Strong Bonds: The Writing Couple James Ransome and Lesa Cline-Ransome

Where do I even begin to talk about the work produced by Lesa and James Ransome? As an author myself, I think of the process of writing and publishing books as a very slow one indeed.

Except when I look at Lesa and James.

Lesa and James Ransome

I’m not supposed to compare myself, I know, I know. But they seem to produce a new book (or two, together and/or separately) every time I check in on them. And each book is great—a solid work of beauty. How the heck do they do that? I have been following them for years, and I finally reached out to ask them to be our guests for our March 10 salon, to see if they could shed some light on their remarkable productivity. They agreed! Below is just a taste of some of their inner workings, which we will be hearing more about in person:

Get Lit Beacon: You have written & illustrated a wide variety of books that have won many awards. Where do your very top ideas come from?

James Ransome: My ideas come from all around me—books, movies, what I’m interested in painting. I am constantly gathering ideas for books I’d like to create. I only wish I had more time to fully flesh out every one. I once grabbed a biography off my shelf on the life of Harriet Tubman before we took off for a trip. On the first page the writer listed the many lives and jobs Harriet Tubman had throughout her life.

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In that moment I knew that we should create a book about it and our book, Before She was Harriet was born. Sometimes, the tricky part is not coming up with the idea, but finding someone to write it. More often than not, Lesa will pass on a project I really want to do because she is not interested and I may have to find another writer or shelve it for later. 

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Lesa Cline-Ransome: I let my interests guide my choice of topics, but the one subject that remains a constant is my desire to tell the many untold stories from the lives of African Americans. In particular, the stories of women who have persisted in the face of discrimination, prejudice and obstacles and how they found a way to overcome. My interest in sports led me to write biographies about the Negro League player Satchel Paige, soccer star Pele and cyclist Major Taylor. I am an aspiring rapper (if rapping in my car and kitchen counts), and a lover of music, which inspired me to write about musicians I love—Louis Armstrong, Teddy Wilson and Benny Goodman, Joseph Boulogne and the forthcoming book on Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone. My love of libraries was my inspiration for my very first middle grade novel, Finding Langston, about a young boy who finds refuge from bullies and solace from Langston Hughes’ poetry in the Chicago Public Library. 

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GLB: Do you ever feel like you want to branch out from writing for children? What are your fantasies regarding that? Or, if not, what are some future ideas?

JR: I am definitely interested in studio painting. I spend some time doing my own personal work for exhibits. And I love the idea of my work one day being featured in galleries and museums throughout the country. I would always want to do at least a book or two a year for the children’s market. I enjoy the challenge of telling a story with visual images. When I look back on my childhood, I have always loved books and the idea of combining art and words is, for me, one of the highest art forms.

LCR: While I am an avid reader of adult fiction, my heart is in writing stories for young people. Their curiosity, imagination and impulsiveness make them the perfect protagonists to write about and write for. I find it to be a rewarding challenge to tell stories in a condensed format, sorting through research to find only the most interesting parts of a person’s life and weaving together a story that is both informative and entertaining.  

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Award-winning author Lesa Cline-Ransome, whose work focuses on African-American history, has written numerous books for children that have garnered her top honors. Her latest, Finding Langston, won the Scott O’Dell Award for historical fiction.

As an illustrator, James Ransome’s work has appeared in over 60 books for children. His art has won Coretta Scott King and NAACP Image Awards, among others. He is on faculty at Syracuse University.

Don’t Do the Hustle: an Interview with Author Belinda McKeon

by Julie Chibbaro

In a society where the dollar is everything, and our very existence depends on money, it’s often difficult for writers to find the time and resources to reach down deep to discover what we really want to say. This is a fact that I’ve been struggling with as an author, and it’s great to talk to other writers, to understand their ways of dealing with the grind of life while also making time for what they want to focus on —– their writing.

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Belinda McKeon, our February 2019 guest and the award-winning author of the novels Tender and Solace, doesn’t have all the answers, but she does have an amazing ability to juggle a tremendous amount of creativity. I asked her how she does it:

GLB: You are a playwright, journalist, novelist, professor. How do you manage to do it all?

BM: I don’t really do it all —- I just do one thing at a time. I tend to work on projects in blocks, including teaching work, which consists of a lot of syllabus and assignment-writing over break, and then class prep in blocks during the week. Around that, at the moment, I’m trying to spend two to three hours a day working on my current novel, and there’s no journalism or playwriting happening. They’ll return, I hope, when the teaching semester is done and I have some space for them. When I was in my twenties, the idea of firing on all cannons was much more attractive to me. Now I see the pressure to be massively productive as, basically, another part of the neo-liberal con, even for writers. I write what I can, when I can. That’s really all anyone can do. The rest is hustling, which is not the same as creating.

GLB: You’re from Ireland. How does that inform your work?

