Black History Month: WALTER DEAN MYERS In The House!
Posted by Rita Lorraine
Yes, it’s Black History Month, and boy do I have a month of treats for you!
As a reviewer with YA Books Central (www.yabookscentral.com), I come across some wonderful books, and sometimes I get the opportunity to chat with some outstanding writers. Recently, I got the opportunity to review Lockdown, by two-time Newbery Honor author Walter Dean Myers, and he very graciously consented to an interview.
Because I had so many questions for him, I organized the questions into basic themes. I hope this makes it easier for you to digest.
Have fun, and happy Black History Month!
INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR WALTER DEAN MYERS
RitaL: Thanks so much for granting this interview, Mr. Myers! I read that you began writing poems and short stories as early as age nine. Do you remember any of the titles or characters in those early pieces?
WDM: My first published poem was to my mother. I was nine and going to school in Harlem. Other poems were mimicking the British poets we studied in school. I wrote odes to just about everything.
RitaL: I also read about your turbulent early years, and how they influenced your writing. Do you feel you would still have become a writer if your early life was different?
WDM: I think I would have become a writer because I enjoy the process of creating with language.
RitaL: What was the title of your very first trade book? Describe for us aspiring writers how it felt to see your first book in print?
WDM: Where Does the Day Go? was published by Parents Magazine Press. I was surprised and happy to see the books in stacks at a downtown book store!
RitaL: Who has been your biggest supporter in your writer’s journey?
WDM: My wife has been my biggest fan and helper.
RitaL: You have a very impressive body of work that includes picture books, poetry, screenplays, historical fiction and more. Tell me, what’s your favorite genre? Which genre do you find the most challenging to write, and of all the markets out there, which do you find the hardest to break into?
WDM: I like all genres of writing. Historical fiction is quite challenging because you really want to get the facts straight while making the book entertaining. True stories are sometimes very boring. The hardest market to break into is poetry. There are so many people out there grinding out poems, and the books usually don’t make money.
RitaL: What inspired you to write Lockdown? And what do you hope your audience will gain from reading it? (Read my review of Lockdown on YABooksCentral.)
WDM: Lockdown was inspired by my visits to juvenile facilities across the country. So many of the young people voiced fears about leaving the facilities, afraid they would get into trouble again and perhaps have a life of constant incarceration. The difficulties they had on the outside which led them to prisons weren’t going to go away because they had paid their debt to society. What I would like for young people to take from the book is the language my central character uses to describe who and what he is. I feel we need to provide the means for young people to both articulate their problems and to think them through so that they can at least begin to cope with them. If we were talking about kids coming from the area of a toxic lake we would treat them and would either clean up the lake or move the kids away from the affected area. When we talk about kids coming from a toxic environment we make it a condition of his release to return him to that environment.
RitaL: Well said, and so very true. Thanks for sharing that. I recently had the privilege of reading Riot also, and I truly enjoyed it. (My review of Riot will post on YA Books Central on February 10, 2010). I’m a historical writer/reader myself, and can’t get enough of these stories. How did this particular story catch your attention? How long did it take to research and write it?
WDM: I was first attracted to the story by the idea of the orphanage being burned down. I was raised in a foster home and have always been sensitive to children without parents. This was a relatively easy book to research because of the availability of newspaper accounts and the many published eyewitness accounts. It took about four months to research the basic story, and then more research over the four months it took to write the book.
THE FATHER AND SON TEAM
RitaL: Tell us about the dynamic Myers father and-son duo. When did you first realize your son Christopher had artistic talent?
WDM: Christopher liked to draw and build things with his blocks by the time he was three. I didn’t recognize any particular talent but his mother says she did. By the time he was seven or so he would occasionally draw something that seemed remarkable but just as often his art would be just children’s drawings. Then one day it all changed (maybe over a few months and I didn’t notice it). He used to draw pictures for my books when he was nine or ten and I would let him although I knew I wasn’t going to use them.
RitaL: What a great story! But we all know that most writers are advised to allow publishers to choose their own illustrators for books. How did you introduce Christopher’s work to the publisher?
