Kekla made a splash with her debut novel, THE ROCK AND THE RIVER, winning the American Library Association's Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent. The book was also nominated for an NAACP Image Award and was named a 2010 ALA Notable Book for Children and a YALSA 2010 Best Books for Young Adults. What a way to debut!
Her latest book, a contemporary middle grade novel called CAMO GIRL, came out in January and earned a starred review from Kirkus.
Find out how you can win a copy of this marvelous middle grade book at the end of the interview.
How amazing was it to get so much attention for your first novel?
Amazing, yes. It was many things at once: wonderful, exciting, flattering, perhaps nerve-wracking at times. (I'm comfortable in my pajamas at the computer, and suddenly I had to find something to WEAR to all these events!)
When ROCK came out, I hoped it would get noticed for being the first novel with significant content about the Black Panther Party for young people, but it still surprises me that the book was so widely well-received right away. I was really thrilled to be honored with the CSK New Talent Award, because the awards are selected by librarians, who are such fabulous book-oriented people--and very discerning! I can't imagine a bigger honor than ALA folk reading and enjoying my books, because that's how they'll really get into kids' hands. My other favorite award was the Eva Perry Book Club's Mock-Newbery, because I got to meet with a really fun bunch of teens at the ALA convention.
The most unexpected thing was the NAACP Image Award nomination--before I got nominated it wasn't even on my radar as something to hope for. I got to go to Los Angeles for the televised award show (the literature part wasn't televised, but still) and I saw lots of Hollywood stars! Overall, it's been extremely uplifting and gratifying to know that people have come to care about my book as much as I do, and especially to know that it has helped inspire youth and educators to consider a different perspective on the civil rights movement.
Bummer they didn't televise your part, but still, what an incredible experience! Even though THE ROCK AND THE RIVER is historical, the writing feels so immediate. How hard was it to put yourself in 1968 to write this story?
Kids sometimes ask me if I was alive in the civil rights movement, because the story feels believable. I'm so glad you phrased it differently! But I'm always glad to hear that the writing feels immediate.
I did work hard to put myself in a different time period, mostly through my imagination. I listened to 60s music on a playlist sometimes when I was writing, or to get into the mood to write. I also feel connected to the underlying issues of the story--race relations and social justice movements--because I deal with these issues in my own life in the present, although the manifestations are different today.
Whatever's in me that made me want to tell this story is based on things I have experienced or witnessed, so I put a lot of that into the characters. I wasn't alive in the 60s (my memory starts somewhere in the mid-80s) but it really wasn't as long ago as it sometimes seems. There are lots of people in my life who remember those difficult days, and I was able to draw on their knowledge, as well as on research material like books, newspapers and documentary films. Interestingly, much of the intergenerational sharing has taken place after the book's release. Invariably, older people who read the book will come up to me and say, "I enjoyed your book; it reminds me of..." and they proceed to tell me a story about their own memories of the movement.
You did so much research on The Black Panthers and the civil rights movement for this book. Do you plan to put together a non-fiction companion book at some point?
Yes, I would like to do a non-fiction book on The Black Panthers. I'm currently researching and developing a proposal for it, actually. It's an important Black History topic that isn't widely talked about, especially with children and youth, but it's starting to be on the radar after THE ROCK AND THE RIVER as well as Rita Williams-Garcia's Newbery Honor-winning title ONE CRAZY SUMMER.
CAMO GIRL is very different from THE ROCK AND THE RIVER. Are you more attracted to contemporary stories or do you plan to write more historicals?
I like both historical and contemporary. They serve different purposes for me, both as a reader and a writer, in the same way that fantasy serves a different purpose than realistic fiction. I often like to deal with so-called "edgy" topics in contemporary fiction. If that's too generic a term, I could specify by saying I write about topics that challenge me in different ways, things I struggle with or things I see others struggling with in the world.
In CAMO GIRL, those issues include bullying, childhood psychological issues, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Some would argue that exploring the Black Panthers is an "edgy" topic for historical too, I suppose, but for me historical fiction is more about understanding what it might have been like to live in a certain place and time. I like history, but what I'm attracted to is the story behind different moments, and how people navigated difficult choices within situations that really occurred.
