In-depth Written Interview
with Rita Williams-Garcia
Rita Williams-Garcia was interviewed in her home in Queens, New York on May 13, 2015.
TEACHINGBOOKS: You are the author of several award-winning novels including One Crazy Summer, the story of three sisters who leave Brooklyn in 1968 to spend a life-changing season in California. Was moving around something you experienced yourself, as a child?
RITA WILLIAMS-GARCIA: I was born in Jamaica, New York, and I lived in projects in Far Rockaway. But my family was a military family, and when my father came home from Germany, my family traveled. We drove across the country from New York to Arizona where we stayed for a while when I was three, and then back to New York, and then back West. I really grew up in Seaside, California, which is right next to Fort Ord.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What was your family like, growing up?
RITA WILLIAMS-GARCIA: There was my mother, who was a homemaker and also a private-duty nurse; and my father, who was in the Army; and my brother and sister. My siblings and I are thirteen months apart, and we are named after movie stars. My parents loved going to the movies, so my sister is Rosalind and my brother is Russell after Rosalind Russell, and I am named after Rita Hayward.
My formative years were spent enjoying the great outdoors, so I had an old-fashioned childhood that included kickball, dodgeball, hikes in the woods, ghost stories, and all kinds of adventures and games.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What are some of your earliest memories of being creative?
RITA WILLIAMS-GARCIA: My imagination developed early. I like to say it started in the penitentiary, which is what I call the wooden playpen I remember being in from about the time I was a year old to two years old. At two, I was finally allowed outside of the pen to romp around with my brother and sister, but before then I spent a lot of time in my playpen observing and listening to the sounds around me—especially to my siblings' high jinks.
Everything I saw I wondered about, even in the playpen. And because I was by myself a lot of the time, I had myself to entertain myself. So all my observations were there in my head, kind of bubbling around, and then later, when I was with my siblings and mother and more verbal, all of that imaginative, creative thinking turned to tall tales. I could never tell the plain truth. I always had to add a few extra details and it never dawned on me that my mother knew the tales I was telling her were my imagination at work.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What about your upbringing has made its way into your writing?
RITA WILLIAMS-GARCIA: Even though I had an upbringing that included hiking in the woods, playing a lot of outdoor games, and living on military bases or near the seaside, those particular details haven't made it into my stories quite yet. But even if I don't use a precise experience, I'll often use the feeling of those experiences in my writing.
For example, my brother and I followed my sister fearlessly wherever she led us. When she told us we were going to the beach, and we'd have to cross a highway to get there, it never occurred to us that anything bad could happen because we were following my sister.
So in One Crazy Summer when the girls get on the bus to cross the bridge to San Francisco from Oakland, that is very much like my brother and me following my sister to the beach so we could explore.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What inspired you to start writing?
RITA WILLIAMS-GARCIA: I was a writer early in life, and that's because I was a reader early. My sister used to come home from kindergarten and give me whatever books she had; back then it was mostly Dick and Jane and picture books. I was always flipping through them, making up stories to go along with them.
My mother taught me the alphabet when I was two, and I started putting two and two together when I'd spot advertisements with pictures of a product sitting next to a handful of letters. I actually remember one of my first reading words was seven because I knew the letters S and V, and when I saw them next to a picture of Seven Up and Seagram's Seven, the word recognition and meaning came to me instantly.
So I read a lot even before I started kindergarten. And when I did get to kindergarten, I began asking my teacher for lined paper and a pencil because I wanted to start writing.
Familiarity with books at a young age, knowing they were a part of my family, and knowing I could read them, which inspired me to write down my own stories.
TEACHINGBOOKS: You've spoken about this issue as an adult, but did you have an early impression, as a young reader, about the lack of diversity in children's books?
RITA WILLIAMS-GARCIA: There weren't a lot of books in the late '50s, early '60s that reflected African-American family life or diverse characters. But I do remember two, read to us by my kindergarten teacher. One was The Five Chinese Brothers, and the other was Little Black Sambo.
