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Author Chat with Sharon G. Flake

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Transcript of Live Chat
July 18th, 2002

Sharon G. Flake is the author of The Skin I'm In (the 1999 Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Authors winner) and Money Hungry (a 2002 Coretta Scott King Honor book).

For an hour Sharon was online answering questions from over 100 of her loyal fans. Thank you, Sharon!

NYPL: Perhaps you've read about Maleeka Madison or Raspberry Hill? Maleeka is so desperate to be accepted at school that she will do anything to be part of the "in" crowd. Raspberry is starved for money so she and her mom won't ever have to live on the streets again.

NYPL: Both Maleeka and Raspberry are heroines in books by today's guest author, Sharon Flake. In just a few moments you will be able to ask Ms. Flake about her books, "The Skin I'm In" and "Money Hungry" and find out from her the stories behind her books.

NYPL: Welcome Sharon!

Sharon Flake: Welcome! Thanks for inviting me. Hope everybody's doing well!

ISHA: What inspired you to write this book?

Sharon Flake: I have a beautiful dark-skinned daughter, and when she was little I started telling her stories about incredible dark-skinned girls who did wonderful things. And, as a black woman I know that if you're dark in our communities, people don't always say nice things about you, so I wanted to deal with that issue.

So no, it's not about my daughter, who was 7 when I wrote this book. That's why I wrote it, just to help people learn to like themselves, no matter what other people say.

Sass: Sharon, is this the first book you have written?

Sharon Flake: "The Skin I'm In" is my very first book, yes. And so far it's sold 100,000 copies.

Waiting: Did you have to do lots of research for this book?

Sharon Flake: I didn't do any research for the book. So far I haven't had to do research for the most part. I really try to write from my gut, and feel what other people (my characters) might be feeling.

In "Money Hungry" I write about a biracial girl who has an Asian father, and I did ask a Korean girl to read the story and let me know how she felt I had handled especially the Korean father.

Also, they have a food truck, so there were some Korean foods mentioned, and she let me know if I had spelled the words right, and things like that.

Sharon Flake: In my next book, "Begging for Change," which is coming out in the spring of 2003, and is a follow-up to "Money Hungry," someone gets involved in Juvenile Court, and I spoke with someone who works in Juvenile Court. So far I haven't had to go to the library and dig through a lot of papers, but I may have to do that at some time.

Maggie: How long did it take you to write "The Skin I'm In"?

Sharon Flake: Oh man! I used to really remember. I think two years. I was working, I was raising a daughter, and when you're not published, you could take 20 years to finish a book; there's no rush. Now I write a little faster.

GBS: Do you or did you know any teenagers like the ones in your books?

Sharon Flake: Not particularly. I'm not the kind of writer. Like, my daughter's 14 1/2, and when I'm around her friends I'm not thinking they'd be good characters. I'm too busy talking! I'm too busy doing something else. I just write to see where my characters take me, and hope that people think they're realistic.

I will say the mother in "Money Hungry" is something like me, although it's not something I discovered until partway into the book.

I'm the kind of person who stops people on the street to say "Stop smoking!" I just say things to people; I'm kind of like their mother. I'm kind of like the teacher in "The Skin I'm In" who thinks she knows everything - very opinionated.

When you're writing you're not thinking about other people or yourself, but little glimmers of people do show up.

When I was in college I had a friend who, like Ja'nae, would spray perfume on cotton balls, but she was not as funny about it as Ja'nae. When Ja'nae started with the cotton balls, I wasn't thinking about my friend - that happened later that I remembered her.

You never know which is encouraging you which way, you know?

Jemma Time: Maleeka's journal is very important to her. Do you keep a diary? Do you write every day?

Sharon Flake: Ha ha ha! I do not keep a journal, because I lose things. If I write down a note about a character, I usually can't find it, and so I don't do that very often.

I sit down at the computer and do my thing, and when I'm away from the computer I don't write on pieces of paper 9 1/2 times out of 10.

I go through stages. If I'm under deadline I might write every day but I can go a month or so and not write, and it's okay. But then, like the other day...I'm under deadline now and I was writing a whole bunch and it becomes almost an addiction.

I was very tired, but I could almost taste it in my mouth that I wanted to keep on writing, but I made myself go to sleep.

Vista: Does feedback from young people influence the way you write? If so, how?

Sharon Flake: Not really. Because most of the feedback is just what people think about my work. It's not suggestions on what I should write about.

Grown-ups try to tell me more than kids what I should do, and I ignore them. I just think that everybody should know their own stories. What inspired me in terms of young people are young people who tell me that they hated to read or were bad readers, and they liked my work and it made them want to read more, or read somebody else's work.

That motivates me to keep writing, besides writing. Young people (including my daughter) bring me the most joy, and make me really happy to be a writer.

