Interview with JACQUELINE WOODSON, Author of IF YOU COME SOFTLY
We’re so happy to have an interview today with the inspiring, generous, and amazing Jacqueline Woodson. Woodson writes strong girls, strong boys, and strong families. In 2006, the American Library Association recognized her contributions to writing for teens by awarding her the Margaret A. Edwards Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Gigi Amateau: Congratulations on your recent Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Pecan Pie Baby! I remember hearing you read Pecan Pie Baby not too long ago and what a treat. There is a cadence and rhythm to that story that I love so much, and I find that true with all of your books. Do you read your manuscripts aloud as part of your writing process?
Jacqueline Woodson: First the story starts happening in my head — I hear characters speaking, I see scenes, I start thinking about how it will open. Then I begin the writing process. By that point, the story is already pretty solid in my mind. At that point, as I’m writing, I’m speaking it and reading it out loud. And from that point on, I continue to read it out loud as I write and rewrite so that by the time it’s done, it has to not only sound a certain way, but look a certain way on the page. So I’m very conscious of how I want it to sound and look from the very beginning of my writing process.
GA: In If You Come Softly what would you say makes Ellie a strong girl? How does her relationship with Miah make her grow even stronger?
JW: Ellie’s strength lies in her ability to think critically about the world she’s growing up in. At the point when the story opens, she’s beginning to see the hypocrisy around her — especially in her own family. I think this is very hard to do. Her beloved sister isn’t who Ellie thought she was. Neither is her dad. She has always been cautious of her mom –but now it’s even more complicated. It takes a certain strength and bravery to look critically at one’s world and then make the choice to step outside of it, to do something different. When she meets Miah, he is ‘home’ to her, something/someone familiar and this meeting makes her even stronger in that she has an ally in the world, a friend, a mirror. Those mirrors are so important — whether they come through books or people, we all need them to…to feel legitimate. And Miah holds up a mirror for Ellie — shows her more clearly what she is already beginning to see.
GA: I really loved how the story showed Ellie falling in love and Miah falling in love, alternating between each of them. You kept Ellie’s voice in first person and Miah’s share of the story is told in third person. Did you make that decision consciously? Did you experiment with other povs before going in that direction?
JW: I went back an forth with pov because I didn’t know how the story would end. Once I figured out what the ending would be, I knew the pov because Ellie would be the one to lie and tell her story. Miah would not. So it makes sense that his story is in third person and Ellie’s is in first.
GA: I heard you say once that part of your discernment process in writing a character whose experience may be way different from your own is to ask: Where do I see myself in this character? Would you share how you answered that question when writing Ellie? And Miah?
JW: I feel like there is so much of me in both Miah and Ellie so it wasn’t that hard to go inside their heads and hearts and figure out how to write them. At the core, I’ve been in love and know what it feels like to have that kind of connection. But beyond that, I went to that place of desire — not just romantic desire but what we all want — at the heart of life — to love, to be loved, to belong, to walk through the world unafraid, to be heard and seen. In that way, by going to the heart, I can create the rest of the character in a way that feels honest and real.
GA: What are you and your daughter, Toshi, reading this summer? Any great book suggestions?
JW: Our Family Read this summer is A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. Past reads have been Watsons Go To Birmingham, Bud Not Buddy, All of a Kind Family… And ones I can’t remember now. On her own, she loves Smile, Dork Diaries, and later in the summer, she’ll read Countdown by Deborah Wiles and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor. Although she’s ‘not a fan’ of mine Peace, Locomotion is on her summer reading list (Hah!) so she *has* to read it.
GA: Finish this sentence: Strong girls_____
JW: are everywhere.