Interview by Nathan Leslie
Steve Watkins is the author of Juvie, a young adult novel about juvenile incarceration published in 2013 by Candlewick Press, and the author of Great Falls, a post-Iraq War novel just released in May 2016, also from Candlewick. The first two books in his middle-grade Ghosts of War series for Scholastic were published in spring 2015 and have sold 500,000 copies so far. The second two books in that series came out in March 2016.
Steve is also the author of What Comes After (spring 2011), which was named by Bank Street College as one of the best YA books of that year, and selected as a finalist for the Georgia Peach Award for YA Fiction. His YA novel, Down Sand Mountain, won the 2009 Golden Kite Award for Fiction from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Both were also published by Candlewick Press.
Steve’s nonfiction book, The Black O: Racism and Redemption in an American Corporate Empire, an account of the largest racial class action lawsuit in U.S. history, won the Virginia College Stores Award for best book in 1997, in addition to a number of other regional and national honors. His short story collection, My Chaos Theory, was an honorable mention for the Library of Virginia book award for fiction.
A graduate of Florida State University, Steve taught journalism, creative writing, and Vietnam War literature at the University of Mary Washington for 22 years, a job he left in spring 2012 with the title professor emeritus of English. He now writes full time–when he’s not teaching yoga and working as director of the nonprofit Yoga Foundation of Fredericksburg, and planting trees with the urban reforestation organization, Tree Fredericksburg, where he also serves as director of development.
Steve, first of all, thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me. You are a busy man these days, and super productive. Not only have you written four YA novels in the past eight years, but now you are also writing books for Scholastic. Earlier in your career you wrote journalism and fiction for adult readers, and now you have really carved out a great writing career for younger readers. Congratulations on the wide variety of awards you have won, also. Can you talk a little bit about how you initially became interested in writing for younger readers?
Thanks, Nathan. When my agent was shopping around my novel Down Sand Mountain, the interest she got was from YA publishers, and since that’s where we got the best offer, that’s where we went. That was with Candlewick Press, a fantastic press where I am fortunate to have a fantastic editor. Candlewick wanted my next book, and the one after that, and the one after that, so now I’ve just come out with my fourth with them, and getting to work with the same editor throughout has been one of the great joys of my writing life. YA (and Middle Grade) are more hopeful genres, and publishers in those areas are interested in work that is more plot-driven than a lot of adult literary fiction. That may be part of the attraction for me. I want to explore compelling characters, resonant themes, AND tell a rocking good story.
How has your background in journalism (and you continue to write great articles to this date, for instance, the recent series on PTSD) helped you in the evolution of your fiction?
I’m drawn to research, and tend to do a lot of it for my books, whether they are historical or contemporary. The journalism background is a big reason—and training—for that. If I’m writing about goats giving birth, I want to be absolutely certain that I have all the details right, for example. And if one of my characters is holding a hand grenade, it’s important to know whether he would have one of the old pineapple-style grenades that were thought to be more likely to fragment when they exploded, and so do more damage, or the more contemporary smooth-surface grenades that were introduced during the Vietnam War (and were just as effective as the old style, as it turned out). Of course it’s too easy to go into the research wormhole and never want to climb back out and just write your damn book, so that can be a drawback. The research dump is another hazard. But so far, so good.
Your novels ring with such authenticity and I’ve noticed an exploration on your part of a variety of topical issues, though always from the standpoint of rock-solid characters: racism, drugs, treatment of animals. Your novels capture how real people deal with real issues. These are not novels for the faint of heart. How have your readers reacted to your presentation of such serious “adult” issues?
Haven’t gotten any hate mail, and as far as I know, haven’t been banned anywhere, so I guess the themes are playing okay, and the grittier stuff in the books is seen as necessary and not gratuitous. One thing that may help is that I work really hard not to write “issue” books. Though certainly there are some dark and challenging themes and subjects I’m working with, I try not to lose sight of the characters at the center of the narrative, and the need to just write a relatively fast-paced, conflict-driven story with an engaging voice that draws readers into it and along for the full ride. That’s the theory, anyway.
