Interview: Helen Hemphill
Current Mood: thirsty
Current Song: A Thousand Years From Now from a musical currently in the works
I first posted this interview at GuysLitWire, a collective lit blog where we discuss books recommended for teenage boys. Since two of Helen Hemphill's three novels have teenaged male protagonists, I thought she would be a perfect interview subject for GLW. When we spoke earlier this month, I asked her how she felt about writing for guys and writing from a male perspective.
Do you approach your stories differently depending on the gender of your protagonist?
I don't really have a different approach if I write across gender. When I worked on Long Gone Daddy, I checked in with the Gender Genie occasionally to make sure I was on track for a male voice, but I haven't done that recently. Given a text sample, Gender Genie uses a simplified algorithm to predict the gender of the writer. I used it to make sure the narrative of Long Gone Daddy was masculine in its feel and perception. Now, I really do try to be in the character's mind set, using some of the techniques of Uta Hagan's book Respect for Acting. Once I am grounding in the voice, I don't worry as much about the gender; it just comes along naturally.
Do you feel comfortable writing a male voice? or: What are the challenges you face when writing in a male voice - and/or writing for boys?
I do feel comfortable writing a male voice. I have two [now adult] sons of my own, and I think my own personality is to be rather straightforward, so both of those things help. The challenges are clearly in word choice, and I began using a vocabulary journal while writing Runaround. The other difference is emotional reaction. Boys react differently to emotional upheaval; they can be more restrained or more angry when emotional events happen. I try to be aware of that and sensitive to it.
Your second novel, Runaround, was the story of young girl named Sassy growing up in the sixties. Do you feel as though there are 'girl books' and 'boy books?' Do you, like me, want to break that division or assumptions?
I don't know if that's totally possible. I'd love to believe that there are just good stories, and gender doesn't play a role in a reader's selection of text, but I do think boys are drawn to certain kinds of stories and girls are drawn to certain kinds of stories. As adults, I just think we should honor young reader's choices and not try to push one direction or another. Good readers eventually branch out and read lots of different kinds of material, and that's what we all ultimately want children to do.
Do you prefer to write in first-person or third-person? Is that decision influenced by the gender of your protagonist?
I don't have a preference; it's just how I hear that particular voice. Gender doesn't play a part either. I think it's some bigger aspect of the story I'm trying to tell. How close do I need to be to that protagonist and how limited I'm willing to be in vocabulary are factors, but that's part of the larger structure of the story.
What compels you to write historical fiction? What compels you to write contemporary fiction?
Again, it's the story. If I'm attracted to the premise of the story so much that I have to work on it, then it doesn't matter what the time frame or the landscape of the novel. It's all about story.
Give us a preview of your new book, The Adventurous Deeds of Deadwood Jones.
It's a wild ride adventure story for boys about two cousins, Prometheus Jones and Omer Lovejoy Shine who head west to find opportunity and to look for Prometheus's father. Like most of the cowboys of the real west, the boys are young, 14 and 11, and have to face the hardships of living on the land while working a cattle drive. The unique aspect of this story is that the boys are African American, and they find the west a genuine place of opportunity, where a man is judged on his ability. That doesn't mean they don't find prejudice as well, but the cattle drive allows the boys to test their grit and learn about themselves.
What inspired you to write Adventures?
I read Nat Love's autobiography a couple of years ago and loved his bravado voice. Nat was an African-American cowboy who was born in Nashville at the end of the Civil War and went west to find his fortune. Nat was the best at everything - the best shot, the best wrangler, the best cowhand - and I was inspired to write a story about a boy who was like Nat, yet also different from him. There was also a wonderful opportunity to write about one of the 5,000 African American cowboys who worked the cattle drives in the late 1800s. The contributions of those Americans were a story that hadn't been told widely, and I thought it was important. Plus, who wouldn't want to write an adventure story about cowboys? It was fun!
When your sons were little, what were their favorite books?
When they were little, they were fond of Mr. Popper's Penquins, the mysteries of Cynthia DeFelice, and Sports Illustrated for Kids. As teens, they both jumped right into adult fiction. My youngest son Michael is a huge fan of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and Mario Puzo's The Godfather. Our oldest Robert loves nonfiction sports books, most recently Carl Hiaasen's The Downhill Lie: A Hacker's Return to a Ruinous Sport.
Read my 2007 interview with Helen Hemphill.
Visit the author's website.