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Real Moments

An Interview with Angela Johnson

by Andrea Maxworthy O'Brien

Angela Johnson is the acclaimed author of novels, short stories, poetry and picture books, many of which focus on realistic topics such as teen pregnancy, death, and adoption. In 2004 her novel The First Part Last was awarded both the Coretta Scott King Award and the Michael L. Printz Award. She has twice previously won the Coretta Scott King Award, for Heaven (1999) and Toning the Sweep (1994, and twice more won Coretta Scott King Honors for The Other Side: Shorter Poems (1999) and When I am Old with You (1991). Ms. Johnson was the recipient of a MacArthur Genius Award in 2003. The MacArthur Foundation cited her ability to sensitively address serious topics “in ways that are believable, humorous and hopeful.” Angela generously shared laughter and insight during a telephone interview on September 14, 2005. She delivered the 8th Annual Charlotte Zolotow Lecture on October 5, 2005.

AO: In 2003 you were honored with a MacArthur Genius Award. What was your initial reaction to the award?

AJ: I’m still sort of speechless. When it was happening, it was just a normal sweep the crumbs off the floor day and something like that comes out of the blue. You sit around and you write all day and you never know what impact you’re making until the actual book comes out. When you are in your office and you’ve sent your entire aura back into a child’s mind or what you think a teenager would do in a certain situation you’re pretty cut off. So when the adult world reaches out and says someone has actually read something or paid attention to your work, it’s just really amazing. At the time I remember I kept cleaning my kitchen and thinking, those daisies really need to be deadheaded.

It was overwhelming. The first week was just incredible. The second, third, and fourth week were just overwhelming. I took to my bed and didn’t get out for like a week. I live in a small area, I was on the front page. I beat out the basketball championship, which in the Midwest is a big deal. It was just a little too much for me. Even though I love people, I’m very private.

Actually my life is very little changed. I’m not one of those people who went out and bought a car, because I don’t drive. I didn’t buy a house or anything.

AO: Besides the publicity of being on the front page of the newspaper, what other opportunities has the MacArthur Award given you?

AJ: I don’t know how big an opportunity that was, an anti-opportunity, opportunity question mark. We want people to be handed to us. It’s easy for a population of people to say, “this group of people picked you, and so you must be amazing. Come join us.” It’s easier for us when someone tells us this is good music. It’s a stretch when you have to go to the little club and discover the music. You always hear about the manager who found this unknown group. They were starving and he found them by the waterfront in this little bar. This little writer, she’s been writing for thirty years and she’s only done chapbooks. All of a sudden she’s brilliant and incredible. As a species, it’s just easier for us in a pack. More than anything this has opened up for me the idea that there is a difference between your art and how the world views you.

During the last ten years in the literary world, it’s suddenly become cool for adult writers to write a children’s book. So everybody kicks one out. But this is my world and the world of thousands of other writers. This world is important and the wonderful thing I think about the MacArthur is the acknowledgment of children’s book writers.

AO: Tell me about what a typical workday is like for you, besides sweeping the crumbs off the floor.

AJ: Most of the day is sweeping the crumbs off the floor, or sweeping them in the corner, so that if someone does come over they are not stepping in them. They are there though. I wish I could say I got up in the morning, brushed my teeth, had my coffee and went to my office and started writing. I’ve never been able to do that. The only time I can achieve a modicum of success doing that is when I have a deadline. But a normal day on a day that I do write… I get up early and get a cup of coffee. Of course, I’m in my pajamas, because I spend probably two-thirds of my life in something that’s big, baggy and comfortable. When I’m writing I’m usually staying in it and by the time a book is finished I have to throw it away. I’m sitting at the computer, usually with music, trying to get some sense of where I’m at in a book. That’s a good day. I usually write for maybe 3-and-a-half, 4 hours. Then the afternoon happens. It is very important to me to write in the morning, it’s quiet. I live alone. But to me the quiet is to know most of the world around me is still asleep and my head is not full of people. It’s comforting for me to know that most of the population is still asleep and my thoughts are able to zoom around much easier, plus there are no phones ringing.

Even though I write for children I’m not a child. Sometimes it takes everything I have to remember. I mean I have nieces and nephews. I have called my niece and said, “ your friend just did this, what would be your reaction?” What I’m really asking her is would this be a true reaction from a 14-year girl if this situation came up. Sometimes it doesn’t come so easily, but other times I’ve flown into this world of adolescence, or childhood, and I’m right there. I was writing A Cool Moonlight, a book about this very young child. I was in the world of an 8-year and there was nothing I didn’t know. But conversely I’ve been writing about a 16-year-old father and I got stuck a couple of times.

