An Interview with Alan Lawrence Sitomer

1. Tell me how you got started writing, in particular writing for teens. Why did you focus on writing books with an urban setting featuring youth of color?

I am one of those people who always was a writer. In middle school, in high school, in college and beyond, I always wrote, wrote, wrote. The fact that I turned it into a career is the [happily] surprising part. Yet, if they stopped paying me for my stories I would still cook them up. It’s not a want as much as it is a need for me. Truth is I think I’d go loony without this vehicle to let all the voices in my head get out.

As far as why I focused on an urban setting, well, it doesn’t take a therapist to see that I am reliving my own youth in many ways. I had a hardscrabble teenage life filled with lots of things and goings on that characterized growing up on the “other side of the tracks”. To me, the pain of financial trouble, emotional instability, crazy highs and swooping lows feels normal. In a way so many of my books are gritty because when I was a kid, that’s what life was for me. And fans of my books often are readers who see their own lives reflected on the pages in front of them. Maybe not in the exact circumstances, but they can relate to the emotional aspect of these tales. As far as featuring “youths of color” (as you put it) when I was a kid, I went to a school where whites were in the minority so lots and lots of my friends were “youths of color”. Of course I knew we were different but I also knew we were, in many more ways the same.

That’s why it’s really not an issue for me. People are human and kids are kids before they are “youths of color”. I learned that on the front lines.

2. Your books, starting with The Hoopster, are popular for lots of reasons, but in particular often with kids who can’t or won’t read other books.  Like me, I know you speak at conferences about how to connect these kids with books, so give me the short version: in your opinion, what are the elements of a successful book for reluctant teen readers?

To really draw teens in I work hard on grabbing them by their reading jugular right out of the gate. Pick up any of my books, from HOMEBOYZ to CAGED WARRIOR to NOBLE WARRIOR, and so on, and you’ll see that the action starts on page one, blasts the reader in the face by page two, and from that point on they better strap in and get ready for a ride.

In many of my books, I pull no punches. Then again, in many kids’ lives these days, the world is not holding back either. My books reflect that reality – especially for “urban” kids - and provide a sense of hope for them that no matter how nutty things gets, there is always a way out for people who choose the high road.

Of course, all well-told tales have ups-and-downs, moments of intense action and other times where the pace slows so the readers can catch their breath and look more deeply into the interior world of the characters, but I definitely write the books that I myself wanted to read as a teen. That means gritty, intense, funny, exciting and provocative. At the end of the day, my opinion is that teens are finicky – rightfully so – which means that authors have to craft stories that come from a deep and meaningful space inside of themselves. Not all kids will relate but the ones that do really do. Those are the ones I target.  

3. You are a former classroom teacher and I know still spend lots of times in classrooms doing school visits.   Why should librarians and teachers invite authors to their schools? What do you get out of it? What do the kids get out of it?  Why is this such a win win?

When I was a kid in school, I thought all authors were dead. Now of course, things have changed and kids today know that many of their favorite authors are not only alive but can be easily reached through social media and the such. However, the truth remains that an author visit has some sort of magic rocket sauce in a bottle that awakens kids’ interests in reading unlike almost any other tool out there to get kids excited about books and literacy.

I’ve seen it hundreds of times. And so have many of the writers with whom I am friends. Behind the scenes we all talk about how it’s not only a great treat for us to interact with the fans who keep us in print but also we speak about how amazing it is that we can be the ones who help trigger a tipping point for young people. Teachers and librarians do so much of the hard work on the front lines to manifest author visits and, as we all know, pulling off these feats is not the easiest thing in the world to do by any stretch, but, once an author hits campus, speaks to students, signs some books, poses for some pictures and so on, it’s just amazing how it leaves a hunger to read in students who never really showed much of a proclivity for reading prior to the author’s arrival on campus.

Personally, I love doing author visits and find them to be exceptionally well received. As for their value, it appears self-evident.

4. Okay, the big question:  so I reluctantly read a blog review of Outburst in my The Alternative series. This book tells the story of an African American teenage girl coming out of detention and going into a foster home.  The review began with “Jones, who is white …” and I wished I would have stopped reading there. Have you faced this being a white male writing stories for and about kids of color?    Most everybody seems to be onboard with we need diverse books, but not if those books are not written by people of color. What are our thoughts on this issue?

This is an issue that is really not a big issue for me at all because, as an author, before my characters are people of a certain race they are first and foremost human beings – at least as far as a fictional characters go. Their inner humanity is the Archimedean point from which I build them… and not their skin color. The characters in my book struggle, they fight, they laugh, they dream, they love, they hurt and so on. No one racial group owns a monopoly on any of those emotions and reading, if it is anything, it is an emotional experience.

Of course this doesn’t mean that I am not sensitive to the voices who argue that that literacy across the world would be better served if more books were written by people of color but I don’t have any ability to control any of that. All I can do is be the best author I can be.

5. What are you working on now? Can we expect more books like Caged Warrior about people punching each other in the face (although stay out of Detroit, that’s my turf. If not, we’ll have to settle in the cage!)?  So what is coming up in the next round?

CAGED WARRIOR has received some of the best reviews of my career. I am very proud of the book, readers have been lavish with their praise, teachers who struggle to find good materials that can engage their disengaged teens – particularly boys – have raved so all in all, the project has been really wonderful. MMA is a tremendous sport and the battles in the cage mirroring the battles inside McCutcheon’s soul made for an excellent arena.

