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Sunny Author Jason Reynolds on Writing, Publishing and Advice for New Writers

Award-winning YA novelist Jason Reynolds has cemented his place in literary history with titles like When I Was the Greatest, The Boy in the Black Suit and Long Way Down. Here we talk to Jason about writing, publishing and his advice for new authors.

Jason Reynolds is one of the most gifted of YA novelists of this time. With titles like When I Was the Greatest, The Boy in the Black Suit and Long Way Down, Reynolds has cemented his place in literary history.

Recently, Reynolds had three titles on the New York Times Best Seller list at the same time. He has been honored with a collection of awards, including several Coretta Scott King Book Award honors, an NAACP Image Award, and his novel Long Way Down has won the Edgar Award. He’s been a National Book Award finalist, and has graced stages with Ta-Nehisi Coates and Rep. John Lewis. Reynolds has also been featured in the pages of People magazine. He has appeared on television shows such as The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. Here we talk to Jason about writing, publishing and his advice for new authors.

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What was your life like, pre-book?

I was a happy shop worker. I got to dress nice going to work every day and I liked that. I saw people at these high end stores in New York City making a lot of money. I would have been happy to do that but I wouldn’t have been reaching my full potential.

Best advice you have heard on writing?

Sharon Draper told me that to write a novel is to climb Mount Everest. When you climb Mount Everest, the whole time you’re thinking, I don’t think I can make it. When you reach the top, you think, now I know I can climb Mount Everest. But what you don’t account for is that on your way down all the footholds change. So, when you climb again it’s not the same route. It’s difficult all over again… every time it’s a new climb.

Do you have any advice for new authors on creating a satisfying ending and a thrilling beginning?

My uncle used to say that the good books begin with “… and shots rang out.” Shots rang out is a cliché, but what he meant is that no one has time for you to get us to the minefield. Drop us in the midfield in the beginning. Drop us off in the mix and you can move backward and forward from there. End in the mix. Don’t answer any questions. Leave me in the muck at the end, too. There can be less muck, but all the loose ends shouldn’t be tied up. There should be something unreconciled. That’s life. Nobody’s life is tied up in a bow. Stories that end in a bow are kind of disrespectful to the reader. If you want your story to be compelling, let it fade to black without reconciliation.

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How do you know when a novel is finished?

You always end it a chapter early.

What has novel writing taught you?

Patience. Diligence. Every time you write a novel it’s like writing one for the first time.

Your poetry is amazing. Do you have any advice for writing poetry that connects with readers?

You have to be honest. You have to choose words that breathe. It doesn’t have to necessarily be correct English, but you need words with life. Gwendolyn Brooks once had a list of goals that was published. One of them said she wanted to speak proper English. One of her most popular poems was “We Real Cool.” That’s not what anybody would call proper English, but those words breathed.

You have collaborated on writing with editors and writers. What is the key to making a collaboration work effectively?

Humility. If we are collaborating we both need to only work for the good of the product. Nothing is sacred to me. If my best line has to get scratched for the good of the project I am not in fear that I’ll never have another good line. If my editor says, “this isn’t working,” and she explains why it’s not working… it’s just not working. It’s that simple. I want to create the best thing. I don’t always know how to make the best thing by myself. Sometimes I can be way to close to something… to actually see it.

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How did you connect with Marvel to write Miles Morales: Spider-Man? And can you tell us about the project?

They called me. I wish I had some romantic story about it. I was writing a lot of young, black urban males and they wanted a Spider-Man like that. They reached out to me. Then, I had to think about what that would mean. What are superpowers? Heightened senses? All of our mothers have taught us to have those, so we can stay safe in the hood. I had to ask myself what this kid’s neighbors and family are like. How does it feel to wear a mask and then take that mask off and still feel like you’re not seen? For a kid like this, his super villain would be white supremacy. So I had to figure out how to change that thought into a comic book.

Tell me the story behind the story. How did your current novels, For Everyone and Sunny, come to be? What are they about?

Sunny is the third book of the track series. I wanted to explore what it means to be black and to be strange... I think our kids deserve to be able to stretch out imaginatively and live there best lives... even if that means being a little left of center. It’s beautiful to tell a story like that.