AO: Yes, I was curious about Bobby, the main character of The First Part Last, who is a high school senior faced with the responsibilities of single fatherhood. How did you prepare yourself to write from the perspective of an adolescent male? How were you able to keep Bobby and his circumstances so realistic?

AJ: Actually I have to say I had an hour-long conversation with my younger brother, who’s a perpetual adolescent. As his daughter says, he’s just a big old kid. I sat down before I started writing the book and I told him what I was going to do. I said I’m writing this character, would you mind if when I am totally at odds about what a 16-year-old boy would do, would you mind if I call you up and read you the part?

The interesting thing is what my brother said I shouldn’t do [or what] he wouldn’t say … to his friends. Actually his friends would get on him about certain things. They would love him and they would care about his feelings, but this is the point they would say something mean. It’s very male. You crack a joke, if something is getting a little bit too emotional. With my teenage godson all of a sudden a very funny vicious joke comes out of his mouth. Or he cracks on his buddy, or the buddy cracks on him, they sort of look at each other and go off to play basketball. Whereas, the girls would go “what do you think, what do you feel?” The guys would just hit each other in the head and go “come on let’s get out of here.” That was the only part I had to get over. The instances where I wanted to talk about an emotion and my brother said, do something else but [don't] talk about it. Let him go over and kiss his daughter. Let him look as his friends and smile, or let him just shrug his shoulder and walk away. Something that is going to convey what you want, that he is thinking he adores them, he loves them, he understands them, he’s mad at them. He said the problem would be what you will portray and not say. My brother is quite brilliant, he’s a perpetual child but he’s a male and he’s got the relationship down with other males. That’s actually how I did it. I kept thinking about my brother. A lot of the character of Bobby was, the unsaid. I had to live in his head. I had to do a lot of living in a 16-year-old-boy’s head, which can be a scary place.

AO: Bird, your recent novel, is alternately narrated by three characters whose lives intricately intersect in ways that aren’t initially revealed to the characters or the reader. Did you begin with all three characters and their connections in mind?

AJ: Secondary characters have always been more interesting to me than the primary characters in my book. The friends are more interesting to me. I write such character-driven books. I’m horrible for plot, absolutely horrible, and the one thing that I’ve always loved ever since I was a child has been mysteries. Or in mysteries the way people are living their lives in one house, living their lives in another house, and something happens and they intersect or they just pass. I’ve always been intrigued about how people are just going along in life and one person comes through and changes everyone’s life. It’s almost theater.

With Bird I got to have all my secondary characters be primary. I realized that a lot of my secondary characters were people I might want to actually know. The friends always got more freedom because the primary character always had to be themselves. You had to take them from point A to B. Even if they were totally wild they still had to stay true to form. Whereas the friends, one minute they could say this, one minute they could say that, because they’re interjecting. With Bird, I got to live out a fantasy.

AO: In chapter 14 of Bird, Ethan reveals “I like the school bus because I’m a watcher. There’s the kids like me. We usually sit in the middle of the bus so we can check everybody out. Then there’s the real smart ones who sit anywhere and block everybody out while they’re reading or doing more work. The scared kids try to sit close to the bus driver and the hoods sit where they want and do whatever they want.” I wondered if you were a watcher too, like Ethan, or if you would put yourself in one of the other groups?

AJ: I was a watcher, but I was also one of the smarter kids. I was a cheerleader, for goodness sake, but I always had such different friends. I know a lot of people do, but I really had this incredible spectrum of people that I wanted to be with. Of course, none of them liked each other, because they were in totally different groups. There were the brilliant kids. There were the jocks. There were the interesting literary kids. There were just the everyday "I’m coming to school, I’m getting decent grades, let’s go out and have fun after school" kids. There were the complete hoods, whom I adored, because they were more interesting then anybody else. When I went to school hoods weren’t hoods like they are now, no one had weapons. They were raging against whatever they were raging against. I put myself completely in the middle. I had the security of having a lot of friends, but I also had the security of not being with anyone if I didn’t want to be. I could sit at a lunch table by myself and be completely secure. But there was a security of being a watcher. I obviously was just bound to be a writer because I found people so much more interesting when I wasn’t talking to them, when I was just listening to them talk to other people.

AO: In the scene near the end of the book Bird, I expected Bird to greet her stepfather Cecil on his early morning run and do what she set out to do, convince him to return with her to Ohio and her mother. I was stunned when she jumped into the high grass to hide, while Cecil kept running. Bird never revealed that she had been there. I expected a confrontation. Did you consider a conversation between Bird and Cecil?

