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Sunday, January 1, 2012

Chatting with a Fascinating Author, Joan Lester, about Her Non Fiction Books

I have had a few careers, but with a similar theme: all educationally- and multiculturally-oriented. First I started a couple of Free Schools (meaning community involvement in diverse communities, and tuition-free so no financial barriers; we fund-raised like mad, and even had James Taylor do a benefit concert for us once). Moreover, I hosted a syndicated TV daily show, Playmates/Schoolmates, which ran for a year on five Westinghouse stations nationally, where I taught young kids cooking, painting, all kinds of crafts and games. Again, I made sure we had an ethnically diverse group. Later I went to UMass Amherst and got a doctorate in multicultural education; I also taught at Holyoke Community College for a couple of years during that period, hosted another TV show, and was Director of the UMass Lab School.
But I felt I wasn't doing as much as I wanted to in directly combating racism--my own two children, young teens then, were visibly biracial, and I wanted to make the world safer for them that they were about to set out on their own. So, with a couple of others I founded a non-profit organization, Equity Institute, based in Amherst, Mass, to conduct anti-racism trainings for educators, police, and anyone else who would have us. The group grew during my 15-year tenure as Exec Director to become a huge national organization, with trainers all over the country. Most notably we soon included other "isms" (our slogan was: Turning "isms" into "wasms") since many are deeply intertwined, and we developed a successful weeklong Training of Trainers Program which educated over a thousand others to do this work. In fact, Equity Institute was a pioneer during the 80s and 90s, creating what eventually became a national movement to incorporate diversity as one lens in many corporate and public service trainings.
Ah, and I had always wanted to "be a writer."  Beginning in the 80s, I began to publish essays; by the 90s, my op-eds were hitting national media like USA Today and NPR. Of course, my beat was diversity. It turned out I had a voice that could discuss "heavy" topics lightly and encouragingly. During the 90s and early 00s, I published several hundred op-eds and longer essays. In the early 90s a Senior Editor at Conari Press, a Berkeley, CA publisher, approached me about publishing a collection of pieces. That first book, the tongue-in-cheek entitled The Future of White Men and Other Diversity Dilemmas, came out in 1994 and did quite well. Two years later Conari Press published my self-help book: Taking Charge, Every Woman's Action Guide.
Tell us about the genre of your work. 
Nonfiction came naturally, and the essay form flowed easily, perhaps because I had been writing in a journal for many years.
Why did you choose this genre?
 Hmm…as above. The topic I chose to explore is somewhat explained by my biracial children, but it is more than that. I come from a family deeply engaged in public life, with a several-generation commitment to social justice, and I have been a good daughter, continuing the tradition. My founding of schools, all the teaching I've done, organizing tenant groups when I lived in a low-income New York City neighborhood, my writing and continued community involvement, are all of a piece.
What are some of your books, stories that have been published? 
I mentioned my first two books above. The third was a biography of the civil rights icon Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, titled Fire in My Soul. It was fascinating to delve deeply into African American history in the District of Columbia, her family's home for several generations, and into the civil rights movement and then the early women's movement.
Can you tell us more about your books?
The Future of White Men and other Diversity Dilemmas came out in several editions: hardback, paper, and then later another paperback with different cover. The ISBN for the one still in print (an Author's Guild edition), is ISBN 0-595-09387-6. This collection is of op-eds mostly first published in USA Today and the San Francisco Sunday Chronicle, where I had a column for a couple of years. The book is organized into sections: Who Gets a Seat?; The Old Images; Now What Do I Say?; Now What Do I Do?; Top Ten Plus Two--Questions About Diversity; and Diversity, Why Bother?
Taking Charge, ISBN 1-57324-052-4 is organized as a road-trip for women: Setting Out On The Road to Success; Getting Centered; Taking Action; Building Alliances; Creating a Vision; and Every Woman's Action Guide Map for Success. Like the first book, it was well and widely reviewed. Conari Press did a terrific job.
Fire in My Soul, Foreword by Coretta Scott King, is the authorized biography of one of the most powerful women in American history, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton. ISBN 0-7434-0787-3.  Since Norton's story is organically linked to Washington, D.C., home to her family for four generations, I got to explore the civil rights story of African Americans in the nation's capital, as well as the national civil rights story of the 60s and 70s. It was wonderful to tell this political tale through the life of one remarkable woman; since I wanted to make the book as readable and accessible as fiction--my goal was to write "a page turner"--I learned and then used many fictional techniques in developing character, plot, narrative drive, and conflict.  This led to writing true fiction: my next book.
Black, White, Other, ISBN 978-0-310-72763-7, my current book, is a novel for teens with a cross-over adult audience. In telling the story of a biracial teen struggling to reconcile two ethnic identities, I drew heavily on my own children's experiences, while grafting in those of friends and even some of my own childhood events. (For instance, I briefly ran away several times, as did Nina, my contemporary protagonist.)  This story also draws on Eleanor Holmes Norton's ancestor's tale of running away during the 1850s, from a Virginia plantation where he was enslaved. I wove this story as fiction--after transforming his character to a girl--into my book, using a tale-within-a-tale structure. Since I have long loved reading these types of story-within-a-story books, it was enormous fun creating it.
How do you come up with the names of places and characters in your books?

