FOUR TREASURES OF THE SKY: A Conversation with Jenny Tinghui Zhang & Gen Padalecki

ANNOUNCING – We’re partnering with fellow Texan Gen Padalecki and her Now & Gen book club for a conversation with Austin author Jenny Tinghui Zhang about her debut novel Four Treasures of the Sky. Grab your copy and read along with us! Be sure to join the conversation on Thursday, May 5 at 12 p.m. CT on Gen’s Instagram Live (@genpadalecki). No RSVP necessary, just stop on by!

When you purchase your copy of Four Treasures of the Sky using this BookPeople link, you will receive an autographed note from Gen! Available while supplies last.

Author:
Jenny Tinghui Zhang
is a Chinese-American writer. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Apogee, Ninth Letter, Passages North, The Rumpus, HuffPost, The Cut, Catapult, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from the University of Wyoming and has received support from Kundiman, Tin House, and VONA/Voices. She was born in Changchun, China and grew up in Austin, Texas, where she currently lives. Four Treasures of the Sky is her debut.

Moderator:
Genevieve Padalecki (you can call her Gen) is a daughter, sister, mother, and wife. She’s also a traveler, book nerd, activist, actress, adventure seeker, and aspiring urban homesteader. A California girl from birth and a mountain girl at heart, she now calls Austin, Texas, home and lives with her husband Jared—yes, that guy from Supernatural and Walker—three kids (Tom, Shep, and Odette), 14 chickens, two dogs, and a hive of honeybees.

She blogs about her life, books, parenting, fashion, and more at nowandgen.com and is the co-founder of @towwn – Take Only What We Need, a community that focuses on measurable steps we can take to live a more just and sustainable life for people + planet.

 

Journey to the Gala with Don Tate!

Last Friday, the Texas Book Festival hosted the annual First Edition Literary Gala at the Four Seasons Austin. The evening saw presentations from award-winning storytellers and friends of the Fest, including Carrie Fountain, Noah Hawley, Chang-Rae Lee, Elizabeth McCracken, and recipient of the 2021 Texas Writer Award, Don Tate! 

We are delighted to talk with Don about his experience leading up to the big event. Read more below to spend [a couple of days] in the life of critically acclaimed Children’s author and illustrator, Don Tate!

Journey to the Gala with Don Tate

I learned that I was selected as the 2021 Texas Writer Award recipient while checking emails on my iPhone, while I was at a restaurant drive-through window. The message came from Texas Book Festival Literary Director Matthew Patin, informing me about the award.

Matthew said: 

“Your prolific contribution to Texas letters, your lengthy TBF alum status, your tireless commitment to community engagement, awareness, and in-school programming, including with Reading Rock Stars and The Brown Bookshelf —the choice is a no-brainer, really. And from me, and on behalf of the TBF staff and board and Author Selection Committee, I’d be honored if you’d accept the award.”

Moonstruck, I sent this message back to Matthew: 

I’m reading this email from a Schlotsky’s drive-through window, ordering a jalapeño turkey sandwich, with a mask covering my face, and hoping my very dark sunglasses are hiding my now red misty eyes. How’s that for a visual, huh? Of course, yes! I accept! Coming from my beloved friends at the Texas Book Festival, I can’t think of a greater honor!!

I was thrilled to receive the news, but I was also baffled—and even a little embarrassed. Like a lot of creative people, I tend to suffer from Imposter Syndrome. It’s a feeling of self-doubt, like I’m not quite what others perceive me to be. Past winners included names like Attica Locke, Dan Rather, and Pat Mora.

I also realized I’d be the first Black man to receive the recognition. My anxiety jagged up a few more notches. Being the first of anything is exciting, of course. But it can also be heavy, especially when it’s a Black first. Would folks take their recognition of me seriously? Might folks think the award to be penance for some past oversight? Or, do I simply worry too much?

In time, I was able to post the news to my social networks. Hundreds of people responded with congratulations, saying, “You deserve this!”

I thought about what I had accomplished since I started my writing career in 2010. I thought about several other recent honors I’d received—the SCBWI Golden Kite, induction into the Texas Institute of Letters. I was ready to put all that worry aside. But I began to worry again. The award is presented at a fancy gala! And I don’t own a tux. On the afternoon of the gala, I posted this to social networks: 

“Tonight’s the night—the Texas Book Festival’s literary gala! And I’ve sweated the whole tux thing way too much. I don’t own one, and I did not want to splurge on a pricey rental. So, I got the $49.99 blue-light special—which is a fair-looking tux, but not one of the more modern, skinny-fit ones with the narrow legs that I’d prefer. It’s more high school awkward, but the sales team said that with my athletic build, I could pull it off. The other thing is that it’s a black-tie event—which, if you know me, I like to be different. So if everyone else is wearing black tuxes, I want to wear— don’t know—ripped jeans and chukka boots or something. Anyway, after two years of being mostly shut-in, it will be nice to get out and have some fun with my literary friends!”

