In the more than two decades since she published her first children’s book, Jacqueline Woodson has written some two dozen works and has left an indelible mark on the picture book, middle grade, and young adult landscape. She has won three Newbery Honors, a Coretta Scott King Award and three Coretta Scott King Honors, has three National Book Award nominations, and was won the 2006 Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement. Her latest novel, Beneath a Meth Moon, centers on Laurel, a Mississippi teen still reeling from the loss of her mother and grandmother in Hurricane Katrina. She falls into a downward spiral when her boyfriend introduces her to meth, but finally gets clean. From her Brooklyn home, Woodson talked about the novel, due in February from Nancy Paulsen Books, and about her creative process.
This can’t have been an easy book to write. Where did the idea for the story come from?
From several places. I am kind of fascinated with the meth epidemic. I don’t get why anyone, knowing the devastation the drug causes, would begin to use it. As I read more and more about how meth use is growing, I began to question what I could do as a writer, what I could figure out for myself about this. And my other inspiration was looking back and thinking about losing my mother very suddenly, and some years before that losing my grandmother. How do you deal with the confusion that comes with sudden loss?
So that precipitated the death of Laurel’s mother and grandmother in Hurricane Katrina?
Yes. I began wondering about the powerlessness of young people around that kind of loss, when suddenly people they love are gone forever. That is too much to take on as a child. So many young people were displaced after Katrina. I wanted to deal with what happened to young people coming out of that devastation. Where do you go when you’re dealing with such a major loss in your family, and then begin to lose yourself? Once I began thinking about that, the character of Laurel became more clear to me. I never know, when I start writing a story, what’s going to happen, or how it will all get sorted out.
Beneath a Meth Moon has the subtitle, “An Elegy,” and at the start of the novel, Laurel’s best friend Kaylee tells her to write “an elegy to the past… and move on.” What is the significance of “elegy”?
To me, elegy suggests that there is hope, and in some respects you’ve moved past the loss and are able to deal with it, and to write about it. Elegy is a beautiful word that pays homage to what’s gone on and to the survival of the people – like Laurel – who are still there and who lived to tell the story. After facing something really scary, Laurel has survived. Hers is a complicated story, but it’s a hopeful one.
Your novels have tackled some hard-hitting issues – poverty, gang violence, child abuse, and now meth addiction. And yet there is always that ultimate glimmer of hope. Do you view hope as an important element in your fiction?
I couldn’t be a writer without hope. I think I became a writer because I’m pretty optimistic. I’m always thinking, “Things are going to be okay. It’s all going to work out fine” – no matter what the situation is. I approach the writing of every one of my books knowing that young people are very resilient. On our livelong journey, things are going to change, and we have to change with them. I think it’s important for young people to know what the world is, in all of its wonder and despair. Having hope allows us to move through it all.
While she is addicted to meth, Laurel becomes isolated from her father and younger brother, yet finally reconnects with them. The importance of family is another theme that rings clear in your fiction.
Family is also very important to me. My family is big, complicated, and beautiful – and keeps me smiling and whole. It’s so important to have family, whether it’s biological family, good friends, foster families, or a group of aunties who are raising you. The idea of feeling isolated is scary to me – to walk through the world alone would be heartbreaking.
That’s where I had to go though to write Laurel’s story. I had to give her all this love and then make her feel like it was gone. Crazily devastating. And then I had to show her that it wasn’t gone—that she had so much to live for, that her family had changed, yes, but she could survive the change. Once she began to realize this, that she had so much love, so much to live for, she started coming back into the world, starting piecing herself back together.
A number of your novels have New York City settings. Living in Brooklyn, do you find that your physical surroundings fuel your fiction?
It’s funny. People say that when you cross over the Brooklyn Bridge, they hand you an MFA! There are so many writers in this borough, which I think is great. Obviously I would be writing if I lived somewhere else, but being here allows me to write about the city around me. Of course not all my books take place here. Beneath a Meth Moon is set in Mississippi, far away from New York City.
I love where I live. I grew up in Bushwick, which was then a poor, working-class neighborhood about 40 minutes from where I live now, which is Park Slope. Both places are very meaningful to me. As I write about such things as economic class and race, I am constantly watching my immediate world, and the bigger world around me. My writing is inspired by where I come from, where I am today, and where I hope to go some day.
Whether you’re writing in the voice of a female or male, your characters are always so true to life. How do you get that so right – do you interact often with adolescents and teens?
No. Teens scare me! I think one reason I’m able to be in that world is that I never left. A part of me can easily still access that experience of being 11 or 16. In a moment I can tell you 10 memories from when I was 15. I can go back to knowing what it was like to be 13 and feel completely isolated, of having friends who were my friends one day and treated me badly the next. In Beneath a Meth Moon, when Laurel first meets Kaylee, there is that moment of realizing that they are going to be good friends. I know that moment – I remember having it with a friend I met when I was six years old. After that, we weren’t apart for the next eight years. That kind of stuff does come right back to me.
Are you currently mining any memories for another writing project?
I feel like I’m still coming out of the fog of finishing Beneath a Meth Moon. I don’t think I realized how inside that story I really was. It was a hard and heavy book to write. But I’ve finished a picture book, Each Kindness, which E.B. Lewis is illustrating and Nancy Paulsen Books will publish in fall 2012. I was inspired by seeing third- and fourth-grade girls being so mean to each other and not even realizing that’s what they were doing. I remember thinking, “They think this moment is always going to be here, that there will always be a chance to go back and undo that.” And it’s not true. So Each Kindness is about a girl who isn’t kind and what happens with that. It’s about the importance of kindness—something I deeply believe in.
I’m also about to start writing the book for an opera about Clementine Hunter, an African-American painter from Louisiana whose work was shown at galleries that she wasn’t allowed to enter because of Jim Crow laws. And another project that is slowly coming together for me is a middle-grade novel which will be quite funny.
That’s quite a juggling act.
I’m usually working on several things at once. If I get bored with one, I can go on to another. That way, I never get stuck. So it works well.
Beneath a Meth Moon by Jacqueline Woodson. Penguin/Paulsen, $16.99 (Feb.) ISBN 978-0-39925250-1