Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Colorful Interview with Zetta Elliott

Instead of Waiting on Wednesday I'm presenting an interview that I did with Ms. Zetta Elliott, author of children's book Bird and YA book A Wish After Midnight. You can see my review of AWAM here

Colorful Interview

RiC: "What inspired you to write about Brooklyn during 1863 and make it a story of time-travel? What or who inspired Genna's story in the present?

Zetta Elliott: I’m going to TRY to keep my answers short and sweet, but it’s hard! I think art is the product of all our experiences, and so AWAM is the result of several interests of mine: history, Brooklyn, racial violence, gardens, magic, and city kids. I used to work with students in NYC, and it always bothered me that I couldn’t find stories that matched their many different realities. Just because a book is set in the ’hood, doesn’t mean it can tell the story of everyone who lives there. I grew up loving books about magical adventures, but none of those books ever featured a black girl like me. So I wrote AWAM in order to honor the stories that shaped my imagination (like The Secret Garden) AND to accurately reflect the many different kinds of teens I encountered in the city (they inspired me to create Genna and Judah). I’m a huge fan of Octavia Butler, and her time travel novel, Kindred, definitely served as my primary inspiration. I chose the NYC Draft Riots because of my interest in racial violence, and my fascination with Brooklyn’s rich history—so many kids live in this part of the city and walk past historic sites every day, but don’t realize how hard life used to be for those who came before us. There are many untold stories of bravery and compassion—I wanted to bring that to light.

RiC: Are there any more books in the AWAM series after Judah's Tale? Or are you going to break away from the AWAM books?

ZE: I definitely don’t see myself writing a trilogy! It’s challenging, trying to sustain characters in stories that are still compelling and fresh. Right now, Judah’s Tale isn’t coming along as quickly as I’d hoped, so I definitely don’t plan to write a third novel! The challenge will be to conclude the narrative as best I can in this sequel—I may not tie up all the loose ends, but readers deserve a satisfying ending to the story.

RiC: Can you tell us anything about Judah's Tale? A little hint?

ZE: There are chapters of Judah’s Tale on my blog (Fledgling)! Read, read, read!
Genna’s trying to cope with life in NYC post-911, and she’s searching for a portal that will take her back to 1863. Judah’s trying to build a future without her while also grappling with the traumatic effects of having been enslaved. I know some readers don’t like Judah, but I think you’ll feel some sympathy for him once you discover all he went through as a slave and then as a fugitive.

RiC: Do you see yourself in any of the characters in AWAM?

ZE: Definitely! There’s a lot of me in Genna, because I grew up in the shadow of a very popular, very pretty older sister. Unlike Toshi, my sister also made the honor roll every year, so I had to work overtime to get attention and keep up, but in the end just chose to withdraw. Compared to my sister, I didn’t have “good hair,” so I permed it and permed it until it broke off and fell out my senior year. I felt like my mother favored my older brother, even though he got in trouble with the law…and when I was a teen, all I wanted was to get away—I thought college would solve everything, and then I got there and was just miserable! I had to learn how to build community by making friends and finding adult mentors. I was a top student, and in the end, education really was my ticket to a better life. I moved to Brooklyn to attend graduate school at NYU and that absolutely changed my life.

RiC: What are you currently reading? Any YA books? Any recommendations (besides your own books of course!)

ZE: Right now I’m reading a memoir by Danzy Senna (Where Did You Sleep Last Night?). I definitely recommend Kindred, and any other book by Octavia Butler (try Fledgling if you’re into vampire stories). I love Jamaica Kincaid’s book, Lucy, and If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin. Marcelo in the Real World was fantastic, and I recommend a really provocative play—Yellowman by Dael Orlandersmith. Colorism is such a huge issue—still!—in the black community, and that play helps to reveal the roots of the conflict and the reasons for its lasting impact on our relationships.

RiC: Do you have any advice for teens in high school going through many of the situations and emotions that Genna feels and experiences?

