'If an adult steps into the room, their job isn’t to be judgmental': Jason Reynolds on his work in schools, his new books, and finally getting recognition in the UK
Published on: 07 February 2019 Author: Emily Drabble
Jason Reynolds tells Emily Drabble why he thinks school author visits are so important and all about his new book Ghost, which is finally being published in the UK after taking America by storm - plus shares his tips for aspiring writers of all ages.
How important are school visits to you?
School visits are the one of the most important things in my life. I do about 120 to 150 a year over the last 5 years. The truth is a lot of us write for young people but I’m not so certain all of us love them though. I think for me it’s the other way round. I really love being around young people. To me they’ve been an antidote to hopelessness as a time when we need them more than ever. I don’t even think they always know how much of a cure they are to some of the downsides and emotional stasis that so many adults are in in my country and all over the world. Being around the them is a gift to me. I think it’s important that they see me, that young folks know they have the opportunity to grow up be whatever it is they want.
There have been so many times when I’ve walked into a school and a kid has gone ‘I didn’t think he was going to look like that. I didn’t think he’d have tattoos, I didn’t think he’d wear sneakers’ and this, that and the third. For them the word author or even adult means something very specific, and it’s important for me to walk into a space where you get to up-end some of the stereotypes, as well as some of the stigma with writing and being an adult that comes into school to give some sort of presentation. It’s a wonderful thing. You can’t be what you can’t see. So young people seeing me and realising this is a guy who comes from a certain environment, a certain background, who has had his ups and downs and his struggles, he’s been able to become this person. What could I become?
Did you write For Every One to inspire young people?
I actually didn’t. For Every One wasn’t written to inspire anyone but myself. For Every One is a very personal thing. It was never supposed to be published. It’s 10 years old for a start. It’s even hard for me to read it as I’ve changed and grown so much. It was something that I wrote to myself when I was 24 years old, and I’d quit writing, when I felt like I’d failed. I felt like this life as a writer that I’d I wanted so desperately for myself was not going to pan out. I wrote this poem and letter to myself, to lick my wounds. Over the course of three or four years my life changed, things started to shift, opportunities showed themselves again. I picked myself up with the help of friends and family to support me and realised I hadn’t earned the right to quit writing just yet. I started to push forward and I realised this letter of self pity become a letter of self proclamation!
Had you been published before you wrote For Every One?
Yes, one of the fascinating things about my life is that I’ve been known for five years, but I’ve been in the publishing industry for 15. It’s a testament to how long it takes sometimes to scratch and claw your way to visibility. I was signed when I was 21 years old and published when I was 23, it’s a book that’s no longer in print fortunately!
How important do you think it is for young people to meet the adults who are creating books, art, music as a stimulus to their own creativity?
I think it’s really important for children to meet adults who are creating art, music and all these things. But only the adults that actually know what their responsibilities and roles are regarding young people. If an adult steps into the room, their job isn’t to be judgmental, and I think so many young people feel judged and ridiculed by adults. Because so many adults have no idea who young people are.
When I hear adults speak about young people it’s usually to make a disparaging statement. Those of us who know young people know how brilliant they are. The issue is young people often don’t realise how brilliant they are. My job isn’t to teach young people anything, I’m not a teacher, I’m not even a parent. My job is to be witness to their lives, to put that on the page in a way that is authentic and respectful and balanced and whole. To recognise that they are not half formed things. Their opinions matter, their expertise in the framework of their lives should be respected because we have our own framework and things have changed. It needs to be an exchange of ideas.
Your new book Ghost is first volume of your Run series (originally known as the Track series which was published in 2016 in the US). How excited are you to have this fabulous series published by Knights of in the UK?
I’m so happy that Ghost and this series is being published by Knights Of. One, because these were the books that changed my life. They have for a large part of the education system in America shifted the curriculum and the literary landscape for young people. I feel so lucky, and it’s been a gift for me, that these books have sparked young people’s relationship with reading and with language. So I’m hoping that the UK get on board and we have the same impact over here. And I’m grateful to Knights Of because I think if I have a chance of making a splash over here it’s going to be with them and these books.
Because Knights Of share my vigour and my passion. They understand what’s at stake and fortunately as a new publisher they don’t have any laurels to rest on so will get out here and push this thing. It’s a good thing to be hungry for other people to see this work.
First of all tell us the basic premise for Ghost and The Run series?
So Ghost is about a young man called Castle Cranshaw, he’s grown up with his mother and they live in an apartment in a working class environment. When Ghost is young, around 9 years old, his father in a drunken rage tries to shoot him and his mother. They run from the house and hide in what we in the States call a corner store. In this moment Ghost realises he can run really fast, but he has no idea there are spaces for young people to run for sport until years later when he stumbles across a team, which in America we call a track team. He can’t understand why anyone would have to practice running. It’s something he’s always known because he suffered trauma in his young life.
So the story is about someone who has experienced trauma and through the help of his new friends and his new coach, learns how to turn that trauma into triumph. More than anything it’s about a young man with a whole lot of heart.
What was the inspiration of Ghost?
