Monday, June 21, 2010
INquiry XI: Rita Williams-Garcia
Today we welcome prolific author, Rita Williams-Garcia
Rita is the author of seven award-winning novels including Jumped, Like Sisters on the Homefront and Every Time a Rainbow Dies. She continues to break new ground in young people's literature with her latest work, One Crazy Summer. Known for their realistic portrayal of teens of color, Williams-Garcia's works have been recognized by the Coretta Scott King Award Committee, PEN/Norma Klein Award, American Library Association, and Parents' Choice, among others. She recently served on the National Book Award Committee for Young People's Literature, and she sponsors a short story contest for young writers. Read more about Rita and her work at www.ritawg.com.
EEM: Did you always want to be a writer?
RWG: Pretty much from the crib. As a girl I loved making up stories. I’d quit a game of kickball to go off and daydream. This didn’t exactly endear me to my sister and brother or friends but once a scene or idea popped into my head, I’d want to see it through. When I was twelve I found The Writer’s Market and The Writer’s Handbook and a lot of rejection. I felt like a writer. It was great.
EEM: When you began writing, was it instant success and riches or did you find you had to work other jobs in order to continue your dream of being a writer?
RWG: A cabin in the woods with a typewriter. A Pulitzer Prize. One million dollars. Bookshelves filled with works by Rita Williams. Then I’d open that rejection letter. Thank goodness I knew rejection early on. I sold a story to Highlights Magazine at 14 and a short story to Essence Magazine (never published) while in college. But the novel that I’d written in college would languish eight years before it got whipped into total submission. In the meanwhile, I studied dance in the heart of New York City at Phil Black’s dance studio and at Alvin Ailey’s while I auditioned for shows. “Just let me be good enough to make the next cut,” was my mantra. I never thought I’d land a job. My boobs were too big for my then smallish frame, and I couldn‘t sing. I just wanted to be good enough to audition.
EEM: What jobs have you held, current or in the past, to help sustain your writing career?
RWG: I was tempted to audition for a semi-nude dance gig on a cruise line, but changed my mind. Shortly after, I answered an ad in the NY Times for an office assistant at a company that created software for advertisers and media. In exchange for low pay, I asked for time off to audition and to use the company typewriters before and after office hours to rewrite my novel. Even though it was office work I wore pants to avoid slips and nylon stockings. Dancers didn’t wear slips, girdles, and pantyhose--only church ladies and office workers. I refused to buy a coffee mug because my stint as “office worker” was temporary. Hah! I met a man, got married, had children, a series of promotions, got my MA in Creative Writing, and even managed to write and publish five novels while under the employment of the same company. So much for temporary.
EEM: What was the most challenging thing about this job?
RWG: My company had a strange way of promoting. It wasn’t so much a promotion but a piling on. “Since you’ve handled that responsibility, we’ll give you more in addition to what you‘re doing now.” In spite of being a software systems company, there was little development for in-house technologies, so I created my own systems to perform my job. During data releases to our international clients, I worked until the wee hours of the morning and had to be on site early morning to deal with issues. Although I was writing my novels, I didn’t have time to be an author. Besides write, and rewrite, I had not a clue what authors did. I couldn’t have named ten current authors in the YA or children’s book world. Jackie Woodson. Walter Dean Myers. Bruce Brooks. Virginia Hamilton. It all got murky after that.
EEM: What was your favorite thing about this job?
RWG: I enjoyed teaching myself database management systems. Problem solving, tracking “cause,” and ruling out were fun to me. This can only happen if that happened first. These are symptoms of those types of problems. Back then, working the logic centers of my brain released endorphins. Now I struggle to remember which book I meant to grab from the bookshelf.
EEM: Least Favorite?
RWG: My least favorite part of my job was sitting in meetings and listening to projections. Not that it was boring, but that the plans and projections were always scrapped or set aside to deal with “real world” issues. Why not start with those to begin with? Only when I write do I enjoy sitting still.
EEM: Did your day job allow you to write regularly? Or did you have to get creative to get those word counts in? What other effects did it have on your writing?
RWG: I was allowed to come in an hour later, which gave me a relatively smooth train ride to get some work done. I used my vacation and personal days for any author appearances. In some ways my job was actually supportive of my writing career--especially co-workers who had watched me from those early typewriter days. However, the stress of my job was tremendous. I spent a good deal of my energy thinking about work related problems and of course, doing the actual work. When I slept, my dreams were related to work. After 25 years with the company I had to pack up my coffee mug and resign.
EEM: Have you ever based a loved protagonist or an evil villain on one of your co-workers? Wished you had?
RWG: Nah. I kept my writing self separate from my day job self. A funny thing happened about ten years ago. I was in Bryant Park writing during my lunch hour. I get into a rhythm when I write and once I’m “in” I don’t notice the world around me. When I came back to the office, two co-workers approached me. They told me they saw me in the park writing but were afraid to say hi because they weren’t sure it was me. Apparently my face changes when I write.
EEM: What are you working on now and is the process any easier than when you started out?? If so, in what capacity (people noticing it, the writing itself, the confidence?)
RWG: I’m writing a gaming novel. It’s the same as my other work in that it gives my mind something fun to do. It has many challenges built in as I imagine deeply and work through each one. But I’m afraid what will be noticed is that it’s a different work, a different genre, when in actuality all of my work is different from each one. Still, I’m a long way from the slew of rejections. I still get them, but I also have published work. It also helps that I work part time for the VCFA Writing for Children and Young People MFA. Working with other writers forces me to articulate what I know. The biggest perk is having more time to be a writer. Think about writing. Daydream about my characters.
EEM: Would you change anything if you could begin your writing journey over again?
RWG: I’d program myself to be more natural about the state-of-being verb. Seriously.
I used to say I should have studied Communications and Creative Writing as an undergrad instead of Economics (which then morphed into a Liberal Arts degree). The jobs I tried to get after college were copywriting for advertising agencies and editorial for magazines. Today I’d be a creative director on Madison Avenue or an editor for The Utne Reader or Knitter’s World. Or, I should have gone to Hollywood to write sitcoms (I used to study the breaks and beats as a kid) or crime serials. Truth is, if I had a paying creative job when I got out of school I wouldn’t have clung to my serially rejected novel. I think I’m working the job I’m meant to have.
EEM: Brilliant! Thank you so much, Rita!