ZE: Well, hindsight’s 20/20, right? If someone told me to just “hold on” when I was a depressed teen, I’m not sure it would have made a difference. But the best advice I can give is to be who you are; be patient, be tolerant, and know that it’s ok to feel uncertain and unhappy sometimes. The most empowering tool is to USE your VOICE! I wrote, and that helped me to make sense of the messed up things that were happening in my life. It was private, it was fun, and it didn’t cost a lot of money—I didn’t have to rely on anyone else in order to write. Today I’d probably try to make short movies, but not everyone has a video camera. Still, you can take pictures, write poetry, record a song—and post everything on You Tube or your own blog! When I was a teen, I really thought no one else could understand what I was going through. But then I moved away for college, made new friends, and found people who knew EXACTLY what I was going through. I just had to find the courage to open up about what I felt inside. And that’s scary, but when you speak out, you open up endless possibilities for meaningful connections with others.

RiC: If your books could be made into a movie who would the main characters (Genna, Paul, Judah, Nannie, Mrs. Brant, Dr. Brant) and Genna's family?

ZE: I'm going to let YOU answer that one! I do think about it sometimes, because when I write, I see things unfolding in a cinematic way. I’d actually like to see some “unknowns” get a role in the film…though I do really like Camille Winbush for Genna (she played Vanessa on The Bernie Mac Show).

Ric: Who’s your author crush? and/or What authors have inspired you?

ZE: I don’t think I have an author crush, though I really admire James Baldwin, Jean Toomer, and Gayl Jones. June Jordan’s writing has meant a lot to me, and Audre Lorde as well. I was very impressed with the way Toni Morrison wrote about violence and trauma in Beloved.

RiC: Do you have any recommendations of websites/blogs where readers can find suggestions/reviews of books on people of color?

ZE: Reading in Color, of course! Color Online, Crazy Quilts, The Happy Nappy Bookseller, and Black-eyed Susan’s. All of you have supported my books, and I’m very grateful!

RiC: What made you decide to go from writing plays, poetry and a children's book to a YA book?

ZE: I wrote AWAM in 2002-2003, and at that time I was almost exclusively writing picture book stories for kids. I was supposed to be writing my dissertation, which was on representations of racial violence. So it sort of made sense that I would shift from short stories to a longer narrative that incorporated a race riot in NYC! After finishing AWAM, I immediately started Judah’s Tale, but my father was dying of cancer and I eventually stopped writing for a while. Then I finished my first play in 2004, and then I wrote a memoir in 2005, and then I started writing lots of plays. Now I’m working on the sequel to AWAM. I write whatever comes out, really. I like dramatic writing, so plays are fun and they’re usually a lot easier to write than novels where you have to describe the landscape and people’s facial expressions and lots of other tedious details.

RiC: Was it hard to self-publish? Why did you decide to self-publish AWAM?

ZE: Self-publishing isn’t hard, but it’s risky. You can go to a POD site like Lulu.com or CreateSpace.com, upload your manuscript, design a cover, and publish your own book—it’s not expensive, and your book arrives in about a week. The biggest challenge is getting people to give your self-published book a chance. Most people think the best books will automatically get picked up by a major press; those are the books that win awards and wind up in bookstores, and classrooms, and libraries. And sometimes that’s true—traditional publishers do produce some really good books. But I spent five years trying to find a publisher for AWAM and finally got tired of being rejected over and over again. So I chose to self-publish, and then I really had to hustle to get folks to give Wish a chance. A lot of time and energy and money went into sending out review copies and trying to get local schools and libraries to adopt the book. Now that that’s happening, publishers are NOW interested in acquiring the rights to AWAM! If you’re going to self-publish, I’d suggest you make sure you’re putting your BEST work out into the world. Many people refuse to read self-published books because so many are poorly written. But if your work is strong, open-minded people will give it a chance. I was blessed to find a community of online readers and bloggers who championed AWAM from the start—and that includes you! So thanks, Miss A.

RiC: Describe AWAM in 5 words. Describe yourself in 5 words.

ZE: Good grief! AWAM: Afro-urban, time travel, magical adventure. ME: Solitary, intense, imaginative, opinionated, determined!

RiC: Do you have a music playlist for AWAM?