Speaking of reacting, you give many readings and workshops for adults and children alike. How rewarding is it to engage so directly with your readers?
Mostly it’s great. Especially with younger readers, who tend to be more excited about having an author they’ve read come to their school for a visit and a talk. I usually tell stories, which they seem to like, judging from the response. Nothing more boring than some moron lecturing about the writing craft—not that I didn’t do way too much of that when I was a college professor. Older readers—high school, college—are a lot more jaded, ironic, slaves to their electronic devices, and so generally not as fun to be around. I tell stories when I visit with them as well, and overall have a good enough time. But god, what a dry bunch they can be—so self-serious. Adults—those who read books—are the best kind of people. They tend to come to readings or book talks with a lot of thoughtful questions, eager to dive deeper into what I’m doing and trying to say, while relating my books to others they’ve read, and so opening up the conversation in all kinds of interesting ways. So that’s good stuff.
On a craft issue, one thing I’ve always admired about your fiction is how you handle first person narration—such a great voice and overall presence to your protagonists. Step back and analyze this for a moment, if you would: what draws you to the first person in particular? Where do you think you picked up your uncanny knack for the vernacular?
Wish I had a clear answer for that. Lots of observing people. Being a pretty good mimic. But also just trying to be an empathetic person can really help a writer “be” the voice of his or her protagonist. Research, of course, helps. Ruthless editing. If you’re worried that it doesn’t sound authentic, then it doesn’t and you have to delete or revise or whatever. I do a LOT of revision, beating up on passages over and over and over until I think they’re close to where I want them to be. And then I go back and revise even more after that. Nothing worse than losing your narrator’s voice—even if it’s just in a single scene or line or even word choice.
I challenge myself in the stories I tell and the narrators I have tell them so they’re never the same person, or even very similar to the character I worked with before. The two novels after DSM were written in the voice and from the point of view of teenage girls. The YA novel after that has a narrator who is the opposite of Dewey in a great many ways. The Scholastic books are Middle Grade and have a different tone and sensibility than the YA books, as you’d expect. Right now I’m working on a nonfiction book, with shifting points of view, all third person. So a radical departure from what I’ve been doing in YA and MG. Of course, before those books I was writing adult fiction and nonfiction, and so significantly different in voice and style and form from the Candlewick and Scholastic books.
Sadie and Carla from Juvie are really memorable characters, as is Iris from What Comes After. It’s a testament to your writing ability that you are able to write so well about these young women. Did it take a shift in mindset to return to the world of men and boys in Great Falls?
Not really. In all those cases, I’ll start with an idea about who the narrator is, and what his or her voice is, but what you’ll read once I’m finished is going to be different from what I started out with. You write your way to figure out what you want to say and how you want to say it. That’s true of developing your final draft sense of your protagonists/narrators and their voices—male, female, whatever.
Did your reporting and research in writing the series of articles about PTSD in The Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star influence Great Falls at all?
Absolutely. I spent months getting to know a Marine family and letting them become comfortable enough to share their story, warts and all, as they say. The dad, a captain, had done multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, had been shot, had killed people, including, most probably, some noncombatants, had had a number of his men killed, either over in the wars or back home to suicide. So he was struggling with PTSD and traumatic brain injury, his wife and children were afraid of him, he was completely dysfunctional and suicidal himself. Long, hard, hard climb out of that morass, and they let me chronicle it for a series of newspaper stories. But there’s always more story to tell and I wanted to take that material and see how it could inform the novel dealing with a lot of the same situations and themes. So that’s how Great Falls came to be, at least in part. I also wanted to write a journey story—a quest—and somehow work in feral pigs and this disgusting rendering plant I’d read about.
Speaking of reporting and research, I read in the acknowledgements for What Comes After that you did a great deal of in-person goat research. It shows. How invaluable was the time you were able to spend interacting with the goats in person?
