Much like the revered Langston Hughes, Allison Whittenberg is also an author, poet, and playwright. An admirer of Gwendolyn Brooks, Tennessee Williams, Richard Wright, Katherine Mansfield, Dorothy Parker, and Albert Camus, Allison knew early in life that she wanted to be a writer. As the author of Sweet Thang and Life is Fine coming in March 2008, Allison has several plays that have been performed including The Bard of Frogtown, I Don’t Dance, The Homeboy, Choice, and Skylark.
Allison Whittenberg’s Sweet Thang resonates with me as it takes place in 1975, the year I was born. Sweet Thang hums with the sights and sounds of Philadelphia in 1975. The protagonist Charmaine Upshaw is a freshman in high school living in a family full of boys and trying to stay afloat in a life filled with unfair situations. The story deals with so many issues – oldest son joining the military, protagonist having to mourn her aunt as well as adjust to her six-year-old cousin Tracy John moving in all while trying to get a boy to like her. It takes Charmaine a little bit to get into the swing of things, but when she does she finds that life isn’t so bad. It’s actually pretty sweet.
Charmaine’s story is pretty universal and it’s also timeless. Sweet Thang is definitely a story to be shared with young women readers as they battle the seeming unfairness of life. Gloria Naylor aptly describes Charmaine when she said, “A young black woman, struggling to find a mirror to her worth in the society, not only is her story worth telling, but it can be told in words so painstakingly eloquent that it becomes a song.”
Describe yourself as a writer. What is your writing style? What do you do to create the story? Are you an outliner?
AW: As a writer I work as a method actor. I get into the part and live it. I get inside the skin of the characters I write and seek to be in the moment. I go through a range of emotions during the course of constructing my work.
My writing style is pretty hectic. It comes very close to absolute chaos. I’m a constant note taker and when I begin a story I write down a scene, a description, or even a stray line of dialogue. Once I have fifty or so pages of this chaos, I sift through what I have and see what arises. The hardest thing for me is to arrange and yes, I do somewhere in this process make an outline (but I rarely follow it).
What led you to becoming a children’s writer?
AW: I think children’s book writers do the most important job in the world. That said, I never set out to be one. I started writing Sweet Thang from the father’s perspective and Charmaine was a minor character. He was the one who initially felt the deepest sorrow about the loss of his sister and ambivalence toward his little nephew coming to live with them. Then I reworked it making 14-year-old cousin Charmaine the protagonist (feeling the conflicted feeling worked better coming from someone who is trying to understand the world) and presto, a middle grade book was born. Since its publication, I have an even greater respect for the genre of writing for young readers.
Allison, what is the inspiration behind Sweet Thang?
AW: Sweet Thang was loosely based on my recollections and observations growing up in West Philly until I was in second grade and there after, the first tier, predominately African American suburb of Yeadon, PA (which in the book I call Dardon). I wanted to show the type of intact, largely wholesome Black family that myself and most of my friends grew up in. Most importantly, in Sweet Thang, Charmaine fiercely misses her Auntie Karyn. I channeled the deep loss I felt regarding my mother’s passing during my mother’s years. I was proud to dedicate the book to her.
What is a favorite memory of yours from the 1970s?
AW: I was just a tyke during that time period, but I could tell it was a very vibrant era in our nation’s history both positive and negative. A lot of people speak of it as being a golden age for Black America (sort of like our ‘50s). Not to be shallow, but I think the thing I like most about the ‘70s was the fashion. Who doesn’t look great in dashikis and bell bottom jeans?
The title Sweet Thang reminds me of Chaka Khan’s “Sweet Thing.” If there was a soundtrack for the book, what songs would be playing?
AW: That song by Ms. Khan was exactly what inspired the title. It was released in 1975. As for other tracks, that remind me of the novel, I’d pick “Why Can’t We Be Friends?”, “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s my Brother”, Stevie Wonder’s “Always” and anything by Al Green and Earth, Wind, and Fire.
