National Book Foundation's BookUp, Author Sofía Quintero

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Writer Sofia Quintero speaks with BookUpNYC participants about the process of getting a book published.


Sofia Quintero reads from her new YA Novel, Efrain’s Secret

SOFIA QUINTERO AUTHOR INTERVIEW

National Book Foundation: How long have you been working on Efrain’s Secret? Were you a BookUp instructor during this time? If so, how did the experience of working as a BookUp instructor influence your writing process?

Sofia Quintero: The story for Efrain’s Secret has been incubating within me since 1985. That summer a high school senior from Harlem named Edmund Perry was shot to death by a plainclothes police officer in Morningside Park. It caused a great deal of controversy because Eddie had just graduated from Philip Exeter and was going to start college at Stanford that fall. And yet the police officer and almost two dozen witnesses stated that Eddie and his brother had mugged and assaulted him. This was the summer before my senior year of high school. I was an honor student myself, hoping to attend an Ivy League college. I had classmates like Eddie who were leading double lives, and this fascinated me. What compels people to attempt to reconcile what society insists is irreconcilable? This and related questions are recurring themes in my work, and Efrain’s Secret is my first exploration of it from the perspective of a person who is young and male. But I didn’t start writing Efrain’s Secret until after I became a BookUp instructor. It was quite a blessing to read books with youth during my first attempt to write for that audience. There’s a way I reconnected with what it’s like to experience the world as an adolescent. It went much deeper than getting caught up on the slang, fads and things like that. Rather I think the greatest benefit was tapping into those universal concerns for people at that stage in life that transcend cultures and generations. What is my role in my family? Is it a role I want? Which family traditions, values and experience do I want to carry and which do I want to reject? How do I want to be like my friends? How do I want to be different?

NBF: Did you share with your BookUp students that you were working on a young adult novel? Did they give you any advice?

SQ: In my first ever BookUp session, I read an excerpt from Efrain’s Secret as a way to introduce myself. It backfired in a good way because they wanted to read it, and it was nowhere near ready! We would go on the field trips, and at the bookstore, my tweens would look for my books, but all of my novels at the time were for the adult readers. Of course, that didn’t stop them from wanting them, and they’d say, “I’m getting it for my mom.” Nice try, kid. From the start, I decided to not workshop Efrain’s Secret within BookUp because there were too many other authors I wanted to introduce them to that they might not otherwise discover. I knew my opportunity to share my novel with them would come, and I actually learned a great deal that improved my own writing through the process of reading and discussing certain books with the kids than I might have had I read and dissected them on my own. Not only would that disrupt BookUp’s mission which is to keep them reading, the kids probably would have revolted if I subjected them to rewrites. I’m no fool!

NBF: You’ve written for adults in the past. How was writing for young people different for you?

SQ: I think writing for young people has actually made me a better craftsperson. I do think the limitations – length, language, etc. – forced me to be more imaginative. This novel, I believe, is both my leanest yet deepest. I always feel a sense of responsibility for the way my stories might impact readers, and this sense became particularly heightened when I remembered that my readers might be as young as ten or eleven years old. I became more deliberate in my choices about everything such as when to use certain kind of language, rely on subtext, and the like. For example, Efrain is a young man that rarely curses so when he does, it’s a consequence of what he is experiencing – both as a result of his own choices and the choices of others that effect him – and how these choices are influencing his character. There’s a way I leave more room for my reader to enter, so to speak, and make his or her own interpretations. It made me appreciate how when I write for adults, I take certain things for granted, for better or worse. That said, I think that Efrain’s Secret is a novel that will appeal to adults as well even if they are not readers of YA fiction.

NBF: As a writer, you know the impact that reading has on young people, particularly in their tween years. What’s the one piece of advice you would give to parents and educators about how to get kids excited about reading?

SQ: As a writer, educator and activist, I always say, “Meet them where they are then take them some place better.” Censoring or judging what young people read is rarely effective. It’s much better to show a genuine curiosity about why certain subjects or storylines interest them and then introduce them to the literature you appreciate that resonates with those interests. This is what I aim to do with my kids in BookUp. If I find out, for example, that the book that’s all the rage is a street lit novel about a girl dealing with, say, colorism, then I’ll say, “Oh, if you like that, you’ll love The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.” Depending on their age and sophistication, I may start with a bridge book like The Skin I’m In by Sharon Flake. Lastly, don’t go to the other extreme and buy into the so-long-as-they’re-reading argument. A young person is not going to evolve from Relentless Aaron to F. Scott Fitzgerald unless a knowledgeable and caring adult leads the way.

Sofía Quintero BIO

Sofía Quintero is the author of several novels and short stories that cross genres. Born into a working-class Puerto Rican-Dominican family in the Bronx., the self-proclaimed “Ivy League homegirl” earned a BA in history-sociology from Columbia University in 1990 and her MPA from the university's School of International and Public Affairs in 1992. After years of working on a range of policy issues from multicultural education to HIV/AIDS, she decided to pursue career that married arts and activism. Under the pen name Black Artemis, she wrote the hip hop novels Explicit Content, Picture Me Rollin’ and Burn. Sofía is also the author of the novel Divas Don’t Yield and contributed novellas to the “chica lit” anthologies Friday Night Chicas and Names I Call My Sister. As an activist, she co-founded Chica Luna Productions (chicaluna.com), a nonprofit organization that seeks to identify, develop and support women of color who wish to create socially conscious entertainment. She is also a founding creative partner of Sister Outsider Entertainment, a multimedia production company that produces quality entertainment for urban audiences. Sofía is presently working on her first young adult novel Efrain’s Secret which will be published by Knopf in 2009. To learn more about Sofia and her work, visit blackartemis.com, sisteroutsider.biz or .myspace.com/sofiaquintero.