What inspired you to write Ghost Boys?
As an artist, I wanted to “bear witness” to the murders of children of color during my lifetime. I was one years old when Emmett Till was killed. How sad that I’m a grandmother and such atrocities haven’t ceased! Weaving history with today’s social issues educate our youth about racism’s historical roots. Many children don’t know how Till’s murder served as a catalyst for the Civil Rights movement. A lot of wondrous work was accomplished but there is still much work to be done. Ghost Boys is meant to remind youth that they, too, can “be the change” and continue advocating against racism and racial bias.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
“Be kinder to yourself.” I was so self-critical about my writing, my work habits, and my self-worth. Expressing oneself shouldn’t be painful.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
I purchased one of the first Apple computers. Before that, I used to type and retype my manuscript. A computer was freeing—allowing me “cut” and “paste,” save multiple drafts, and not worry about wasting paper!
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
Research for each book is different. Black Brother, Black Brother which will be published in March 2020, has research elements that are over thirty years old. I’m always generally researching—gathering ideas and exploring emotions, and it’s more a matter of how and when my thoughts and feelings come together to birth a book. For example, writing and researching adult novels about voodoo and New Orleans in the 1980 to 1990s lead to my children’s Louisiana Girls Trilogy: Ninth Ward, Sugar, and Bayou Magic published in 2010 to 2015.
How many hours a day do you write?
Some days I don’t write at all; some days, I write a few hours, and other days, I write ten to twelve hours a day. These times parallel my “dreaming” time, my first draft creation days, and then the most exciting phase of all—revising and add depth and nuance to the final draft.
What was your hardest scene to write?
Writing Emmett Till’s death in Ghost Boys was extremely difficult. First and foremost, the internet and both children’s and adult fiction and nonfiction books for over sixty years all referenced some kind of “misbehavior” by Till. References to “wolf-whistles,” being arrogant, and saying, “heh, baby” were paramount. Yet, in my heart, I couldn’t imagine Till being other than completely innocent.
I wrote Till’s death based upon known research but just as the book was being printed, Timothy Tyson’s The Blood of Emmett Till was published. In it, Ms. Bryant confessed that she’d lied about Till’s behavior and that he hadn’t done anything disrespectful. Thankfully, I was able to revise the death scene and show Till as he was, a youth victimized twice over—by murderous racism and by supposedly “true historical accounts” which blamed him for his own victimization.
What is your favorite childhood book?
Virginia Hamilton’s The People Could Fly has been a lifelong favorite. Slaves flying back to Africa have always meant resilience, hope, and freedom to me.
Endowed Chair, Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing