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The WD Interview: Elizabeth Acevedo

National Book Award winner Elizabeth Acevedo talks writing novels in verse, tips for NaNoWriMo success, and developing characters for YA in this interview from WD's Sept/Oct 2021 issue.

A poet, an aspiring chef, a healer, and a chess player: Elizabeth Acevedo writes about creative teen girls making their own way in a world that isn’t always kind. It didn’t come as too much of a surprise that Acevedo herself took up a creative hobby during the pandemic lockdown. But the way she brought it back to writing, however, was the revelation.

While discussing having patience during the revision process, Acevedo noted that she had started making candles, and she learned that each candle has a curing time during which it sits untouched before it can be burned. This allows the fragrance to fully reveal itself. “That thinking has helped with writing for me,” she said. “Sometimes things just need time to come slowly into their own, to almost get concrete, and then you can start messing with it. So, for me, at least that language feels like it’s just part of the process. It’s curing. It’s not that I’m wasting time or losing time. It’s doing something.”

The process works. Her debut novel, The Poet X, won the National Book Award, a Michael L. Printz Award, and the Pura Belpré Award, among others. Written in verse, it tells the story of Xiomara Batista learning to find her voice, both poetic and otherwise, in the face of challenges at school, church, and home. Acevedo’s sophomore prose novel, With the Fire on High, follows Emoni Santiago’s senior year in high school as she juggles being a teen mother, schoolwork, and the culinary arts class that could potentially change her post-graduation prospects. Her 2020 novel, Clap When You Land, also written in verse, alternates between two sisters, Yahaira in NYC and Camino in Sosúa, Dominican Republic, as they deal with the death of their father in a plane crash—and learn of the other sister’s existence.

In all three novels, Acevedo channels the students she taught as an 8th-grade teacher, the stories they wanted to see on their classroom bookshelves, and what Acevedo herself wanted to read as a young adult. She balances the true-to-life struggles teenagers face—making life-altering choices, learning who to trust, and discovering that parental figures have lives outside of being caregivers—with a foreshadowing that each of them has a bright future ahead. As satisfying as that balance is for readers, it becomes even more impressive when you consider the beautiful language and stunning execution of the novels.

Like most writers, getting to that level wasn’t always an easy or clear path. Acevedo made use of her time as a teacher, her MFA, her time as a slam poet, and the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) challenge to help get the initial words on the page. With preparations for the upcoming November writing challenge in full swing, that’s where we began our conversation.

Elizabeth Acevedo Quote | Writer's Digest Sept/Oct 2021 Interview

I wanted to talk a little bit about NaNoWriMo. How did the challenge help you with your writing?

The first time I did it was in 2013, and at that point, I had written maybe a third of what ended up being my first novel, The Poet X. But I was really afraid of prose. I had dabbled with prose and had short stories and a manuscript I’d been working on. But I think that NaNoWriMo really was a challenge to get out of my own head.

I was in grad school at the time getting my MFA in poetry, and I was working on a thesis. So, it really was the one opportunity I gave myself to attempt something that no one is checking for. The speed of it and the inability I had to second guess myself, the fun of what wound up being With the Fire on High, the second novel I published, of finding this character that was a chef—my NaNoWriMo version had her doing all kinds of things—I think I just gave myself so much permission to play. I really appreciate that process. I’ve never written a novel quite like that one in terms of how quickly and how much I allowed myself, to get my 1,700 words a day and keep it moving.

This issue comes out right as writers will be prepping for the challenge. What kind of advice do you have for them, for during the challenge or for the post-challenge when it comes time for revision?

For the challenge, having prompts for yourself would be helpful, particularly on those days that maybe you’re stuck. There were moments that I very much knew the next thing that had to happen was this and so I knew what I was writing next. But then there were times when I just didn’t know, and I had to give myself prompts or assignments to get myself thinking about the character. I think that in terms of the pre-work before starting NaNoWriMo, have 30 days’ worth of prompts that you can respond to. You won’t need them for every day, but on a day you’re stuck and you only have an hour to write like, well, I know what I’m doing. And even if it’s just work that now you know more about the character and the story, even if it doesn’t end up in the actual manuscript, you’re in the world every single day. And I think [that’s] critical.

Plan for Thanksgiving. I did. I remember, I lived in D.C. and my whole family’s in New York and I traveled up to New York that year. I was hiding in my mom’s bedroom trying to get my last few words out. So just plan for the fact that those two or three days are mayhem and maybe get a couple of extra hundred words here and there. I very much gave myself permission to write anywhere and everywhere. If I was on the train, if I was at the gym on the bike—every word was closer to my word count. Those bits and spurts add up.