I know that you studied dance as a child. Is that what influenced Leo’s character in Sweet Thang? Do you have plans to include dancing as a more central part of the plot in future books?
AW: I wanted Leo to be a role model for young men to say that boys can not only dance well but enjoy this form of expression and to not buy into the stigma. I’d love to incorporate my love and knowledge of ballet or modern or more about tap in more novels. Also, with all the reports now about our children been out of shape, I want to endorse any form of movement as it relates to young people.
March 11th will be an exciting day for you as your second novel hits the bookshelves. What was it like writing Life is Fine versus writing Sweet Thang?
AW: Party at Allison’s place on March 11th to celebrate Life Is Fine! I am really excited about this work. It is totally different in tone from Sweet Thang. Charmaine is sharp and glib; there’s expansiveness to her voice. In Life Is Fine, Samara is clipped and cynical, and she’s dangerously close to shut down all together. Both girls are smart but Samara doesn’t have the same outlets for her intellectual pursuits.
What’s next for you?
AW: My next novel will be published next year called Hollywood and Maine. It’s a companion piece to Sweet Thang. I wrote it because when I went on book talk I was continually asked what happens next to Charmaine and her family. Not to give too much away but Charmaine tries her hand at modeling, Tracy John joins the baseball team, and their ex con uncle comes to live with their family while he gets his life together.
Gwendolyn Brooks and Richard Wright are two of your favorite writers. What are your favorite works by them? Do you consider them as influential with your writing?
AW: Richard Wright is so visceral and honest. I love the way he attacks his subject matter. He has such a strong sense of himself. I love his short stories which are often steeped in gallow humor. Of course, I’ve read his fantastic autobiography Black Boy over and over, but his best work is the one he’s most known for, Native Son. It’s easily one of the best novels ever written.
As for Gwendolyn Brooks, in the Philadelphia library, I found a tape of her work when I was about fifteen. I was totally blown away not only by her talent but by her dignity. She is such an understanding, mature writer. So disciplined. A poet’s poet. I hope her work never falls out of favor. I hope each generation discovers the beauty and compassion of her words. My favorite poem by her is “The Mother.”
I wouldn’t be a writer today without either of them.
I read your poem “52nd & Spruce” and loved that it really captured the sights and sounds of a neighborhood. It really aligned with what poet Gwendolyn Brooks once said about her own writing, “I wrote about what I saw and heard on the street.” Do you have any future plans to put together a book of poetry?
AW: Thanks for the compliment, Carla. I’ve written about 200 poems (most have been published in literary magazines and journals) but I never collected them into book form. I would love to someday.
Do you think you will ever write a free verse novel or write a book that combines both poetry and prose?
AW: I’d love to do a free verse novel. That’s on my to do list as well. I’d like to use my playwriting too and collect a series of monologues especially for young African American actors. Life Is Fine, however, does combine poetry and prose (only thing the verse I use is not my own, I feature great poets such as Langston Hughes). I thought of sneaking a poem or two of mine in that book, but I didn’t have the nerve.
Is there anything else that you want to share with our readers?
AW: I would like to thank all readers for being readers. Without you, where would we be? As a special note to young people, I would like to say: always believe in yourself. Never depend on the crowd to endorse you. Just be yourself.
Thanks Allison for sharing your story with The Brown Bookshelf and our readers. I can’t wait to read Life is Fine next month!
Sweet Thang (2006)
Life is Fine (2008)
The Buzz on Sweet Thang
“Charmaine is an appealing character, intelligent but capable of bad choices, and Tracy John is similarly realistic; their slowly evolving affection makes for a feel-good read.” ~ Booklist
“Whittenberg has created a refreshing cast and a good read. Solid, loving parents and a home that is a secure place provide a welcome respite for readers whose own lives are chaotic or who have had to read one too many problem novels.” ~ School Library Journal
Visit Allison at her website http://allisonwhittenberg.com where you can read excerpts from Life is Fine and Sweet Thang.