Wouldn’t You Like to Know . . . Jason Reynolds
I was lucky enough to attend a conference at which Jason Reynolds spoke about his Washington, D.C. childhood and the fascination he shared with his friends for the Go-Go Music found only in his hometown. Reynolds is a born storyteller, but it was the music of the spoken word–in the form of poetry–that turned Jason into a bonafide bookworm. Graduating from University of Maryland with a Bachelor’s Degree in English and a concentration in writing and rhetoric, he took the plunge, dreamed the impossible dream, and went for it–he moved to New York City to become a writer. He did it! Reynolds first work is a collaboration of his poetry and artwork by his friend, previously his college roommate, Jason Douglas Griffin, My Name is Jason. Mine Too.: Our Story. Our Way., receiving much critical acclaim. No great artist travels an entirely smooth road, and the next two books Reynolds wrote didn’t make it past the manuscript stage. After spending some time working retail and as a caseworker in his D.C. hometown, Reynolds returned to New York City and was inspired by his friend, Christopher Myers (son of Walter Dean Myers), to try again. Thank goodness Reynolds listened. Now, we have When I Was the Greatest as his fantastic, debut novel, and this reader is ready for more.
SH: When I was a teenager, people would describe me as a: jock, band geek, popular, goth, other, none?
JR: Unique. A mix of popular, artistic, geek, and jock.
SH: The best/worst thing that happened to you in high school?
JR: The best thing that happened was the growth spurt I had during the summer between sophomore and junior year. I grew about five inches and gained about thirty pounds and suddenly graduated from “little brother” status.
SH: Favorite childhood book? Favorite food? Favorite band or album? Favorite television show?
JR: Favorite childhood book . . . that’s a tough one. The one that changed my life was definitely Black Boy by Richard Wright. It was the first time that I felt like I truly connected to a character. It was the beginning of my literary lineage. Favorite food . . . when I was kid, my mother’s turkey legs. Now, it’s probably my mother’s cookies. Favorite band or album? Too hard of a question. I’m an audiophile so this is just TOO hard. Marvin Gaye’s, “What’s Going On,” is up there when it comes to albums, though. Seriously, it’s perfect. My favorite TV show is pretty much anything that comes on the Food Network. Anything.
SH: Is there a story from your childhood that is told most often, either by you *or* about you?
JR: Just that talking seemed to be the most natural thing for me. I was talking far before I was walking. So my mother always talks about how I was holding full conversations with people, while crawling around. Also, I love when my mother tells me the stories about how she used to hang out with psychics and when she was pregnant, they gave her a reading about me. They said that she needed to guard me, because I was going to do special things. I like the story, only because it keeps me feeling hopeful when I feel like I’m doing not-so-special things. Gotta love moms who hang out with psychics. Ha!
SH: Was there any class in high school you regret paying too little, or too much, attention? If you could add one class to high schools across the country, what would be the topic?
JR: Not really. For me, this is a better question about my college life. High School was pretty easy. Oh, except for psychology. Hated that class and have no clue why I took that in high school. I think every high school should have a class where they compare Shakespeare to modern day sitcoms or reality TV shows, to show that he was brilliant while writing for the common folk. I mean, he was pretty much writing soap operas. I think kids would buy in easier if we related his work to something current.
SH: Do you have any favorite family traditions that might need some explanation to outsiders looking in? Do you remember how they started?
JR: Every year I spend my birthday with my mother. We have dinner and talk, and we’ve been doing this every year for about twenty years. I’m not big on celebrations, not when they’re about me. And for my birthdays, it just seems appropriate to spend them with the person who birthed me. It’s just as much a celebration for her as it is for me.
SH: If you had an important secret or story to share, who would be the first person you’d turn to?
JR: My mother.
SH: Is there a book, besides your own, of course, that you think everyone should be reading?
JR: Anything by James Baldwin. The Fire Next Time shook my world. Baldwin, Baldwin, Baldwin.
SH: What’s your biggest pet peeve?