In my class, everyone was white with the exception of one Japanese boy; my brother Robert and me, who were black; and another boy who was black and Japanese.
The illustrations in The Five Chinese Brothers were really demeaning, and I remember noticing that when our teacher read it to us, the Japanese boy put his head down and wouldn't look up. After that, in a sense, he became the five Chinese brothers to everybody in the classroom, and when she read Little Black Sambo, Robert and I became Sambo.
I remember my teacher well; she was such a nice person and I don't think she read these stories with any malice intended. These were simply different times, and no one thought about children's books in terms of sensitivity and cultural awareness. These were just stories to her, and I'm sure they were just stories to the authors who wrote them and the illustrators who drew them.
But in a very segregated country as the United States was, these books reflected feelings of bias and racial superiority. Those very early books were horrid, but then a year or two later, there was A Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats—and there is a world of difference between A Snowy Day and those versions of Little Black Sambo or The Five Chinese Brothers.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Please talk about your experience growing up during the Civil Rights Era.
RITA WILLIAMS-GARCIA: I grew up in the storm of the Civil Rights era. One thing my character from One Crazy Summer, Delphine,and I have in common is that I was an avid newspaper reader and always sitting in front of the news [on television]. I didn't have to be told who was Dr. Martin Luther King or Malcolm X. I saw them on television. I heard their words. I would watch The David Frost Show just to hear the Black Panthers come on and speak their powerful rhetoric. I also learned I had family members who were involved—one of our cousins was a Black Panther member and was apparently involved in the hijacking of a plane.
I also remember very well when the Black arts movement and the militancy period began. I didn't have names for those things, but I saw things shift and observed that people within the Black community were divided along the lines of which way was best to proceed and how. When Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, that became more of the focus of the question: Which way do we go now, now that Dr. Martin Luther King is gone?
I was noting these things, not with any grand insights, but marking them, in my diaries at the time. [I marked] the days that King was assassinated, and Robert F. Kennedy, too, and the manhunts underway for both of their assassins.
I find it interesting that even though my father was in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968, and I was writing in a diary, I never wrote a word about him being in Vietnam. Even when he came home, which was a momentous occasion, I did not record that.
When my father did come home, it was 1968, and Senator Robert Kennedy was running for the Democratic nomination. He came to Monterey, California, and my father loaded us up in the car to go hear him speak. The things I remember most about attending that speech went into P.S. Be Eleven, like his hair flapping. I had never seen a grown white man with what was considered long hair at the time. I used that for Ma's tirade about how she loved the Kennedys but wouldn't vote for Bobby because of his hippie hair.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What appealed to you as a child about being a diarist?
RITA WILLIAMS-GARCIA: For me, the biggest appeal about a diary was that a diary had a lock and a key. I could write down my private thoughts that I would not try to publish—and yes, even back then I was trying to publish my work. But there was a distinction, for me, between what I wrote for the public and what I wrote for the private Rita Williams.
I was a diarist from about age ten through high school. I still have my diaries from 1967-1971, but I burned my high school diaries because I thought they were even sillier than the ones I kept when I was younger. At the time I wrote them I thought they were full of all sorts of secretive things no one should ever read about the life of a teenager, but they were, in fact, too silly for words. I just didn't want to leave any of that behind.
TEACHINGBOOKS: You published your first work at a very young age.
RITA WILLIAMS-GARCIA: Yes, my first publication was with Highlights magazine when I was fourteen. Prior to that, I had been sending stories out to national magazines, McCalls, Ladies' Home Journal, Playboy magazine, Ellery Queen magazine, hoping to sell a story. And then, something dawned on me: I ought to write a story about a kid, or children, instead of these adult stories I was writing at twelve or thirteen years old. What did I know about adults? Nothing.
