Teen Writers Bloc

A Blog by the New School Writing for Children MFA Class of 2012

Author Interview: Jewell Parker Rhodes

Posted by Dhonielle Clayton On May - 31 - 2012

Ninth Ward 000 409x600 Author Interview: Jewell Parker RhodesLast year I trekked to the Brooklyn with Sona Charaipotra to the Brooklyn Book Festival and got a great big hug from author Jewell Parker Rhodes after hearing her read. She was wonderfully bubbly and reminded me of my own mother. And then, we discovered she is the mother of one of the students in The New School Writing for Children program in the Class of 2013 — Kelly McWilliams (an author herself). We caught up with her despite her busy schedule.

1. Tell us a bit about yourself (bio) and how you became a writer?

When I was a little girl, I was a voracious reader. My family used to call me the “little professor.” The librarians could not give me books fast enough. Partly, I think I was escaping some tough times in Pittsburgh. I never had an easy childhood. I got into college (Carnegie-Mellon) on a dance scholarship, which saved my life. One day I went to the library I found a book written by a black man. A black man! No one ever told me that black people could write. I’d never even considered the option. I quit dancing and started in the English program. They didn’t want to admit me, because of my low SAT scores, but a lovely woman, who because my mentor ever after, saw my potential.

I worked hard in school. I was under-educated by the Pittsburgh system, despite my extensive reading. I had no idea what a “foil” was, or “foreshadowing,” or any literary devices whatsoever. It was like my classmates were speaking a different language. I was in the library every day trying desperately to catch up. And then, when it came to writing, I was absolutely the WORST writer in my program. They came in with lots of education, years of practice, and talent, but only one of them is still writing today. I was the one that persevered.

2. What made you want to be a writer? Do you write full-time now?

I love stories. I love to read. My grandmother used to tell me stories on the porch. There is so much power in sharing your own stories with others. As a black woman, I was called to that power, and it gives me strength, purpose, and peace of mind. I do not write full-time now, but I am involved with writing in some way, all the time. I teach at the Arizona State University MFA program in fiction; this semester, I taught an undergraduate literature course in the short story, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I am also chair of the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, with which I manage a lot of global outreach. Some of my work has included traveling to China and Singapore, countries, which historically have not had many creative programs, to help set up programs in creative writing. I get to travel a lot, which I love!

3. How did you come up with your story for NINTH WARD? Was the hurricane your primary influence?

I have always written about New Orleans. My first novel, Voodoo Dreams, was about Marie Laveau, the voodoo queen. I have also set a mystery series in New Orleans. When the hurricane hit, I was glued to my television, and as I watched the horrible drama unfold, I kept thinking, what about the children? You caught glimpses of them now and again. Glimpses of terrified faces. But no one focused on them. That’s when I heard Lanesha’s voice – the voice of a little girl, caught up in the hurricane. I was called to write that book, no doubt about it.

 Author Interview: Jewell Parker Rhodes3. What’s your writing process? What does a typical writing day look like? Where does your inspiration come from?

Oh, dear. I’m ashamed to say I have no typical writing day. My advice to you young writers is to write every day, but I never follow my own advice. I write in fits and bursts, sometimes taking as much as six weeks off! I write according to deadline, these days – I   doubt I’ve met a single one – but when that deadline comes around, I like to head to a nice hotel (with my husband and my terrier, of course) and do nothing but write and order room service and have the linens changed for me. My husband is crucial to the process. He’s a wonderful help as an editor, a first reader, and a steady hand with plot. I don’t know what I would do without him.

4. What has your path to publication been like? What’s been the most surprising part of the writing/publishing process for you?

My first novel was rejected seven times. That’s right. It was awful. But that book, over twenty years old now, is still in print and still on the shelves. What I learned about the publishing process is this: you might get a lot of “no.” But you only need one “yes.”

5. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten? What advice would you yourself give aspiring authors?

Best advice I’ve ever gotten? I’ve gotten so much good advice from so many places and people, I simply can’t choose! I’d say, seek out authors, seek out artists of all kinds, and get as much advice as you can. Ask questions. Find mentors. Read books, and not just fiction, either. Read theory, so that you learn more about the nature of what it is that you are doing.

6. What was your favorite book when you were a kid/teenager? What are you reading now?

I treasured Anne of Green Gables when I was a girl. Right now, I am reading ON STORIES: And Other Essays on Literature by C.S. Lewis. Also, anything and everything by Walter Dean Myers, my hero.

 Author Interview: Jewell Parker Rhodes7. What’s next for you writing-wise (and otherwise!)?

I’m currently revising a new book for middle-graders, called Sugar, about a girl growing up on a sugarcane plantation.

8. Do you believe in being part of a “bloc” of writers? Are critique groups and writing communities helpful to you? Or trusted readers?

My husband and daughter are my readers now. I also love going to the SCBWI conferences in New York and Los Angeles! However, I am craving a “bloc” of writers, as you put it, but this technological era is way ahead of me. I’m just starting a blog on children’s literature now. You can find it at laneshasays.com. I would love any comments from the wonderful students of the New School. Writing for Children is brand new to me! And so is blogging!

9. Your work is imbued with a sense of African-American spiritualism, did you grow up with this surrounding you?

My grandmother was a very spiritual person. She was the most loving, stable adult in my life, and I am happy to say that she passed a little of her magic on to me.


Photo Credit: Little Brown Books for Young Readers, Picador

pixel Author Interview: Jewell Parker Rhodes

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