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Author Chat with Christopher Paul Curtis

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Transcript of Live Chat
August 7th, 2002

NYPL: Kenny and his family have an eventful car trip to Alabama in "The Watsons Go To Birmingham - 1963," and Bud (don't ever call him Buddy) travels across Michigan to search for the man he believes to be his father in "Bud, Not Buddy." Christopher Paul Curtis' books dance with history, music and adventure, and have won many awards. Welcome, Christopher!
Christopher Paul Curtis: Thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be here.

Strappy: Why do you write for children and not for adults?
Christopher Paul Curtis: Originally, I didn't think I wrote for children. I think that a good story can be read by anybody. If the story is compelling and interesting, it can be read by children and adults. I don't really differentiate that much. The book I'm working on now is for older readers - an actual young adult book. It's called "Bucking the Sarge" and it's narrated by a 15-year old, so it's a somewhat older narrator. But again, I think a good story can be read by anybody.

Linz: Do you write on a computer?
Christopher Paul Curtis: When I first start out writing, I write longhand with my pen and my legal pad, in the library. I have found that the timing and the pacing of writing by hand works for me. I can tell if I've written something on the computer, or written it by hand. There's a much better flow when I write by hand, probably because it's slower to write longhand and you have time to think more. My pads are always a mess! I have arrows leading to here and there. Once it's done, I type it into the computer, and I edit from there. If it weren't for computers, I would NOT be a writer! My typing is so bad!

Leah: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Christopher Paul Curtis: I think I first knew when I was working in the factory in Flint, and I would spend my breaks writing. Writing seemed to have a therapeutic effect on me. I hated being in the factory, and writing was an escape. As long as I was writing, I was in a different world. So I knew then that writing was something very special for me. Even then, though, I didn't imagine that I'd be able to make a living at it.

Alex: Was there ANY one person or event in your life that influenced you most as you developed into an author?
Christopher Paul Curtis: My wife was probably the person who influenced me the most. Writing is a very lonely profession or hobby. You're never quite sure if what you're writing is any good. But when you have someone who's very supportive and who has more faith in you than you have in yourself, then it's easy to take the next step and to call yourself a writer. So my wife, actually, gave me a year off work to try to write a book. If she hadn't suggested it, it would never have occurred to me to do it. I'd still be in a warehouse or loading trucks, instead of doing something I love - writing.

Melissa: Hi, Mr. Curtis! I am from New York City and I'm wondering what was your favorite book as a child?
Christopher Paul Curtis: Melissa, I didn't have books that I really loved as a child. I read comic books, Mad magazine, National Geographic, and Sports Illustrated. I read a lot, but books didn't really touch me, probably because there weren't a lot of books for or about young black children. That's not to say that blacks have to read 'black' books, but you do need to read something that really touches you to develop that love for books. Sadly, that's still the case that there aren't many books for young blacks. I'm really the only African-American who writes in this genre for this age group. It's a problem we have to overcome. We need a lot more representation in books. It makes reading much more interesting if you have a wide variety of authors.

Lila: Why do you like to write about the past?
Christopher Paul Curtis: Lila, I don't know. I'm not one of those writers who sits down and outlines everything, and knows exactly where the story's going to go. I sit down at the library with the vaguest notion of a story, and then a character comes to me and starts to talk to me. I find out from that character what kind of history they have, what's going on in their life. If you can imagine, it's a very inefficient way to write! I have a lot of misstarts at the beginning, but when I finally hear clearly the voice of the person talking to me, then the story flies. The first two books I wrote were historical fiction. "Bucking the Sarge" is contemporary, so maybe you'll see if I can pull that off.
Let's hope!

Kusanagiclan2003: How old were you when you decided to write books?
Christopher Paul Curtis: I decided to write books when I was 40 years old. I had tried before, but I knew they were terrible. It's true! Writing fiction is something that takes a lot of time, a lot of living. You can write beautifully, but if you don't have anything to say, you're just spinning your wheels. So I think that it just took me 40 years of living to reach the point where I could tell a good story. Hopefully, as I age, I'll have more stories.

