Interview with Renée Watson and Ellen Hagan, Authors of Watch Us Rise

To continue to celebrate the release of Watch Us Rise, we were so pleased to offer an interview with Renée Watson and Ellen Hagan

Writing Process:
YARN: We’d really love to hear about the process of writing this unique book! How did you develop the story idea? How did you develop the concept for the blog of essays and poems?

RW: We knew we wanted to feature poetry in the book so as the story developed, we decided that it would be mandatory for all students to be in a school club and that each club would have to make blog posts. The blog really helped us shape the plot. We wanted to make sure no words were wasted, so even the comments section on the blog is crucial to the plot. The poems and essays the girls write are in direct response to what’s happening at their school, in their communities. The blog becomes a space for the girls to truly express how they feel. It’s the space they create to make their voices heard.

YARN: We’re so curious to hear how you worked together as writers. How was this process similar to and different from the ways you each usually work? Did you each choose your protagonist and stick in her point of view, or did you collaborate on both characters? How did each of your experiences with poetry inform your writing and your development of the characters?

EH: We truly wrote all of “Watch Us Rise” together. I wrote all of the chapters and poems from Chelsea’s voice and Renée wrote from Jasmine’s voice. It was absolutely a collaborative process – we created the timeline and storylines for our characters and wrote most of it in back to back desks in my living room. We would write chapters and then share with each other to provide feedback and next steps. It was such an incredible process — and made it feel much more like a dialogue. We really got to share ideas and plot points throughout — I loved the entire process. In terms of poetry, I really started out writing poems in middle and high school. It was a way to get my emotions out on the page, and for Chelsea, she uses poetry as a way to speak back to and challenge the world around her.

YARN: For each of you, what was your writing path? How did you first know you were “a writer,” someone who wanted and needed to write regularly? Once you knew, what did you do to make your dream a reality?

RW: I identified as a writer when I was very young. I knew I was a writer because even when given the opportunity to do something else, like play outside or go to the mall, I was content with my journal and a pen. I knew I was a writer because whenever something really good or really bad would happen, I’d want to write about it. By the time I was in eighth grade, I had written the spring production for my school. In high school, I was in journalism, wrote poetry for the literary magazine, and took writing workshops during school breaks and summer vacations. So in a way, I have always been a writer. Before any book deal or professional obligation to write, I wanted–needed–to write. Being a writer and an author are two different things. Once I realized that I wanted to get published, I took writing courses at The New School in New York City and that was life changing. I not only learned about the craft of storytelling, particularly for young people, but I met so many people who were pursuing the same dream. That was motivating and encouraging. We supported each other and shared resources, attended readings together and really immersed ourselves in the literary community. I think that, along with the courses, helped prepare me to be a published author.

EH: I also knew I was a writer from a very young age. I loved to tell stories and entered a writing contest in elementary school that was all about me and my best friend Sally, who was also my next door neighbor. I won the contest and remember feeling so proud that my words were being read. I have kept a journal since the 8th grade and have dozens of them that are full of poems, short stories and drafts of novels. They follow my entire life, and I always felt so comforted by words. They were a safety net for me, and a place where I could feel like myself. In high school, I auditioned for the Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts and it changed everything for me. Kelly Norman Ellis was one of my teachers and she was living her life as a professional writer, so I wanted that life too. I got my BFA in acting at the University of Kentucky, and we got the chance to do experimental theatre and really write our own shows. I got the chance to do a solo show for my senior thesis and we also wrote a play called The Man Chronicles and debuted it in our black box series. To be able to collaborate with other artists and use my writing has always been essential. I went on to get my MFA at The New School and working with Sapphire, Dani Shapiro and Darcey Steinke helped to shape my vision for what I wanted my career to look like. It has been a long process for me, but I have tried to be steady and keep working toward building a community around me and staying focused on craft – figuring out the best ways to tell stories.

