Renée Watson has been writing and performing since she was a kid at Vernon Elementary in Northeast Portland. She credits a teacher from Jefferson High School as her biggest influence to become a writer. Now, as an artist in residence in schools in the Bronx, she uses creative writing and theater to heighten social awareness and success among students.
Renée writes stories that are not always easy to tell. Her debut picture book A Place Where Hurricanes Happen (Random House, June 2010) deals with four friends separated in the aftermath of Katrina. Caroline Kennedy calls it "a profound tribute to the power of friendship to heal and give us hope in troubled times." Her upcoming middle-grade fiction debut What Mama Left Me (Bloomsbury, July 2010) is about a 13 year-old whose father did "the worst thing in the world" and now she'll never see her mama again.
On June 24th at 7pm, Renée will be reading from both books and signing copies of A Place Where Hurricanes Happen at A Children's Place Bookstore in Northeast Portland. She will also be a featured author at the 2010 Wordstock this October. If you leave a comment on this post with your email, you'll have a chance to win an advance relase copy of What Mama Left Me.
AB: Congratulations on the publication of your book, A Place Where Hurricanes Happen. We are all connected in some way to Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. Could you tell us how you are connected? Could you tell us a bit about how you came to write this particular story?
RW: I visited New Orleans a few times before Hurricane Katrina and loved the city. After Katrina hit, I was asked to come to New Orleans and lead poetry workshops with young people who were coping with the aftermath. The summer camp existed before Katrina, but after the storm the director knew she needed to have students process their feelings, so the entire camp—the creative writing, art, dance, and music classes—were dedicated to processing the devastation that happened.
Once I returned to New York, I couldn’t get the children’s stories out of my head and I wanted to do something to honor them. In the beginning, I was only writing it for New Orleans, but once the book was finished, I realized it’s about any child, anywhere, whose life has been turned upside down and that there’s hope after any storm—literal or emotional.
AB: What led you to write for young readers in particular? What about children's fiction appeals to you?
RW: I’ve worked in middle and high schools for about twelve years. The pains and joys of adolescents are moments I witness on a daily basis, so I think their stories are always with me as I write.
Also, for me, the lives of children and teens are interesting—they are always changing. Their conflicts are more dramatic, and there’s just so much to sort through. All of this makes for good plots and complex characters.
AB: At The New School, you studied creative writing and drama therapy. At the time, did you focus on children’s literature and arts? Were there any professors or mentors who particularly influenced you?
RW: Yes, my focus in writing and drama therapy was children and young adults. I also took playwriting and solo theater courses.
I’ve been blessed to have many mentors. Several at the New School, but honestly, the person who influenced me the most when it comes to writing is my former high school teacher Linda Christensen at Jefferson High School. Linda treated me as a “real writer” even when I was just a student writing for the literary magazine. My senior year she would have me come to her freshman class and read my short stories and poetry to her students. She saw something in me and encouraged me to pursue writing and teaching. She challenged me and gave me books to read that made me a better writer. So yes, I had great professors at The New School—Catherine Stine, Julia Noonan, Nancy Kelton, Sharon Mesmer, and Sue Shapiro—to name a few. They added skill to my passion. But I must say Linda’s voice is always in the back of my mind cheering me on. The lessons I learned from her on writing dialogue and the basics of story telling are the catalyst for everything I write today.
AB: You work extensively with children who are coping with violence (sexual, domestic, even acts of nature). How did you come to choose this as your vocation? How do you explore these themes during your artist in residency programs?
RW: In a sense, my vocation chose me. I knew I wanted to work with youth through the arts but didn’t set out to use the arts to help young people cope with hardship. When I first started being a guest artist in the schools, I was strictly teaching the fundamentals of poetry and theater—which I still do. But I learned early on in my teaching career that students can’t leave their lives at the door when they come to school. They bring with them whatever is going on at home and in their communities. Poetry and theater provide an outlet for students to express themselves and process what they’re going through. So it was a natural thing that students were sharing intimate parts of their lives with me through their writing or in an improv sketch. Once I saw that this kept happening, I sought out training for working with youth who’ve experienced trauma.