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BM: Fundamentally. The cadence, intonation, sentence structure, grammatical structure, of my writing is Irish. That’s before I even get to the question of character, storyline, themes, settings. I was born in Ireland, I lived there until I was 26, I return there several times a year, and in a sense I’m always halfway there, or half there, because a good deal of my reading, my social media feeds, even sometimes my radio listening, is from there. Also, my husband is Irish. But we’ve been in the US for almost 14 years, and life here, and the texture of life here, has become an organic part of my thinking and my writing over that time. The novel I’m working on at the moment is set here, between Newburgh and New York, and that is something I think it took me almost 14 years to be able to do without (I hope) forcing it. It took that long for the experience of being here to filter down into the writing in that way. Of course, one of my characters is still Irish, and is thinking about the immigrant experience all the time…there’s not much getting away from that. Still, it contains many aspects, so I don’t feel limited by it.

GLB: Lots of times, writers want to protect their characters. How do you get so honest in your work?

BM: I don’t have a choice. Honesty, often horrifying honesty, is just what comes out when I sit down to write. I don’t have any interest in writing characters who portray me in a flattering light. I’m just a messy, needy human.

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Belinda McKeon’s debut novel Solace won the 2011 Faber Prize and was voted Irish Book of the Year, as well as being shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

Her second novel, Tender, was published in the US by Lee Boudreaux Books in February 2016. (Read the Kirkus starred review here.)

Her essays and journalism have appeared in the New York Times, the Paris Review, the Guardian, A Public Space and elsewhere. As a playwright, she has had work produced in Dublin and New York. She lives in Newburgh and is an Assistant Teaching Professor of Creative Writing at Rutgers University.

Joyce Carol Oates: Fantasized into Being

By Flora Stadler

I was a runner for half my life. I loved the clarity it gave me. I could outrun the thoughts reeling through my head and clear a space for my mind to wander.

In my 40s, my knees decided they’d had enough. So I felt a knowing pang when I read that Joyce Carol Oates relied on running to clear her mind and think about her writing. She once said that “the runner who’s a writer is running through the land- and cityscapes of her fiction, like a ghost in a real setting.” Yes, I thought when I read this.

The first of her novels I ever read was The Accursed, and I couldn’t get over the immensity of it. That a mind could contain all of that was overwhelming to me as a reader and a writer. Even though it feels like dark magic, I know it’s mostly work—hours of research, running, planning, building, revising. Something else she’d said, about “the writing itself being the biggest challenge,” made me wonder what that process must be like for someone so skilled at taking giant subjects and building a universe to contain them. So I asked her:

How do you overcome that writing challenge, especially when you’re working on a dense novel with historical contexts and big themes? Where do you start and how do you keep your momentum?

“Writing begins with inspiration, a sudden thrilling ‘idea’—which then must be contemplated, meditated, fantasized into being.

I spend much of my ‘creative’ time running/walking—I never write until I have imagined the prose that I will write, as a sort of film evoked in my head when I am away from my desk.

My day-dreaming/meditation—focuses upon characters engaged in dialogue, scenes.

I don’t, however, think of them as ‘characters’—rather as people.

If I try to write directly—before I have ‘imagined’ the scene—it is much, much more difficult.

Beyond this, I try to outline as much as possible. I amass a folder of notes, scenes, sketches, etc. that can be as bulky as 200 pages, before I actually begin the first chapter.

‘Pre-production’ is everything in a novel, as it is in the making of feature films.

After this initial work, writing is a matter of increments. Weeks, days, hours, minutes—attentiveness to the sentence, that builds the paragraph, eventually the scene, & eventually the chapter, & beyond.”

I loved that her written response to me looked and read something like a poem. I’d expect nothing less from a great runner. As for me, I’ll take her advice and walk through my stories first from now on.

Joyce Carol Oates is a playwright, poet, essayist, and the author of dozens of novels and short stories. She has been a writing professor at Princeton for more than 40 years, has won the National Book Award and two O. Henrys, and truly is a National Treasure. You can follow her on Twitter and check out her latest novel, a dystopian thriller titled Hazards of Time Travel.

Misfires, Stalls, and Mistakes: Interview with Anthony Tognazzini

by Julie Chibbaro

My interview this week is with an author, Anthony Tognazzini, whom we can all thank for giving me the idea to start our Get Lit Beacon salon. Back in the 1990s, when I moved to Prague with the idea of becoming a writer, he was the leader of a literary salon called Beefstew, which met weekly at a local pub. I brought a story to read, and listened to his writing, and felt my whole idea of what it meant to be a writer shifting. He was one of the first people to give me positive feedback, and also to show me how to demand more of my work. Anthony is the author of many short stories, and the collection I Carry A Hammer In My Pocket For Occasions Such As These. You can listen to his story “Neighbors” read aloud at WNYC’s Selected Shorts here.

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GLB: Would you call yourself a perfectionist? Or how do you judge your own work (or know if what you’re writing is good?)

AT: My stories aren’t perfect, so no, but I try to make each one as good as it can be. I’m a slow learner, and writing takes me a long time; much of the process is spent just trying to figure out the most basic stuff, like what the story’s really about and how it’s going to unfold. There are a lot of misfires, stalls, and mistakes, a lot of bumbling around. The process feels inefficient and often pointless, but it also helps me discover where the real story is, and pushes the draft, successively, through revision, toward some more fully realized form. Getting rhythm and sound right is really important to me too. But none of that is unusual. All serious writers have high standards in these regards.

