Greg Neri writes poetry, prose, and graphic novels for young adults under the pen name G. Neri. He’s said, “I write provocative, edgy stories for reluctant readers, especially urban boys, in hopes that these kinds of books—immediate, compelling and told through the eyes of young males—will open minds to reading.” They’re not the only ones taking note of his work. He was a 2011 Coretta Scott King honoree for Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty, a middle-grade graphic novel, and Ghetto Cowboy, his latest middle-grade novel, received the 2012 Horace Mann Upstanders Children’s Book Award. He’s also a two-time American Library Association Notable Book Honoree.
Neri, who lives on the Gulf coast of Florida with his wife and daughter, recently spoke with Lunch Ticket about his writing process, his upcoming projects, and where he finds inspiration.
Kristen Schroer: Your books address an incredibly wide range of themes— surfer mules, chess, urban cowboys, the short life of Robert “Yummy” Sandifer, Johnny Cash. Can you tell me about your research process and what it involves?
…it was filled with these amazing photographs of these kids in basically what is the worst neighborhood in North Philadelphia, and there’s this whole subculture of black urban horseman. It was almost like discovering some sort of modern-day Western was going on.
Greg Neri: All my fiction books are inspired by real life. It’s not that I sit down and say, Oh I’d like to write a book about black cowboys. It’s that I come across a real world situation or subculture that I’ve never heard of, and it stops me in my tracks.. For instance, with Ghetto Cowboy, somebody had sent me an article in Life magazine about this neighborhood in Philadelphia, and it was filled with these amazing photographs of these kids in basically what is the worst neighborhood in North Philadelphia, and there’s this whole subculture of black urban horseman. It was almost like discovering some sort of modern-day Western was going on. I’d never seen or heard about it. In fact a lot of people who live in Philadelphia have never heard about it either. It just floored me.
I immediately dive in once that thing grabs me and won’t let me go. Of course the first thing I do is start Googling. I’m just throwing phrases up and seeing what comes back at me. I’m not interested so much yet in the nitty-gritty little details, but I’m trying to capture the emotional truth of the place and the time. As soon as I have the essence of the place and its people, the characters kind of present themselves—the story presents itself—then I immediately start writing. I don’t even plot it out necessarily. I’m following the characters and seeing where they take me.
After I’ve done a draft or two, I will do a second round of research in which I’m verifying the things that I’ve written. I start with reality, and it takes me off on a fictional spin, and then I have to come back and verify that that fictional spin could exist in this world as I’ve portrayed it. Oftentimes I will end up going to the place near the end [of the writing process] as a reality check. With Ghetto Cowboy, I didn’t go to that specific neighborhood until after I’d already written a couple of drafts. I had talked to a lot people, I had done a lot of research, but when I actually went there, I had the strange sensation of walking into my book. These people had become my characters and the place had become a fictional thing, but here was a reminder that no—this is reality, this is a real world. And you have a responsibility to portray the poetic truth, even if it’s fiction. That’s happened on several books, where I go there at the end, and then I know it’s good and it’s right and it’s true.
KS: So for your upcoming picture book about Johnny Cash’s childhood, was that your experience when you went to Arkansas for what would have been his 80th birthday?
Just to walk in those footsteps really makes it real for you as a writer. It’s like a full circle. You read about things, they’re kind of abstract. Then you write about them, they become part of your mind.
GN: I heard that the Cash family was going to celebrate what would have been Johnny’s 80th birthday in this tiny, tiny hometown of his in Arkansas. The whole family was going to be there. So I just decided, well, I have to go.
It was like driving back in time. You left the city, and within 40 minutes of Memphis you’re in this total outback where you can stop on this dirt road and see horizon 360 degrees around you, and not a single person in sight. And that was his home. I would stand in what was his backyard, where they grew the crops, and just to feel the wind howling off those empty plains…and the mud. It’s this thick mud that your feet got stuck in. They called it gumbo and you could see why. You could feel it. I knew, this is where he found out his brother had just died, and this is where he first learned to swim and this is where he first learned to play guitar. Just to walk in those footsteps really makes it real for you as a writer. It’s like a full circle. You read about things, they’re kind of abstract. Then you write about them, they become part of your mind. Then you go there and it’s a real thing. And then the next thing you know, you’re talking to Rosanne Cash.
