What An Author Looks Like: Kekla Magoon
America’s racial problems are far from resolved, as evidenced by the continued victimization of Black people young and old at the hands of police and neighborhood vigilantes. Kekla Magoon’s How It Went Down, a Coretta Scott King Honor book, is an especially timely read in view of the national conversation on race and state violence. The novel centers on the causes and consequences of the shooting death of fictional teenager Tariq Johnson, and achieves more objectivity than real-life news outlets.
Magoon accomplishes this feat by creating eighteen unique narrators who describe their own experiences of the crime and their relationships with Tariq. Their varying accounts depicts the near impossibility of determining what actually happened. Each narrator’s visceral response and ensuing challenges grieving, contemplating revenge and despair, and finding balance in their own lives are compelling, making the book a page-turner despite the fact that the novel’s most dramatic scenes occur in its opening pages.
The multi-narrator device also provides the reader with a close-up view of the repercussions of Tariq’s death, as we hear from family, friends and fellow community members. Media members, politicians and advocates chime in as well, revealing that they exploit Tariq’s death for their own ends. Amazingly, the voices are so distinct that I was never once confused by who was speaking.
Also treating gangs, poverty, gender discrimination and domestic violence with a skilled hand, this powerful novel appeals to adult readers as well as teens. It’s not one to be missed.
I was fortunate enough to be able to sit down with the author and ask her a few questions.
LP: It must have been difficult to work with so many narrative voices. How did you keep your head from flying off?
KM: I still have a head? Outstanding. The process involved a lot of Post-It notes and only a little bit of screaming. The characters and their voices were always very clear to me, so writing from different perspectives worked very smoothly in this piece. I started with thirty voices and ultimately pared it down to eighteen. The novel comprises about 200 vignettes, though, so the biggest challenge was putting them in the best order.
LP: Your books thus far are for teens and are strongly focused on America’s continuing struggle with race relations. The first book in your new series, Shadows of Sherwood, was just released and offers middle grade readers a great heroine of color in a twist on an old tale. Can you describe how it feels to be working in this new genre?
KM: I like to stretch myself as an artist and explore different genres and types of stories. I’m enjoying the middle grade fantasy adventure. Of course, I managed to work in a little bit of social justice, too--my Robyn Hoodlum looks out for those less fortunate, just like the legendary hero she’s based on.
LP: You’re very prolific and write both fiction and non-fiction. What’s your research and writing process like?
KM: I do research for my fiction, especially the historical novels, but I do much more for my non-fiction. I read everything I can online and in books, study newspaper archives, watch documentaries, and travel to libraries and museums around the country to study their archival collections. I enjoy working on multiple projects, especially since many of the subjects I write about overlap. For example I’ve used my civil rights era/Black Panther research for several novels and a nonfiction book.
LP: Last year you joined the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children and Young Adults MFA program. Could you share some of the basic advice you give to new MFA students--whether about writing or career?
KM: Career comes later; in the program we focus on strengthening students’ writing skills. I teach many lessons about craft, but an underlying message I hope to convey is that revision is not about mechanically improving your manuscript. Rather, it is a process by which you uncover the story’s heart and find the best ways to convey that vision to your readers.
LP: That makes so much sense. Your vision is an important one. Thanks so much for talking with GrubStreet!
KM: Thanks for the interview!
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Kekla Magoon is the author of five additional young adult novels: X: A Novel (co-written with Malcolm X’s daughter Ilyashah Shabazz), Camo Girl, 37 Things I Love, Fire in the Streets, and The Rock and the River. She also writes nonfiction on historical topics. She teaches at the Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children and Young Adults MFA program. Visit her online at keklamagoon.com.
Lisa Paige’s book reviews and other nonfiction have appeared in multiple magazines, literary journals and media websites. She also edits and coaches and is at work on her first YA novel. Contact her at [email protected] or visit her at lastpaige.com.