Later that evening, I was in aflutter some more:

One half-hour before the festivities, and I’m Googling “How the hell do cuff links work?”

That night after, I posted this: 

“Oh, what a night! Book lovers, philanthropists, politicians, authors, librarians, poets—an audience of almost 500 people! They raised almost $110.000 in about ten minutes to support Texas libraries. Then, I accepted the Texas Book Festival’s Texas Author Award. Even got a standing ovation after my acceptance speech. So honored to be acknowledged by an organization that I love. And my $49.99 tux, it worked!”

Texas Book Festival Gala 2022 at the Four Seasons photos ©Bob Daemmrich Author program

And the next day, I posted more about the cool cowboy boots that came with the award: 

“I forgot to mention in my previous post, the recipient of the Texas Writer Award receives a nifty pair of handmade custom cowboy boots. They are made by Rocketbuster out of El Paso, Texas, and they are fine works of art.”

“The process of creating them was quite an amazing experience, too. First, they asked me to trace my foot on paper and take other measurements—which included my heels, the waist of my foot, my instep, and the ball of my foot. I had to measure my calves in two different places. As far as the boots, I selected the toe box shape, the medallion stitching design, the height and style of the heel.”


“Rocketbuster builds the boots from scratch, but I picked a basic catalog design and then customized them from there. The Texas Book Festival’s logo would go on the front, but there was also a space on the back to fill. I thought about what the Texas Book Festival has meant to me over the years. To me, it’s been about presenting to children under the Read Me a Story tent or giving children books during the Reading Rock Stars program. So, I created this piece of art that represented that.”

“As the artists at Rocketbuster created my boots, they texted images to me along the way—sketches of the boots, leather choices, stitching color. It was cool to see how they literally carved and painted my design into the boots. I think they turned out so great, but I’m afraid to actually wear them. I put them atop my bookcase!”

To sum this post up: I am proudly a writer. I am proudly a Texas Writer Award recipient. And now, I am the proud owner of my first hand-made-from-scratch cowboy boots!

 

Announcing Book Tickets for R.J. Palacio!

Join us for a conversation with R.J. Palacio as she discusses her new book Pony on October 23 at 12 pm CT. Each ticket is $25 and includes the cost of the book, processing fees, and shipping. Books will come with a signed bookplate, while supplies last! This will be a virtual session.

Get tickets here!

Pony has so many topics to discuss for fifth grade and up. Thank you to Random House Children’s Books for creating this beautiful Pony discussion guide. Click to download, and contact bookfest@texasbookfestival.org if you have any trouble accessing the file.

R. J. Palacio is the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Wonder, which has sold over 12 million copies worldwide. The book’s message inspired the Choose Kind movement and has been embraced by readers around the world, with the book published in over 50 languages. Wonder was made into a blockbuster movie starring Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, and Jacob Tremblay. Palacio’s other bestselling books include 365 Days of Wonder: Mr. Browne’s Book of Precepts, Auggie & Me: Three Wonder Stories, the picture book We’re All Wonders, and the graphic novel White Bird, which is currently being filmed as a major motion picture starring Gillian Anderson and Helen Mirren. Palacio lives in Brooklyn with her husband, two sons, and two dogs.

Please direct questions to the Texas Book Festival at bookfest@texasbookfestival.org. Every book ticket sold and book purchased through the BookPeople Festival Store supports the Texas Book Festival and Festival authors. Thank you!

Announcing Book Tickets for Colson Whitehead!

Join us for a conversation with Colson Whitehead as he discusses his new book Harlem Shuffle on October 25 at 12:45 pm. Each ticket is $35 and includes the cost of the book, processing fees, and shipping. The first 100 ticket buyers will get a signed copy of Harlem Shuffle. This will be a virtual session.

Colson Whitehead is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of ten works of fiction and nonfiction, and is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, for The Nickel Boys and The Underground Railroad, which also won the National Book Award. A recipient of MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships, he lives in New York City.

Get tickets here!

Please direct questions to the Texas Book Festival at bookfest@texasbookfestival.org. Every book ticket sold and book purchased through the BookPeople Festival Store supports the Texas Book Festival and Festival authors. Thank you!

Real Reads with Astronaut José Hernández

Last week, our newest Real Reads author and former NASA astronaut Dr. José Hernández spoke with 150 students online at Skyline High School in Dallas. Hernández shared memories from his book From Farmworker to Astronaut, based on his life growing up in California as a migrant farmworker and his STS-128 space mission in 2009. His first memory of deciding to become an astronaut came about after watching the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. The students at Skyline had many questions for Dr. Hernández and we included some of the highlights below.

