Renée Watson grew up in Northeast Portland, and the acclaimed author and poet has built a sterling career putting the experiences of Black girls and women at the center — and on the cover — of books sold around the country.
On the latest episode of Beat Check with The Oregonian, Watson spoke with Amy Wang, the books columnist for The Oregonian and OregonLive.
They talked about Watson’s newest book, Love is a Revolution; her writing process, how Watson, who splits time between Portland and New York City, has been unable to visit the Rose City since the pandemic hit, how she decides to create her characters, what other projects she has in store and much more.
Watson is also the coauthor of the 2019 book “Watch us Rise,” and the second book in her middle-grade Ryan Hart series, which is set in Portland, comes out in April. She’s a Newbery Honor and Coretta Scott King Award-winning author.
This is a rush transcript produced primarily through voice-to-text software. It may contain inaccuracies and may be updated or revised. Time notations are approximate.
Andrew Theen: [00:00:00] Renée Watson grew up in Northeast Portland, and the acclaimed author and poet has built a sterling career putting the experiences of Black girls and women at the center — and on the cover — of books sold around the country. I’m Andrew Theen, and this is Beat Check with The Oregonian. Up next, a conversation between Watson and Amy Wang, the books columnist for The Oregonian and OregonLive.
They talked about Watson’s newest book, “Love Is a Revolution”; her writing process; how Watson, who splits time between Portland and New York City, has been unable to visit the Rose City since the pandemic hit; how she decides to create her characters; what other projects she has in store; and much more.
Watson is also the coauthor of the 2019 book “Watch Us Rise,” and the second book in her middle-grade Ryan Hart series, which is set in Portland, comes out in April.
Here’s their conversation.
Amy Wang: [00:01:00] I am here this morning with Renée Watson, a Portland-raised author of children’s books and young adult novels. Good to be with you, Renée.
Renée Watson: [00:01:10] Thanks for having me.
Amy Wang: [00:01:11] We are talking today about your latest novel, “Love Is a Revolution.”
Renée Watson: [00:01:16] Yes, it’s a young adult novel. I’m very excited about it. It’s been a great first week of it being out in the world and been really nice to get everybody’s respond and share it with young people.
Amy Wang: [00:01:29] Congratulations, by the way. So I want to put “Love Is a Revolution” and a little bit of context for people who aren’t familiar with your work. So how do you prefer to describe yourself as an author? I mentioned children’s books and young adult novels, but you occupy a certain niche.
Renée Watson: [00:01:45] Yeah. I mean, I, I describe myself as a writer.
I write across genres, so right now I am publishing a lot of books for young readers that range from picture books all the way to young adult novels. I also write poetry and short stories and plays. So I’m a writer, and it just depends on how the story wants to come out. And then I figure out what it should be if it should be a poem or a picture book, or, you know, a longer form novel. I think my background in working with young people has influenced a lot of the books that I’m writing lately, but one day I hope the right adult as well.
Amy Wang: [00:02:24] Oh, that would be great.
Renée Watson: [00:02:27] Thanks.
Amy Wang: [00:02:28] So what inspired you to write “Love Is a Revolution”?
Renée Watson: [00:02:32] So I had just finished writing and working on “Watch Us Rise,” which I co-wrote with Ellen Hagan, who’s a great friend of mine and also a poet and novelist herself. And in that book, our main characters are very bold and brave and they’re using their art to stand up for what they believe in and to fight injustice on a large community scale, and also at the school. And they’re just kind of these idealist, young, budding activist girls.
And I know those girls. I’ve worked in schools with young people who are like that. I also know the young people who are on the sidelines watching that happen and who are not quite ready to stand up and use their voice in that way, or who may never want to use their voice in that way. So I was just thinking about the quieter young woman who is definitely someone who cares about her community but is just showing up for her community in a different way.
So I wanted to explore this idea of the many ways we can be activists. What does it mean to show up for the people you love and care about? And then also, how does that look in a loving, romantic relationship? Like how do we love ourselves? How do we love our community? And how do we love our significant others as well?
So the book is a love story of all sorts of love, and the layers are self love, community love, and then loving your family and friends.
Amy Wang: [00:04:04] Yeah, I really enjoyed how two of your main characters — your protagonist, Nala, and her cousin-sister-friend, Imani — they really epitomized a tension between going out and doing good for your community, but not sacrificing your own family.
