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Rita Williams-Garcia Talks with Roger

Rita Williams-Garcia Talks with Roger

Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here.

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For our last Talks with Roger of the year, Rita Williams-Garcia and I spoke just before Thanksgiving about her latest novel, Clayton Byrd Goes Underground.

Roger Sutton: I went back to reread Clayton Byrd in preparation for this talk, and I’m reading it and thinking, oh, I love this grandpa. He’s so great. I wonder if I could be as good a grandpa as he is. And then I get to page 17…and he’s dead. That’s not even a spoiler alert, because it starts off the book. I think it says something, though, that I remembered this as a book about a boy and his grandpa, because of course that’s exactly what the book is about.

Rita Williams-Garcia: Yes. It’s an unfair thing that I do, killing off Cool Papa so early, after we get to hear his voice and to really enjoy reading him on the page and getting to know him. What a cruel, cruel thing. But I thought if I ripped Cool Papa away from readers, just the way that I’d taken him away from Clayton, then they would better be able to understand and feel the immediacy of Clayton’s loss and his need for answers. So I had to take Cool Papa away, but Cool Papa isn’t completely gone. He’s out there in the musical ether. He’s everywhere Clayton looks for answers. We hear his voice and his influence in Clayton, so he’s not entirely gone.

RS: Did you have to think a lot about when you would actually have him depart the scene?

RWG: No, I knew, because in my house one day, when I was in the early stages of dreaming about this story, the wind was blowing, and I saw the curtains move, and I just knew, oh, that’s what’s going to happen. It really pays to notice what’s going on around you, because to me almost everything in nature and in your surroundings is somewhat analogous to scenes in your own story. It pays to keep your eyes open.

RS: I’ve told this story before in a Talks with Roger interview…

RWG: Tell it anyway.

RS: I was out running, and I was listening to the Gershwins’ song “A Foggy Day.”

RWG: Yes.

RS: “But the age of miracles hadn’t passed.” So I start thinking about the age of miracles, and how people say, “Why don’t we have miracles now? Why are they only in the Bible?” “It’s because that was the age of miracles…” There’s all kinds of theological thinking about the age of miracles. So I say to myself, almost as a joke, “All right, God, show me a sign.” I turn a corner on my jog, and there on a bush is a smiley face that some child has made out of paper plates.

RWG: Ooh! I’ve got a miracle like that for you.

RS: Tell me.

RWG: I was on a bus — and I loathe bus travel, because it makes me nauseous. I was going to Fort Dix, in New Jersey. It was so dreary. First of all, the weather was really just sad. Then the drive was miles and miles of dirt, silos, and rusted Caterpillar tractors, those kinds of things. I was thinking, oh, please, God, show me something besides this. And wouldn’t you know it? At that moment, a small circus trailer rode by, and in the back was a little elephant. I swear that elephant winked at me. I started laughing hysterically on the bus. I was like, okay, Rita, you’re in public. Stop.

RS: I think you’re hitting on something important here, though. It’s like when you’re in love and all the songs on the radio are totally about you and that person. Is that true when you’re working on a book?

RWG: Yes, I think what happens is that your receptors are now tuned to what your subconscious needs. Your ears hear the blues in certain rhythms, and hip hop in certain rhythms. Your eyes see color schemes. For each of my stories, I have color schemes, whether I plan them or not. So I become more aware of different shades of blues, and what they bleed into, and what does that mean, and all that kind of stuff. If you make things, if you create anything, you become that much more open when you relax, and you start to see those things that are complementary or related in some way. It’s like the way cinematographers can make certain colors pop in a movie scene. Those seem to be the only colors you’re seeing, even though there’s a vast landscape in the backdrop. Those things pop. When one part of us is so engaged — like when we’re in love or missing someone, or in the throes of grief — we go through that period where everything around us feels so significant.

RS: Right, and that’s what we see here with Clayton, as he goes on his journey to the underground — which is very Orpheus-like. Did you do that on purpose?

RWG: Yes. He goes deeper and deeper into the depths, until he can’t go any further. I thought that would be one way for readers to have an “aha” moment about Clayton’s state of mind, his emotions, his journey. At what point do things go all the way to the bottom?

RS: But he always has his grandpa with him. That’s what we were talking about before, that Cool Papa really is in the book throughout.

RWG: Oh, yeah. I did warn readers on the first page about those ghost notes. I had to keep Cool Papa close to Clayton, because Cool Papa was the one person in his life who gave him truth, who gave him love. Also, in his way, he gave him boundaries. Those are the endowments that help people become themselves as fully as they can. I think of this book as an endowment story. The endowment to Clayton from his mother, Ms. Byrd, can only be so much, because her own emotional development is stuck at ten years old or somewhere thereabouts. Everybody wants to give to Clayton in his or her own way. But it was truly his grandfather — who had traveled so far and experienced so much and was at peace within himself, so much so that he could withstand his daughter’s chastisements.

RS: He really did hurt her.

