stories– have a pattern and a symmetry to them. They structure of a story usually follows the mythical journey of the hero as described by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces. After studying stories and myths from numerous cultures, Campbell noticed their pattern. Long before l knew about Joseph Campbell and his Hero’s Journey, I picked up on that same pattern from all the reading and editing I was observing.

ALLISON: How has being a lawyer helped or hindered your writing?

LYNN: Being a lawyer hinders my writing in that it takes a lot of my time and I use a different part of my brain for it such that it exhausts my brain enough and I can’t even turn on my creative side. How does it help? Well, I can do my legal work from anywhere in the world so it allows me to still make a living while I travel and do research for my books. I switch days I do legal work and days I do creative work.

ALLISON: How did your ten-year break from writing help or hurt?

LYNN: My ten-year break from writing was not on purpose. It helped, however, because when I was ready to write again I realized I needed to have some writing instruction to develop my craft to be a better writer. So I applied to and got into the Vermont College of Fine Arts and I attended their MFA program for Writing for Children’s and Young Adult. I graduate in July 2014 and I know that the courses, lectures, workshops and faculty advisors helped my writing skills grow tremendously. I highly recommend that school to anyone considering writing children’s books.

ALLISON: On your website, you shared about having a summer job at age 16 where you worked for People and had your stories on American life featured. What led you to move from writing about American life (including interviewing movie stars!) to writing about Trinidad?

LYNN: The articles I did for the People magazine and for the newspapers were all journalistic type writing, so more fact based. When it was time to write creatively, my stories and characters came out Caribbean. Maybe because you can take the girl out of the Caribbean but you can’t . . . you know. It’s in my blood and soul. I tried writing a new book featuring a white American boy narrator and it just didn’t work at all.

ALLISON: You don’t live in Trinidad now. How do you naturally integrate that culture into your stories?
Is there an author base in the Dominican Republic?

LYNN: The issue of increasing diversity in children’s and young adult novels is a huge topic right now, and I am glad to see that. It is sad that I can not find any books for my teenage sons which featured boys of color on the covers. I wanted regular stories for them with narrators they could identify with. So, I just finished writing a novel about a mixed race boy with locks, his mother is from Trinidad and his father is white American and he lives in Long Beach, NY and is a surfer. It is a contemporary story but that is my effort to help make a change. My other books have always featured Caribbean cultures in their stories, but this new book features the American culture and the problems of cyber-bullying from the eyes of a mixed race kid.

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