Q&A with Astronaut Jose Hernandez and Skyline High School, Dallas ISD

What kept you motivated when you were younger?

JH: My family had high expectations for me and I did not want to let them down. If I stuck to my dream, I could contribute to my family by graduating from high school and college.

Does ‘time’ work differently in space?

JH: While in space, you go around the world once every 90 minutes (the day lasts 45 minutes and the night lasts 45 minutes). However, we followed the same schedule as our peers stationed at mission control in Houston. We closed the blinds when the sun was out so that we could get some sleep.

Any scary moments during the training or while in space?

JH: During training, there’s an underwater simulation while you’re inside an upside-down helicopter. You go through it three times and each time tests your abilities, including communicating with your team members while holding your breath and exiting the helicopter while being blindfolded.

How did it feel when the rocket first launched?

JH: Best ride Disneyland can ever hope for! After eight-and-a-half minutes, you reach space and it feels like you are weighed down by three hundred pounds or that three people are standing on you while you are lying down.

Dr. Hernández also shared six important ingredients for his recipe for success, which was passed on to him by his father: define your goal in life, recognize how far you are from your goal, draw yourself a road map, stay in school, put in the effort in your studies, and persevere…never give up.

“If you put in the effort, anything is possible.” – Dr. José Hernández

Interview with The Brown Bookshelf

Today we’d like to spotlight The Brown Bookshelf, a group of authors and illustrators dedicated to amplifying awareness of the myriad Black voices writing for young readers. Their flagship initiative, 28 Days Later, is a month-long showcase of the best in Picture Books, Middle Grade, and Young Adult novels written and illustrated by Black creators. 

During each day of the twenty-eight days of Black History Month, The Brown Bookshelf profiles a different children’s or young adult author and children’s illustrator. Importantly, though, 28 Days Later emphasizes the necessity of celebrating Black authors, creatives, writers, and artists year-round. Their monthly Generations Book Club continues what 28 Days Later begins by featuring a themed list of books by Black creators for the youngest readers through adults and related links and resources.

We had the fortunate opportunity to speak with Brown Bookshelf Board member Paula Chase-Hyman, author of So Done and the Del Rio Bay series. Find the Q&A below!

———————————————–

Tell us about the origins of The Brown Bookshelf. What inspired you to be a part of the organization? 

Back in the early 2000s, there was a writing forum called The Blue Board. I met many of the writers that I still consider friends there. It’s also where I met Varian Johnson, Kelly Starling Lyons, and Carla Sarratt. Varian had just come out with his first YA, My Life as a Rhombus, and my debut YA, So Not The Drama, was on its way. YA was exploding. It was a true renaissance as it gained mainstream popularity beyond teen readers. But Varian and I noticed that YA with and by Black people wasn’t getting the same level of attention. Not current or past works.

It’s been so long now that I don’t know which of us came up with the idea first. But we decided that an outlet was needed to amplify Black children’s literature, specifically those creatives that 1) weren’t the publisher’s pick, what we consider under-the-radar, and 2) those creatives that had blazed the trail for the rest of us. Unsurprisingly, nothing like it existed. We knew it would be a lot of logistics, so we each identified people to come in to help round out the concept. He asked Don Tate and I asked Kelly Starling Lyons and Carla Sarratt, who no longer works with the group but is still very much a book advocate as the Director of Libraries at the University of Mount Union.

For the first few years, Don created these wonderful posters with headshots of all 28 featured creatives. Our hope was that librarians would display it. Over time, we phased that out due to the amount of work both on Don’s part and the libraries – because to display it, in all its glory, would have really required a larger printout. Still, I’d like to think that Don’s posters are collector’s items that one day someone can feature as part of the movement to showcase the depth and breadth of excellence in the Black children’s literature community.

We’ve been fortunate to maintain a board of seven to nine creatives on The Brown Bookshelf since its inception in 2007. And this is no easy feat. Every one of us is an actively working author and/or illustrator. We do this work because we believe in it. We’re a family and team:

Crystal Allen

Tracey Baptiste

Tameka Fryer Brown

Gwendolyn Hooks

Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

Why is it important to amplify Black voices and storytellers, especially for young readers?  

Representation matters. There is no reason to perpetuate dulling our voices. Make no mistake, Black voices/storytellers have been and continue to be out there. But they’re dulled again and again. It’s not true that our stories aren’t out there. It’s not true that our stories won’t resonate with readers. It’s certainly not true that our stories won’t sell – especially if they were actually given the same consistent lift as books by white creatives.

I’ve always been a history buff. And there was a time when I liked watching shows like CNN’s The ’70s, ’80s, etc… But whenever you look at shows that purport to show you a slice of life from an era, Black people, if shown at all, tend to be given a few seconds almost always for their contributions in sports or entertainment. If one were to look at those shows, the simple assumption is either we didn’t exist at all or we had no part in crafting the era beyond the one Black artist they’re highlighting. Obviously false on both accounts. When media and books lack multiple, well-rounded portrayals of the role Black people played in America’s culture and development, the narrative is that we weren’t playing any role. So then it becomes easier to keep parroting falsehoods and pushing single narratives of the Black experience.