YARN: What advice might you give teens who feel that the writing assignments they have simply don’t allow them to express themselves most effectively? Maybe these assignments don’t address issues they really want to write about. Or maybe these assignments don’t allow them to write in ways they love to write. How might a young writer balance what’s required of them and pursue their writing passions when these don’t seem to align?

RW: I felt that way a lot in school and I think that’s why I always kept a journal and wrote poetry and plays on my own, without having an assignment from teachers. That’s the powerful thing about creative writing — you don’t need anyone to tell you what to write, you don’t need expensive tools to create. Just pen, paper, and imagination. I was always writing outside of what was assigned in class. And when it was appropriate, I made sure that school assignments included the voices of communities that were often overlooked.

YARN: What advice would you give young writers who’d like to #WriteLikeaGirl but aren’t quite sure what that means to them? How might they start to explore that aspect of who they are?

EH: I think the best advice would be to just start. If you can’t find your voice represented the way you want it to be, then start writing and finding a way to share that — starting your own blog, sharing it with your family and friends, on social media, at open mic events or talent shows. And if there are no events in your town or school, then start one! Find a crew of friends who are interested in sharing work and start a writing workshop. Ask a teacher to use their room after school, or a librarian to host a feminist book club or a space where people can gather and talk about what’s on their minds. You can also reach out to your public library or a local coffee house to see if you can partner with them. Try and find camps and programs where you can go to pursue your art — scholarships and contests — check out the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. You can chart your own path — and write your own stories. You just have to begin.

YARN: “Watch Us Rise” is so, so incredible in many ways. One of the things we loved was that the story offered an honest depiction of tough situations but also much that was positive — a vision of possibility for teens who’d like to create art, become activists, and form friendships and mentorships. Was this your intention? If so, why? If not, how did that aspect of the story become important as you wrote?

RW: We set out to write something realistic so that meant we needed to write about the everydayness of being a teenager—crushes, arguments with parents, angst with teachers. The tough themes, like Jasmine’s father having cancer and the tension at school, are there too because we know that life is often a combination of the bitter and the sweet happening right alongside each other. Even in turmoil—and sometimes because of it—we can rise. We can create, we can be a part of something bigger than ourselves. I don’t know if it was our intention to have this at work in the book but I know in our own lives, we’ve had to endure tough things while also being inspired to create and love. Maybe we instinctively drew on that for the characters in “Watch Us Rise.”

YARN: This book is an overtly intersectional feminist story. It offers political viewpoints, but it’s not a story in which characters seem to strictly follow one narrow political pathway. They have complex beliefs and behaviors. What choices do you think you made to ensure that the story had a defined political viewpoint revealed through the complexity of teens’ lives?

EH: We knew we wanted the story to be deeply rooted in the friendship between Chelsea and Jasmine. From there, we started to think about what they cared about and what was on their minds. We started to see them take shape – and poems about womanhood, beauty, family, race, identity and feminism (to name just a few), started to show up. Their voices kept getting louder and louder as they started to define what they believed in. I hope readers see that they are complicated, nuanced characters who are not perfect, and are struggling to find out how to be strong, independent women, as they are up against the machine of media telling them they are not enough. We wanted young women to see themselves as powerful and worthy of love and attention and healthy relationships in friendships and partnerships. To me, the political viewpoint is loving who you are and building a community around you who sees you — and loves you for who you are. And if those things are in place, you can really rise up and create the kind of world you want to live in.

YARN: 2018 has been called the second “Year of the Woman” thanks to much positive feminist activism and movements such as #MeToo. Did you draw inspiration from the cultural climate as you wrote? How do you hope the women of these movements and other women receive your book? What about men? Is there a message here for them, too?

EH: Yes, this book is definitely a response to the #MeToo movement. This is young women re-writing the narrative and putting themselves in the center of the story. In many ways it’s a message for young women to stand up for what they want — and that could mean talking back to the media, writing letters and starting campaigns to get more representation or disrupt the socially constructed ideas of beauty, or push back against racist and sexist stereotypes. And it is for everyone — not just for young women, but men too. We want them all to be in conversation with each other — to be telling stories and figuring out ways to dialogue and build together.

