Interview with Zetta Elliott

img_0108We welcome Zetta Elliott to the blog today. She’s an educator and a Black feminist writer of more than 20 books. After reading A Wish After Midnight and The Door at the Crossroads for our group discussion (posted yesterday), we were eager to find out more about these books and how they came to exist. We’re thankful Zetta Elliott took the time to respond to our questions.

What have been the most challenging aspects of your writing journey?

Invisibility is the biggest challenge. I’ll always write–as long as I’m able–and I don’t need anyone’s permission to do that. But for a long time, I believed I needed an editor’s permission to become an author. And so for over a decade I waited and waited, and sent out query letters, and filed away all the rejections. And then I had an award-winning picture book published in 2008 and thought the doors would open wide, but the publishing industry remained closed to me. So then I started advocating for greater diversity and equity in publishing, and finally turned to self-publishing to get more of my stories into the hands of kids/teens. And then review outlets and many libraries banned self-published titles despite claiming to be desperate for diverse books…so I gave up some of my advocacy work and focused on getting more books into the world (I have two more coming out next month). I don’t think about book sales that much; I want the books to exist and to be available to those who are looking for mirrors (see below). I’m leading more workshops on indie/community-based publishing these days, and that makes me feel visible and valued because I’m showing other aspiring writers how to make their own books outside of the traditional system.

When interacting with teen readers of your books, what responses have stood out to you?

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It definitely means a lot when a teen tells me they see themselves in my books. One young woman took a picture holding up The Deep and said, “Finally, I can see myself on the cover of a book.” For me, writing a book that connects with ONE reader is enough–that’s success to me. But corporate publishers measure success in sales and awards, and they don’t market books to the kids/teens that I teach. I had another young woman write me a letter assuring me she knows there’s magic everywhere. I always tell kids that magic can happen to anyone anywhere, but books rarely reflect that. So I love that my books show kids of color at the center of a magical adventure–my books are aspirational, in a way, because they show what’s real but also what’s possible.

Are you working on a writing project you’re able to tell us about?

Right now I’m working on two books–a picture book called Milo’s Museum and a YA fantasy called The Return (sequel to The Deep). I went to Senegal two summers ago and started that novel but other projects took priority and now I’m finally ready to finish it. I wrote Milo’s Museum last spring; it’s about a little girl who doesn’t see her community reflected in the museum and so she starts her own museum in her backyard. My agent sent it out but no one was interested. I hoped to have it ready in time for the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, but it will probably need another week.

How did you initially get involved with the Weeksville Heritage Center?

I discovered Weeksville in the late ’90s when I was teaching a group of middle school girls in an after school program in Bed-Stuy. We were mapping our community and I was amazed to learn that some churches nearby had participated in the Underground Railroad. A trip to the Brooklyn Historical Society introduced me to Maritcha Lyons and her first-hand account of the NYC Draft Riots of 1863 led me to Weeksville and the historic houses that still stand in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. When I finished AWAM in 2003, I printed a dummy and took it over to WHC but got no response. Over the years I sent more books and always received a thank you note, but nothing else. Then Tia Powell-Harris became executive director and I met her in 2014. Within a few weeks she reached out about ways to collaborate and the next year I served 2 terms as writer-in-residence. I taught writing classes for kids and adults, hosted a salon in the 1930s house, and right now we’re working on a picture book that the center will publish themselves. Each class I worked with published an anthology, so I was able to use my expertise as an indie author. Those books are a prime example of community-based publishing.

What drew you to this time period?

I’ve always loved history and could write about any time period, really (a Viking novel is in the works), but the NYC Draft Riots were particularly interesting to me. My dissertation was on representations of rape and lynching in African American literature, and it frustrated me that people assumed acts of racial violence only happened in the South. So writing about the North was a deliberate choice and NYC has so much history that many kids/teens never learn in school (or learn in a way that’s uninteresting).

What interesting things did you learn while researching the series?