Urban: What is your favorite book that you read this summer?
Christopher Paul Curtis: I can't narrow it down to one - I have to give you two. One is "When My Name Was Keoko," by Linda Two Park, and it's the story of Korea being occupied by Japan before World War II. It's fascinating. It tells about how the Japanese tried to strip the Korean culture away. Another one I'm reading that I love so far (I'm about 3/4 way through now) is "House of the Scorpions." It's by Nancy Farmer. It's not out yet; I'm just reading galleys. It's a futuristic story about clones, and so far it's wonderful! Sometimes books go along really well and then they fall off a cliff. But this one is really, really well done.

Lil' Gangster Ray: Use ten words to describe yourself.
Christopher Paul Curtis: Let's see.... I love music. Love sports. Most of all, love my family. That's eleven words, but too bad, Ray! (smile)

Teak: Did you want to write books when you were growing up?
Christopher Paul Curtis: I did. The only reason I remember that is - I must have been ten or eleven years old - I said to my brothers and sisters, "One day I'm going to write a book," and they laughed at me. That's the only reason I remember - I was so embarrassed. But I didn't have that burning desire to write that many authors do. I came to writing differently than most people do. It was more therapeutic, as opposed to being driven to become a published author. I rather luckily fell into it.

Zerlina: Do you still live in Canada now? What made you move there?
Christopher Paul Curtis: Yes, I live in Windsor, right across the river from Detroit. My wife is the reason I live here. She's a registered nurse, and her license is to practice in Canada. My living in Windsor lets her work in Canada, and I can cross the river to work in Detroit.

Bernice: Who is your favorite author?
Christopher Paul Curtis: My favorite author is Toni Morrison. My favorite book is her "Beloved." I think it's a wonderful book. I've read it seven or eight times, and every time I read it I learn more and more and more, which I think is the hallmark of a good book - when you can keep going back and discovering more things.

The Rock: Do you have any children?
Christopher Paul Curtis: Yes I do. I have a 24-year-old son, Steven, 20, and he is in the U.S. Navy, a first class petty officer. He's coming out in February and wants to go to law school. I also have a ten-year-old daughter named Cydney, and she is a wonderful pianist and actually wrote the song that is on page 124 in "Bud, Not Buddy" called "Mommy Said No." She wrote it when she was 5. She's not sure what she wants to be. One minute she wants to be a professional swimmer, and the next she wants to be a songwriter or a marine biologist. I know she has no idea of what that is, but the name sounds cool.

Elizabeth: Do you like baseball? Do you have a favorite team?
Christopher Paul Curtis: I do like professional baseball, Elizabeth. But unfortunately, I live near the Detroit Tigers. And it's a real stretch to call the Tigers a professional team! But my grandfather was a pitcher in the Negro Baseball League, and he taught me a lot about the love of the game.

Murad: Hi! I just love your book "Bud, Not Buddy." That book is exciting and sad at the same time!
Christopher Paul Curtis: Thank you, Murad. It's always great to hear that someone enjoys the book. Keep reading!

Richard: How do you feel when kids tell you that they like you books?
Christopher Paul Curtis: It's a great feeling. To be able to produce something that touches another human being is a great feeling. I know that there are authors that I admire, and to think they feel the same way towards me is really thrilling.

Batgirl From New York: Do you use books from the library for research?
Christopher Paul Curtis: Yes, I do. For "Bud, Not Buddy" I had to do a lot of research because I wasn't really familiar with the 1930s. So I would go and read fiction from that era to try to pick up the way people spoke and the kind of language they used, because language changes a lot from decade to decade and I wanted to make it sound as authentic as possibly. So I did a lot of research to get the historical aspects correct.

Pat: In "The Watsons Go To Birmingham - 1963," what was the main reason the father drove through the South so quickly? Was it fear?
Christopher Paul Curtis: You could call it fear, but it was probably common sense. He didn't want to expose his family and children to the racism that was rampant at that time. So the best thing to do was to get through as quickly as you could to your destination. I'm originally from Flint, Michigan, and many people in Flint were from the South, so when they'd drive back home there were certain areas they were warned to stay away from. Bad things happened to black people there, so it was just kind of common sense to limit your exposure.

