It’s 10am in Washington, DC, and the start of our call had been plagued with technical issues. But rather than get frustrated, as would be his right, Jason Reynolds laughs it off in a cool and affable manner; which was both disarming and relaxing.
“I’m a writer that was raised in the hip hop generation but trained classically through poetry, so I’m an amalgam of all those things. I’ve got the edge of the Black American community, and I’ve got the musicality of the music that came from that community, but also I’ve been trained to pull devices from the Shakespeares of the world; the bridge between the science and the soul as I always say.”
“I sort of came through the back door”
Jason is a multi-award winning and New York Times bestselling author. His young adult fiction and poetry are loved across the world, in particular his series Track, and Long Way Down. Yet, by his own admission, he entered the literature world “through the back door.”
Jason’s grandmother died when he was 10. Around the same time, he was starting to get into rap music and studying the lyrics. To try and help his mother cope with the loss, he decided to write a couple of lines.
“She printed them in the back of the funeral programme and my family affirmed me by saying that those words made them feel better. That's all I needed, that's all I needed to hear – that words have power. It made me feel like I had value, like I had power. I knew then that I could say something, or I could do something that could change the energy of a room, that could make a person feel better emotionally. I think that made me feel big, and it made me feel like I had a purpose.
He continued to study and experiment with poetry, moving from the structured ABAB rhythm and rhyme schemes of rap to the freeform and free verse ‘anti-structure’ of the 90s spoken word movement. After going all in with that, he then started returning to structure – exploring styles such as the haiku, the refrain, the sonnet and sestina – to really find out how to make those work for him.
In part, this move away from free verse and the reintroduction, or perhaps, imposition of structure, was in response to the people he was studying at the time.
“I was looking at the people who could merge the categories and genres in writing, who didn't feel confined, but once they chose a thing could write with constraint in a way that created a creativity that pushed the line and pushed the limit.
Jean Toomer's Cane has verse in it, and prose in it, and it was written in the early 1900s. This is a book that in today's standard would be game changing. It has a little bit of everything in the same book, and I was studying this stuff just trying to see how far I could go.”
This work proved formative of his attitude towards creativity as as whole.
“I don't necessarily believe in limits, I think you can create limitations to activate creativity. You create constraints for yourself so you can work within certain boundaries to be more creative, but actual constraints and actual limitations when it comes to language I actually don't believe exist.”
Although he was actively engaged with poetry and lyricality of rap, it might surprise you to know that it wasn’t until he was 17-years-old that Jason read a novel from cover to cover, because “what was there to read?”
“Books at the time weren't exemplifying the life that I was living. If you were growing up in the 1980's or the 1990s in Black America then there were no stories about your life. The way that literature is taught - especially back then - is such a skewed and distilled way of thinking about storytelling and language, and if you've got kids coming from certain communities who have never seen themselves in books and you expect them to dive into books written in the 50s and 60s and connect to them, it's quite a big ask.”
The book in question was Black Boy by Wright. Within the second page, the main character had burnt his mother’s house down by setting fire to the curtains, and Jason was gripped.
“To me, at 17, that was the moment I realised that I didn't actually hate to read, I just hated to be bored. I think so many of these books back then just gave you 30 pages of exposition and then expect a 14-year-old to stay tuned. It's just silly.”
"Just try, give it a shot"
Success came quickly to Jason, who in his very early 20s saw his poetry published by the behemoth that is Harper in the United States. Despite this, it wouldn’t be until he was 27 that he would write his first novel.
He was prompted to do so by his friend, who knew he had a love for language and telling stories. His old editor was equally supportive, dismissing his suggestion that he lacked the education to write a book and telling him “if there's one thing I've learned about you, it’s that your intuition will take you further than your education ever will.”
He sought to free himself “from the academic expectation of what writing is supposed to be and go back to what hip hop was, which was this irreverent artform where they did everything their own way - they made their music their own way, they spoke their language their own way, they wore their clothes their own way.” That was used as his measuring stick, and as long as he felt he stayed true to the tenets of rap music, he believed he would succeed.
