Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Meet: Zetta Elliot, author of A WISH AFTER MIDNIGHT

This is Banned Books Week, a time to celebrate our right to read whatever we like in this country. Here's the tricky part: you can celebrate by reading say Beloved by Toni Morrison or Thong on Fire by Noire. I know lots of readers here dislike urban (or street) lit, but it's a slippery slope to start saying what belongs on a bookshelf and what doesn't. So while books like Thong on Fire aren't necessarily my cup of tea, I celebrate that those who want to read them can do so. After all, I don't want anyone else telling me what I can or cannot read.

Author Alisa Valdez writes about what she learned about "the rules" for writers of color after a trip to Borders. Don't know that I completely agree with her, but she's definitely got some points.

YA novelist Paula Chase Hyman guest blogs on Color Online about her literary influences and what she wishes for books for young people. An excerpt: "Does it matter that two of my literary influences are White and only one Black? That, other than writing for children, they hold nothing in common as writers? That they’re each from a totally different niche within YA…and actually Mildred D. Taylor is likely considered middle grade? No. None of it matters. Because, at the heart, a reader is drawn to what’s real in a book. "

Speaking of books for young people, I'm pleased now to introduce you to author Zetta Elliott, author of several books, including Bird and A Wish After Midnight. On her website Elliott notes, "Ultimately, I try to tell stories that give voice to the diverse realities of children. I write as much for parents as I do for their children, because sometimes adults need the simple instruction a picture book can provide. I write books my parents never had the chance to read to me. I write the books I wish I had had as a child."

I'm delighted that she agreed to an online conversation with me about her work.
White Readers Meet Black Authors: Describe your work for someone unfamiliar with it. What's your writing style like? What subjects/themes do you explore?

Zetta Elliott: I write for all ages, and across genres, so it can be hard to describe my work to others. I would say that everything I write is meant counter the various “types” that reduce complex human beings to two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs. The men in my stories are often tender, thoughtful, and caring because I feel black men generally aren’t represented that way in our society. I’m also a feminist, however, so I’m realistic about the other kinds of men whose destructive behavior damages families and communities. I think my writing is somewhat cinematic—there’s a focus on dialogue because words are powerful, and yet we too often say to one another, “Don’t even go there!” Why not? With my writing I do go there, and I try to let the drama lead to greater openness and honesty.

WRMBA: What's your goal(s) as a writer? Do you set out to educate? entertain? illuminate?

ZE: I think with a lot of my work my intention is to provoke—not to shock or outrage or repulse the reader, but to push her or him into thinking of things from a different point of view. We cling to our comfort zones, and sometimes the safest way to approach a risky topic is through a story about someone else’s life; my picture book on addiction sometimes brings adults to tears, while children find the story uplifting and hopeful. So one of my goals is to reach as wide a swath of people as possible; I don’t want anyone to feel excluded. My main goal is to create characters that are compelling—whether you like them or not, you’re invested in what happens to them, and you keep thinking about them long after you’ve put the book down.

WRMBA: You're a playwright too. How is writing a book different or similar to writing a script?

ZE: Playwriting is much easier in some ways because you don’t get bogged down with long descriptions of what people are wearing or eating or what the sky looks like. There are also limits to what you can do on a stage, and so the emphasis tends to be on action and dialogue. I really love dramatic writing, and so I try to give my novels a similar feeling of intimacy and immediacy; I want the reader to feel like she’s sitting in the front row, watching two people have an uncomfortable conversation about a problem they’re unable to solve. Some folks say “no more drama,” but exciting, heart-thumping dramatic writing is hard to put down...(and a lot of fun to write!)

WRMBA: What's next for you?

ZE: Right now I’m working on the sequel to my YA novel, A Wish After Midnight, and I’m sharing a new book of one-act plays with educators and librarians.

WRMBA: What's the best book (or whose the best writer) that not enough people know about?
ZE: I’d say Gayl Jones because her first novel, Corregidora (which was edited by Toni Morrison and published in 1975) was brilliant and hasn’t been matched since. I also love If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin, which I believe he intended for a YA audience. Fran Ross wrote a satirical novel in 1974, Oreo, which is brilliant; she was once a writer for Richard Pryor. In terms of contemporary writers, I think more people need to know about Percival Everett ~ Erasure is one of my favorite books, also satirical and brilliant!


Indigo Woman said...

giddy to find out that there is a new wave of multi-culti authors/thinkers/creative activists. just a matter of finding the community. thanks for pointing the way to zetta's site which led to other authors' blogs--so absorbing that i think i've used up most of my "goof off" time this morning :).

Carleen Brice said...

Check author Lori Tharps blog My American Melting Pot and the blog The Bottom of Heaven too. Think you'll like them!

Color Online said...

Indigo Woman,

If you're giddy now, come by Color Online and lose yourself in a fit of happiness. We truly are inclusive, we are trying to showcase as many shades of the world as we can and we are getting better at it. Not only are we a multicultural community but our blogroll will direct you to others.

And may I name drop and say my good friend Zetta hangs out at Color Online. She's good people as is our entire community. Come by.

Carleen, you already know what I think about WRMBA. Thanks.

Carleen Brice said...

I only didn't mention Color Online because I had linked to it in the post. But of course it is a definite recommend!

Zetta said...

All of these sites are great, and they're where I get almost all my new titles (and why my TBR list is SO long!). Thanks again, Carleen, for giving me the chance to connect with your readers!

Mayra Lazara Dole said...

excellent questions! thanks for Zetta's interview, Carleen. although Zetta and I are part of an author panel, each time she's interviewed i learn more about her and her writing. hope one day you'll interview Latina authors for "White Readers Meet Latina Authors!" : )

Unknown said...


I know you got my back. lol

Tere Kirkland said...

Thanks for a great interview! I've been wanting to read A Wish After Midnight for a while now. I'll have to put it on my Amazon wishlist.

Paula said...

I love Zetta for her unashamed approach, both in fiction and when speaking out in blogs. Authors, like her, make it harder for people to keep their head in the sand.

Anonymous said...

Your opening pulled together some nice pieces to urge me to re-think what I read. When you mentioned banned books, I thought you were going to discuss how publishes sometimes ban books through their publishing practices. Zetta's book is so well written, one can't help but wonder.

Carleen Brice said...

Good point about all the ways books can be "banned" from readers.