Interview with STEVE WATKINS, Author of WHAT COMES AFTER
Steve Watkins is the author of What Comes After, a young adult novel published in spring 2011, and Down Sand Mountain, winner of the 2009 Golden Kite Award for Fiction from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, both published by Candlewick Press. Another young adult novel, Juvie, is scheduled for publication by Candlewick in spring 2013.
Steve is also author of a short story collection, My Chaos Theory (2006, Southern Methodist University Press), which was a finalist for the Paterson Fiction Prize, and an Honorable Mention for the Library of Virginia Fiction Award. He also wrote the award-winning non-fiction book The Black O: Racism and Redemption in an American Corporate Empire, published in 1997 by the University of Georgia Press.
A graduate of Florida State University, Steve teaches journalism, creative writing, and Vietnam War literature at the University of Mary Washington. He also teaches Ashtanga yoga, and works as an investigator and advocate for abused and neglected children through the child advocacy organization CASA. Steve and his wife Janet served for the past three years as directors of religious education at the Fredericksburg, Virginia Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. He is the father of four daughters—Maggie, Eva, Claire, and Lili.
Gigi: I remember two years ago talking with you about this manuscript. At the time you called it Goat Girl. How did the title transform to What Comes After?
Steve: It was Goat Girl until the day the design department at Candlewick Press asked for a different title, to go along with a different direction they wanted to take with the design. I’m pretty sure my editor, Kaylan Adair, came up with What Comes After. It felt like we went through 100 titles in a day, but I couldn’t be happier with the new one, and especially with the beautiful cover, which still takes my breath away!
GA: At one point while reading, I set the book down. I needed to take a break from the story because I was so horrified at what Iris was enduring. I tried to observe my feelings as a reader and let myself move through: This would never happen to This happens every day to How can we let this happen? Real events of the court system inspired this story and, I wonder, how did your experience as a CASA volunteer also inspire or inform you?
SW: Probably knowing how much more there always is to any child’s or adolescent’s story than what you might read in a newspaper account, where they’re not named, and where the sum of their lives is reduced to their status as victims of abuse or neglect. I wanted to show Iris in What Comes After in all her complexity, warts and all, and I also wanted to show her indomitable spirit, her will to not only survive the losses and challenges she faces, but to still be able to grow, to become her own strong person, with a warm and loving community of friends and caring adults to help her along the way. Even with all of that, I did worry that people who work with kids will find What Comes After too romanticized. These situations are always, always complicated due to economics, societal factors, and family relationships. I hope I got it right. And I hope the theme of resilience comes through as strongly as I intended. Resilience was very much in the forefront of my mind as I was writing What Comes After—that and maintaining a sense of hopefulness, as Iris finds ways to heal, and to stay connected to the things that can sustain her–the conversations with her dad through letters even after his death, befriending the dog, Gnarly, and most of all caring for the goats on Aunt Sue’s farm.
GA: Tell me about the choices you made in drawing the setting in rural North Carolina.
SW: Well, the bigoted South is very real. I’ve known a lot of Aunt Sues; that South is real, but it, too, is complicated. There’s so much more to the South, to any region, than what you see at first glance, or what stereotypes you might bring to your perspective on a place and its people. I tried to see everything through Iris’s eyes, as a girl from Maine coming down to live in the South for the first time. What are her first impressions? And how do those impressions change over time? I tried to wade into the stereotypes and then kind of explode them. I hate the idea of writing to expectations.
GA: One of the many qualities of your book that moved me deeply was how, just as the abuse of Iris was starting, I had almost forgotten her name. I felt like she was disappearing, and so I kind of felt like unless I stopped and remembered her name that I would be betraying Iris, too. You did that on purpose, didn’t you?
SW: I’m so glad you asked that question. Yes, from the beginning, where her name is omitted from the newspaper article, with Aunt Sue spelling her name wrong at the airport when they first meet, I wanted that effect. It’s of a piece with what I was trying to do thematically—to show how much more there always is to the life of anyone, any young person, who we might tend to only see in reductive ways, as victim or foster care kid.
GA: What are you reading this summer?
SW: A lot, and it’s been great. I’ve been reading a ton of young adult and middle grade novels for a contest I’m judging this year (though I’m not supposed to name the books or the contest right now—sorry).
I’ve also been reading a lot of books on the Civil Rights Movement, all of which I strongly recommend, which do an amazing job of telling a much fuller story than what our kids—and we ourselves—have gotten, a lot of it about the strong women who worked tirelessly in the movement, many of them behind the scenes,:
C. Vann Woorward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow
Lillian Smith, Killers of the Dream
Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt
Lynne Olson, Freedom’s Daughters, The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement
Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement
Charles M. Mills, The Racial Contract
James Farmer, Lay Bare the Heart
Renee Romana and Leigh Raiford, eds., The Civil Rights Movement in American Memory
Danielle L. McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance
Vincent Harding, Hope and History: Why We Must Share the Story of the Movement
GA: What are the amazing and strong girls in your life reading?
SW: My daughters Claire and Lili have been in Judy Moody world since we visited my publisher, Candlewick Press, and my editor loaded them down with Judy Moody and Stink books and movie paraphernalia. Claire’s also deep into the Harry Potter books, and Lili likes anything with superheroes.
GA: What are you writing these days?
SW: A new YA novel for Candlewick Press called Juvie, which as the title suggests is set in a juvenile detention facility. It’s scheduled for publication in Spring 2013.
GA: Finish this sentence Strong girls______________.
SW: Like to pull the heads off Barbies every now and then.
To win a copy of What Comes After by Steve Watkins, leave a comment below. Winner will be selected at random on Sunday, August 7, 2011!