Nikki Grimes Talks with Roger

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As detailed below, Nikki Grimes started this verse memoir thirty-nine years ago. Why it took so long is just one of the questions Nikki and I discussed on a phone break during an exceptionally busy pub date for Ordinary Hazards: A Memoir.

Roger Sutton: Today's the pub date for Ordinary Hazards, right? Congratulations.

Nikki Grimes: Today! It's out in the world. Thank you. Longest gestation ever.

RS: Do you remember back when we were young, when pub dates weren't so major?

NG: Well, there was nobody to tell us they were important. There was no social media. You celebrated quietly with a good friend, and that was it. I remember with my very first book, I took a friend to a local French restaurant. Because there's no such thing as a cheap French restaurant, I'd saved up for that. That was my big to-do celebration.

RS: What was the book?

NG: Growin'. My first book was a novel, although I didn't know it was going to be a novel, because "novel," for me, was the n-word. I had been working on a collection of stories, and editor Phyllis Fogelman said, "You know, it would be lovely if you could just write a few more stories." Okay, I can do that. And after I wrote a few more stories she said, "Now, if there was just some way to tie them all together…" So she got me to write a novel without ever using the word.

RS: That's very folktale-like.

NG: She was a smart cookie.

RS: Yes, she was. Why do you think you decided to publish this memoir now?

NG: I started writing it thirty-nine years ago. But I would work on it, and then I'd need to put it aside to work on some deadline or other, and then I'd go back again. I tried different approaches—I had a collection of stories, personal essays. I finally decided I wouldn't pick the project up again until I could focus on it and write it all the way through. That turned into a lot of years. But in the last couple of years, every time I was on Facebook, it seemed somebody else was passing away. We've lost a lot of people in the industry in the last few years. I started thinking, "Girl, you need to get in touch with your mortality and get this book done. You don't know how much longer you're going to be here."

RS: And nobody else could tell this story.

NG: No. So I started clearing the space and making plans to focus solely on writing it. And the timing was good, because it's a book of darkness and light, and we're dealing with a lot of darkness now. People need to know that there is light at the end of the tunnel, even though sometimes it doesn't look like that. That's what my story is.

RS: Do you believe that for the larger world? The situation we're in—do you think there's light at the end of this tunnel? Please, God?

NG: I absolutely do.

RS: Phew.

NG: I couldn't get up every morning if I didn't.

RS: It's hard though.

NG: Yeah. Which is why, for me, hope is not a feather. I love Emily Dickinson, but for me it's something extremely sturdy. It's a rock, and I stand on it.

RS: How did you choose what to put into this story and what to leave out? In a couple of places you say, "I could tell you this, but I'm not going to." Or, "I'm not going to tell you now." How did you choose what to keep private?

NG: I didn't keep all that much private. The focus was on the line of the story, always thinking about the main idea that I'm after and making choices based on that. And you have to choose, because otherwise a book would go on forever. Once I chose the sixteen years that I wanted to focus on [1950-1966]—my development as a writer, how it started, who played into it, where the encouragement came from, all those things were integral to making the decision about what to include and leave out.

RS: So you really focused on yourself as a creative person, giving us that trajectory.

NG: As a creative person, and also as a person of faith, because grace was a huge part of my story, too.

RS: And you see that as coming from God?

NG: Yes.

RS: We talk about the Big Questions here at Talks with Roger!

NG: I have no problem with that. I would not be here without the grace of God.

RS: How do you think God manifests Himself/Herself/Itself in your work?

NG: I try to always write with the presence of God in the story, because He's so present in my life. Sometimes the representation is subtle, but it's there, sort of the undercurrent. It shows up in small ways, which ripple. In my book The Road to Paris, there's a part where Paris is dealing with her fear of the dark, and her foster brother tells her, "When I'm afraid, I just think about God, that God is in my pocket." And she says, "What do you mean, God's in your pocket?" She's thinking God is big; how can He fit in your pocket? And her foster brother explains it's the idea that God is so close, it's as if He could be in your pocket. That sticks with her, and the next time she's afraid, she remembers it. And it stays in the mind of the reader, too. A few years ago, during an author visit, one of the students handed out these plastic discs that she'd made with the word "God" written in gold paint, so that everyone would remember that God was that close to them, in their pocket. The class had read this book together, and she walked away with this idea. I almost cried.

RS: That's beautiful. Did you feel like that as a young person, facing some pretty horrible things, that God was in your pocket?

NG: I always felt His nearness. I always felt I was being protected in some way, that I was being watched out for. It was always a sense that things could have been worse than they were.

RS: You sound like my mother.

NG: It's absolutely true. There were a number of times when I almost died, but I didn't. I slipped on the ice one winter and I fell in the middle of the street. A car literally rolled over me and touched the hair on my head—just rolled right over my entire body. I was like, "Okay, God's saving me for something, I just don't know what."

RS: Do you know now, what? Don't get cocky.

NG: Oh, yeah. He has things for me to do. I decided that He saved me to save me, but He also saved me because He had work for me to do, and I've been about that work ever since.

RS: What is it like, being a committed Christian in secular publishing? Because there's very little explicit Christian or religious content in general in trade books.

