What would you like readers to take away from your book?
I want readers to see Billie Holiday as a sensitive soul who, despite hardships, produced evocative music that endures to this day. I encourage readers to listen to her music while reading my book. They can view clips of her performances on youtube.
What did you learn about yourself in terms of your strong points and weak points while writing this book?
I discovered that I had a gift for channeling my subjects. I wanted the poems to be as intimate as Billie’s singing style. That’s partially why I wrote the poems in first person. The process of writing the poems was quite magical—almost as if Billie were singing her story in my ear. I poet dove into the project, listening to early recordings, reading biographies and perusing oral histories. As I researched, Billie seemed to whisper in my ear, and as I wrote, the she seemed to hum in the background.
I wanted to conjure Billie and let her speak through me. Her story had been told many times. Yet, her legend has been sensationalized and mythologized. In her voice, her story rings true. The resulting sequence of ninety-seven, first-person poems depict Billie with rare empathy. The poems spotlight a youthful and exuberant Holiday before heroin and hard living took a toll. I believe that’s how the jazz legend would want to be remembered.
Of course, the pitfall of channeling someone is becoming so invested in your subject that you lose yourself.
As I wrote this book, I actually learned more about Billie than I did about myself. And I learned that we had at least two things in common: adoring dogs and detesting insects.
What was your greatest roadblock and how did you overcome it?
Doubt almost stopped me from pursuing the project. I think that I was destined to write Becoming Billie Holiday. I cut my teeth on Billie’s last major recording, Lady in Satin. But it was the 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues that made me a Billie devotee. Billie’s haunting voice and heartrending life story resonated with me. Lady Day became my muse. Then, she prodded me to pen her memoir. I reluctantly agreed, but almost abandoned the notion for fear that teens might not relate to a long-gone jazz legend. Then, an eighth grader admiring the singer’s likeness at the Great Blacks in Wax Museum convinced me of Billie’s enduring appeal.
Can you give us one do and one don’t for those aspiring to be a writer?
Strive to create cinematic, image-rich scenes. Don’t overuse adjectives and adverbs. Instead use powerful verbs and specific nouns.
What one something about writing do you wish other non-writers would understand?
Writing for young people is not kids’ stuff. Writing children’s and young adult books is not easy. Writing anything worth reading is hard work. Don’t rush. Take time to revise over and over again.
What was the last book to keep you up at night reading it?
Most of my reading is research related to works-in-progress. Fortunately, I only write about what I find interesting and can become passionate about. However, I rarely read late at night. I’m an early riser who peters out before midnight.
What do you do to make time for yourself?
Time for myself means time to write or at least have an artist’s date. I live alone, but writing competes for time with my responsibilities as an English professor and a mother of young adults. I integrate and compartmentalize as much as possible. I reserve spring and summer breaks to draft new manuscripts. For more on artist’s dates, read The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron.
How can readers get in contact with you?
Before there was Billie Holiday living blues, there was young Eleanora Fagan practically raising herself on Baltimore’s streets. She hit New York just as the Harlem Renaissance was giving way to the Great Depression. Luckily, Eleanora could sing. With a name borrowed her favorite movie star and a voice made for the microphone, Billie first recorded as a teen. By age 25, she had shared the spotlight with the era’s hottest bands. The fictional verse memoir Becoming Billie Holiday traces Eleanora’s journey into legend. The book’s poems are titled after her songs, paired with sepia-toned paintings, and narrated by the singer herself. This is Billie at her peak—before heroin and hard living took their toll. A collaboration with illustrator Floyd Cooper, Becoming Billie Holiday won a Coretta Scott King Author Honor from the American Library Association and received several best book of the year nods. Critics sang the book’s praises:
A remarkable tribute...—Kirkus Reviews Editor’s Choice, starred review
Captivating...—School Library Journal Best Book of the Year, starred review
A book for the ages...—teensreadtoo.com, 5 stars, Gold Award
Deserves a Pulitzer Prize…—allaboutjazz.com
Capitol Choices Best Book of the Year
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