I learned SO much! It was really hard to edit and decide which events and/or historical figures to include in the novels. World building is very challenging–I wanted to give a sense of what was happening in the country AND in the larger world, but I also had to mark regional differences (Judah in the South and Genna in NYC). The hanging of Captain Gordon was interesting because many other slavers got off but Lincoln decided to make an example of this one White man who kept transporting enslaved people despite the ban on the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Intersectionality is addressed multiple times in both A Wish After Midnight and The Door at the Crossroads. One scene that made it especially clear was when Dr. Brant summarily dismisses Genna’s desire to study psychiatry not only because she is a Negro, but also a woman. Genna begins to see how this affects her in particular, but also how it plays out with others around her. Do you know of other authors who are also writing intersectional literature for young adults and/or how important is it that young adult writers address this?

I know that the Twinjas (publishing under the name GL Tomas) are deeply invested in deliberately and consciously writing about intersectional identities. But the truth is, even though a Black feminist scholar developed the theory (Kimberle Chrenshaw), everyone has an intersectional identity–it just isn’t always named, which is a function of privilege. So it was significant (and controversial) when Kirkus decided to start naming the race of ALL characters instead of leaving Whites as the unnamed default. Class is rarely mentioned unless a character is impoverished, and ability only comes up when a character has a disability. I’m learning to think differently about gender so that I don’t erase the specific experiences of transgender people. Some writers object to naming multiple aspects of identity in fiction, but that only preserves privilege and I do think YA authors can play a role in exposing bias in our society.

As a teacher and book club member, I appreciated the inclusion of the discussion topics, activities, and research at the end of the books. One of the questions was, “If you could change something in your life simply by making a wish, what would it be?” How would you answer that question?

Whoa–that’s a tough one! I met some teenage girls in DC last summer; they made an awesome video and their wishes were mostly for their families and communities. In this era of Black Lives Matter, it’s hard to put your own needs/desires ahead of others’. As an introvert I wish I had more daring. It’s hard for me to be open, and I’m very protective of my alone time/dream time. I crave security but that’s not the path I’ve chosen. Sometimes I wish I could embrace uncertainty instead of trying to anticipate and avoid problems before they even arise. They say, “Leap and the net will appear!” but that’s hard for me–especially as I get older. I turn 44 next month and find it harder to take risks. I sometimes joke that I’m all about artisanal pickles–I’m happy to bottle them by hand and sell at the local farmers market. Scaling up is hard…


Thanks for the interview! We eagerly await the next book in your series and wish you the best as you continue to share your stories.


Extras:
Reclaiming Black Magic

BlackademicsTVTalk 2015

You can learn more about Zetta Elliott and her writing on her website, twitter, and on Facebook.

Images provided by Zetta Elliott

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#Zettasbooks Group Discussion

wish door

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 A Wish After Midnight – Genna Colon desperately wants to escape from a drug-infested world of poverty, and every day she wishes for a different life. One day Genna’s wish is granted and she is instantly transported back to Civil War-era Brooklyn.

The Door at the Crossroads – One summer night, Genna Colon makes a fateful wish that sends her and her boyfriend Judah spiraling through time. They land hours apart in the city of Brooklyn—and in the middle of the Civil War. Genna is taken to the free Black community of Weeksville, but Judah suffers a harsher fate and is sent to the South as a slave. Judah miraculously makes his way back to Genna, but the New York City Draft Riots tear them apart once more. When Genna unexpectedly returns to her life in contemporary Brooklyn, she vows to fulfill the mandate of sankofa: “go back and fetch it.” But how will she summon the power she needs to open the door that leads back to Judah?


We’re excited to be discussing A Wish After Midnight and its sequel The Door at the Crossroads. Zetta Elliot crafted these incredible stories and we hope these two books get into many hands. We started a discussion, but would love to have others join us either on Twitter or here on the blog in the comments. If you’ve read the books, please share your thoughts. If you haven’t read the books, be aware that you will encounter what some may perceive as spoilers throughout this discussion.