RWG: He did. But I have to say this. The life of a child is to experience pain that we forget, or we consciously forget, as adults. Only children know a certain kind of injustice that is part of being a child. I don’t mean that the forces of evil are against every child and that children have no outlet. But as a child, you have a certain amount of understanding that you are subject to whatever circumstance your parent or guardian will give you. And there are always moments when you feel that you are not big enough to withstand what is being given to you.

RS: Oh, it’s ingrained.

RWG: And then you grow up and become your own parent.

RS: But you still hold on to that pain, like Ms. Byrd does.

RWG: Sure, sure. Therapy is thriving.

RS: Thank God for the psychiatrists.

RWG: Yes indeed.

RS: You hit on a good balance for that character. Cool Papa had things to do, and Cool Papa had to work and all that, but he did hurt his daughter. So he’s not the paragon of parental attention that his grandson thinks he is.

RWG: One of the great things about being a grandparent is you get to redo what you didn’t or couldn’t do as a parent. Oftentimes we forget that even while the parent is parenting, they’re still a growing person. They’re still trying to fix themselves. They’re still out there not doing everything a hundred percent correctly. I had the best parents I could ever have, but the kinds of things that they were capable of doing, the things that they said and did, were very destructive to my sister, brother, and me. But they’re so much more than those things. It’s not that those things weren’t harmful to us, but there is a whole picture that makes me who I am, my sister who she is, and my brother who he is. I don’t think I would be the same person in any other circumstance.

RS: Right, so if you’re basically happy with your life…

RWG: Or if you can recognize what your life is; if you can put things in perspective. I think that’s closer.

RS: Was it hard to write Ms. Byrd?

RWG: No.

RS: Ah, a revenge story, was it?

RWG: Nah. No. Okay, this is awful. I’m going to ruin it for everyone. Usually the characters surrounding my protagonist have whatever role to fulfill, and those roles are always in service of the protagonist. I’m very objective about what I want to have happen to my protagonists and where that has to come from. On one hand, it does help me that I had a mother who might have taken the last dollar and bought a pack of cigarettes or something, but I also had a mother who exposed me to art, music, other religions, different foods. My mother was very adventurous in her own way, so she fed the part of me that was going to grow up to be a writer. But there’s always, too, the opposite response that helps me to create. When I think about Clayton and his grandfather sneaking into the house, and Cool Papa giving that wicked “heh heh heh” laugh, I think, okay, this is a real victory for them. Oh, goodness. I can’t even say it. Who they’re sneaking in against. I guess the clinical word would be their antagonist. Does that make sense to you?

RS: Yes. In these circumstances, she is their antagonist.

RWG: Yes.

RS: I don’t think she’s the book’s antagonist. You’re not grinding an ax here.

RWG: Oh, no. Not at all. Clayton and Cool Papa love the blues, and Ms. Byrd feels like the blues has hurt her.

RS: Did you find it hard to write about music?

RWG: On one hand, thanks to my mother, I had all access to music in a kind of way. But I had to really think about how I was going to bring the two different forms of music, the old-school hip hop and the blues, together. As I wrote, there were things that I didn’t know. I listened to a lot of music to find commonality. But whenever it got technical, and I had to be correct, I had a cheat sheet. I had my musician husband to ask. Fred plays the guitar and composes. He has toured, in his young life. He studied music. That works for me and against me. I said, “Honey, can I say they look sharper than all the sharps in the key of C?” Instead of saying yes or no, he created this chart for me, the circle of fifths. It’s all the flats and the sharps and the keys and this and that. And he proceeded to explain it to me. After three notes, I had this glazed look, and I was like, “Baby, please just tell me yes or no.” [Editor’s note: No.]

RS: What about conveying music in a book?

RWG: Here’s the thing about conveying music. I cannot sing. I can barely play the flute, which was my instrument in the fourth grade. I cannot play the harmonica. But I always danced. I felt like if I can give a sense of movement to the music, then I can feel confident about writing it. Also, I was very lucky to have had a fourth-grade teacher, Ms. Carswell, who played us Peter and the Wolf. In that symphony, you get to hear the characterizations of Peter, the duck, the wolf, so your ear becomes accustomed to the voice of each character through music. It’s that whole idea of music being more than something to listen to, and how representative it can be. Just having that in me helped make it easier to write about. I’ve been fed music in different forms, in different ways, all throughout my life. It’s become a kind of a language for me to draw on.

RS: You don’t seem anywhere to identify the ethnicity or race of any of the characters. Was that on purpose? Or is that a question only a white person would ask?

RWG: Really, truly ponder the question: Why identify characters by race? Do you ask this of all writers? I think it’s only most natural to identify by race — yet not altogether necessary — when the narrative point of view notes “other” than self or other than what’s most familiar to the main character, so that the notation is meaningful to that character. It isn’t always! Nor should we come to expect that stories with characters of diversity are necessarily about educating others on the “insider” experience. That should be a subconscious byproduct the reader feels by stepping into the character’s narrative soul. I love that grandparents and wounded adult children identify with Cool Papa or Clayton. The experience binds them to the character. If there is a thought about race or gender, it is at best secondary or going on underground.


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Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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