Reflecting on Rachel Renee Russell’s Writers Digest Interview

The Rachel Renee Russell Writers Digest (January 2015) interview that prompted this post is actually not available online; though you can find outtakes and insights from that interview on the WD website. I wanted to speak a little bit on a couple of things that jumped out at me just now from reading the interview.

Like this exchange about the publishing industry and writers of colour.

Q. Do you feel that minorities as a whole are underserved by the publishing industry?
A. Oh, most definitely! There’s always the fear that [a book with] an African American character is not going to sell as well, or is not going to be well-received by readers or the book-buying population. I can understand that, but I think some of it is created by the publishing industry.

There was a bookstore – I think it was Borders – that would file all of the African American books together in one section. If the books were non-fiction, I could see where it would make sense, because you do have African American history. But [they] put all of the African American books in the same section for fiction – which would not be such a problem for an adult author. But if you’re a children’s author, more than likely the children are going to be hanging out in the children’s section [where your books aren’t shelved]…

Then you have to worry about publishers thinking that your book is not going to sell to anyone but black people – and of course you want to sell to everybody. You want your book to be embraced by everybody in the world. As an African American author, there are challenges.”

As an African Caribbean author there are similar challenges so this jumped out at me. Of course, I’ve written across the spectrum – children’s, teen/young adult, adult – I don’t think black adult writers have it easier than children’s writers, and I guess I don’t quite understand why books can’t be filed according to demographics and according to genre – like, why is it either/or. But maybe there are just too many books in the world and though Oh Gad! for instance Launch photo Eustace Samuelmay appeal to readers who favour women’s fiction, or readers who favour adult dramatic fiction, or readers looking for black fiction, or readers interested in Caribbean or world fiction, it can only sit in one category never to be found by those strolling the other aisles. Assuming it makes it into the bookshop at all. Like I said there are a lot of books. I have to admit though I think a Musical Youth for instance Musical Youth could move more units if filed in the teen/young adult section, not only the black book or Caribbean books section. There’s a teen of whatever race who won’t wander over the black books section who might be able to relate to it, and it frustrates me a teensie bit that they might never find it. So anyway I get what she’s saying.

She also had an interesting comment about writing a character of another race as she does in her Dork series – “when Nikki popped into my head, she was a white girl. I don’t know why, but she just was…” This, I have to admit this is something I’ve struggled with. Not with Aeden in Oh Gad! though he is neither black nor is he from the same Antigua I’m from if we take certain class distinctions into account. But I never felt like I didn’t know him – even with him being a him (at least not once he corrected me about his name). But there’s a long-in-gestation work-in-progress with a caucasion character with whom the struggle is very real; I don’t want to hover on the surface of her so I’m working to get into her skin, to understand her though we are of different races, nationalities, ages, cultures…so many miles between us and yet she is insistent that she is a part of this story that I’m struggling to tell for reasons that have only partially to do with her, and of which she is only one part, but a significant one. I’m not resisting her, I like the challenge, and I also like that parts of her feel familiar. Then there’s the story I recently submitted somewhere where the man’s voice, though he’s black, is so different from the familiar Caribbean cadence all around me, to the point that before hitting send I worried that I would be perceived as both imposer and imposter, but after several go-arounds with him, I had to acknowledge that it was as surely his voice as if he was standing in front of me speaking to me. Point is when characters come, as much as I embrace writing my world, and through programmes like Wadadli Pen, encourage young Antiguan and Barbudan writers to do the same rather than defaulting to stories about the people and things we’ve been conditioned to believe stories are about, when characters seemingly out of step with the world we know or the world as we think we know it show up, as long as they’re true and themselves, a writer can’t help but listen to and try to understand them.

Finally, an interesting insight about her process; when writing, she can’t get more than a chapter ahead of the illustrations – as in she can’t write the whole thing and then say to the illustrator, okay, now, draw. The images help to inspire the telling. That was interesting to me and a reminder that every writer has her/his process and you have to do what works for you.


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