Young readers represent hope. You’ll notice that rather than specialize in a single genre, many Black creatives have worked across the children’s lit sphere. It’s because we understand the importance of having Black readers see themselves from picture book through Young adult literature. It’s also a chance for non-Black readers to see, hear and touch Black experiences. The earlier a reader is exposed to those stories the greater the chance we have of stamping out single narratives and falsehoods.

What sparked 28 Days Later and how do you celebrate Black History beyond Black History Month? 

28 Days Later came out of the same discussions as our creation of The Brown Bookshelf. They were simultaneous creations. When we decided we needed to amplify Black works, 28 Days Later became the how. I still remember Varian questioning using the title of a zombie movie for our initiative. It was a bold, if not odd move. But my rationale was that 28 days later educators, parents, and librarians would walk away loaded with a long list of books for the young readers in their lives and with increased knowledge of the creatives behind those books. Emphasis on knowledge of the creatives.

I’ve always had a personal mission to make sure Black children’s lit creatives get the chance to become as well known as Ezra Jack Keats, Beverly Cleary, or Judy Blume – those authors whose work is in front of generations of readers. If names like Carole Boston Weatherford, Floyd Cooper, Sherri L. Smith, Derrick Barnes, Pat Cummings, Coe Booth, or Denene Millner aren’t familiar to you, despite their many contributions, that’s a problem for me.

Building on amplification opportunities, we began the Generations Book Club, last June. The initiative was conceived by Kelly Starling Lyons as a way to highlight books by Black creatives, boost book sales, help families nurture literacy skills, and bridge the social distancing divide by offering a shared reading experience within families and groups. Throughout the summer, we highlighted a single picture book, middle grade, young adult, and adult books across specific themes like Music, Culture, Community, and Heritage. In September, we decided to go beyond summer, stopping only for the 28 Days window. Using themes to curate books for the entire family has been a great way to build on exposing just how much work is out there.

Do you have a favorite author/artist who has inspired you in your storytelling? 

Mildred L. Taylor for sure. I’ve always been a fan, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that I realized how growing up reading her books about the Logan family impacted me as an author. Being exposed to books that told stories of pain and triumph with an honesty that empowered the reader, making it easy for me to write books that revolved around tough topics. Taylor’s work showcased a certain historical era, but the themes of her work are as relevant today when it comes to the duality of the dangers of one’s Blackness while celebrating the many joys of our culture. 

What’s next for The Brown Bookshelf? 

We find ourselves in an interesting place since Kwame Alexander asked us to host the 2020 Kid Lit 4 Black Lives rally. It was an incredible event to be part of and it increased our exposure greatly. The more viewers to our 28 Days Later spotlight, the better. However, it also lit a flame for broader advocacy for Black creatives. In August, we worked with Renee Watson and Cheryl and Wade Hudson on A Call To Action, essentially outlining elements of the publishing system we believe needs to be overhauled to better support Black creatives. 

In March, we’ll be announcing new partnerships and initiatives that were borne directly of both the rally and our Call to Action. Mindful that there’s only so much bandwidth an individual has, we’re excited to be working with organizations like Highlights Foundation and We Need Diverse Books to build on our efforts to amplify and empower Black creatives in children’s literature. As long as there’s a place to find our voices, that’s one less excuse available for anyone pretending not to understand the importance of representation.

Be sure to follow The Brown Bookshelf on Facebook (@thebrownbookshelf), Instagram (@BrownBookshelfTeam), and Twitter (@brownbookshelf).

Elizabeth Crook on her new novel “THE WHICH WAY TREE”

Elizabeth Crook’s latest novel The Which Way Tree is an epic southern tale. It chronicles the dangerous endeavors of Samantha Shreve, a 12-year-old girl growing up in Austin, Texas, just after the Civil War. After witnessing a panther kill her mother, she sets out with a hodge-podge team of characters to slay the evil beast—which, around these parts, is known as El Demonio de Dos Dedos. Told from the point of view of her older brother Ben, the story feels both authentic and intimate.

Crook is the award-winning author of five books, including Monday, Monday, a fictional account of the 1960 mass shooting at The University of Texas at Austin, which won the 2015 Jesse H. Jones Award for fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters. Our intern Marisa asked her a few questions about her new book, which is available at your local bookstore or library now!

 

What was the research process like for this book?

A lot of fun. It involved the usual plunge into history books, articles, old authentic journals and letters from the period—a lot of reading and note taking about everything from the politics of the time to the specifics of daily life. And then of course it involved deciding what was relevant to the story and what wasn’t—and leaving a lot of it out. It was more fun than it sounds! Essentially, as a writer, you have to know the history intimately enough to step into that time every day and get around without being recognized as an imposter.

