Video transcript
NSW Premier's Reading Challenge 2023 - SWF author interview (secondary) - 03. Jason Reynolds

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ALEX: Hi. My name is Alex. I'm a student at North Sydney Girls High School. I'm here today on Cammeraygal lands at The Concourse Chatswood for the Sydney Writers' Festival Secondary Schools Day, and I'm interviewing Jason Reynolds for the Premier's Reading Challenge, NSW. Hi, Jason. How are you today?

JASON REYNOLDS: I'm so well. So, so, so well. Thank you, Alex. I appreciate you.

ALEX: So now that you're in Australia, can you give us your best g'day?

JASON REYNOLDS: Oh, goodness. Now I'm more embarrassed. I can give you my best stereotypical g'day. G'day, mate.

ALEX: There we go. You're an official Australian citizen now.

JASON REYNOLDS: Or that you're an American-- one or the other. Yeah.


ALEX: So I know you hadn't read a complete book until you were 17. What was that book, and why was it so captivating for you?

JASON REYNOLDS: Oh, goodness. It was a book called 'Black Boy' by Richard Wright. It's a classic, an American classic, specifically a south-- like an American Southern classic.

And what did it for me was I had this professor who realised that I wasn't reading, realised that my lack of reading was going to be a detriment to my emotional growth as a human being.

And so he said, 'Look, if you read this book, just read the first 2 pages, and if you like the first 2 pages, you can read page 3,. and if you like page 3, read page 4, and if you don't like any of these pages, you can just close the book, and we'll call it even,' and I was thinking to myself, 'This is a good deal,' because I hate to read, and so I know I'm going to dislike the book.

Of course, what he understood was that on page number 2, the main character, who was like 12, sets the curtains on fire and burns his mother's house down-- his grandmother's house down, and I was-- my world was turned upside down because I realised in that moment that it's not that I hated to read, I just hated to be bored, and so many of the books that I was being given were just boring. But if the action starts early, I might be able to engage with the work, and that's really what it was for me.

ALEX: So that's how you write now, to prevent your books from being boring.

JASON REYNOLDS: Yeah. I just don't expect anybody to want to engage and spend that much time with me waiting for the good part because there's no other storytelling medium in our lives where that's the case. A song, you get 45 seconds, then you get to the hook. A movie, you have 5 minutes, and you get to the turn. Theatre happens immediately.

And so it just feels strange that we expect young people to wait 100 pages to get to the conflict. I'm like, 'No, let's just start the book off with a bang,' so that people will be more catalysed to keep going, and then we can slow it down a little bit, now that I've got people hooked.

ALEX: So I know you've been writing poetry since you were quite young, and since, of course, you've written poetry and prose. So what would you say is the preferred thing to write, and what would you say is your preferred sort of medium to read?

JASON REYNOLDS: Oh, that's tricky. I think every story calls for its own thing, and I think, as an artist, which is what we have to remember that writers are, I'm an artist, and so, I do whatever the assignment calls for creatively.

If that means that it's verse, if that means that it's prose, if that means that it's-- I mean, I just put out a book that's both. It just sort of depends on what I think serves the story, and what I think will serve the reader.

And in the same breath, I won't do something if I think it won't serve no matter what. If people are like, 'Well, this story, you can't write it in verse.' It's like, 'Well, if I feel like it's better to write it in verse, I write it in verse, and if I feel like it's better to write it in vignette, or if I want to write it all in limerick, or if I decided it's essays--,' whatever it is, I just do what I want to do.

ALEX: It's your art.

JASON REYNOLDS: It's my art. As long as I'm using those letters, I can do what I want with them, and that's sort of how I feel.

And then the other thing is just thinking about the differences. I mean, I tell people all the time, there are some things that call for-- the analogy would be like to jump into a pool and swim around the bottom of it, like a mosaic tile on the floor of a pool. Sometimes the story calls for you to explore a world that way. Other times, it calls for you to pour water from a rooftop into a single glass.

Both things are really, really difficult, and really, really hard to do, and really, really interesting. It just depends upon what the story calls for at the moment. And verse is like pouring water into a glass, and a prose novel is like jumping into a huge pool and swimming around and exploring the bottom, and both things are important.

ALEX: So between the free verse poetry of 'Long Way Down' and the graphic novel form of 'Oxygen Mask', you seem to be moving away from this traditional prose and storytelling. How important is the visual aspect of storytelling to you?

JASON REYNOLDS: Well, I think, like I was saying, I think for those 2 books, and specifically, that's what they called for. 'Oxygen Mask' was written in 2020. I couldn't have written a prose novel if I wanted to.

Emotionally and mentally I was exhausted. I just didn't have the energy to write like that, as the world-- I mean we were all locked in our houses. Some people would think that a writer locked in his house might be a good thing for his work right. But for me, it was terrible. It was terrible.

There's this weird thing that we all think as artists, it's like, 'Oh, when these moments happen, at least we know we'll have our art.' But it wasn't like that for me. It wasn't there for me in the way that I was used to it being there for me, and I had to search for new ways to express myself with a very limited amount of mental and emotional and creative capacity.

And that's the way that 'Oxygen Mask' came to be. This was all I could muster. These 400 words, these 3 sentences, it's all I had, and so I gave the world what it is that I had to try to be honest about that in that moment, instead of forcing myself to write something that I knew wouldn't have been good.

And then with 'Long Way Down' it was the same thing. I wrote-- the original version of 'Long Way Down' is actually written in prose. There is a draft of that book in my cabinet somewhere that they'll find when I'm dead. I had to put all my notes that says, 'Please do not publish this posthumously.'