YARN: What challenges and possibilities did the choice of depicting the girls’ school blog pose you both as writers? Why integrate that format into the story? Had you considered any other formats?

RW: We thought the book would be less interesting if the girls just talked about writing poetry. The reader needed to see it. The blog became a tool to use to get Jasmine and Chelsea to dig deeper and let the reader in on what they are really feeling. The blog also helped the plot move forward. In the beginning, it’s a way of taking action. It’s using social media in a positive way. We wanted to show the possibility of what could happen in online spaces when teens use their voices for something good. The challenge was making sure the blog posts weren’t throw away pages, meaning, we wanted each blog post to move the plot forward in a meaningful way.

YARN: In the beginning of the story, you offer a quotation by Audre Lorde: “Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.” Why did you pick this quotation for the story, by this specific writer?

EH: I have always loved Audre Lorde. For me, she is one of the bravest writers I have ever come across. I am so moved and in awe of the truths she tells with her poems, and I wanted her voice to be one of the first ones we see. It acts as a bridge toward the kind of changes they want to see made. She is a voice that certainly guided me when I was a teenager, and I wanted the same for Chelsea and Jasmine.

YARN: What piece of this story or your writing process for the book most surprised each of you? What did you find yourself writing about or saying or learning that you didn’t know before you started or that you didn’t intend to write about or say?

RW: I’m surprised that Jasmine’s size became such a meaningful part of the story. In the beginning, when we were outlining, I thought more about Jasmine’s race and gender and was thinking about her character development that way. But with each scene I wrote, it became clear that there was something that was burning to be said about beauty and size. I love when stories take off and go in directions that were unplanned. Because of this, it was so fun to write the love story between Jasmine and Isaac. None of that was in my head at the start of writing Watch Us Rise. It all unfolded the more we worked on the story.

Other Books/YA stuff:
YARN: From this book and your other work, it’s clear you care about producing creative responses with communities of artists. What advice would you give those interested in getting involved with or starting communities of artists who work together and/or work to support each other?

RW: My advice is to have a listening heart and ask questions. It’s important to really listen to what the community needs and wants before coming in with an agenda. A leader can—and should—have a plan, a vision. But that vision should be a living thing that can be added on to, revised. I think that kind of leadership sets the tone for collaboration, conversation and a caring community. Gathering artists and asking them, What can we build together? is a good place to start.

YARN: Similarly, it’s clear you care about teens–particularly female teens–standing up for what they believe in and making active choices with those beliefs in mind. What advice would you give those interested in getting involved with a cause?

EH: I would say connect with the community around you. Start there. See if there are friends or teachers who are interested in the same causes and see what you can do collectively. Can you start a club, or find a meeting space? Do you want to raise awareness or funds, or both? Find a way to brainstorm your ideas and figure out a way to put them in motion. This could mean hosting an event or an open mic, a bake sale or a workshop. And then you could search for a local organization to partner with — or find ways to partner online if it’s national/international. You can start small with just a meeting or conversation and see where that leads you. Young people are doing incredible work all around the world — so it will be amazing to find ways of connecting and growing.

YARN: What are a few resources you’d suggest to writers who feel they want to grow, but they aren’t sure where they can get some help and support? (These might be books, articles, online classes, writing groups, blogs – whatever/whoever you think offers great support for writers.)

RW: These books have great prompts and have helped me get un-stuck: Writing from Personal Experience by Nancy Kelton and The Playful Way to Serious Writing by Roberta Allen. I also learn a lot from Poets and Writers. I love their writing prompts as well as their database of writing programs, contests, and literary events.

EH: Here are a couple of books that are essential for me, and an amazing online resource for young writers. Also, check out the resources in the back of “Watch Us Rise.” They are amazing!