As for judging the work, it helps to read it out loud, and to get feedback from readers you trust.

Doubt plays an important part in keeping my standards high. Believing my draft is a piece of shit doubles as a way to figure out how to make it more solid, more honest, and more imaginative. I sometimes worry that I revise so much to compensate for a lack of other gifts. I asked the poet Dean Young if genius was maybe a matter of timing, that what the genius can do in 10 minutes might take a hard-working non-genius 10 years to do. (Dean’s answer, “Maybe taking 10 years is the genius part.”)

But I also know that if I doubt too much or for too long then the work probably isn’t that good, and I need to either quit or totally re-think the story.

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GLB: Do you keep a diary? Or how do you keep track of your thoughts as a writer?

AT: I don’t keep a diary or daily record of my life and thoughts, but I take a lot of notes in notebooks. I also use the Notes function of my iPhone. Some of those iPhone entries are devoted to a story idea, and I’ll just add more to it now and then, sometimes over months or years. Eventually I type those notes into a Word document, adding more, and in this way build bones for a story, collage-style and by accretion. This has advantages and disadvantages. Sometimes the gaps created by the collage approach create too many narrative absences that are then hard to reconcile. I’d like to move more toward generative, narrative-driven momentum in my writing process.

GLB: How has your writing changed over the years?

AT: I used to write shorter stories, and I think I’ve lost some of the spontaneity and freedom those forms allowed. I’m writing longer stories now, and trying to do more within the stories, so in terms of composition and story construction it’s gotten more complicated. Everything in the process takes about a thousand years.

Certain literary qualities that I believed in when I was younger still hold. I still want the stories to be fun, energetic, subversive, and emotionally impactful.

One key change is that the stories I’m writing for my current book are more concerned with moral questions. Especially around issues of social equality, justice, and individual freedom, the stories have become more moral. That might sound icky and prescriptive, but the morality is philosophical, speculative, a way to explore problems and imagine solutions. In a broad sense, the writing tries more to help. It wants to be of service.

Anthony Tognazzini is the author of the fiction collection I Carry A Hammer in My Pocket for Occasions Such As These (BOA). He has received fellowships from Yaddo, Millay, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Djerassi Resident Artists Program. He teaches Creative Writing at the College of Wooster in Ohio. 

Year End Roundup – Our Favorite Posts!

by Jody Strimling-Muchow

 

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In only one year, Get Lit Beacon has become an indispensable part of my writing life. Just the chance to spend a couple of hours a month in a room full of people as passionate about words as I am is a gift. Add thought-provoking and inspiring guest speakers and the chance to share work, and the gifts begin to spill out from under the tree. To torture my holiday metaphor, then the cookies arrive each week via blog posts that I gobble as soon as they land in my inbox. I’ve certainly learned from these weekly posts this year. As I looked back, I wondered what Julie, Kristen, Flora and Ruta had learned by writing them, and which posts stood out for them in 2018. I asked, they answered.

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Her interview with Lily Burana is Julie Chibbaro’s choice. In it, she asks Lily what it’s like to go so far out on a limb with her thoughts on so many difficult topics. Lily replies: “I may summon up a lot of nerve … but that’s only because that difficulty is counterbalanced by living a simple, and often solitary, life.” She can be brave in her writing because she keeps her private life very private. Something I find especially encouraging coming from an established author in our current world of personal brands and online self-promotion. But I think my favorite part of the interview is what Lily has to say about shitty first drafts. “Knowing that I can revise it until I’m satisfied gives me the courage to get started in the first place.” Yes!

Kristen Holt-Browning didn’t hesitate when I asked about her favorite post. It’s the one where she talks about reading poetry every day. Partly because she’s still doing it, which means that it’s truly having an impact on her. As she describes it, “in my last moments of consciousness each night, I absorb pure, essential language.” What stands out for me is how easily poetry can fit into a busy schedule. Like a snack to keep you going, a poem can be a little hit of beauty, emotion, wordplay. And inspiration.

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Tony Early’s interview is Flora Stadler’s choice. Mine, too. The open discussion of how depression affects Tony’s process affected me deeply. First, that he’s willing to put his experience out there, especially if it might help someone else. And then, because I have this fantasy that everyone else is writing daily in a wholly disciplined way and I’m a total slacker. My reasons may not be the same as his, but sometimes I just can’t make myself work. To hear a successful author say that he sometimes goes years without writing was something I really needed to hear.

Having someone from the publishing world give an insider’s glimpse is invaluable. I have learned a lot from Ruta Rimas’s posts. Her favorite, it turns out, isn’t about the industry itself but about improving your writing. In July she reminded us to pick up Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Yeah, yeah, whatever, said my inner bratty teenager. Then I did pick up my copy. Yeah! Yeah! Going back to the basics can be a great catalyst. Now I’m hoping that every word in this post counts.

What stood out for you this year? Let us know in the comments below.