"I saw a lot of boys who were put in the position of being the man of the house before they were ready."

from a conversation with Coe Booth
 

Q: Where did the story for Tyrell come from?
A: I guess I can say the idea for Tyrell has lived in the back of my mind for a few years. I used to be a crisis intervention worker, helping kids and teens in the most desperate family situations imaginable. During that time I saw a lot of boys who were put in the position of being the man of the house before they were ready, and I witnessed the effect that kind of pressure had on them. These were boys who had to take on the adult world often due to the bad choices their parents had made. And they had to make decisions that would affect them for the rest of their lives.

I wanted to write about a boy in that kind of situation, to see how he would overcome those problems. The questions I began with were: What do you do when your father, the man you most love and admire, constantly lets your family down? And when times get hard, do you take a chance and follow in his footsteps, knowing where it could lead you, or do you find your own way and try to become your own man?

Q: Tyrell's voice is so palpably real... what was it like for you to go there? I know a lot of people are going to be surprised that a woman could get into a boy's head in such an on-target way -- were you surprised, too?
A: I was constantly surprised, often from one moment to the next. There were times I myself wondered where this voice was coming from! In the past, I thought I could never write from a boy’s point of view, but I really had fun tapping into my “inner guy.”

As a woman, I’ve gotten so used to my overly introspective, overly analytical mind, so it was great looking at the world from a male perspective for a change. I hope readers will get so caught up in Tyrell’s voice, they instantly forget it was written by a woman!

Q: What was it like for you growing up in the Bronx? How is it different now?
A: I’m glad to be from the Bronx; it was a great place to grow up. Like a lot of city kids, my childhood was filled with double dutch, bike riding, and block parties. And, yes, I had to be home before the streetlights came on!

My house was the unofficial community center for all the kids on the block. We would write and rehearse plays, and then perform them for the residents of the nearby nursing home. Talk about a captive audience!

The Bronx that is often portrayed in movies is not the Bronx I know at all. It’s not that one-sided. There are some really nice, culturally diverse, working-class neighborhoods. I know because I live in one. What more can I say? The Bronx is my home.

Q: Can you describe what writing Tyrell was like? I know you didn't have a formal outline. Did you have an ending in mind when you started? Or did you just follow Tyrell's voice until it took you there?
A: I’m not a big fan of outlines. I started Tyrell with just an opening scene and really nothing else. Of course, I had a wonderful character to work with, so that helped a lot. But, really, I had absolutely no idea how the story would end. Most of the time, I didn’t even know what Tyrell would do or say next.

So, with no real ending in mind, the whole writing process was a mixture of fun and fear! I wanted to live in Tyrell’s head and see where he wanted to take me, see how he would use his skills and abilities to solve the problems he was facing. I didn’t want to impose myself into his life and work things out for him my way. Basically, the story practically wrote itself as soon as I got out of the way!

Q: One of the many things that sets your novel apart from a lot of teen literature being published today is its use of language. Clearly, your dedication to maintaining Tyrell's voice in the prose was paramount in the writing of the book. Was this something you had to struggle with? Why do you feel it’s necessary to write Tyrell's story in this way?
A: I didn’t struggle at all with the use of language in Tyrell. My goal from the very beginning was to be real. Not almost real. I wanted Tyrell’s voice to be true to his unique personality, his upbringing, and his environment. Tyrell speaks the way a lot of teenage boys speak, and I think teens deserve to read about characters they can relate to. To me, that is why people read fiction.

Q: What are some authors or books who've been influential on your work?
A: Well, I do a lot of reading, but I’d have to say the authors whose works have been the most influential on my writing are Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, John Steinbeck, Alice Walker, and William Faulkner. I say this because I’ve read their novels so many times! I really admire their ability to authentically capture the natural rhythm of dialogue, especially dialects. And the issues they explore are truly timeless.

Q: You've made quite a debut here. What's next?
A:
I’ve just started working on a new novel. All I know so far is it’s about a girl. Her mother was a young teen when she got pregnant with her, so she was raised by her grandmother. Three generations of women... I can’t wait to see what will happen!