Transcript from an interview with Christopher Paul Curtis

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Christopher Paul Curtis. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Christopher Paul Curtis

Writing in the Rust Belt

Right after I graduated from high school, one of the things — the culture of Flint — very few cities were like this. Rust Belt cities, really. There were jobs that were available for people who didn't — you know, a high school degree wasn't even required, and you made a very good living. You could make a respectable wage and raise a family very well on what you earned. Right out of high school, I told my parents that I was through with school. I didn't want to go to college anymore, and I wanted to start working in a factory and make some money. I wanted to buy a car.

I went to the factory, started working there. I would work nights. I'd work days and go to school nights, and that was actually the start of my writing career, too, because I would write during breaks — not thinking of it as a career or anything, but I found out that as long as I would sit down there and write, time would go by really quickly for me. I wouldn't think about the factory.

The job I was on, we doubled up, which means that instead of doing every other job like we were supposed to, my friend would do 30 in a row, and then I'd do another 30. I was getting a half hour out of every hour to sit down and write, and it made a big difference. It's also probably one of the reasons that the quality of American cars isn't so good.

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A look inside the factory

As I said earlier, I really hated working in the factory. The thrill of being there and getting that big, fat check wore off very quickly. I would get up in the morning at five o'clock. I worked first shift, so I had to be there at six, and that's a habit that I've still got. I can't not wake up at five o'clock. Five o'clock, I'm wide awake. I'd go to work, punch in, and the whistle blows, and you're doing the same thing hour after hour after hour. The only thing that made it tolerable were the other fellahs that I worked with in the factory. I say "fellahs," because it was all guys, because we worked in the body shop on the door line. It was a very physical job — a very tough, physical job. The doors weighed 50 to 80 pounds, very heavy, you had to hang 300 of them a day. At that time, they weren't letting women work in the body shop. Some women complained that they wanted to be in there, too, and what they would do is they would put them on the door line, because they knew it was a rough, tough job, and a lot of the men couldn't do it, so they figured that the women couldn't either. But a couple of women stuck it out.

But I really hated being in there. It's the only thing in my life that I've ever had a kind of semi-hallucinations. I can remember waking up in the middle of the night and feeling my bed going along at the speed of the line and thinking "I've got to get out of here." Or, I can remember one time — and I know I was awake — I looked in the corner of the room, and the door hanging fixture was hanging from the corner of my room. I said, "Okay. This is a nightmare. Wake up," and it was still there.

So, it took a long time for me to get away from that for a couple of reasons. One, the culture of Flint was such that once you were in the factory, you were pretty well set. You didn't have to worry about much of anything. Healthcare was great. Your wages were good. As long as you went to work and took care of business, everything was fine.

Another reason was, as my mother had told me when I first went in — she said, "No, I don't want you to go in there. You'll start buying things. You'll get trapped in there." I started buying things, and I bought that 1973 Camaro — brand new Camaro. I was shocked that the payments were $86 a month, but that's what it was back then. I spent 13 years there before I finally got the courage up to leave and to try something else.

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My writing career has really been kind of unusual. I think most times authors are driven people, because you really have to be focused, and you have to be driven, because there's a lot of rejection involved. When you're first starting to write, you might have a skill. You might have a story to tell, but it's really hard to put everything together and get it down into one thing. Most of the time writers really just work at it and work at it and are very focused, and can take the rejection, learn from it.

I never really thought of myself as a writer. It wasn't until I was in my forties that I sent the first book in. I think I had a different perspective on it. I'm not good with rejection. If you tell me something's bad, I'll believe you. With The Watsons Go to Birmingham, which was the first book I wrote, I had to enter a contest, and I sent it to Little Brown, and it was rejected. I also sent it to Delacourt's first young adult fiction contest. And it didn't win the contest, but they published it anyway. If they had rejected it, that would've been it. I never would've written another book because, as I said, you tell me twice it's no good, I'll believe you.

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The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963

The publication of The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963 made a real difference in my life — complete difference in my life. For the first time, I was doing something that I enjoyed doing. I was successful at it. With the success came financial success, too, so I was able to buy things that before I wasn't able to buy. I discovered that there's just nothing in the world like doing something that you enjoy and being able to make a living at it.

The Watsons Go To Birmingham, I've said this a lot of times, has always been my favorite book. One of the reasons was, I was working at a warehouse at the time, and because of that book, I don't work in a warehouse any more.

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The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963 (part 2)

One of the ways I get through life is by having very low expectations. That way, you don't get nasty surprises. When the book did well and it started to win awards, I go into kind of a shell, I think. It's great to hear these things, but I don't really buy them. I think that's a good protective mechanism, because bad things that you hear as well, you don't really buy them. You realize, "Okay, that's good," to hear something like that.

I didn't really realize how well The Watsons was doing, because with your royalty period, you're like a year behind from what the sales are. It wasn't until then, but I thought I was doing really well when I got a call from a principal in Michigan who had read the book, and I was working in a warehouse unloading trucks at the time. He said that he wanted me to come speak.

I thought, "Okay."
He wanted me to come speak, and he said, "We don't have a lot of money to pay you."
I thought, "Okay. Well, 20 bucks, I'll be there."
He said, "We have $300."

I can remember almost dropping the phone. "Three hundred dollars? Yeah. Okay, I'll be there." Because I was making $300 a week in the warehouse.

