Jacqueline Woodson writes stories in which we care deeply about the characters and empathize with their struggles. In the short space of the young adult novel, Ms. Woodson manages to create worlds that come immediately to life, and grip us well beyond the moment when we turn the last page of the book. Ms. Woodson, the author of more than twenty books, has won every important award for writers of books for young adults, including The Caldecott Medal, the Newbery Honor Medal, the Coretta Scott King Award, the National Book Award, the Margaret A. Edwards Award for Lifetime Achievement.
If you have never read a novel for young adults, perhaps thinking it couldn’t possibly be of interest, I challenge you to retain that attitude after reading one of the books by Ms. Woodson. In particular, I would recommend, to start, If You Come Softly. This is a book that will melt the ice in your soul. And in fact, this book and its sequel, Behind You, have now been reissued in one volume.
Rhapsody in Books is so pleased to have the privilege of featuring an interview with Ms. Woodson. It was difficult to come up with questions that could match those she answered on “The Brown Bookshelf” in 2009, and I refer you to that wonderful interview. I’d also like to quote two statements she made as part of that interview that show you something of the character of this remarkable writer:
“I think it’s important to remember that writing is a gift and our stories are gifts to ourselves and to the world and sometimes giving isn’t always the easiest thing to do but it comes back. You have to give it away to keep it — I know each time I put a story into the world, a part of it is stronger inside of me — I understand something on a deeper level, I appreciate someone just a little more, I am just that much more grateful for my life and my work. Yes, writing is not easy. But can any writer imagine NOT writing?
“Audre Lorde said, “We must wake up knowing we have work to do and go to bed knowing we’ve done it.” I believe that everyday. There is so much work left to be done in the world and for me, I am hoping to make the change I can and do the work I need to do through this gift I’ve been given. The awards are gifts back to me and to me, they say, “Keep on doing what you’re doing. Thank you.”
And now, our interview with Ms. Woodson:
RIB: Describe the ideal reader you would like to reach.
JW: My favorite reader is one that revisits books and gets something new out of them each time. I love slow readers. And readers who think about what I’ve written, think about how it’s written – and copy me!
RIB: As author Neesha Meminger recently wrote, “there is a vast plethora of novels showing the full gamut of the white, heterosexual, able-bodied, middle/upper-middle class teen experience. In terms of racial representation, there are white characters in horror, fantasy, romance, historical, and whatever other genres exist on bookshelves, while teens of colour are offered a limited array of options.” Given that whiteness and heterosexuality are apparently considered “the norm” for marketing purposes, what is your opinion of publishing opportunities for authors of color? Do you see much commitment to diversity?
JW: I actually don’t think of whiteness and heterosexuality as ‘the norm’. Maybe there are people who still do but none of them are close friends of mine. I think the endeavor toward diversity is everywhere – but ‘commitment’ – I don’t know. Because it is a commitment and while I think a lot of people have their hearts in the right place, the work is hard and long and some people give up. I was in the big bookstore here in Park Slope today – (just looking, not buying) and I was surprised to see this tiny Black History Month table –(with books like The Souls Of Black Folks – ‘hello, we’ve written other books since then!!” and a few newer ones on it. Then I went to the teen section and none of the books turned out were by people of color. It was quite a bummer – We can give this situation a thousand reasons, a thousand excuses, but the truth is – something is ‘not’ happening and it would be great to work toward changing that.
RIB: What has been your own experience with getting your books published?
JW: The hardest part was finishing my first book. The second hardest was rewriting it about fifty times. Then it got published. I think people need to remember that a book isn’t done after a few rewrites and a publisher isn’t going to buy an ‘undone’ book so the hard part is making it a book that at least ten other people want to pay for to read. A lot of times, when people send me books to read – new writers mostly – I find that the book is still in a draft stage and that before it can leave the writer’s hands and head to a publisher, it needs about five more revisions. Some people don’t want to do that. I rewrite my books until they’re mostly memorized so that’s a lot of rewrites, a lot of time spent with my stories.
RIB: Are some issues or types of characters met with more resistance than others?
JW: Yes. But the resistance is mostly my own – I am working on a book now that is scary and nerve-wracking and something I’ve not written about before. I want to just toss it but then I write something and it makes sense as to why I’m telling this story and then I want to work on it for hours.
RIB: What kind of effect do you feel that the gender of your protagonists has on the audience for your books? Do you see race or sexual orientation as being a factor?
JW: I think people are sometime reluctant to read outside of their own race. This is heartbreaking. I think some straight people are still afraid to even think about queer people – This is just silly. I think boys don’t always like to read books with female protagonist – I don’t even know what to say about this. But mainly, I try not to think about my readers as I write – I just think of my characters and myself – If they’re interesting to me, my hope is that they’ll be interesting to others as well.
RIB: When you write a flawed character, how do you figure out what it’s like to be flawed in that way? Do you worry your readers will be alienated? How do you resist helping or fixing your characters?
JW: When I’m writing flawed characters, I just think about my own flaws. Because I write realistic fiction, I generally don’t think about fixing anyone – I just think about how I want to feel at the end of the book – And I try to write toward that feeling.
RIB: Just one question on a specific book: I know at the end of If You Come Softly I felt like I just had my guts ripped out. How did it feel for you to write that ending?!!!
JW: The same way. I tried to rewrite that ending so many times because it broke my heart each time! But then I wrote the part about Ellie living in that moment –“This is how the time moves – an hour here, a day somewhere, and then it’s night and then it’s morning. A clock ticking on a shelf. A small child running to school, a father coming home…” And something about writing that, brought all the hope back to me and helped me to see that the living keep moving, that Ellie was going to be okay. But still, I can’t read it without choking up. Which feels ridiculous given that I wrote it!
RIB: Deciding you want to be a writer takes courage. What made you realize you could do this?
JW: I never thought I’d be able to do anything else as well. It’s still scary at times but I can’t imagine another life…
RIB: Do you write yourself into any of your stories, and if so, what character do you identify with the most?
JW: There’s me in every character I put on the pages.
RIB: Are there any authors or thinkers who had a profound effect on you?
JW: So many….
RIB: Who are some of your favorite authors?
JW: James Baldwin, Carson McCullers, Audre Lorde, Edwidge Danticat, Ramon Carver, Mildred Taylor, Nick Flynn, Cornelius Eady, Marie Howe…. I could just keep writing…
RIB: Which of your books is your favorite, and why?
JW: I like them all —
RIB: What do you see as the biggest issues facing teenagers today?
JW: I don’t know. I’m not a teenager. And my kids are still young. I’m sure I’ll know in a few years though.
RIB: What’s next for you?
JW: Beneath A Meth Moon — Soon as I finished this interview, it’s right back to it!
RIB: Thank you so much for your time!
Note: Jacqueline Woodson has a new edition of her two books If You Come Softly and the sequel, Behind You, now bundled together for purchase.