JR: When people say, “What?” I hate that. I think it’s so crass and harsh and always rubs me as disrespectful. Argh!
SH: Is there one moment in your life you’d love to live again? To either change it or to enjoy?
JR: So many great moments. So many tough moments. I know there is nothing I would change. But I would love to relive my early twenties in New York. The struggle. The raw passion and dedication to making this strange, creative life happen. That nagging feeling that there was something I wanted to do more than anything—write. Such an amazing time.
SH: When you sit down to write, what do you need around you? Do you prefer a certain time of day or is it more spontaneous? How do you approach the creative process?
JR: I don’t need anything. But I hate to write in my house. It’s just too easy to get distracted by the mere comfort of it all. I mean, it’s my resting place. My space of solace. Which means, it’s where I go to procrastinate myself to sleep, or, as I call it, un-work. I’m definitely a morning writer. I love the energy of daytime and sunlight. And I need some kind of noise. As far as my process, I start with A, and Z, then dive in to the other alphabets pretty blindly. I love characters and a basic plot, but the details . . . all adventure!
SH: If you could spend a little time as a superhero, what would you choose as your secret identity and what would want as your special ability?
JR: I’d be an NYC cabbie. I mean, seriously, those dudes drive like they’re invincible. And as Cab Man, I’m not sure what my superpower would be. Hmmm. I mean, the Delorean already happened.
SH: What three words would you use to describe yourself? What three words do you think other people would use to describe you?
JR: I’d describe myself as creative, honest, curious. Other people would probably say I was disciplined, loyal, and probably, a little crazy.
SH: What is one (or more!) of your favorite features about yourself? It can be anything from an impeccable sense of style to your sense of humor to crazy long toes that can pick up a variety of objects.
JR: Hmmm, people would probably think I’d say my hair. And they’d be right! It’s my favorite feature only because it’s the most pronounced, but it drives me crazy. It’s so annoying. But it’s mine, and I love it.
SH: Do you have phrase or motto you find exceptionally inspirational? How or where did you find it?
JR: Process before progress. It’s like my mantra. It reminds me that life is about steps, and that the best thing you can do is be faithful to the process. No cheating. No cutting corners. Just trust your diligence, and know that life will reward you for being crazy enough to believe in yourself.
SH: You are sitting down to dinner with five people, living or dead, who you find fascinating. Who is at the table and what are you eating?
JR: Bob Marley. James Baldwin. Zadie Smith. Whoopi Goldberg. Harriet Tubman. And we’d be eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches because I believe you can tell a lot about person from whether or not they like pb&js. I mean, you really can’t. But I just don’t think you can trust people who don’t like pb&js. All speculative, but so true in my mind. So . . . you know what . . . I know all five of these people like (or did like) pb&js. They have to. I feel like Bob would need mango preserves. James, good ol’ grape jelly. Zadie, a berry spread. Whoopie, crunchy peanut butter. And Harriet, substitute the jelly with honey. Ohhhh, yeah.
SH: Who was the first person who told you should be a writer?
JR: Ms. Blaufuss, in high school. I had been writing for years, but no one ever actually told me to consider being a writer before she did. She was my English teacher and my creative writing teacher and she really opened me up. Even told my mother that there was “something there.”
SH: What one thing makes you feel happiest? What makes you sad? What scares you?
JR: Happiest, my family. Especially my mother. Actually, all the people I love in my life. I really feed off them. Sad, knowing that I’m not around my family as often as I would like. But I’m working on that. And what scares me? That this whole thing . . . this life as a writer, could go away. I’ve wanted this so bad and the thought of it coming, then going, freaks me out. That, and PLANES!
SH: A series of choices: Paper, plastic, or canvas bags? Salty or sweet? Telephone, email, or text? Elevator, escalator, or stairs? Five star hotel or rustic camping? Fourth of July, Halloween, or Thanksgiving? Comedy, drama, or action? Science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance, historical, or straight up fiction ? Cats or dogs?
