A Conversation with Bil Wright by Gavin Atlas

Bil Wright is the author of When
the Black Girl Sings
, a Junior Library Guild selection, and Sunday
You Learn How to Box
, which was one of Booklist’s best adult books for
teens; a New York Public Library Best Book for the Teen Age; a Coretta Scott
King Celebrating the Dream Book; and on the ALA’s list of Books for Gay Teens.
His newest novel, Putting
Makeup on the Fat Boy
, received the 2012 American Library Award for
Young Adult and Children’s Fiction as well as the 2012 Lambda Literary Award for
Children’s and Young Adult Literature. 
His poetry and short fiction have appeared in several anthologies,
including Shade, Black Like Us, The Road
Before Us
, and Black Silk. Bil
Wright lives in New York City.

Hi, Bil! 
Thank you for doing this interview. 
I enjoyed Putting Makeup on the
Fat Boy
very much.   There was an early scene I found gut wrenching.
I won’t give away your plot except to give you the pass phrase “Stella
McCartney Boots”.   Do you find it more
excruciating as a writer to put a character through horrible, grinding emotions
than it is to read about the pain of a lovable character written by someone
else where you don’t know how bad the situation will be? 

BW: For me, those are two very different situations. When I create a
character, very often the situation he or she is in occurs very naturally as a
result of their circumstances. I don’t plot every event that happens to them,
but follow the characters and allow them to lead me. The situations that they
find themselves in are natural outgrowths of who they are and what their
journey is. Carlos, for example, in PUTTING
MAKE-UP ON THE FAT BOY
, is pretty fearless, so he doesn’t back down and to
be with him on that journey is sometimes painful, but sometimes it’s hilarious.

 

GA: Since we’re on the topic of what’s difficult,
what do you think has been the hardest thing for you to write?  I mean that either in terms of taking endless
rewrites before you felt you’d got it right or a scene that was so emotionally
draining you felt you needed to sleep for a week before you felt better. 

BW: The closest thing for me is going over something in my mind “a
hundred times” trying to figure out if I’m being really truthful to the
situation. I’m reading a book right now on Stephen Sondheim where he talks
about one of his mantras being “God is in the details.”  I wholeheartedly agree. I feel that I have to
be a camera and really zero in on what the details are of a conversation, an
event, a thought. Sometimes, in really examining that moment, you realize that
there is a false note that may be colored by the writer having too much
information.
Then I have to
go back and figure out what is truest to the story I’m trying to tell and not
to any personal agenda I may have as an individual.

 

GA: When I was small, my sister worked at the
Estee Lauder counter at Macy’s in White Plains. I remembered stylish haircuts,
clicking heels, and that she had to have her glamorous “bring it to the runway”
face ready to go before I was half out of bed. 
However, until I read Putting
Makeup
I’d never been intrigued by the world of cosmetics or the magical
power of transformation that a skilled artist can possess.  Is it a fascination you share with Carlos and
is there a part of you that would love to be indispensible to a star actress
like your character, Shirlena Day?   Are
there other wild fame or success fantasies, maybe from childhood, that you’ve
held onto?

BW: What a great question! It made me laugh, mostly the idea of
being indispensable to a star. I think, although I’m the world’s biggest fan of
talent, I’m not great at any form of servitude except clearing the dishes and
washing them after a dinner party to show my respects to the host. So I’d
probably get fired really fast if I ever got a job being in service to anyone,
even if it meant I’d been hired for a special skill of some sort. But I am fascinated
by the concept of transformation, whether it is theatrically or spiritually or
physically. And yes, I’m thrilled to see any artist who has transformative
skills. In some sense, it’s very much connected to the art of creation, so yes,
that really stimulates me.

 

GA: I once took a writing class with you, and I remember
you didn’t let vague critique slide by. 
Once you asked how I felt about a classmate’s piece, and I said, “I had
trouble getting through it”.  You said, “Why?  Give me a word.”  I drew a blank until I realized my issue had
been with some unsettlingly graphic description, so I said, “um, squeamish?”
That worked for you.  “Squeamish is a
word,” you said with a nod.  Obviously,
you make a lasting impression.  Is there
anyone who gets the credit for teaching you to be an insightful instructor?   Can you describe any moments from your
career that have made you say, “THIS is why I love teaching writing”?