Although Jason used hip hop to inform his approach to poetry and novel writing, he describes the actual writing of the two as very distinct processes.
“Those are two very different things. Both of which are beautiful and interesting in their own ways, but very different in their approach to that beauty.
I think of poetry as basically standing at the top of a skyscraper with a pitcher of water, and you pour the water out from the top of the skyscraper and it goes neatly into a glass on the ground. Poetry is precision, it always feels like magic. It feels impossible to pour water from the top of a skyscraper into a glass, and yet when it's done it feels magical, but it's just precision, it's about focus.
Novel writing is jumping into a massive pool, swimming all the way down to the bottom, and then swimming around and looking at the beautiful mosaic tiles. It has more space, there's more exploration, and there's much more moving around that one can do.”
Jason’s books often feature big interconnected worlds and multiple personal narratives that can bump and weave into one another. I was curious to see how he managed to keep atop of those threads, and what his method of writing was.
“It's a mess. Honestly it's just a lot of alone time. I don't outline things, I just jot down a couple of ideas in my notebook sometimes, and then I just kind of go for it. I feel that if it's an adventure for me it will be an adventure for the reader. There needs to be a bit of discovery there, and creativity should always come first. This is art, and I think sometimes we forget that this is a creative artform. I want it to have the surprises that art often has, and that causes for an inefficient process but an honest one.”
Given his irreverent and loose approach to writing, I was surprised at just how much emphasis Jason placed on discipline. He did track, played basketball and wrestled when he was younger, and all of those things installed a sense of diligence, persistence and patience that he now applies to writing.
People say it's like running a marathon: you run it, it's horrible, you finish, it's great.
"It’s about working through the discomfort, and trusting that your body will adapt and expand. That is literally what it means to write a novel. You sit down, you feel uncomfortable, you keep writing, you still feel uncomfortable, you keep writing. Eventually, you never feel comfortable but you are able to manage the process and then you meet the finish line and you realise it's the greatest thing that you've ever done, and then you start all over again. That is novel writing.”
That discipline sees him get up at 6am every morning, and be working by 7. He doesn’t set goals or targets for himself - “I believe in being faithful to the process” - but he will put the eight hours in every day, because it’s only by showing up that you will ever see improvement.
“Sometimes that's pretty rough. You're just staring at the screen retyping the same sentence, or thinking about what to do, or writing down ideas, or reading something to shake something loose, answering emails and answering my assistant. I have seven or eight hours to do those things and then I try to go about my day and try and have some fun, and try and live a little.”
“He's basically black Spider-Man”
In addition to creating his own expansive worlds with complex characters, Jason also had chance to build out the world of a much loved superhero – Miles Morales: Spider-Man
When Marvel first approached him to write the story, he was actually going to turn them down. “I was totally unenthused, because even though I grew up loving all the same superheroes as everybody else did, I wasn't necessarily a comic book kid.” He hadn’t even heard of Miles Morales at the time. It wasn’t until he happened to mention his opportunity to write a black Spider-Man story to a group of high school kids in Tulsa, Oklahoma that he realised how big an opportunity it could be.
“To see the excitement on their faces, and to see them perk up, and hear their questions, all of a sudden I realised that this was much bigger than me, and it was one of those things where you do it because it needs to be done. And if it's going to be done, it has to be done right. You find a way to do it in your way, but you can't say no to it because of these kids who definitely want it. So that was the impetus for me taking the gig.”
Given that he was adopting an existing character, in a pre-established world, you would be forgiven for thinking that Marvel had tight reigns over what he did - and didn’t - write, but that wasn’t the case..
“They gave me a few guidelines, but compared to what it could have been they left it wide open, and they completely trusted me to make the thing I wanted to make. They surprised me with the amount of courage they had to let me tell the story I told, and to build that character out in a way that hadn't been done up until that point, and to put some cultural texture on it, which also was missing. I'll be forever grateful and really just impressed with how forward and progressive they were.”