Disco Babe: How did you think of the name Maleeka Madison?

Sharon Flake: I used to know a girl in church named Maleeka, and I always liked that name. She was in a writing workshop I taught.

When you're writing you almost use names as bookmarks or place-holders, because when you run into a character you have to call them sometimes. I may think I'll change them later, but sometimes I don't. Sometimes the name just becomes the character.

And I came up with the name Madison because the two names rolled off the tongue, and having the same letters did that.

Beccy: Sharon, was it difficult to get the book published?

Sharon Flake: I really believe that the Lord just made things happen for me. The first publisher I went to with the book published the book. I had other rejections before then, but that's what happened for me. It was really easy.

I want people also to understand that I was writing for 15 years before I got published, and I had been rejected with other pieces, and some of that stuff no one would publish even today.

I would say it was divine intervention. It's all just click-click-click. Hyperion was starting a new line featuring African-American works, and it just lined up boom-boom-boom, and I was one of the first writers to come out under that line.

Goofy: Does "The Skin I'm In" reflect your own experiences as a teenager?

Sharon Flake: Yes, and no. Yes in the sense that when I was in middle school I felt very small and insecure and, like Maleeka, I didn't think I was pretty or smart enough. I would stay in my house a lot, and read books and watch TV rather than going out.

Even though I got fairly good grades, that's just the age when you get messages from the people around you - especially others the same age - that you don't have it going on; that there's some problem with you. So in that respect me and Maleeka are alike.

That has stayed with me for a lot of my life. I still have insecurities.

There's a chapter in the book where Maleeka and Charlese destroyed a classroom. That also happened in a class when I was in school, although they didn't do as much as damage as Maleeka and Charlese did, but I still got called down to the office. But that's as close as it came to what Maleeka went through.

In my life I think I sometimes feel too much, and so I can relate to what my characters are going through.

Flick: I loved this book because it was so real. When you write, do you draw mainly from personal experiences and people you have met or is it purely fictional?

Sharon Flake: Again I would say it is purely fictional, really. When I'm writing I really don't think about people that I know. I have the worst memory on the planet. I'm 46 now, but my memory was that bad when I was 15 and 26. I can't remember the people and situations in my life anyway.

So what I try to do is begin with a blank page for my characters, and follow the trail like a hound dog. Once the story starts to come out, I'm following. I don't see myself as trying to lead the parade. I tell my characters sometimes "don't do it!" because I'm going to have to get my characters out of it. So even though I tell them not to, I usually let them do it, and then I figure out how we get out of this mess.

Trunks: Why do you think Maleeka was friends with Charlese? Couldn't she see she was being used?

Sharon Flake: Yes. Maleeka knew she was being used, but she thought it was the best she could do to get what she wanted, which was to be like everybody else. To dress the way they dressed.

To be popular like everybody else, or at least hang out with the popular kids. Sometimes even grown-ups do the wrong things for what they think at the time are the right reasons. But usually that just ends up making a big mess out of everything, which Maleeka found out.

Brat: When Raspberry's mother threw the money out of the window, I was shocked! What inspired you to write that scene?

Sharon Flake: <laughing> A lot of kids ask me "Why did she throw the money away?!" I was shocked too, as a writer. And again too, I wrote it because that's what she did. And it shocked me too.

As a writer I have to figure out what would happen if somebody threw hundreds of dollars out the window, and all of a sudden I could see people scooping up the cash and putting it in their pockets, and talking to each other saying "I got money" or "I got $25."

I think as I writer it's important to keep people reading, and keep them surprised, and then find out how in the world they're going to get out of this thing.

Luca: What is the hardest thing about being a writer?

Sharon Flake: Hmm...Maybe not being scared...Oh, I don't know! I have to get back to that. I have to think about that one! So far it's a lot of work, but it's so much fun!

Okay...For me the hardest part is that I still have a job. I only work part-time in my day job, but I still do work. But when you're under deadline, and you have to go to the office tomorrow, and cook dinner for your kids, and take them to track, it's hard.

But most writers need to have another job so they can eat and pay their bills. So that's the hardest part...trying to juggle it, I guess.

Summer: Can you explain the feeling you had when you found out your first book was going to be published?

Sharon Flake: I was SO happy! Probably the most happy I've been in my life, besides my daughter being born. And then I was kind of surprised, 'cause I have friends that I think are better writers than I am, and are better at marketing their work than I am.

So I started saying "Why on earth, God, did I get published?" So I had to realize that everybody's on the planet to do something different and special, and this is the reason I'm here. So I have to stop saying "Why me?" and just keep on having fun. So that's what I do.

Goofy: When did you first discover your talent for writing? Who encouraged you to develop your talent?