Ghost (the character) is based on one of my dear friends, I’ve known him for 25 years. His name is Matthew Carter. He used to live round the corner from me in Washington DC. And this happened to him. His stepfather tried to shoot him and his mother and they ran and hid in a store. It’s a true thing, it’s a moment of trauma that propelled him into becoming a person of extraordinary compassion. It’s fascinating that these moments can tip us either to the left or the right. For him the fear that he felt, the pain, the confusion; he was able to turn it into empathy to ensure he would never inflict that on any human being in his life. He’s the most open and gentle person I’ve ever known and the most loving person I may EVER know. And I’ll hold him in high regard and look at him as a role model, although he’s my peer.
Ghost has a lot of anger which he finds really hard to control in the beginning of the book. It’s a subject that’s not often tackled in children’s books - why did you decide to tackle it?
I tackle anger in everything I make for that reason. I believe all over the world we have a really hard time discussing anger honestly. For some reason we are really afraid to delve into the pits of anger and what it is. We never allow our young people, never mind ourselves as adults, to be fully whole and human. Anger is human, it’s part of the experience. If we don’t talk about it, if we don’t help young people process it we can’t be mad at them when they’re 25 and it’s coming out of their bodies in ways we don’t like, in ways that become criminal or violent. We haven’t given them the tools.
So my job is to make sure I’m showing them angry, because anger is real, and figuring out ways to write stories that show them processing and coming out at the other end of that anger. Or using that anger to catapult them into positivity. It can be the thing that pushes you to change the world. We should all be a little upset right now, anger can be used to turn corners, to shift culture, to change prejudice. If we teach young people to use anger to build bridges and not walls then we can better ourselves.
Ghost is big in the States, what kind of an impact has it made?
So Ghost was nominated as one of America’s 100 most loved books of all time in this big thing Great American Read. I’m the youngest author on the list. So it’s Herman Melville, Ernest Hemingway… and me. Which is a little ridiculous but a great honour! Because of the popularity of Ghost in school curriculums, it’s everywhere! In terms of whether it’s used to talk about anger… I’m not actually sure. I’m sure there are juvenile detention centres that are using it, teachers in violence prevention programmes using it as well. What it is doing is encouraging young people to read, especially those that are a bit more reluctant to read. Letting them know books are really interesting and can feel really talk about their lives as they go through every day. And that’s all I ever wanted Ghost to be. A story about a kid who has experienced something and learnt from it. Who understands in the race of life you are competing against noone but yourself.
Do you think a black or working class British kid might relate more to a book starring a black American kid from a poor background living on the equivalent of a council estate than a book about a white middle class kid from the UK? Do you think poverty transcends cultural boundaries?
I think in terms of class/race culture conversation about this book and whether it connects with a working class kid in the projects in America and a working class kid in a council estate in the UK, despite race and culture, I think the answer is yes. I actually think there are intersections. And Ghost is an intersectional book. I think if you are a black kid of any background, you’ll connect with this book. If you are a working class and or poor kid of any background, you’ll connect with this book. It’s the intersection between those two things. Furthermore if you are a kid of any background or class who has experienced trauma, you’ll connect to this book. If you are a kid of any background who is an athlete or has ever been on a team, you’ll connect to this book. So I think it splinters out into several zones.
It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from. If you come from a single parent household, you’ll connect, because you’ll understand the sacrifices that it takes to be raised by a single parent and what parents have to do and how you grow up feeling a responsibility. All of it in this book, in these few pages. I think the beauty of literature is just that. That we can share stories, that my story can connect all of us. I think we really underestimate the power of the human story. People want to create stories that are vague: “I don’t want to alienate a specific kind of person” - but the truth is it’s that specificity that creates the bond. If I can be completely honest about a specific culture, a specific class, then we can we insert ourselves in the story. If it’s all bland then it means nothing to anyone. We invest in each other more than anything else.
Can you tell us something about your writing process?
I used to be sell clothes in a story in downtown New York for years. And if this didn’t happen, I’d be there now. In the fashion world when you buy a sweater they say it’s been knit with ‘loose hand’. If it’s flowy and you can almost see through the meshing, in contrast to a tight knit sweater which is more rigid. I try and write stories with a loose hand. So when I sit down at the page, instead of thinking about all the rules of writing, sentence structure, what’s the syntax… all these things that we’re institutionalised to do academically. I throw it all out of the window. It’s all about gut work. What feels good. Only write what feels good. My first editor when I was 21 told me that my intuition would take me further than my education ever could, and it was the best gift she could have given me. So when I sit at the page, I just let it come out. I fix it later.
So when Ghost says: “I’ve got so much scream in me” that’s a sentence I write because it feels like the right thing for him to say. I’d been living with Ghost for years before I wrote him. I’ve been living with these characters for years. Let me know him and then I have to honour who he is. I don’t write characters, I write people. To write a character is to write a caricature of a person. I’ve got to be honest, get to know them and then relax and let their story come through with a loose hand. All the rigidity and rules are out of here. That’s the gift of not knowing too much, all the rules, all the classics. I’m just going to go with my gut.
