Day 15: Lynn Joseph

Lynn Joseph was born in Trinidad in 1963 and was raised in a family of three children by a mother who loved books, and who read Shakespeare to her and her sister Christine, as bedtime stories.

Lynn, like most writers, loved to read and she remembers her very first book, a collection of Grimm Fairy Tales with a hard blue cover given to her by her parents when she was very young. She read that book until the cover fell off and then had to be taped back on over and over again.

From the time Lynn was six years old, she walked along the dusty dunes of the river that ran next to her house in Petit Valley, Trinidad, making up stories in her head and often telling them out loud to herself. She began writing creatively at eight years old, starting with poetry. On the shelves of her mother’s bookcases were many books of poetry including books by Derek Walcott, and Kahil Gibran, which she tried to read.

At the age of nine, Lynn moved to the United States with her family, but continued to return to Trinidad for three months of summer each year. The world became divided into school (the States) and summer (Trinidad). Lynn wrote all the time, poems, short stories and entered school contests and published in school literary magazines and newspapers. She became an editor of her high school newspaper and later an editor on her college paper.

Lynn attended University of Colorado, Boulder and graduated from the Denver branch in 1986. She moved to New York City and immediately was hired to work at Harper & Row Publishers, now HarperCollins. It was heavenly to be surrounded by books all day long and to be paid to read manuscripts and to give her opinions on books.

Lynn went on to attend law school; she had drawn up a life plan at 15 years old that included being a published author by 25 and graduating with an advanced degree from some institution by 30. She did both and then was confounded as to what else to do with her life. Somehow, at 15, the age of 30 seemed so far away and unlikely that she couldn’t plan any further than that. After she published her first book, Coconut Kind of Day: Island Poems, Lynn went on to write short stories, A Wave in Her Pocket and The Mermaid’s Twin Sister, several picture books, and then a novel, The Color of My Words (HarperCollins, 2001).

Featured on Summer Edward’s Caribbean Children’s Literature blog and Anansesem literary magazine, The Color of My Words has been described as “evocative”, “lyrical”, “poetically structured, vividly imagined” (The Horn Book), and “achingly beautiful” (Kirkus Reviews). If you haven’t read The Color of My Words, Lynn Joseph’s words below offer a hint of the gorgeous story mosaics she constructs.

Lynn has two sons, Jared and Brandt, who read her manuscripts first before anyone else. Lynn worked as an attorney for the City of New York, where she was a trial lawyer. She currently works for a law firm in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Lynn loves writing more than anything else in the world. She also needs to live near the sea. She now resides in Long Beach, New York and doing what she loves most, writing and watching the ocean.

Why do you write? What inspired particular works — an image, a conversation, a person, a situation, etc.? Can you describe some surprises along the way of a story?

I write because I am supposed to write. It is my true purpose in this world and I have always known that since I was 8 years old. Before I went to law school and got married and had children, I wrote all the time and managed to publish 8 books. Then nothing . . . . I was living LIFE! Being a mother, an attorney, and always thinking in the back of my mind, one day, one day, I will get to the writing again. Well, my youngest of two sons is 16 now and I work from home as a lawyer, so now, at long last, I am truly writing again. And it helps that my 16-year-old son, Brandt, encourages me. And I figured, what better way to show him that following your dreams is what matters than by doing it myself. And I love it. I just finished a new manuscript for HarperCollins who published The Color of My Words and I am excited to be back!

As for what inspires my books — well, The Color of My Words and my new novel, The Flower Girl, are both set in the Dominican Republic or in Dominican communities and I would say that what inspires me is traveling and living in different countries and cultures. I realized that kids and teenagers are the same no matter where you go, they really are remarkably special in their curiosity and wonderment and once you can see that, it inspires characters and stories set in their world, but which embrace universal themes.

Can you tell us a bit about your writing process? How do you work out your stories? Do you always begin the same way, say with story or character? Do you have any routines or resources that you’d like to share?

Without planning it out, my writing process was the same for my new novel, The Flower Girl as it was for The Color of My Words. I wrote between midnight and 6 a.m. while drinking a pot of black tea (caffeine) with lemon and I was completely alone with my characters; no noises in the house, no one talking, or disturbing my immersion in this other world.