Renée Watson: [00:04:24] Yeah. I think balance is really hard for adults, right? And so when I think about young people who are trying to navigate, what does it mean to show up in the world and be engaged? And if I’m an activist and- do I have to talk a certain way, dress a certain way, do certain activities? What can I still enjoy?
You know, there’s all these kind of rules that I think, especially when you’re young, you feel like you have to do in order to prove that you’re down for the movement or down for the cause. And so Nala is trying to figure out, well, where does she fit? And what is the balance of that? Like, how can I, how could I ever walk past a neighbor on my way to go make a speech and talk to hundreds of people when I can’t even say hello to my next door neighbor or the person across the street? So she’s thinking about on the smaller scale, you know, how can I show love and show that I care? And Imani is very much big picture, you know, protest, speeches, activities, events. And they kind of hopefully balance each other out and come to an understanding of each person’s standpoint and point of view.
Amy Wang: [00:05:36] Yeah, it was so interesting to me to meet a character who didn’t want to be that woke girl, but then comes to realize there are- there’s more than one way to be woke.
Renée Watson: [00:05:48] Yes. Yes. I like, you know, Nala is very, she’s flawed. And she’s, she’s, she’s probably one of the most, you know, kind of down-to-earth, relatable, recognizable characters that I have spent some time with.
She is, she makes a lot of mistakes. You know, the, the premise of the story is that she reluctantly goes to this open mic night with her cousin-sister-friend, and her cousin of the part of this activism group. And she goes, and then she meets Tye, the very handsome, very nice guy who is so serious, as well, about his activism.
So she tells lies to impress him and then just gets caught up in her lie. Like she’s pretending that she volunteers and she’s there, she’s a vegan or vegetarian, like she’s making up all these, you know, different scenarios and changing her hair, all of, all of that to fit in to what she thinks he’s going to want her to be.
And then she has to realize, well, look, if I, if I’m going to love anyone else, I have to first love myself and take care of myself. And I just think about all the young people, maybe it’s not with activism, but there’s ways in which we change ourselves to fit in and to kind of you know, be liked and to be accepted by groups.
And we’re, some of us are afraid to say the wrong thing, or is it problematic to listen to this song or to like this particular kind of art? And so she’s yeah, she’s trying to figure out, can I still be me and be a person who cares about what’s happening in the world? And what does that mean?
What is the balance of holding onto your identity while also being open to change and evolving?
Amy Wang: [00:07:38] It feels really relevant. I think a lot of people are really, you know, not just teenagers, are really struggling with that in this moment.
Renée Watson: [00:07:46] Yeah, I think it is a conversation I’ve been having a lot with, with friends, with family, with educators, you know, where everyone is thinking about, like, who are you in this world? And how do you want to show up in the world? Who do you want to be? And also, how do you, I think that a lot of what we’ve been talking about to kind of on a fuller national conversation is this idea and notion of self care and self love. And how do we accept our bodies? How do we accept all of who we are?
And if you want to change something, is it because you want to? Or is it still, you’re not good enough so you need to change? And she’s also showing that in the story, her full whole self. She’s a plus-size girl, dark skinned, Black girl who lives in Harlem. And I really wanted her to come to the story already okay with how her body is and what she looks like. And that the thing that she’s working on is not about changing that, but actually changing who she is, not what she, what she looks like, but who she is, the essence of herself. And what does that kind of self-love and self-care look like?
So I’ve been thinking a lot about that in working with young girls and talking about beauty standards and you know, all of that, just wondering, how do we help young people accept themselves and critique, you know, their own self and say, okay, I like this about me, but this is something I really do want to work on and I really do want to change, and not because a magazine is telling me that I should, but because I want to, you know? She’s kind of dealing with that as well.
Amy Wang: [00:09:29] Yeah. It’s a relief almost to see a teenage girl protagonist who isn’t obsessed with improving her looks, but is very comfortable with them.
Renée Watson: [00:09:40] Yeah, it was important than me. I mean, I’ve certainly written, you know, about girls who are battling low self-esteem and trying to figure out, you know, who they are, and they hide their bodies and are ashamed of them and they come into their own. But I also know that young women who are very confident and just fine, and don’t make excuses or apologies for their bodies.
And I also really wanted there to be more than one big girl in the book. So Nala is a big girl. Her cousin is big, her aunties and her mother. You know, I really wanted the book to reflect the world I know, and the world that I live in, and there are, there’s body diversity in the world, and everyone doesn’t show up looking the same way.
