From the Heartland: Kekla Magoon

Indiana has proven to be such a rich state for authors who address ethnically diverse characters that I cannot image what I’d find if I looked for authors in Florida, Ohio, Texas or Rhode Island. These authors are among our hometown heroes because they document our local lives. When brought into classrooms and libraries, they prove that someone right here, right in this town can be a successful writer.

I actually first met Kekla Magoon in Philadelphia. I was excited that she had lived in Cameroon for a while and I’d visited there several years ago but could not believe that she has also lived right here in Indiana. What a small world!

Kekla is the author of the award-winning The Rock and the River; Camo Girl, Fire in the Streets, 37 Things I Love middle(in no particular order) and the nonfiction book, Today the World is Watching You: The Little Rock Nine and the Fight for School Integration 1957. Her forthcoming How It Went Down has received a starred review from Kirkus. “This sobering yet satisfying novel leaves readers to ponder the complex questions it raises.”

In January look forward to X:A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz with Kekla Magoon.

I’m glad this busy lady had time for an interview!


Do you have any pets?

I have a pet turtle, named Tiffany.

What were some of the first books you found as a child that turned you into a reader?

I don’t know if it was the very first books that turned me into a reader. My parents read to me as a child, and there were many picture books that I loved. Some of the ones that jump to mind are Where the Wild Things Are, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day, and The Snowy Day. I loved the wordplay in Amelia Bedelia. My mom took us to the library every week, and I could get as many books as I could carry. I think it was the repetition of experience that turned me into a reader, along with the escapism and adventure I always found in stories. As a mid-grader, I mostly read series books like The Babysitter’s Club and Sweet Valley. I liked the episodic nature of those stories, and returning to familiar characters. The first stand-alone book I remember feeling really “Whoa!” about was Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor.

Meat or vegetables?

Meat, with a side of vegetables. I want it all. If I can’t have it all: MEAT!

Which writers have most influence you?

Ooh, I feel most influenced at this point in life by my close writer friends. Not only are they talented authors whose work I enjoy diving into, but they also provide a lot of support and inspiration to me in the real world. I constantly recommend books by Laurie Calkhoven, Josanne La Valley, Bethany Hegedus, Wiley Blevins, Rita Williams-Garcia, Coe Booth, Tami Lewis Brown, Pablo Cartaya, Sharon Darrow, Helen Frost….and many other amazing writers and books out there who inspire me both on and off the page. As far as influences from books I read, though, I learned a lot from Stephen King’s memoir of his writing life: On Writing. When I read Jennifer Egan or Benjamin Alire Saenz I am torn between being sucked into the vivid worlds they create, and wanting to rush to the computer to write something myself!

What three things would you like to add to a list of national treasures?

1: All the libraries!!!!

2: All the independent bookstores!

3: The voices of our young people, thereby empowering them to begin sharing their own stories with the world in whatever medium feels right to them.

Why would you be up at 3am?

I am usually up at 3am. I write, or I watch TV, or I read. I might also be eating potato chips or ice cream.


What book(s) are you currently in the middle of reading?

In fiction, I am reading Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A.S. King. Next up is If You’re Reading This by Trent Reedy. In non-fiction, I am reading Courage Has No Color by Tanya Lee Stone and essays from Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay.

What obstacles did you face when you began your writing career?

Interestingly enough, being a relatively young writer was a bit of an obstacle, even in the children’s literature market. It is happening a little bit less now that I am in my thirties, but when my first book was published, I was mid-twenties, and I heard a lot of “Oh, what a special achievement for someone so young.” Which it was, in a way, but it tended to be said in a patronizing tone. People might as well have been patting me on the head, which is somewhere short of a backhanded compliment, but it is not exactly uplifting either. The sentiment often seemed less than genuine, as if the person was pointing out that I was actually TOO young to make a meaningful contribution. The fact of the matter is, publishing a book is a special achievement at any age, and I never thought it should be considered more or less significant because of my age.

Why write for young people?

