Celise Downs was born, and currently makes her home, in Phoenix, AZ. Her love of writing began in the 7th grade as a way to dispel recess boredom. Her talent was further encouraged by a high school English teacher. She considers her novels to be about the high school experience with a dash of intrigue.
“There’s the normal stuff that teenagers go through, like acne, peer pressure, and angst over the opposite sex,” she says. “Then there’s the not-so-normal, unexpected stuff. I happen to like writing about both.”
Her first book, Secrets and Kisses (Gemini Mojo Press), came out in March 2004 and was quickly followed up with Dance Jam Productions (Gemini Mojo Press) in September 2004. Her current project is Draven Atreides, Teenage FBI, a series about a 16-yr-old African-American girl who gets recruited by the FBI as an informant. You can find out more about more about Celise at her website (www.celisedowns.com) or on MySpace (www.myspace.com/celisedowns).
For this installment of 28 Days Later, the Brown Bookshelf is happy to present author Celise Downs!
While Dance Jam Productions is clearly suitable for the young adult market, a large portion of the novel would have been suitable for the adult market as well. Why did you decide to become a young adult author, as opposed to an adult author?
I have a lot of high school memories and even though I’m in my late 30′s, I’ve unconsciously immersed myself in teen culture. My favorite shows are “Smallville”, “Supernatural” and “Kyle XY”. I go see the teeny-bopper flicks and subscribe to some of the teen magazines. I still think in a teenage mentality. I would like to eventually go into adult romance (since I’m addicted to Harlequin Blaze), but right now I don’t think I could effectively write for an adult audience. I’m a huge believer in signs when it comes to my writing and right now the sign are telling me to stay with YA. For now.
In Dance Jam Productions, Mataya Black Hawk is hiding a very dark secret from her friends. Are there any issues that you feel are “taboo” in young adult fiction?
No. A lot of YA authors are “crossing the line” so to speak and covering topics like drug addiction, alcoholism, abuse (of any kind), suicide, homosexuality, etc. For those that address those issues in a non-preaching type of way, I say more power to them.
Is there any message or theme that you want readers to get from your novels?
Would it be terrible of me to say ‘not really’? I’m all about the entertainment factor. As I mentioned above, some authors write about “real” issues. But when teens read my books, I want them to escape. I don’t think they should have to deal with real life in “real life” and when they pick up a book, too.
You speak a little on your website about how your childhood inspired both Dance Jam Productions and Secrets and Kisses. Which character are you like more, Mataya or Skylar?
If I had to choose, I would say Mattie. Dancing was a big thing for me during high school and college. Several years ago, I took a hip-hop dance class and had a blast. I’d like to get back into it eventually. I also have two best friends—both whom I’ve known for over twenty years each—and tell them just about everything. I don’t trust easily, but when I do, I’m loyal for life.
There are very few African-American authors that write contemporary fiction from the point of view of a character that isn’t African-American, yet you did this with Skylar Knight, the protagonist of Secrets and Kisses. Can you talk a little about why you chose to create this character as you did?
I also did it for DJP; Mataya is Hawaiian. All my life, I’ve lived in two places: Phoenix, AZ and Reno, Nevada. I had the best childhood in Reno (that’s where I met one of the BF’s I mentioned above). In the neighborhoods we lived in, we were the only African-American family. In the schools my older sister and I attended, we were always the minority. Even though that was the case, my parents were very good about teaching us about prejudice and seeing the world in “color”.
There’s the old adage of “write what you know” and I know about being black in a sea of white. I truly am a product of my environment and I think writing from that aspect is very unique. However, my next character, Draven Atreides, will be African-American. She’s light-skinned (light enough to pass for white, in fact), but African-American all the same. She’s the main character in my upcoming 6-book (maybe more) YA series, Draven Atreides: Teenage FBI, about a 16-yr-old girl who’s been recruited by the FBI as an informant. Book One, A Royale Pain, should be coming out in Winter 2008 or early 2009. You can get to know her a little bit by checking out her blog at http://www.1800snitch.wordpress.com.
You’re a non-traditionally published author, which has both positives and negatives. Can you speak a little about the pros and cons of self-publishing?
No royalty advance and marketing/promoting. Those are the two main cons for me. When I was younger, I had a lisp and a mild stuttering problem. I was very shy and would rather stuff my face in a book than talk to anyone. I’ve since outgrown the lisp, but the stuttering still emerges on rare occasions. If I could just do the writing and leave the marketing/promoting to someone else, I would do it in a heartbeat. It shouldn’t be hard to talk about something you love, but for me, it can be a little difficult. I’m slowly but surely getting used to public speaking.
As for the pros, it’s all about control. I have complete control over the price, the design, the release date…everything. For a long time, I was on the fence about going the traditional route with the YA series. I even went so far as starting the agent search last year. I got a lot of rejections, some of which had great criticism, and some requests, too. But I keep having this nightmare about the book covers: I’m afraid they’re going to put a white girl on the cover when my character is black. In traditional publishing, when you’re a newbie author, you have so little control. I have an idea of how the covers should look, so I’m going to continue to do it my way.
Non-traditional publishing, aka “self-publishing”, has gotten a bad rap from day one. Manuscripts published as-is, mistakes and all; shoddy cover designs…basically it looked like you published it yourself. At home. But it’s gotten a lot better in the past several years. We know more now than when it first started, and advances have been made. While there are still companies out there that require authors to pay upfront, others require the author only pay a portion of the cost. And then there are companies like mine that I refer to as “independently traditional”: the advances may be very small or nothing at all (but the percentage of royalties are bigger) and publishing is at no cost to the author.
When I started my company, it was with the future intent to publish not only my own material, but that of young adults and authors writing for young adults as well. In the four years that I’ve been in business, I’ve never taken on other authors. This year, I’ve decided to become an independently traditional publisher for young adults only. I hope to be re-designed, operational, and taking on teen authors by June 2008.
People are going to write books that may not fit into the traditional “hole”. People are not going to want to wait 1-2 years to see their work published. People are going to create something just for family, friends, organizations, associations, etc and not want to take it to a copy shop. Publishing non-traditionally gives them a choice. It’s not going to be right for everyone, but they’ll have the right to choose. They know now that traditional publishing isn’t the only way they have to go.
Who were some of your favorite authors growing up?
I didn’t have any. I started reading adult romance books when I was in high school and have yet to stop. However, I still have my copy of Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. The poems are amazing.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
Edit, edit, edit…and then get someone to do it professionally; it’s always better to have a second pair (or third, fourth and fifth pair) of eyes, well, eyeball your work. Surround yourself with a positive support system and kick negativity to the curb. Be open to your surroundings and your environment because every day, every thing, is potential story material.