***SPOILERS AHEAD***

 

Crystal: Genna explains, “Mama always told us we were black, not Hispanic. She says in America, it doesn’t matter where you’re from or what language you speak. Black is black and you might as well get used to it.” Though a majority of the book happens in the past, I definitely found the book to be a commentary on contemporary times. There are many references to how people see and are seen beyond the one mentioned above. It seems sight is the most important piece of evidence when people are being judged. Genna says sometimes it’s like there’s a tattoo on her forehead that says “ghetto.” An elderly man at a garden befriends Genna and he sees in a different way. He sees what he wishes to see. He wants to see his county as a land of opportunity, but fails to see how that is not true for everyone. Genna thinks “Maybe he can do that ‘cause he’s old and white.” And then there are those who choose not to see people at all. Genna meets a woman called Nannie by the family she works for. She’s worked for them six years and they don’t know anything about her and they don’t use her given name. Nannie is nearly invisible to them unless she does something displeasing.

Audrey: There was a lot of commentary on looks, too, especially how it could be used for/against someone in the past. Paul’s biracial status and lighter complexion get a lot of commentary from Genna, Judah, and others throughout the books, both positively and negatively. In the second book, his heritage keeps him from enlisting with the white troops (he’s not white enough) and the black troops (he’s not black enough, and they know white people will attribute any success of his if he were an officer to his whiteness). Judah also got some negative commentary for wearing his hair in locs, too

Karimah: I find it interesting that you both picked up on looks in both these novels. As a light-skinned loc wearing Black woman, comments on looks & the concept of Blackness happen for me on any day ending with a Y. For me, I didn’t see either as a commentary but as what Black people from all over the diaspora deal with. It’s how we all see the world and what authors of color mean when we tell white authors that if you’re going to write a PoC, you better do your homework. While PoC’s don’t want to think about race 24/7, our skin color, our hair does require us to look at the world differently and sometimes take note of it, as Genna does when she makes a comment about the old man.

Crystal: What I love about historical fiction is learning about the time period through the eyes of a character. It makes it seem more personal and relatable. There was so much history in this book that never made it into my history classes and texts. I appreciated learning more about the Draft Riots and Weeksville. Time travel is not usually my preferred reading, but seeing contemporary life contrasted with the past was an excellent way to see how some things have changed, stayed the same, or are just called by another name.

Jessica: I went into this book having not read much about it at all, so I wasn’t expecting the twist of time travel — which I’m pretty happy about. The parallel stories of Brooklyn then and now bring clarity to both ends of history. It was fascinating to see Genna’s modern sensibilities and experiences play out way in the past.

Audrey: It was great to see the Draft Riots and Weeksville. I remember hearing about the draft riots in my history classes, but from what I recall, it had always been framed as a rich versus poor thing. The racial aspects of it had been completely glossed over. Getting Genna’s perspective on the past was powerful because she was able to point how much and how little things had truly changed. Whenever that kind of commentary pops up in time travel fiction, I love it.

Karimah: One of my favorite books of all time is Octavia Butler’s Kindred, which Elliott’s series greatly reminds me of. I know many black folk (including myself) have often theorized how we would handle being sent back 150 years ago when our lives would be in danger, and these two books and Butler’s, do a great job of answering that question. Judah’s and Genna’s different responses to their situations shows the variety of reactions I think those of us who live now would experience if we traveled back in time. Judah believes that rising up against slave masters would be so easy and has to learn the hard way that it’s not. Genna decides to take a softer approach and try to change people from the inside, and realizes that it doesn’t work as well. She does, however, become more empathetic to Nannie and others because she learns how one must make tough choices to survive. Judah, I’m still unsure of where he is headed because he has so much anger (justifiably so) and since their story is clearly not done yet, we’ll see how he continues to grow and what he ultimately learns from his horrible experience.

Jessica: Thank goodness for sequels. And I really need to read more Octavia Butler.

