It’s always great when friends introduce you to their friends, especially if those friends are authors. Thanks to Lyn Miller-Lachmann, I learned about Zetta Elliott, an educator with a Ph.D. in American Studies from NYU, who also is a playwright. Awesome, right? And she’s written several books for children, including Bird, her award-winning picture book. Zetta is a hybrid author—one who has been traditionally published and indie published. She’s here because of her young adult time travel series, the first two of which are A Wish After Midnight and The Door at the Crossroads.
After I chat with Zetta, I’ll fill you in on a giveaway. So for now, grab a cup of coffee or tea and hang out with us. We won’t bite. Much.
El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Zetta: I’m an immigrant [from Canada]. I’m a Scorpio. I’m middle-aged (43). I’m a medieval geek.
El Space: How did you get started writing speculative fiction books for children and teens?
Zetta: I guess the seed was the fantasy fiction I read as a child—mostly British, entirely white. Ducks believe the first creature they see at birth is their mother and they pattern themselves after that creature. Well, I read so much fantasy fiction about faeries and dragons and wizards that it wasn’t hard for me to “go there” when I started writing for kids in 2000. That was my imprint and it took a long time for me to hybridize those Western conventions so that the genre worked for me and my young readers of color.
El Space: What inspired you to write a time travel series? Which time period, if any, would you travel to if you could?
Zetta: Learning about Weeksville inspired me to write Wish and Crossroads. I was still new to Brooklyn, and when I learned about the historic free Black community—second largest in the U.S. prior to the Civil War—I knew I wanted to make that history relevant to teens. I was writing my dissertation on racial violence and also wanted young readers to know that wasn’t limited to the South, so the novels became an opportunity to talk about domestic terrorism and the NYC Draft Riots.
Weeksville in Brooklyn (New York)
Life was pretty rough for women in the past, so I don’t know if I’d want to trade this era for another. I was obsessed with Ancient Egypt as a child, though, so if I had some type of perfect immunity that’s probably where I’d go.
El Space: In a recent Huffington Post article, you stated, “Self-publishing is, for me, an act of radical self care—and self-love.” Could you unpack that a little for us?
Zetta: Audre Lorde once wrote that self-care is political warfare because it is an act of resistance. When you live in a society that is committed to destroying and/or denigrating Black people—and Black women in particular—then choosing to be gentle with yourself means a lot. It means you reject all the messages you’re receiving about your worth. Self-love insists that you are worthy and deserving of care and kindness and compassion. Black women do a lot for others but we don’t always remember to make ourselves a priority. Then add publishing to the mix and you’ve got an industry dominated by white women that largely excludes Black women. When I self-publish, I’m pushing back against the implicit message that my work doesn’t matter to them. It matters to me and it matters to the members of my community, so I don’t need to look outside myself and my community for permission to tell my tales.
El Space: How has mentoring been a help to you as a writer? How do you mentor others through your books or through the college classes you teach?
Zetta: I generally think of mentoring as a sustained, long-term relationship and I don’t really provide that to any one person. I’m an educator and so my students can call on my anytime, and some do long after they’ve graduated or grown up. I’m happy to provide whatever advice I can to aspiring writers and I get lots of email queries about self-publishing. I see hundreds of kids every year and I try to embody possibility for the one hour I’m in their school. I never saw or met an author when I was a kid, so I let them know that I’m not some special person from far away—I’m a member of their community. Anyone can be a writer if they choose to be—my high school English teacher told me that in Grade 9, and that changed the course of my life.
El Space: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received recently? Why?
Zetta: I don’t think I’ve gotten any advice recently. I’m always learning about myself as a writer and I try to keep learning about the publishing industry so I know what I’m up against! My friend Maya Gonzalez always says, “The revolution is now!” and that reminds me not to wait for change, but to be the change instead.
El Space: Which authors inspire you?
Zetta: Octavia Butler blew my mind with Kindred and I admire Jamaica Kincaid a lot. I like writers who take chances. Gayl Jones has had a challenging life but her first novel Corregidora is a Black feminist classic and stands the test of time. James Baldwin inspires me because he was an activist and author, and his books didn’t generally improve as he aged, but he kept writing what he felt compelled to write.
El Space: What are you working on next?
Zetta: I’m hoping to publish The Ghosts in the Castle next month, which is Book #3 in my City Kids series. Next I have to finish The Return, which is the sequel to The Deep and Book #3 in my “freaks and geeks” trilogy. And then I hope to start my Black girl Viking novel, The Ring—if I can find a way to get over to Sweden to do some research!
Thanks, Zetta, for being my guest!
A Wish After Midnight and The Door at the Crossroads are available at these fine establishments:
But one of you will win a copy of both books! Just comment below to be entered in the drawing. Winner to be announced on May 6 (because I have other giveaways coming).
Author photo courtesy of the author. Book covers from Goodreads. Weeksville photo from creativetime.org. Self-love image from veenakaur.com. Dragon from fanpop.com. Indie image from michaeljholley.com.