JR: Canvas bags. Salty and sweet together. Text. Elevator. Five star. Thanksgiving. Drama. Straight up fiction. Dogs.
SH: Any advice for teens, something you wish you had known? Or wish you had done? Or wish you had not done?
JR: One of the healthiest things you could do emotionally is figure out how to find peace in the face of uncertainty. Just tell yourself, “This is where I am, and it’s okay.” What some people (lame adults) often see as you being irresponsible, is actually just you trying to figure it all out. That’s all.
When I Was the Greatest
SH: What made you pick Bed-Stuy for your setting instead of a Washington, D.C. neighborhood?
JR: I just really, really love Bed-Stuy. There’s an energy there that’s hard to replicate. Plus I’ve lived there for about a decade, and have arguably become the best form of myself in this neighborhood. So grateful for Bed-Stuy.
SH: Doris Brooks is a powerhouse of a lady–obviously well respected by her children and the people in their neighborhood. How did you decide on her primary job as a social worker? And the detailed background of her relationship with John? Why does Ali call his parents by their first name when he’s talking about them to others?
JR: I came up with Doris’s job as a social worker because I used to be a caseworker. I did that job. I know that the biggest part of that job is humanizing people who are often demonized or misunderstood. So having Doris be a social worker, helped flesh out her personality when it came to how she treated Needles, but also how she viewed John, a man she knew she couldn’t quite be in a relationship with, but that she also knew was a good man. To be a social worker you have to peel back layers of people. Really see them. Ali calls his parents by their first names just to demonstrate how teenagers often feel much older than they really are, but are often unable to exercise this strange sense of self and adulthood, or at least their version of adulthood. So this is how he snuck in a few liberties. This was his way of “beating his chest” a bit to flex his grown-up muscle. I used to do it all that time but in my mother’s face. And she’d say, “Don’t play with me, Jason.” And that was that. Then I’d say it again . . . in my head.
SH: Jazz is a fantastic little sister who can cook, braid, and hand out cool nicknames like no one’s business! She also seems to have a large circle of friends, not just kids on the block, but she doesn’t seem to leave the apartment. How and when does she get it all done?
JR: Hahaha. She’s a tricky one. You know, she’s interesting because she does spend a lot of time at home, but only because her mother works all the time and her brother is always out with his friends. If mom was home more often, Jazz could hang outside. But she probably wouldn’t really want to, because she’s sort of “grown.” She doesn’t see cooking and taking care of things as being a “big girl.” It’s just how she is. A strange maturity, but she’s still young. So she has friends from school, and she’s likeable, and she’s funny, and girly, but she’s not one for a whole lot of child’s play. I see a lot of myself in her, but who she was DIRECTLY modeled after was one of my best friend’s younger sister. We were all five or six years older than her, but she would literally take care of everything. Braid hair, cook food, make sure her older brother was taken care of while also taking care of herself, and she was ALWAYS that way. It was just a natural thing. She never played with dolls or spent a lot of time in the streets. She had what the elders call an “old soul.” That’s Jazz in a nutshell.
SH: Needles and Noodles are so interesting as brothers and as individuals. Is there any chance you might be willing to write them stories of their own? Maybe provide a deeper look into life as a teen with a “syndrome” and as a teen whose brother is unpredictably different? Plus it would be so much fun if Noodles’ story was told as a graphic novel and Needles story had craft patterns included!
JR: So . . . I actually hadn’t! But thanks for the idea. I mean . . . wow. That’s a really interesting take. Most people ask if there will be a sequel. But I like this idea better. We shall see!
SH: How much of MoMo’s party was inspired by your own experiences with Go-Go music?
JR: A lot of it. But even more so than the go-go, MoMo is based on a real person. And those parties were real parties. But he wasn’t older. He was actually my age and would have these parties in high school that were crazy. And that’s all I’m going to say about that!
SH: Did you have a mentor like Malloy? Or maybe Brother? Or even Black? Are any of these fictional men based on people you knew as a young boy or on people you know now?