Geovany: Where were you born?
Christopher Paul Curtis: I was born in Flint, Michigan - Hurley Hospital, Room 541. And that's it.

Kusanagiclan2003: How do you overcome writer's block?
Christopher Paul Curtis: Foremost is to never say you have writer's block! Our minds are so powerful that once you hear something like 'block,' you begin to believe it. What you have to do when words aren't coming for some reason is take a little time off. Your mind is fantastic - it will work on things and you won't even know it's working on them. So, set the paper you're writing on aside and work on something else. Then go back and reread what you've written. A lot of times - just like stepping back - you'll see what the problem is and correct it from there. But don't ever, EVER say "writer's block." It's a figment of your imagination.

Murad: Can you write a scary story for you next book? I mean really scary - so scary even adults will get scared. So, can you?
Christopher Paul Curtis: That would be fun! Everybody enjoys being scared; it's just human nature. Maybe I will try that. It probably won't be my very next book, but maybe the one after that. Thanks for the suggestion!

Tony E: When you write, do you write the chapters in order, or do you begin with the ending first? Or do you write from an outline?
Christopher Paul Curtis: None of the above. I don't know where what I'm writing is going to fit into the story. It's like a seed - you plant it, and it grows, and sometimes what you plant might be the beginning, sometimes it's the end, and sometimes it's the middle. I've never been able to sit down and outline a story. I find it much more pleasant and surprising to let the story reveal itself to me, rather than me revealing to the story what's going to happen. So I'm just as surprised as the next person when something happens. Again, it's not the most efficient writing, but you have to do what works for you. Every writer has his or her own style, and different things that work for them. As you become more experienced, you learn what works for you. Just letting the story run works for me.

Lil' Gangster Ray: If you had one wish, what would it be?
Christopher Paul Curtis: I hate to sound like a beauty pageant contestant or Rodney King, but I wish we could get along better. We have so many things in common that we don't need to focus on the things that are different.

Pat: At what age did you first become aware of racism?
Christopher Paul Curtis: Very young, Pat - probably 5 or 6 years old. My parents felt that it was necessary that we know about racism, so we were made aware of the feelings that some people have towards black people. You might think that's young and kind of irresponsible of my parents, but as a parent I can understand it. You want to protect your children, you want them to be aware of what's going on. Knowledge is power, so you try to teach them in ways that a young person can understand. They have to be aware of these things.

Tee: What did you study in school?
Christopher Paul Curtis: My degree from the University of Michigan was in political science. I enjoyed learning about the way politics in the United States works. But then, once I worked for a senator in the United States, I quickly wanted nothing to do with politics. Other than that, I used to love writing and reading.

Lil' Gangster Ray: If you had one million dollars, what would you do with it?
Christopher Paul Curtis: Ray, your questions are very good and thought provoking! What would I do with it? I don't know. Maybe do the old athlete thing and buy my mom a new house. Take care of a lot of the basic needs that we have as a family, and try to help people who have been generous to me.

Kusanagiclan2003: Can you name all the books you've written?
Christopher Paul Curtis: Yes, I can. The first was "The Watsons Go To Birmingham - 1963," and the second was "Bud, Not Buddy." Third was "Mister Chickee's Funny Money." It's a terrible book and will probably never be read by anyone, since it wasn't published. And the fourth is "Bucking the Sarge." So that's it. As you can see, I'm a relatively new writer, but if I'd known how much fun this is, I would have started when I was four years old.

Nan1Hub: Were you ever in Birmingham during the Civil Rights Movement?
Christopher Paul Curtis: No, Nan. As a matter of fact, I went to Birmingham for the first time about five years after I wrote "The Watsons Go To Birmingham - 1963." I went to the church and the civil rights museum right across from it, and it was an overwhelming experience to see something in person that I'd only seen in newspapers and on TV, and to realize the terrible things that many people lived through. It was very overwhelming. The parts of "The Watsons Go To Birmingham - 1963" that took place in Birmingham were the result of research.