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Along for the ride

One of the great joys of writing for me is not knowing where the story is going to go, or even having a concept of where it's going to go and being told halfway through, "That's not what happened. This is what happened." I know in the book that I just finished, Elijah of Buxton, I wrote the last chapter first, and it changed over time. Once I got to know the character, I realized that things that happened in the chapter as I had written it at first didn't work out, and the story changed.

I never know where the story's going to go. I never know who's going to be in it. Originally, in Bud, Not Buddy, I thought that I would tell a story about my grandfather as a ten-year-old boy. Back during the 1930s, he actually had a band called Herman Curtis and the Dusky Devastators of the Depression. Thought it was the coolest name in the world. I wanted to write something about it. Started to write, thinking that the boy would be my grandfather. Turns out it was this ten-year-old orphan named Bud. My grandfather was in the story, still, but he was a crusty, old musician.

You never know, and that's one of the real delights of telling a story. It makes you wonder how many stories are in there that if I would sit down and really apply myself, how many other stories would come out like that — because it's great entertainment. When I'm writing, I have a lot of fun. I'm laughing. Some of the time, I'm crying. I'm a real sight to watch when I'm writing.

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Four rules for young writers

I have four rules for young people who want to be writers — the first rule that I have is — and you've got to follow these. Rule number one is to write every day, because writing's like anything else that you do. The more you do it, the better you're going to get at it.

Rule number two, have fun with your writing, because as a writer, you're really a god. You can create people. You can destroy people. You can speed time up. You can slow time down. Have fun with that. It's a fun thing to do.

Rule number three, particularly for young people, be patient with yourself, because writing is one of the few arts where there are no prodigies. You don't have kids writing really, really good books. Writing's something that you have to live, and you have to learn how to express yourself. That takes time, and it takes practice.

And rule number four? Ignore all rules. What I mean by that is once you learn the proper way to construct a story and learn how to write, develop your own style. Make it interesting. That's what makes anything interesting, when somebody does something a little differently.

That was one of the things that Mrs. Harris in the eleventh grade encouraged me to do. My stories were never traditional, I remember writing a story about a fly once, and she just was delighted about this story about a fly. I just kind of wrote that just for having fun and she liked that. That gave me encouragement.

Students and teachers both need to enjoy what they're doing with their writing. Make it something that is enjoyable. I think that's the most important thing. Have fun with it.

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Mr. Chickee's Funny Money

Have you ever seen a quadrillion dollar bill with a picture of James Brown on the front?

When we lived in Flint a long time ago, there was a friend of my father's who was blind. Every Saturday, he would come down — we lived in a little alleyway. We could hear him tapping his cane down the alleyway, and the Curtis kids were so excited because Mr. Wesley would always bring us Vernors Ginger Ale and a bag of potato chips.

I started to write a story about a little boy whose father had a mysterious friend who gave him the unusual piece of money that he wasn't quite sure if it was real or not, because it had a "1" with 15 zeroes, which is a quadrillion dollars. Instead of having a picture of a dead American president on it, it had a picture of James Brown. The young man thought, "Well, maybe this isn't real."

Mr. Chickee's Funny Money was really kind of an escape for me, getting away from writing The Watsons, which at times could be pretty emotional, then I'd go over to this. It was fun to do, and it was just something light, I was being silly, and I incorporated a lot of the things that I like into it — music. The father likes music a lot. I've got a huge record collection. I've got over 3,000 record albums. And it was something fun to do, to take me away from the pressure of writing that.

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Elijah of Buxton

Elijah of Buxton was the result of a desire of mine to writing something about slavery. I can't think of a more difficult subject to write about, because when I write, I like to put myself in the place of the character and try to imagine what it would be like. It's not in my powers to imagine what it would be like to be a slave, to be completely dehumanized like that and to have to surrender your humanity — and worse yet, to have to teach your children that that's what they have to do.

By setting Elijah in Buxton, Ontario, which is about 40 miles from Detroit, in Canada, a terminus of the Underground Railroad that actually did exist — and it's still there. North Buxton is still there, with 200 of the ancestors of the original settlers still living there. By setting it there, I was able to look at slavery without being actually in it.

Elijah came to me differently than the other stories have, and I don't know if it's a function of me becoming a better writer, growing as a writer, learning more of what I'm doing — because I haven't written many books, and I'm still feeling my way around, trying to know what to do. I'm hoping that's what the case is, that I've finally got it down.

I don't think so, but I think that Elijah came to me very, very easily. As I said, I'd written the last chapter. I had a lot of the characters there, everything set. It didn't turn out to be way it ended, but once I started backtracking from that last chapter and found out more about Elijah and about the community in Buxton, some of the time, it's just some things that really strike you. This book really grabbed a hold of me from the very beginning. It took a very short time to write for me. It took about six months for it to be essentially done.

That's a very short time for me. I divide my writing into two phases. As I said, I get up in the morning at five o'clock. That's my editorial time. From five until about eight, I take what I've written the day before and try to beat it into the form of a story. Then from about nine until 12 is when I go to the library, that's my creative time. I've learned that during that time period, I just let the story go.

A lot of things that I'm writing I know won't end up in the book. They don't seem to have anything to do with the story, but I've learned I just let them go, because it gives me some kind of background on what it is that I'm writing about. I can tell during the process when I'm writing, that I've got the story, and I know where it's going when the editorial part becomes much shorter than the creative part.

And with Elijah, it was almost from the word "go" that the creative part was there, and just about everything I would write I kept and would hold onto, which was unusual and I'm hoping which is going to be the status quo from now on. We'll see.

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"Oh, magic hour, when a child first knows she can read printed words!" — A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 1943