Looking back, Jason admits he’s glad he took it on, as it was one of the coolest things he’s ever done. He even got a shoutout in the Academy Award-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, listed as a contact in Miles Morales’ phone.
The importance of family
Family and belonging are just some of the themes explored in Jason’s books, but that emphasis on the familial extends beyond the page. His mother, who served as the impetus for him to start writing poetry 15 years ago, remains a clear motivator to this day, and he will take any opportunity to talk about her.
“She raised us, and she's the coolest lady in the world. One day she'll be gone, but because I'm a public person, with a massive megaphone, I get the chance to memorialise her and pay tribute to her in a public way – I get to shout her name across the world. What an amazing thing to think about. One day, I'll be able to click on YouTube, and hear myself talk about my mum in front of 5,000 people, over and over again. I'll get to watch 50 videos, read 50- 60 articles where I've mentioned and told her story over the years of my own success, so when she's out of here I can refer back.”
Even when asked about what the highlight of his career was, his mum features. In 2016, Ghost was nominated for the National Book Awards, and he took his mum to the ceremony. They got dressed up, did the red carpet walk, and generally relished in the prestigiousness. Jason didn’t end up winning, but to him, that was less important than being able to sit next to his mom as she watched her contemporary - and leader of the civil rights movement - Congressman John Lewis collect the award that he too was nominated for.
“Just sharing that time with my mum and having her in that space is so rare, and it’s something that I'll always be grateful for. You never know if it's going to happen again, it's a rarity to be nominated for that award, and it's a rarity to be nominated for it more than once so I'm just grateful.”
Not that rare, apparently, because as we finished recording, Jason informed me that he’d received a text saying he had been nominated again for his new book, Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks. It is an exploration of young people, and details 10 very different (but intertwined) stories of that 15-minutes during the day when children are walking home from school unsupervised. “It gets at this idea that you could have all these kids sitting in a classroom but when the bell rings, they all have completely different journeys, and you would never know. When I was a kid, everything I learned - good and bad - was happening in that 15 minute walk home.”
I think it’s fair to say that the world we live in is tumultuous. Society is rapidly changing, often precipitated by movements started on social media. It feels like everybody has to have an opinion, and the expectation is that influential figures use their platforms to advocate change.
You’re very unlikely to find a ‘hot take’ on Jason’s Twitter account though. As with everything, he appears to take a more collected and considered approach. If he sees something that frustrates or inspires him, he will reach for his phone, but instead of blasting it onto Twitter, he’ll text his friends, or call his mum. He’ll use them as sounding boards to work out what he would say publicly – if anything at all.
“You don't want to dive into a pool without knowing how deep it goes. I know what I know, and I know what I don't know, so I'm slow to pass judgement or jump into a knife fight. I think sometimes, because of social media, everyone believes that their opinion is necessary, and the truth is that it's just not the case most of the time. My job is to make art, and I say the things I need to say in my art.”
That said, he is not mute on societal issues, he just knows to pick his battles.
“There are certain things I always try to talk about. Specifically in America, racism is a big deal. As a black man in this country I think it's important that you be honest and forthright about how you feel about certain inequities. The same with sexism and misogyny, and the #metoo movement.
I think it's incumbent upon men to listen but when it's our chance to speak to make sure that we're standing in support of our women friends and sisters and mothers and cousins and strangers.
Contrary to wider society, the pace of change in the publishing industry is practically glacial. Although enthused by the evolution of the publishing industry, which is seeing an increase of contemporary and relevant stories from a diverse set of authors, it can feel as though that evolution is happening in real time, and in the wrong areas.
“Until we can diversify the editors and the agents and the sales folks and the marketing folks and publicists, and all the men who cut the cheques, this will be slow. The people who control the money always make the decisions and if I'm a person cutting a cheque and investing in books, and my experiences have been hyper-distilled and narrow, then what makes you think I'm going to cut a cheque and put money behind a book that feels esoteric up against my own life? Even if it's not, and it's a human story, if it's far away from what I know, then it's going to be hard for me to believe that they're going to bring return on my investments.”
