Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A Guest Interview With Barbara Wright

Barbara Wright's middle grade debut Crow was released in January. It has received four starred reviews;Kirkus, Publishers Weekly Horn Book Magazine and School Library Journal. My review.

Today I am sharing an interview author Carleen Brice did with Barbara Wright.

Carleen Brice: Your bio mentions that you are from North Carolina. Had you always known about the Wilmington Massacre of 1898? If not, when did you become aware of it? And what inspired you to write about it in Crow?

Barbara Wright: After I finished my previous novel, I was casting about for ideas when I read an op-ed piece in the New York Times about the newly-released Wilmington Riot Report funded by the North Carolina legislature. I have spent summers on the North Carolina coast near Wilmington my whole life, and I had never heard about the incident. My reaction was: how could I not know about this? I became fascinated, and started doing more research.

Carleen: This is your first middle-grade novel. Why did you decide to write about this historic event as a children's book instead of a novel for adults?

Barbara: I'm an accidental children's writer. I thought I was writing an adult novel, but my agent felt that, with a 12-year-old narrator, the book would fit well in the middle grade market.

Carleen: Did you find writing for young people different than writing for adults? If so, in what way(s)?

Barbara: When I write, I think of character, and not audience, so I was focused on what the world looked like through Moses's eyes. I made remarkably few changes to accommodate young readers. I changed a few words, such as "manumitted slave," a term I believe, Moses would have known, but why use a big word when "freed" works just as well?

Carleen: The novel has several instances where black characters are belittled, abused or attacked by white characters. What do you say to people who may say this isn't appropriate for young people to read? How does a writer balance the horrific truths of the Jim Crow South with the fact that young people are the audience for the book?

Barbara: I believe that young people can handle the truth. I would be dishonest as a writer if I portrayed a 19th-century Southern town in the midst a white supremacy campaign and pretended that prejudice didn't exist. In the book, Moses's father, a civic leader who believes fervently in democracy and equal opportunity, is taken aback when he realizes that he has raised his son to be naïve.

"I've taught you to live in a world I wanted to exist, not one that actually does," he says.
In sheltering his son from the truth, he has made Moses more vulnerable. George Santayana's quote is as true for children as for adults: Those who do not remember the past will be condemned to repeat it.

Carleen: Why did you decide to tell the story through the eyes of Moses Thomas, an eleven-year-old whose father worked for the Black Wilmington newspaper?

Barbara: I wanted to look at violence through the eyes of innocence, so I chose a young narrator. I also wanted to portray a strong family who was part of the vibrant black middle class that existed in Wilmington at the time. The father's job as an alderman and a reporter for the largest black daily in the south put the family at the heart of the action.

Carleen: In the climax of the story, Moses participates in helping the publisher of the black newspaper escape. He thinks he's being heroic, but his father, Jack, is angry at him for jeopardizing his life. Soon after, Jack Thomas makes several speeches to the white men who are terrorizing the city, putting his own life in danger. Why? Were you trying to say something about heroism or human nature or...?

Barbara: In my mind, Jack doesn't think in terms of putting his life in danger. At the train station, he speaks from the heart. And when he sees his wife needs help, he acts, not out of heroism, —he doesn't have time to think in such grand terms. He automatically goes to her assistance, because that's the kind of man he is.

Carleen: There's a young white boy named Tommy who engages is a friendship with Moses, which would be forbidden by Tommy's family if they knew about it. What role does Tommy serve in the story for you as the author and for the reader?

Barbara: Tommy and Moses' friendship develops when they are alone. Isolated from the expectations of family and society, they react to one another as human beings.

Carleen: Personally, I believe any writer can write about any ethnicity he or she chooses. However, books by white authors that are about black characters seem more easily accepted by white readers (ie The Help), and this bothers me greatly. I know it's a minefield. Do you want to weigh in on the topic?

Barbara: That's my specialty—plowing into minefields. (That's sort of my definition of writing.) So I'll give it a shot. In The Help, the main character is white, and I think this offered a way into the story that was comfortable for white readers. What Is The What, about a Sudanese boy escaping the war, was written by Dave Eggers, who is a best-selling memoir writer who brought his own audience with him. Other than that, I don't have a wide enough sampling to make a judgment.

In the end, books are intensely personal: one writer talking to one reader through the medium of words--what Tolstoy called the art of transferring one heart to another. The story either resonates or it doesn't, and the race of the reader or the writer shouldn't matter. While the titans of African-American Literature (or literature in general), such as Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, and Edward P. Jones, have garnered a wide white audience, I believe work remains in attracting a wider white readership for lesser-known and debut black authors.

Carleen: What do you hope people take away from reading Crow?

Barbara: I hope the reader, through getting to know one family intimately, will experience the true tragedy of hate and prejudice.

Carleen: What's next for you? Will you be writing another book for young readers?

Barbara: I'm working on a novel for adults set in mid-Victorian London.

Carleen: Thank you for your time!

Barbara: Thank you so much.


Unknown said...

So interesting that Crow was originally intended to be an adult novel! I wonder how many other MG/YA texts are "accidental" like that. I absolutely agree that a lot of work remains in attracting more white readers to works written by people of color. I hope that the blogging community can get behind that effort and make sure that we are honoring all people in our reading choices!

Barbara Albin said...

I probably will buy it, I still read middle-school books (even though the kids are gone) if the subject, author or plates interest me. This sounds good, great interview to both of you.