Audrey: It was great to have so many female characters in these books. In my experience, history classes were almost always focused on great (white) men doing great things, and we could go several class periods between mentioning white women, let alone women of color. Wish introduced us to so many different and wonderful black women and continued their development in Door.

Jessica: Definitely agree with Audrey. Loved seeing aspects of history elucidated in the book that weren’t in, like, your average history class (sigh). As an aside, I feel like I learn much more about history through reading historical fiction/YA lit and social media. Not to knock on my fabulous high school history teachers, but many things were left out or glossed over.

Karimah: This! I feel like we got the full experience of what life was like for all women in 1863, regardless of color or economic standing. I felt like Elliot showed how much and how little power women had, and how that not just white men were “doing great things”, but women were too, just in an understated manner.

Crystal: When the first book ended, I was ready to start the next immediately. Sometimes a second book doesn’t live up to the first, but that wasn’t the case here. Genna has returned to Brooklyn just in time to experience the effects of 9/11. She is trying all kinds of things to get back to Judah. She even delves into vodou. This was interesting because she gets called on her actions of picking and choosing parts of vodou and not respecting it as a religion.

Jessica: Same! I had to get to the second book, ASAP. Situating Genna’s return within the context of 9/11 worked well with the story and added a layer of history to what was going on. Also, gotta say, I was majorly stressed about Judah the entire time. When characters are separated, I’m practically skipping pages until I see them again and can stop worrying.

Audrey: Getting called out by Peter re: vodou was a great learning moment for Genna and for the readers. It was a good reminder that you can still cause offense/harm by plowing into spaces you know little about, even if you’re from a minority group, too. Coming back to Brooklyn in the wake of 9/11 was pretty fascinating for me, especially since Genna could see the hatred brewing toward Muslims and could compare it to the draft riots she got caught up in. I really liked that she started to befriend a Muslim girl in her school and that she also pushed back against her teacher and his whitewashed version of history.

Karimah: Framing Genna’s return to Brooklyn the day before 9/11 I thought was genius because that day really sets the tone of what we are experiencing today. Many of today’s teens have no memory of that day and all the turmoil that happened after. The use of 9/11, I think, was a great device to have Genna realize that while society has made some progress, things have not changed that much and that aside from technological advances making things easier, that society’s views, it’s ugliness doesn’t really change. I feel like in the first book, she romanticized her home in her desire to return, and 9/11 was the perfect reminder for her that “home in 2001” is just as racially crazy as 1863.

Karimah: I loved that Peter called her out on the vodou. I was cringing at her cultural appropriation and her unwillingness to really see her actions for what it was, but I also like that Elliott used this moment between them to show that even PoC’s sometimes have colonists thoughts because they’ve been taught the language and ideas of the oppressors. It shows that even PoC’s make the same mistakes and often struggle with realizing that what we once believed was wrong. I feel like she will grow as she learns more and comes to respect the power that she has been given.

Audrey: I really appreciated that the second book gave us a chance to backtrack and see what had happened to Judah before he was reunited with Genna in the first book. Showing what Judah’s time as a slave was like, from the auction blocks to getting whipped to trying to escape, was absolutely brutal. While I wished sometimes that he would have more compassion for other slaves (and especially for Genna), I appreciated how relentless he was in his rejection of the “good slaveholder” narrative. The “nicest” white man he encountered still had him shipped off to be tortured into compliance when he tried to run away. Both books were filled with honest moments about how horrific slavery was, from all of Nannie’s children getting sold off to what it was like to be put on an auction block.

Karimah: I totally agree. When Judah first showed up in Weeksville in “Wish”, I was so happy yet utterly heartbroken for him because of his experience with slavery. Despite it hurting so much, I was glad that Elliott included Judah’s story in “Door.” We needed to see, feel, what he experienced and what led him to become a different person. What made him keep fighting but lose hope in humanity at the same time. My heart was breaking the entire time he was in slavery, even though I knew that he would eventually escape. In fact, that one scene where he realizes he was on the Underground Railroad made me tear up because it was just so beautifully written. I was with him in that moment to be both being in wonderment of and living history.