WDM:When he went off to Brown, I began working on a story that I had worked on when he was quite young. I remembered he had wanted to draw pictures then, and I called him and asked if he was still interested. He said yes. He was eighteen. The book was called Shadow of the Red Moon. I made no promises, but I showed them to the publisher (who hadn’t thought of the book as being illustrated) and they liked them.
Most often I do the text of a book first. Then I give him the text and he does the art with little or no consultation. He doesn’t want to be my son at that point, he wants to be an independent artist and I respect that.
RitaL:I thought Christopher did a wonderful job illustrating your book, Looking Like Me. What do you love most about Christopher’s illustrations?
WDM: I love seeing his growth, his responses to the challenges presented by the
text, and the idea that he always seeks to add a new dimension to any text he engages.
RitaL: And what do you wish, professionally, for your son?
WDM: I have spent so much time in prisons and juvenile facilities seeing young men Christopher’s age who have lost their freedom I’m just glad that he’s well and free. Living a creative life is wonderful and I just hope that he can sustain his creative living.
RitaL: Okay, Mr. Myers, let’s switch gears. There are writers out there who are dying to know what your writing day is like. Tell us about your writing area, and what you need to write well (i.e., a good, hot cup of coffee; absolute quiet…)
WDM: I’m up at five and feeding my cat by five thirty. Then there is the coffee and perhaps a glance at the news. I work in a tiny room and I have the ability to shut everything out. My desk holds the several manuscripts I work on (always more than one at a time) and photographs and illustrations from the manuscript are always on a mural on the wall in front of me. My wife makes the murals. She’s also an artist. I never have any sounds in the room although I often have junk food around. The harder the book the more junk food (nuts, jelly beans, candy). I write five pages a day, usually finishing by ten or so, sometimes a lot earlier. In the afternoons I might look at another manuscript, work on an outline, or even rewrite something.
RitaL:Thanks for sharing that with us! Have you ever had writer’s block, and if so, how did you combat it?
WDM:I work from outlines and never have writer’s block.
RitaL: How about periods when you weren’t writing or submitting?
WDM:I don’t have periods when I’m not writing.
RitaL:Wow. Wish I could say the same.
WHAT YOU WISH YOU HAD KNOWN
RitaL:You know aspiring writers are always hungry for advice, Mr. Myers. Can you share with us at least three things you wish someone had told you about the publishing business when you first started out?
WDM:Three things I wish I had known when I first started out are:
1. That publishers need writers as much as writers need publishers
2. That it was okay for me to ‘work’ at writing, I didn’t need to be a genius.
3. That my writing was an asset that I could manage.
ADVICE TO ASPIRING WRITERS
RitaL: Well, we’re just about to wrap this up. We thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to chat with us. Before we leave, do you have any writing tips or advice you’d like to share with unpublished writers?
WDM:Advice to unpublished writers: Most writers fail because they don’t produce anything. Teach yourself to produce on a regular basis.
RitaL: That’s great advice. How about advice for newly published writers?
WDM: Writing that isn’t your best is usually not worth publishing. Books, stories, poems, etc. do well when they’re really good.
RitaL: And in the spirit of Black History Month, do you have any special advice for writers of color?
WDM: I would like to see writers of color free themselves from the political boxes they often find themselves in. If your writing is political – fine, but don’t force it.
RitaL: Most aspiring writers are in a quandary about whether to get an agent before or after they’ve written their first book. What do you advise?
WDM: I think writers shouldn’t get an agent until they’ve sold their first book. Go through the process (without listening to your friends) and see what it’s like. John O. Killens, the novelist, once told me that every writer should plan to be a long distance runner. Plan to have a career in writing, not just a book.
RitaL: One last question: Have ever received bad reviews? If so, what book garnered the bad review, and how did you handle it?
WDM: I sometimes get bad reviews, most often because the reviewer doesn’t like the subject matter or doesn’t understand the subject matter. I wrote the book, Now Is Your Time, which is about African American history, and a reviewer said that I had chosen the wrong people to write about. The reviewer had no idea why I had chosen the people I had and probably still doesn’t!
Well folks, that wraps up my interview with the great and generous Walter Dean Myers. Be sure to check out my review of his book, Lockdown, at YA BOOKS CENTRAL (www.yabookscentral.com).
Best wishes and happy writing!