In Conversation with Leslie C. Youngblood
Leslie C. Youngblood received an MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. A former assistant professor of creative writing at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, she has lectured at Mississippi State University, UNC-Greensboro, and the University of Ghana at Legon. She’s been awarded a host of writing honors, including a 2014 Yaddo’s Elizabeth Ames Residency, the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Prize, a Hurston Wright Fellowship, and the Room of Her Own Foundation’s 2009 Orlando Short Story Prize. In 2010 she won the Go On Girl! Book Club Aspiring Writer Award. Born in Bogalusa, Louisiana, and raised in Rochester, New York. Her debut novel, Love Like Sky, was published November 6, 2018, Disney Hyperion.
[This interview has been edited for clarity.]
Arriel Vinson: Tell me about your journey to publishing and how you started writing Middle Grade (MG) fiction.
Leslie C. Youngblood: I never started writing MG fiction until I was writing Love Like Sky. The characters had been with me before; they were with me originally. Georgie was—though she wasn't called Georgie, she was called G-baby—in the first short story that I ever published. Believe it or not, that was like 1995 or 1996. She first appeared there as a six-year-old. I was writing short stories, and years passed, and in my MFA thesis, G-baby appeared again with a little sister, Peaches. These were adult novels. I didn't know about writing MG. I was in an MFA program, it was literary fiction.
But then, I just started to hear the characters again and started putting them in their own world, because the voices were always there. I had a personal crisis and I lost my brother—my younger brother—and I just kept hearing these voices that were like, "Give us our own story." And that's how it happened. I had to really learn what I could about MG, but all I knew was that I was writing a protagonist, she was eleven, and that made it middle grade.
AV: Since you didn't write MG in your MFA program, tell me about what you wrote instead and what that experience was like?
LY: I attended University of North Carolina at Greensboro's MFA. Part of my journey, I like to tell people, is something that I'm proud of but wouldn't want for someone else—to take 12 years to finish their undergraduate degree. But it's just my story. I kept going, kept trying, kept trying, and eventually graduated with my Bachelors in Creative Writing.
After I spent all this time trying to finish my undergrad degree, I got a very cushy job at Morehouse College. I was a Communications secretary. And not even a year in, I was writing short stories. I loved it — I had won an award or two and I started researching MFAs. I didn't know much about them, didn't really have time to research that in undergraduate because I wasn't the traditional student. So, when I finally took a breath, I started to apply with some of the short stories and got a full ride to the MFA program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
There wasn't really a children's literature program and I think they were really just coming about. I don't think they'd been around very long. So, I was writing literary fiction [in the tradition of] people I admire, Baldwin and Morrison. My work was leaning in that direction. I liked reading MG fiction when I had a chance, but it wasn't anything I was working on actively.
AV: How did your journey through undergrad and writing literary fiction during your MFA shape your MG writing?
LY: I didn't follow the rules of what people may know MG as. I know a lot of writers don't, but I didn't adhere to them because I didn't really know a lot of them. But sometimes that's the best.
My novel clocks in at about 80,000 [words] for MG. I had studied that it's 40,000-60,000 for MG, but keep in mind, because I was writing adult novels where you're going to write 80-90,000 words, I didn't limit myself. I didn't say, “Oh, this is MG, it doesn't mean as much.” And for not one second did I ever think that MG is easier. I didn't say, "Oh, I'm writing MG, so out the window to literary." I brought all of that to this story.
The only difference is that all of my other novels are in third person. This is my first novel in first person. Other than that, everything is the same. The language, I made appropriate for an 11-year-old. I have adults in the background. I've gotten some early reviews for Love Like Sky from trade publications, and one thing that was noted is that the adults are centered in the novel. Because I'm used to writing the way that I write, I didn't think to make the mom and dad disappear like authors have been known to do in some MG fiction. The mom and dad are still there, but the kids are just in the forefront.
Now that I read more MG and am more familiar with a lot of MG writers, I'm really starting to notice that some people really look down on it and think that it's not literature. I just didn't make that distinction, and I'm glad I didn't.
AV: I'd love to know more about how you got your two-book deal with Disney Hyperion, and why Disney Hyperion?
LY: When I really focus in on Love Like Sky, I don't think I can ever talk about my journey without talking about losing my brother. I had a brother that we lost, he was taken from us, and I was writing during that grieving period and working on my other novel. But when I needed comfort, I noticed that I gravitated toward writing the sibling relationship that's in Love Like Sky.
The scene where Georgie tries to explain the nature of everlasting love to her sister—I wrote that scene in one sitting. After I wrote that scene, the rest of the book just flowed. When I wrote love like sky [on the page], I knew that was the title. I knew it immediately. No one's ever questioned it. And I love that. It doesn't happen often, but when you do it, it's an amazing feeling.