When do you write?
I’m definitely one of those disciplined writers but it can’t be as romantic as people imagine. Oh you get up, you sit in your office, you have your robe, your coffee, your corn-cob pipe…. No, those days are definitely gone! I’m on the road travelling to schools every day. So most of my writing is being done on the road, or in airports, in hotel rooms. But it doesn’t matter to me. I don’t wait for any muses to come down to me. I don’t believe in inspiration, I believe inspiration is a bit amateur! We live lives of inspiration. I have an insatiable curiosity so I live wide open to the world. I need not tap into inspiration that lives within me at all times.
All I have to do is figure out a moment of time to put my fingers on the keyboard. So I force that by making sure I don’t make excuses for myself because I’m not in the most comfortable location. We only do this with writers by the way, we don’t ask singers, hey do you have a special place you write songs in? I just need my tools! Remember every time you see your writer hero sitting at the typewriter with their coffee, never forget that was a photoshoot.
Do you often read books now that you wished you’d read when you were a child - including ones that weren’t written then?
There are lots of books I wish I would have written, let alone books I wish I had read as a child! I’m fortunate to know so many brilliant writers. I wish I’d had Kwame Alexander’s Crossover when I was a young man. Sharon Creech’s Love that Dog, Jacqueline Woodson’s anything, any book she has written. Matt de la Pena’s Ball Don’t Lie , Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, I read it and it chemically changed me and what I felt about the young ladies around me and what they were going through that I had no idea about. If ONLY I’d had Poet X when I was 14 years old it would have been a gamechanger. The Hate U Give Angie Thomas. And on and on and on. We’re living in a wonderful time of childrn’s literature.
What tips do you have for aspiring writers of all ages?
This is going to feel like a cheap answer, but it’s true. You’ve got to read a lot and you have to write a lot. The hardest part of being a writer is actually writing! You hear people saying I’m a writer and I’m working on something. But they’ve been working on it for 20 years and they’re not getting it done! Writing is about practice. There’s no magic so don’t wait for it. It’s one word after the next. One paragraph after the next. A chapter. It’s work. It’s never going to get easier. I’d like to be honest about it because I think people are waiting for this abracadabra moment: “now the words are flowing!” but every single day is a difficult day when you’re writing.
But that’s what makes it special. It’s like running a marathon. People run them because they’re hard to do. That’s the point of them. Writing is no different. Don’t ask yourself if it’s easy or hard. 1. That’s an irrelevant question, ask yourself are you going to do it or not. 2. If you’re going to do it, sit down and put the words on a page. Don’t worry about if it’s perfect. Writer’s block often comes out of the insecurity of writing badly, don’t be insecure about that, because you’re going to write badly anyway! You’ll fix it in editing. Lastly, just know writing a book is like climbing a mountain, the highest mountain you’ve ever climbed. You’re not sure you can do it. But when you get to the top you say I’ve climbed this mountain so I can climb the mountain again. But what you don’t take into account is that on the way down the mountain all the footholes change, so the next time you climb the mountain it’s a completely different journey.
Two more bits of advice, have an honest conversation with yourself. Ask yourself do you want to be a writer or do you want to be famous? Because those things are not the same. If you want to be a writer, be a writer, there’s no guarantee of the other stuff. Lastly there’s always a fear what if peoole don’t like what I make. I feel that way of course, I’m human. One day I went to my friend who is a chef and told him I was scared they won’t like my book. He told me,if I offered someone the perfect steak dinner, I’d go to the butcher and get the perfect cut, I’d create a brine for it, I’d season it. I’d pick the best veg, I’d roast it. I’d plate it perfectly, I’d serve the person. If they cut into the steak and didn’t like it I’d assume they preferred fish not that I didn’t cook perfect steak. Don’t take it personal!
The next book in the series is called Patina. How different is it to write as a girl and stay authentic?
It’s the only book in the Run Series that is totally girl centred. It’s from a girl’s point of view, she goes to an all girls’ school, she has two mothers. The whole books is girls with a sprinkle of Ghost in there. I’ve written girls in all my other books, I enjoy writing girls more than anything else. The question is interesting only because my answer is that it wasn’t that hard. What I know for certain is girls are human. Because they’re human we all start at the same space. They want the same thing as boys want. They want respect, they want peace, they want to be heard. Patina wants the same thing as Ghost wants.
Nothing is really that different, the detail changes, the stakes change, only because we live in a world where the stakes have to be different. Where 12 year old girls have to be 25 in order to survive. They have to take on all these extra responsibilities for various reasons that I find unfair but are woven into our culture. When I was growing up all the girls in my neighbourhood had to go back to the house early to make dinner for their little brother, run baths, pack book bags and do things that boys never had to do. I can be 15 for the rest of my life if I choose to unfortunately. Whereas the rest of my homegirls at 11 years old had to be second mothers to their siblings. That was not the case for the boys in my community. So the details are different but in terms of who she is intrinsically it’s exactly the same.
Jason Reynolds’ new book Ghost is published by Knights Of