Interview: Tonya Cherie Hegamin

Transcribed and edited by Jacqulyn Harper West

Arkana had the delight of asking a few questions of Tonya Cherie Hegamin during her November 2016 visit to UCA. Here is a bit of what we asked, what she had to say, and a few additional notes for writers, readers, and other lovers of words.

JHW: So we’ll start with the first question, which is where do you pull inspiration for your stories?

TCH: I’m a historical fanatic, I love research. I get a little crazy with research. I think research really informs my writing. It’s definitely one of those things – I’ll get lost.

I’ll have a question like, have there ever been earthquakes in middle America? And then starting, searching for that, and then looking at how far back things go, who was affected, stories that come out of it, and then weaving them into something else.

JHW: Which is more important – the plot or the characters? Specifically, do you let characters tell the story or do you let the story create the character?

There’s nothing wrong with a plot driven story, you know? We all enjoy a plot-driven story. We all enjoy that kind of excitement. You’re not necessarily worried about, will this character transcend personal boundaries – you’re just like, ‘the twister is coming! Let’s get away!’ That’s great! That’s a fun movie to watch or book to read. Or, will the murderer be caught – that’s great.

But, I think literary writing has to have deep characters.

***

If you think about most of the books that affect you, from when you were reading when you were young and very impressionable, to even now, it’s the character or the essence that comes out of the text that you really are taking with you. So if you have a character who is dynamic and connects with a variety of readers, that makes for a really good book.

I used to read a lot of Tom Robbins when I was younger, and I got a chance to meet him later on in my life, by accident. And I said to him, did you ever think 15-year-old African American me in rural Pennsylvania was going to be reading your books? And he was like, no, I don’t care. He’s like, I enjoy that you connected with the work. I really do believe that he had a great blend of plot and character. Jitterbug Perfume is one of my favorite books of all time.

JHW: You put a lot of research into your stories before you write them. How do you decide which voices to privilege, especially when there might be contradictory accounts?

TCH: Yes, I do research beforehand, but generally, the research is informing the writing, so the research has to be perpetual. When I get stuck in moments, that’s when I do research.

There’s a moment in my book Willow where they’re in Baltimore and Rev Jeff needs a necktie. That was a lot of research. I had to find – there’s this French book about certain ways that gentlemen would tie their ties, and each way that they would knot their tie had a meaning.

So that detail gives you a world view. Neckties. Who ever thought that a necktie would have meaning? Who ever thought in our world that if you tied a tie a specific way you could insult people?

There are certain moments in which you might have prepared a ton of research, but it’s not until that moment happens that you realize that more research has to be done. So research becomes perpetual, it becomes a plot point sometimes. You might get stuck in a moment of what will happen, and you have to go back to your research about certain things.

JHW: Since you received your MFA in Young Adult literature, how important to your writing process do you find having a community of writers? How can writers help create that community?

TCH: I really prefer to have people who are writing from different perspectives. I think one of the best writing groups I’ve ever had – actually, most of the best writing groups that I’ve ever had – are people who are working from different genres who can really ask questions.

Sometimes you really have to learn how to pick and choose the criticisms that you accept from people. Sometimes certain people might have criticisms that really just don’t lend to what you are trying to do with your story.

JHW: Okay last question. Do I have any advice for writers who are trying to get their work published for the first time?

TCH: It’s actually really important for you to get used to rejection, for you to sort of create an armor for yourself. And not a thick skin, because then you can lose some of your sensitivity, and what’s important to being a writer is sensitivity. Right? That’s your strength. If you are sensitive, then you can put yourself into your characters or into the minds of others and perspective of others. So you don’t want a thick skin; an armor is something you can remove, right? An armor is something you build upon.

Having an armor is the first thing you need to have when you are seeking publication for the first time or for the thirtieth time. You have to be able to put your game face on and go out on the field and expect that you’re going to get some pushback – that’s just part of it.

***

Be very honest with yourself about what it is you want your work to do, what it is you want that publisher or that reader to get from your writing.

I think that radical self-care is one of those things that writers forget. You really have to take care of yourself as a writer. You really have to protect that sensitive soul that you have, that really is often what drives us to write. There’s something very human about wanting to be a writer because you want to connect and tell a human story.

***

Here are a few other notes from Tonya Cherie Hegamin’s talk with UCA students:

  • Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward have a great book called Writing the Other. You should all get this book, it’s available on Kindle – if you are interested in writing across your perspective.
  • There’s obviously certain things that you cannot experience just by being who you are, and that’s not necessarily a detriment or a problem, but you have to ask yourself, have I done enough research? Is the research all from books, or is it because I’ve gone and interviewed people?
  • Everybody should remember this. Just because I think it, doesn’t mean that it’s an actual truth.
  • You code switch, no matter what. If you’re not embracing all the different ways that you speak, in different situations with different people, then you’re not giving good dialogue.
  • You cannot write good dialogue without a great understanding of the poetry of language.
  • When you’re working through certain issues in your work, work through it till you’re done. You might never publish any of those pieces, but in all honesty, you’re the one who needs to keep working those issues out.
  • I think it’s really important for writers in general to go to retreats. It literally is life

On retreats for writers and artists:

  • The writers retreat is sometimes literally just for you, clean yourself from other issues or projects, and sometimes they’re just for generating work. Depending on the writers retreat, or just retreat, because there are artists retreats – there’s tons of retreats out there. You should all spend some time doing some research on retreats.
  • Don’t try to go to Yaddo or MacDowell first – just don’t. Start with something in your state. Try for something that is looking for emerging writers.
  • Don’t get yourself too caught up. You might have a lot of things that you want to do there, but the solitary specific time just for your writing can be incredibly overwhelming and cathartic, so you have to be prepared for whatever happens. Whatever happens at the writers retreat stays at the writers retreat. Cause sometimes they get crazy. They do.

Tonya Cherie Hegamin is an Assistant Professor at the City University of New York, Medgar Evers College where she teaches Fiction Writing, Children’s Literature and Composition. Her NYPL 2010 Ezra Jack Keats awardwinning picture book, Most Loved in All the World, also won the Christopher award and her young adult novels, M+O 4EVR and Pemba’s Song have also won national awards. Her historical young adult novel, Willow, is published by Candlewick Press (Feb 2014). She has worked with thousands of young people as a crisis counselor, creative expression group leader, rights advocate and sexual health educator since 1998. Her academic research interests include how artist educators influence innovative learning techniques and effective methods of teaching holistically through literature.

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