Of course, CAGED WARRIOR also ends on a huge cliffhanger but the good news is that in July 2015, NOBLE WARRIOR, the second book in the series, hits the shelves. It’s just as raw and gritty as the first, too. And yes, Detroit is back in the mix. Here’s a quick summary:

After placing teenage mixed martial arts phenom McCutcheon Daniels and his mother and sister in the Witness Relocation Program,the FBI comes to realize they have a unique asset on their hands. Recruited to help the FBI, McCutcheon finds himself hunting bad guys. But when he discovers that the notorious Priests have targeted Kaitlyn-the girl he loves and was forced to leave behind-as a way to seek revenge on the Daniels family, MD convinces the FBI to send him right into the belly of the beast: Jenkells State Penitentiary where the mob boss of Detroit is serving time. Yet in his universe where up is down, McCutcheon ends up disavowed by the government and left to rot in one of America's most notorious prisons. It's there here connects with his father and discovers the truth about his circumstances. McCutcheon, a trained urban warrior, escapes and sets out for revenge on those who betrayed him and his family.

6. Did you have plot ideas planned out for each book before you started or did you just follow where the series led you?

When I first set out to write this trilogy, I knew a few things. First, I wanted to use the same family for the whole series, but I wanted to have each sibling in the family be its own unique protagonist for each of the novels as I went along. This allowed me to tell an individual story for each of my heroes at roughly the same age of their lives (17) that was interrelated to the other books but still unique to their own lives and perspectives. Next, I wanted to hit three major areas of great interest to all my students (note: I am a high school English teacher in inner-city Los Angeles). Those areas are hoops, hip-hop, and gangs. Essentially, my aim was to write a trilogy that would engage and inspire reluctant readers. Many of my students had never read a whole book from cover to cover in their entire lives until my novels crossed their paths. Now, they are much more will to embrace books because they have seen the relevance, power and magic of literature. From that point of view, things have been quite amazing for me.

So basically, the answer is yes and no. I did have a vision for each of the books before I started but it was not until I had written The Hoopster that I started plotting Hip-Hop High School and then, once I was done with Hip-Hop High School, I completed Homeboyz.

7. How much research did you have to do to bring the hardscrabble world of these inner-city kids to life?

Each of the books has their own unique elements. For certain things, I definitely did a lot of research in order to try and bring authenticity to the book. For example, for Homeboyz, I visited juvenile jails and spoke at great length with many people in the juvenile justice system. For other parts of my books, I took material straight out of my own life. The basketball scenes from The Hoopster were written exactly as I used to live them when I was a teen – I played ball all the time and we talked smack to one another on the court up and down all day, every day. Basically, it’s a combination fo research and having lived a lot of experiences that resemble experiences my characters go through in my books.

I think the reason I feel comfortable writing about this world is because I currently teach high school in a place that resembles Hip-Hop High School in certain ways and I spend a great deal of time getting to know my students in a personal way that extends beyond the classroom. For the times when I needed to do research, I did it but for most of the novels, I just wrote about what I already knew and invented the rest.

8. Which of the three books was most difficult to write? Why? What did you learn about your own process as you created this series?

Each book had their own challenges but Teddy’s book, Homeboyz, was most definitely my most challenging for a few reasons. One, it’s a very complex book – my most complex work to date. But even more challenging for me was writing for a protagonist who is a genius. Teddy has brains galore and the fact that he is so much smarter than I am made writing for him uniquely problematic. As much as Teddy tortures other people – both physically and mentally – he tortured me more. It was never a case of “what would I do in this situation” -- it was always a question of “what would a troubled teen genius do in this situation” and since I am not a genius, sometimes that question caused me to pull my own hair out.

As a writer, Teddy is the type of character that gets you talking to yourself, that’s for sure.

9. What advice do you have for young writers?

First of all, I always loved to write. In high school, I used to pass the time in my "boring" classes by writing short stories and poetry and things like that. In college at the University of Southern California, I continued to write and write and write. Not for money or with professional ambitions, I just did it because I found a great deal of personal fulfillment in it. I guess I simply enjoyed writing the way a musician enjoys playing the guitar or an athlete enjoys tossing the football around. Like I said, I always did it because I loved it.

Then, when I graduated from USC, I became more ambitious and decided to take a crack at writing professionally.

And then I was rejected.

And rejected and rejected and rejected.

In truth, it took me 14 years to really move into the realm of becoming a professional writer. I only say this because while I have always believed in myself and feel I have talent, talent is NOT the reason why I am where I am today. Tenacity is. Fortitude is. Work ethic is. Truthfully, I busted my butt for years and years and years fighting through a lack of opportunities, a lack of professional support and a host of personal adversities. If I do enjoy any success today -- and trust me, I do -- it is because I refused to give up on myself.

Now, it's one thing to say this but it's yet another to really live it. I did. I worked in a bookstore -- and I wrote. I worked as a waiter in multiple restaurants -- and I wrote. I sold hand-made Persian rugs on weekends -- and I wrote.

And I wrote and I wrote and I wrote.

And, like I said, I got rejected and rejected and rejected.

I'm sure thousands of writers across the land dedicated themselves to realizing their dreams as an author on the very same day that I set out to bring mine to fruition. But as the years went on, how many of them stuck with it the way I did? Of all the tens of thousands that set out to be successful on the same day that I set out to be, how many of them stuck with it? How many of them do you think are currently still pursuing their dreams with the same energy, enthusiasm, passion and vigor that I am?

Probably not a lot.

So how did I become a professional writer? I did so the same way all people who ultimately realize their dreams do -- I refused to give up and I worked my butt off no matter how hard it got.

I became a writer by continuing to believe in myself and by continuing to write.

And hey, it only took me 14 years. I was prepared for it to take 50.