Writing Down the Bones & Wild Mind – Natalie Goldberg
Scholastic Art & Writing Awards

YARN: What writers or books would you say have influenced you most as a writer? What books helped you become a writer or helped you realize you wanted to be a writer?

RW:
House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
good woman by Lucille Clifton
A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry

EH: There are so many books that have changed and shaped my life. I chose 10 that were truly transformative for me when thinking about storytelling in both fiction and poetry – books that made me see the world new and fresh – that made me ache and question and believe. Books that portrayed whole and complicated women. Books I keep with me always.

Tougaloo Bluse – Kelly Norman Ellis
Loose Woman – Sandra Cisneros
Mama Day – Gloria Naylor
Corregidora – Gayl Jones
The Moon is Always Female – Marge Piercy
Sula – Toni Morrison
Listen Up: Spoken Word Poetry – edited by Zoe Anglessey
The Black Unicorn – Audre Lorde
Bastard Out of Carolina – Dorothy Allison
good woman – Lucille Clifton

YARN: Are there any titles and authors you’d like to give a ‘shout-out’ to? What should YARN readers look for in their bookstores and libraries?

RW: So many! I’ll share some new titles that will be out soon. I’m very excited about India Hill’s debut The Forgotten Girl (Fall 2019, Scholastic), Karyn Parson’s How High the Moon (March 2019, Little Brown & Co.), and Ordinary Hazards by Nikki Grimes (October 2019, Highlights).

EH: Yes! The more I read, the more I write! I have two daughters (8 & 5), and when they were babies and toddlers, I struggled to find time to read — and my concentration was being sabotaged! But over the last few years, I have returned to reading on a steady basis. I joined a book club three years ago (now there are three of us and it’s amazing), and it has become a constant for me. My reading life has gotten stronger each year and I try and read within and outside of my preferred genre. The books below are just a few that I love and that have helped shape my own writing or my own ideas of storytelling.

Vessel – Parneshia Jones
the black maria – Aracelis Girmay
God’s Will for Monsters – Rachelle Cruz
Arrival – Cheryl Boyce-Taylor
There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé – Morgan Parker
The Poet X – Elizabeth Acevedo
If They Should Come for Us – Fatimah Asghar
eleanor & park – Rainbow Rowell
Starshine & Clay – Kamilah Aisha Moon
Piecing Me Together – Renée Watson
Pachinko – Min Jin Lee
The Mothers – Brit Bennett

 


 

Renée Watson is a New York Times bestselling author, educator, and activist. Her young adult novel, Piecing Me Together (Bloomsbury, 2017) received a Coretta Scott King Award and Newbery Honor. Her children’s picture books and novels for teens have received several awards and international recognition. She has given readings and lectures at many renown places including the United Nations, the Library of Congress, and the U.S. Embassy in Japan. In the summer of 2016 Renée launched I, Too, Arts Collective, a nonprofit committed to nurturing underrepresented voices in the creative arts. She launched the #LangstonsLegacy Campaign to raise funds to lease the Harlem brownstone where Langston Hughes lived and created during the last twenty years of his life. Her hope is to preserve the legacy of Langston Hughes and build on it by providing programming for emerging writers. Renée grew up in Portland, Oregon and currently lives in New York City.

Ellen Hagan is a writer, performer, and educator. She is the author of two poetry collection: Crowned and Hemisphere, and Watch Us Rise, an upcoming YA collaboration with Renée Watson with Bloomsbury set for publication in 2019. She has been on the po­etry faculty at West Virginia Wesleyan in their low-residency MFA program. Ellen is the Director of the Poetry & Theatre Departments at the DreamYard Project and directs their International Poetry Exchange Program with Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. She co-leads the Alice Hoffman Young Writer’s Retreat at Adelphi University. A proud Kentucky writer, Ellen is a member of the Affrilachian Poets, Conjure Women, and is co-founder of the girlstory collective. She lives with her husband and daughters in New York City.

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