I also do a lot of research before and while writing. I research anything that is factual about a setting or a character’s hobbies. Either I try to experience it myself, or I read about it, or I interview people for their expertise. For my new book, The Flower Girl, the protagonist Nina grows orchids on her fire escape in Washington Heights, NY, so I went to Orchid Shows, and I researched online how to grow orchids and I also spoke to orchid fanatics, of which there are many! I even tried taking care of my own orchids, but . . .that didn’t go so well! The point is to live your story as much as you can, so that when you sit down to write it, it is real to you as the author: your characters are real, the setting is real, the music my characters enjoy, I listen to as well! For The Flower Girl, I not only went to Washington Heights and hung out with my Dominican friends, but I also went to see the Broadway show, In the Heights, and I read everything I could online about the neighborhood, the police presence, the public schools, the stores, etc.

There is nothing like that night quiet with a pot of black tea — the magic of story flows. What were the magical stories for you as a child? What did you connect with? What were the ‘turning points’ for you as a young reader? What literature do you continue to treasure? What made you think?

Like most authors, I read all the time as a child and teenager, and, of course, I won’t go anywhere in the world without one or two books in my backpack or car. The idea of being caught somewhere without a book to read is horrific. And it has to be a real book, not something on a tiny phone where I can’t feel the essence of the words pouring into my soul. One summer when I was about 12 years old I decided to keep track of every book I read. I was in Trinidad, sitting on the cool tile floor of the steps, and I read book after book every day, until I had read 101 books in about 99 days. Most of the books were by the famous British children’s and YA author Enid Blynton. Enid Blynton, a truly prolific author, wrote the books that influenced me most, specifically her Famous Five and Secret Seven series and her Malory Towers series. I also borrowed all of the Hardy Boys books from our cute neighbor, Marcus. No one had the Nancy Drew books so I missed out on those.

I still find YA books the most interesting and I read them more than any other genre. I not only read the Twilight series before women my age were reading it but I read it twice!

Perhaps the most influential book was Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, which I read at 16-years-old over Easer vacation. It is over 1100 pages long and it was wonderful to have an entire week to do nothing but read, read, read! That was when I knew that I wanted to be a writer. That book was also pivotal for my older brother Gerard who was 18 at the time and just finishing high school as a mediocre student. I was so excited about this book that I was jumping up and down telling him about it and he actually picked it up and read it. It changed his entire life. He went from disliking reading to finishing an 1100-page novel and then plunged headfirst into reading all kinds of books on philosophy. As a result, he went on to become a writer, actor and producer and owner of his own movie production company, a subsidiary of which is named after the leading character in Atlas Shrugged. The power and magic of books is immense!

It’s amazing, yes? The deepest insights into our joys can be drawn from story. What brings you joy?

My son, Brandt Scott. Brandt lives in the present moment only, yes with goals and hopes, but always in the present, and that is what makes him so joyous to be around. It is what I strive for myself, to live in the present moment. I enjoy nothing more than listening to him play jazz piano or play his guitar and sing, and when he learned my favorite song on the guitar and sang it for me on my birthday, I cried tears of joy. So, whether we are taking practice SAT tests, and going over the answers together, or riding bicycles through Copenhagen as we did last Summer, I’d have to say that living with Brandt fills my heart with pure joy.

Tell us about a favourite book you’ve read lately.

I am currently reading very slowly so that it won’t end, The Fire in His Mind, the biography of Joseph Campbell, the eminent mythologist, and author of books, such as The Hero With a Thousand Faces, and Masks of God. Campbell lived a remarkable life from 1904 to the 1980s and his journey could be summed up in three words, by which I try to live my own life: Follow your bliss! I highly recommend Campbell’s works on mythology as well as his biography for every creative soul. It is without comparison the most influential body of work I have encountered in my life. Reading The Fire in His Mind, I am learning more than I did as an English major in college! I am constantly jotting down books to read, ideas to pursue, and I even ordered online two old out of print books on the writing process, read by Campbell himself. As soon as I finish reading his biography I am going to start over again.

Thank you so much, Lynn! It’s been a pleasure.