 

BW: I must say, reading quotes of statements I’ve made is both a
humbling and enlightening experience. As I said earlier, I think I have always
been a reader who is fascinated by details and more specifically the way that a
writer handles them. Shakespeare, J.D. Salinger, Tony Morrison, James
Baldwin—all writers with an astonishing sense of detail, but with very
different voices. The more detailed they are, the more specific our response.

I try to get members of a
writing workshop to commit to being very specific with each other so that we
not only hear honest responses, but know how to give them in a supportive way
that still allows for real criticism. Yes, I rarely allow people to cop out on
responding in a workshop, because we all have responses and to learn how to
articulate them is important. I think in order to take responsibility for my
own work, I should be able to communicate on some level what I’m trying to do.
Giving supportive, yet honest criticism to another is good practice at learning
how to identify and articulate your thoughts on your own work. Sometimes, just
being able to voice questions is a good jumping off for discussion that may be
worthwhile for the writer and the reader.

Any time someone walks into a workshop and really wants to be
there and really wants to learn and grow, I’m excited by teaching. And for me,
“teaching” means leading a workshop with some growing knowledge. I continue to
grow as a writer. I don’t know any Master Teachers, and I certainly don’t
consider myself one. There are writers I admire greatly and instructors I
admire greatly, but I don’t know that one equals another—as a matter of fact,
I’m sure being a good writer, and even a famous writer does not make you a good
teacher. When I’ve lost the joy of teaching, I hope I have the good sense to
stop. Right now, I still love working with writers who want to be in the room.

 

GA: I read your novel, Sunday You Learn to Box a number of years ago, and I thought the
ending was an awesome, empowering response to bullying. Then I felt conflicted about
that reaction. In my head, my mother said, “No, it’s actually a heartbreaking
ending.  If a problem is solved by
violence then that justifies all the abuse the main character had to put up
with all those years, doesn’t it?  It’s
honest. It’s true. But it’s so sad.”  If
you could settle my imaginary argument with my mother, that would be lovely,
but it might be easier for you to tell us what your favorite reactions from
readers to your ending have been and what your own view of the ending is.  Has your view of the novel changed at all
over the last decade? 

BW: Louis Bowman in Sunday You
Learn How to Box
is a survivor. He survives his circumstances and he
survives everything and everyone around him who says he can’t. I didn’t have
any agenda for the book as much as I wanted to be true to the character. It
goes back to what I said earlier about creating a character. Louis follows his
path to a natural ending. I would only be concerned if the ending felt false.
But life happens. And if it feels like life—in all of its unpredictability,
both triumphant and tragic–I feel like I’ve been true to the character.

 

GA: I know you’re also a playwright.  Are there ways you find that medium
satisfying that you don’t get from fiction? 
Do you have any favorite memories from productions of your plays?

BW: I love live theatre because people respond to the story being
told right there in the moment. Also, it’s such a collaborative art form. The
contribution of a good actor is invaluable, as is that of a good director.
 

And, it’s a little bit different each night.

Two summers ago, there was a production of THIS ONE GIRL’S
STORY, a musical I wrote with a really gifted composer, Dionne McClain-Freeney.
It’s inspired by the murder of Sakia Gunn, a young black, teenaged lesbian who
was the victim of a bias killing in Newark, New Jersey.  Every night as the audience (an extremely
diverse audience of various ethnicities, straight, queer, old, and young) took
that journey with the characters, it was so emotional. They went from laughing
with the protagonist and her friends as they explored the Village, to holding
their breath when the protagonist and her friends were in jeopardy, to weeping
openly, to a catharsis of grief mixed with hope at the end of the play. It was
a total gift to be able to go on that journey with them from night to night and
I’ll never forget it!

 

GA: When it comes to books, film/TV, music, or
theater, what makes you laugh or puts you in a great mood?