In the fourth grade I had a friend named Corazon who had come from the Philippines. She and I became fast friends, and she would tell me all about her home country. So I decided to write and submit a story about how a little boy in the Philippines wanted to talk to birds, and his brother carved him a whistle out of bamboo.
The first time I finally saw my name underneath a story's title was a big moment. I signed the contract in 1972, but the story wasn't published until 1977 when I was a junior in college. It was an amazing feeling to see my name, Rita Williams, with "story by" in a recognized magazine. It initially meant a lot to me as a fourteen-year-old to know it would be published, mainly because I would be getting a paycheck. But seeing it all on paper years later made it real, and I felt it legitimized my desire to be a writer. I wasn't just dreaming it. This was real. Actually holding the magazine in my hands with my story and my name and very little about [the story] changed was tremendous and affirming for me.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Submitting stories for publication at any age can be daunting; how did you know, as such a young person, about the process?
RITA WILLIAMS-GARCIA: Since I vowed early on that I would always write, and decided when I was twelve that I would be a professional writer, the very first thing I did when our family moved back to New York from California was go to the public library. I went to the reference section and I found two books, The Writer's Market and The Writer's Handbook. I checked them out and read them religiously. Then I actually started keeping a notebook that contained all the tips I learned about publishing from those books—how to appear as professional as possible, submit work in the proper format, write a query letter and so on.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Please talk about Blue Tights, your first published novel.
RITA WILLIAMS-GARCIA: When I went to college I already considered myself a writer, so I didn't major in creative writing per se. I studied other things, and at the time I was very serious about dance. After college, I even told myself that I had to try to audition and live the life of a dancer for at least one year, which I did before getting a job at a fledgling software program company where I ended up working for many years before leaving to write full time.
But while I was in college and dancing, I also spent time working with high school girls who were reading at a third-grade level. I found I had a hard time finding a story they could read and that also reflected them and their experiences. In many ways, they were more mature at sixteen than I was at twenty-one. They had more life experience than I did, and I recognized that. It was because I could not find a book that matched that life experience and their interests that I began to write Blue Tights, which talked about self-esteem and self-awareness in the face of all that challenges a young black girl.
When I finished the first draft I was excited about the manuscript and figured I had a winner of a story. I thought it covered uncharted waters. After all, this was the 1980s, and a time when society hadn't caught up to the notion that there could be a positive image association with hips, thighs, and buttocks. I don't think that happened until the 1990s when people discovered Jennifer Lopez.
But at first, when I began to send the manuscript out into the world, no one understood what I was writing about. No one got why this girl was so obsessed with her behind. Shouldn't she be fighting racism and prejudice instead of being concerned with what her body looks like? Before it was finally published, I found that I seemed to be fighting the perceived notions of what a story about a young black girl should be about.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Your novel Like Sisters on the Homefront was a Coretta Scot King Honor winner. What inspired this story?
RITA WILLIAMS-GARCIA: Like Sisters on the Home Front was a story I always intended to write. I saw a lot of teen mothers when I was growing up in Jamaica, New York. Even after I graduated college, I would notice teen mothers with not just one child, but maybe two or three. It disturbed me greatly. I wanted to write a story about mothers who are still girls themselves, and not fully developed or fully educated. They may have some aspects of mothering down to a science, but the things that really allow a parent to nurture a child are missing in them.
TEACHINGBOOKS: One Crazy Summer is a Newberry Honor Book, National Book Award finalist, winner of both the Coretta Scott King and Scott O'Dell Awards, and your first novel for a middle-grade audience.
RITA WILLIAMS-GARCIA: After writing a few novels for teens, I recognized I was still a big kid myself—not so much a teen-kid, but a younger, enthusiastic kid, the kind of kid who still has a sense of wonder and interest in what is going on in the world around her. I wanted to capture that age for younger readers for a change, and since I grew up in the 1960s, I decided I'd like to go back to the time of my own childhood when I was eleven or twelve and write about that time period. One of the things I remember about the late 1960s was not only the emergence of the Black Panther Party, but the fact that there were kids who were involved. There were kids being served breakfasts, kids who were shown on the news holding signs, kids who attended rallies, and so on. This awareness of kids my age being a part of those things is what inspired my approach to One Crazy Summer.
