By Vanessa Aarons
1. What inspired you to write young adult fiction? Has this type of genre always interested you?
I love YA fiction and the YA community; however, before I published my first novel, I knew nothing about it. While writing my first novel, I had intended it to be for adults, but when there was interest from YA editors, I chose to publish it YA. What a happy surprise. It was only after entering the YA community did I get introduced to the writing and authors I now admire so much!
2. Why did you decide to become a high school teacher in New York City for ten years and then change to a full-time writer?
When I graduated from college, I moved to New York City to work in book publishing. For six years, I worked for an agent and then two different publishers. I thought I wanted to work in publishing because I loved books and I wanted to write, but I found my passion stunted in my particular roles in the industry. I went back to graduate school and got my MFA in writing and began teaching as a part-time job while in graduate school and absolutely fell in love with it. When I was given the opportunity to teach high school, I jumped at the chance—it was my dream job—and yet I also wanted to write. I did both for a while, but when my second novel found success and the demands of speaking about the book publicly became too great, I had to step away from teaching. Which is why I’m so thrilled to be teaching again at Pine Manor College in the Solstice MFA program—it marries my two passions: teaching and writing.
3. When you start a novel or short story, what type of writing techniques do you use to get started?
I always start with an image. I fell in love with writing through poetry. In each of my books, I start with an image (for example, in The Gospel of Winter, I saw a teenage boy squeezing through a crowd of adults at a party he did not want to attend), and I follow the image to wherever it takes me. In college I wrote a poem called “Let the Image Grow,” and though I couldn’t have known it at the time, it has become my writing manifesto!
4. What got you involved in wanting to become a writer? Did you start writing at a young age?
When I was in middle school I listened to a lot of rap music—NWA, Public Enemy, Redman, KRS-One, etc.—and I tried (very unsuccessfully) to write my own raps. While that was an ill-advised disaster, what I realized was that I was writing poetry. Rap is poetry, and though I couldn’t perform it very well, I enjoyed writing the lyrics (the poems). Through high school and college, I wrote poetry and then plays (for other people to perform), and this love of language and character eventually led me to try writing fiction. I didn’t really start writing fiction until I was in my twenties, but when I did, I knew that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
5. What are the biggest challenges in novel writing? How do you overcome those?
How the heck do you start one of these things? It feels impossible. I remember hearing the writer Marlon James say something to the effect that every time you sit down to write a novel you have to teach yourself how to write a novel all over again, that each novel requires its own methodology, so to speak. It’s part of what is so frustrating but also what is so exhilarating about the process of writing a novel. Every time I feel discouraged, I remember to read Donald Hall’s poem “The Oxcart Man.” It is a simple poem about a farmer, and the basic gist of the poem is that after all the work, all year round, at the beginning of the next year, he has to start all over from scratch; that’s a powerful reminder to get up, like the farmer, and get my butt in the seat and get to work.
6. What were your favorite books growing up, and how have they shaped your work?
I will never forget curling up on the couch with my mother and reading each other The Hobbit. Though I don’t write fantasy, I’ll never forget the dream, the magic of a story that drew me in so completely, the magic of sharing that experience with my mother. That’s my hope as a writer today—that I can cast a spell, hold the reader, and make them want to share the experience of the story with someone else.
7. What advice do you have for your students as new writers?
Writing is a long, drawn-out, circuitous process and lifestyle. In my experience, nothing comes quickly to or for most writers. Patience, persistence, and determination are essential. It took me six and a half years to write my first novel, The Gospel of Winter, but by sticking to it, it moved from being something I snuck in during the early hours of the morning before work to the center of my work life. Everyone else in your life will give you excuses and reasons to quit; you have to counter all that with your own reasons to continue.
8. What is your definition of a perfect teacher or professor? How closely do you mirror that image, or try too?
This is a tough question, because I’m not sure there is such thing as one perfect kind of teacher, mostly because there are so many different kinds of students, all of whom have their own needs and learning styles and passions, and it is hard for one person (one teacher) to be perfect for them all, but I will say that I sure as heck try to be the best teacher I can be for every student I have. I think it starts with listening to the student. Instead of imposing my ideas, I try to get to know each student and learn alongside them, offering the advice of my own passions, knowledge, and failures as guidance along the way.
9. Was there a special reason you agreed to teach at the Solstice MFA Program here at PMC?
Yes. The people! When I was invited to join the faculty in the Solstice Program, I was overjoyed; I couldn’t wait to work with so many writers I admire as human beings and as practitioners of the strange obsessions of the writing life.
Questions about the novels All American Boys and Tradition:
1. What made you want to take on the subject of police brutality and race in a novel?
Jason and I were becoming friends in 2014, when it felt like one news story after another showed us a person of color being brutalized by police. The only way to form an authentic friendship is to be honest with each other, and as a black man and a white man watching these news stories, it was essential that I (as a white person) listen to the truth Jason (as a black man) had to share with me about what it was like to grow up with the threat of this kind of violence from police always looming. I had my share of run-ins with the police growing up but none of them infused with the specter of violence ever-present. As we discussed this, we thought about what it would be like to write a novel that revealed these two truths (or as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in 1968, “two Americas,” living side-by-side). In order to write about the violence, we had to write about racism, white privilege, and how systemic racism in the culture of law enforcement in America affects communities and people of color, and about how more white people need to listen to that truth that people of color have been talking about for decades and decades and decades.
2. In your book All American Boys, you and author Jason Reynolds talk about identity, race, and police brutality, and in Tradition, you take on misogyny and sexual assault. What advice do you give your students on how to deal with social issues in their own work?
In Between The World And Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds us that no matter what language we use (race, racism, privilege, etc.), the result of racism is always violence against and onto the body. This is a powerful reminder that when we are discussing issues, whatever they might be, they are not abstract conversions, but rather the lived experience of human beings in our community. This is what I try to remind myself and my students: These stories, and the stories we write, are always, first and foremost, about people, and we have to keep people at the center of our stories.
3. If you could choose one book for MFA students to read and discuss, what would it be? What would you like the students to learn from this experience?
This is an impossible question! There are so many great books out there, and I think books are best when put into conversation with other books. I tried to create a dialogue, for example, between All American Boys and Tradition, in that they are both about how unacknowledged and unchecked privilege creates an environment of entitlement that enables (even if they don’t realize it) folks with privilege to perpetuate violence against marginalized people in their community; this centered on race in All American Boys and gender and misogyny in Tradition. But I don’t want to suggest my own books; I’d rather suggest a pair of powerful novels I hope all MFA students read for all the reasons we’ve discussed above and also because they are phenomenally written! I think everyone should read Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones and Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson—both our powerful expressions of young women coming into their own, stories that all of us should listen to and learn from and celebrate for their mastery.