BW: Music is the great healer, liberator, and equalizer. I’m in awe
of what certain voices can do, or combinations of voices. Because I grew up in
a very liberated and liberating church, a gospel song can open my heart or fill
it to bursting. But then a Puccini aria or a rock song can do the same. It’s
the combination of voice and lyric and spirit that is so powerful to me and I’m
so glad I was exposed to it at an early age so that I’m not closed off to any
one type of music. Music is such a gift to our civilization. 

 

GA: In my imagination, I can picture you silently
fuming at a card you received in the mail from a friend, thinking, “I’ve known
you since nursery school.  It’s
B-I-L.”  How do you feel about the one
“L”? 

BW: People whom I’ve known for a long time very rarely make that
mistake. I think, as names do, the spelling becomes synonymous with the person.
People just think of me as Bil, instead of Bill or William. And I only actually
get grumpy when people feel they have to correct my spelling of my own name. I
will send something in to a copy editor and my name will be all over it and
they feel they have to “correct it” and add an L, instead of checking. I always
have the same response: I am certainly capable of making a mistake—even with
the spelling of my own name—but would I make the same mistake three, four
times? Highly unlikely.

 

GA: I saw a picture of you on a beach with a very
fun-looking dog.  Is travel (or an
afternoon escape from the city) important to your well-being?  Are there destinations you dream of visiting? Also,
there have been authors I’ve interviewed who have said how much the animals
they love affect their writing.  Is that
true for you? 

BW: Don’t get me started on Sydney, my Maltese! The picture you saw
is of me trying to get her used to the water at a place called Dog Beach in San
Diego. She has no interest in swimming, so we have to limit our water play to
baths. I love water and find it soothing and restorative. When I’m around
water, the ocean that is, my mind slows down to a not so rapid-as-usual hum and
the combination of Syd and the ocean is about as close to tranquil as I get. I
probably could get about twice as many novels done in a year if I lived near
the beach. I don’t have to be on it as much as around it. It’s my water
sign—don’t ask! But if you use a pic with this, definitely use the one with me
and Syd! It’s me at my happiest—-well, one
of me at my happiest!

 

GA: I read in Christopher Bram’s Eminent Outlaws in a passage about
Truman Capote that no matter how much success an author gets, he’s not
satisfied and still wants more.  When you
were working on a first novel you said to our class you hoped it would be
picked up by “a major house instead of…(you paused to think up something
silly)…Maple Syrup Press of Vermont.”  
So now that you’ve had several books with Simon & Schuster, and
you’ve received some wonderful awards, do you allow yourself “Yay!  I did it!” moments or do you think
Christopher Bram is largely correct? 
Either way, are there dreams you look forward to achieving in the
future? 

BW: Oh my gosh, another quote to live down! Lol!!!! Forgive me,
Maple Syrup Press of Vermont! (I hope there really isn’t one!) The reason I said
that is because the industry is so challenging, the business is ever evolving.
God knows, I didn’t have any money to promote my first book myself and decent
exposure for it was what I was hoping for. 
Exposure to media has only become more vital and even though there are
so many ways to do it, the importance of having a book well distributed and
publicized is still crucial to its growth. The whole concept of success, as you
know, is so different to different people. I still tell stories that I think are
worthy to be told and I still hope that they will have a platform—that  they will be able to circulate throughout the
world and get to people who will say, “I get it! I’m glad this is published and
there are more so I can recommend it to people who it will mean something to,
one way or another.” I’ve been really blessed because the feedback I’ve
received has been really positive—-from young audiences, who are the people
I’m writing primarily for—to adults who have said to me, “I wish this was out
there when I was younger, but I know this kid who would really benefit by
it”—or, better yet, “I know it says Young Adult, but I laughed and cried and
I’m recommending it to some people I know who will love it.” Now, that’s one
form of success only. And I’ve had a bit of that. And I’m really grateful for
it. Do I want more of being able to tell stories that people will respond to
and maybe—here’s the cheesy part— be helped by in some way? Absolutely! And—would
I also like to work in television like Christopher Bram has and buy a pool in
L.A. to teach Sydney how to swim in? Send me the contract! Why? Why not! I’d
still find a way to tell the stories I want to! I know I would!

Thank you so much, Bil!

To learn more about Bil Wright, his books,
and his plays, and see a picture of him and his dog, Sydney, please visit www.bilwright.com

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