And so I was also trying to kind of break some of the tropes of romantic comedies where the person who gets the guy in this is match a typical main character love interest. And what does that mean for, to let her show up without apology and, and be the beautiful one and the center of the story?
That was very important to me. So I’m very proud of, of that. And I’m proud of the cover. You know, she is fly, beautiful, strong, and not, you know, looking sad or downtrodden or anything like that. And so I, I really appreciate that my publisher was also kind of all, we were all on the same page of just like making sure that Nala is presented as a girl who is confident in who she is.
Amy Wang: [00:11:19] I was going to mention the cover. It’s just a lovely cover. And it addresses that self-confidence and the relationship you just mentioned.
Renée Watson: [00:11:27] Yeah, I think, you know, representation is important. It matters. And the more we can normalize girls like Nala being on the cover and being the love interest and not trying to fix or change anything about herself, I think that’s a good thing. And I’m excited that young adult literature is embracing this kind of movement, I feel, to have real bodies on covers. You know, I think the industry at large, publishing, movies, television, all of it, the arts at large, we have a long way to go, but it is encouraging to see that this is becoming more and more of the norm to see like real, what real girls look like being on covers.
Amy Wang: [00:12:13] Yeah, one thing that’s always stood out to me about your work is that it epitomizes that philosophy of windows and mirrors providing, providing readers with windows and of, into other people’s lived experiences or mirrors to their own lived experience. How much do you work to center that fall philosophy in your work or does that happen more organically?
Renée Watson: [00:12:34] It’s both. I don’t- I feel like it’s probably an equal balance. I mean, I love- Rudine Sims Bishop, the woman who kind of coined that phrase and that idea of having books that young people can look into and see their own reflection right? So first and foremost, yes, I am writing for Black girls. I’m writing a lot of my books take place in the Pacific Northwest. I want to make sure our stories are on record.
So there’s that aspect of mirror, and then, yeah, I’m definitely thinking of, well, what about the kids who look at the cover and they don’t look like Nala. What does that mean for them? And hoping that they have some empathy and insight into what Nala’s world is.
And of course, you know, we all know as adults, especially, stories bring us closer together. And the more I learn about you, I realize, oh, I might not have been through that exact thing that you’ve gone through, but I can relate to the themes of loss, pain, and security, love, you know, failing, trying again. All of that kind of stuff.
And so I think I’m always, you know, keeping my readers at the forefront of my mind and hoping that everyone who comes to this story will fit in, in some kind of way. Either seeing who they are and their community, or being able to learn about somebody else’s.
Andrew Theen: [00:14:01] Let’s take a break and come back and hear more of Amy Wang’s conversation with Renée Watson, a New York Times bestselling author. Watson grew up in Portland and graduated from Jefferson High School.
Amy Wang: [00:14:16] You mentioned keeping your readers at the forefront. Can you talk about your writing process a little? Do characters or plot come first for you or something else entirely?
Renée Watson: [00:14:26] Usually characters come first. This is the first book that I had the plot before I really knew who Nala was. So I immediately, like, I knew that I needed a break also from writing some of the more serious books that I do write. You know, I have written a lot about the intersections of race, class, and gender, and they tend to be a little heavier. And then I, you know, I pour my heart out and then have to go on book tours. And so I’ve been, for many years straight, having very intense conversations about race and class and, and it’s been wonderful talking to educators, young people, parents.
But I also wanted to focus on Black joy and just have you know, a nuanced story where it’s not necessarily where her Blackness is a struggle or it’s about overcoming any kind of social issue in that way. So I knew I was going to write a love story, and this girl is in a lie and the lie is going to get out of control and then, you know, we’ll see what happens.
And that’s the first time that I’ve ever, I kind of had the ending, everything came to me all at once. And then I had to go back and think, now who was Nala? And how can I make her likable? Because you know, she is being very untruthful. So usually you don’t like that character in a book, so I had to go back and really think about, well, what is, why is she lying? And what is- what are her fears, and what are, what is she passionate about? You know, and I kind of went from there.
But most of the time I really start with the character first. So I make a lot of lists. I ask myself questions, I ask the character questions, and I usually start off with just making a list of themes that I want to write at some point.