I write about young characters. Probably partly because that is what I knew best at the time I started writing. My first book was published when I was 25, and so the natural things for me to write about were teenage things because that was my experience. I do intend to keep writing for teens, and I hope to retain the connection that I feel to that time period in my own life. I don’t think it will be hard to retain, especially since even in my thirties I have yet to reach an age where there isn’t someone older than me looking down on my relative youth. That feeling of being underappreciated helps drive my work. Young people have a lot to learn, sure, but we also have a lot to contribute. There is always plenty of talk about “when you’re older…” and “what do you want to be when you grow up?” but who is asking kids and teens, “what do you want to be right now, today?” As a writer for teens I get to ask those questions, of my characters and of my readers.

Where is your favorite place to write?

On my laptop. (Haha!) Honestly, I can write pretty much anywhere. I prefer coffee shops, where there is a low-grade hustle and bustle in the background, and maybe some soft jazz or indie rock playing. Some place with just enough sound that my mind has to do a little bit of work to tune it out, but not enough to actually distract me from working. The result is a special kind of focus that works well for my writing.

Your books have required a lot of research! Are you an Internet researcher or hands on?

I do both internet research and “hands on” hunting for more information. I typically use the internet to get an overview of what material is out there, and I look for articles in reputable magazines, newspapers, and journals published online. There are plenty of library databases online, too, and I use those to find resources in other cities that I might not be able to access otherwise. But for my type of historical research, the best resource is books! I use the library or I special order and purchase the things I need. I have also spent a fair amount of time traveling to visit museums and library archives around the country. Many institutions preserve archival materials from the time periods I study, and you can make an appointment to go in and view the objects. I have looked at old newspapers in hard copy, flyers and posters, hand-written journals and letters, photographs, personal items that belonged to historical people, and much more.

HowItWentDown5-206x300What can you tell us about How It Went Down?

How It Went Down is my newest novel, which centers around the controversial shooting of a young black teen by a white man passing through his neighborhood. The novel comprises multiple viewpoints, through which members of the community react and respond in the days after Tariq Johnson is gunned down. Amid the media firestorm that descends, a family has lost a son and brother, friends grieve, and an entire community reels from the personal loss of one of their number. These characters share their struggles to cope with the loss and the decisions they each face over how to move forward.

I began working on this book in the spring of 2012, when the Trayvon Martin shooting was big in the news. I was interested in pushing beyond the headlines and soundbites dominating the national media in order to confront the experiences of people closest to this type of tragedy. Now, two years later, the conversation remains relevant and high-profile after the shooting of Michael Brown and the resulting riots and violence in Ferguson, Missouri. It is my hope that this novel and other YA literature can be used to start conversations between teens and adults about the prevalence of these incidents, and how we as a nation can begin to respond and heal from these tragedies, and hopefully minimize or wholly prevent similar things from occurring in the future. How It Went Down hits bookstores on October 21, and my website has links to pre-order from IndieBound or Barnes & Noble:

I really enjoy the historical and fact based fiction that you write. What limits do you feel in writing these stories?

ROCK-w-CSK-hi-res1One of the great things about fiction is that it has no limits! I do impose some limitations on myself as a writer of historical fiction, but these are individual choices about which many writers would (and do) choose differently. It’s important to me that readers come away from my books feeling like they really *could* have happened. For example, I carefully research the events surrounding my books and try to stick as closely as possible to the real facts and timelines. I don’t move around real historical events, or make up facts about real historical figures. Generally I choose not to even include real historical figures as actors in my novels. For example, in The Rock and the River, I mention people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, but neither of them appear in the book with action scenes or actual dialogue. I made my first really big exception to this last rule this past year, though. I’ve been working with Ilyasah Shabazz on a YA novel about her father, Malcolm X. The book is about Malcolm living through his difficult teen 9780763669676years, before he became the powerful speaker, faith leader, and international human rights activist he is remembered for being. It was exciting and challenging to work on that project with her, and I’m so thrilled that X: A Novel is about to debut in January 2015.



3 thoughts on “From the Heartland: Kekla Magoon

  1. Great interview! I’m a huge fan of Kekla’s work (as shown in my recent blog post on the events in Ferguson) and looking forward to reading HOW IT WENT DOWN and X: A NOVEL. I was particularly interested in what you said about not having dialogue from historical figures, because Dr. King does make a cameo appearance in THE ROCK AND THE RIVER.


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