Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Interview with Zetta Elliott

Zetta Elliott, PhD
Publishing Perspectives is a blog series that's all about seeking insights from people on both sides of the publishing fence ―the folks who work in publishing and the writers working toward publication.

Today, I'm honored to welcome Dr. Zetta Elliott to the series! I first came to know of Zetta when she reached out to me via email back in 2010 and then I met her at the A for Anansi: Literature for Children of Black Descent conference at New York University that same year. Since then I've been following her blog, Fledgling, and have read all of her excellent books for young people. An outspoken advocate for diversity and equity in children's publishing for many years, Zetta's efforts on behalf of underrepresented writers and their stories have never ceased to inspire me. Many thanks to Zetta for agreeing to this recent interview.

I think of you as a "no holds barred", uber-transparent blogger. You aren't afraid to engage contentious commentators, or offend with what you say on your blog, and you've even shared your annual writing income with your readers. As a blogging author, is transparency something deliberate on your part? Or is it just sort of an inherent aspect of who Zetta Elliott is?

I've said for years that we need greater transparency in publishing, so I’d better practice what I preach! Mostly I think that’s part of who I am—and why I write. Some people blog just to promote their work or their image as an author; I think I use my blog more as a kind of journal, and friends have warned me about my openness. There are risks, but as Audre Lorde reminds us, “Your silence will not protect you.” I don’t expect to reach a point in my writing career when it’s “safe” for me to speak my mind, so I might as well do it now. Telling the truth doesn't just help the speaker/writer, it helps those who are unable or unwilling to speak for themselves—and I do get messages from other writers thanking me for saying something their agent warned them against. I want change in the industry and that won’t come from staying silent when I see something unjust.

You've written 3 well-received books for young people, including the Coretta Scott King Award-winning and ALA Notable Children's Book, Bird, and you also do a lot of work advocating for equity and diversity in publishing. Why heap advocacy on top of being an author? Isn't the best advocacy just to write the books that need to be written?

Well, as you know, there’s a difference between writing books and getting them published. I’ll always write, but publishing is another matter. I have stepped back from the advocacy work; I felt I was becoming too immersed in the children’s literature world and that field doesn't define me as a writer or a scholar. Fighting for access is a burden most white writers don’t have to bear, but writers of color make up less than 5% of the children’s book authors published annually in the US so the advocacy work has to be done. I work with See What We See and that social justice group will tackle inequity in children’s literature when it launches this fall.

Last year, you made 2 funded trips to Nevis, the Caribbean island where your father was born, to connect with your roots and do research for your in-progress family memoir, The Hummingbird's Tongue. I understand that you now have Nevis citizenship and are planning to open your own arts center, Black Dog Arts Center, on the island. What role does heritage and legacy play in your writing and in how you see yourself as an author?

“Funded trips?” I paid for both trips myself, though I did get two grants last year (one to do research in South Carolina, and another to do research in northern Ontario). My author income (royalties and honoraria) pays for my travel; this spring I’m heading to Ghana for the Yari Yari Ntoaso conference in Accra. I think travel is important for any artist. Writing is like wringing a sponge dry and then you have to absorb more ideas and observations.

I was named for my grandmother, Rosetta Elliott, and I want to know her story—that’s what took me to Nevis. I was then invited back to participate in their inaugural book fair. Right now I know more about Nevis in the 1700s than I do about the contemporary country. One day I hope to open an arts center/museum but I don’t think I could live in the Caribbean full-time; mostly I want to contribute something and an arts center could bring in visiting artists to lead workshops for Nevisians so they can continue to tell their own stories.

My father deliberately hid his past; he didn't want his children to feel connected to Nevis and in a way I’m going against his wishes by reversing his migration and digging for the truth. But I think I owe my ancestors a voice. I can do things they couldn't, and that’s why I write historical fiction—it allows me to turn back the clock and write them back into existence.

Speaking of The Hummingbird's Tongue, you write for both adults and children. I've previously had cause to wonder if authors who split focus and write for both adults and children have a harder time progressing their careers. What do you think?

