Interview with Award-Winning Author Kekla Magoon

How itGet to know Kekla…

Kekla Magoon is the author of five young adult novels: How It Went Down, Camo Girl, 37 Things I Love, Fire in the Streets, and The Rock and the River, for which she received the ALA Coretta Scott King New Talent Award and an NAACP Image Award nomination. She also writes non-fiction on historical topics, including Today the World is Watching You: The Little Rock Nine and the Fight for School Integration 1957-58 and the forthcoming PANTHERS! The History and Legacy of the Black Panther Party in America. Raised in a biracial family in the Midwest, Kekla now teaches writing in New York City, conducts school and library visits nationwide, and serves on the Writers’ Council for the National Writing Project. Kekla holds a B.A. in History from Northwestern University and an M.F.A. in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. For more info, visit her website.

Quirky Questions 

What do you consider your nicest feature? What about your worst feature?

My hair. My hair. (It’s complicated.) 

What would motivate you to run a marathon?

Not a thing on this earth.

If you were to write a song about your high school years, what would you title it?

EVERYTHING IS AWESOME (and other forms of denial). 

I am so much smarter than _________.

I used to be. 

Have you ever broken a bone? What happened?

No. I am invincible. (Except for how I cut and burn and trip myself all the time. So, scratch that. I have just been super lucky.) 

What have you tried in life, and simply were not good at?

Waterskiing. (Unless, of course, by “waterskiing,” you mean “repeatedly face-planting in the Caribbean.” I am AMAZING at that.) 

If you were to sell something at an auction, what would you sell?

Something I knitted. There would be no chance it would properly fit anyone, but it would be cute. I’m confident that I could make fives—if not tens!—of dollars in this endeavor. 

What are you most neurotic about?

Neurotic? Who said anything about being neurotic? Why would you assume I’m neurotic? What did you see that made you say that? Who have you been talking to? 

Can you share an embarrassing story?

No. That would be embarrassing. 

What is the strongest bond you have with an inanimate object?

Ahem. (See answer above.) 

What one word describes your bedroom?

Book-mania. 

What is the meanest thing you can say to someone?

Depends on the person. 

What celebrity/actor irritates you the most?

It’s a secret. And here’s why: If I admit such a thing publicly, someone will probably someday ask said actor/actress to star in a movie based on one of my books, and some fan will dig up this interview and tweet it to Entertainment Tonight, and there will be a hoopla, and my un-made-up face will be printed in Star magazine with a byline like AUTHOR BLASTS FILM STAR, and then I’ll be forced to apologize. It’s not worth the risk. 

If you were the personal assistant to one celebrity, who would you choose?

I would make a terrible personal assistant. 

If you could be a contestant on any game show, which would you choose?

What is: Jeopardy! 

What is one thing you could probably not lift over your head?

My mother’s 1986 Volvo station wagon. 

theriverandtherockWriting Questions

Do you do anything special to get your creative juices flowing?

Yes. However, I cannot reveal trade secrets.

What are your words of wisdom for someone starting out in the field of writing?

Unfortunately words of wisdom only get you so far. Eventually you have to sit down and write.

How would you define creativity?

According to Wikipedia, creativity is “a phenomenon whereby something new and valuable is created,” a thing which can then “manifest itself in any number of ways.” According to me, creativity begins when you stop looking things up on Wikipedia. It’s a little messy, and hard to define, but you know it when you see it.

What impact (good or bad) do you think the media has had on your work?

This may be a question meant to speak to how I feel about press coverage of my books, but I’m going to take it a different way. My editor, Noa, and I were inspired to start work on my upcoming novel HOW IT WENT DOWN because of media. We watched with distress the media storm around the tragic shooting of Trayvon Martin, and in the following months, I began writing this novel about a community thrown into chaos in the wake of a (fictional) controversial shooting. So I do think that when I write realistic, contemporary fiction, I consider how the issues I tackle in my fiction are dealt with in the real world, which means grappling with media representations of issues like race, gender, bias, and violence, which play a role in several of my books.

When did you know for certain that you wanted to pursue a career in writing? Have you ever questioned that decision?

When I was 25. I question it all the time, from a practicality standpoint, but otherwise, no, I’m very happy to be doing what I am doing.

What traits, if any, do you think that creative people have compared to people who are not creative?

I think everyone is (or can be) creative. The trait those of us who define ourselves as creative share is the willingness to accept and embrace our natural creative energy as a defining feature of our existence.

Have you ever felt that your personal expectations have limited your creativity? If so, how have you dealt with this?

I’m a perfectionist. If anything, that means that my personal expectations are higher than what I can realistically achieve. I think that’s good, though. It forces me to stretch and become better. And with a subjective thing like writing, it’s impossible to ever achieve something perfect, so there’s a good life lesson tucked in there as well, about doing your best and then letting it go.

Do you ever feel that you have to censor your creativity because you don’t want to offend anyone?

No. I don’t worry about offending people. Mainly because I can’t control or predict what will offend someone. It is not my job to worry about how people will receive what I write. I do seriously consider things like whether or not to use certain language in my books, and I decide based on what I think will serve my book and my audience best. I don’t believe I am censoring myself by considering those issues while writing (or revising). Most of the time, the content in my books that a minority of people find “offensive” is bigger than the language and is often more about the themes or messages they inferred from my material, whether I intended to send that message or not.

Why were you drawn to a career in writing instead of to a job that might offer more stability and security?

Um…passion? Hope? Aspiration? A touch of the crazy?

Who do you consider a literary genius?

Genius is in the eye of the beholder. I think J.K. Rowling is a genius at storytelling and world-building. As a reader, I will follow her anywhere. I find Suzanne Collins utterly compelling, as well as the quick action and humor of Rick Riordan—they are popular for a reason. Stephen King is amazing and writes with great clarity about writing itself in On Writing. For beauty of language and overall literary quality, I love reading Jennifer Egan and Benjamin Alire Saenz. Their writing makes me want to sit down and write to the best of my ability. I find that inspiring.

How did you pick your writing genre?

I write lots of genres, for both middle grade and young adult. I write what comes naturally to me sometimes, which tends to be contemporary realistic fiction, historical fiction, and creative non-fiction. Other times I get ideas that take me out of my comfort zone and I strive to follow them and stretch myself creatively. So I am doing fantasy and sci-fi novels, short stories, essays, poetry and other new writing adventures.

How do you know when a book is finished?

The typical answer authors give here is either that you just know, or that a book is never finished. The truth is somewhere in between. Every book is “done” several different times in its life. There is the moment when you complete a first draft, the moment when you complete your revisions and it’s ready to submit, the moment when you finish the editorial process and send it to copyediting, and the moment when you realize you can’t many any more changes and it’s about to go to the printer. For me, most often, a book is done when its deadline comes around!

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