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Interview with Zetta Elliott, author of A Wish After Midnight

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Zetta Elliot is the author of A Wish After Midnight, published by AmazonEncore in February 2010. Her first book, Bird, gained the following awards among others: Paterson Prize for Books for Young People, ALA Notable Children's Book (American Library Association (ALA), Ezra Jack Keats Book Award and was voted one of the Best Children's Books of the Year by the Bank Street College of Education

Congratulations on all the accolades you received for Bird. That was a picture book for 3-8 year olds. Your new book’s for an older age group, right? It’s called A Wish After Midnight and it’s both speculative fiction and young adult. Why did you choose this genre?
Understandably, people assume my book is for teens since it features a teenaged protagonist. But I don’t think of myself as writing for a particular audience—not exclusively, at any rate.

Ah, so it’s not a young adult novel?

I definitely hope teens will embrace my novel and relate to the characters, but I think a lot of adults have also found the story meaningful. A good story can appeal to a range of readers — in the same way that a novel with black characters can appeal to readers who are not black. I think speculative fiction opens a door to the past that relieves some of the anxiety readers may feel about traumatic historical events. Some teens don’t want to read about slavery because they feel all narratives present blacks as victims. Speculative fiction allows a contemporary perspective to illuminate aspects of the past hidden in the shadows. There are so many stories that have not yet been told…

How did the story come to you? And how do you journey through your novels? Do you use a road-map or do you discover your characters and your themes along the way?

Octavia Butler’s time-travel novel, Kindred, was my primary inspiration. I knew from the start that I was going to send my characters back in time. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel The Secret Garden was a childhood favorite, so I also knew a garden would be central to my story. I do write with an outline, and I knew almost from the start how my novel would end. I didn’t expect to write a sequel, but the novel kept expanding and I realized I needed two books to really tell the story effectively.

The characters did evolve over time, and I realized that my main couple (Genna and Judah) might not survive intact. One female character got cut out, but I’m adding her to the sequel because I want to make sure I have a middle-class perspective in the book. It’s important that readers get to hear multiple voices, but that takes a lot more research—and a lot more time!

Why do you love your main character? I’m assuming you love her. We writers all love our main characters for the most part.

I love Genna because she reminds me of the girl I once was…but it took me a lot longer to learn to stand up for myself. Genna’s optimistic and determined to believe the best about others—sometimes it helps to remember that I was like that once, not quite as cynical as I now am. Of course, Genna’s traumatic journey into the past changes her…but it empowers her as well. Through it all, Genna tries to stay open and that’s why I love her. She refuses to just shut down or harden her heart.

How does history, politics or spirituality affect your work?

I’m a feminist, so that’s one of the lenses through which I view the world. I’m also a scholar of racial violence and African American literature, and I used that expertise when writing about the NYC draft riots. I wanted to make sure readers understood why a mob formed, and why it targeted wealthy white Republicans and innocent blacks. I think most people consider the South the primary site of racial violence, but it’s important they know that northern cities weren’t free of racism — competition for jobs led to violence, and class played a major role. History isn’t just whites versus blacks — there are lots of shades of grey…

Uhm, I’m trying to see how that answers the question. About your work in this novel specifically. So the story doesn’t really have the stereotypical racism one would expect from historical novels. So, the power of art – this particular book — is to give a feminist lens to the study of racial violence? I think I understand. So, does art have any drawbacks for you personally or in society?

I think the purpose of art is not only to show what’s real, but what’s possible. Art isn’t just a mirror—it should also be a kind of crystal ball, revealing all the possibilities that the future holds.

True, sometimes folks get caught up in showing life as they think it is. Or life as it is. So then, what kind of stories do you like? What do you think makes a good story? What makes a bad story?

I like stories that have complexity — I think effective storytelling leaves the reader wondering what’s going to happen next. Stories shouldn’t be predictable, or perfect — I like it when an author takes risks, even if they don’t work out. I look for originality in a story — characters I’ve never seen before, settings that are new or unusual, and unexpected ending. I tend to dislike short stories — novels have more room to establish continuity, complexity, coherence. Prose that’s poetic can be a pleasure to read, but I’d rather have plain prose and a riveting storyline. Pretty sentences that don’t move the plot forward are a waste of my time.

Some short stories are pretty complex, though. And often pretty sentences move the theme or the characterization. But I understand what you mean. So, how do you think of yourself in connection to your community? How does community affect your writing?

I hope my writing serves my community, but I don’t feel I speak for my community. I do worry about the misrepresentation of black youth.

By writers you mean? In art, film, books, etc.

I know I can’t fix that with one book. I do want my novel to function as a counter-narrative—something that talks back to the distortions and outright lies we see and hear every day. I also try to reflect some of the diversity within my community — my main character is Afro-Latina and her boyfriend’s a Rastafarian youth from Jamaica. It bothers me that so many people outside my community look at our youth and see a single “type.” Each one of us has a story to tell, and so I try to show multiple perspectives in my writing.

Definitely. Reminds me of the time an editor returned one of my short stories with the note that my Black people weren’t like Black people and that I should hang out with more Black folks so I would know how to write them. So, what book are you reading now?

Right now I’m reading Copper Sun by Sharon Draper. I like neo-slave narratives, and find it helpful to see how other authors deal with the subject of slavery (especially those who write for young readers).

I haven’t read many neo-slave narratives. Oldies like The Adventures of Mary Seacole. Although technically that’s not primarily about slavery. And of course Kindred But the only modern neoslave narrative I’ve read, I’ll admit, is my own book, Wind Follower, which touches on slavery but is more about imperialism. I guess I’m like the kids who don’t want to be too traumatized by history. So what traits do an author need in order to continue writing, and to finish a novel, to keep it fresh? What is the most challenging aspect of being a writer, for you?

Novel-writing takes a lot of STAMINA! You have to remain focused on one narrative for quite a long time, and that’s challenging for me. I try to surround myself with music, books, and films—some that are related to my topic, and some that are not.

Totally comprehend. Music and art definitely helps to create the mood.

I read other novels and sometimes post reviews on my blog; I find it helpful to consider other ways of telling a story, narrative strategies, literary devices, etc. The challenge is to move from your dreamworld to the page — I sometimes work out entire scenes in my mind, but I have to force myself to sit down and write everything out. Novel-writing is like a marathon, I think—you have to accept that you’re going to hit the wall eventually, but then force yourself to just keep going.

So, what’re you working on now?

Right now I’m working on the sequel to A Wish after Midnight, Judah’s Tale. I’m about halfway through the novel, but I’ve still got a lot of research to do. It’s also more challenging to write in Judah’s voice, so I find I gravitate toward the scenes narrated by Genna.

Wow! It sounds like it’ll be good. Good luck with it. Thanks for the interview.

Visit  Zetta Elliott's website for more.

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