“What people don’t understand about our lives,” begins author and poet Jason Reynolds, “is that the normalcy of the black person in this country is magic.” Last year, Reynolds released his debut novel, When I Was the Greatest—it follows the life of a young black male growing up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn—and its publication caused tremors in libraries and classrooms across the country. His recently released sophomore work, The Boy in the Black Suit, returns its gaze to Bed-Stuy and follows 17-year-old Matt, who is grappling with the loss of his mother as navigates his final year of high school.
I sat down with Reynolds and discussed what it’s like to get the keys to the kingdom from prolific YA fiction author Walter Dean Myers, why grief is the fulcrum of his new novel, and what he’s learned along the way. Truly magical stuff.
Gawker: What drew you to the Young Adult genre?
Jason Reynolds: That’s one of those weird questions because I don’t think I originally wanted to write YA. The genres, the categories—all that came a bit later. But I did write a few adult novels that were really, really bad. Before quitting writing altogether, Christopher Myers, Walter’s son, basically propositioned me. He said, “Look man, my dad’s getting older and who’s going to write those books?” Chris is a writer so I’m thinking, “You’re probably going to write those books.” And he said, “Nah, it’s probably going to be you.”
So I went back and read one of Walter’s books. I read The Young Landlords and it was the first time I felt free to write in my natural voice; it was the first time I felt my natural voice had value. I decided to give a swing to the teenage voice; that’s where Walter sat in the pocket. It’s kind of loose and tight at the same time, while being flavored and articulate. It’s this really weird sort of balance that he worked. I was fascinated by that. It’s what hip-hop did. But I never intentionally wrote a book for teenagers. I wrote a book about teenagers.
So you met Walter Dean Myers, talked to him and—
I only met him one time. I was working in a clothing store, Rag & Bone. I was managing the store and was selling a woman a pair of shoes when Chris and Walter walked in. Of course I’m a bit struck because I know who he is. I was really surprised—I shouldn’t have been—but I was so surprised by his, um, he was loose. He’s still a Harlem dude at 72. So when I met him he was like, “What’s happening? How you feeling baby?” Very black, very, very familial and familiar in his tongue and how he was engaging with me as a black man. It was our thing, like how we always do handshakes and all the things we sort of take for granted that are part of our cultural codes. He fell in line with those codes as an elder and it kind of threw me off for a second, but it was comforting.
I will never forget this. He only said a few things. “Look I read your manuscript...” This was for When I was the Greatest. “I just want to ask a few questions about often you are writing. What’s your writing schedule?” I told him I write every single day. I write a little bit in the morning. I write a little bit at night. Two and a half pages in the morning and two and a half pages at night. He said, “All right cool, well, check it out, that’s about what I do, five pages a day.” He said he used to write ten pages a day and now he writes five. “So if you break it down, five pages a day, five days a week, that’s 25 pages a week, 100 pages a month. That’s a book every ten weeks.” That’s exactly how he said it.
He was like, “If you write a book every ten weeks, that’s five to six books a year and more than any publisher can publish. And if you do it this way, I promise you after reading your manuscript, I can guarantee you that you should not worry because you will not fail.” That’s all he said and that was it. Me and Chris talked for a second and then they left. I think about it at least once a day.
As well you should.
And I’ve stuck to the formula. I’ve written a ton of books in a very short amount of time.
What did you learn about your craft with The Boy in the Black Suit?
A few things. The hardest part for me to do with When I Was the Greatest was to trust my ability. My first editorial letter from Simon & Schuster, the final paragraph of it my editor said the entire last chapter should be cut out, and that I should end the story the chapter before. She said the reason why is because I did a really fantastic job of wrapping up the story in a very neat bow, but I only did that that because I’m insecure about my ability. You have to trust yourself, she said, trust that you’ve done your job. The point was: this thing does not have to end at an ending. It can just end and that’s okay because the reader will know what to do. This time around [with Black Suit] I understood that much better.
The other thing this was: this was my first time writing a pseudo-love story. The way I imagined [Matt and Lovey] at sixteen, that’s not the way they are. At this age, the way boys and girls interact with each other—there’s magnetism and there’s insecurity. And there’s fear but there’s a really strong gravitational thing. I really want to be all over you. I don’t know how to do that and I don’t want to blow any chances I have of learning how to do that with you in the future so I want to slow walk this thing because I really like you. Even writing Lovey; writing a girl that was dynamic and showing her in context. “Yo listen, I’m not just some smart mouth slick talking girl,” which is how black girls are always pegged. In the novel, I put her in that context in Cluck Bucket and then I put her in a different context at the funeral, so Matt got to see her softened and responsible and just different.
With grief, how have you dealt with it and what realizations came to you as you wrote about it?
I try to be an active griever. I feel like we lean on time because of the trope “Time heals all wounds.” And there is truth to that, but I don’t think that it’s absolute. I think that to grieve and to deal and cope you have to be actively processing the information. Have your moments, be broken, and allow yourself to fully express pain. I think people are really uncomfortable with crying and because of that they torture themselves. Grief is like mending a knee. You can mend the knee and make it function but the knee never actually heals.
Like being stabbed by a Mordor sword.
It’ll never fully heal. It’s unrealistic and unfair to assume that it will. People always say time heals. Time doesn’t necessarily heal anything. It allows you to manage things. There are occasions where you feel the pain as if it just happened but you know that it’s a fleeting moment. As far as “Misery loves company,” my whole point is that every time we say it, it connotes this notion that miserable people like to make other people feel miserable to feel better about themselves. And I challenge it. Maybe it is that miserable people seek misery in other people to feel less alone. I don’t want to make you miserable. I just want to find out what it is and if that pain matches with mine. If it does then you and I have a thing. You and I have an instant bond.
What did this novel teach you?
The scene with Mr. Ray in the basement with the cards. He says everybody says that chess is the game of life because you can strategize and plan out each move. But that’s bullshit because you can’t. You can try too. The truth of the matter is that chess is not the game of life because life does not ever happen the way you strategize and plan. Life is like I Declare War. I turn a card. You turn a card. Sometimes you win. Sometimes I win. Sometimes we both lose. Sometimes I lose over, over, and over again. Things can turn at the drop of a hat. Things can shift overnight. My life a year ago is vastly different than it is today. Five years ago I was homeless, and five years before that I vowed to everyone that I would never write novels. But as long as there are cards to play then the opportunity for victory is always there. We just don’t know how it’s going to fall. The key is to acknowledge and be grateful for the fact that there are still cards.