The other one is called For Everyone. It was basically a love letter I wrote to myself when I was twenty five years old. I decide to quit writing. It was like a curtain call, a sun setting on my career. Looking back on it, {that thinking} was very melodramatic. I thought I’m twenty five years old and this is it for me. I’m done. So, I was writing what it feels like to fail. Then, over the course of the two or three year process of writing it {things} evolved. It became less about failure and more about what it feels like to want something. We often look at freedom as attaining something. Really, it’s the ability to even have the gumption and the space to dream you could have it in the first place.

Do your current novels address social issues? If so what themes or messages were you hoping to convey to readers in regards to those issues?

For Everything addresses the fear of living a full life. Sunny addresses depression and grief... and the breakdown of a family due to a young person’s misunderstanding of their parents. Parents are human. They deal with things like grief, depression and anxiety. To a young person that can feel like dismissal, abandonment, and other things.

Looking back what do you think you did right that helped you to become the novelist you are today?

Be honest. When I was 21, my first editor said that my intuition would take me further than my education ever would. She said what she knew about me was that I had a golden gut. I could put on a page that what felt good to me. I don’t care about the rules. If it feels good I go with it and that hasn’t let me down yet.

How has your life changed since publication?

I feel more responsibility about what I put out in the world because a lot of people are going to read it. I feel more pressure so there are moments when this isn’t as fun. Moments when this feels like a job. I am appreciative and the fun is there, but there are times when it feels like a job. I’m on the road over 100 days a year. Visiting schools, speaking at events, but I have to show up and be the Jason that everyone came to see. It’s hard on me and it’s hard on my family… but you can’t show that.

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What were the biggest surprises and learning experiences that you discovered during the publishing journey?

How hard it is. The editors are like collaborators. They do a lot of work but most writers don’t give them enough credit. [I’ve also learned] how hard it is to sell books. I would encourage everyone to go outside and try to sell fifty things to strangers and see how difficult it is.

People underestimate how difficult it is... so when you land on a [bestseller] list it can feel like a miracle.

How did you respond to finding out you made the New York Times Best Sellers List? How did you celebrate?

I don’t celebrate things that have to do with me. I celebrate other people. My National Book Award medal is in a desk. My awards are in boxes. When those things happen I think it’s awesome. But, there is so much work to be done. I don’t have time to bask in it... People who drink their own Kool-Aid have their career cut short. I can’t believe my own hype. It’s cool to have people say nice things about me. But I have work to do.

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Your novel Long Way Down was optioned for film by Universal, with John Legend scheduled to produce it. How involved will you be in that?

I don’t know. I would like be in the room. I’d like to consult. There are slippery parts of the book I would like to be sure they understand, but other than that, I am not a movie maker. I don’t have that weird thing authors have [where they say], “Don’t ruin my book.” No one can ruin my book because it already exists. What they are creating is a different product. Having that distance helps you enjoy the process.

What matters more to you as an author: winning awards or making best sellers list?

What matters most is creating a book that will withstand. I am here to make art, but if I had to pick between the two I would pick the awards because awards last forever. Bestseller lists are nice but you may only be on there a week. You’re only as good as what comes out that week. If you make that list and the next week Stephen King or John Green come out it’s a wrap for you. You ain't on there no more. I think Long Way Down was on [The New York Times Best Sellers List] for seven weeks… but it won the Walter Award, and that’s forever.

Final advice for aspiring writers?

Excellence is a habit. The way you live your life is the way you approach your novels… If you work to be great at every part of your life, writing a novel will feel natural to you. Excellence can’t be turned on and off.

What’s up next for you?

I want to work on a contemporary adult novel. Sunny and For Everyone are available now and I will continue to work hard and put out more books. I want people to scratch their heads wondering how I can put out so many books at this level. I’m my own competition... I’ll keep trying to best myself and try to be of service to others.

How can people connect with you?

On my website or on twitter @JasonReynolds83

Thanks, Jason. Your time, your advice, and your habitual excellence are appreciated.

Online Course: Writing the Young Adult Novel

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