The American author on his gut response to a friend’s death, how to get young people reading, and the value of crochet.
Jason Reynolds, a 34-year-old from Washington DC, didn’t grow up expecting to be a writer: indeed, he was 17 before he read a book from start to finish. But it might be his atypical background that allows him to connect so powerfully with teenage readers. He has published a dozen novels – mostly for young adults – in the US, has been a National Book award finalist and is a fixture on the New York Times bestseller list. He was also recently named on the Guardian’s Frederick Douglass 200 list, which honours the 200 living individuals who best embody the work and spirit of the American abolitionist and politician. Now one of Reynolds’s books, Long Way Down, is being released in the UK. Told in verse, it follows Will, a 15-year-old boy out for revenge after his older brother is shot dead.
The starting point for Long Way Down came from personal experience. What happened to you?
When I was 19, a friend of mine was murdered. That night my friends and I went to his mom’s house and we were all planning to figure out who did this to him so we could exact revenge. So we could murder the man who murdered our friend. And I just remember the pain – the pain of the lost friend but also the pain of meeting a part of myself that I didn’t know existed. A part of myself that could lose control to the point where I could commit a murder. That’s a very human thing. I think that most of us don’t ever meet that part of ourselves that exists within all of us. This rage that, when triggered, will cause you to do things that you don’t necessarily understand that you’re doing.
A key tension in the book is whether Will is capable of going through with the plan to kill his brother’s murderer. You didn’t, but could you have done it?
Absolutely. Oh yes, without a doubt. But only in a certain time frame. It it was like being frozen in a block of ice, right, and in this moment, within this block of ice, I know that I could commit a murder. There are crimes of passion and there are moments when we lose control and, for me and my friends, we lost control. We lost control! And it wasn’t that we were animals or murderers, we were children who were heartbroken.
There’s an author’s note in Long Way Down where you recognise that young people, particularly boys, don’t like to read. Then you add: “So here’s what I plan to do: NOT WRITE BORING BOOKS.”
To me that’s one plus one is two. Young people – especially young men – it’s not that they hate reading, it’s that they hate boredom. So my thing was: I need to write a story that is interesting, that is gripping, that can connect to them and their experiences, and write something that’s not very intimidating, because there’s so much white space.
You didn’t finish a book until you were 17 – Richard Wright’s 1945memoir, Black Boy, about growing up in the American south. Was that unusual where you grew up?
The only thing that’s unusual about my story is that I became a writer. But me not reading is the norm. And me not reading till I was 17 – none of my friends did. Most of my friends still don’t, and that’s boys and girls.
You’ve had a lot of success now, but you still do a lot of talks at schools and juvenile detention centres. Why is that important?
It’s a push-pull thing. One side is about staying engaged, so I can be truthful about the things I’m writing about: you’ve got to know them in order to show them. But it’s also about making sure that they know that they can be me. Because they can’t be what they can’t see. It isn’t rocket science, we’ve seen it happen over and over. Think about golf: Tiger Woods starts playing golf and all of a sudden black kids all over the world are like: “Yo!” Serena and Venus Williams, they play tennis, they have beads in their hair, they’re from Compton, California, and black kids who felt like they didn’t have a place in tennis, suddenly tennis feels more palatable. This is the way it works.
You’ve been writing an average of three books a year for the past few years. What drives you?
At first it was the fear of it all going away. It’s like when you’ve been hungry, or when you’ve tried and failed, or when you’ve hit the bottom, when you get a second chance, you do anything you can to secure your spot. You do anything you can to force people to take note of what you’re doing. Now, though, I just have so much to say and I want to make sure I say it all.
Is it true you unwind by crocheting?
Not any more. I used to and I still can; I could still sit down and crochet a hat or a sweater if I needed to. But I’ve been thinking about it, though: it taught me patience, it taught me diligence. It taught me that it’s one stitch at a time. No matter what it is in life, if you skip a loop, you have to undo it and start again. If you skip a step then the thing you make will be distorted, it’ll be gathered and bunched in places, it’ll be ill-fitting. One stitch at a time and that’s life! That’s how it works.
- Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds is published by Faber (£11.99). To order a copy for £10.19 go to bloomgist.com/books or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99