 

In your mind, how does this book veer from or continue themes you’ve explored in your previous books?

That’s hard to say: my books differ vastly in subject matter. The most common theme is humanity running up against inhumanity during various kinds of chaos.  For the most part my characters, in all five books, tend to be good people trying to make their way through actual historical, and often violent, events. They often make grave mistakes in the ways they try to navigate. The books portray some amount of loss and sadness but aren’t depressing, I hope. There’s a big difference between a book that makes you sad at moments and a book that leaves you depressed. I wouldn’t want to write the latter. The Which Way Tree deals with heavy subject matter, as my other books do also, but what readers often comment on is the humor in Benjamin’s storytelling.

 

Why did you decide to write this book now?

When my son was fourteen he got lost in the canyons in Bandera County one night, and was finally located by search helicopters after a nine hour hunt, during which a mountain lion was spotted trailing through the canyon into which he had disappered. It was the scariest night of my life and left me obsessed with mountain lions and their attacks on humans. I read everything I could find on the subject. I guess I wrote this story partly because I had run out of real life accounts to obsess over.   

 

What challenges did you face writing this book and how did you try to overcome them?

Actually The Which Way Tree presented fewer challenges than my other books and was more fun to write. Every chapter rolled naturally into the next. I suppose the greatest challege was how to frame it. A boy Benjamin’s age wouldn’t simply sit down and write this tale, so I needed to give him a plausible reason for doing so. It took some figuring and brainstorming, but in the end I decided to write the story as testimony to a war crime, under mandate of a judge, in order to justify its existence.  

 

The book tells the story of an epic tale, akin to that of “The Whale” (Moby-Dick) which you mention several times throughout. Yet, the book itself isn’t too lengthy. How did you manage that?

Benjamin is recounting events that deal with a small cast of characters during a brief amount of time. He doesn’t elaborate, he just tells what happened. So the story covers a lot of ground quickly. For instance, here’s the brief paragraph at the end of a chapter, when Benjamin and three other characters set out to fetch a panther tracking dog:

“We fed the goats, turned the chickens loose in the yard to scratch, tossed cobs out for the pigs should they come up from the creek, mounted up and started off. It was about noon at that time.” Having Benjamin tell the story kept me from wasting any words in describing how things are done. They’re just done.  

 

When writing books that take place in a different time period, do you ever feel a pressure to make them relevant to today? If so, why and how do you achieve that?

No, I never strive for that. If I’m telling a story set in the past, it stays where it’s rooted. If there are themes relevant to today, it’s only because human nature tends to lead us into the same kind of predicaments repeatedly.

Celebrate Black Literature: A Q&A with Liara Tamani

Join us in celebrating Black Literature as we continue to highlight black Texas authors, readers, and contributors to the literary community in a series of blog posts. Thus far, we’ve had contributions from  TBF Community Ambassador Peggy Terryaward-winning children’s author and illustrator Don TateDr. Rosalind Oliphant Jones, founder of the Austin African American Book Festival, the new Austin Public Library director Roosevelt Weeks. and Texas Sci-fi author Nicky Drayden.

Today, we’re happy to share this thoughtful Q&A with lovely Houston YA writer (and 2017 Texas Book Festival author) Liara Tamani! Tamani, “a strong believer in following your heart, even when you don’t know exactly where it’s taking you,” holds a BA from Duke University and an MFA in Writing from Vermont College and has had a rather exciting and varied career path on her way to becoming a writer: she’s been “a marketing coordinator for the Houston Rockets & Comets, a production assistant for Girlfriends (TV show), a home accessories designer, a floral designer, and yoga and dance teacher.” She was raised in Houston, and lives there now with her daughter and her succulent collection.

 

Texas Book Festival: What made you want to write for teens? 

 

Liara Tamani: I can’t say that I set out with the intention to write for teens, but I can say that I feel honored to be writing for them now. When I wrote Calling My Name, I wasn’t thinking about where it would be placed on the shelf. I was blissfully living in the land of Let Me Write the Best Book I Possibly Can and was completely naïve about the business side of publishing.

After I finished the book and started sending it out to agents, I learned the voice was best suited for the YA market, which didn’t surprise me. I’d written the book for my teenage self.

Calling My Name is the book I desperately needed as a teenager. I needed a book to let me know it was okay to think differently than all the people around me. I needed a book to let me know it was okay, necessary even, to find my own way, to figure out what I believed and who I wanted to be. I needed a book to let me know that the best guide in my life would be my own intuition.

It fills me up when I think about teens reading my words and possibly taking away these lessons. Teens have so much power. But when they are mentally trapped inside the expectations and opinions and beliefs of other people, it’s hard to realize that power.

