Here on the KYD Podcast we may be quiet, book-loving types, but we like to think that doesn’t stop us from being revolutionaries on the inside. So the recent Melbourne Writers Festival was a fantastic way for us to celebrate writers who speak out, on more than just the page.
We took the opportunity to speak with one of the US’s most established authors, the inimitable Joyce Carol Oates, as well as one of the most recently celebrated, Angie Thomas. If they’re part of a revolution, it’s one we can definitely get behind.
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Read Nathan Smith’s interview with Joyce Carol Oates.
Meaghan Dew (KYD): Hello and welcome back to the Kill Your Darlings Podcast. I’m Meaghan Dew and today I’ll be bringing you interviews with two of the headline guests at the Melbourne Writers Festival. The festival’s theme this year was revolution, so you’ll have the chance to hear both Angie Thomas and Joyce Carol Oates discuss this and other aspects of their writing. First we have Angie Thomas whose first book, The Hate U Give, tackles growing up between worlds in America.
Angie Thomas: The Hate U Give is about 16-year-old Starr, who lives in two different worlds – the mostly black poor neighborhood where she lives, and the mostly white upper-class private school that she attends. And the struggle of being two different people in two different worlds becomes even harder after she is the sole witness of her childhood best friend Khalil being killed by a cop. Khalil was unarmed, and what Starr does or does not say could not only change her community, but it could end her life.
KYD: When you first began working on The Hate U Give, was that basic outline – a girl witnesses the shooting of her friend – was that what came to you first, and Starr and the other characters were developed to inhabit that situation, or do you feel like the characters developed first, and so in a way shaped the plot depending on what their authentic reactions to a situation would be?
AT: Oh yeah, the characters came first. The first three characters that I came up with from this story were Starr, Khalil and Maverick. Those three have been there from the beginning, so I wanted to write a story around those three. I knew from the beginning that Starr was this girl who lived in these two different worlds. I knew that her dad had a past, he was a gang member, and I knew that this young man Khalil was getting caught up in the same life that her dad once had.
So I wanted to show the past, with her father, and then the present with her best friend, and with Starr, showing someone who has a bright future. So those three characters have always been there from jump. But then I knew that it was going to be something involving police brutality too, because I was inspired at the time by the shooting death of a young man named Oscar Grant in Oakland, California. And the conversations I heard living in two different worlds about, regarding Oscar in my neighborhood which is a lot like Starr’s. People were saying ‘he was one of us’. We were upset, we were angry, but at my school which, was a lot like Starr’s school, there were people who were saying ‘well, maybe he deserved it’. So it was knowing these three characters and hearing those conversations that started the short story that later became The Hate U Give.
KYD: You mentioned Starr’s father there, and some of my favourite characters in the book – probably because I am old now and I realised reading this, ‘oh, I am closer to the age of Starr’s parents than I am to Starr’, which is not always what you feel when you’re reading a book, you automatically identify with the protagonist, and to step back and be like, ‘oh no, wait, oh, wow okay’ – Some of my favourite characters are her parents. It’s such a specific and engaging portrayal of a happy marriage, and I feel like that’s such a rarity in fiction – it’s not dramatic if the parents are there often in young adult books, they’re there as placements for parents, as an idea rather than really specific people. How did they develop for you?
AT: Starr’s parents, like I say, Maverick was one of the first characters, and then her mom actually came after those three. I knew from jump that I wanted them to be active and I wanted them to be real and I wanted them to be whole. This is not to, you know, throw any other books under the bus, but I was always kind of annoyed that the parents were just there to cause problems in the plot, or [LAUGHS] you know, for the character to say ‘oh my parents are so lame,’ or something like that. You know, I wanted to show real, involved parents, because they exist, and I knew then too, in a story like this, it would be weird if her parents weren’t involved. She just witnessed one of the worst things in her life. She’s going to one of the hardest moments in her life. She needs her parents. So I wanted them there to give her that love and that direction and that strength, and I wanted to show two parents, and honestly, I wanted to show a young black girl with both of her parents in her life, in her house, because there’s this stereotype that black kids don’t have fathers, or they don’t have two-parent households, and that’s a lie.
So with her parents it allowed me to break down those stereotypes and allowed me to explore these two adults who can guide her in a way, and it allowed me to give her love, and a structure, and a strong foundation to get her through this situation.