Solutions weren’t immediately forthcoming either, given the nature of the business.
“Publishing is an old business, and once you're in you're in for life. Editors are editors forever until they retire, there's no movement. It's an interesting and static sort of business. People have to leave or die. I don't know how it changes.”
‘When it comes to what we do, the risk is all’
- Ali Smith
Jason ranks Toni Morrison as the bravest writer of all time, but places Ali Smith a close second, and definitely the bravest writer he personally knows. He specifically mentions her as a source of inspiration, and recalls the above quote – said to him during Edinburgh Book Festival – when explaining why he is always pushing forwards. For him, all of his work has the shelf life of milk. It could be the best work he’s ever ever written, but he’ll quickly be over it, pushing to create that next - better - piece.
“I'm not in this to make the same book over and over again. I'm in this to challenge myself, to push the line, to tell the stories in interesting ways, and use language in interesting ways. My agent always says that there are good storytellers and good writers but they are rarely the same person, and I'm trying to figure out how to make sure that in every book the story is strong and the writing is delicious.”
Jason has won over 20 awards, but keeps all of them in boxes under his sofa. Although exceptionally humbled and honoured, to him, each one represents someone stacking a brick on his back. “I can't allow them to get in the way of me trying to make a new thing and move forward, so I have to act as though they aren't there.”
With each accolade comes a growing expectation of success, and more to lose. It was interesting to hear how he has become more anxious and insecure as he’s grown older, transitioning from a bold and courageous 16-year-old to someone who has to force himself to go dancing and have irresponsible moments to remind himself he’s still alive. He attributes a lot of his success to the tenacity of that adolescent Jason, who knew there was something there and refused to let anyone snuff out.
Life is far too serious to be taken seriously, and 16-year-old Jason knew that.
“At 16 I had the whole world ahead of me and I had nothing. I had a dream. I could swing the bat and if I hit anything then that's better than hitting nothing at all – and I knew I could swing the bat. But at 35. if I swing the bat the hope is to hit a homerun, and that's a very different thing.”
It was during this more reflective period that he corroborated a theory I’ve held for a while about adulthood, and the illusion of control.
“I still have no idea what I'm doing. I shoot from the hip, I've been shooting from the hip for years and just haven't been caught yet. I'm just waiting for people to realise that this whole thing has just been one big fluke. I don't know much except I trust myself.”
You might think that someone who confesses to not knowing they’re doing would be hesitant to offer advice to those who wish to emulate them, but Jason, as I’d come to expect in my 45 minutes with him, had a considered and erudite response to my question. He first gave the ‘obvious’ answer, which is that to be a successful writer you have to read and write. Much like a builder cannot build without a hammer, an author is similarly limited if they lack sufficient mastery of their tools, which here is language itself. You have to practice with these tools and learn how to use them as best you can.
But beyond that? The first thing you need to do is learn about yourself.
“I think that's the part that we don't do enough, it's all academics. It's all ‘this is how you structure a sentence…’ but none of it will work if you don't have a voice. It doesn't matter how good you are, and it doesn't matter how much you know in terms of sentence structure and paragraph structure and how to form an essay and how to form this or all your punctuation – who cares if you don't have a voice.
If you take a piece of chicken and you put it in the oven, you can cook it and you can eat it. Period. All you have to do is heat it and it can be eaten, but it will taste like nothing. Chicken tastes like nothing until you put a little flavour on it. So, if you don't know your flavour, it doesn't matter that you know how to cook chicken.
I would tell any writer that the only purpose for rules is for them to be manipulated, bent and broken. Trust your gut and write it your way, do it your way and break all the rules if it makes sense.”
Ghost and Patina by Jason Reynolds are out now, published by Knights Of in paperback original at £6.99. His next book Look Both Ways will be published on 7th November 2019, also £6.99 in paperback original.