Jessica: Yeah, that definitely made me think of privileged people’s reactions to the marginalized when it comes to anger. Tone policing, telling people to keep quiet or forgive, and so on. As if anger, grief, and bitterness at oppression and injustice isn’t valid.

Crystal: Yes, so much of what Judah experienced was painful to even read about, and I also found that moment of realization on the Underground Railroad to be powerful.

Audrey: One of my favorite things about these books was the attention to detail. Sometimes historical fiction books gloss over the finer details in order to tell the stories of grand events (and privileged people), but I felt like I got a good look of what it may have been like to be a free black woman in 1863 New York. The book was filled with great descriptions and “throwaway” lines that really fleshed out the story.

Karimah: Again, I agree with Audrey. It’s clear that Elliott took her time and researched all she could to make her world believable. I feel like if I were to go back to Brooklyn in 1863, it would look just like Elliott described it. And even Brooklyn in 2001; I feel like she captured the tension of those days & weeks after that horrible day perfectly. The feel of CA was very different than New York, so for me, Genna’s time in 2001 really brought me back and made me understand what it was truly like to live in New York right after 9/11.

Audrey: I was disappointed that Judah punched Peter when he found out Peter was gay.

Karimah: This bothered me too and for a bit felt a little out of character for Judah, but then again I do know that within the Afro-American community that people who seem to be “woke” can also be very homophobic. When we learned how he developed his belief, I felt for him, but at the same time I felt like it would make him more sympathetic. However, all characters must have their faults and this is Judah’s. It’s not great, but it’s real and I’m glad that Elliott chose to write him this way.

Audrey: I’m still a little confused on how the time travel rules work. I hope that’s explained in a future book (please say there will be another!) because right now I’m pretty confused. I don’t understand how or why Genna is bringing/not bringing people with her, and that has been bugging me. Did any of you figure it out?

Karimah: The only person I didn’t figure out was when she initially brought Judah with her. The others, I gather it’s a proximity thing, and as she get’s stronger, her pull is stronger and if people get within a certain range, she pulls them through. At least that’s how I figured it out in my head, but I’m confident that Elliott will answer that for us in the next book, because there has to be a third book. She can’t leave it with a cliffhanger!

Jessica: I was wondering that, too. Looking forward to finding out more… in the third book! 😀

Crystal: Like Karimah, I just figured it was proximity. Time travel always boggles my mind so when it’s part of the story, I try to let my thoughts slide away a bit and blur out the details. I believe at least one more book is planned so maybe more will be explained then.


Thank you for stopping by the discussion. We’d love to know your thoughts about A Wish After Midnight and The Door at the Crossroads so please share them in the comments.

Bonus: We were able to interview Zetta Elliott earlier this week so be sure and stop by tomorrow to learn more about her books and writing journey.

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New Releases

There are two books coming out this week from authors we enjoy and it appears they are both about queens. crowns

Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake
HarperTeen

Fans of acclaimed author Kendare Blake’s Anna Dressed in Blood will devour her latest novel, a dark and inventive fantasy about three sisters who must fight to the death to become queen.

In every generation on the island of Fennbirn, a set of triplets is born: three queens, all equal heirs to the crown and each possessor of a coveted magic. Mirabella is a fierce elemental, able to spark hungry flames or vicious storms at the snap of her fingers. Katharine is a poisoner, one who can ingest the deadliest poisons without so much as a stomachache. Arsinoe, a naturalist, is said to have the ability to bloom the reddest rose and control the fiercest of lions.

But becoming the Queen Crowned isn’t solely a matter of royal birth. Each sister has to fight for it. And it’s not just a game of win or lose…it’s life or death. The night the sisters turn sixteen, the battle begins.