NG: What I've learned to do is just write the story that's in me. Whether or not it gets placed, what happens with it—go ahead and be bold. My work is never about proselytizing. It's about the organic presence of God in the story, however and wherever that fits. I'm not trying to pigeonhole or force an agenda or force a narrative. It has to be organic to the story, to the character, to the situation. As long as it is, I've found nobody is offended. Occasionally I've had a little pushback, but not nearly as much as I'd imagined. I think it's because I'm walking that line, looking for a natural way to bring it into the story line so that it doesn't stick out like a sore thumb.

RS: It's part of who you are, and part of who the characters are, because you created those characters.

NG: Exactly.

RS: What can we do for kids who are in tough situations like yours was? What would you do now, if you ran across a young Nikki? I'm sure you do encounter young Nikkis.

NG: I certainly do when I'm visiting schools. I fight for them so they come away feeling encouraged, and they see it's possible to come out on the other side. Really, that's the focus of my work, in one way or another, to connect with young people and give them those stories that are inspirational and aspirational. Allow them to see that you can be this, you can do this, you can not only survive, you can thrive. Kids resonate with the truth of that. They recognize the authenticity of that, because I don't pull back on the hard stuff. I don't clean it up or make it nice. This is real, and yes, it's hard, and yes, some things are ugly, but that doesn't have to limit your possibilities, your potential. I give them that message through the trajectory of my characters. And if they come to me personally to ask questions, what I get are hugs. I love hugs. It's an affirmation that the kids hear what I'm saying, that it has made an impression, that it matters to them, they're feeling more encouraged, feeling stronger, feeling that, yes, I can do this, I can make it in this life.

RS: If we look at you as a character in Ordinary Hazards—did you know all about her going in, or did you learn things about her as you wrote?

NG: I didn't so much learn things about myself, but I recovered memories. I grieved memory loss, which is one of the things that made this book the most difficult I've ever done. On the plus side, I also recovered some good memories, wonderful memories that had been buried along with some of the bad ones.

RS: What brought those back?

NG: Just spending time thinking about things and asking questions. Case in point, I've always loved ice skating—the Olympics, Ice Capades, anything having to do with ice skating. My father's last gift to me before he died was a pair of ice skates. I loved those skates, and I write about holding onto them after his passing. I asked myself, "Why did he get me those skates?" I know they were expensive, and I didn't remember ever having gone ice skating, so why would he give me a pair of brand-new ice skates? That's really odd. So I called my oldest friend and asked, "Did we ever go skating?" "Oh, yeah, child," and she starts telling me about the rinks we went to.

RS: Wow.

NG: She goes on and on about all this skating. Over the next forty-eight hours, I started getting flashes of memory, of being with her out on the ice, sitting on the sides drinking hot chocolate, spinning around in the center. These wonderful memories came flooding back, all these memories of ice skating with my best friend. I don't know where they'd gone in the meantime, but they suddenly came back, and I was like, "So, that's why I love ice skating!" I had never asked that question, and once I did, it led me to this memory.

RS: More pieces came back. Have you read Tom's Midnight Garden, a British time-travel fantasy novel from the 1950s? It has a great part about time travel and ice skating that I think you would love. I'm not going to tell you any more…

NG: Okay.

RS: I find that even when writing a book review, I'll think, "All right, here's what I think I'm going to say," and then when I actually write it, I realize what I thought I had to say was not entirely right—that the writing itself helps me determine what I think about a book. What does writing do to your memories?

NG: It brings them into sharper relief. But I also have the sense that I don't need to revisit any of the things that I wrote about in this book. I feel like I have fully processed everything that I wrote about. If I do revisit it, it'll be from a different point of view, with no stress or angst attached to it. I can simply remember events the way one remembers a story one read, even though the story is my own.

RS: Did you have experiences of stress or pain when, as you were writing, you had to confront something you thought you had dealt with in the past?

NG: No. The only real stress was trying to come to terms with lost memories. I did grieve that, and I was not at all prepared for it. I was prepared for maybe having difficulty writing about my mother's mental illness, the alcoholism. There was some discomfort, but it wasn't a stressful situation. The real agonizing had to do with the memories that I couldn't recover, and having these gaps that I simply had to accept being gone.

RS: And as you did find out, these gaps could be painful things or they could be happy things.

NG: Well, that's what was frustrating. There were periods that I could remember in high relief, the trauma, but I could not remember the name of the school I went to, or the friends that I had during that period, or any ordinary, everyday things. Those things were gone. The only thing that remained was the trauma. That was rough. It made me pull out what little hair I have left every time my editor asked me a normal question that I did not have an answer to. She'd say, "Maybe [your sister] Carol could help you," and I'd have to explain, no, we were raised separately. When you're in foster care, you're separated a lot, so there are whole swathes of my life my sister knows nothing about, and vice versa. And then my editor would say, "Maybe there are some photographs," thinking in terms of research, and I'm like, no. When you're in foster care, nobody's keeping a photo album. There are no boxes of documents.

RS: Your foster parents really sounded wonderful, though.

NG: They were a gift. They were absolutely God-given. They made all the difference in my life. I was with them for four years and then returned to live with my mother, which was a nightmare. But in the years I was there, I got to understand that I was lovable, that I have certain strengths and certain gifts. I got to see what a real family looked like, so I knew that wasn't just something in my imagination—it actually did exist. There was a steadiness and a calm that I gained by living there, which I was then able to take with me when I went, and reflect on and nurse when I was in bad situations. I'd think, "No, I know there are good things in the world, because I experienced them there. So just keep looking ahead, because that's real."

More on Nikki Grimes from The Horn Book

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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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