Chrystal D. Giles Talks with Roger

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When economics drive Lawrence and his family to move out of the city and in with Granny, he's faced with a whole new set of challenges. As was author Chrystal D. Giles in writing her second novel, Not an Easy Win.

Roger Sutton: Are you a chess player?

Chrystal D. Giles: I am not. I learned to play chess when I was middle-school aged, and I liked it but I wasn’t very good. When I started research for this book, I bought a chess set and tried to remember what I learned. I did tons of research. I read books. I joined chess forums to watch people do the moves. And I’m still not very good. My husband teases me that if a young reader challenges me to a match, I will absolutely lose.

RS: Your book made me realize what’s lacking in my own chess game — which sucks. Lawrence learns that he’s got to look ahead, and look at the whole board, not just at his pieces. That’s what I have trouble doing. Thinking that many steps ahead of the game.

CDG: It’s a great metaphor for Lawrence’s life in general. I watched a documentary many years ago about a chess grandmaster who talked a lot about looking forward. I thought, one day, I’m going to use that idea in a book, and I pulled it out for this one.  I’m not good at doing it myself, but the idea still resonates. And it was easier for me to write it than to actually do it.

Photo credit: Bryan Bazemore

RS: One thing I admire about your book is we have what could be a very weighty plot device — chess — that could take over but doesn’t. And then we also have lots of things going on in those kids’ lives, which could take over but don’t. Like the fact that Lawrence’s father is, as the kids put it in the book, “gone,” i.e., he’s in jail. How do you keep all these things in balance?

CDG: More than anything, I really lean into my characters. I come into a story with all these things I want to accomplish, but I have to filter them through the main character’s lens. That helps me stay focused. Everything that’s happening in Lawrence’s life, with his family and Pop (his dad) and school — they’re a big deal to him. But he’s also looking to the rec center and to chess and finding new friends. By keeping his emotional journey in the forefront, everything stays balanced. And there’s lots of editing, I will tell you that. Lots of revising to make sure that I had enough chess but not too much. I also had to make sure that I was respecting my character’s point of view, not bringing in too much of myself into his emotional journey. So revising, absolutely.

RS: That’s super-smart, because the book could easily have turned into a misery mill. You deal with some really serious issues, but the story is always about Lawrence and from his point of view. There’s no one teaching me or telling me what the point of everything is. It all goes through Lawrence. Where do you think he came from?

CDG: He’s inspired by a few things. In my first book, Take Back the Block, there’s a character named Takari who has a difficult life. He’s a side character, but so many readers have asked me about him. I didn’t think that character could have his own story, but I thought, what if I had a character who had a lot to say and had not had a chance to speak, who had not had people paying attention to his voice. After that, I thought so much about some of the issues I lightly touch on, how Black children are often punished, suspended, expelled, at higher rates than their white counterparts. I thought about the kids in rural areas whose lives are often overlooked. I didn’t have problems in school; I really loved school. But at times throughout my childhood, like Lawrence, I lived in a multigenerational home, and I felt some level of shame about that. I also thought about a kid who might have an incarcerated parent like I did. I didn’t want that to be the main focus, but I remember my own feelings of shame and embarrassment about that, and no one talked about it. Lawrence doesn’t have any real resentment toward his father, but what does that shame feel like? How is it manifested? I decided to take all of those things and put them into the character of Lawrence. That’s a long way to say that there are so many inspirations. He’s layered, and he’s full. That’s why when I describe the story it’s so hard for me to say, “It’s a book about chess,” or “It’s a book about telling your own story.” There’s so much there that makes it a bit hard to describe in a one-line pitch.

RS: When you start working on a book do you have too much stuff or not enough to write about?

CDG: I usually have two or three ideas at a time. But when I meet the character, then I have too many things that I want to tackle. That’s when I have to edit my own author voice and remember the character. I wanted to do even more in this story, to talk a little more about the school-to-prison pipeline and about the town — it’s fictional, but it’s based on a rural town that my grandmother grew up in and my mom was born in, and it has a really rich history. I wanted to put all of that into the book, but I had to edit it out. It wasn’t important to Lawrence’s story. I couldn’t have a young protagonist talking about the school-to-prison pipeline. It would not feel natural coming out of his mouth. Sometimes I have to say, okay, let me step back, and then I push my character forward.

RS: Did he ever surprise you or tell you something you hadn’t thought about?