Hmm…it is very intuitive for my fiction. However, while my selection of names is intuitive, that does not mean the process is quick or easy. I do a fair amount of research--historical, cultural--and after I have narrowed the choices down to a few, I go by feel. Names are hugely important: they transmit an energy that symbolizes the character, and need to resonate at the frequency you want to communicate. Of course, this recognition by the reader is subconscious, but different names definitely give off unique feelings, and as the author, I want to engender a certain response. 

How did you develop the character of your protagonist in this book?

This was actually much simpler than plot for me. In Black, White, Other both protagonists, Nina and Sarah, pretty much sprang to life and felt quite real early on. Their alternating chapters are both first-person, and their voices began to speak. I do not understand myself why I was able to speak in these two girls' quite different voices (different from each other, and from me) but…I guess that is the delicious mystery of fiction. Of course, I revised heavily over a period of several years--I am a great believer in the power of revision--and then I consciously wrote new scenes to highlight what I considered missing aspects of their characters, but during early drafts they developed more spontaneously.

What about an antagonist…is there a unique “bad guy” or a recurring nemesis of any kind?

The antagonist in both cases is the culture of racism--one 19th century, one 21st century version--the two girls need to overcome. The secondary antagonist is racism's ugly stepchild: the internalization of the negative voices and images spewed by the outside world. The contemporary girl, Nina, especially copes with this, but it is clearly secondary to the forces of segregation, which press against both girls.

What is your favorite thing about your book?
 Aside from the fabulous cover the publisher created (smile), I love the ending when both girls triumph, each in her own unique way. I smile every time I think about these two brave girls.
How is writing in the genre you write, different than other genre?
 Oh, fiction is so utterly different from the creative nonfiction I wrote for twenty years. I enter a completely different creative space.
Why and when did you begin writing?
 I actually won first-place in a contest in high school, sponsored by the American Legion, for an essay on the subject of What Being an American Means to Me. It was thrilling to win a cash prize. I also received a great deal of encouragement from both my high school and college English teachers, but then I didn't really know how to go about being a writer, so this was "a dream deferred" for many years.
What is your writing schedule?
Mornings for sure, after an hour hilly hike in the woods and a hearty breakfast. Then, when I am on a roll, I can continue into the late afternoon. I virtually never write in the evenings because if I do I am guaranteed a poor night's sleep. Even when I stick to daylight hours, when I am fully immersed in an essay or book I find myself waking up several times searching for just the right word or phrase to make my sentences sing. I keep a pad and pen by my bed to scribble down insights. In the morning, however, they rarely seem as profound as the loss of sleep warrants.
What projects are you working on now, or plan for the future?
 I have a completed novel-length manuscript, Through the Mighty Waters, which was a Finalist for the Bellwether Prize in 2010. I continue to dither with it and imagine it will be published within the next couple of years. Also, I have begun a mystery with the working title Stand By Me, and am 100 pages in. I seem to be burrowing into fiction. As you can see, I enjoy the challenge of constantly learning new genres.

What kind of advice or tips to you have for someone who wants to write and get published?
Ah, I would not worry about the "get published" part at all. That will come. Focus on the writing. And see next question.
Are there any other comments, advice or tips that you would give to beginning writers?
There is one thing all writers have in common: they write! The main way to begin is…to begin. Do not even think about "How good is this?" or worry about whether you have "something to say." You do. You are a unique creation and, as such, you have a unique point of view and voice. Let it out.
What do you do when you are not writing?
For twenty years, I have sung soprano in my church choir and, once we created it, our Women's Ensemble. The uplifting songs feed my soul, as well as simply lifting my voice in song. Making music has been a delicious part of my life ever since I went to college and took up guitar, so I could sing folk songs and civil rights songs. Hard to imagine life without music.
I also love to be outside, and living in California on the edge of a wilderness area I have lots of opportunity for dialing hiking among redwoods, pines, and eucalyptus trees. I garden too, fairly extensively, with a big front and back yard that I maintain.
Moreover, I have a pretty active social life with friends and family. The challenge for me is to find enough time to write, enough time to be still.
What “Made It” moments have you experienced in life?
Getting published at all has always felt wonderful, from the first time a book review of mine appeared in a small newspaper thirty years ago, right up to my current book. It is always exciting.

Do your books have a teaching objective?  If so, what is it?
 Yes, they all have the intention to inspire readers, with the underlying themes: You can do it! You are fine just as you are, a magnificent creation. No matter what others may tell you, directly or indirectly, you have the right to fully express your beautiful self and soul, in any way you choose.

What is your favorite thing about your book/s?
That they can explore deeply contentious topics without being contentious themselves, or polemical, or tedious, but instead are light and enjoyable. And that people tell me often how inspiring they find my writing.

1 comment:

Elisa said...

Thanks for the wonderful interview -- and marvelous books -- Joan! E.K.