I don’t know—I can’t think of anyone whose career failed because they wrote for different audiences. Really, my role models are people like June Jordan and James Baldwin and Toni Cade Bambara—they wrote for young readers and adults, and didn't seem to worry about their work finding a home. Publishers today prefer to market authors in just one way but hybridity is a big part of life in the African diaspora, and I don’t feel I should have to limit myself to please others.

You're one ideal of the independent, self-driven woman. You travel often and solo, live alone, and you recently blogged about becoming debt-free. What would you say to single women trying to build a career in publishing? 

Being child-free definitely gives me more time to write, and not having dependents makes it easier for me to travel at will. I've worked with kids since I was 16 and I continue to teach children now that I’m an author and professor; no one has ever questioned my expertise but I suppose I move in mostly progressive circles. Being in Nevis last summer I definitely noticed that people were concerned with my marital status and whether or not I had kids—I got the feeling some people felt my “success,” which they admired, came at too high a price. Some people don’t think a woman’s complete unless she’s got a man and/or kids, but those people don’t worry me. I don’t have any advice for single writers—every writer has to make the most of the time and resources s/he has.

In a 2010 article in The Huffington Post, you blogged in detail about your children's publishing journey and how, after many years, you used self-publishing to finally break into an industry that you experienced as being unreceptive to your stories. Since then 3 of your children's books have been published, and you have 2 more on the way. Do you feel vindicated and has publishing changed much since you set out to get published?

I don’t feel vindicated because nothing has really changed—I still struggle to place my manuscripts and publishers still refuse to reflect the diversity of our 21st-century world. I have one published picture book and about 15 unpublished picture books; I published two novels with AmazonEncore, but now my editor has moved on and I’m not sure whether my latest novel will find a home. Self-publishing remains an option but it’s hard work and very time consuming. A friend of mine wants to start a non-profit kids press one day and that’s probably my best option if I want to see more of my work in print.

Speaking of "on the way", let's talk about Judah's Tale and The Deep, your two in-progress YA novels. I'm really excited about both of these books. Please give us a two-sentence synopsis of each book.

The Deep: When fourteen-year-old Nyla find herself at the center of a battle between good and evil, she must learn to wield the astonishing power she inherited from the mother who abandoned her as a child. Far beneath the streets of Brooklyn, Nyla discovers a dangerous world filled with temptations that may lure her away from her friends forever.

Judah’s Tale: When Genna Colon magically opens a portal in Brooklyn, her boyfriend Judah finds himself pulled into the past and sold into slavery in the deep South. When hope of finding Genna fades, Judah must find a way to survive—and belong—in a country torn apart by war.

You describe both books as "urban fantasy" and in other places you use the term "speculative fiction". I know from reading your blog that you're fascinated with the possibilities of magic in the urban environment. You even wrote a scholarly paper on the topic. What, in your opinion, is the value of these types of stories?

They open up possibilities! I always ask myself, “What if?” I imagine alternate endings, alternate routes, alternate realities. Our youth need to develop the capacity to dream because we face many challenges in our communities, and we can’t create change without first creating a vision of the world we truly want to inhabit. Magic is a form of power, so it’s important that children of color know they come from people who have a long tradition of wielding power…

The Deep is the companion book to your 2012 middle grade novel, Ship of Souls (which I really enjoyed), and Judah's Tale is the much anticipated sequel to your 2010 YA novel, A Wish After Midnight (which I liked even more). Now that you've been through the process, what advice can you give to other writers about writing a series? 

It’s hard! That’s not really advice, but it’s the truth. I think sequels are really hard and I've given up the hope of having the second book be “as good as” the first. Judah’s Tale is not yet done and I've been working on it off and on since 2003. I will NEVER do that again. These days I only start projects that I know I can finish within a few months, projects that fit within my academic calendar. The Deep is a companion book, so I didn't have the same burden to maintain continuity—the characters are the same as in Ship of Souls but it’s a totally different story. I see The Deep as the bridge to the last book in that series, not that I have any idea when I’ll find time to write that!