ZE: No! I’m not even sure what that is. Songs to listen to while reading AWAM? I do listen to music while I write sometimes, and right now Asa is my favorite artist.

(see below for RiC's recommended songs)

Thank you Zetta for the interview!

Reading in Color's Playlist for A Wish After Midnight

1. Nobody's Supposed to Be Here-Deborah Cox (I recommend the dance mix. This song reminded me of Judah and Genna. Genna finds it hard to believe that any guy could be interested in her 'how did you get here? nobody's supposed to be here')

2. I Wish You Well-Mariah Carey (reminds me of Genna and Paul)

3. Bleeding Love-Leona Lewis. THE song for Genna and Judah. "You cut me open and I keep bleeding, keep bleeding in love." Helps explain why Genna stays with Judah

4. Hot N Cold-Katy Perry. Another Genna & Judah song.

5. We Be Burnin'- Sean Paul (ok so I threw this song in because Judah's Jamican and likes reggae!)

6. Fallin'-Alicia Keys. Take a wild guess. Genna & Judah

7. Numb-Linkin Park. This song is about not living up to people's expectations, disappointing them. Reminds me of Genna and her mother. Genna isn't her mother's favorite child, and her mom treats her badly sometimes.

8. How Far We've Come-Matchbox Twenty. All about the future and the past. Seemed very time-travel like to me.

9. A Dream-Common and will.i.am. This song perfectly describes Genna's determination to get out of her bad neighborhood and go to college. I love the MLK Jr. excerpts inserted in this song!

10. All the Above-Maino feat. T-Pain. Another song about perseverance, determination and success. Genna's theme song.

11. Hello Brooklyn 2.0-Jay-Z feat. Lil' Wayne. I just had to throw that in. Genna's from Brooklyn so there's gotta be some Jay-Z in there! (My favorite line is when Jay-Z says "If I had a daughter guess what I'd call her? Brooklyn Carter." I think Brooklyn is such a pretty name!)

12. Superwoman-Alicia Keys. About Genna's mother's strength.

13. All My Life in the Ghetto-Jay Rock. Title self-explanatory, Genna describes her neighborhood as the ghetto.

14. Disappear-Beyonce. Time travel, relationships (mainly Genna & Judah)

15. Sweet Dreams-Beyonce. "You can be a sweet dream or a beautiful nightmare." Perfectly describes Genna & Judah's relationship.

16. Take Your Hand-Usher. Very good song that describes Paul's feelings for Genna.

17. Baby Don't Go-Fabolous feat. T-Pain. "I'm better than your ex." Another song for Paul towards Genna.

18. Take A Chance on Me- Mamma Mia! Movie soundtrack. Paul's song.

19. Back to What You Know-Ne-Yo. This song goes both ways. For Paul and Judah. Genna needs to choose.

20. The Girl is Mine-Michael Jackons & Paul McCartney. Paul vs. Judah

21. Falling in Love-Michael Jackson. "You're not like anybody I ever knew." Paul to Genna.

Did I leave out any songs that you think would be good? Do share! I know I have a lot of songs but I love making music playlists for books!


  1. I love ABBA!!! Thanks for this great interview, and an amazing playlist, Miss A--there's something for everyone...

  2. Woot! Great interview. Zetta sounds fabulous and amazing. And I love how you made a AWAM playlist!

  3. Zetta I tried to make the music playlist diverse and to have songs that would accomadate most people's music tastes (no country or opera!). I've heard ABBA, but not their version of Take A chance on Me (only the actress singing version from the movie!)
    Tarie- I <3 making music playlists for books so I had such fun with this!

  4. Fascinating interview and as always I have learned from you, including what a playlist for a book is! Zetta, I love ABBA as well.....

  5. Rasco--ABBA is the soundtrack of my childhood, and the band's breakup mirrored my parents' divorce...I could *never* bring myself to see the musical or the movie, but I listen to the greatest hits all the time...

  6. Nice interview. Lovin the playlist

  7. I loved learning more about Zetta! Great interview.
    wandanamgreb (at) gmail (dot) com

  8. Great interview! It was interesting reading about her self-publishing experience!

    Also, love the playlist :)


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