Great to be around goats, and even greater to be around goat people and collect all their excellent (and disgusting) goat stories, many of which ended up in that book. A central scene in WCA came from a story a Belgian guy named Luc told me back in the 80s when I met him on a ferry that had broken down on Lake Aswan and we ended up stuck for three days tied up to the desert shore while the Egyptians and Nubians on board had food riots. Anyway, Luc had lived in the Congo when he was a kid, and had the most awful goat story ever. It stuck with me, obviously, and eventually showed up in What Comes After. So you never know where you’ll find your material, or when you’ll use it. Best to make note of everything and hang onto it.
In What Comes After, Iris has great compassion for animals—for the goats but also for the dog, Gnarly (perfect name, by the way). She loves animals so much that even after she is attacked by her aunt, Iris returns to take care of the animals. This maneuver surprised me; did the intensity of her love for the goats surprise you as the author?
Yes and no. I know a lot of people who are more passionate about their animals than they are about the people in their lives—and probably for good reason. I’m not an animal person myself, and it cracks up my wife that I keep writing these stories with animals in them, and characters who have a deep fondness if not outright love for the animals. I curse at my dogs all the time because they’re idiots who eat their own poop, which is beyond disgusting. But I also take them for long walks every day (good opportunities for me to mull over what I’m writing), feed them, let them out in the morning, all the crap you have to do to be an animal owner. Iris, though, as I wrote her character, that deep, deep love and commitment for the goats just became more and more evident, so the intensity in its expression just seemed natural, even necessary.
I’ve also noticed that many of your novels are set in the South (though in different parts). You grew up in the South, right? Do you find yourself tackling issues you noticed when you were young?
I’m sure I do, especially in Down Sand Mountain. I grew up in the segregated South, and people talking about the “niggers” was as common as them talking about the weather—lazy, shiftless, can’t be trusted, smell bad, on and on. You don’t just grow up and forget all that, and no matter how liberal/progressive you are in your politics and your activism, you have to be honest with yourself and acknowledge how deeply ingrained in you—in ME—that bullshit is. Because if you aren’t conscious of it—don’t constantly shine a light on it and examine it and question how it’s controlling your reactions to the world around you—then you are captive to unconscious racism, and the world is that much the worse for it.
You have a real knack for character names: Book, Killduff, Weeze, Mr. Dick, Darwin Turkel… How do you come up with these?
Book—the most ironic name I could come up with for a thuggish blockhead.
Mr. Dick—I can’t for the life of me remember who that is or which book he’s in. But I love the name. I had a friend when I was a kid named Ronnie Dick, who used to fall asleep in church all the time, even when we were sitting up behind the preacher in kids’ choir.
Weeze—a nickname my friend Mara Scanlon apparently had in graduate school. Or maybe I’m remembering that wrong.
Darwin Turkel—there really was a Darla and a Darwin who were twins, but I obviously didn’t want to use their real last name. Knew someone whose last name was Turkel in grad school, and wanted a name that sounded a little dorky, and also unusual in a small town.
Killduff—name of an attorney whose sign I saw all the time when we had a bunch of our stuff in a storage facility.
I think about names a lot—for my major characters but also for characters who only show up once or twice in a story, because even the most “minor” is deeply important, and I want a name that will reflect the individuality of that character, suggest something about who he or she is or might be, and will be memorable.
In the writing process, when do you begin to show Janet (Mrs. Watkins) a draft of a novel or chapter? I liked your comment in the acknowledgements for Juvie that Janet should be on the Candlewick payroll.
Early on I would show Janet chapters as I wrote them. Then I would show her the completed manuscript before I sent it to my editor. Then I should give it to her to read at the same time I gave it to my editor. Now, especially with the Middle Grade books, I’m on such tight deadlines that I don’t have time to have her read the manuscripts, and sometimes she doesn’t see them until they’re published. Can’t emphasize how important she has been in my growth and development as a writer, and what a kick-ass fantastic editor she is in her own right.
Tell me a bit about the film project based on your terrific nonfiction book, The Black O. That’s very exciting!
Wish there was something to tell, but as often happens with films projects, this one’s back on hold. We’ll see if it ever actually goes forward. I’ll sure let you know, but I’m not holding my breath.
Thanks again for chatting, Steve. It’s been a real honor.
The honor is mine, Nathan. Thanks for the interest. All best.
Find Steve online at www.stevewatkinsbooks.com.