Evelyn Coleman is candid about her life as an author and what her publishing experience has been like for the past fifteen years since her first book, The Foot Warmer and the Crow, was published.
Her resume is extensive and shows that she values her calling as an author. She respects the craft of writing and shares her knowledge with others at writer’s workshops, conferences, and speaking engagements.
In 1987, Coleman was the first African American to win the North Carolina Arts Council’s $5,000 fiction fellowship. Her young adult novel Born in Sin was selected as a Junior Literary Guild Selection in 2001 as well as the Young Hoosier Book Award. The Riches of Osceola McCarty was a recommended book in the February 1999 issue of Essence magazine as well as awarded as a Carter G. Woodson Honor Book in 1998. Several of her titles have been lauded and placed on recommended reading lists across the nation.
Evelyn Coleman is a treasure in the children’s literature community who values a well-written story and her audience.
Your first book, The Foot Warmer and the Crow, was published fifteen years ago. I read about your journey to become an author and respect your perseverance to become a published author. I won’t ask you to relive the journey of becoming an author, but I am curious as to what you have learned about being an author.
I’ve learned that even though I thought it would be difficult, I still wasn’t prepared for the complexity of it. Enjoy the process of writing, because once you are published, it will NEVER be the same. The advice my first agent Denise Stinson gave me, “Don’t quit your day job,” was on target for several reasons. Before being published, “writing” was my passion, stolen moments, the first thing I wanted to do when I came home from my 9 to 5. It was a release, a path of pure joyful, unhindered creation, however under contract it not only became “my job” but sort of took over my life. I am amazed at how long it takes to actually have your “advance” in hand after you’ve signed the contract. Even more amazed at how long the editorial process can be, meaning you don’t see the other half of the advance, not so much on your writing schedule, but the editor’s schedule. If you’re not a great sales person (like me – I might be the world’s worst) then the road to being a “selling author” is tough going. I’ve also learned that it’s fruitless to complain about the lack of advertising/marketing support a publisher might give you. That no matter what you think of your book, the sales are not decided by you. And most perplexing, that even with years of accounting experience, I still am not able to read the royalty statements of at least half of my publishers. That editors move around like Chinese checkers, back and forth between houses. That just because you sell a book is no guarantee that it will be published. And last but not least, that sometimes it matters more what you have done wrong than what you’ve done right in the world of publishing, ask Monika Lewinsky.
I read about your childhood growing up in Burlington, North Carolina. Do you plan to tell any stories set in Burlington or that are based on your childhood experiences like you did with To Be a Drum?
I rarely have a “plan” but I did begin a book I wrote, Mystery of the Dark Tower, in Burlington.
Are there any niches within African American children’s literature that you are seeking to fill with your stories?
Yes, I want my work to challenge conventional thinking. I don’t mind it if my work is controversial and I rarely shy away from issues about “race.”
What is your goal as a children’s author? Has that goal changed from when you first began your career as an author?
Hmm. My goal is to entertain readers, either “make them cry, laugh, smile or just piss them off.” So far I have been really good at the “pissing them off” part.
I don’t think my goal has changed because I have always believed that it’s important for children’s literature to change the forces in the world for the better. Children’s books touch all ages and that’s why I love writing children’s literature.
During your interview at Embracing the Child, you reveal that you’ve always had a captive audience in your family. Your brother loved your stories so much that he gave you his dessert and lunch money. Do you test out your stories on your children and grandchildren?
No. Children don’t buy books, adults do, so it seems a waste of time to me. Plus, my children and grands “love” almost everything I say and do…. So they’re not an objective audience.
Describe yourself as a writer. I care more about the craft of writing than selling. I want my work to last for a long time and I spend countless hours doing research for each book.
What is your writing style? I write in spurts. I often go to a monastery to start a book, where they practice “silence” so I am not tempted to chat too much. I get up, eat breakfast, take a walk about their grounds, write, eat lunch, walk, write, pray, eat dinner, walk, write…. Get a few hours of sleep and start all over again for about a week. If I am home I am not so disciplined though. I will do everything I can think of before writing… sometimes I’ll even clean up to avoid it. That’s how serious it gets for me. Right now is the longest stagnant period I’ve had in years. Hopefully soon I will snap out of it. Pray for me. I don’t use outlines, rarely know where I am headed, just a general notion, sometimes I have a loose tag line. Plot is most important to me, I hate giving people names and will call them Fido until I am mid way the story. I also don’t care for long descriptions of scenery or “things like rooms, décor, etc.” I want action usually. And if it is adult writing I want someone deserving to die. I don’t like gray areas and usually prefer for the hero/heroine to know right from wrong even if they don’t do it and I want them to survive at the end. I don’t care for grifter tales unless there is a redeeming quality gleaned in the end.
What do you do to create the story? Sit down and write usually. Are you an outliner? No, if I do an outline I usually have lost interest in the story by the time I’ve completed the outline. Sometimes it can’t be avoided, but trust me, I try to get around that.
