Last week, I finished reading Zetta Elliott’s A Wish After Midnight, a fantastic work of YA speculative fiction that is a must-read for fans of time travel and historical fiction. I will have a review up on Wednesday, so stay tuned!
Today, I am interviewing Zetta Elliott in preparation for the review because she’s brilliant and I want you all to get to know her. She is an award-winning scholar of children’s literature and has been a Black Studies professor for almost a decade. She has a deep-rooted passion for writing representative literature that is admirable and infectious.
Without further ado.
RDB: You are a prolific writer who has published books for children, teens, adults, and even plays. Do you have an audience for whom writing comes most naturally?
ZE: Myself! I generally write to please myself. I’m a Black feminist educator, however, so I do tend to write with “teacher brain”—I almost always think about how a book could be used in the classroom. I love history but I see how the way it’s taught in schools turns Black teens off, so my goal quite often is to reach young readers who think the past is irrelevant (or embarrassing). By adding a touch of magic, I can make the past more accessible, more engaging, more empowering. And I can set the record straight sometimes because the dominant narrative has never accurately represented marginalized people.
RDB: If someone is brand new to your work, what book do you think they should start with?
ZE: That’s tough because it really depends on the reader. I love it when I’m at a book fair and a parent gives me a “profile” of their child because then I can easily recommend one of my 22 books. Older readers—adults, teens—tend to look at the books on my table and reach for The Deep. The cover is shadowy and mysterious, the main character Nyla looks slightly menacing…and that’s one of my favorite books. I’m hoping to finish its sequel, The Return, this summer.
RDB: Genna from A Wish after Midnight is a complex and fully-realized character — flawed, but smart, resourceful, and perceptive. Why is representative literature important, for young women of color in particular?
If you never see yourself reflected in literature (or popular culture), the message you internalize is that you don’t matter and that impacts self-esteem. Black girls often feel invisible but at the same time they’re hypervisible—it’s just that the images we see over and over don’t generally originate with Black girls and they serve to sustain the distorted images of Black womanhood that have circulated for centuries. I never saw myself in literature when I was growing up, and because I consumed so much literature by and about Whites, I had to “decolonize” my imagination in order to write about people like me. We all need mirrors and I try to write Black female protagonists that we don’t see often enough—smart, brave, and yet grappling with the price women pay to wield power.
– Now a few general questions about writing.
RDB: What does your writing space look like? Provide a photo, if possible.
ZE: That would be a photo of my sofa! I usually start the day at my desk but before long I’ve shifted over to the couch. That isn’t great for my back, so the yoga mat is always open and just a few steps away on the floor. I never write outside of the house unless I’m traveling—hotel writing can be great because it’s like living in a bubble. I usually have the TV on or else I’m listening to my Emeli Sande channel on Pandora…
RDB: Is there anything about the writing life that you think is misunderstood by the public?
ZE: My father used to say, “No one can wake up every day and just write.” Well, I can—sometimes. But writing for me is 70% dreaming, so I think if someone were to shadow me for a week, they might be surprised by the amount of time I appear to be doing absolutely nothing! But when I’m done dreaming and I sit down to write, I tend to write very quickly. Some writers stick to a schedule; I don’t. There isn’t one way to write, and sometimes you just have to force yourself to sit in front of the computer until the book gets done. I ate my way through the last third of The Door at the Crossroads (sequel to A Wish After Midnight)—who knows how many calories I consumed that month, but I was determined to finish up and averaged about a thousand words a day. In general, I’d say I don’t write constantly but I am continuously developing ideas that will eventually be written down.
RDB: What has been one of your most rewarding experiences as an author?
ZE: It’s always interacting with readers—especially when kids see my books and say, “She looks just like me!” One of the most rewarding experiences was receiving this photo via email. I met another author/educator at a book event and she bought a copy of The Deep for her classroom library. Then she tweeted this photo of a teen named Amaya who found a mirror in the main character Nyla. That single moment of recognition doesn’t mean anything to corporate publishers but it means everything to me.
RDB: Last question, and it’s a loaded one: Why do you write?
ZE: To stay sane! I’m an HSP (highly sensitive person) and an introvert; writing helps me make sense of the world and keeps me from becoming overwhelmed by stimuli. I’m a news junkie—can’t seem to help myself—but I need to stay connected to the world because I spend so much time alone and inside my head. I was in a movie theater yesterday but I was more interested in the scenes playing out in my mind…all those ideas have to go somewhere! Toni Morrison famously said you have to write the books you want to read if they haven’t been written yet. So that’s what I do…next up is my Black girl Viking novel. I needed that book as a medieval teen geek but there was only The Mists of Avalon. I can talk back to the books that erased me when I needed to be seen…and that’s empowering. Writing makes me feel powerful. I highly recommend it!
I want to thank Zetta Elliott for allowing me to interview her. I became a fan as soon as I finished reading A Wish After Midnight and plan to read more of her work.
Considering that she has already written 22 books and has a long life ahead of her, you can expect Zetta Elliott to continue gracing the world with her writing. So follow her to stay updated with what she does next.
Follow Zetta Elliott on Twitter Follow @zettaelliott
Visit author website: ZettaElliott.com
And please watch her amazing talk on the importance of writing representative literature.
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