Ebony Joy Wilkins is the author of Sellout, a young adult novel featuring an African American girl who undergoes the aching process of finding herself. It’s fantastic. You should go read it. In the meantime, learn a little bit more about Ebony and her writing.
March 9, 2011
BH: For those in our studio audience who have not read my review of your book, can you tell us a little bit about Sellout?
EJW: Sellout is the story of an African American teenage girl, NaTasha Jennings, who gets caught between two worlds: the white world she’s grown up in and the black world her grandmother wants her to embrace and experience for her own good. NaTasha gets herself into an embarrassing situation at home and flees to Harlem with her Grandmother Tilly for a few weeks to hide from her problems. Unfortunately for NaTasha there is a whole new set of problems waiting for her when she starts life with Tilly. Sellout is the story of a summer that will change the way NaTasha views her world forever.
BH: NaTasha endures some pretty intense bullying from her peers when she goes to Harlem . I thought this was horrible, naturally, but then started thinking about what NaTasha essentially puts herself through by trying to blend in with her all-white community in the suburbs. Which was the most difficult for you to write about from an emotional standpoint, and from a writing craft standpoint?
EJW: NaTasha is almost living a lie, by trying to fit into her world rather than leaving her stamp on it, like so many others feel they have to do. It was difficult for me to take a step back and allow NaTasha to navigate her own experience as an outsider, both at home and in an unfamiliar setting, without stepping in to rescue her. It was important for her to carve her own paths and I tried to remove myself in order for her to do so. This story is loosely based on my own experience, combined with stories of friends’ experiences, but reliving the feelings through NaTasha’s eyes was at times painful.
BH: Your next book is told from the point-of-view of a teenage boy. Is it hard to write from a male perspective? Do you have any tips for authors who wish to write from the perspective of the opposite sex?
EJW: I have three brothers and a host of male cousins and friends whose personalities I have stolen bits and pieces from to combine into one character, Jamal, who I love writing about so far. I started by developing a character plot at the suggestion of a former professor of mine, Sarah Weeks, and wrote down as much about Jamal as I could. At this point, I feel like I know him personally, what he thinks about and how he will react in most situations. When I sit down at my writing space, usually a comfy chair in my living room instead of my office desk, I put myself into his head as much as possible. At times it is a struggle to remove myself from his interactions with the other characters, but I feel it is going well so far. I guess we’ll see once I am ready to submit the story for publication.
BH: Tell us a little about your path to publication.
EJW: I completed an MFA in creative writing for children from New School University and Sellout started as my thesis project in the program. I worked and re-worked the story over many times, with great feedback from authors like Daphne Grab, Lisa Greenwald, Lara Saguisag, and Siobhan Vivian, who were in class with me. When I felt ready to submit, I sent the manuscript to David Levithan at Scholastic, who was a former professor of mine, and he expressed an interest in Sellout and said it was ready. In class we learned about the importance of having agent representation, and at the referral of Daphne, I found my agent Alyssa Eisner Henkin, and the rest is history!
EJW: This is a photo of my official writing space, but I find I get more writing done in a comfy chair or lounging on a pile of pillows in my living room with the TV on mute in the background. At my desk space I have two bookcases filled with books on my to-read list, inspirational quotes, photos of family and friends who are super supportive of me, a 1960s-something typewriter that was gifted to me by my friend Claire, and all of my files that I probably don’t need to file anymore. The photo on the wall is of the NYC skyline, a.k.a. the concrete jungle where dreams are made of (Jay-Z).
BH: What are you reading now?
EJW: I read more YA lit than anything and recently finished The Hunger Games series, which honestly makes me want to bury my head in the sand –amazing storytelling! I also read my first graphic novel, Children of the Sea, which was a really interesting introduction into those types of stories. I just started The Neighborhood: Tiptoeing into poverty and finding hope by my friend, and former colleague, Leslie Alig Collins. I also am juggling many research texts, like The Handbook of Research on children’s and young adult literature, since I am back in school working on a PhD in education. My dream is to be teaching writing courses and writing full-time some day soon.
EJW: 1. Words don’t appear on the page on their own –WRITE! 2. There is no writer’s block, just excuses we put in the way of our own path 3. Write about what you know.
BH: Any words of advice to aspiring writers for keeping the hope alive?
EJW: 1. Completing a manuscript is the hardest part. Most writers come up with a lot of ideas, but ‘finishing’ and following through with a story is the key. You will have to revise a lot during and after, but if you don’t have anything to revise…keep going! 2. Put your work out there (contests, submissions, critique groups, etc.) for others to see. You can get feedback that will help push you along in the right direction. 3. Everyone has an opinion and you can’t please everyone. So, spend your time wisely and make sure you love your work first. 4. Get connected with other writers!
BH: Thank you so much, Ebony, for sharing your books and your advice on writing. I look forward to reading your next book!
For hands-down one of the best author websites I’ve seen, visit Ebony’s by clicking here.
Also, Ebony welcomes emails! – firstname.lastname@example.org