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Interview: April 2008

April 2008

Jacqueline Woodson has written over 20 books for both children and young adults, including IF YOU COME SOFTLY, SHOW WAY, FEATHERS and the newly releasedAFTER TUPAC & D FOSTER

In this interview with's Jonathan Stephens, Woodson explains why she chose to leave the narrator of her latest book nameless and describes which of her own personality traits have surfaced in her characters. She also reveals what she loves the most about writing stories, explains how her upbringing helped to shape her work ethic, and names the Tupac Shakur songs she finds most inspiring. I’ve been looking forward to reviewing one of your novels ever since I saw you speak on a panel last year at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival. As you talked about your book, IF YOU COME SOFTLY, you had a certain depth about you that totally showed up in your latest novel, AFTER TUPAC & D FOSTER. So needless to say, I had a great time with your story.

Jacqueline Woodson: Thanks for the love. In the moments of writing, I feel deeply connected to the characters I'm creating. Just like in the book, D Foster seemed to come out of nowhere and suddenly appear in my head fully formed. I had a really great time writing her character. At one point early on, there's the pizza grease trailing down her arm and she's oblivious to it. It was great to revisit that kind of oblivion because it was so much of my teen years --- just being clueless about all these small things happening around me and then at the same time being hyper aware of other stuff.

TRC: So let’s start off with the most important question: What’s your favorite Tupac song? Is it “Dear Mama” from in the story, or some other song?

JW: I think "Brenda's Got A Baby" was the first Tupac song that really perked up my ears and made me think, "This guy is talking about some deeper stuff." I also love "Me Against The World," but I could go on and on about the songs of his that really spoke/speak to me.

TRC: Why Tupac? What is it about his life and art that makes him the right fit in the story of these girls? What has his music done in your own life?

JW: I think of Tupac as an activist --- he was talking about real stuff, trying to get people to listen to rap on a deeper level. He came from a legacy --- a Black Panther Mom who tried to change the system from inside prison. He was bearing witness to what was really crazy and wrong about our society and making it not only palatable, but really comprehensive for young people. He was terribly gifted and had these eyes that seemed to tell a thousand stories. In my own life, I feel like his music has helped me keep on keeping on. There are times when I'm thinking the stuff I'm thinking and writing the stuff I'm writing, and then something happens in the world and I'm like “jeez, why even bother” --- there was something about his work that made me respect and value my own work in the world even more.

TRC: On a scale of 1 to 10, how do you rate yourself in the following skills from the novel:

JW: Double Dutch jump rope? - 9
Rapping? - 1
Basketball? - 8
Braiding hair? - 10
Making snow angels? - 10

TRC: D was a particularly inspiring character. One of the things the other girls like about D is her freedom to roam. They’re even a bit jealous of her for it. But I get the feeling deep down that D wishes for the structure they have in their lives. What was one of your most memorable “roaming” experiences? And, looking back now, what structured aspect from your childhood do you appreciate the most?

JW: I grew up in a pretty religious family so we were on serious lock-down --- more like the narrator and Neeka than D. *Everyone* in the world seemed more free than I was. I dreamed a life like D Foster's, where I could just roam and not have to answer to the grownups in my life. But of course, when you're in such a strict environment, you tend to have a wild sneaky side and my friends and I would sometimes get away to the neighborhood a few blocks over from our own. There, we could be different --- “bad” girls instead of sheltered ones, loud and cursing instead of demure and quiet. Looking back, I am very grateful for the religious part of my upbringing because we were often forced to sit and study the bible for hours on end. I bring that same focus and concentration to my writing. And because I had so many authority figures in my life, I constantly, as an adult, question authority.

TRC: The first-person narrator works so well for a novel like this, but I’m curious: What kept you from naming your narrator?

JW: When I write, I never know where a story is going. I have an idea in my head and I just go and trust the unknowing. I have the narrator's voice in my head and I kept searching for a name for months, but that name didn't come to me. (This was very different from what has happened in the past --- usually, about 10 pages in, I have a name for my narrator.) But I wanted to trust the process, so I just kept writing without her having a name. When I was done with the book, I realized of course she wouldn't have a name because so much of the story I was trying to tell was about how you can know someone so “intimately” yet not know them at all. Here was a girl we'd followed for many pages and by the end of the story, although we think we know her, like D, we don't even know her name. Scary. I actually would ask friends, after they read the story, to tell me who the narrator was. And often, it wasn't until then that they'd realize they didn't even know her name. In the end, I realized how important this detail was to talking about what I'm talking about in the story.

TRC: I’m fascinated by how well you use the little details to create your characters --- D’s white girl shoes, JayJones’s dimple, Neeka’s soft hair. How do you go about creating vivid characters with such intriguing and unique characteristics?