Pat: The language used in "Bud, Not Buddy" was amazing. My favorite phrase was "My eyes don't cry no more." How did you come up with that?
Christopher Paul Curtis: Another Michigan boy came up with that - Stevie Wonder. He had a song by that title, and I just loved the sound of it. That's one of the great things about writing - you compile things like that and then use them. So you'll have to give Stevie Wonder the credit for that. That's the song they use when they dance the Hustle.

Chat: Have you ever had someone call you a bad name because you are black?
Christopher Paul Curtis: Oh yeah, that's quite common. It hasn't happened recently, and I think one of the reasons is that I grew up to be a rather big person. But I think anyone of my age who was black in America was called names.The racism was always there - in schools, in stores, everywhere you went.

Tee: What kind of music do you like?
Christopher Paul Curtis: They call it rhythm and blues, old school, soul, jazz. I like classical. My taste is very wide-ranging, but usually it's the soul music of the '60s. I have 3000 records from that era.

Pat: Do you keep journals?
Christopher Paul Curtis: Yes, I do. I think that's a very important part of writing. You learn where your mind was 10-15 years ago when you go back and read your journal. You see how your matured, how you progressed as a writer, and it's wonderful practice for a writer. Writing is like anything else that you do - the more you do it, the better you get at it. So keeping a journal is a way to keep practicing writing.

Batgirl From New York: When you do author readings, which parts of your books do you like to read out loud?
Christopher Paul Curtis: My favorite part to read is the first chapter of "The Watsons Go To Birmingham - 1963" where Byron kisses the mirror on the car and gets his lips stuck. Then I like to read a chapter of "Bud, Not Buddy" where Bud is in the soup kitchen line, waiting to be fed. It shows that even in horrible financial times, you can still take care of someone that's in even worse shape than you are.

Pat: What is your favorite decade and why?
Christopher Paul Curtis: My favorite decade is the one I'm currently living in because, hey, I'm alive! But I like the 1960s for the music.

Maryanne: Did you have a job before writing?
Christopher Paul Curtis: Maryanne, I had so many jobs, and I hated every one of them. For 13 years I worked in an automobile factory putting doors on cars. Yuck! Then I had a job mowing lawns - I was a maintenance man at an apartment complex. I worked in a warehouse unloading trucks. I was the city of Flint campaign manager for a U.S. Senator, and just a million other little menial, terrible jobs. So I truly do appreciate being able to make a living doing something that I love. I think if you can do that, you've got the world beat.

Lil' Gangster Ray: What is your favorite type of food?
Christopher Paul Curtis: I have three favorites - Indian food-curry dishes, like tandoori chicken; Mexican food; and I love Ethiopian food.

Pat: What in your life inspired you to center your books on family and racism?
Christopher Paul Curtis: I don't think we have a lot of control over what we center our books on. A lot of times the issues that are important to us or bothering us are things we're not aware of. Occasionally these things come out in your writings or the things you imagine, or in the type of things you want to read. A lot of times we're searching for answers to questions we have. And we develop a lot of unusual ways to try to find these answers. I think family is very important to me, and growing up in Flint, Michigan in the '60s as I did, there was racism. That's something that's important, too.

Chat: Do you receive lots of letters from kids?
Christopher Paul Curtis: Yes, I do - some wonderful letters, and I try to answer as many as I can. I'm behind right now, so if you sent me a letter, just hold on. I'll get back to you soon. I love reading the letters I get. One of my favorites was from a little girl who said she really liked "Bud, Not Buddy" and that the book gave her the courage to ask her mother who her father was, because she had no idea who he was and her mother had never talked about it. It makes you look at what you do in a serious light. Letters like that make you almost want to cry. Someone pulled something from my book and it was able to help them.

Kevin: My friends and I are very eager to meet you. Are you very busy with the stories you wrote?
Christopher Paul Curtis: Kevin, meet me at the 7-11. (smile) I try to look at my writing as a job. I set time aside every day to go to work at the library and write. And I travel quite a bit, so if I'm in your city giving a talk or presentation, come by. I'd like to meet you.