KYD: One of the things that her parents give her, along with that strength, is – I felt like a lot of the music in Starr’s life is influenced by her parents’ music. Did you listen to the music that’s present in the book while you were writing it?
AT: Yes, I absolutely did. I have a long playlist! [LAUGHS]. You can probably go on my website and on my blog, there’s a link to it. I listen to a lot of this stuff, and I felt old because I was like ‘I like the stuff her parents like!’ [LAUGHS]. It really revealed my age, I was like, okay! But yeah, I listen to a lot of music as I write. It’s really a big inspiration for me. It sometimes helps set the scene. So I listened to a lot of 2Pac, and I listened to Jodeci, stuff like that.
KYD: It being her parents’ music places it in a specific time. Putting technology in a book, it’s something that can really quickly date it, but at the same time a story about teenagers wouldn’t feel authentic if it didn’t have Tumblr, if it didn’t have Twitter, if it didn’t have the social media that people are using every day. How do you navigate that? Did you at any point decide to put in more, or dial back any aspects of that? Or did it just sort of come naturally, and you thought, it will be what it is?
AT: It was both actually. I had to pull back on it a little bit at times, because like you said, it can date a book. But also, it would be unreal to have a book, especially about this topic, and not have social media even involved. In so many of these cases social media plays a huge role and these young men being visible, these young women being visible – The world would not know the name Trayvon Martin if it wasn’t for social media. He became a hashtag, you know, the Black Lives Matter movement started from social media and people talking and stuff like that, so it was important in that sense. But also I had to think about okay, 10 years from now Tumblr may not exist, I’m sorry teenagers, but [LAUGHS] it’s true. Tumblr could end up being like MySpace! [LAUGHS]. And that’s sad but it’s the truth.
But it may date the book, but honestly, my biggest hope is that my book becomes irrelevant – that it is no longer something that makes sense, you know? That this is no longer happening, so if that means not just the social media stuff is no longer relevant, but this situation is no longer relevant. So I just decided, you know, I’ll put it in there a little bit but I don’t want to depend on it too much.
KYD: There’s a lot of talk at the moment about books and reading as something that develops or fosters empathy in the reader. Is that a role that you see your book playing, or is it more important to you that people who already identify with Starr see themselves reflected in books that they might not otherwise see?
AT: It’s more important to me that kids see themselves in Starr. So often black kids don’t see themselves in books. I’ve had so many young black girls who would look at the American cover, and just thank me for that, because it’s the first time they’ve seen themselves on the cover. So that’s more important to me. But I still think that the empathy aspect of it is important. I often say empathy is more powerful than sympathy. And I look at that as a bonus, you know, if I get readers who don’t look like Starr, who connect with this girl, but put themselves in her shoes and understand, and feel what she’s feeling, I’ve done something amazing. But to me it is more important that I write for those kids who often don’t see themselves in books.
KYD: Given the popularity of The Hate U Give, I’m sure you’ve had a lot of feedback from teenagers, where it’s an important book for them and one that they’re going to carry forward with them. What were those books for you growing up? What were the books that you loved or didn’t love, and how did they inform what you did and didn’t want The Hate U Give to be?
AT: One of the books that stays with me, that I clearly remember reading for the first time, is a book called Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor, and I remember what struck me about that book was it was the first time I read a book about a young black girl in Mississippi, and there I was, a young black girl in Mississippi. It’s a historical novel, but still, I connected with it. But like, as a teenager I didn’t read a lot, because I didn’t see myself in a lot of books. I loved Harry Potter, that was like the one thing I would read! [LAUGHS]. If nothing else I would read Harry Potter. And I remember thinking that Hermione was black for the longest… [LAUGHS]. But that’s okay.
KYD: Well, I guess in The Cursed Child at the moment, she is!
AT: Yes, yes, so that was kind of a little validation for little Angie. [LAUGHS]. But no, I didn’t read a lot as a teenager – I didn’t see, I didn’t see myself enough in books. You know everybody always talks about Twilight, about Young Adult books like Twilight. First of all, there’s more to YA than Twilight, let’s just put that out there. [LAUGHS]. You know? And there’s more than the Hunger Games.
But when I was a teenager those were the two big books. So I didn’t see myself in them though, I couldn’t connect with Bella, you know, all I could think was, had that been me, my mom would not have let me date that old dude, you know? [LAUGHS]. So I strayed away from books. So I want to do for teenagers what books didn’t do for me. I want to show them themselves. Those kids who don’t often see themselves in books, I want to give them those books, because I wish I would have had them growing up.
