Zetta Elliott is a seasoned and decorated vet whose emotional prose will knock your socks off. You'll definitely want to pick up A Wish After Midnight. Be prepared to fall in literary love. I want to thank her for giving us an interview, and apologize for waiting an unmentionable amount of time to post it. Enjoy!
1. Describe A Wish After Midnight in 5 words or less.
That’s hard! Afro-urban magic time travel.
2. How did you choose the title of your book?
I’m so bad at picking titles for the things that I write; in fact, I hate it. I think for this novel I had the title before I’d even written very much because I knew that all the drama hinged on a single wish made late at night when the garden was virtually abandoned. What would YOU have called this book?
3. What came first, the characters or the story?
Definitely the story—I knew I wanted to write a kind of counter-narrative to all the stories I’d read as a child that only featured white children having amazing adventures. And, of course, I was inspired by Octavia Butler’s novel, Kindred, which has a modern black woman traveling back and forth between the antebellum South and her contemporary urban life. Genna was based partly on the girls in my neighborhood and my own little sister who’s tall, and slender, and dark-skinned, and very beautiful (though I’m not sure she knows it…). I did have an outline that I worked out in advance, and I stuck to it, really—leaving out just one of my intended characters; she might appear in the sequel. Genna was really the only character that mattered to me at first, and once her voice became clear, then it wasn’t hard to figure out who else needed to be a part of her world. Neo-slave narratives are “new” tellings of an enslaved person’s journey from slavery to freedom; historically, African Americans built networks, communities, bonds with other people, and THAT is how they survived and held onto their humanity. So I also knew from the outset that Genna had to have friends and elders and rivals to help her get through. I created characters in the contemporary world that would contrast and/or coincide with people Genna met after traveling into the past.
4. Who was your favorite character to write about?
That’s hard to answer…I had a LOT of fun writing this book, and the characters were very real to me for a long time, even after I stopped writing. I liked Mattie a lot, and she’s already got a few scenes in the sequel. I know readers like Paul more than Judah, and both of them were fun to write—largely because they’re polar opposites! But I guess Genna was my favorite…
5. Do you share traits with any of the characters?
…in part because there’s a lot of me in her. I felt invisible a lot of the time when I was growing up, and my teen years were pretty unhappy. I had an older sister that boys loved, an older brother in trouble with the law, and a mother who wasn’t really there most of the time. My dad left the country, we were broke, I couldn’t deal with my hair…but I felt like all I had to do was hold on. If I could just hold on, I’d get out of high school, move away for college, and everything would instantly get better. That didn’t happen, of course, but I did learn that TRAVEL can change your perspective. I moved around a bit, and then in my last year of college I discovered black women writers like Toni Morrison and Jamaica Kincaid. And then my imagination REALLY took flight; I moved to Brooklyn, and a new phase of my life began—one where I was more in control, which was a new experience for me. Genna’s searching for that kind of power—she wants to be in control of her destiny but there are so many forces working against her. She’s never defeated, though, and I think I share her determination to stick around until things start to look up.
6. What was your favorite scene to write?
I’m not sure I’d say it’s my favorite, but I have vivid memories of writing the scene where Genna and Mrs. Brant fight in the kitchen. I kept hearing that word: THWAP! And it all came out so quickly…I had goosebumps as I wrote! It’s so hard for us in the 21st century to understand just how a slave becomes a slave; we like to think we’d have gone upside the head of any white person who tried to hurt us, but part of becoming a slave is learning not to fight back, understanding that the price of self-defense is just too high. Not only could a slave owner sell or whip YOU, s/he could sell or harm the people you love. Women were especially vulnerable in this sense because they were often mothers, and Nannie had already seen her children sold away from her…so I liked that scene because Genna acts on her instinct and the months of pressure that have been building inside of her; she can’t STAND Mrs. Brant, and yet after the fight ends, Genna finds herself out in the street wondering just what her options are. They’re so limited, and so she returns to the Brants’ home but finds a new way to resist. I was really satisfied with that scene and how it resolved itself.
7. Your book has a lot of very emotional scenes. Did you find yourself getting emotional while writing them?
YES! At times I was laughing out loud, and then I’d get so antsy I’d have to get up and walk around, then sit back down and write before the words flew out of my head. Writing my first novel (unpublished) was a different experience; it felt more like work. This novel was a joy to write—it really was. And I tend to write in a cinematic style, I think, so the film was playing in my head as I wrote—I could see it all unfolding, and because I live in Brooklyn, I could literally walk the streets I was writing about—I could go to the garden, or Brooklyn Heights, or Weeksville (which still exists!), or I could go to the library and look at photos of Brooklyn when it was still its own city. Plus I loved my characters, so I shared their feelings—I definitely shed a few tears! I finished Wish and immediately began writing the sequel; but my father had cancer and needed my care, so I eventually put the sequel away.
8. Can you give us the inside scoop on the sequel, Judah's Tale?
Inside scoop? As in, tell you what happens? Of course not! I haven’t even written it yet, and I’m not sure which direction I want to move in. The book’s supposed to be told from Judah’s perspective, but Genna just won’t let go. So half of the scenes I’ve written so far are told in Genna’s voice; she’s living in post-9/11 NYC, and that’s really hard for her. Then there’s Judah’s ongoing story in Weeksville, PLUS his slave narrative that we never fully uncovered in Wish. I start out with some info about his family, his childhood. I’ll give you the book’s opening line (spoken by Judah): “I may be a killer, but I am not my father.” You’ll just have to wait for the rest!
9. What can we expect from you in the future? Tell us about the projects you're currently working on.
Judah’s Tale, of course. I also wrote a middle grade novel this summer called Muñecas. I just finished an essay on Afro-urban magic and the Door of No Return; it’s about “way-finding” and how I plan to draw on African & African American belief systems to open portals for Genna in NYC. I’m thinking of polishing and self-publishing my first novel, One Eye Open, and I’m in negotiations to sell the rights to Wish.
10. Is there anything else you'd like to tell the readers out there?
I don’t think so, but I would like to thank YOU for giving my book a chance and for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts and feelings with your readers. First and foremost, I’m a writer, but I also really want to do what I can to change the publishing industry. It’s just not right that stories, which might mean a lot to young readers of color, aren’t being given a chance to exist. I spent five years trying to find a publisher for Wish and was rejected more times than I can count. I know some folks are tired of “urban lit,” but I write about the city and think there are fresh ways to tell stories about the urban environment. Other folks are tired of “slavery stories,” but again—there are new ways of looking at the past. We’ve got to stop clinging to the old way of doing things—let’s open the doors and let in more writers with a wider range of stories!