This interview originally appeared in the March/April 2017 Horn Book Magazine as part of the Spring Publishers’ Preview, a semiannual advertising supplement that allows participating publishers a chance to each highlight a book from its current list. They choose the books; we ask the questions.
Armstrong & Charlie meet when Armstrong’s parents decide to bus him from South Central to Charlie’s all-white school in the Hollywood Hills. It’s the early 1970s, and race relations are just one issue the two boys face as they begin sixth grade.
1. I don’t think I’ve seen handball in a children’s book before. What particular metaphor do you think it offers a writer?
Handball is battle. Listen to its lingo: dead killers, slicies, slammers. You line up to go, literally, mano a mano with the winner of the previous round. Soon a leader emerges, and everyone in line is bound by a common bond: get him out before the bell rings. On the handball court, kids settle their own disputes. Heroes rise and fall. The game is as epic as The Iliad, minus (usually) the blood.
2. How has Laurel Canyon changed since you grew up there?
It’s still an oasis in the middle of the city, where kids can see coyotes, raccoons, deer, and squirrels. Or, if they know where to peek, a stream. They can hear songbirds, owls, and crows. But there’s usually a pane of glass or window screen between kids and nature. You don’t find kids roaming the neighborhood until dark the way we did in the seventies. Too much hovering — and I don’t mean by the red-tailed hawks. Too much homework, too.
3. Skin color aside, were you more of a Charlie or an Armstrong?
I was an Armstrong with the girls; in all other matters, Charlie all the way.
4. You teach middle school. What have your students taught you about writing?
An adult writer, sitting alone in a quiet office, stops after every sentence to ask, “Was that good enough? What will my audience think?” A sixth grader, by contrast, scribbles away in a clamorous classroom, stopping only for more paper. Why? The kid listens to his story first and his critics last. It’s not easy, but I try to write like a kid. Try.
5. What advice can you now give to the would-be first novelist?
First draft advice: welcome your characters; let them wake you up in the middle of the night, visit you on your daily walk, surprise you in the shower. Do not welcome the voice in your head — or any other voice — that says you can’t write. Second draft advice: read your work out loud and listen for its rhythm; “omit needless words” (Strunk & White). Third draft advice: listen to your (trusted) critics; react slowly and make only those changes that feel true to your story. Tenth draft advice (there will be at least ten): learn to let go.