The last queen standing gets the crown.

snowStealing Snow (Stealing Snow #1) by Danielle Paige
Bloomsbury USA Childrens

Seventeen-year-old Snow has spent the majority of her life within the walls of the Whittaker Institute, a high security mental hospital in upstate New York. Deep down, she knows she’s not crazy and doesn’t belong there. When she meets a mysterious, handsome new orderly and dreams about a strange twisted tree she realizes she must escape and figure out who she really is.

Using her trusting friend Bale as a distraction, Snow breaks free and races into the nearby woods. Suddenly, everything isn’t what it seems, the line between reality and fantasy begins to blur, and she finds herself in icy Algid–her true home–with witches, thieves, and a strangely alluring boy named Kai, none of whom she’s sure she can trust. As secret after secret is revealed, Snow discovers that she is on the run from a royal lineage she’s destined to inherit, a father more powerful and ruthless than she could have imagined, and choices of the heart that could change the fate of everything…including Snow’s return to the world she once knew.

This breathtaking first volume begins the story of how Snow becomes a villain, a queen, and ultimately a hero. — Cover images and summaries via Goodreads

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Review: Rani Patel in Full Effect

raniTitle: Rani Patel in Full Effect
Author: Sonia Patel
Publisher: Cinco Puntos Press
Genre: Historical
Pages: 313
Availability: October 1, 2016
Review copy:
ARC via publisher

Summary: When Rani’s father leaves her mother for another woman, Rani shaves her head in mourning. The visibility of her act of rebellion propels her onto the stage as a hip-hop performer and into a romantic relationship with a man who is much older. The whirlwind romance, coming on the heels of her father’s abandonment, make her begin to understand how her father’s sexual abuse wounded her in deeper ways than she, or her mother, have ever been able to acknowledge.

Meanwhile, she seeks solace in making lyrics and performing as well as in her boyfriend’s arms. Rani’s friends warn her about him but she fails to listen, feeling as though she finally has something and somebody that makes her feel good about herself—not recognizing that her own talent in hip-hop makes her feel secure, smart, and confident in ways her boyfriend does not. Indeed, as the relationship continues, Rani discovers her boyfriend’s drug use and falls victim to his abuse. Losing herself just as she finds herself, Rani discovers her need to speak out against those who would silence her—no matter the personal danger it leads her into.

Review: Rani is a Gujarati teen living in Hawaii and she’s struggling. She’s an outsider at school for the most part, but home is even worse. She feels abandoned by her father and shut out by her mother. One way Rani deals with the pain is through writing raps. When she’s rapping as MC Sutra, she has confidence and even though she’s pretending, Rani convinces herself along with everyone else. She explains it this way:

It’s the me
I want to be
the large and in charge person
I want the world to see
So I MC, and throw down
my self-confidence decree
and strive to be
my own queen bee

In her day-to-day life, Rani cannot see her own value. She’s unable to understand her worth without her father’s attention. For years she had measured her self-worth by his actions and words. When he not only leaves, but lavishes his attention on someone else, Rani is devastated. This is not a book filled with sweetness and light. Rani is violated, thrown aside and left wounded. There are some very raw scenes to get through, but readers also get to see Rani step out in powerful ways as she learns about herself and her strengths.

Her emotional journey is compelling. Rani survived abuse at the hands of her father and is working to change her patterns of behavior. She doesn’t want to seek his approval anymore. With him in another relationship, that becomes easier to a certain degree, but she falls into the same habits with her new, much older boyfriend.

During this trying time, Rani is not only moving away from her father, she’s attempting to close the gap with her mother. She wants love, comfort and support from her mother, but these things aren’t often given. The years of isolation have put a wedge between the two and change is slow to come. Rani has complex emotions. She feels a sense of guilt because of her relationship with her father and feels sorry for her mother. She also can’t help but be angry that her mother didn’t keep her safe over the years whether that was through ignorance, fear, or something more deliberate. I found their changing relationship intriguing. I was a little surprised at how quickly some things resolved, but thought things developed in a logical way.