KYD: Speaking of Harry Potter, as much as I love fantastical worlds – And I do really love fantastical worlds, I’m really excited about the Harry Potter Day next weekend at the festival, Sunday is designated Harry Potter Day, which is very exciting –
AT: I’m so sad I won’t be here.
KYD: Sorry. But it’s a bit odd to think of how many incredibly popular Young Adult books featuring young protagonists fighting made-up injustice and inequality in made-up worlds. It’s great to see with The Hate U Give, a book where the unequal society being rebelled against is not a metaphor for institutional racism or poverty, it’s actually a part of the world that we live in. Do you think the success of The Hate U Give will make publishers think twice in commissioning, and not assume that the only injustices and heroism that teens want to read about are completely fictional ones?
AT: I hope so. I think we’re seeing more books like that, that do that. There are books that did it before me, that did it well, that just didn’t get enough attention. But now people are paying attention, and I think what they’re starting to see is, teenagers still want to see themselves. Yeah, they want to escape with books, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But still, sometimes they want to see what’s actually happening around them, and that’s important too. So I think that the contemporary stories are just as important as the fantasy stories. You know, they both have their own importance, but I think we are seeing more of it with publishers. And I know even in the Hollywood aspect, we’re seeing more Young Adult books that are realist, realistic – We’re seeing more of them get picked up for movies because they’re cheaper to make. [LAUGHS]. That’s it at the end of the day. But no, but these kids, they’re saying, ‘we want to see this’. And in our current society, honestly, in the current political climate, especially in America I know for sure, this is not something we can avoid anymore, it’s in our faces all of the time. So why not show these kids what’s happening around them, but still give them hope and show them how to be heroes, even now in the real world that they’re living in.
KYD: So the theme of Melbourne Writers Festival this year is ‘Revolution’ – what does that mean to you when it comes to writing?
AT: Yeah, I think revolution, with Young Adult fiction in particular, is speaking out against the system. It is being real, being honest, being raw. It is going there when you’re afraid to go there. It is giving kids the real, it is keeping it 100, as they say. But I think right now, especially with our current political climate, with things that are happening right now, with racism and bigotry being so visible, the biggest thing we can do to resist is to be real. So I think revolution, the best thing to do to be a revolutionary is to be real. That’s what I think.
KYD: That was Angie Thomas, whose YA novel The Hate U Give follows the aftermath of a police shooting through the eyes of the sole witness. You can buy it now, and I’d really recommend that you do – It’s a gripping read.
You’re listening to the Kill Your Darlings Podcast, and this episode is brought to you by one of our Book Club picks, The Pacific Room. The Pacific Room, by Michael Fitzgerald, is out now from Transit Lounge, and it chronicles the last days of Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa. Next up we have Joyce Carol Oates. Author of more than 100 novels and collections of fiction and nonfiction, as well as being a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books, Joyce Carol Oates has been described as ‘America’s Woman of Letters’.
Hello, I’m here today with Joyce Carol Oates for the Kill Your Darlings Podcast, and I’m going to start off with a very broad question, which is that the theme of the Melbourne Writers Festival is ‘Revolution’. What does that mean to you in regards to writing?
Joyce Carol Oates: Well that’s an exciting question. I think writing in itself is a transgressive act, and there is something revolutionary about expressing yourself, and sometimes saying things that are upsetting to other people, or revealing things that you don’t even realise that you’re going to say until you express them. So to me art, all art is somewhat revolutionary.
KYD: Your keynote yesterday, it was referred to as ‘Bearing Witness’. Is that a role that you see yourself playing as a writer, and how does that sit beside the writer as activist idea?
JCO: Well, people who are activists are also bearing witness, and they’re going to places where they may not have been born, they may have been born to a certain degree of privilege, and they take themselves to other parts of the world to communicate to… to the world, things that are happening to people who are more vulnerable. So I think of bearing witness as essential in the life of a moral citizen. I don’t think that the only writing that matters is bearing witness. I think there can be a kind of writing, literature and art of all kinds, that is purely beautiful and self expressive and aesthetically experimental, rather then related to activism. But I think all these forms of art are deeply satisfying, and connect with one another.
