Interview with Cristen Iris

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I’ve met so many cool and interesting people through social media.  One such person is Cristen Iris, author, editor and founder of Blue Mantis Press.  I had the pleasure of interviewing with her this summer and I am excited to  share the interview with you today.
Interview with Cristen Iris –

Today I have the pleasure of introducing you to John D. Winston, the author of IA: Initiate, a YA novel and the first in a series of books. John and I met on Twitter several months ago. There was something about him that intrigued me. I checked him out on Facebook, read his tweets, and we exchanged messages. I was compelled to read his book.

Now, let me say first that I was not a YA fan. I associated YA with the Twilight saga, which in fairness I never read, but I did have a tween-age girl at the time it came out-I believed I had suffered enough. Before you send me hate mail, I did read Ms. Meyer’s tome, The Host. It was excellent, but at over six hundred pages, not your typical YA novel, which brings me back to John.

My communication with John helped me see that his book wasn’t a typical YA book either.
I purchased a copy and read it. I was right. It’s not what I had labeled a “typical YA novel.” Most refreshing for me was that it wasn’t a love story. After reading it I sent John an email. His response blew my mind and cracked open my shriveled little heart.

I’ve asked him a few leading questions because I want John to share with you what he shared with me.

1. What was your motivation for writing IA:Initiate?

I guess at the end of the day I expand on what I see on the big screen. That’s what usually does it for me. I have a place in my heart for the origin story. I was never a fan of Superman or comic book heroes in general until I saw the movie with Christopher Reeve and learned the origin of it all. That did it for me. I love a robust, Star Wars-like tale with a flawed hero or heroine that achieves in the end against overwhelming odds, cliché, I know. My stories always start from that vantage point and then the muse takes over and a spark is ignited.

Two instances stand out working with youth that fanned the flame that started from that initial impetus. The first was coaching a boys’ varsity basketball team where not one player was interested in seeing Revenge of the Sith: Blasphemy! The second was during a Boys Read program I was piloting in the school I taught in at the time. These boys had no interest in stories with heroes like Harry Potter, in print or on the big screen and a pattern began to emerge for me. It wasn’t that these kids lacked imagination. I think, on a subconscious level, these kids, like myself once upon a time, stopped relating to these characters, all of them, since none looked like them. It’s a very subtle, but powerful image … or lack of.

In the case of the IA series, simply put, I wanted to write a mainstream story on a grand scale with a protagonist of color that everyone would relate to. I want to balance or bring some equilibrium to that spectrum, if you will.

I contacted a reader on Goodreads who had written one of the many positive reviews IA: Initiate had received, to thank her and ask her why she had chosen my book over the countless others out there, and she replied:

“I often read first what I want my twin grandsons to read. I had been hoping to find a “Harry Potter” type book and series where the main character is African American and I believe ‘IA: Initiate’ fills that. Additionally, I look for “Super Hero” type books for them where the super hero is also African American. My grandsons delight in these characters on TV with European features, white skin and flowing Blond hair who don’t look like them.”

It was as if the words I had written in the subtle science fiction of IA: Initiate had spoken to her in the exact terms of my intent, and it was as if she had read my mind.

For whom did you write it?

At the end of the day I wrote the IA: Series for myself because I once was one of those kids who hated reading because there was nothing in it for me, no dream to later fantasize about, no hero I could pretend to be like and save the pretty girl trapped in the burning school building with my keen intellect or superhuman abilities. So I didn’t read, I wouldn’t read, and when I write now, I know that if I’m true to the part of me that used to be, the part of me that still dreams, that part that soars high above the clouds in his dreams, then I’m writing for the boy I used to be that still lives inside me, the boys and girls I teach every day. I wrote the IA Series for the dreamer who believes they have more inside them and that should be everyone.
2. How long did it take you to finish your first book in the series?

It took me approximately ten months to finish the first draft of IA: Initiate, which I eventually ended up cutting in half to be two books. I had no idea where to begin so I went on a 5-day cruise all by my not-so-lonesome and pulled the first three chapters from the waters of the Western Caribbean. I finished all but the last two chapters in my fortress of solitude back at home in the Exclave of Detroit. Those last two pesky tear-jerking chapters were a bit of a challenge, and I took a trip to the Grand Traverse Resort in Traverse City where I put my emotions in check and wrapped up my first rough tome.

3. What did you do to develop your craft?

To develop my craft I began to read anything I could get my hands on, and I mean anything. During that time no one ever saw me without a book or tablet in my hands: Riordan, Rowling, Collins, Meyer, King etc. You name it, and I was reading it. At the same time, I was reading any craft book I could find. One of my go to books at the time was and still is Stephen King’s, On Writing. I also took many workshops on Writers Digest.com and connected with other writers via social media. Ultimately I applied and was accepted into the MA Creative Writing Program at Wilkes University where I was able to be involved with a second-to-none writing community of professional published writers. I’ve since graduated and been accepted into their MFA program where my thesis is, you guessed it, Multiculturalism in Mainstream literature, yay, a topic my mentor at Wilkes is encouraging me to expand into a workshop and eventually a course.