Sharon Flake: I was in college, and I kept changing my majors. I was going to be a doctor, and then I changed it to 3 other things.

Then I realized I was getting the best grades in writing. Now the big problem for me was that my papers would come back very red, because I still am not a good speller, and I was terrible at grammar (which is not why I write the way I do), so I thought my professors were just being nice to me.

I had an opportunity to do an internship at a local newspaper, and they called me three times, but I thought they were very confused. I thought "I am not a writer; I just have a big mouth and talked my way into that job." So I never went.

But I really felt that God wanted me to be a writer after a while, and I would buy grammar books, and I would know all the rules for 48 hours after I went through the books! But I just kept writing anyhow, and I got a job in Public Relations at the university which involved writing.

I had friends who wrote, and I kind of hung around with people who were much more confident about their talent than I was about mine. That was helpful because they would have big plans about their writing careers, and I was scared.

I had a friend who wrote for a big publication, and after a while I thought I'd submit something. After a while I had this feeling that mine wasn't really that good, but I enjoyed it.

As for who encouraged me to develop my talent, I have to keep saying that it was God. Even when you have talent, you don't always recognize it. And also professors at the University of Pittsburgh, who could look past the fact that I was bad at grammar and couldn't spell, and give me an A, because I could tell a story.

Their belief, and my friends' belief kept me going until I could believe fully in myself. Also publishers who printed my work, until I could believe fully in myself.

Booker: Do you read other young adult authors? Whom do you like?

Sharon Flake: I like Walter Dean Myers, Sharon Draper, Nikki Grimes, but I also read a lot of fiction by adults. I'm the kind of reader who just goes to the bookstore, and if I like the jacket and what it says on the back, I'll pick it up! It could be a cookbook, or about war, or about stones. It doesn't matter what it's about!

Redagon: What are three of your favorite books you like that can be by any author?

Sharon Flake: I would say (I have a terrible memory, so I'm bad at this!) "Middle Passage" is one of my favorites.

There's one I can't remember, but it's by the food editor of the New York Times...Oh, it's called "Tender at the Bone" and it's about how she grew up with a mother who was a terrible cook, who served rotten food and stuff like that. I loved that book. It was really good.

There's a picture book I just read that I really liked. I'll have to think of that one. Bebe Moore Campbell is another whose work I really love. She's an adult novelist.

Melody: Do your daughter and her friends like your books?

Sharon Flake: Yes. Her friends will just ask to see the books, or they'll read them. They don't ask me a lot of stuff about the books. My daughter is like a lot of kids - she's not all that impressed. For her it's my job. She gives me feedback when I'm writing though.

KT: Is it your experience that teens can rise above their surroundings, as the girl in "Money Hungry" is able to do?

Sharon Flake: Yup, absolutely! Sometimes life is hard, and that could mean that you're poor, and you live in an area that's not nice, or it could mean that you're rich and you live in the suburbs, but your parents don't pay you any attention.

But no matter what, there are usually people around you - a teacher, a rabbi, a preacher, a friend - who will help guide you and give you some good advice if you're willing to listen and work hard.

Sometimes young people just need to know they're here on the planet for a purpose. It might not be to be an author, or a doctor, but to be a really loving mother, or a man on the street who decides he really wants to lead the boy scout troop. Young people have to know, even when times are hard, that they're here to do some important business.

Anais Guess: When you decided to be a writer how did your family react to your decision?

Sharon Flake: I don't, even now, talk about my work all that much with my friends, unless people ask me what I'm writing about. I've been writing on this one book for over a year, and I don't talk about it much.

It was the same with my family. When I got published I told them, although I talk about it to some degree. But they have been very supportive, and they'll tell others that their sister or daughter has this book out. So they are as happy as I am about this whole thing!

Justin: Who was your childhood hero or idol?

Sharon Flake: To tell the truth, it could just be my bad memory, but I don't remember having one! I really didn't particularly to my knowledge. My mom and my dad.

My father is so very smart, and I still call him up to ask him about things. If it's the Middle East he'll tell me the history of the region, and how everyone ended up fighting. And my mom, who scrubbed floors for a living when we were growing up.

As a writer, Langston Hughes who writes about black people, giving them a lot of dignity and wisdom, and I think that's what I do with my characters. I don't think you always have to look outside your own family or your church or your neighborhood for your heroes.

Spi One: How does a upcoming storybook writer get started, or what steps must I take first?

Sharon Flake: When I was in college I had a professor who said "Writers write." And I always thought that was the dumbest thing I ever heard. But since I got published I know what he means. I have a lot of people who tell me they want to be an author, but they don't write. Or they finished a manuscript 3 years ago, and it's in a drawer.

And I thought "Oh, writers don't TALK about writing. They write." So my advice is to write. Write short stories, and if you don't finish one, that's okay, start another one. Take a photo from a magazine, and write about what's happening to that person in the photo. Just make it up!

