I got some promising news from the publisher of Musical Youth this past week. Can’t share it yet, but I can share this previously unpublished interview that I did shortly after the book’s launch.
What inspired you to tell this story?
I’m a music lover. It was probably inevitable that I’d someday write a book inspired and driven by my love of music.
How did you begin? Did you research or do other prep work, or jump right in?
Jumped right in. Pretty sure I should have been asleep when these teens showed up one ‘foreday morning intent on telling me of their musical dreams, friendships, romantic entanglements, fears, families, discoveries, adventures, and the excitement of embarking on a summer production that would ultimately change their lives. They were persistent, and it was a matter of trying to keep up with them on what turned out to be kind of an epic but compacted writing binge.
What is your writing process like? What do you do when you feel stuck or stumped?
Well, I’m feeling stuck and stumped right now. Stuck because of time. Stumped because when I do make the time the snippets I’ve written aren’t quite fitting together into a narrative that makes sense. And that provides some hint of my process. I write to discover, so in that first draft I’m rushing forward or inching forward, but it’s forward, not all over the place like I am right now. Usually it starts with the character and different moments, feelings, impressions, ideas weave their way in; but I picture it as a character kind of taking me by the hand and pulling me into her/his story. Once I have a first full draft down, I tinker. With longer works, novels, because I also write stories and poems, it takes months, years to get that first draft down, so the tinkering happens as I dip back into the world of the story but then hopefully I keep moving forward until I figure out what the story is about. The redrafting and editing allows me to fine tune, rip out what doesn’t fit, shade in what needs colouring, texturing. If the story I’m working on isn’t happening, I’ll work on something else, just step away from it for a while. I write best at night, I don’t write best in absolute quiet – so music is a good companion, but I grew up having to write with life happening around me, so silence is actually quite distracting. I try to schedule writing time every day, and I try to do something writing related during that writing time even if the story I need to be working on isn’t happening. The scheduling is more a reminder to myself to prioritize my writing even if the writing itself sees fit to rebel against being wrestled into a schedule; it comes best when I’m just walking or taking the bus or driving or feeling life – times when my brain is kind of just idling. I always have something to write with because of this. And I always have a book on go, because I also find reading not only entertaining but inspiring. Having goals is a motivator for me as well, if there’s somewhere I want to submit or just a workshop activity – oh working with other writers, as I do as a workshop facilitator and writing coach, is actually quite stimulating as well. But there’s no single thing I do to get myself out of the rut… whatever works.
What’s the most surprising or unexpected thing you learned about the creative process while writing your book?
Sometime after I wrote and published Musical Youth, I discovered an unfinished story called the Guitar Lessons, and I could see the link between my personal story and Guitar Lessons and Guitar Lessons and Musical Youth. It reminded me of this poem called Stealing Life that I’d written years earlier, about how we, writers, kind of snatch and store bits and pieces of things, pulling them out without realizing it like a seamstress digging through his or her basket of scraps while sewing a patchwork quilt. It wasn’t a discovery so much as reminder but I did blog about it here It’s a reminder as well that sometimes you have to push but sometimes the story will emerge when it’s ready.
I’m most surprised though that I was able to write a full first draft in roughly two weeks. Not recommended by the way, but maybe the fact that the scraps were already scattered inside me waiting to be sewn together is what made it doable. The story was ready to be told and the characters thankfully were a joy to be with so the telling though …feverish… and tightly focused was fun.
What was the hardest part, and what was your favorite part?
Plotting is always a struggle for me. There has to be an internal coherence to the story, a logic to the flow of the narrative. Character, voice, pacing, tone, these things came fairly easily – the chemistry between the characters, Shaka and Zahara as young love blossomed, Shaka and his crew, their camaraderie, the melding of kids from different backgrounds as they take on a challenge, a number of challenges, was actually fun. But this particular story had some underlying themes and some reveals that required careful handling in the case of the plot, making sure the backstory is consistent with what’s now being revealed etc. Thank God for editing and at the same time editing was my personal hell – so much to do in a very tight window because the original draft had been so rough and the publishing deadline was so tight, the book having been fast tracked after the manuscript placed second for the Burt Award for Young Adult Caribbean literature. In the end, I’m happy with how it turned out – but between addressing structural issues and fighting for what I felt was essential and picking my way through the things that needed clipping and additional writing for texturing and to better connect certain dots – it was stressful.
If you could meet three authors (living or not), who would you choose and why? OR What author do you read for inspiration? OR Who are three authors who inspire you?
Well, if I could have a lime without the social pressure of being chatty and interesting myself, I’d gladly sit over drinks and nibbles with Jamaica Kincaid, Edwidge Dandicat and Zora Neale Hurston soaking up their stories, and wisdom. I’ve actually met and had drinks with Jamaica, Edwidge is my literary crush – I love everything she writes especially Farming of Bones and Create Dangerously, and I’m fascinated by Zora’s adventures, in love with her spirit and talent, saddened by the arc of her life, and encouraged by the post-note to it, to which a lot of credit I think has to go to Alice Walker, another woman I would like at that lime. (lime: Antiguan for social gathering/hanging out).
What’s the best writing advice you have been given?
I honestly can’t think of one solo piece of advice off the top of my head; but you know which writing book I’ll be recommending forever and ever I think, Stephen King’s On Writing. Lots of good advice in that one. And for the mechanics, I always return to Janet Burraway’s Writing Fiction.
Please ask and answer one question you wish I’d asked.
Stumped again… I suppose, since this is an American blog and I am a Caribbean writer, I could ask something like why would a reader from America be interested in books by a writer from Antigua. My answer, it’s an imaginative road trip to a different culture, and the realization at the end of it that wherever they rest their heads at night, people are, after all, just people. My characters for all their differences from your reality are still people – and I’ve found as a reader and writer that even within the differences it’s often possible to find something relatable. The best writing, in my view, doesn’t pander to that idea but lets its characters live and breathe, and the open reader can really have an enriching experience stepping into that other-world as it is and just breathing it in. If you’re anything like me, you’ll like the adventure of exploring a different world for a while, all without leaving home; though travel is fun too.
By the way, you can find out more about me and my books here https://jhohadli.wordpress.com