KS: Speaking of the worlds of your stories, have you had feedback from the cowboys in North Philly since the publication of Ghetto Cowboy?
GN: Yeah, and I’ve found all these other pockets of black urban horsemen around the United States. New York—in Queens, Brooklyn; in DC; Philadelphia; down in Louisiana. And in California where I’m from, South Central and in Oakland. I travel a lot around the United States and almost everywhere I go it seems someone comes out to me and says, “Oh, we have these guys.” When I was in LA for the Upstanders Award, a group of kids came from South Central. They were all young black horseman and girls. And I’m going to a school in Houston in a couple weeks and there’s a whole crew there and they’re actually going to come to my talk with their horses (laughs). They’re totally into it.
KS: To be able to find that book, where you see yourself in it, must be a really incredible experience for someone that age.
GN: Yeah. And it was kind of like this dying world and I wanted to capture it before it disappeared. It is worth remembering and worth valuing—it had value to it. And no one else was writing about it. I thought, This has to be told.
KS: Speaking of your travels, it does seem like you spend a lot of time on the road and doing school visits. Me, I love just being by myself in my house at my desk and I know a lot of writers feel similarly. But how does travel feed your process? What’s the significance for you of that community engagement?
GN: Well, I certainly have that side where I would rather not go anywhere (laughs) and just sit here. But I know that once I’m out there it’ll be great and I’m going to get a lot out of spending time with my readers or spark new readers. One, you are reminded that your books have made an impact on people. You see it, you feel it, they tell you things. My books kind of cater to this underground audience. They won’t be on the New York Times bestseller list, because they sell directly to schools and libraries for the most part, and a lot of my readers can’t necessarily afford to buy these books. They need the teachers and librarians to get these books so that they can have access to them. One book will be read by hundreds of kids. And that doesn’t show up in the stats. Then the other scenario is that a lot of schools I go to will actually buy the books for the kids. I don’t know where the money comes from. I’m going to this school in Houston, they bought 1500 copies of Ghetto Cowboy, one for every single kid in the school, plus the staff. That happens a lot with my books. The library might buy 400, 500 copies, and then give them out. They know these kids have one, never bought a book, and two, maybe never even read or finished a book.
One of the things I hear back is that my books are amongst the most stolen books from the library, which means that it means something to someone—so much so that they have to hold on to it. That’s a cool thing to know that somebody so desperately wants it. I met this kid in St Louis recently—he had never read a book and then he read my book Yummy. Ever since then, the only book he’ll read is Yummy. Every time they assign a book or he has to go to the library, he’ll read Yummy. So he’s read it like 15 times.
Then they [the kids] ask, When’s your next book coming? So you know there are people waiting for your next book and that these books mean something to them in a real way. It’s not just casual entertainment but it has real meaning and it affects their life, sometimes even changes their life, especially with a book like Yummy. I hear from a lot of kids who kind of recognize themselves in Yummy, and it’s like a wake up call. That feeds you and keeps you going. Plus, if you’re writing about this age group or these kinds of kids, the more contact you have, the more real they are. If you haven’t been around kids for a long time, then you lose that reality. The way they speak, the way they handle themselves, what they’re into and all of that. It’s good from a writer’s perspective on voice and place and how characters handle themselves, but also to know that your books are worth doing.
KS: Did you have a similarly transformative experience with an author or a book when you were younger?