AJ: Never. Never considered it. Obviously Bird was written by a grown woman who knew that very rarely do those happy Disney endings happen. I’m going to expand on that a little. When I write my books I’m not in that genre of stupid parent books where every adult in the book is clueless, mindless and stupid. The kids are in pain. The kids are injecting drugs. They are in massive pain and no adult seems to get it. It was very important to me that the adults can be distant. The adults can even be neglectful, but at some point there needs to be a safety net someplace. I gave Bird the safety net of the older woman, and even of her mother’s love. But the pain was so much that she left her mother to find this man. There had to come a point in everything that Bird had seen for a realization to come over her as the footsteps were coming near her that if this man had truly wanted to be with her mother and truly wanted to be with her, he would have made it work. There wasn’t going to be a happy ending. She met people who had lost things and this was going to be her loss. She didn’t remember the loss of the first father, so that’s what drove her to this loss, to look for him. It came to her that nothing would come of it.

AO: Did you know right from the beginning of the book she wouldn’t meet him?

AJ: I always knew that she wouldn’t meet him from the beginning. It was all about the journey. It had to be about the people she met, the kindnesses done for her, how she dealt with where she was. This man was no longer going to be a part of that. He left without saying a word. He left a gift. People were feeding her; people were taking her into their homes. People were spending time with her; the boys were just lovely to her. The old woman let her come into her house. These are people taking care of her. She realized that this man was no longer going to do that and there was going to be nothing she could say. I very rarely have happy moments at the ends of my books. I have lots of real moments.

In my first novel they just left. The grandmother was dying in Toning the Sweep and at the end, it wasn’t about "she got cured or she went with us and lived a long time." It was "she packed up the house at the end and she left." With Bird, she listened to her stepfather running and she realized some people come and some people stay. He wasn’t going to stay and there was nothing she could do.

AO: I suppose the question is, do you read to totally escape or do you read to learn about people and their problems?

AJ: I’ve always read to learn and to experience. I read the literature I love to find out about human emotions and the human psyche. It’s been very, very important to me to get it, to get it about humans or I can’t write about them.

AO: I understand that you wanted to write poetry for adults, that it is your first and last love. I hear poetry in your style and in your characters too, for example “Ethan holds his chest when he talks and Jay talks like his heart is in his hands.” (Bird, p.98) or “the world whispers when Mama is near” (Bird, p. 18) How do you craft a sentence like these? How much revision and editing are involved?

AJ: I have a friend who says I write in poetry because I am lousy at dialogue. She’s right. It’s easier, it’s natural, and that’s my first instinct. It becomes difficult for me when I have to form a complete conversation. Those lines come as natural to me as drinking water. Anything else is where editing and crafting have to come in. I’m lucky in a way. My writing is not for everyone. I’ve had kids go “can’t these people talk to each other a little bit more.” A lot of people need the conversation, they need less of the emotion, not that they don’t want the emotion. They want the unsaid said. They want to be fed. They want the story handed to them. They want the words [to] tell them what [characters] are feeling. I’m really not very good at that. The poetry comes so much easier for me. I love opening a book of poetry, and I love opening a novel that is poetry.

AO: Tell me about the creation of the picture book A Sweet Smell of Roses. Where did the initial inspiration for the story come?

AJ: I wrote A Sweet Smell of Roses because one of my favorite documentaries is Eyes on the Prize. When I first saw Eyes on the Prize my favorite part was the interviews with the two young girls. You’ll see them on adult shoulders; you’ll see them hand in hand with other adults. None of the adults were their parents, which is very telling about the times. Complete strangers would take care of these little kids. Dogs would be attacking. People would be hosing people. These little kids were secure in the fact that even though there were people who were out to hurt them, the people who they were with would protect them. I honed in on these two young women, who said, "our parents were not involved in civil rights at all." They were working parents. What a lot of people failed to realize is [that this] didn’t mean that people might not have supported the civil rights movements but there were a lot of people who did not march in the streets. They stayed home. They went to work. They said to their kids “ I totally agree with what you’re saying, but I don’t think you should march” or “Do what you want but we’re not going to.” The movement basically was a movement of young people; a lot of the adults stayed home. I thought these two little girls leaving home to go meet up with these thousands of people to go on this march would make a wonderful picture book.

AO: You have collaborated with a number of illustrators. How did you come to collaborate with Eric Velasquez?

AJ: I had no collaboration. I have nothing to do with picking illustrators. I totally leave it up to my editors. I finally get my hardcover copy of the book. There’s the cover, Eyes on the Prize, the exact image from the documentary and then he (Eric Velasquez) writes about how he was so influenced by this filmmaker and documentary, Eyes on the Prize. It was kismet. I didn’t tell anyone that. I think it’s a lovely little book.

AO: Your writing is very character driven. Which character in your books have you enjoyed writing or being in their head the most?

