Since Black History Month I’ve been wanting to catch up with Christopher Grant, the author of one of my favorite 2010 debuts. After a few unanswered emails, I decided to track him down over the summer. David Levithan moderated a Teen Author Reading Night in July at the Jefferson Market Library, and I spied that he would be reading there, so I met my friend J.A. Yang, and decided to bombard him after the presentation. The ambush worked out well and I discovered that my emails had been eaten by his website form, and got to secure an interview with him. We caught up with Christopher about his inspiration, his newest endeavor, and rejections.
Tell us a bit about yourself (bio) and how you became a writer? What did you do before you “officially” became a writer?
I love to tell stories. If you let my friends speak on it, they’ll say I love to flap my gums. In jest, one suggested that I should share my stories (they were probably thinking stand up comedy but that’s never going to happen), and I decided to give writing a shot. That was about eleven years ago, right after I finished grad school. Around the same time, I began my career as an equities trader, something I continue to do it to this day.
What made you want to be a writer? Do you write full-time now?
As I mentioned above, I love to tell stories. By the grace of God, I’ve been blessed to see and hear a lot crazy things, many of which appear in my book. I am of Caribbean descent and I feel that there isn’t much of a representation of that population in contemporary literature. My folks, all islanders (Trinidad, Jamaica, Barbados, Grenada) have a unique and colorful way of expressing themselves. It was great fun attempting to incorporate some of that vivid language into TEENIE.
I have been an equities trader for the past eleven years, and do my best to balance that with my writing career.
Can you give us a quick synopsis of TEENIE? How did you come up with the concept for the book?
Teenie is desperate to be accepted into a prestigious study abroad program in Spain, so that she can see what life is like beyond the streets of Brooklyn. She wouldn’t mind escaping from her strict (though lovable) West Indian parents for awhile either. But when the captain of the basketball team starts to pay attention to her and Cherise, her best friend, meets a guy online, Teenie’s mind is on anything but her schoolwork. Can Teenie save her friendship with Cherise, save her grade point average so that she can study in Spain, and save herself from a potentially dangerous relationship?
TEENIE is like the sister I never had. Many of the situations in the book are based on things I’ve heard and/or seen. For instance, Teenie’s father Beresford has an eating utensil called a spife, half spoon, half knife. One of my uncles used to eat with something very similar to it.
What’s your writing process? What does a typical writing day look like? Where does your inspiration come from?
I do the majority of my writing on the NYC subway. During my commute to and from work, I get about an hour and a half (forty five minutes each way) to create new material. More often than not, I keep my headphones off and listen to the banter around me. There is no place like a crowded subway car to pick up authentic dialogue.
My inspiration comes from my routine. I try my best to make the most of my time during my commute. My schedule is so hectic, it’s pretty much the only time I can really get any writing done.
What has your path to publication been like? What’s been the most surprising part of the writing/publishing process for you?
It took a long time to get published. I worked on TEENIE (on and off) for about nine years. In the process, I received over a hundred rejection letters from various agencies. I kept clippings of the rejections and Bible verses pasted to my wardrobe to keep me motivated.
The most surprising part is how much I’ve enjoyed doing TEENIE related readings and events. I always thought public speaking would be my biggest issue, but thankfully, I’ve gotten pretty good at it. I have a couple of events coming up in September and October. Those wishing to hear more can check me out on twitter, @nycsubwaywriter.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten? What advice would you yourself give aspiring authors?
The best writing advice I’ve ever gotten was from an article I read awhile back. There was one line in particular that really resonated with me. “You may not be published if you write, but you’ll never be published if you don’t.”
For the aspiring author, make sure you are as well versed in the process as possible. Agencies and publishing houses get inundated with material and will look for any reason to send out a form rejection letter. There are several basic things that a writer can do to help push their MS beyond the initial culling. The Novel and Short Stories Writers Market is a great resource to make sure that the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed. Taking a creative writing course is another way to get technique up to snuff. These are resources that I used during my process.
What was your favorite book when you were a kid/teenager? What are you reading now?
There are too many to name. I always had a book in my bag. My mother would get upset because I would take all her paperbacks, read them, and return them with the covers mysteriously missing. That tends to happen when you put a book in the same bag as football cleats. As a kid, I liked Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, and Archie comics. As a teen, anything by Marvel Comics, Michael Crichton, John Grisham, Tom Clancy, and whatever I could find on my mother’s bookshelf. I tried to read one of her romance novels but couldn’t figure out what quivering love pudding was.
I just finished the HUNGER GAMES Trilogy, and am currently reading WHAT’S EATING GILBERT GRAPE.
7. What’s next for you writing-wise (and otherwise!)?
I am working on a sci-fi/fantasy novel. It’s exhilarating and nerve-wracking all at once. There are times when my main character, Genesis, is asking questions that I don’t know the answers to yet.
Genesis lives in Harlem with his grandmother Selva. She beats the living daylights out of him, but for good reason. She doesn’t want him getting too excited and giving his location to people that might want to steal his blue blood. Then there’s the issue of him leaping to different time periods before Selva’s had a chance to teach him everything he needs to know.
Do you believe in being part of a “bloc” of writers? Are critique groups and writing communities helpful to you?
Whether it’s a writing group, or in my case, a focus group, every writer needs honest opinions from people they trust. There are times when I think I’ve written something so good that the page should be bronzed, only to have someone in my focus group say, “That’s not going to stay in the story is it?” I have three readers for my new novel and their input and critique, both negative and positive, really help me to get through the story.
Did the race and ethnicity of your characters help or hinder your publication process?
I would hope not. It’s obvious that people of color are underrepresented in all forms of media, but I was fortunate enough to have the book published by one of the largest publishing houses in the world. I received a lot of rejections, but only a fool would have been brazen enough to cite race as the reason.
Thanks for catching up with us!
Photo Credit: Tara Holland, Knopf Books for Young Readers