GN: I wasn’t a huge reader in my early days. I was a very visual person and if I looked at a book it just looked like a big block of text. It didn’t hold my interest. Then a teacher gave me a copy of the Phantom Tollbooth. Just scanning the pictures it was apparent this was a crazy book. I had a pretty crazy imagination but here—like, someone printed this crazy thing! It opened my eyes to what a book could be, what a book could do. It could be kind of this wildly imaginative crazy experience that totally surprised you. Shortly after that I started reading a lot, so I went from reading not very much to reading The Lord of the Rings. I see that a lot. All it takes is that one book to open the door.
GN: I grew up in Los Angeles around the film world, and my first real job was working for a trailer company, a post-production house, that made previews for upcoming movies. That was a great training ground: how to tell a whole story in a minute twenty seconds, or sixty seconds, or thirty seconds. That’s a whole art in itself, capturing that tension—to show them and hook them in that amount of time. It’s a powerful tool to learn early on. I just love trailers and watching them for the movies, so when I started writing books it was a natural for me, because when I write I see it in my head like a movie. And the kids who read them, I think, see them like movies too. That’s the first question they always ask: When is this going to be a movie? The kids love the trailers. I don’t need to pitch the book, I just show them [the trailer] and they’re like, “Ohhhh.”
KS: It’s a nice element and different way for people to hear about the books if they’re not browsing at the bookstore or on Amazon.
GN: Right. And some kids are just more visual. Once they see it like a movie, they get it.
KS: You have three short stories coming up in anthologies and your Johnny Cash project. Anything else you’re working on?
GN: Yes, I’m about to turn in the second draft of a novel in the next couple of days, and I have a couple of graphic novels that I’m kind of working on, on the side. As soon as I finish this novel I’ll jump on those too. Knockout Games is the one I’m doing right now. I’d been working on another book for about a year and a half, kind of struggling with it. Then I went to St Louis in April, and my contact took me to certain places and told me about this thing that was going on there that I had never heard about. It was kind of like Oliver Twist and Fight Club and Lord of the Flies all rolled into one and it was real. Very quickly it became apparent that it was a book. As soon as I got to the hotel that night and started Googling it, a ton of stuff started coming out. I just started writing it and it wrote itself very quickly, in like two and a half weeks.
As opposed to having spent the previous year and a half struggling with this other novel. Stories know which one you’re supposed to be writing. I have no control over it. It becomes apparent because one hits so deep and the other’s like a battle. You have to give into the muse and let her take you where she will, even if it’s not logical. You can’t fight it. If you fight it, you’ll lose.
KS: You sound prolific, with all these active ideas just fermenting in your mind. Is there stuff that you do outside of your writing that contributes to this?
There’s the saying you should write what you know about, but I’m always like, you should write what you don’t know about. You already know what you know about, and your world is pretty limited, but what you don’t know can literally fill a book. So that’s what I do.
GN: I’m always reading, I’m always watching, I’m always looking. I’m just interested in real life stories in general, without the purpose of looking for something to write about. I’m just interested in and of itself. I think that fills your head with all kinds of unexpected possibilities, of things that can happen in real life or the way that people behave that is totally outside of your own life. There’s the saying you should write what you know about, but I’m always like, you should write what you don’t know about. You already know what you know about, and your world is pretty limited, but what you don’t know can literally fill a book. So that’s what I do. What I don’t know, that thing I never heard of, like Oh my god, that’s real? It just takes over me and it fills a book.
KS: And it’s more freeing in a way, relying on your imagination rather than being an expert.
GN: Yeah, to immerse yourself in a whole other world. What connects me to that world, even if the characters you’re writing about are completely different than me, living in a totally different existence than I ever lived in is that we’re all human. We all know what it means to feel loss or anger or happiness or sadness or frustration. We have all that to different degrees, depending on our situation, but we all know what that feels like. You just have to put yourself in their shoes in that situation, and the story becomes you. You are in the story, not physically in the story, but you’re in the story, the story comes from you, comes through you, so when other readers who have no connection to that world read it, they can relate to it. I get asked all the time how come I don’t write about my own life, and I say, I do. Not literally about my life, but I am in every character, in every scene. We all are.
For more information, visit Greg Neri’s home on the web at www.gregneri.com