4. Your response to my suggestion that young adult readers might prefer that the book open with a fight scene is what set you apart in my mind. Will you give readers your critique on contemporary YA?
(You said that you weren’t going to insult the intelligence of your readers by assuming that they didn’t have the attention span or commitment to stick with a story that wasn’t action packed from the start. I believe you used the term “literary YA” to describe what you wanted to write.)

Did I say that, Cristen, about not wanting to insult my reader’s intelligence? Yikes! Better be careful what I put out there, huh? But it’s true. I’ve read a lot of YA and middle grade in the last four years, but I’ve also, as I said earlier, read a lot of everything else. C.S. Lewis said it best. “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.”

I think that’s true now today more than ever with social media and what teenagers, even preteens are exposed to. I’m not advocating sex, drugs, or inappropriate language or other adult themes in youth literature, but when you look at the success of the Harry Potter and Hunger Games series, we see in both cases, evil acts, deaths, bullying, and peer pressure, but at the same time redemption and a brighter day is on the way as well, and children need to see this repeatedly because it is often played out in the real world more or less.

This concept of more also applies in a literary sense, keeping the bar steady instead of lowering it and compromising the work i.e. adding arbitrary action scenes for the sake of keeping the reader’s attention when a good story like Harry Potter, Hunger Games, or IA: Initiate achieves this with no action in the initial pages, but rather sets the story up as it should. Hey … maybe we’re on to something. And I like the sound of that: literary YA. Hmmm …

So you see, I was right. There is something special about Mr. John D. Winston and his work.

But I was also wrong. His story is a love story. It’s about his love for a group of kids who needed him to inspire them. It’s about his love of literature and his commitment to helping young readers, readers who have been ignored by mainstream writers and publishers, develop a meaningful relationship with books.

I was wrong about another thing too. There is no such thing as a “typical YA novel.” I’ve read a number of them since, including Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, and have gotten to know several more YA authors. The YA genre deserves much more respect and attention than I originally gave it.

YA authors are in a unique position to tackle difficult problems and to serve as mirrors and mentors for their intended audiences.

They can also challenge the status quo and expectations of older readers. Some, like Alexie, do so in a more direct way, using the written word to bring understanding and appreciation while others, like John, entertain and inspire the reader with the words and allow the blank spaces, the unwritten words, to invite the reader to embrace the broader concepts contained within the pages of their books.

I sincerely hope that some of those blank spaces came into sharper focus for you as a result of this interview. And for those of you who, like me, underestimated the value of the young adult genre for adult readers, I hope that your mind was blow and your heart opened.

You can find John on Twitter and on Facebook.
His first book IA:Initiate is available on Amazon.com.
Stay tuned for updates regarding the second book in the IA series, AI: B.O.S.S.. which will be released soon.

Bonus Question –

John, will you share your thoughts on genre with this audience? I suppose the more philosophical question is, in your opinion, when do labels help and when do they hurt?
(One of the things that stuck with me about what you said was that you didn’t want to be relegated to the African American section of the bookstore. That comment made me think about how institutional racism and publishing relate. I’ve been ruminating on your comments for months. What you said is very, very important. My hope is that this interview will honor the commitment you’ve made to your audience and to your craft. I hope that it encourages people to read IA: Initiate and to look forward to the remaining books in the series. But I also hope that it speaks to readers on a deep, personal level, and that it ripples through our industry and changes the status quo.)

That’s a terrific question, Cristen, and a tough one to tackle. For me, the subject of genre, multiculturalism (M), and diversity (D) becomes the great paradox. When we talk about those buzz words of M and D what are we truly talking about? Are we talking about more diverse books i.e. books about Blacks, Asians, Hispanics, Native Americans, etc., and their respective cultures (This diversity could also address or include sexual orientation, physically or mentally impaired populations and the like.) or are we talking about diversity within books. There is clearly a need for both, but I argue for the latter.

It is my hope and desire to be included in the bigger picture, not singled out which tends to isolate and segregate. If I see an Asian American section in Barnes & Noble, I’m going to assume those books were not written for me. I was recently in a Barnes & Noble store in the heart of Detroit and decided to inquire where my book would go on their shelves. I was directed to the African American section where I did not find one sci-fi book. I took a trip over to the YA section where I could not find one Black author. There is something incredibly wrong with that picture. I tend to favor the melting pot over the mosaic, and the characters in IA are diverse and accurately reflect this sentiment.

Labels help when we’re talking about fiction, non-fiction, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, etc, but tend to perpetuate racism when it is used to categorize and separate literature on that basis alone. I firmly believe that people as a whole do not care what race their heroes are and they prove it every day at the box office (and during election cycles in the voting booth). Publishers, agents, booksellers, and authors need to trust that as well and begin to move in the appropriate direction. IA: Initiate is a great move in that direction.

Cristen Iris
2015

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