And I kind of interview my character and I ask her, who are you afraid of? Who makes you smile? What do you want? What’s in the way of what you want? You know, I get those answers going. And then once I feel like I know the character, I started writing, and I go back to that list. If I get stuck and I’m like, oh, this is a horrible writing day, I don’t know what to do, this scene is going nowhere, I’ll, I’ll go to that list that I wrote when I was so excited about the book and feeling all the energy, and then I’ll maybe free-write one of the scenes and add it in maybe. And sometimes I don’t, but if I just try to practice the muscle of writing every day.
Amy Wang: [00:16:55] Hmm. Yeah. That’s, that’s what you hear all the time with writing advice. The main, the first step is to do it every day.
Renée Watson: [00:17:02] Yeah. Even if it’s just short. I mean, you know, with my schedule, if I’m traveling or have a lot of events, I might only be able to write it for 30 minutes and that- you can get a lot done in 30 minutes, though.
So I set a timer and write, usually early in the morning, so I could just, okay, I did it. And then if I can go back, you know, and do more work throughout the day, I will. But there are definitely some days where it is coming out very slow and it’s not flowing in the way that I wanted to, but I am committed to being disciplined.
Even when the inspiration isn’t there so that if the inspiration sites, you know, that’s the best thing. That’s a great feeling. But if it doesn’t, I have worked just the muscle of being disciplined to write.So I’m able to still push through and get pages out, even if it doesn’t feel like the most empowering writing session.
Amy Wang: [00:17:59] Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting the rust out of the carburetor.
Renée Watson: [00:18:03] Yeah, that’s so true. And, and, you know, I found that especially young writers, the real writing happens in revision. So if I can just get the first draft out, you know, then I can go back and be the writer, like in the first draft and kind of the storyteller. And I’m just telling the story. And it might not be coming out in these beautiful, poetic sentences or anything like that, but I got to just get to the ending so I know what I’m working with.
And then I can go back and really be a writer and figure out, okay, I’ve told the story. Now let me go back and figure out how to tell it better and stronger.
Amy Wang: [00:18:43] Well, you mentioned traveling a few moments ago. You grew up in Portland, but you’re still, and you’re now living in New York. You’re still coming back to Portland often, or has that changed in the past year, given the pandemic?
Renée Watson: [00:18:55] So, yeah, I use, I split my time between Portland and New York. I’m usually in Portland, I don’t know, anywhere from five months to sometimes even more than that- a year. So I was so sad this past year, 2020, of not being able to come home. I miss my family. I mean, you know, we have FaceTime and Zoom and all of that, but there’s nothing like just being home.
So I haven’t been back since I think the last time I was, there was literally a year ago. This time last year, right before everything kind of went on lock down, I was honored at Jefferson High School, actually. They named, or they put my name on one of the classrooms that I, I took English in C13, Linda Christiansen’s classroom.
It was a beautiful ceremony for that, and I got to meet students, and, and then I told my family, I will see you in April becausd we were on lockdown a few weeks after that.
Amy Wang: [00:20:08] I’m sorry, it’s been a tough time with not seeing family for lots of us.
Renée Watson: [00:20:13] It has been, yeah. It’s- you know, it’s interesting. There’s been so much loss and so much turmoil in this last year, even. And I remember I was revising “Love Is a Revolution” and the summer came with all of the protests and the fighting and the outcry that Black Lives Matter.
And here I am writing this romantic comedy. And I really was like, hmm, maybe I should change what I’m doing. Like this isn’t, this doesn’t feel right. Like I write realistic fiction. I gotta keep it real. It needs to be writing about what’s happening. And then I, I have to remind myself that, you know, joy is happening too. And love is happening too. And teenagers are teenagers. And while this is happening, they are also falling in love and, you know, making their playlists and going on TikTok and all of that. So I wanted to also honor that moment that it, even in the midst of all the heaviness, that there still is some joy.
And so I was actually really refreshing. So right during the pandemic, at first it was very intimidating and I, it was heavy, but as I just kept pushing through and letting those, the characters live in this joy and in their world of everydayness, you know, it was very healing for me to kind of take a break from, from writing the serious stuff and letting young people just be kids. So that helped me get through the pandemic as well.
Amy Wang: [00:21:52] Well, that sounds like a nice way to get through the pandemic, honestly.
Your novels frequently do have that Portland/Pacific Northwest setting, as you mentioned. I think, correct me if I’m wrong, this is your second novel set entirely in New York, though.
Renée Watson: [00:22:11] Yeah, it is. I, yeah, it just felt right that this is a Harlem story. Nala is Jamaican American. I am too, and I’ve never had a character also have roots connected to Jamaica.