That is a very different novel, and is a much longer novel, and it takes a lot longer to read. But the question was, will young people actually believe that this takes place over the course of a young man's-- over a minute-- the course of a minute of a young man's life if it takes them 3 weeks to read it? And the answer for me, ultimately, was no. I need to write something that feels more immediate, and so I changed the style.

So it has nothing to do with me sort of pushing away from a prose, the standard prose novel, and everything to do with me being honest about what it is I'm making in a particular moment.

ALEX: So once you started writing poetry again like 'Long Way Down', did you still find that you were taking inspiration from some of the music you were listening to? I know that some of your earlier work was inspired by some rap that you were listening to.

JASON REYNOLDS: Yeah. You know, I think-- so in this case-- it's a good question. In this case, no. Not because rap music isn't still a part of my inspirational bank, but because it is just a part of my inspirational bank. It sort of lives in me as a part of my psyche. It's something that I never had to drum up or think about. I just sort of live in that space.

You know, you have to remember that rap music, as a musical art form, has taken over the world. As a cultural art form, though, existed far before the rest of the world knew about it.

That music is sort of rooted in real stuff that a lot of us live. That language, and the way that they talked, and the way that they walked, and that was just the way that we all spoke and talked and walked. It just happened to become a musical art form that then spread around the world. So that is who I am. So I never have to go searching for that.

What that book was really inspired by actually was movies-- lots of film, a lot of Alfred Hitchcock. I think what filmmakers do, specifically those who write things that are-- some of the horror filmmakers and the scary films, or some of the people who make Gothic stories, is they use manipulation tools with the camera.

So, for instance, Hitchcock, he would like tilt the camera just slightly askew, but just have a normal scene-- a man and a woman having a conversation. But the camera is a little bit lopsided, and suddenly, the viewer doesn't know why they feel so uncomfortable. But they feel uncomfortable because there's something dissonant on the screen that's registering to their subconscious that makes them a little uncomfortable.

That's what 'Long Way Down' was meant to do, and I was pulling that kind of stuff by spreading the words out, breaking the line. Like the earthquake piece-- separating the language to cause some discomfort in the reader without having to actually have anything uncomfortable happening. This kid is just in an elevator being visited, but yet, the story feels a lot more intense than that.

ALEX: Yeah. So you have a very distinctive style and voice in your writing. I personally always find that it sounds like a fellow teenager speaking directly to me like a friend. What's the importance to you of developing this literary voice?

JASON REYNOLDS: I think-- and that voice is sort of equivalent to the reason why magicians are still doing magic tricks with a deck of cards. So, you know, like the-- magic is a funny thing. Magicians are-- this is a craft that is hundreds and hundreds of years old, and yet, the one trick that everyone is still doing is 'pick a card, any card,' and the reason why that trick is always going to exist is because secretly we all want to believe that somebody else knows what's on our minds, that someone else could guess the thing that we're thinking.

That's what the voice is for. It's just a way for me to say like-- it's a way for me to directly connect to some young person who believes that that voice only exists between themselves and their friends. When really, it's like, 'No, that voice could exist between you and your friends, and now these new people that you're experiencing in this story,' which means that you might feel like there's intimacy built enough for you to share some of your secrets within the pages of a book. That's the goal.

The beauty of it is, for me at least, is that I know that language because so much of it-- not all of it, but so much of it has been influenced by the music that you all listen to, and that music happens to be the music directly rooted in the culture in which I was born and raised in.

So it's like the ultimate cheat code. It's like a weird thing that I just know how to do because that's just a part of-- it's the way that I actually speak. And so the way that I naturally talk is the way that you naturally talk with different accents and variations around the world. It's like youth culture around the world, and so I just get this weird 'in' to connect with people, just by default, and I'm grateful for it.

ALEX: Finally, what would your advice be to aspiring young writers?

JASON REYNOLDS: Well, number one, that if-- that difficulty is a part of it. Your generation, I think, very well may be the most brilliant generation to ever live, and I truly mean that. What concerns me sometimes is that you all are allergic to difficulty. But to be a good writer, you've got to get real comfortable with it.

Writing is difficult. It just is a part of the process, and I think the first thing I would say is that be OK with the difficulty. As a matter of fact, be proud of the fact that writing is hard. That's what makes it special. You have to toil with the thing to make it good.

The other thing I would say is don't be afraid to write badly because it is a futile fear. Because writing badly is inevitable, an absolute guarantee. So there's no reason to fear a thing that is going to happen.

You're going to be bad at it. You're going to write badly, and that is good because it gives you something to work with. But you can't fix what don't exist. You've got to put it on the page first.

And so I'd say, 'Don't be afraid to write badly. I write badly. All your heroes have trash first draughts, every single one of them, and second draughts.'

And then lastly, I would say that you have to know your stuff, which means you have to read, and you have to write, and you have to practise like everything else. I practise my sentences. I've written the same sentence 50 times just to see how many variations of a sentence could work, so that I could make something like 'Long Way Down'.

How can I use language to trigger things? You get 26 letters. That is your-- that is your toolbox-- 26 letters that you get to rearrange in all kinds of different codes that might change somebody's mind. But that requires an enormous amount of practice like any other wizard would have to do. You got to practise those spells. I think those would be my 3 main pieces of advice.

ALEX: Well, thank you so much, Jason. It's been a pleasure talking to you.

JASON REYNOLDS: The pleasure is mine, Alex, and don't forget me when you're famous doing whatever you want to.


ALEX: I hope, [laughs] and I hope that everybody enjoys reading your works as they complete the Premier's Reading Challenge this year.

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