The characters started flowing, so I was able to just be close, not only to my brother that we lost, but to my other siblings. I needed that at that moment. When I finished this book, I queried and landed an agent for it maybe within a month or so, which is John Rudolph from Dystel, Goderich, & Bourret LLC. I had two offers. I was fortunate with that. But I’d been rejected hundreds of times, so I was like, okay, this is it.
John sent me a letter, and he seemed the most sincere. I know writers who have been very successful and love that agency. That was a good thing for me. Once I had that secured, we went back and forth with edits and he started to shop. We got hits on it almost immediately.
Then it came down to three houses, then it came down to a preemptive offer with two. Disney wanted it the most. I talked to both editors on the phone. Like an interview, they told me what they liked about the book, what they thought, etcetera. Laura Schreiber's vision was the closest to my vision of the book.
So, it was Disney-Hyperion. People were warning me about signing with Disney Hyperion. The book is focused on African-Americans. These are girls who are chocolate girls. People were saying, “Oh, they’re going to lighten their complexion and make their hair straighter.” You hear a lot of things, but you have to trust your gut. And I really trusted Laura would stick to the vision of my girls, who are very well described in my book. There is no room for ambiguity on how they look.
Vashti Harrison is the artist for my cover, and Laura knew she wanted to work with her. When I first got the original cover, G-baby looked a little different. G-baby was on the cover, but she was not the centerpiece. At first I told the marketing team that I liked it. And I did like it, but after a couple of days of looking at it, I had to be honest. I did not love it.
This is Disney-Hyperion, and I have this deal — not just one book, but two books. I love the editor. So, I got the courage up to say to her, "Laura, I do not love this cover." And we went back and forth for a little bit because marketing thought that'd be something that would sell. They sent me an entire portfolio of what Vashti had sent to them. They don't have to do that. Even my agent was like, "Wow."
One day, one of my brothers asked me, "Is this experience everything that you thought it would be?" And I would definitely say it is.
AV: You mentioned you wrote the scene where Georgie tried to explain everlasting love, then you got the title. Is that usually your writing style, just putting on the page whatever inspires you and working from there, or are you writing chronologically?
LY: Ninety-nine percent of the time, I write chronologically. That scene happens about 10-12 pages in, maybe a little more. But I knew when I wrote "love like sky," that was the title of the novel. Then I could just write from there. If I had to write 10 more chapters before I came to the title, then I just would have had to do that. I always like my titles to be organic, from the story. Those are the best titles—the ones you can pull out of the actual dialogue from your characters. I stick to that and it hasn't changed yet.
AV: You've talked about how reviews you've received highlight how you deal with divorce in Love Like Sky. I want to hear about how you write that type of family in a MG novel and how you make younger readers understand a blended family.
LY: You know, what I tried to do, what I think kids deserve, is just to be as realistic as possible. I mean, 11-year-olds and younger unfortunately face divorce. Even if their parents aren't divorced, they know someone whose parents are divorced. So, I don't think that was hard to depict in the novel. It was just showing how G-baby digests what happens. Her sister's younger; her sister's six. G-baby takes it upon herself to really try to explain it to her sister. So, whatever G-baby knows about divorce, she tries to deal with that and have her sister adjust to it. I think the way that I dealt with it is really just to be honest. I didn't try and make the dad out to be the bad guy, or the mom to be, but I also didn't make them perfect. I made sure that they were flawed and I tried to relate that to their kids the best that they could. And another thing is that they're both remarried. I really wanted not just one blended family. I wanted that dynamic there. Because it complicates it, but it definitely gives me a way for kids who are in that experience of divorce to navigate it. I thought that was important. I'm dealing with the mom's remarriage, the dad's remarriage, and we have a step sister who's fifteen and wants nothing to do with them because she's suffering the loss of her younger sister. But there's a lot of joy in the novel. I think the joy is appreciated in the novel because I deal with a lot of the emotions that the kids experience.
AV: So, we talked about this a little bit earlier, but what does it mean to you to publish Love Like Sky—a story with a black girl, a black family—with Disney-Hyperion?
LY: Well, first and foremost, I wanted to publish the book. I wanted to tell this story. And we know the history of Disney, which, let's just say, hasn't had a lot of African-American representation throughout the years. But I knew before, or shortly after I signed, that a book like this, The Skin I'm In by Sharon Flake, was published through an imprint of Disney-Hyperion. So, I knew that I was far from the first. I was excited because of the cover of the book and because of the fact that I didn't listen to people who were naysayers. I know that a lot of kids—when they hear Disney—they don't think of a little black girl on the cover. You know, we have Tatiana, but we need more representation, not just from Disney, but from all publishers. And I think that my book is in the mix making a difference.