And so I just was thinking about the culture here in Harlem and the young group of teen activists that I know here in the city. And so I was like, yeah, I think it makes sense to place her in Harlem. So yeah, I, normally- I mean, I try to write what I know, and I’ve lived here long enough now where I do feel comfortable placing characters in New York City. Whereas when I first moved here, I was still learning it so much that it didn’t feel like, okay, I know the rhythm. I know, you know, the city. But now that I’ve been here — I don’t know, it’s been, oh goodness, I think 15 years maybe? Yeah. I feel like I can write about it now from a place of knowing and not second guessing or having to do too much research.
Amy Wang: [00:23:17] Well, we’re still looking forward to more Portland-set stories from you, like Ryan Hart’s series. Is that continuing now?
Renée Watson: [00:23:25] Yes. So in April we will have book two of the Ryan Hart series. It’s called “Ways to Grow Love,” and we get to meet her baby sister in this point of the, of the series and see Ryan being a big sister and trying on that role and also going on a camping trip and having to deal with some more friendship woes with Red and Amanda and KiKi, and doing her little shenanigans to, you know, get back at her brother or to have shenanigans and things like that at the camping trip. So it was again fun to write a character who just gets to be a little fun and low key and playful, and really sweet. Ryan is such a sweet character, and I’ve really enjoyed putting her in different situations and seeing how she gets herself out of them.
Amy Wang: [00:24:26] Yes. That’s- and, and as a middle grade series, it’s, it’s a little different too, from what, what you’re, what you’re otherwise doing.
Renée Watson: [00:24:34] Yeah. My personal writing goal is, is to have a range. I definitely want, even within my body of work, that they will be nuanced and diverse stories about the many ways young people exist in the world and especially the many stories of the Black community.
And so even in thinking about Portland as a product of Northeast Portland — that is home for me, that is where I grew up — you know, I know, like Jade from (Watson’s 2017 book) “Piecing it Together,” I absolutely know that story. Of feeling invisible and wanting to be seen and having people judge you because of the neighborhood they’re from. You know, I went to Jefferson. There were lots of stereotypes about that school and about Northeast Portland. I know Maya and Nikki from (Watson’s 2015 book) “This Side of Home,” you know, gentrification in Portland.
But I also know Ryan, who just playing outside and being so loved and nurtured by her teachers and the community and her church. You know, I went to Vernon Elementary School, where Ryan goes, and I know Alberta Park very well ,and Antioch Missionary Baptist Church was the church I grew up in.
And so I also just wanted to honor that too, where there was so much love and support for me as a young person. Some of my favorite memories of living in Portland as a kid, whether we would be outside playing and, you know, the neighbors knew you, they were looking out for you. They would step in if you were cutting up and doing what you should’ve been doing.
And I just, I want to make sure that I tell that part, too. You know, if I’m going to critique Portland and ask people to examine the issues that Portland has, I also want to celebrate Portland and talk about the beauty that’s there. In this book, Ryan learns about roses and what thorns are for on a rose.
And I just think about that metaphor of Portland being the City of Roses and that it’s beautiful, and that it has its thorns. And as a writer, I want to do both, and Ryan and that series gives me kind of that moment to pause and just celebrate and, and also that a Black girl in the Pacific Northwest be seen and visible and playing in the rain and going camping and enjoying the beauty that is Oregon, too.
So, in this next book, she gets to get out of the city of Portland and on this camping trip, so it’s kind of my love letter to Portland as well.
Amy Wang: [00:27:13] Well, you mentioned just a few moments ago, “Piecing Me Together.” Did I read somewhere that there’s a screen adaptation coming up?
Renée Watson: [00:27:21] It’s coming. Yeah. You know, its announcement came right before the lockdown. So nothing has happened yet, but yes, it is. It is being options to be a film through HBO and their new streaming service. So yes, hopefully soon we’ll have more updates and news about that.
Amy Wang: [00:27:43] All right. Well, Renée, I appreciate this conversation with you.
Renée Watson: [00:27:49] Thank you so much.
Andrew Theen: [00:27:54] Thanks for listening to Beat Check with The Oregonian. I shared a link to Renée Watson’s website in the episode notes. Watson will be appearing remotely at Powells Books March 3 at 5 p.m. If you like this show, leave us a five-star rating and review on Apple Podcasts, and tell a friend. The best way to support our journalism is with the subscription to oregonlive.com. You can do that at oregonlive.com/podsupport.
Until next time.