Interview conducted by Kathy M. Bates
Transcribed by Savannah Moix-Rogers and Melanie Wilson
In November, the University of Central Arkansas’s Fall 2021 artist-in-residence, acclaimed YA Novelist Tiffany D. Jackson, sat down with Arkana editor, Kathy Bates, to discuss authenticity and purpose in writing.
Kathy M. Bates: Share a little bit about your writing journey on the way to publication. Was there a moment when you began writing with the intention of publication or was it more organic?
Tiffany D. Jackson: I think, specifically, the moment I knew for sure I was going to be an author was back in 2012 when I came across a case that ended up being the case that inspired my first book, and I just started writing from there. We had a hurricane in New York called Hurricane Sandy, and it completely decimated us. I was actually stuck at home. It was the first time in my adult life of almost fifteen years of working in TV that I was home with nothing to do. So, that’s when I was like, I can do this. I always wanted to be a writer, but that was the hard turning point, the hard right.
KMB: You mentioned the word “case”. Tell us a little bit about how research plays a role in your work.
TDJ: I definitely do a lot of research when it comes to my books because I want them to be as authentic and real as possible. I am covering cases that deal with real things that kids go through, and I want them, especially kids who do not go through these things, to have empathy and understanding and compassion for a lot of those kids. So, whatever the situation is, I usually talk to lawyers, doctors, psychologists, and get a scope of things. I interview them in order to make sure that I have all of the details. I go through all of the research online, as well. I call myself a “method author.” I like to step into the shoes of my characters and understand what they have been going through. And it could be for five minutes or a paragraph in the entire book. But at least I know in the back of my mind that that’s what this character is rooted in.
KMB: As the writer of numerous Young Adult novels, what would you say separates YA from adult stories? Other than the age of the protagonist, of course.
TDJ: It’s kind of hard to answer this question because I have a lot of adult readers. And a lot of adult readers who really understand my characters, because a lot of us adults, we were just children. I could be forty years old, and I could say I was just fifteen yesterday, and it feels like yesterday because I am still parenting that inner child in me. So, for me, it’s hard for me to be like, the biggest difference between YA and adults is the age difference. We’re still reparenting our inner child as we grow older. So, I guess maybe I feel like — this is a cheat answer — but I feel like there is no difference.
KMB: You made a move from thriller and mystery to horror, but you still find a way to ask readers a question, giving them something to think about and open conversations on gentrification, missing children of color, mental health, etc. Do you know which issues you’re going to tackle before you start the work, or is it something that happens as you’re creating it?
TDJ: That’s an excellent question, and the answer is “No.” I never know what issue I’m going to tackle when I open up a case because, a lot of times, when you start unpacking the cases, you start unpacking all the issues that are surrounding the case. Then when you start looking at the “villain,” the villain isn’t a person, per se, except for maybe in Grown, where there was definitely a single-handed villain, but the villain is rooted in a society that’s covering that villain. So, we want to ask questions like, “Why is this happening?” and “How can we stop it from happening?” I feel like it’s important to look at all the elements of how something happened and then tackle that element as the actual issue at hand. For instance, with White Smoke, I didn’t realize this was going to be a book about gentrification. I also felt like I already kind of wrote a little about gentrification in Monday’s Not Coming. But, when I started to unpack why are all of these abandoned homes in Detroit or in Arkansas, or in Ohio, I started to look into, well, why are these homes still abandoned, and who is actually looking? Once I started to dig deeper, then gentrification came up. So, sometimes the issue at hand is what brings the case around, what brings the actual story around. But, no, I don’t typically go in and say, “This is the exact issue I want to cover in this book.”
KMB: As a follow-up, many of your stories have covered sensitive material such as violence, sex, and drugs—trigger warning moments. When writing for young audiences, how do you know when to move in or hold back in your coverage and description of those topics?
TDJ: I think a lot of times it depends on the book. For instance, with Grown, I felt that we are not doing a justice by holding back because there’s no way to actually picture what some of these girls are going through. And, therefore, how can kids have empathy and build compassion if they don’t have a clear, accurate picture of how a girl could be groomed and how she found herself in these types of situations? So, to me, I feel like it’s important to explore things in a comfortable, safe environment (i.e., in books and in classrooms). And mostly because these are just a starting point for a conversation. This is literally just a kick-off point. So, for me, it is important to lean into topics that need to be explored, that have an urgency behind them. When it comes to girls who are being sexually assaulted and preyed upon, there’s an urgency behind that. There’s an urgency behind girls who are behind bars being sexually assaulted by their correctional officers. There’s an urgency behind the fact that there are missing black girls that no one is looking for. I feel that urgency trumps over certain sensitives.