Do you have several works in progress or do you only work on one story at a time? I often have more than one project going at a time, mainly because I am an obsessive compulsive without medication.
What is the best part of being a children’s author? Watching a child read my work while laughing out loud or becoming tearful. Getting a letter from a teacher who explains that her class had chosen one of my books to do as a play, and a problem came up only when it was time to divvy up the parts….no one wanted to be the “white people.” I love visiting schools that are enthusiastic about my work. Also, knowing that my books are in public libraries and remembering that when I was a child I couldn’t even go into the public library in my hometown. I enjoy finding other writers who care about children’s literature. It helps knowing that my work is forcing people to face their own prejudice, racist or homophobic notions. Mentoring other writers as they begin their careers, and, more recently teaching writers and storytellers how to write for children.
What motivates you to keep writing every day? It’s tough. I threaten to quit often, sometimes I don’t write for months (like now) because I lose my confidence and feel like I really can’t write that well so why bother. Then someone emails me or I receive some honor that keeps me going for a little while longer. Sometimes writing depresses me, terrifies me, until I am paralyzed, fortunately it eventually passes. The bottom line for me is I would die without writing. As Rainer Maria Rilke, the great poet, suggested, “go within,” and ask, “MUST I WRITE. For me the answer is a resounding YES! Now the question to myself, today is “WHEN?”
You’re no stranger to winning awards for your writing, but how do you measure your success? I started out measuring my success by how reviewers responded to my work, then later the reaction from readers, now I am not sure if I can measure it. Sometimes I feel that I have completely missed the mark. For instance, I have never won the most coveted awards, not even a Coretta Scott King Honor…. So as an African American writer that hurts… but hopefully one day, if I persevere I will win it. Another writer I know, who started in this business around the same time I did told me “I plan to win every major award,” and she has done just that. I didn’t have “awards” on my radar back then but it finally came to me that winning the major awards means selling more books. Clearly not only is she a better writer, she understands what we do.
When it comes to measuring my success, I fought feelings of “envy” for a long time, something I had never experienced in my previous career. I am finally past that though. It was a shameful feeling for me and I struggled to overcome it. I give thanks that I was able to move past that. It is so crippling to the spirit of a writer.
How much importance do you place on the literary awards that you receive?
As I stated, early on I don’t think I gave awards much credence in the beginning, now I understand that without the awards you suffer in your career. On the other hand, none of this has any real meaning to the “act of writing.” It is a lesson I understood from the beginning. Yet, for a few years I was caught up into a flawed way of thinking — that publishing had something to do with writing. I separate the two completely now.
I read in your interview at Writers Write (1998) that writing books for children is more of a challenge for you as well as a longer process in comparison to writing for adults. Is that still true almost eleven years later?
Absolutely it’s still true. It takes me about a year to write an adult book, two years for a YA and maybe three to four years for a picture book.
What are some of the challenges that you face that come with writing for children?
A child told me once that it made sense it would be harder for me, he said, “you’re an adult.” That is certainly a part of the difficulty. Also the shorter the book the more deliberate and precise you must be with the economy of words.
I read that White Socks Only was produced as a live action film several years ago. What was it like making one of your books into a movie? I see that you also have a screenwriter credit for White Socks Only. What was the process like to turn one of your books into a movie?
Excruciatingly joyful! It is so different than writing prose. If you can’t see it, then you don’t write it. It took me a while to grasp that. However, the Academy Award winning producer, Barbara Bryant guided me on this path with expert hands. I will be forever grateful for that experience. She also produced Eleanora Tate’s Just an Overnight Guest and Pat Cummings’ books as well. Working with someone of her talent is another bonus to being an author.
Are any of your other books on their way to becoming movies?
Nope. Several of them have been close. My adult book What a Woman’s Gotta Do has been under option for years. As for children’s books, Disney was interested in Born in Sin but decided to go with the Cheetah Girls instead. And I can understand why…. certainly that series had great commercial appeal.
Which of your other books would you like to see become a movie?
I think of all my books, I’d love to see Shadows on Society Hill (because it shows Addy in a more progressive, economically secure place in her life and also she is so strong in this story.) Freedom Train I think will make a great movie because it exposes the pitfalls of “class warfare” and how the powerful for centuries have been able to use minority and poor against each other while they rob us blind. This book also looks at the changes in our country after World War II for women and the idea of patriotism.
American Girl is very popular with young girls all over the country. How did you come to write Shadows on Society Hill: an Addy Mystery? Did American Girl approach you to write the story about Addy, the sole African American character in the American Girl series?
Initially my dear friend and author, Angela Shelf Medearis told American Girl about me. They approached me to write in their history mystery series. After that, they came to me to tackle Addy’s first mystery, probably because I am most of all a “mystery writer.” Of course, I could only write this mystery because Connie Porter created the character.
Before reading Freedom Train, I never knew that this train existed. I love learning more about history so this piece of history was right up my alley. Neither did I.
Where did the idea for Freedom Train come from? Savannah College of Art’s design staff, including editor, Anna Burgard actually told me about this train.
