Friday, February 15, 2019

Q&A with Renée Watson and Ellen Hagan

Photo by David Flores
Renée Watson and Ellen Hagan are the authors of the new young adult novel Watch Us Rise. Watson's other books include Piecing Me Together. She is the founder of the nonprofit group I, Too, Arts Collective. Hagan's poetry collections include Hemisphere. She co-leads the Alice Hoffman Young Writer's Retreat at Adelphi University.

Q: How did the two of you come up with the idea for Watch Us Rise, and for your characters Jasmine and Chelsea?

RW: Ellen and I worked together for several years as teaching-artists and mentors for teen girls, so we know girls like Chelsea and Jasmine—girls who are figuring out what it means to stand up for what they believe in, teens who are emerging artists and who are using their art as a way to speak up. In many ways, this book is inspired by the young people we’ve encountered over the years. 

Q: How did you work together on the book? What was your writing process like?

EH: We truly did everything together. Once we knew what the general idea for the book was, we created a timeline for the storylines and figured out where we wanted the book to go, and the journeys we wanted to create for our characters.

As for the actual writing process, we wrote most of the book in my living room in back to back desks where we would write our individual chapters (I wrote all of the chapters and poems from Chelsea and Renée wrote all of the chapters and poems from Jasmine) and then share our work for feedback and next steps.

It was the most amazing process for me. It helped me stay focused as an individual, but at the same time felt like a truly collaborative format. Writing can feel isolating, but with Renée there it felt like a constant dialogue with each other and the characters in Watch Us Rise.  

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?

RW: We hope readers are inspired to take action, even if it’s seemingly small. Sharing a poem, creating art, listening and being open to conversation are all ways to engage in what is happening in the world.

We also hope that the power of friendship resonates with readers. Jasmine and Chelsea are in solidarity with each other. Their friendship is the thing that keeps them rising.

Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

EH: Our original title was Write Like a Girl, and we went back and forth with Bloomsbury to determine if it was the right fit. We decided to brainstorm some other options and combed through the novel to come up with word combinations and lines from the poems.

Watch Us Rise was one of our options, and once we started saying it out loud and really thinking about the meaning behind it, we started to love it. It feels like the exact right fit. I love the idea of these young women rising up together, carrying one another, helping and caring for our another as they all show up in the world.

The line is a part of the poem Girlhood, and I love saying it out loud - hearing our voices come together, and knowing that if we show up collectively, as a community - we will all rise.

Q: What are you working on now?

RW: I’ve just finished my next middle grade novel. Some Places More Than Others is about a girl who visits Harlem with her dad in hopes to learn more about her family’s history but the trip doesn’t go as expected.

I’m excited to share this story with readers especially because the main character, Amara, is a fat girl and the plot has nothing to do with her weight. It was freeing to let a big girl exist in a book without her size being mentioned at all. The only reference to her size is the cover, which was illustrated by Shadra Strickland. Some Places More Than Others comes out in September and is available for pre-order now.

EH: I am working on a new collection of poems that I am finalizing - poems about girlhood, identity, my daughters, the landscape of who we are, where we come from and where we live now. New York City and Kentucky show up in the poems. There are praise poems and poems that hope to navigate the world.

I am also working on a new YA love story about two artists and a middle grade novel in verse about a 7th grader who has way more questions than she has answers. All of it is so much fun to work through and begin to craft the kind of stories I want out in the world. I feel excited about all things when I sit down to work, and am grateful to have the time and space [to write].

Q: Anything else we should know?

EH: We hope young people see themselves in Watch Us Rise. I hope they think about what they want out of their relationships and out of their lives - hope they find communities that help lift them up and support who they want to be in the world.

I hope they find time to celebrate friendships and create art, and that this book acts as a guide for them as they figure out who they are and who they want to be in the future.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Renée Watson.

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