A lot of young people talk about being published, and I just say this is America; everyone can be published once. But if you want to be published more than once, and have a career in writing, you need to learn to do it well.

Go to the library and get books about writing. How to tell build a plot. How to write dialogue.

Jo: Does your love for cookbooks mean you like to cook?

Sharon Flake: I do like to cook, but I think I like cookbooks more than I like to cook. I like to look at the pretty pictures. Sometimes I'm a good cook, and sometimes I'm a lazy cook. Sometimes my daughter has to eat at Boston Chicken.

Catherine: What's your day job?

Sharon Flake: Director of Publications at the Katz Graduate School of Business in Pittsburgh. Which means I'm better at grammar and spelling, but not perfect. ;-)

Booker: Do you think that your books have universal appeal, or can they only really be understood by African Americans?

Sharon Flake: I think the surprise to me as an author was how universal people see them. I received an email a couple of months ago from a college student in Japan who had picked up "The Skin I'm In" in London, and loved it.

I get black boys who loved both books, which surprises me because most of my characters are girls. I hear from white girls and women, Asian college students.

Somebody's picked on all of us, apparently. And with "Money Hungry" it's the same thing - people across cultures seem to like it.

Redagon: What is your favorite type of writing, and why?

Sharon Flake: I don't have any favorite type of writing. I'll read almost anything! I also love to watch television. My favorite type of movies are romance and humor, where things turn out pretty well in the end, which probably reflects itself pretty well in my writing.

Jujube: How do you flesh out your initial concept so that it is worthy of "book length"?

Sharon Flake: <laughing> I didn't. I'm not the kind of writer who starts with a format or much of an idea. For the first book I knew I wanted to write about a dark-skinned girl who got picked on.

I start on the computer and what comes out, comes out. I obviously have to edit, and some of what comes out is trash. I didn't do an outline for my first two books, and I didn't for the book that's coming out "Begging for Change." I just go with the flow.

Jack: What is your writing routine?

Sharon Flake: I don't have one! I write early in the morning, so 5 or 6 o'clock in the morning, for a couple of hours. It used to be 3 o'clock in the morning, but I'm getting older. I'm just an early-morning writer, so even when I'm not coming into the office I do that.

Cool: Have you ever done any library visits?

Sharon Flake: A lot of them! I love library visits. Most recently I was in Atlanta for the American Library Association conference, giving an award, and I was at a school in Boston for a library visit.

Latasha: What type of advice would you give a teenager who wants too write a book about their childhood?

Sharon Flake: Just start writing whatever you remember. Remember it doesn't have to be perfect, just get the story out, and worry later about rewriting it and making it pretty. Also talk to family and friends to hear what they think about some of what you're writing about. Not to get their approval, but maybe you don't remember everything, so use their brains to help you out.

Nelsa-10: Sharon, have you ever won any awards or do you at least look forward to it?

Sharon Flake: I've won two Coretta Scott King awards, and a bunch of others, like Best Book for Young Adult Readers. The New York Public Library twice put me on their Top Ten Books for the Teen Age list, for both my books.

Kevin: Did you finish college before you wrote your stories?

Sharon Flake: Yes, I did. But you don't always have to.

Diamond: Did everyone recognize the talent that you had or were some of them like that you couldn't do what you are doing today?

Sharon Flake: The funny thing is now people do say stuff like "Oh, you used to talk about wanting to write all the time," but I didn't talk about it as much as they're saying. I think they knew I was writing and I mentioned it once in a while, but I think peoples' imaginations are fired up. Nobody said I couldn't do it, but it was mostly me.

I think people, girls especially, have trouble saying "Thank you" when they're told something good about themselves. So if someone tells you're good at writing, or music, or sports, trust that they know what they're saying and try to believe that "Hey, I do have something good going on!"

Jack: Have you thought about writing a sequel to "Skin I'm In"?

Sharon Flake: No. People ask me all the time though. But "Begging for Change" is a sequel to "Money Hungry."

NYPL: Thanks for a great chat! We are almost out of time, do you have any parting words for us?

Sharon Flake: I love being a writer! It is absolutely the most wonderful job in the world. And I think being a children's author must makes it so much better. Young people are so nice to me, and I have so much fun with them. I just want to thank everybody for getting on board, and I really appreciate it!

NYPL: Our time is just about up, so I want to thank you, Ms. Flake, for being with us today and telling us about your work. I know your readers will be waiting anxiously for your next book.

NYPL: Be sure not to miss our next Author Chat when Chris Crutcher author of Whale Talk, Ironman, Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes and Stotan, will be our guest. That will be on Wednesday, July 24, 2002 at 2:00 p.m