JR: They all are real people. Malloy’s real name is Malloy. Ed Malloy. He was my basketball coach and he would pick all the young boys in the neighborhood up and drive us around in a party van and talk trash with us. He taught us discipline, and really helped us work out some of the weird moments. Brother’s real name is Bey. He owns a barbershop in my neighborhood where he also sells pet supplies, exercise equipment, and hosts yoga and meditation sessions. And Black’s real name is Kendall but his nickname is Black in real life, too. We grew up together. He’s the most talented guy I know, and he can really do everything. Like . . . everything. He used to cut my hair. He can make clothes. He plays, like, six instruments. This dude can seriously do it all!
SH: The jacket cover is so intriguing! Are you happy with it? Did you get to have much input? Do you have knitting skills?
JR: I love it, I love it, I love it. I think it’s iconic and striking. I definitely have input, but I trust my editor’s and designer’s taste. And as far as knitting skills, I do know how, but I’m a much better with crochet. Actually, I’m kind of a master. Hahaha. But seriously, I am. No joke. Real life.
SH: Have you hidden friends or family in your writings? Has anyone ever asked to be included?
JR: They always show up. I can’t help it. But none of them ever ask for it, which makes it even better.
SH: How did you come up the idea for your newest book The Boy in the Black Suit? Any hints on the story? What part of the process did you enjoy the most (now that you’re an old hand at this stuff!)–the writing, the feedback, the anticipation of its final arrival or . . . ? Any hints I don’t even know.
JR: All I remember is what it felt like to see my mother deal with cancer, and to think about how life would’ve changed had she not made it. What would I have done? Hmmmm, maybe I would’ve started crashing funerals. Oh, and that’s your hint! As for the process, this time around I really enjoyed rewriting and editing this novel because I got to witness my growth as a writer. I love When I Was the Greatest but I think my work is much stronger this time around. At least, I hope so!
SH: Would you call yourself a poet who enjoys the challenge of writing a longer story, or are you a writer who enjoys the challenge of creating poems? (I love “Hip -Day 3 of 30” on your website!)
JR: Ooooooooh. Well, I started as a poet. At ten years old that was my thing. I studied it in school, and self-published a bunch of stuff, and even got some poetry published by HarperCollins (which was my real first book.) But, now, I also feel like a novelist. I’m settling in. It’s been a natural progression. So, I think I like to just consider myself a writer. Just a writer.
SH: Have you considered collaborating on a graphic novel? Might there be any particular topic or artist that would seal the deal? Or maybe you’d prefer trying your hand at moving images–like a movie, television series, or even book trailers?
JR: I’ve thought about graphic novels and have worked on some things but they all sucked. That was a while ago. I think I’d be better at it now. I’d love to work with Jason Douglas Griffin, because we already know how to work together but, I don’t know. I would also love to work with Chris Myers. Oh, or Gene Luen Yang. I’m actually open to work with anyone as long as it’s fresh.
SH: What did you buy with your first paycheck as An Author? Was it a planned or an impulse purchase?
JR: I took a trip to Italy and had a pair of shoes custom made. I’ve worn them twice, but I look at them often. Sheesh. Talk about art!
SH: Is there a question you wish someone would finally think to ask?
JR: Do you think it matters if teenagers think you’re cool? Does image mean anything in the literary industry, or is that stupid? That’s the question I wish people would ask, but they never do. And I’m not going to answer it here. Just wish someone would ask. Hahahaha!
My Name is Jason. Mine Too: Our Story, Our Way. Harperteen, 2009. 96p. $12.99. 978-0-06-154788-1. VOYA August 2009. 5Q 4P J S <G>
When I Was the Greatest. Atheneum, 2014. 231p. $17.99. 978-1-44-245947-2. VOYA December 2013. 4Q 4P S
Jason’s Blog: http://iamjasonreynolds.com/
Jason’s Twitter Feed: https://twitter.com/JasonReynolds83