Do you plan to write more stories based on lesser known historical events? Yes, absolutely. I wrote about little known historical facts in American Girl’s History Mystery, Circle of Fire. This is loosely based on the KKK threatening to bomb the Highlander Folk Center in Tennessee. I was amazed to find that in the 1940s in the mountains of Tennessee a white man, born and bred in Tennessee, started integrating the Highlander Folk Center. Also I found out that many Civil Rights leaders, including Rosa Parks (before she refused to stand on the bus) attended the school to learn civil disobedience techniques. Mendy, the main character of the book is a strong “Daniel Boone” type trapper, who thwarts the KKK’s plans. Circle of Fire, Mystery of the Dark Tower and Eleanora Tate’s, Minstrel’s Melody, along with the other titles in the former History Mystery series from American Girl are being printed by Windmills Books, Mysteries Through Time series.
From your notes at the conclusion of Freedom Train, you reveal that originally you wanted to tell the story from the point of view of an African American character, but it just never worked out. How often do your original ideas for stories, characters change as you further immerse yourself in the story?
Almost always is the answer, sometimes I write a book over from beginning to end three or four times. My original ideas are often flawed, too grandiose, not rooted in enough reality, off track about some aspect that I can only discover once I’ve done the research. Often I have to write over more than once to find the spots that are too coincidental for fiction. Yes, coincidence happens often in the real world, but in fiction it often doesn’t work. That is the key. Once in Circle of Fire, I had the main character setting a bear trap. I wrote the most beautiful scene (and it takes a lot for me to call my own work beautiful) only to discover after talking to six real-life trappers that it couldn’t be done. Talk about crying. I don’t normally fall in love with my own words…. But that time it was difficult to change this chapter. The thing is this for me, if a reader or an editor has a problem with something I wrote I don’t attempt to explain what I meant, I just accept that I didn’t do my job as the writer. After all I will not be there every time someone reads the book. So why not just fix it?
Next year, you have a new book coming out for young adults titled As Opposed to What. Can you tell us what it’s about?
This is a book that will be published by the wonderful publishers Just Us Books. They are the premiere publisher for multiethnic children’s books, specializing in African American Literature. Cheryl and Wade Hudson, award winning writers themselves, have for years fought to bring poignant and meaningful stories to the world by and about African American people. Because writing a book means so much to me, it has caused me to cry many a night trying to perfect just the right story for them. I am in awe of their talents and want to give them the best book I can write. They would be the first to tell you it is taking me a long, long time. At this point if I don’t give them a great book, somebody needs to shoot me. I won’t reveal what As Opposed to What is about, mainly because I’ve started writing this book over from scratch six times and I am still not done.
You encourage young writers in the making to devour books. What’s on your To Be Read List? On my list is: Kadir Nelson’s We are the Ship; Angela Benson’s Up Pops the Devil, Black Children’s Literature Got de Blues, Dr. Nancy Tolson; Celeste’s Harlem Renaissance, Eleanora Tate; Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell; Just Be, Carla Sarratt; Ashley Bryan’s Words to My Life’s Song
Name five books you’ve read in the last year. Margaret Johnson Hodge’s, Red Light, Green Light (my literary daughter) Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Jeff Kinney, Kenya’s Word, Linda Trice; Double Dutch, Sharon Draper; literally 40 adult thrillers – too many to name.
Evelyn, this was such a wonderful opportunity for me to pick your brain and glean from your experience as an author. Any final words for our readers?
Thank you for Brown Bookshelf. I hope that readers will take the opportunity to read all the wonderful authors you have showcased on this month. Thank all of you for your continued support of all writers.
The Buzz on Freedom Train
Children’s Literature Review:“This book was an unexpected pleasure and a strong work. Its detail is beautiful and, at times, painful. Its voice jumps out at you from the first page and does not lose its potency throughout the rest of the work. The reader genuinely likes and becomes involved with Clyde and his family. This is a must-read. Reviewer: Monserrat Urena
Kidreads.com: “Freedom Train is a powerful historical fiction title that illustrates the evils of segregation and discrimination for a younger audience. Children will want to read and discuss this timely and important book with their parents and teachers.” Reviewer: Carole Turner
Publisher’s Weekly: “Coleman convincingly depicts Clyde’s gradual awakening to the racism that surrounds him, as well as the prejudice his impoverished family faces.”
Kirkus Reviews: Clyde Thompson may be the shortest 12-year-old in seventh grade, but he learns to stand tall in this story about the Freedom Train’s arrival in Atlanta in 1949.
The Foot Warmer and the Crow (1994)
The Glass Bottle Tree (1995)
White Socks Only (1996)
What If (1997)
The Riches of Osceola McCarthy (1998)
The Flight of Kites (1999)
To Be a Drum (2000)
Mystery of the Dark Tower (2000)
Born in Sin (2001)
Circle of Fire (2001)
Shadows on Society Hill: An Addy Mystery (2007)
Freedom Train (2008)