To be able to write for young people, to be able to help them connect to all of the beauty and power and light and intelligence that resides within them, is a huge honor. And I’m grateful for it. Teens will change the world.

 

TBF: You have quite the prestigious CV (undergrad at Duke, law school at Harvard, design school at Otis, earning an MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts). What lead you to writing? Was it a life-long dream or a sudden inspiration?

 

LT: I’ve always been a writer. I just didn’t know it. Trying to live up to the expectations of my dad, who wanted me to become lawyer, disconnected me from my own dreams.

All throughout middle school and high school, English was my favorite subject. I loved reading and took a lot of pride in my writing. Writers were who I saw myself in. My college admission essays were about my deep connection to Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. But I still didn’t know I was a writer.

In college, I majored in Political Science (because that was the major I thought would best prepare me for law school), but I squeezed in literature whenever I could. For a history term paper, I wrote about Phyllis Wheatley, the first published African American female poet. For a political science term paper, I wrote in depth about W.E.B. Dubois’ The Souls of Black Folk. My professors always accused my writing of being too literary. They wanted me to write more straight forward, to take out all of my “flowery” language. But I still didn’t know I was a writer.

In order to connect to the dormant dream living inside of me, I had to shed other people’s expectations and opinions of me. I had to trust myself. And I eventually did, mostly because I couldn’t face the sadness of living a life without passion. The first step I took was dropping out of Harvard Law, despite what everybody thought about it (and believe me, people had their thoughts).

After law school, I chose to move to Los Angeles, a place with lots of sun and a large creative community. Around the time I started writing, I was running my own design company and reading a lot of fiction, something I actually had the mental space for because I wasn’t studying all the time. I’d recently finished reading White Teeth by Zadie Smith and Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer when I sat down one night at my drafting table with my laptop and started writing. It felt like home. And from then on, I knew.

 

 

TBF: Calling My Name is set in Houston, where you grew up. What do you love most in writing about Houston? What are the pros and cons about writing a book set in your home city?

 

LT: I love representing Houston! When people from other parts of the country and world think of Texas, they often still picture cows and horses and fields. Texas has a lot of that, sure, but it’s so much more than that. Houston is the fourth largest city in the county. And it’s the most racially and ethnically diverse city in the country, but we don’t see that in its representation. I love that Calling My Name allows people to see Houston through the eyes of a young, black girl living in the suburbs. A very common experience in Houston (and in the south in general), but not one that’s well represented.

And teenagers of color know this. On my high school visits in Houston this year, the students were geeked about the book taking place in Houston and about me being from Houston. I loved witnessing their pride. Everybody wants and deserves to see themselves in books and TV and film. Everybody wants and deserves to be represented.

I also loved learning more about my hometown while researching the setting. I was on Google Maps travelling down streets I’ve never been down before. It was cool exploring Houston.

In summary, I loved everything about writing a book set in Houston. 🙂 No cons.

 

TBF: What are you working on now?

 

LT: Book two! I’m soooo excited about my second novel. It’s very different from my first, but I absolutely love it. It’s written in alternating first person perspectives (girl-boy), and the whole book takes place over the span of two months. By comparison, Calling My Name takes place over five years. I don’t want to give away too many details about the new book because I’m not finished with it yet. But it’s coming! And I can’t wait for everyone to read it! And it’s also set in Houston—this time, present-day Houston.

I also just finished a short story that will appear in a YA anthology edited by Ibi Zoboi entitled Black Enough: Stories of Being Young & Black in America. In it, my words will be alongside the words of some of my favorite writers, including Renée Waston, Rita Williams-Garcia, and Jason Reynolds. I’m so thrilled. Look out for it next year!

 

Celebrate Black Literature: A Q&A with Nicky Drayden

Join us in celebrating Black Literature! We are working to recognize Black History Month by highlighting black Texas authors, readers, and contributors to the literary community in a series of blog posts. Thus far, we’ve had contributions from  TBF Community Ambassador Peggy Terryaward-winning children’s author and illustrator Don TateDr. Rosalind Oliphant Jones, the founder of the Austin African American Book Festival, and the new Austin Public Library director Roosevelt Weeks.

Today, we have an exciting Q&A with Austin resident and 2017 Texas Book Festival author Nicky Drayden! Drayden is a Systems Analyst who dabbles in prose when she’s not buried in code. Her debut novel The Prey of Gods is set in a futuristic South Africa brimming with demigods, robots, and hallucinogenic hijinks. See more of her work on her website,  or catch her on Twitter. Keep an eye out for Drayden’s forthcoming novel Temper, coming out from Harper Voyager on August 7, 2018!

You can also catch Drayden this coming Saturday, on February 24 at the second annual Celebration of Diverse Literary Voices of Texas at the new Central Library (Living Room, 6th floor) from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m., presented by the Austin Public Library and KAZI Book Review. We’ll see you there!

