Jacqueline Woodson is the author of more than 20 books for young readers, including Brown Girl Dreaming, which won the National Book Award, among many other prizes, in 2014. Another Brooklyn, her first novel for adults in two decades, was published earlier this month. She lives in Brooklyn with her family.
Why did you write your new book?
I'm a writer – this is what we do. We get inspired and have to put that inspiration into written words. The result of that inspiration was Another Brooklyn. It's the story of, as I say in the book, "growing up girl" in Brooklyn in the 1970s. I wanted to chronicle not only a real place – the Bushwick section of Brooklyn which has had a long journey. Bushwick was first "discovered" by, among other Dutchmen, Franciscus, an enslaved man who bought his freedom. Its name translated is "the little forest." In the thirties through the late fifties and early sixties, it was a working-class neighbourhood for striving immigrants – Italian, Polish, Irish. Then in the late sixties, when people of colour moved in, it became a place of white flight and a place where young people of colour found a home and a deep sense of community. Now, Bushwick is a "cool" hipster neighbourhood. I wanted Bushwick to be remembered. I also wanted to tell the story of what it means to grow up girl – and all that comes with that. I think both the histories of places and the histories of people often get overlooked. Most of all, I wanted to write a good story.
Which historical period do you wish you'd lived through?
I loved growing up in the sixties, seventies, eighties and nineties. I wouldn't trade the experiences I had in these years for anything. So much was happening in New York and in the world and I was able to bear witness to it. I think it's dangerous to have that kind of almost ridiculous longing to be a part of a moment you could never be a part of. There is so much to our now, so much to fight for, engage in, uncover. I've moved through five decades – through the music of them, the politics, the sheer devastation and the absolute joy of time. Why would I want anything but this?
What scares you as a writer?
The act of not writing is very scary to me. I believe that I was brought here to tell stories and when things get in the way of that, it's frightening for me. In Another Brooklyn, August stops speaking – how frightening to watch a bubbly teenager go silent. In writing this, I channelled that fear of losing my own voice, of not being able to put stories on the page in a way that mattered and made sense to me. I could barely imagine it but had to anyway. Ugh.
Which books have you reread most in your life?
I've reread The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin and Raymond Carver's short stories many times. Oh – and of course A Tree Grows In Brooklyn! I have a shelf in my library where these books hold a special place. Whenever I feel stuck as a writer or hopeless about my own writing, I sit in front of this shelf and find my favourite passages, reading them out loud until I feel better.
What's more important: the beginning of a book or the end?
As a writer, the whole book is important to me. You can't have one part without the other. In terms of what I love to write – I am so excited when I begin a book. All of that possibility! All of that vision! Then the book hits me in the head with the work ahead of me and all that I don't know about it. It feels like it's daring me to push through, to deepen and understand the journey I'm going on. So I have a deep love/hate relationship with the middle of my books. But the end! When I know where I'm going and how I'm going to get there, it's like a blanket lifts from over my head. Everything gets brighter. And as my family will quickly tell you, I get in a much better mood! A book has to leave you a little bit different than how you were when you started reading it. But you can't get to that place if the beginning doesn't propel you forward. When I've gotten to that place where I know I'm different because of what I've written, then I know my reader will be different, too, and thus, I've done my job.