Praise for The Color of My Words:

“In finely wrought chapters that at times read more like a collection of related short stories than a novel, Joseph (Jump Up Time) presents slices from the life of Ana Rosa just as she is about to turn 13. Through the heroine’s poetry and recollections, readers gain a rare intimate view of life in the Dominican Republic. Ana Rosa dreams of becoming a writer even though no one but the president writes books; she learns to dance the merengue by listening to the rhythms of her beloved ocean; and the love of her older brother, Guario, comforts her through many difficulties. The author’s portraits of Ana Rosa and her family are studies in spare language; the chapters often grow out of one central image — such as the gri gri tree where Ana Rosa keeps watch over her village and gets ideas for her writing — giving the novel the feel of an extended prose poem. The brevity of the chapters showcases Joseph’s gift for metaphoric language (e.g., her description of Ana Rosa’s first crush: “My dark eyes trailed him like a line of hot soot wherever he went”)…it’s a testimony to the power of Joseph’s writing that the developments readers will empathize with most are those of greatest importance to her winning heroine.”
-Publishers Weekly

“Joseph paints the world of Ana Rosa and her family in this gem of a novel. The girl dreams of being a writer, but knows that this is a very unusual wish in the Dominican Republic. Like her ever-drinking father, she is a dreamer, but like her Mami, who fears for her daughter’s safety if she writes, she learns that time is like the river that rushes by and never passes again. When the government tries to destroy the houses in the village to make room for foreign investors, Ana Rosa writes an article quoting her beloved older brother, Guario, and tries to get support for protecting their homes. Her article is distributed by three newspapers, but her words are not powerful enough to divert money, contracts, bulldozers, and guns. On her 13th birthday, the government troops arrive, shooting begins, and Guario is killed. Six months later, as a late birthday celebration, Ana Rosa receives a typewriter and hundreds of sheets of white paper. Now she has her brother’s story to tell and the words are filling up her head. Although Ana Rosa lives in a Caribbean country, readers everywhere will connect with her story, especially those who have dreams, disappointments, tragedy, environmental concerns, and a love of words and writing. Each chapter opens with a poem that sets the mood. A finely crafted novel, lovely and lyrical, this book is a unique addition to library shelves.”
–School Library Journal

Visit Lynn Joseph by the virtual sea.

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9 Responses to Day 15: Lynn Joseph

  1. tanita says:

    Wow, I am looking forward to reading The Color of my Words. Ms. Joseph is very fortunate in the gorgeous cover, and it looks like we readers will be fortunate in a lyrical tale from a gifted writer. Thanks for the interview!

    • Lynn Joseph says:

      Thank you. I hope you enjoy the book. Yes, I love the cover art for the paperback. HarperCollins pays a lot of attention to these details, so I’m lucky.

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Olugbemisola , IBLN. IBLN said: From BrownBookShelf Day 15: Lynn Joseph – Lynn Joseph was born in Trinidad in 1963 and was raised in a family of thr… http://ow.ly/1blUlp [...]

  3. kelstar71 says:

    What a rich interview! I loved reading about your research for The Flower Girl and your connection to books as a child and adult. It’s beautiful when you connect with your calling: “I write because I am supposed to write.” Love that.

    • Lynn Joseph says:

      Thank you! I still can’t grow orchids, or anything at all, no matter how much research I did, but I love that I could create a character who can. That’s the magic of being a writer. The new title for the book is Flowers in the Sky, coming out next year. I am very excited to be back as a writer after a long break.

  4. F. Maxwell says:

    What an inspiring interview! Of course I know about the “Color of My Words” and enjoyed it thoroughly. Most of all, I enjoyed your workshop in Bermuda. You are a terrific teacher and I am working on my novel, enjoying being emersed in my main character. You are indeed gift both as a teacher and a writer.

    • Lynn Joseph says:

      Florenz, Thank you for your kind words. You are a generous and warm writer and friend and I can’t wait to see your book–pour your heart into it, you have all of the ingredients and it is a story that needs to be told. Please share it with us soon!!
      Lynn

  5. […] Her mother loved then and read Shakespeare to her and her sister as bedtime stories. According to The Brown Bookshelf, from the time Joseph was six, she was making up stories in her head and often telling them out […]

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