Peg: Is a sequel to "Bud, Not Buddy" a possibility?
Christopher Paul Curtis: Yes, it is. I think that will be the next one I do. I think there are parts of Bud's story that haven't been told, so I want to find out what happened to Bud and Herman E. Calloway. But I also want to do not a sequel to "Bud," but more of an offshoot to it. A lot of times, when I go to schools, girls ask me when I'm going to do a book about a girl. I thought I'd try to do one about Dezamalone, who's the little girl that Bud met in the shantytown in Flint.

Pat: What does the Wool Pooh represent?
Christopher Paul Curtis: The Wool Pooh comes to represent death to Kenny. One of the things that happens when your brain is deprived of oxygen is that you start to hallucinate. Kenny was trying to understand what was happening to him as he was drowning, so he imagined the Wool Pooh was trying to pull him down. Then, when he saw the Wool Pooh in the church, he probably actually saw the little girls who had been killed in the explosion. His mind couldn't cope with that, so instead he thought he saw the Wool Pooh, which was the representation of death.

Kusanagiclan2003: Who is the most famous Civil Rights Movement leader you have ever met?
Christopher Paul Curtis: You know, I thought I'd heard all the questions before. Let me think. Oh, this is so easy - Rosa Parks. I met her at a NAACP dinner in Detroit and had my picture taken with her. What a presence she has! She's a wonderful lady.

Pat: How many times did you have to revise your writing before you were happy with it?
Christopher Paul Curtis: Pat, probably 30, 40 times. You have to go over it and go over it, and then your editor goes over it. It's a very long process. But your name is on the book when it's done, and you want it to be the best book it can possibly be, so you keep polishing it and polishing it. The trick is knowing when to stop, because it's easy to overdo it.

Geovany: What do you do when you're not writing books?
Christopher Paul Curtis: I play basketball, I listen to music, I read. I've got a wife and a 10-year-old daughter who demand tons of time. I do things around the house. I swim with my daughter, although she's a much better swimmer than I am.

Pat: It's so cool that you based Herman E. Calloway and Lefty Lewis on your own grandfathers. Were you very close to them?
Christopher Paul Curtis: Yes, I was. My grandfather, Herman E. Curtis, died when I was 10, and I didn't really know him very well. But my mother's father, Lefty Lewis, was a wonderful, funny, loving man to be around. So I'm really happy that I can keep their names out there because they're very important to me and I hope it's a gift to them that thousands of kids are reading about them and their lives.

Bernice: How long does it take to write a book?
Christopher Paul Curtis: It varies, Bernice. Anywhere from six months to years and years and years. Some of the time a book doesn't feel right, and then you know you have a lot more work to do on it. So there's no one pat answer; it depends on the type of book and what you're trying to do with it, and it depends on the audience. You have to reach a point where you finally say "It's done," and you never can predict how many months that will be.

Frankie: Can you tell us about your next book?
Christopher Paul Curtis: "Bucking the Sarge" is the story of 15-year old Luther Farrell. His mother owns rental properties and group homes in Flint, Michigan. She's a scam artist and a con woman, and she's cheating everyone she can possibly cheat. She's trying to raise Luther to take over the business, but he doesn't want to. He wants to be a philosopher, even though he knows it's something that won't pay much money. The book will be out next fall.

NYPL: Thanks for a great chat! We are almost out of time. Do you have any parting words for us?
Christopher Paul Curtis: To those of you who plan on becoming writers, there are three rules. First, have fun with your writing. You can do so many different things by writing - it's so powerful. Enjoy it and have fun with it. Second, write every day. Writing is like learning a sport or a second language or a musical instrument. The more time you put into it, the better the results are going to be. And third, ignore all rules about writing (Including these three)! Every writer finds his or her own way. Once you learn the basics, you'll develop your own style, and it's those differences in style that make writing interesting. So work on yourself.

NYPL: Thank you, Christopher Paul Curtis, for taking the time to talk to us. We can't wait for your next book!

NYPL: Be sure to join us August 14th at 2pm ET when we will be chatting with Sharon Creech. This has been a production of LiveWorld, Inc.

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