KYD: Many of the writers that are here for the festival has written on, or in response to Trump’s candidacy and election. In The Lost Landscape you speak of certain events and times as ‘embedding themselves’ in your writing. Do you feel that Donald Trump’s presidency will be such an event for your writing in the future, or is what has shaped your writing for you something that’s only visible once several paces have been completed and you’re looking back on them with fresh eyes?
JCO: That’s a very intriguing question. I think that I will probably not be writing in any direct way about the Trump presidency. I think possibly it’s a fluke, and a number of contingencies came together to elect a person uniquely unqualified in our history. So some of us are just hoping that it’s not representative of the future. So I think that I would personally not be writing about him, or about the era, but I would be writing about some of the issues that have come to light in America – the division between parts of America, between a secular and educated and liberal America, that honours and respects diversity, and a very retrogressive America that is afraid of diversity and afraid of change, and afraid of immigration, and afraid of minorities, and afraid of women and gays, and this sort of retrograde America is in the death throes of its own extinction. And I think that’s one of the reasons that someone like Donald Trump, uniquely unqualified, was elected president. But I don’t think that it’s… I don’t think it’s permanent.
KYD: Much is made right now of fiction as something which helps us to develop and practice empathy, fiction as a sort of emotional or psychological vitamin, of sorts. So it’s something that breaks down these divisions or can help people see across divides. This is perhaps in some ways an unromantic idea, but it’s one that seems particularly applicable to your writing, that one often has a sense when reading your books, of the uncomfortable experience of feeling empathy and understanding for characters who not only may have very different views from ourselves, but may have acted in ways that we find morally reprehensible. Do you explore the internal lives of such varied characters because it’s something that you personally find enjoyable or necessary in your writing, or is it something you see as more of a duty or an externally worthy act?
JCO: Well, when I was writing my most recent novel, I had written about an educated family, a secular family, and the father was an abortion provider, really selfless and very generous man, and he was assassinated. So I’d written about 100 pages, and there are people whom I might know, and the young woman who’s a little bit like myself, and then it occurred to me that I really needed to write about the other family, about the family of the assassin, the Christian evangelical family. So I did some research and thought about it and meditated upon it, I guess. And so I sort of created an imaginative alternative family. So, now there are two families. So I think that effort of imagining the other people makes the novel more of a complete vision of America than it would have been initially. So that was a kind of interesting experience for me, because I hadn’t intended to do that. And so it grew out of having written about 100 pages and feeling that I needed to do more.
KYD: How did you approach that research, and does your academic background, do you feel that shapes the way you approach research, when you need to do it to more fully flesh out the worlds that you’re creating?
JCO: Well, it’s just pretty common research, I took books from the library, I looked at things online. I read biographies of George Tiller, who’s probably not a name that’s known in Australia. George Tiller was an abortion provider, and something of a pioneer, in, I think it was Kansas, and he was killed. He was shot down by an assassin. And his life was dedicated to helping women and girls, and he was extraordinarily courageous, and in some ways an astonishing figure. George Tiller. So I did read a couple of books about his life. And my character Dr Vorhees is not really George Tiller, I mean, there are many differences between the two men but my character is based upon that fact, the sort of biographical or historical reality. And then I saw some films, some documentaries about women who had had abortions, sort of speaking to the camera, and did a lot of reading. There’s a lot of literature on the subject and I read anti-abortion documents online, and very religious tracts, and they’re all very interesting. Everyone seems to move from a centre of certainty. People are sure that there are right, and an artist or a novelist may be more… interested in dramatising different points of view than having a dogmatic opinion. I tend to be of course, liberal, and I believe that women should have the right to, a sovereign right over their own values, that is what I believe. But I’m sort of sympathetic, and I can understand the opposite point of view, which is suffused with this sense of there being… an immortal soul, and a baby is conceived, and a baby is going to become a person, and it’s a very special person. That belief is a sacred belief, and I’m a secular person. So it’s not my belief, but I can understand it.
KYD: It’s not uncommon in your books, that as with this one, it begins with a violent act, and the book in some ways examines the aftermath and the fault lines that that act creates or uncovers, or exposes your characters. Is that what draws you to that sort of situation, to writing a violent act into the plot – what it can provoke in your cast of characters?
JCO: In writing this novel, I had to begin with the assassin, because everything is precipitated by what he does. But when I had written the original version, it begins with a family scene and we see the doctor with his family, and so it did have a somewhat different beginning.
