Brandy Colbert was born and raised in the Ozarks—more specifically, Springfield, Missouri—and earned a bachelors degree in journalism from Missouri State University. Her second novel, Little and Lion, is the winner of ALA’s 2018 Stonewall Book Award; was named to ALA’s 2018 Best Fiction for Young Adults; and was named a Book of the Month Club selection, a Junior Library Guild selection, and a best book of 2017 by Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, Vulture, Bustle, BuzzFeed, Paste Magazine, and Seventeen magazine. In 2014, Brandy Colbert released her debut novel, Pointe, which won the 2014 Cybils Award for young adult fiction and was named the best book of 2014 by Publishers Weekly, BuzzFeed, Book Riot, the Chicago Public Library, and the Los Angeles Public Library. Brandy Colbert was also chosen as a Publishers Weekly Flying Start for spring 2014. Brandy Colbert is working on her third novel, Finding Yvonne, which will be available on August 7, 2018, with The Revolution of Birdie Randolph following in 2019. Please enjoy my interview with Brandy Colbert.
How do you describe your occupation?
I’m a writer, currently focused on young adult fiction and nonfiction. I’m also a freelance copy editor for magazine and book publishers, so I’m always working with words.
I’m a night owl and I work from home, so my day usually starts a bit later than most people. After I get up, I’ll start on my duties for the weekly magazine I work for, which is copyediting articles, reading over layouts, or proofing and finalizing those layouts to go to press. Or sometimes I’ll spend a few hours working on a freelance project. Then I usually run errands, make some food, and relax, and if I’m writing that day, I’ll start working again around 8 or 9 p.m. and work until I get tired.
What are you reading at the moment and what made you want to read it?
I’m currently (and slowly) working my way through Stamped From the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi. It’s a thick and engaging book about the history of racism in the United States. As a descendant of enslaved people from the American South, I think it’s especially important to be informed about where I come from and why this country was founded and built on racist ideas and actions.
Can you remember the first book you read by yourself?
I’d imagine it was one of the Little Golden Books since they were favorites around our house. (My own personal favorite was The Poky Little Puppy by Janette Sebring Lowrey.) But the first chapter books I remember reading were The Ramona Books by Beverly Cleary, which still hold a dear place in my heart.
Are you a page folder or a bookmarker?
Bookmarks, always! The idea of folding down a page seriously disturbs me.
When did you fall in love with reading?
I can’t remember not loving to read. I grew up in a house full of books, with regular trips to the library and bookstores. Reading was important in my family and I’m grateful to my parents—especially my mother, who’s always been a big reader—for that.
Can you remember the first story you ever wrote?
One of the first ones I wrote was in school, for my first-grade class. It was called The Baker’s Place, about a baker who gets run out of business by a newer, fancier bakery, and it was basically my six-year-old interpretation of gentrification. I didn’t understand that at the time, but I still have the book and I’m surprised that I was tackling issues in fiction even back then!
If you could gift yourself books at age 16 and age 25 – what would they be and why?
At 16, I for sure would have given myself Calling My Name by Liara Tamani, which was just released in 2017 and deals with so many things I was struggling with at the time, like racial issues and questioning my faith. At 25, I would have loved to have had The Mothers by Brit Bennett for its complex exploration of grief, personal decisions, and relationships.
Can you talk us through your writing process, from the first spark of an idea, to having your first completed draft?
When I first have an idea, I just think about it for a while. If I forget about it, that usually means it’s not time for me to write it, and I move on to something else. If I keep thinking about it, I start considering the different ways I’ll approach it, and when I have an idea of how the threads will connect, I will jot down a few notes. And then I just start writing! I don’t outline, and my books are primarily character-driven, so once I have a name and an idea of the person I’m writing about, the story starts to take shape there. I’ll record some notes in the manuscript as a very loose outline, but for the most part, I write without a plan, and my initial idea might continue to change as I keep going.
For someone starting out in your career, which three books would you make required reading and why?
We Are Okay by Nina LaCour, to learn the skill of crafting a quiet but engaging, emotional, and tightly written novel; Charm and Strange by Stephanie Kuehn, to learn how to write with grace, restraint, and empathy; and What Girls Are Made Of by Elana K. Arnold, to learn how to write fearlessly.
If you could invite 5 authors (dead or alive) to a dinner party – who would they be and why?
Wow! Okay, this is very difficult, but I’d invite Dorothy West, Barthe DeClements, Jesmyn Ward, Colson Whitehead, and Zadie Smith. I greatly admire their work (and them as people), which has all been impactful to me at some point in my writing career.
What was the last book you purchased, and why did you buy it?
The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang. I love graphic novels, and I’ve been anxious for this one since Wang first teased us with the premise and sample art years ago.
What is your favourite thing about reading?
The transformative experience. I love losing myself in a different world and learning about people whose lives and experiences are nothing like my own.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. Her prose is so rich and full of heart, and I appreciate the honest way she portrays the American South (where my parents were born and raised and where much of my extended family still lives), finding beauty in small, everyday moments.
If you could insert yourself into any book, which would you pick and why?
The forthcoming The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo, because it’s such a fun, sweet, and delicious tale set in Los Angeles, my current home and favorite city.
What two pieces of advice would you give a young aspiring writer?
One: Write for yourself, first and foremost. Don’t try to follow trends because it’s impossible to keep up—by the time your story is ready to go to agents, the next trend will already have taken hold. You’re also going to be working on your manuscript for a long time, so you need to love what you’re writing. And two: Keep going. Publishing can be a scary place with a lot of unforeseen barriers, but keep writing and keep getting better until people can’t say no to you and your work.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?
Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer is an excellent collection of short stories and the first time I’d read characters that seemed so me. I’d never really read about contemporary black characters who looked, thought, and acted like me, and it was so shocking and refreshing.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
I have a never-ending stack of books on my shelves that I’m looking forward to reading, including Swing Time by Zadie Smith and We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I’m also really excited to pick up An American Marriage by Tayari Jones and Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires, which is out in April.
Which book sat on your shelf are you most excited about reading next and why?
Probably the March trilogy by Rep. John Lewis and Andrew Aydin. It’s a graphic novel (illustrated by Nate Powell) about Lewis’ participation in the civil rights movement. It’s a painful but necessary story, and I think the unconventional form for such a piece of history is so smart and refreshing.
Image credit: Jessie Weinberg