 

Texas Book Festival: What inspired you to write Science Fiction/Fantasy? Similarly, what drew you to setting the book in South Africa?

 

Nicky Drayden: Science Fiction and Fantasy are in my bones. “E.T.” was the first movie I saw in a theater, so maybe that has something to do with it. I must have watched “Starman” a million times and one of my first memories is of begging my dad to watch “Superman” every single day when I was three years old. But I didn’t have a label for the shows I liked until much, much later. “Small Wonder,” “Mork and Mindy,” “Alf,” “Quantum Leap,” “Buck Rogers.” They just entertained me, and when I started writing, those were the kind of stories I wanted to tell.

South Africa drew me in as a setting because I traveled to Port Elizabeth back when I was in college, and I thought it’d be interesting to imagine how the experiences I had there could translate into a work of speculative fiction. Obviously, I didn’t come across any disenfranchised demigoddesses or sentient robots while there, but many of the highlights from my visit are featured in the book, for example, we toured some of the rural townships where people live in tin shacks, met teenagers who had recently gone through the circumcision rite, and bought hand-carved souvenirs from local artists. And it seemed like everywhere we went, there were these little cute antelopes called dik-diks rummaging around the city, kind of in a similar way some places have deer overpopulation problems, so those things all got worked into the book.

It was a lot of fun to relive my memories through my writing and to project how South Africa’s unique challenges and strengths would intersect with technological and scientific advancements over the next fifty years.

 

TBF: What kind of research did you do for The Prey of Gods? Was it difficult to write from so many different perspectives, from such different characters?

 

ND: I read articles and novels by South African authors, and—this one’s a bit odd—I dug into the comment sections of a few South African online magazines. People tend not to filter themselves in the comments section, so you can get an interesting glimpse of the issues people are dealing with. I also enlisted a few South African beta readers, and they helped to hone the story, filling in the gaps in my experience with rich texture and delectable details for readers to savor.

I loved the challenge of weaving the characters’ stories together in a cohesive manner. Most of the characters have never met before the story begins, but they’re all connected in various and multiple ways. For example, in Sydney’s first chapter, she’s giving a magical manicure to a woman who’s attending a fundraiser for Councilman Stoker. In another scene, Rita Natrajan, the pop diva in the story, unknowingly shares a robot taxi with Muzi’s brother-in-law and is secretly romantic with Muzi’s best friend’s cousin. It’s a knotty tangle of threads, but I think a few snags make the tapestry more interesting.

 

TBF: How do you go about world-building (one of the most important/hardest parts of SFF, but often is “invisible labor”)?

 

ND: I don’t know if it’s invisible, because readers can tell when you’ve just got a city full of prop buildings. I draw maps with labeled thoroughfares, floorplans of my character’s homes. Figure out their birthdays and zodiac signs. I pick out photographs of what they look like, what clothes they wear, what the buildings look like, and any significant objects mentioned in the book so my descriptions have some grit. Having world-building clear in my mind when I’m writing comes out not necessarily a big info dump, but in telling details. The lapel pin on a character’s jacket, the type of necklace a character wears and why. Details beget details, so the more you know going into the novel, the deeper it will lead you.

 

TBF: Who are some of your favorite Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers? Who has had an influence on your writing?

 

ND: Neal Stephenson is my favorite author. I had a writing mentor back in the day, and we were out at Half Price Books, and he pulled Crypotonomicon from the shelf and pretty much forced me to buy it. He was nearly shaking recalling a submarine scene. So I bought it and read it. And from then on, I was hooked. I’d never read anything with so much depth and attention to detail. When I read Stephenson’s Seveneves, I felt like I’d earned an honorary degree in orbital mechanics.

On the fantasy side, I like N. K. Jemisin. I started her Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and literally could not putit down. It was a good thing I was on vacation at the time, or I would have had to take a sick day. Her worlds are completely immersive, and the characters are so deep, and she’s not shy about jerking your emotions around.

There are also a ton of up-and-coming authors I’ve got my eye on. I was blown away by Kai Ashante Wilson’s A Taste of Honey. If you’re into generation ships and awesome world-building, Noumenon by Marina J. Lostetter will sweep you away. And Viscera by Gabriel Squailia is both hauntingly dark and delightfully funny.

 

TBF: What was the best part of writing The Prey of Gods?

 

ND: I loved creating these characters who are all horribly flawed. Of the six main characters, any of them could be the antagonist of the story, which I think makes them easy for readers to connect to in some ways and challenges them in others. Nomvula, a ten-year-old girl coming to grips with her newfound powers, commits atrocities worse than the villainess of the story. Muzi, a teenager with mind control, makes bad decision after bad decision. Nearly every page you want to shake some sense into him, but you never stop cheering for him. They’re all complicated, frustrating, and relatable.