Rani has very few friends, but the ones she has are extremely supportive. They’re close, but they are hiding several things from her. She has a much older boyfriend, but one of her friends is also someone she fantasizes about so those relationships get complicated.

Aside from the abusive relationship, mother/daughter issues, friends, boyfriends, and hip hop music there was another added layer – activism. This is extremely timely with the issues surrounding the Dakota Access pipeline. Rani, her father and many other people are working to protect the water supply on their island home which involves a fight against a proposed pipeline. Native Hawaiian sovereignty is also part of the discussion. I appreciated the inclusion of the activism because it added depth to the characters and the story line. This may be one layer too many for some readers, but I’m glad it’s part of the story.

Recommendation: Get it soon especially if you enjoy references to 90s hip hop. I think I missed the effect of some of those references, but Rani Patel’s story still spoke to me with power and intensity. I felt Rani’s pain, but also her energy, determination and her hope for healing.

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Interview with Phillippe Diederich and Giveaway

fireToday we welcome Phillippe Diederich as he shares his newest book Playing for the Devil’s Fire which we reviewed here.

 

Thirteen-year-old Boli and his friends are deep in the middle of a game of marbles. An older boy named Mosca has won the prized Devil’s Fire marble. His pals are jealous and want to win it away from him. This is Izayoc, the place of tears, a small pueblo in a tiny valley west of Mexico City where nothing much happens. It’s a typical hot Sunday morning except that on the way to church someone discovers the severed head of Enrique Quintanilla propped on the ledge of one of the cement planters in the plaza and everything changes. Not apocalyptic changes, like phalanxes of men riding on horses with stingers for tails, but subtle ones: poor neighbors turning up with brand-new SUVs, pimpled teens with fancy girls hanging off them. Boli’s parents leave for Toluca and don’t arrive at their destination. No one will talk about it. A washed out masked wrestler turns up one day, a man only interested in finding his next meal. Boli hopes to inspire the luchador to set out with him to find his parents.


What would you like us to know about Playing for the Devil’s Fire?

I was attempting to write an entertaining story that also showed the problems rural Mexican’s are experiencing with the violence of the narcos and the corruption of officials. The one thing I didn’t want to do was preach to anyone. My hope is that the book is an engrossing read for young and old alike.

Your first novel Sofrito was for adults. What led you to writing for a younger audience? Were there major differences in your writing experience with a younger main character?

Sofrito was my first novel. The first draft was completed many years ago. That story was born of a nostalgia for Cuba where I have been spending a lot of time back inn the 1990s. Playing for the Devil’s Fire was born out of a similar nostalgia, but this time it was for Mexico, where I grew up. I was not really approaching the book as a young adult book. I was just writing a coming of age story in this violent and difficult scenario. One of the issues with a young main character, especially one that is the ‘voice’ of the novel, is that you have to temper your literary impulses. By this I mean that a 12 or 13 year old boy is not going to speak like a 40 something writer. You have to be absolutely faithful to your character and let him narrate the way he would narrate. In other words. I didn’t  write the book Boli, the main character of my story, did. I prepared for this by writing a number of coming of age stories before attempting the novel.

Your main character, Boli, is a reminder that children are resilient. I appreciated his ability to maintain hope in spite of the many horrors happening in his community and family. How did this character come about for you?

Like I said, I had written a number of short stories where I had sensitive and resilient characters in a world that does not appreciate that personality type. I also drew heavily on my own experiences, growing up in the outskirts of Mexico City with a band of boys running wild and without supervision. We were between ages 8 and 15. There are a lot of dynamics in a group like that. But Boli is his own self. As I developed the story he came alive and led the way. I always try and listen to my characters. Boli told me what to do.

Are there reflections of your own childhood hidden within the pages of the book?

