10 questions for author Jacqueline Woodson

The New York author will read from her latest novel, Another Brooklyn, at this year’s Decatur Book Festival
Photo by Juna F. Nagle

New York writer Jacqueline Woodson will read at the AJC Decatur Book Festival this Saturday. Her latest novel, Another Brooklyn, focuses on the tight yet tumultuous friendship of four teenage girls—August, Sylvia, Angel, and Gigi—growing up in Bushwick in the 1970s. The coming-of-age tale is narrated by August, now an anthropologist looking back at the most formative relationships of her childhood. It’s Woodson’s first book for adults in two decades, but it has the same lyrical style seen in her National Book Award–winning memoir in verse, Brown Girl Dreaming. Woodson spoke to us about why she wanted to tell this story, the evolution of Brooklyn, and what she’s working on next.

Why stop at the Decatur Book Festival?
It’s part of my book tour. The South tends to get ignored sometimes, but Another Brooklyn does start in Tennessee.

You write for all ages. Who do you expect at your reading?
I wonder if Judy Blume has the same issue. I get young people who have grown up reading my books, and sometimes they show up with their children. The audiences tend to be very mixed, and I walk in and go, “Okay, I am not going to read sex scenes now.” I read from all of my books. People just come to be entertained and hear a good story. I never walk into the room assuming people have read the book.

You’ve made your name writing children’s and young adult books. What made you want to work on an adult novel?
Brown Girl Dreaming got so much attention that I wanted to do something else. I had won a National Book Award, gotten a Newbery Honor Award. I know I can do this and know I can do it a way people will like, but I wanted to push my own boundaries and try something new. I wanted to write more with time, memory. I can go to more haunted places in an adult novel.

What made you want to tell the story of these four young women?
I wanted to tell the story of black girlhood. I wanted to put into the world these windows and mirrors of those girls’ lives. We get a lot of stories of white girls, but we don’t see a lot of depth and intricacy in black girl relationships. I have a 14-year-old daughter. I had really close friends from childhood and still do. But this story is not the one that always get told. People like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker do to some degree, but now I haven’t seen this story.

Your past two books have been set up North but start in the South. Why is it important to feature your characters’ Southern origins?
The Great Migration can get forgotten if we don’t pay attention or bear witness to it. It’s part of my personal history and the history of millions of African Americans, who left those oppressive conditions for better lives in the North. It’s important to put that on the page.

Another Brooklyn takes place in 1970s Bushwick. What was the challenge of depicting a neighborhood people view so differently today?
People think they’re discovering places, but Bushwick had long been on the map for many many people, and I wanted that Bushwick to be remembered. The book starts with the dedication “For Bushwick (1970-1990) In Memory”; I wanted those years to be on the page. It was a place where people lived and thrived and grew up and left. It wasn’t this kind of hipster place we know now.

All that I write about Bushwick is true: the blackout of 1977;  the rise of heroin; Vietnam veterans coming home; the strivers, people coming from the South and immigrants for a better life; white flight. I wanted to put that on the page in the way it truly was. But when you look back at Bushwick, you don’t get to see the way people were actually thriving, too. I wanted to juxtapose those two things: the girls and the light, the hope, joy, laughter, tight friendship that they have against the backdrop of what was going on.

Why start from an adult perspective for a coming-of-age story?
In young adult novels and children’s books, you stay in moment. The story goes through a school year or a weekend. You never get a sense of a future self because the young person has not lived that yet. But I wanted to play with time and the way time and memory work—how time softens the edges of memory or hardens them. That’s why August constantly repeats, “This is memory.” She’s basically saying, “This is mine. My memory is what I own now.” I wanted to use that adult perspective to look back on time.

August has a very interesting profession as an anthropologist of death and its rituals. How did that come to be?
There’s a saying that sometimes the book knows more than you do about what it’s trying to say, and I completely believe that. I connect that thread of grieving and denial going through the book with August and her mom. The book’s opening line is, “For a long time, my mother wasn’t dead yet.” As a child, she’s kind of bearing witness to death and dying in this way she hasn’t come to understand yet, so it makes sense she would grow up to study rituals of death and dying to make sense of her own life. The examples from other cultures I use throughout represent what’s happening in the book.

Your writing style is very poetic. What’s your process?
Everything I write I read aloud.  It has to sound a certain way and look a certain way on page. I rewrite a lot until I get the rhythm and story right on the page.

What are you working on next?
Right now I am working on an essay about when I was in Israel/Palestine a couple months ago. It’s for an anthology coming out to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War. Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman are editing it. I’m still figuring out the topic of my essay.