CDG: For sure. I’ll be totally transparent. There was a lot less Pop in this story, in the first, second, third drafts. I made the decision to have him not show up on the phone or anything. But at a point, Lawrence kind of said he wanted his Pop more in the story. I fought that notion; I felt strongly that he would not be there because it only takes place over a few months. And then I said, okay, this kid wants his Pop there. He doesn’t have any animus toward him. I started adding in more of the stories that he remembers. I hope that the reader feels Lawrence’s love for his Pop. He’s coming to a realization that family and history do play their parts, but you can be in charge of your own story. I got there after many drafts, and I’m happy that I was quiet enough to listen to Lawrence. The story is much truer to the main character because I removed myself.

RS: We only see Pop through Lawrence’s memories. That’s trickier than I think a lot of writers know, that when you are having the story narrated by one of the characters, there are going to be limitations. Sometimes I’ll see authors try to work around it in a way that feels artificial, but you really stayed with him. You also really made me miss my iPod. All this little device could do was play music, and it’s a lifeline to Lawrence. And you made me miss Tahitian Treat, which I hadn’t thought of in forty years or more.

CDG: They have Tahitian Treat still in little country stores! I live in Charlotte, North Carolina, and I don’t know that we have it in bigger stores, but when you go to a small town, they absolutely have it in the fridge. I wanted to bring in that real element of a small-town feel. And I thought the iPod was a great symbol for Pop, because music tells a story and gives you personality. For Lawrence, the music connected him to his dad. It didn’t necessarily occur to me that I would have to describe what an iPod is. My editor said, “You’ve got to explain that you can’t talk on the phone with it. It’s just music.”

RS: Have you thought about putting together a playlist of what he’s listening to?

CDG: That was one of the stickiest points in the editing of this novel. In the early versions, we talked more about actual songs. Some of them had explicit lyrics, and for middle grade, we just couldn’t do that. We thought about adding songs that were less explicit, but I didn’t think that would be authentic. It is the author’s responsibility, particularly in the middle grades, not to do harm on the page. I take that very seriously. I decided that not doing harm was better than having a deeper connection to the music. We ultimately decided not to refer to the music. I think we did one reference to a group Lawrence is listening to. But after that, it’s just vibes and themes, and we don’t point directly to the music. It was a hard choice, but I think for this age group it’s important.

RS: I was wondering where things were going to go with Twyla. I love that moment when he realizes what he really wanted was to be good friends with her. It showed me that yes, this was a middle-grade book, and also how tough middle grade must be to write. You don’t want it to be babyish on the one hand, but on the other hand you don’t want it to turn into a YA novel. He’s twelve, so if you age him up two years, you’d have a different book.

CDG: Absolutely. That moment was important to me. I love Twyla. I think she steals everything she’s in. Lawrence is attracted to her beauty and her smarts, but I think more than anything, he’s attracted to her confidence. He realizes that when he’s near her, he’s happier and he feels a little bit better about himself. I chose to end it the way I did for a couple reasons. One, because it’s middle grade. Two, because I did not want her to be how he heals. I wanted him to have something more substantial that he could control. And lastly, I wanted to show her saying no, and him accepting her no. We don’t often show that. You can be disappointed, and then you can move on. He does eventually win her over as a friend, but not anything more romantic.

RS: The saddest sentence in the world has got to be “I really like you as a friend.”

CDG: I felt so bad doing it, but he was able to accept it.

RS: You say in a letter to readers in the ARC that people talk about how hard writing the first novel is, but let me tell you, the second one is hard too. Can you tell us what that might mean for your third?

CDG: With most first books, you have all the time in the world to work on it. You have all this time when you’re writing and revising and working with — hopefully — critique groups and partners. Maybe you have taken your whole life to write it. It took me many years to write, edit, and prepare Take Back the Block. I had hopes, but I never knew how quickly it would move through the process. I drafted Not an Easy Win before Take Back the Block was published. I learned a lot, so I found myself, throughout the drafting process, trying to edit at the same time — which I do often; I don’t recommend it, but I do it to myself anyway. There was also a level of pressure, okay, you’ve accomplished a thing you worked so hard to get to; how do you follow it up? That was hard. And there was the pandemic. All my revision of this book happened during a time when everything felt heavy. There was no certainty about what would happen next. I felt myself at times just drowning in, how do I think about the next week? And at the same time, I’m promoting another book. My third novel is completely drafted before this one comes out, again. I have learned to lean on the power of revision. You can fix it. You have to write it, but you can fix anything. I’ve learned not to try to do everything all at once. I found myself doing that with Not an Easy Win. I was trying to make connections as I was writing. I was thinking about quotes as I was writing. All you’re going to do is stress yourself out. For the third book, I didn’t do that. I just got through the draft, and I’m relying on the power of revision to get it across the finish line.


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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. 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 MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

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