As I mentioned above, some of the main character and the dynamics of the young people in the novel are rooted in part in my experiences growing up in Mexico. Just like the scene in the ravine and they find the wreck of an old car, I experienced that with my friends while exploring the ravines around our neighborhood. The fair, the poor neighborhoods, the dynamics of the Devil’s Fire marble, it all comes from something I experienced in my youth.

Are you still a lucha libre fan? Do you have an all-time favorite wrestler?

I am not longer a huge fan. But I like lucha. I don’t follow it. I like the small affairs in Mexico or even here in the states, when the luchadores are not big names and the ring is set up in a street fair or a small auditorium. It’s more intimate. I grew up with the lucha movies. And the scene where Lucio tells Boli that he met Mil Mascaras happened to me when I was on a tour of Churubusco studios with my father. It was pretty cool.

Did your life as a photographer help to prepare you as a writer?

I think it did. First of all I am told I write visually. And no doubt that comes from my experience as a photographer. Also, being a photojournalist allowed me to travel extensively and to meet people I would have otherwise not met. I was a very shy kid and even as a young photographer, I was petrified of approaching people I didn’t know, but I also believed in facing my fears. My work as a photojournalist allowed me to break that. It gave me license to walk up to people on a street corner and start talking to them, ask questions, learn what their situation was.

Which writers have inspired you?

I think John Steinbeck is my biggest inspiration. I find his work very humanistic. His empathy toward his characters is amazing. I think he inspires my stories and my characters. I also admire the work of Earnest Hemingway because of his style and he was probably the writer whose work brought me into reading a lot. I think that without For Whom The Bell Tolls, I would not be a writer because that book started me back on reading obsessively. There are a lot of other writers like Cormac McCarthy and Junot Diaz. I am very eclectic. I like good stories and writing that allows me to forget that I am reading a book.

Have you read any young adult books lately that you would recommend?

I read Gabi: A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quinetro at the recommendation of my editor at Cinco Puntos Press. I think it’s a great book. Drown by Junot Diaz is not a young adult book, but it has a young protagonist in most of the stories and I think it is the kind of book young Latinos would enjoy. Anything by Sherman Alexie and the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. I read those with my son and we were both very entertained.

 


phillippe
Phillippe Diederich was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in Mexico City and Miami. His parents were forced out of Haiti by the dictatorship of Papa Doc Duvalier in 1963. As a photojournalist, Diederich has traveled extensively through Mexico and witnessed the terrible tragedies of the Drug Wars.

To learn more, visit other stops on the blog tour:

Sept 1: The Pirate Tree review & interview

Sept 4: Guest Post for Clear Eyes, Full Shelves

Sept 5: Review, The Brain Lair

Sept 6: Rich in Color author interview (http://richincolor.com)

September 7: Edi Campbell CrazyquiltEdi review (https://campbele.wordpress.com)

September 8: Anastasia Suen, #KidLitBookoftheday (asuen.com)

September 9: Reading Through Life author highlight plus links to blog tour  (http://readingtl.blogspot.com)

Sept 9: Guest Post, The Brain Lair (http://www.thebrainlair.com)

Sept. 12: Linda Washington (https://lmarie7b.wordpress.com/)

Sept. 13: Excerpt, review and guest post at Mom Read It (https://momreadit.wordpress.com/)


If you are interested in reading the book, you have an opportunity to win a copy. Only those with a U.S. mailing address are eligible for this drawing.

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Book Discussion and Giveaway

wish door

In August we announced our September book discussion. We’re reading A Wish After Midnight and the sequel The Door at the Crossroads right now and will post a group discussion about both books near the end of September. These are fascinating books and we’d love for others to be involved in the discussion. If you’re reading along, please join us by tweeting about the books using the hashtag #Zettasbooks. If you don’t use Twitter, feel free to comment on any of the posts here related to this specific book discussion. We’ve used the tag Zettasbooks with our posts.

Zetta Elliott was generous enough to provide three copies of The Door at the Crossroads to be used in a giveaway. Please enter below if you would like to win a copy.

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