But I also teach the basics of creative writing and theater. My in-school residencies are usually tailored to what the classroom teacher is asking for. I do a lot of arts integration with humanities and literacy teachers.
AB: How long have you been writing? What was the timeline between the kernel of the idea to publication of your upcoming books?
RW: I have been writing all my life—I wrote a 21-page story when I was in the 2nd grade and my teacher told my mother, “This girl is going to be a writer. Get her a journal.” So, in a very real way, I have always considered myself a writer. But professionally, as far as publishing my writing, these are my first books. A Place Where Hurricanes Happen took me two days to write. It all just came to me a few months after I returned from New Orleans and I couldn’t stop writing it. But of course, with revision and editing—which is where the real writing happens—it took me about four or five rewrites to get it where I wanted it. So all in all, it took about 4 months to write.
What Mama Left Me was first a stage play that I wrote in high school. Back then, it had a different title, but the storyline was pretty much the same. I’ve had these characters in my head for more than fifteen years. I wanted to do something more with the characters—go deeper with them, so I took the play and wrote it as a novel. It took me about a year to write the first draft of the novel and lots and lots of rewrites to get it in its final version. From start to finish it took me about a year and a half to write the novel.
AB: Can you tell us a bit more about your upcoming novel What Mama Left Me that will be on shelves in July?
RW: What Momma Left Me is about a thirteen-year-old girl who witnessed her father kill her mother. In the aftermath, she begins to lose faith in God. She doesn't understand why horrible things happen to good people and she's angry with her grandparents, who pastor a local church, for making her attend church and pray to a God that doesn't seem to be answering any of her cries. As she grieves the loss of her mother, she realizes her mother left her more than secrets and shame and she ultimately finds an inner strength that can be traced back to her mother and other strong women in her family.
The main character, Serenity, loves poetry and each chapter begins with a poem or quote. As she comes to terms with the loss of her mother, several people along the way come to her rescue: a best friend, a boyfriend, and a poet—Maya Angelou, who help her realize she is more than her past.
AB: What Mama Left Me sounds profound and moving. Could you tell me about your emerging artists show Roses are Red, Women are Blue? What type of project was this?
RW: Roses is a one-woman show where I play six different female characters. The show explores women and their relationships with food, men, family, and friends. Each woman’s monologue makes reference to a rose—a bride’s maid who desperately wants to catch the bouquet at the reception so she can be next, a grieving widow who takes a rose off her husband’s casket, an abused woman whose boyfriend always apologizes with roses. The characters are based off of interviews I did with women ages 10 – 60.
I wrote the show at The New School, when I took a Solo Theater class taught by Alice Cohen, author of What I Thought I Knew.
AB: Do you work with a critique group?
RW: Yes, I’m a part of a group that meets twice a month. It’s a small group, about five of us. We met at The New School and wanted to continue to get feedback on our writing after we graduated. It’s so helpful to get their input and when I read and critique their manuscripts, it makes be a better writer. We all learn from each other. It’s great.
AB: Are you able to read much current middle grade/ YA fiction? If so,
what are some mg books published in the last 5-10 years that you've enjoyed?
RW: Yes, I love to read. Reading good books strengthens my writing. I love the Make Lemonade trilogy by Virginia E. Wolff. I also think Lisa Graff’s Umbrella Summer is a wonderful book. Looking for Alaska by John Green is one of my favorites, as is anything by Patricia McCormick. Another author I enjoy reading is Sherman Alexie. My favorite of his is The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. As for poetry for young adults, I think Naomi Shaib Nye’s A Maze Me is great.
AB: What advice would you offer a writer who is just starting out?
RW: My advice is to read. I tell beginning writers to read a book through just for pleasure and then read it again and study it. What is the author doing that’s making this a story you can’t put down? Good writers read. I even encourage writers to finish a book they don’t necessarily like. Knowing why you don’t like something is just as important as knowing why you do. Understanding what makes a book work or not work for you will fine-tune your own writing skills.
AB: Thank you so much for your time, Renée. I can't wait to read both of your books. What’s next for you?
RW: I have another novel, which is untitled right now, that I am working on. I’m hoping to spend most of the summer finishing it. Summers are great for me because I’m on a teacher’s schedule, so I have summers off and can write, write, write!