KYD: In your writing you often illustrate the complexity, and perhaps ugliness or rawness of people’s internal lives. There’s rarely a character, much as there’s rarely person whose inner life holds up as entirely admirable when scrutinised. Yet you do this with seemingly a lot of compassion, and a lack of judgment, at least as it reads in your fiction. Is this how you try to face the world outside of fiction?
JCO: Oh, I don’t, I’m not really a judgmental person at all. When I’m writing I’m presenting some sort of simulacrum of life, I want it to seem very, very real, so that it’s as if I were having an adventure, I’m in another person’s life, and it really is like this, and this is the kind of milieu in which he or she lives. I just want it to be so fraught with reality that – it’s a kind of wonderful dimension of fiction, that one can sort of open a door and step into a world that’s absolutely convincing, absolutely real. Then in my own life I’m not really very judgmental, and I’m not really probing too much into the motives of people. People I assume are very complex, and people often don’t really know so much why they’re doing anything. And I’m more or less surrounded by people who are very reasonable, and who don’t actually do anything crazy or dramatic. It’s… fiction, like Shakespeare’s plays, has a sort of focus on these dramatic events, but most of our lives don’t have quite such a distillation of drama.
KYD: I think there’s a lot of interest from people involved in any form of self-directed creative work around how other people in those situations organise their time, particularly people is as prolific as yourself. Understanding that this insight won’t necessarily give anyone the key to the same degree of, or same level of productivity. How do you organise your work across the different products that you’re involved in?
JCO: Well, I almost never work on more than one thing at a time. And if I’m working on a novel, it’s very immersive, and very hypnotic. So I spend all my time really thinking about the novel, with interruptions from real life. So it’s very, very satisfying, though it can also be challenging and frustrating, working through chapters and working through scenes, and imagining characters, and sort of living through the characters and seeing how they express themselves. It’s like maybe tending some somewhat delicate plants, and you’re tending them and tilling the soil and watering and make sure they get enough sunshine, and you check them many times a day to make sure the plants are still alive, and hoping that you won’t just come there one day and they’re all lying flat, because I’m sort of a gardener, and that can happen in the garden. You can spend so much time loving care and tenderness on a garden – inexplicably there’ll be some plants that just die, and nobody seems to really know why. So I guess that could happen with literature too.
KYD: Are you someone who rewrites as they’re writing, or do you almost complete a piece and go back and revise from the beginning?
JCO: Well, I rewrite all the time, so I rewrite the first paragraph, and the first page, and the first two pages. So I’m really rewriting a lot in the beginning, and then it gathers a little momentum, so I don’t have to rewrite quite as much. But I like to rewrite, and then when I’m all done with it in a draft, I basically go back to the beginning and I will probably write it again. But it’s a great pleasure. And each time I rewrite a page it gets a little deeper, and maybe there is something that’s exposed that I didn’t know about initially. So I really learn a lot by just writing over and over again. A character will suddenly say something or think something that I had not thought of the first time. But after five times going through something, there will emerge some nuance and some depth that wasn’t seemingly there the first time.
KYD: As this is the Kill Your Darlings Podcast, I’m pretty much obligated to ask you, can you tell us about some time or something that you’ve loved in your writing, that you’ve felt you had to remove to make a particular story stronger?
JCO: Well, I did take a chapter out of A Book of American Martyrs, a chapter from the point of view of the doctor. It was the only chapter – it was about seven pages long, it was quite short – from the point of view of the doctor who was the one who was murdered. So we never, we never get to know him from the inside. And I took that chapter out because it was the only one of its kind in all of the novel. And I felt that it somehow didn’t belong there, in a way it was too important because it was the only chapter in which we were inside his head. So I had I felt I had to take that out, but it’s a short story now.
KYD: That was Joyce Carol Oates, and you can buy her latest novel A Book of American Martyrs, right now. That’s all we have time for today. So thank you to Joyce Carol Oates, Angie Thomas and the Melbourne Writers Festival for their time. We’ll be back in a few weeks with another episode of the Kill Your Darlings Podcast. But until then, be sure to check us out at killyourdarlings.com.au. And in the meantime don’t forget to read our October Book Club pick, Bridget Crack. Bridget Crack is Rachel Leary’s vivid portrayal of a female bushranger in 1820s Tasmania. See you next time.