And the only thing I would say for after is, give yourself a full four to six weeks to not look at the thing. I think everyone wants to jump in and see what they made, [but] those fresh eyes do so much for your ability to discern what’s really sharp and the days you hit it out of the park, and what you’re just going to have to let go of because it wasn’t your best thinking. Sometimes that’s hard to see right after. Everyone says this, but like truly, truly, I can only double down on giving the revision the time.

You mentioned that NaNoWriMo allowed you to discover who one of the characters was in one of your books. In general, when you draft, what comes first: the character or the story?

It’s odd because I would say that neither comes fully fleshed for me, and it depends on every story. With this one, With the Fire on High, I would say I began thinking about it a week before NaNoWriMo and the character came first. I wasn’t planning on doing NaNoWriMo. I wasn’t planning on working on that book. I was watching “Chopped” and this very voice-y, particular character came forth, and I realized that there was something there.

With The Poet X, I had the premise, this idea of a young woman who has issues with her body and begins taking up space on the stage as a way to kind of own and have full agency. I knew what would happen before I knew who she was, what are the issues, what are the conflicts.

So, every book is a little bit different, but I will say I’m most definitely character-driven. I don’t think I’m as interested in the turns of a book as I am in a character study or what I’m supposed to get from this particular person that is being drawn on the page.

With The Poet X and With the Fire on High, they’re both told through the one character’s perspective, and then with Clap When You Land, you moved on to two characters, which made sense for the plot. Was it a challenge to write from the perspective of two characters? What did it allow you to do creatively in terms of the character development and interiority that writing from one did not?

It was definitely a challenge, particularly because I did not figure out until I’d already finished the draft that I needed both characters. My first draft of the novel was written entirely from Yahaira’s perspective, the sister in New York. I fully planned for that to be the story. When I finished, I kept feeling like there’s something missing. It doesn’t have the urgency, or the heart of it is missing. I had a conversation with Ibi Zoboi, who wrote American Street and Pride and was the editor for Black Enough. I was telling her about the story, and Ibi is Haitian, so we talk about the islands often, and our experiences of the islands that our people share, and she’s like, “Girl, you need the other sister! How do you have this whole book about the secret sister we never hear from? Like, that’s the narrative in real life—you have someone secret in a way—I don’t think the book can do that.” And it just completely blew open the book for me.

That character that came forth, Camino, she hijacked the book. She was just so witty and sharp. Her conflict feels so compelling and so true. It was really hard to then figure out the two voices, how to weave them together, how to make sure that no one was just the reporter telling us the facts while the other person had the actual growth in the story. Having this one character that felt so true made me have to lift the whole portion that I had written already and make it just as interesting and sharp. I had to give that character her own secrets and wants and needs in a way that they hadn’t been fully developed up until I had someone to juxtapose her to.

At the level of the verse, with The Poet X, I could do full-on free verse. And with this, I wanted a little bit more structure, and I thought readers would need it. They would need more cues, both visually and in terms of rhythm, to make sure that they knew they were in a different perspective. So, it was a different requirement for me.

The Poet X came out several years ago, so I don’t feel like I’m going to give too much away—but Xiomara’s journal of her poems is deliberately set on fire by someone in her family, and I feel like that is the ultimate betrayal for a writer, to have your work destroyed. Was that always part of the story or did that come out of revision and needing to push your characters further?

That came out of revision. I wasn’t sure. I kept arriving at junctures where I knew the stakes had to be raised and it was more just a feeling like, now something else has to happen. I remember arriving at the first one where she had had this wonderful day with Aman, and they had a date, and I knew it can’t all be peaches and roses. What’s going to happen? It’s the only autobiographical piece in the novel, where she gets caught kissing on the train, that had happened to me. My father was on the train next door. I didn’t know. He was pressed up against the windows and had to get off a stop early. So, I remember arriving at that and being like, what would be something that would get Xiomara’s mom really upset? Oh, life comes in! That’s perfect.

But I thought that was going to be the scene that set everything off. When I wrote it, there was still so much that needed to be unpacked and so much growing the character had to do to really shift the dynamic of that mother-daughter relationship. It didn’t feel like that was enough yet. I didn’t know that that’s what was going to happen. I had to just keep revising and keep working toward, what could be worse than being made to kneel on rice for getting caught kissing on a train? What is something that still feels within the means of unjustifiable, but not necessarily physical violence, which I wanted to maybe allude to, or let it be loosely veiled, not something that we saw on the page? I wanted other ways to demonstrate how control was being deployed. Or how disdain was being deployed.

So, it came from revision. It came from really knowing the characters and thinking through what feels possible. And it was delightful to land on that answer, to be very true. I know a lot of people get really upset at this part of the book, but for me, I remember getting there and being like, Yes! I figured it out! This is the thing that shifts everything. It felt inevitable, but also took me such a long time to get there that, when I tell you the triumph I felt writing those scenes—I don’t think people would imagine is what I’m feeling when I’m writing it.