KMB: Because some elements are uncovered as you are working the case and creating your story, how much of your story changes across the outline, drafting, and revision process? How many drafts do you usually create of your work, and how different are the early versions compared to later versions?
TDJ: I am notorious for my plot twists. That’s what I’m sort of known for, I guess. I tell people all the time that I never know the plot twist, except for this most recent book, White Smoke, where the plot twist itself came from an actual case. That’s not even a spoiler. It’s just what it was. But they [my drafts] definitely change pretty drastically. For instance, I always compare draft one to the final draft, which is the book. Allegedly didn’t even have the plot twist in the first draft. It didn’t have the plot twist until draft four, and the final book is actually draft eighteen of the novel. Monday’s Not Coming — same situation where the plot twist wasn’t in there until draft two, and it was the fifth draft of the novel that was finally printed. So, I have gotten better over the years. Grown was one of those books that was super fast, and I barely had time to even have a draft zero. I decided to write that book really late in the game, nine months before the publication. So, I had a month to write it, and it was a crash-and-burn type book. Even the plot twists came while I was drafting. So, a lot of times, yeah, I am one of those people who’s like, “What if we just do this? What happens?” I am one of those bakers who’s like, “Hey, let’s just throw some cinnamon in this and see what happens! Yay, like, that works! It worked, and no one died!” That’s how I do it.
KMB: How much say do you have in the editorial process?
TDJ: I have a good amount of say. But I also believe in trusting your editor. If your editor is flagging something, it’s worth revisiting. My editor, who is lovely–Ben Rosenthal–always has a very great sensitivity around these topics. We’ve worked together on six or seven books. So, for this book that I’m working on right now, he’ll flag things, he makes great suggestions, and I know he knows what he’s talking about. It’s all about kind of that implicit trust that you have in your editor, which is why the editor-author relationship you need to cultivate and nurture is important. Your editor is not on the cover of your book, or on the flap copy, or in the copyright page, but you basically are leaning your entire trust of your book into this one person, who’s not even going to be on the book. So, you want to make sure that person is actually looking after your best interests. I think we overall trust each other, and I’m really grateful to work with a publisher like HarperCollins who, when I said, “We need a content warning for Grown,” they said, “No problem.” A lot of people would be dissuaded by it. A lot of people wouldn’t even publish my books. So, the fact that they have taken chances with that and leaned into it and supported me so much…I’m incredibly grateful.
KMB: You mentioned something you’re working on now. What are you working on next?
TDJ: My next novel comes out next Fall, and it’s called The Weight of Blood. It is another horror. It is about a girl who had been passing for white who attends her school’s first integrated prom. It is set in 2014. There are some schools, even now, in small towns–one of the last schools I researched was in Georgia–that still do separate proms. Basically, this is a retelling of Carrie.
KMB: What writers inspire you, and what are you reading now?
TDJ: I love Jesmyn Ward. One of my favorite books is Salvage the Bones. I also love Courtney Summers. I’m reading one of her new books right now. She just has a terrific voice, and I’ve always been a huge fan of hers. Jason Renolds, who’s my friend, but he always does things that are incredibly outside the box. It’s very inspiring. I’ve known him since he was a poet and in the poetry scene, so to see him make this transition and make all these dents in the YA world is really inspiring. He has definitely encouraged me to, y’know, step out of my comfort zone as well, too. He’s one of those people I enjoy as much as we tease each other. I love him dearly. I really look up to him.
KMB: Thank you so much again for meeting and speaking with me!
Tiffany D. Jackson is the NYT Bestselling, award-winning author of YA novels Monday’s Not Coming, Allegedly, Let Me Hear A Rhyme, Grown, and 2021 titles White Smoke, Santa in the City and co-author of Blackout. Coretta Scott King — John Steptoe New Talent Award-winner and the NAACP Image Award-nominee, she received her bachelor of arts in film from Howard University, and has over a decade in TV/Film experience. The Brooklyn native is currently residing in the borough she loves, most likely multitasking. More information about Tiffany D. Jackson can be found by visiting her website.
Image Credit: “Trails to the Tetons” by Kathleen Frank