AJ: The most fun I’ve ever had writing …in the last couple of years was when I wrote A Cool Moonlight. Lila was one of the youngest characters [I’ve written]. She had an extraordinary situation, where she couldn’t go out in the daylight. It was the closest I came to fantasy. There [was]… a very young voice, which was even younger because socially she was not advanced because she wasn’t around a lot of people. The idea of a disease cut[ting] you off from a lot of the world … there’s a tad bit of fantasy and mystery around it. It’s this world in the dark, a very young child, and fantasy. It was such a departure from the contemporary realism. It was real, but there was this wonderful world of her reading comic books about these superheroes and little girls in tutus and wings. I wrote it so quickly. There were no stops and starts just [writing] clean through. Actually I started writing a book about a child who can’t go out in the sun on the beach in Aruba. I remember I was in a large hat and a big caftan because I couldn’t go out in the sun either because I was on medication. I swear I must have finished half of the book when I was there for two weeks. It was probably the least painful book I ever wrote.

AO: When you are not writing, what do you do for enjoyment?

AJ: I love going to greenhouses. How do I say this about myself? I have the heart of a gardener but I’m a lazy gardener. So I buy many, many plants, I put them in the ground, and luckily they love me and I have good soil. I love to travel. I have nieces and nephews who every so often come and inundate my house on weekends. That’s just a joy, cooking for them and hanging out with them is quite wonderful. Reading when I can. Travel when it is just for the pure joy of travel and has nothing to do with work or anything.

I have a very quiet life. It’s really important to me to be very quiet. I’m sort of a boring person. I mean I don’t like parties. I don’t like clubs. I don’t like large groups of people constantly. If there is going to be a large group of people, let them be kids or teenagers, because I find everything is always new for them and it’s almost like you can relive that feeling of everything being new. It keeps the writing a little fresher, seeing that, that all things can be new. I really am a very quiet lady, a little gardening, a little travel, reading, and my complete addiction to children’s television programming.

AO: What project are you working on now?

AJ: The very last installment of the Heaven trilogy. The last book is called Sweet and it’s about Shoogy, the last character in Heaven. Bobby has had his book. Marley has had her book, now Shoogy has her book. Bobby was not my idea. It was my editor’s. Sugy was not my idea, it was this incredible writer, Julie Durango. We were heading off to a retreat. We were driving, she turns around, looks at me, and says “why don’t you write a book about the third character from Heaven.” Then she commences to go to the retreat and tell my agent, who gets immediately excited and starts jumping up and down and calls my editor. The ball got rolling. I’m never going to do that and again. The First Part Last went very smoothly. This one is not going very smoothly, but I’m eight-tenths of the way finished. Stops and starts. Stops and starts.

AO:While the readers of this interview can’t hear the laughter, it is my hope that they can hear the wise perspective of Angela Johnson, both in thos interview and in her work. Thank you to Angela for the generosity of her time and insight.

Read More about Angela Johnson

Corbett, Sue. “The Accidental Genius.” (http://www.childrenslit.com/f_johnson.htm.) Accessed September 3, 2005

Engberg, Gillian. “The Booklist Interview: Angela Johnson.” Booklist v. 100, no. 12 (February 15, 2004)

Jacobs, James; Mitchell, Judith; and Livingston, Nancy. “2004 U.S. Children’s Literature Award Winners.” The Reading Teacher v. 58, no. 4 (December 2004/January 2005)

Newman, Patricia M. “Who Wrote That? Featuring Angela Johnson.” California Kids (August 2001) (http://www.patricianewman.com/johnsona.html). Accessed September 3, 2005

Whelan, Debra Lau. “Sis Johnson Win 2003 ‘Genius Awards.' ” School Library Journal v. 49, n. 11 (November 2003)

Selected Books by Angela Johnson

A Sweet Smell of Roses. Illustrated by Eric Velasquez. Simon & Schuster, 2005
Just Like Josh Gibson. Illustrated by Beth Peck. Simon & Schuster, 2004
Bird. Dial, 2004
A Cool Moonlight. Dial, 2003
The First Part Last. Simon & Schuster, 2003
I Dream of Trains. Illustrated by Loren Long. Simon & Schuster, 2003
Those Building Men. Illustrated by Barry Moser. The Blue Sky Press/Scholastic, 2001
Heaven. Simon & Schuster, 1998
The Other Side: Shorter Poems. Orchard Books, 1998
The Aunt in Our House. Illustrated by David Soman. Orchard, 1996
Toning the Sweep. Scholastic, 1994
When I am Old with You. Orchard Books, 1990

Reprinted from Friends of the CCBC Newsletter 2005, Number 3 with permission of Andrea Maxworthy O'Brien and the Friends of the CCBC, Inc. ©2005 Friends of the CCBC, Inc.


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