 

TBF: What advice would you give to new and/or up and coming black authors in science fiction? 

 

ND: Guard your writing time. Guard the vision for your story when accepting feedback. It takes quite a while to hone your craft, and it’s all but impossible to do so in a vacuum, so most young black writers will come up against well-meaning critiquers and editors who can do real damage to a manuscript, or worse, to the writer’s sensibilities.

Your story might not always make sense to others, but that doesn’t mean that what you’re doing is wrong. It might be that your craft isn’t fully developed yet, and you need more experience to pull it off. Maybe it just needs to find the right set of eyes. So write more, read more, keep submitting and keep challenging yourself to grow as a writer and a person.

 

TBF: What are you working on next?

 

ND: I just finished copyedits on Temper, which is coming out August 7th. I’m really excited about this one, and though it is also set in a (fictionalized) South Africa, it was a whole set of different challenges because I was both building a world from scratch while drawing upon existing cultural references.

It’s about a wayward teenaged boy named Auben Mutze who starts hearing voices that speak to his dangerous side—encouraging him to perform evil deeds that go beyond innocent mischief. Lechery, deceit, and vanity run rampant. And then there are the inexplicable blood cravings…

It’s a mix of science fiction and fantasy like The Prey of Gods, though this one dips a little into horror and dark humor as well.

Celebrate Black Literature: A Q&A with Austin Public Library Director Roosevelt Weeks

Join us in celebrating Black History Month! For the month of February, Texas Book Festival is working to recognize Black History Month by highlighting black Texas authors, readers, and notable contributors to the literary community in a series of blog posts. So far, we’ve had contributions from  TBF Community Ambassador Peggy Terry who shared a fantastic list of books coming out in 2018, award-winning children’s author and illustrator Don Tate who took the time to answer some questions, and Dr. Rosalind Oliphant Jones, the founder of the Austin African American Book Festival and the Folktales Black Women’s Literary Society.

Today, we’re excited to present wisdom from new Austin Public Library director Roosevelt Weeks, who comes to APL from the Houston Public Library system (where he was the much-beloved Deputy Director of Administration) and started in his new position last September. Weeks, a veteran of several Texas libraries, is a brilliant addition to our Austin literary community and we look forward to working alongside him in his exciting new role!

Also, we highly recommend checking out the Celebration of Diverse Literary Voices of Texas at the new Central Library (Living Room, 6th floor) on February 24, 2018 from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m., presented by the Austin Public Library and KAZI Book Review for the second year running.

Join notable Texas authors (including several previous Texas Book Festival authors) for “author readings as well as panel discussions on cultural diversity, African American education, Mexican American literature and social justice in literature.”

We’ll see you there!

 

What drew you to pursue a career in libraries?

I was volunteering at the Pasadena Public Library providing computer training to customers. A customer told me she needed help learning Microsoft Word so she could get a promotion on her job. I worked with her for about 3 weeks and she came in the library one day and told me she got the job! At this point, I realize the importance of libraries and what they mean to the community.

 

What’s your favorite part of working in the library system? What are some of the most important roles libraries play in Austin (and Texas at large) today?

Meeting people with different background and culture. I love getting out into the community and talking about the importance of reading and the impact libraries how on communities.

 

What are you most looking forward to in your position here at APL?

Working with the various community and community leaders in identifying needed programs and services. Every community is different and I don’t believe in providing cookie-cutter programs and services. Programs and services should be meaningful and life changing.

 

What advice would you give to young black people considering a library degree and career?

If you want to make a difference in your community, a library career is for you. The pay will not make you rich, but it will give you a decent living. There are not enough librarians of color and we need more of them. Libraries and library workers should represent the community they serve. It makes a difference when you walk into a library and you see people that look like you and understand some of the challenges you face.

 

Is there anything you wish more people knew about APL (or even about libraries in general)? What programs/ events do you want to highlight/ make sure Austinites don’t miss?
Libraries are open and free to everybody from all walks of life. If you are looking for ways to start a business, we can help. If you are looking to develop a new skill, we can provide with the resources. If you are looking for entertainment, we have movies and programs from many genres and cultures. If you are looking for a good book, we have millions waiting for you! All of our library locations are safe and welcoming for you to come in to have meetings or just to relax. Finally, all Austinites must come visit our New Central Library. It is six floors of pure delight and excitement, but describing the Central Library makes it hard to do it justice. You must come visit to really appreciate it.

 

What are you reading right now? What are some of the books coming out in 2018 you’re most looking forward to?

I am currently reading We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled by Wendy Pearlman and Thursday Night Lights by Michael Hurd (a 2017 Texas Book Festival author). I am looking forward to reading The President Is Missing by James Patterson and Bill Clinton, and Down the River Unto the Sea by Walter Mosely.