AV: Right. You mentioned some earlier books, saying, you're not the first of this type of novel. What other middle grade authors are you writing in the tradition of? Who are your favorite middle grade authors to read, and how do you think they influence your work or the topics that you handle in your work?
LY: Wow, there are so many. Like I said, in my MFA, I wasn’t focused on middle grade. I read everything Morrison, everything Baldwin. But I really got serious about middle grade—and I don't even know that I would call myself a middle grade writer. I'm just a writer. I just love to write, and to tell the story first and foremost. But I would have to say, the most recent middle grade one would be Rita Williams-Garcia. Because I think when I read One Crazy Summer, and even though that novel is set in the late 60s, and my novel is set in 2015 or so, there's things she's doing with the Black Panther Movement which allowed me to learn more about that movement than I had in a lot of other texts.
It kind of surprises me when people think that the issues that I deal with are difficult because I'm thinking, Wait a minute, all the MG authors that I've read always take on challenging subjects. I wrote a tweet once that said from Angela Johnson to Nikki Grimes, all their subjects are challenging. And you work so hard for this deal to come, and let's be honest, you don't know when it's going to come again. I didn't have time to write something fluffy. I didn't have time or the energy or desire, and I don’t come from the tradition in middle grade that says, “Hey, you have this platform, let's just make it as easy as possible. Let's make it light and fluffy and fun.” Not that kids don't deserve that. That just was not the book I set out to write.
AV: So, switching gears a little bit. I know you also, outside of writing, work for Writers & Books, and you’ve taught at multiple universities. How do you balance working and doing all these things, and also making sure you have a writing process?
LY: Arriel, that is the easiest question you've asked. You know what, I have been blessed, and I will say it's a blessing: I am the quintessential morning person. Every time I wake up, I'm thankful, I'm happy, no matter what. So, I am a morning person, and I am a member on Twitter of the 5am Writers Club. And I've taken that to Facebook as well. But you know, on my first book, I wasn't a part of that. I'd just get up in the morning. And the reason why they loved me at one of my previous universities is because I loved teaching 8 o'clock classes. So, with that being said, though, I was teaching at 8 o'clock, I would get up at 4:30 or 5:00 and write. That's how I do it even now. I write at 5:00 a.m. Or even if I'm not actually working on the book, I'm up, I'm on Twitter, I'm on Facebook, which I really see as my literary exercise, calisthenics, writing warming up; Tweeting, stuff like that. I'm on there at 5:00, and if not, I've overslept, even on the weekends.
AV: Hmm. That's a good method.
LY: Yeah, that's a good method. Other than that, I just write and stop in the middle of the action. I don't like to come to the end of a chapter, and have a blank, fresh chapter waiting. I stop in the middle of a sentence even, sometimes. I can go back and get new energy for that particular sentence. But the main thing is the discipline, which is why some of my favorite quotes are about discipline and endurance, because there are days when, not to sound cliché, but that's what wins it. And of course my favorite quote is [from] James Baldwin, and it's about how “Talent is insignificant” at the end of the day, and it's the endurance that really matters. It's not that I don't think that have talent, but there are people out there who can write a novel just as well as I can. What will differentiate us is that I will stick with it; I will get up at 5:00. And most writers, that's how we win.
AV: I like that. Looks like I'm gonna be up at 5:00 tomorrow.
LY: For that to work for you, you've got to do it consistently. Do it consistently. If your thing is 7:00, if your thing is 10:00 at night, do it consistently. I'm not even saying every day, but you have to get a discipline. And if you don't have that—because it doesn't get easier, I mean, even right now with other things that I have to do—a lot of stuff will interfere with your writing. It's good stuff. School visits, interviews, emails, all of that stuff. But your writing, you have to control and nurture that. That's where it can fall apart, when you no longer nurture it.
AV: What else would you like to add for our readers?
LY: I want people to take away from Love Like Sky the love of that family, the joy they have, the challenges that they go through. And there's so much about friendship that I think readers will find in Love Like Sky. Another thing is that I can't say enough about the discipline. The discipline, first and foremost, is good. And, of course, rejection. I've literally been rejected hundreds of times throughout this process. And it's going to happen again. That's just what you have to deal with. There is not a lot of instant gratification in this business, in publishing. And people think so sometimes, but there really isn't. Let me tell you this, when it's all said and done, you want readers to love your work. And you want them to love it, not just for your own gratification, but because you really want the characters to be well-received. But when you start to censor yourself, and you start to write for readers, or write for what you think is trending or popular, you lose them. So, I'm glad I didn't do any of that. I wrote the book that I wanted to read, and now that I'm just hoping other people want to read it too.