TEACHINGBOOKS: One Crazy Summer is the story of a young girl, but it also introduces readers to an important time in U.S. history and different types of people, including a mom like Cecile, who is not a mom everyone is familiar with in books, let alone real life.
RITA WILLIAMS-GARCIA: One of my very favorite characters is Cecile for exactly that reason: she isn't your typical mother. She's quite complex. My own mother was actually wonderfully complex, though unlike Cecile, she was very much the woman of the house. She took care of every aspect of the household. But on the other hand, she was an artist in her own right. She could also be wildly unpredictable, at the same time that she was a domestic mother type.
I decided to let that unpredictability inspire Cecile's character. I thought, instead of a mother who is very sorry for leaving her family, what if she instead was absorbed with her reflections on women and their place in the movement—women who were fighting along with their people but also fighting for their own freedom from the expectations of womanhood?
I had a lot of fun creating the very scary, unpredictable Cecile, and I think she's one of those characters who asks the reader to interact personally with her. I like readers to interact with my books, to think long and hard about them and maybe take some of the characters, scenes, or dialogue and project more about them than what's on the page. To me, text is alive in the way it allows readers to get angry with characters, or understand them on a particular level. And I think books are successful when they allow the readers to insert themselves into the text. I believe Cecile is the type of character who begs readers to get involved with her.
I think Ma and Pa in P.S. Be Eleven do something similar in that they engage readers because of their contradictions. For example, take Big Ma and her love for the Kennedys. I think she loves the Kennedys in the way that people today are fascinated with the Kardashians. But as much as she needs to know what's happening with Jacquie O. and with Ted and so forth, it doesn't mean she would vote for a Kennedy. She is very much a Republican, but she loves the Kennedys.
Pa is fraught with contradictions, too, and I think it's those kinds of contradictions that make the characters a lot more human for readers. We recognize our own struggles with ourselves in them.
TEACHINGBOOKS: P.S. Be Eleven and Gone Crazy in Alabama continues the story of the Gaither sisters, whom readers meet in One Crazy Summer. Please talk about these sequels.
RITA WILLIAMS-GARCIA: P.S. Be Eleven is all about change. The girls have changed since they've come back from Oakland; they now have this revolutionary spirit that they did not have before. When they come home, they find things there have changed, too. Their father reveals something to them that they have to adjust to; women are running for political office; there are war protests going on throughout the country; their uncle isn't the same; the household is different. Change is happening everywhere, at all levels: the personal, the home, the community, and the world.
To say goodbye to all the characters who appeared in One Crazy Summer and P.S. Be Eleven, I decided I'd make family the center of the story in Gone Crazy in Alabama. I wanted to tell a very familial story, but a very American story, too, where questions like who are we and where do we come from come up. It was always Delphine's main worry that everybody was falling apart, and I wanted to satisfy that one issue deep within Delphine's heart: Are we still a family?
TEACHINGBOOKS: You've addressed some difficult subject matter in your novels, particularly those written for a YA audience.
RITA WILLIAMS-GARCIA: Definitely. I've addressed topics like teen pregnancy, abortion, school violence, rape, and abuse. But I think in each and every book, with the exception of No Laughter Here, the real story is the characters' struggle with themselves. It's always self-struggle, and no matter how intense the other subject matter, I don't like to take that away from the character. I believe with every story there's something within the main character that must be realized, and I like to give them the power to do that.
TEACHINGBOOKS: In addition to your novels, you've also written for younger readers.
