Transcript from an interview with
Walter Dean Myers
Before the crack of dawn
I get up fairly early, between 4:30 and 5:00. I'll feed my cat, have coffee, and what have you. I begin work at maybe 6:30 or 7:00. I write six pages a day. I used to write 10. Now I've cut back and I write six pages a day, five days a week. And that's my day. That writing part of my day is over.
Now I divide my writing into three very distinct operations. The pre-writing, which is research and getting ready to write, like creating characters, for example; the writing; and then the rewriting. So I'll do my writing first. Then for the rest of the day, which might be from 10:00 on, maybe I'll do some research or reading or maybe I'll do outlines for something else. But my basic day is writing for four hours, which is very nice.
Working with Christopher Myers
The tendency of younger people is to work from an intellectual passion. And the tendency of we old timers is to work more from craft. And so what Christopher does is he challenges me to reestablish and refine that passion within myself - to take a chance. And that's really very interesting. Working with him, I will go further out. I will take more chances than when I'm not working with him. So he's revived me. I love working with him.
Words they can relate to
I get tons of letters from young readers. Many of them relate to the characters and say, 'I have a similar problem or circumstance.' They think they relate because the characters are like them. But really I think they're relating because of the environment. They recognize the environment. They're drawn to the books because they hear a language they are familiar with. They hear names and circumstances that are familiar things, so the book becomes a friendly place to be. And they write to me and say, 'Oh we love your books. I'm just like that person. This person reminds me of my cousin.' That makes me feel good.
The rhythms of Harlem
I've always liked music. When you talk about the cultural substance of a community like Harlem, music has to play a big role. If you go to Harlem or any of the Harlems in this country, you hear music. You hear music from the Caribbean. You hear music from the South. You hear music from everywhere. There's a rhythm to the community, which is just so rich and so good that it has to be included in any serious book, I believe.
Reading is like air
Reading has changed in my lifetime. When I was a child, my father could not read, but he was strong. My father was a little bull of a man and he could make a living doing that. When I was young, you could work in a factory. With poor reading skills you could still find employment. Today you can't do that. Today reading is like air. You have to be able to read to find a job. And you have to read more and more in your day-to-day life. There are more instances in which you have control over some aspect of your life.
The urban experience
Besides the books being about African-Americans, they are about urban issues. And you'll find that when you go through books for young people, you don't find that many books take place in cities. It's a very strange thing. You find books that take place in suburbia over and over again, but you find very few books that take place in cities. And even on television, you find city living only on cop shows. Everything else is only within the apartment. But in my books there are fences, brick buildings, and fire hydrants. So many kids are attracted to that urban experience.
I think that sometimes people don't understand the differences in the lives of children from the inner city. Perhaps that child hasn't had breakfast that morning and perhaps that child doesn't have a quiet place to do homework. And perhaps that child doesn't have someone waiting for them at home. Yet the child is not going to say to a teacher, 'I'm hungry' or 'I have no one at home.' So the child puts on an act of bravado. The child says something to the effect of 'I don't care.' This is something you hear all the time from children: 'I don't care.' And of course they care. They all care. But they have to put on this defensive act that, 'I'm a tough guy. I'm tough. I don't care. I'm removed from this. This is for somebody else.' Because if they don't see a way out, they can't say at twelve, thirteen or fourteen, 'I give up.'
Books were my friends
When I was very young, my mom couldn't read very well. She read on probably a third grade level. She would read with me in the afternoons. And just the proximity of being with her and sharing a time with her was such a pleasant thing for me. I just loved that.
She also talked with me all the time. I could talk with her forever. And she would listen and ask me questions. That gave me the idea of imagining scenes. She would say to me, 'What should we go see today?' And I would want to go see the milk bottling plant on 125th Street. We'd go see that or we'd go over to the markets. Books were just an extension of that or an extension of the conversations with someone who's very efficient in their conversation and telling me the stories. And it was just something that I loved.
I was also handicapped to an extent that I spent eleven years in speech therapy. I couldn't speak very well for most of my childhood life. People couldn't understand me so I just went through years and years of speech therapy. So when I wasn't playing ball or fighting someone, which I loved to do: playing ball and fighting. Ah, I would be home with my books. And my books were my friends.
Interested in wonderful interviews with tween and teen authors? Hop on over to our sister site, AdLit.org, and browse the library.