JW: I feel like the characters come to me nearly whole, and again, I let myself trust the process.

TRC: Mamas hold pretty important roles in the story, not necessarily as main characters, but as figureheads that mean something deep to the characters. What was your relationship with your mama like? Was she “mama” or “mother” or “mom” or something else entirely? In what ways has she had a lasting impact on your life?

JW: My mom was/is Mama and she was pretty strict and worked really hard. She was a black woman in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, trying to raise four kids as a single parent (my grandmother moved in when I was seven or eight and the two of them ruled with some seriously iron hands). Of course as a kid, I just thought --- Dag, my mom sure is strict. Now that I'm a mom, I get it. I parent WAY differently, but I get it and, as a result, am now able to tell both sides of the story.

TRC: I couldn’t help but notice that neither the main character nor D (or Tupac, for that matter) had a father in the house. In fact, JayJones is one of the only male figures in the story. Please speak a little to this absence of guys in their world. 

JW: There aren't necessarily fathers in the story, but there are men --- there's Neeka's dad, the men who hang on the block and watch out, JayJones and Tash. And of course, to some extent, there's Tupac. There are people looking out for the girls and those men aren't necessarily fathers. It wasn't about making a statement about the community, but for this story, that was the situation.

TRC: When life gets a little rough, your main character tends to stick her head into a book to hide from things. Did you ever do that? What are some of your favorites, novels that especially sparked your love for stories?

JW: I've never escaped through reading --- more so through writing. One of my favorites of all time is IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK by James Baldwin.

TRC: As an English teacher and aspiring writer, I come across teens and middle-schoolers all the time who are thinking about writing and have even started novels of their own. How long have you known you wanted to be a writer? Were there any specific events from your past that moved you in the direction of storytelling? 

JW: I've known I wanted to be a writer since I was seven. I've just always loved the physical act of storytelling. I've also always loved the power of story and of the creation of story --- how you can just begin to write and control a whole world that YOU'RE creating. It was/is really a great and powerful feeling.

TRC: Since THEY all say that our characters embody certain aspects of our own selves, what aspects of yourself have made their way into your three girls?

JW: The desire for freedom, the desire for and love of family, the need for music in my life, the annoying siblings...the list goes on.

TRC: When it comes down to it, you’ve packed a lot of tough topics into a tight little story. Throwaway kids, jail visits, homosexuality, Tupac’s story, fatherlessness, and the hope some kids cling to that they might play professional sports. There is a lot of really important stuff going on here! Was it difficult to weave them all together into a storyline that sticks together as well as yours does? 

JW: Thanks for thinking I did it well. I think as I started writing, more and more stuff started coming up and I didn't want to ignore it, so the novel began to gather all these layers. It was hard to braid them together but my editor, Nancy Paulsen, has an amazing eye, so that helps.

TRC: You’ve written a ton of books, from young adult to middle grade to picture books. Which of your characters gives you the most joy, and which one breaks your heart and why?

JW: I just finished a book called PEACE, LOCOMOTION, and in it, there is a guy named Jenkins who has just returned from this war with a leg missing. That was really hard to write because this war makes me so mad and he's such a great guy. But I could go through my books and say this one made me smile and this one made me cry. Jeremiah (IF YOU COME SOFTLY) always makes me cry. LOCOMOTION makes me smile and Toswiah (HUSH) makes me think. I think Clover and Annie (THE OTHER SIDE) give me a lot of joy.

TRC: D says that “everybody’s got [a Big Purpose] and it’s just that we gotta figure out what it is and then go have it.” Since I imagine you’ve spent a few minutes thinking about it *elbow nudge*, I’m going to go ahead and ask the big question: What would you say your big purpose is in life? What role did the people in your life (parents, friends, etc.) play in helping you discover that purpose?

JW: You know, I'm still trying to figure it all out. I got so many messages and so much strength from the people who came before me, and I have such a head full of ways I want to do my work in the world that --- although it may seem like I should be able to say "writing is my big purpose" --- I don't think writing is enough. I want/ need to do more. It's bigger than writing --- this way in which I want to have an impact, create change, do something toward a greater good. I hope to figure it out before I die.

TRC: On your website you said that you write because you have questions, not because you have answers, and that you’re often encouraging young people to ask questions. What sort of questions are you hoping that young people will ask after reading AFTER TUPAC & D FOSTER?

JW: I don't know what I hope others will ask, but I know what my questions are --- What did Pac have to die, how do you hold onto a dream when it feels almost too big, where do people from our past go, how do we keep innocent people out of jail, and what does it all mean?

TRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?

JW: PEACE, LOCOMOTION will be published in Spring of 2008.