RITA WILLIAMS-GARCIA: Picture books were my first reading material, so I've always loved the illustrations that help tell stories as much as the words that go with them. My first picture book was published in 2000, Catching the Wild Waiyuuzee, and it comes from something I used to say to my youngest daughter: Wait, you'll see, wait, you'll see how pretty you'll be. I had to chase her around the house to braid her hair, and she was very wily about it. I was certain I wasn't the only parent chasing a child around the house to get him or her to do things.
Now, finally, fifteen years later, my second picture book effort is The Bottle Cap Boys Dancing on Royal Street. It's my homage to New Orleans and the street performers, and it's illustrated by Damian Ward, who does a spectacular job.
TEACHINGBOOKS: You are a faculty member of the Vermont College of Fine Arts. What is your role there?
RITA WILLIAMS-GARCIA: I am a mentor to people who bring diversity to the program, and I take it very seriously. I'm always looking for new people and encouraging them to apply, not just to my school but to other schools with creative programs, or to take other steps to help them strengthen their craft and learn more about children's book writing and publishing.
There are certainly a lot of diverse people with writing and artistic talent who want to be published, but everyone who has those kinds of aspirations must be willing to submit themselves to the process of learning what it means to be a writer for children and teens, or to be an illustrator for them.
TEACHINGBOOKS: You've served as a juror on several committees, including the National Book Award, which you've also received. What has that experience been like, particularly in terms of diverse books?
RITA WILLIAMS-GARCIA: As someone who has served as a juror, I can tell you that it's an honor and a privilege to present books and to argue for books, period. But for me, it's been especially rewarding to present diverse books to a committee for consideration. It's also been exciting to see more and more diversity in the panels, which I think really helps to open up the discussion to a wider selection of books.
Generally speaking, I think that there is a huge need for diverse books to be more visible and available, though I do have concerns about the label, diverse books, which I think can enforce the idea that because a particular book has been called diverse, it is one to be taken out or purchased or read only on certain occasions.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Please talk about your writing process.
RITA WILLIAMS-GARCIA: My writing process is the only area of my life where organization is a huge factor. I have a step-by-step process for my writing. It begins with inspiration and it moves to daydreaming and thinking imaginatively—playing the what-if game with possibilities. Then I start getting into research, which helps story possibilities open up even more. I start to feel my characters out, and write small sketches of them and little snippets of dialogue. After that, I start to tell myself the story and begin to hand-write it in a notebook.
After about four months or so, I'll start typing and writing what I think is chapter one. I also might write an outline or make diagrams that will help me visualize the direction of the story. I keep a file full of images of different things that are in my stories because sometimes seeing a picture of them can help to inspire a simile or metaphor, or help me think more deeply about something.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What do you do when you get stuck?
RITA WILLIAMS-GARCIA: When I get stuck, it's usually an indication that I'm not ready to do what has to be done, or the thing that I've just written simply isn't truthful or working. And that means I have to clear my head.
So I step away from it, and I usually do that at the gym. I train in boxing, and boxing has always helped me get through rough spots because being physical makes me let go of the mental struggles for a while. Then, when I come back to the writing, I can come to grips with what it is I have to do. I'll say something like, Okay, Rita, you know you want Hirohito here in this story instead of there, and to do that, you have to take a bunch of this out, even the ending you planned.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What do you like to tell students when you talk to them?
RITA WILLIAMS-GARCIA: I think what I enjoy most about going to schools is showing kids who I am. I'm still just kind of a big, silly kid, and I can't hide it. I want children to see that they don't have to let go of who they are, and I want them to understand that it's okay to be goofy, to let go of the cool stuff. The main thing is that they be themselves and celebrate themselves, and let people know them as they truly are.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What do you like to tell educators?
RITA WILLIAMS-GARCIA: As long as students are writing honestly and earnestly, there are no wrong answers, so I get concerned when kids want to know what the right answer is in writing. I like to remind educators that we need to encourage kids to think for themselves as writers, and of course, to be good critical thinkers and readers.
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