Category: Witness


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When I write in free verse I usually avoid formal constraints. Though I do love occasional internal rhyme, I try not to overdo it as too much makes the work seem self-conscious and contrived. Instead, I arrange the  verse to suggest the rhythm and cadence of the character’s native language or accent. I think of my novels in verse more as theater than as one long poem.

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That’s a difficult question to answer. Perhaps the most surprising thing I learned is that even after researching for a full year, after reading thousands of pages of material, both primary and secondary sources, I could never recreate an historical period with absolute confidence. I needed to make so many leaps of faith and asked the reader to leap with me. My respect for historians and journalists rocketed over the years as I realized how precise they have to be. At least, in writing fiction, the bar is not set quite so high for factual responsibility. I did my best in understanding the sensibilities of the time period and representing time and place with reasonable accuracy, but I fear I never rose as completely to the challenge in my two year writing process as a good journalist does in a week.

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There are so many ways to tell a story. Every time I begin a book I consider how best to convey the tale; how I might expand the reader’s access to the emotional arc of the events. More than once I have chosen free verse as my structural vehicle, each time for a different reason.

In the case of WITNESS I envisioned the book as a trial with the speaking characters offering their testimony. I hoped to help the reader form a more balanced opinion of what transpired by presenting various points of view. No one character has all the answers nor knows the entire story. In my mind it was imperative to relate the events that way to avoid a single, prejudicial narrator.

My hope was to deliver the story in a series of rotating depositions. Poetry seemed the most concise and efficient method to invite the reader in, to allow the reader to identify with each speaker, even the ones they might not have wished to identify with, and to eliminate anything extraneous.DSC05673

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In part the characters in WITNESS grew out of the research. I needed certain characters to carry the different aspects and angles of the story I wanted to tell. Here’s the fun part. When I began to build my characters I took inspiration from a book of symbolism. I opened the book to the section on animals and assigned an animal profile to each character. By the time the book went through its final revisions, the vestiges of that animal phase had mostly vanished, but you can still see traces in certain names and personality traits.

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The photograph of the man in the lower left corner of the WITNESS cover is meant to represent Johnny Reeves but in fact the photographs come from the Walter Dean Myers photograph collection, and the photo albums of the families of Edith and Herbert Langmuir, Dean Langmuir, and Joan Lacovara, relatives of an employee of Scholastic Inc.

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This is a very important question. The decision to capitalize “God” was deliberate. I am so delighted that you focused on not only the rare capitalization, but the character speaking at the time it occurs. You’ve come this far. I have complete faith that you have your own answer to this question. I’d be quite interested in learning what you think.

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 I most certainly did. The type of poetry that uses the shape of the poem to illustrate the idea behind the poem is called shape or concrete poetry. Perhaps you’d like to try writing some, too.

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Life is a challenge. It tests us each day, whether we’re aware of it or not. Some days we disappoint. Some days we do so much good. Most days are a mix of the two.

With each decision we make, we have the opportunity to grow. It takes courage to live. But the rewards are so numerous and so diverse. They can be as minor as a “good job” offered by someone you respect. Or something more public like scoring in a game, or performing at a recital.

It would be foolish to submit an assignment if you hadn’t done the work. It takes courage to share that assignment with your peers even if you know you’ve given it your best.

Have the courage to make mistakes and then the courage to learn from them. Reading provides an excellent space where you can witness characters making choices and suffering through the consequences of those choices. How many times have you wanted to yell at a character, “NO! DON’T DO THAT!”?

Listen to that voice when it’s trying to guide you. It is very wise. It will help you to be brave without being foolish.

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For a brief period, before I set down a single word, as I began imagining the project, I referred to it as The Klan Book. It didn’t take long, however, for the scope of the book to widen. I began my serious research for WITNESS in the courtroom, watching the judge preside over hearings on numerous cases. WITNESS, essentially, is a trial, where the cast of characters testify regarding what they saw, thought, felt, and heard when the Klan came to town. Because that was my concept for the book from the beginning, it bore that title all the way through the writing process. Other books may have experienced a dozen different title changes, but WITNESS, from the time I started writing, never changed titles.

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While researching a book I am insatiable. I want to know everything about my subject. I read thousands and thousands of pages. My brain crunches all of that research into a single story; details gleaned from my research rise up at just the right moment to illustrate the text. Of course, less than 2 percent of what I’ve read actually makes it into the finished book, but probably 80 percent of what I’ve learned is subtly woven into the story. When the book is finished I have no desire to return to that subject again.  I feel as if I have exhausted the topic and the topic has exhausted me. And, therefore, I have little or no interest in writing sequels.