How long does it take you to write and revise a novel?
Each one is different. Generally speaking, it takes me at least a calendar year to take a book from the idea stage to a complete manuscript good enough for submission to my agent or editor, but it doesn't take me a year's worth of actual writing time. In other words, I write pretty quickly, but I work on multiple projects at once. My inspiration/enthusiasm/commitment to each piece waxes and wanes. Sometimes I need time to mull.
I wrote THE ROCK AND THE RIVER in about a year, then did two meaningful revisions over the course of the next two years. But after that first year, I was never working on it exclusively. I wrote the bulk of CAMO GIRL in about three months, but I knew the story and had been picking at it page by page for about a year beforehand--but during that year I was actively drafting another novel! At the other extreme, a novel I drafted the first five pages of back in 2003, I only just sent my agent the full finished copy in 2010.
Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Pantser, until I figure out the plot, then I switch over. I rarely write my chapters in chronological order, though, even after I know the general plot. I jump around a lot, drafting scenes that feel right to me, usually knowing as I type that "This will be in the book, I just don't know where yet!"
I've heard so much about the Vermont MFA program. How do you think it benefited you as a writer?
VCFA has affected me--and my career--in truly countless ways. I'm inherently excited about writing and I think I would still be writing even if I hadn't discovered the VCFA program, but I can't imagine that my life as a writer would be unfolding the way it is right now without that place and the people I've met there.
I'll break it down three ways:
- One, simple craft. I know that my writing improved dramatically as a result of the intense and focused environment, the wisdom, talent and commitment of the faculty, and the support and guidance of my classmates.
- Two, intention. Going through the program changed me from a "dabbler" to a "writer." This is a linguistic distinction--I believe if you write at all, you are a writer--but VCFA helped me claim writing as a deep personal value, an aspiration, and ultimately empowered me to pursue it as a career.
- Three, community. Going to residency as an adult is like going to camp as a kid. Writing is a solitary occupation; it's so easy to get too far into your own head, and the regular non-writer people in your life can rarely relate to the struggles you go through. Other writers can.
I can't fully articulate the emotion behind that sort of validation, but it's the same reason why librarians get excited at ALA, or teachers at NCTE, or SCBWI members at a conference--the people there GET you!
How long does it take to complete the coursework? Would you do it again?
Indeed, there are times when I wish I could do it again! I absolutely would recommend VCFA to anyone who is serious and committed to his or her writing. The MFA program lasts two years, which comprises four semesters of independent coursework with a faculty mentor and five total residencies--one to start each semester, plus one at the end of the program when you graduate.
I returned to the campus this January to serve as a Graduate Assistant during the residency. It was great to re-enter the supportive, passionate community for an extended period of time. Frankly, the community's support has never waned for me, no matter where I am--we continue to form an active network with one another online and in person. It's been an extremely dynamic experience for me to be connected to VCFA, both as a student and as an alum!
What do you have coming out next?
This spring I have a non-fiction book out called TODAY THE WORLD IS WATCHING YOU (Lerner), which tells the story of the Little Rock Nine and their struggle for school integration in the late 1950s after the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision. It's actually available now, although it's official release date is not until April.
In 2012, I have a YA novel called 37 THINGS I LOVE coming out with Henry Holt (for those detail-oriented readers who are curious, this is the novel I was drafting while picking at CAMO GIRL for a year!) and a companion novel to THE ROCK AND THE RIVER called FIRE IN THE STREETS with Aladdin/Simon & Schuster.
Sounds like you've got a busy schedule ahead! Thanks for stopping by, Kekla!
You can learn more about Kekla on her web page
Or watch a Simon & Schuster interview about her favorite people in history
If you'd like to win a copy of CAMO GIRL, let me know in the comments. I'll be announcing a random winner on Friday so be sure to leave your comment before midnight on Thursday, March 24. Good luck!!
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