I read a recent post on your blog that seemed to just ooze with frustration. You were lamenting the complacency of individuals and institutions who have the power to do something about the lack of equity in children's publishing but aren't doing anything. The complacency of certain groups aside, are children's publishing diversity activists a close-knit, collaborative community? Or is the disconnectedness of advocacy efforts a part of the problem?

True allies stick together and strive for the same goals. The See What We See “crew” is made up of that kind of committed people. A lot of people TALK about diversity, far fewer talk about EQUITY, and even fewer actually work to transform the publishing industry. Whenever I talk about SWWS, like-minded people come forward and ask how they can contribute, so that’s encouraging. Most institutions and organizations within the children’s literature community are made up of people from the “know something/do nothing” category. There’s nothing I can do about that.

In the blog post I referred to in my last question, you stated in the same breath that you'll soon be leaving the world of children's literature behind. Are you still determined to call it quits and if so, what will you focus on next?

As you pointed out, I’m currently working on The Hummingbird’s Tongue; I have another family memoir in the works that will trace my mother’s African American ancestors who escaped slavery in the US only to “pass” for white to avoid racism in Canada. I have to finish Judah’s Tale (hopefully this summer) and then I have a couple of adult historical novels I’d like to explore, one set in Nevis and the other in London. I’ll still work with kids and promote my books for young readers but I won’t be giving as much of my time to the advocacy work.

Last year you were accepted into CUNY’s Faculty Fellowship Publication Program. Do you think the university has a role to play in diversifying publishing?

It should, but it won’t! The academy is, in general, a very conservative space. Academic publishing is different from commercial publishing, and most scholars publish in order to get tenure; their books are sold mostly to academic libraries, little if any money is earned by the author, and scholars follow the rules and do whatever it takes to get the contract that will get them the job security they desire. The academy has not embraced digital publishing, certain presses are considered more prestigious than others…there isn't a lot of room for innovation. The FFPP is designed to give junior faculty time to polish scholarly essays for publication in peer-reviewed journals. Since The Hummingbird’s Tongue is a hybrid book, it’s unlikely to appeal to academic presses, though I may try to publish an excerpt in Small Axe or MaComère.

As a published author, you've been through the threshing floor of publishing multiple times. What are three of the most important lessons you've learned throughout the A to Z process of writing your books, getting them published, and being a published author out in the world?

Your work doesn't matter to anyone as much as it matters to you. Be prepared to defend your vision and nurture your book from infancy to old age.

Keep writing despite the obstacles and the rejection. Don’t stop and wait for everything to fall into place because chances are, that won’t happen.

Remember why you started to write in the first place and stay true to that because publishers mostly care about the bottom line. Would you write if you never won an award or earned a six-figure advance? I would.

Zetta Elliot is a black feminist writer of stories for children, poetry, plays, essays, and novels. She earned her PhD in American Studies from NYU in 2003 and has currently teaches in the Center for Ethnic Studies at Borough of Manhattan Community College.

Her poetry has been published in the Cave Canem anthology, The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South, Check the Rhyme: an Anthology of Female Poets and Emcees, and Coloring Book: an Eclectic Anthology of Fiction and Poetry by Multicultural Writers. Her novella, Plastique, was excerpted in T Dot Griots: an Anthology of Toronto’s Black Storytellers, and her essays have appeared in School Library Journal, Horn Book Magazine, The Black Arts Quarterly, thirdspace, WarpLand, and Hunger Mountain.

Her picture book, Bird, was a 2009 ALA Notable Children’s Book and won may awards including the Lee & Low New Voices Honor Award, the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent, Paterson Prize for Books for Young Readers, and the West Virginia Children’s Choice Book Award. Her young adult novel, A Wish After Midnight, was published by AmazonEncore in February 2010; her second YA novel, Ship of Souls, was published in February 2012. Her short story, “Sweet Sixteen,” was published in Cornered: 14 Stories of Bullying and Defiance in July 2012. Zetta was born and raised in Canada, but has lived in the US for over fifteen years. She currently resides in her beloved Brooklyn. You can follow her on Twitter at @zettaelliott.