You started with slam poetry, and I wondered if you think about the line breaks differently in the poems that you’re going to be speaking out loud vs. the ones that are more visual in the novels?

I think because I started rapping and started with hip hop and then moved to performance poetry, my lines were always initially governed by the four-count. Most hip hop is going to be on the four-count and trying to fit everything into the four-count. Moving from that to poetry slams and competitive or poems for competition or for oral poetry, it was entirely the breath. I’m going to stop the line where I’m going to need to take a breath, or I’m going to stop the line where naturally I feel the rhythm has come to an end. And that was its own kind of cadence, often just iambic pentameter. So, the line didn’t necessarily end on the most important word. I didn’t know necessarily about radical enjambment, or any enjambment, it was just, I’m going to follow my breath. Typically, if you look at a poem that hasn’t been written to be read, that’s been written to be heard, they’re really long lines because it’s how many words can you get in a breath before you have to move on. And so, my poems were across the entire page.

I think that with the novels and in general, post- going to workshops and seeing the power of what enjambment could do, what line breaks could do, how they could either imitate the body or do something that the body cannot do, create a juxtaposition that’s powerful. That when words rhyme, you can have an enjambment, that they should be either opposing words or words that bring different images to mind. The first word of a line, the last word of the line before, how are they in relationship? What are the sounds that they have? Is there a way that they’re naturally linked so that the reader’s almost hinged into the next line? I think once I’d been calculating all of those things, it just felt like I had so many tools for the page and to reach readers on a page.

But yeah, I think I approached line breaks very much about gut impact. About how do I create multiple meanings and space for multiple meanings? What’s a word that feels strong? I very often don’t end on an article. I try not to end on a pronoun. I’m going to end on a noun. I’m not even going to end on a verb, I’m going to end on an image, on something that the reader can hold. I have my own internal rules on how I want the page to look and how I want it to feel, and I break those rules.

Depending on where we are in the story and particularly a novel in verse, you have to be so thoughtful about the actual margins. I wrote the entire manuscript, and then I get it back [from the editor] and they’re like, none of these margins work. So then I have to rewrite 50, 60 poems so that they fit differently in the margins that we need for printing. I have to make exceptions to my own hard, fast rules, but it felt critical to treat the books in the same way that I would treat a poetry collection, with the same thoughtfulness of all of the things that are at play. Perhaps because I had a chapbook and was working on my MFA in poetry before I began writing in verse, I was aware of what I had seen in verse novels prior to, and the ways in which I felt like writers didn’t use the full toolkit. Or they didn’t have the full toolkit or weren’t even attempting to expand their toolkit. Often what you’re told is that a novel in verse just broken prose, and I went in very much trying to reject that notion.

Using those tools of poetry in a novel and then going back and writing a prose novel, it feels like not having them at my disposal would feel almost restrictive in some way, because they’re so powerful in the verse novels. Do you find it harder to go back to prose and just write in paragraphs and sentences?

Yeah, I think With the Fire on High I did and the rhythm of the novel, you kind of see that. I was still figuring it out. So, there are moments where whatever action is happening, she was going to school, and then there’ll be a whole section that’s reflective. I think the interiority I still brought in, and I almost brought it in as these asides. Here’s a moment where you’re just in her head while she contemplates something, almost the same way the essays function in The Poet X. But I also got new tools: My verse novels don’t have a lot of dialogue because I believe a verse novel can’t carry a lot of dialogue. It’s too easy to lose track of what’s being said. And also, how is it supposed to sound in voice without it just sounding too poetic? I just don’t think you can make it work quite as well.

You also can’t have a large cast in a verse novel. I think there are only so many characters that a reader can pay attention to unless you’re reading The Odyssey or The Iliad. You lose focus. There are not enough markers that you are meeting someone new. I think verse is trying to elide a lot of that, but what I get in prose is, I get a lot of dialogue and I get more characters and I get the ability to create description for two pages in a way that might not work with verse. There’s a trade-off.

But no, I find prose a lot harder. I think my adult novel [forthcoming, Ecco, 2023] is going to show some of the ways that I’m now seeing verse affect my prose and playing with blanks and playing with spacing and borrowing techniques from poetry to kind of remix the way I’ve learned that I had to write prose.

Do you have any last advice for our readers?

I get so many questions about mentors and for me, it’s: Look sideways. My mentors have been homies. The people I learn writing from is, Oh, Safia [Elhillo] who uses ampersands? Wait, let me figure out what this is doing. I think so often we want to look at the people who have done something already to teach us, but I found that the people who are doing alongside us are—they’re studying and also trying to learn. And so, it’s an incredible opportunity and an easier opportunity than to try to get a mentor or writing advisor. It’s almost always easier to get a critique partner. I’ll look at your works if you look at mine. And finding that trust early on, I think is critical. 

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