In Peace, Locomotion, Jacqueline Woodson returns to the story of Lonnie, aka Locomotion, a Brooklyn boy separated from his sister, Lili, after the death of their parents. Through letters to Lili, Lonnie details his struggle to find peace—with their parents’ deaths, with his foster brother’s return from war, and with his poetry, after an unsupportive teacher dismisses his voice. Here, Woodson talks about what it was like to return to Lonnie’s story, how her writing process has changed during her career—and why she will never write a novel through letters again.
Why did you decide to continue Lonnie’s story?
A lot of times when I start writing I don’t have a sense that I’m going to do a sequel, but the character of Lonnie really stayed with me. The big question I kept asking myself long after I had written Locomotion was, “Okay, so Lonnie and Lili are growing to love their foster families. What does this mean in terms of them ever being reunited?” The more I thought about it, I realized, “It’s going to continue to be about loss for them. So, how do I resolve that? How do I make it so they are still connected, even though they’re now growing up in separate families?” The story just started coming.
Did you find it challenging to convey the narrative through the letters?
I don’t think I’ll do it again. The epistolary form is one of the hardest to write. It’s so hard to show something that’s bigger in a letter. Plus, you have to have the balance of how many letters are going to work to tell the story and how few are going to make it fall apart. I tried poems at first and I didn’t think they worked; Lonnie’s not a poet in the beginning of Peace, Locomotion, because that dream has been broken for him. I thought the letters would be a way of showing that he is thinking about Lili all the time. And then the letters begin to get more poetic, so the metamorphosis is also starting to happen.
How did the theme of “peace” emerge?
It was something I started to think about as I was writing the story. I knew I was going to write about the war, plus Lonnie’s searching for his own peace—he’s learning to live with his situation. The current of peace ran through the book in so many different ways. I felt like the story knew more than I did. Eventually, I realized what it was trying to say. When Rodney tells Lonnie to pray for peace because peace covers everything, I thought, “Yes, it does. It’s covering every element of this story.”
The last time Publishers Weekly interviewed you, you were expecting your first child. You now have two children—has parenting changed your relationship to writing and storytelling?
It’s definitely made me more patient. When I’m feeling frustrated with a story I have faith that it’s going to come. Also, when I first started writing, I wanted to write the stories that were not in my childhood, to represent people who hadn’t historically been represented in literature. Now more than ever, what I write matters to me in terms of how it represents who I was and what things I’m leaving behind. I’m writing stuff that I want my kids to be proud of.
Do you think there’s still a need for even more stories featuring African-American protagonists?
You can’t have too many books featuring people of color, just like you can’t have too many books featuring white people. There are so many stories to be told and it’s been such a short period of time that we’ve been allowed to tell them. I’ve seen the beginning of the journey: We started out writing really serious stuff, and then we started writing lighter stuff, and then we started writing stuff that had a different kind of mass appeal. There is always room for the new voices.
Your stories are for a wide range of ages. How do you balance who you’re writing for?
I’m usually working either on a picture book and a young adult book, or a middle grade book and a young adult book. When I get bored with one, I move to the other, and then I go back. Right now I’m working on a book called What We’ll Remember in the Morning. I’m on page 20 and I don’t know what it’s about yet, but it’s slowly coming to me. I just let myself ask lots of questions, and I’m trying to be patient.
I also have two picture books coming out. The Rope is about a family that moves to Brooklyn from the South, and what growing up with this rope has meant to each generation. Also, there’s Pecan Pie Baby, which is a funnier book about a girl who doesn’t want a younger sibling.
Is it something you know about?
Yes, very well.
And will you continue Lonnie’s story further?
I don’t know. I haven’t reread Peace, Locomotion, and I probably won’t for another year just because I need some distance from it. It’s still kind of raw for me. Originally, I thought of writing a book from Lili’s point of view as the final book in a trilogy. I feel like I still have so many questions in my head about what is to become of this group of people that I’ve come to love in this odd way. Right now, it’s not what I’m working on, but I don’t know if it will come back to haunt me.
Peace, Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson. Putnam, $15.99 ISBN 978-0-399-24655-5; Jan. 2009