A Talk with Walter Dean Myers
Q:Welcome to the chat with Walter Dean Myers. We're going to start in a few minutes, but please start sending your questions.
Walter Dean Myers
(Photo: Courtesy HarperCollins)
Q: How come you know so much about bullying?
Myers: In talking to young people who are incarcerated. I find many of them are bullied as kids. When they got older, they turn around and become bullies themselves. Many kids in detention centers are emotionally young. When I saw that I saw how prevalent it was.
Q:Were your children ever bullied? What did you tell them when it happened?
Myers: I found out that the boy doing the bullying was considerably older. I told my son it was not his fault; he was not lacking.
Myers: Christopher was quite young when he went to school. In sixth grade he was only about 10. That was very difficult. Although there was not much of a physical difference, there was an age difference.
Q: Do you think it's up to parents to stop their kids from being bullies, or should schools have some responsibility too?
Myers: Schools have to have policy that they cannot get away with it. They have to have a policy that there will be no bullying in the school. One, if the responsibility is on the bully, it allows other kids a device to speak up when they see it. There are some schools around the country that have almost no bullying at all because they have experienced bullying and they have ways to stop it. Understand, it has to be an announced policy. The school has to have a clear and definite no bullying policy.
Q:We're an 8th grade class from Niagara Falls, NY. We have been reading "145th Street Short Stories," and it's very realistic. What inspired you to write the book?
Myers:I like that street very much. I hang out on that street. I like the small shops and the people and I wanted to give them a voice. Some of the stories are actually true stories that I remembered from growing up in Harlem. I reproduced the entire neighborhood.
Q: Where do you get your ideas for your books?
Myers:Whatever bothers me becomes an idea for a book. Example: bullying. I see that so much so often. I go to juvenile detention centers and I see the young people in juvenile detention centers, so I write about those kids. Whatever I see inspires. When I see things I like, like 145th street, it becomes an idea for a book
Q:Are you working on any new books right now?
Myers: I'm always working on a new book. I'm working on one non-fiction, one fiction. Non-fiction is about black soldiers in WW1. The fiction book is about a young man in the Harlem renaissance in the 1920s.
Q: Have you ever been bullied?
Myers: No. I've never been bullied. I was always big kid, so people did not want to mess with me very much. I also played sports. What happens is that kids who don't have a lot of friends, who don't belong to groups, bully kids very often. If you belong to sports groups, that keeps bullies away.
Q:How has the Internet changed bullying?
Meyers: One of the things the Internet has done that is really good is it takes the bullying out of the idea. People know about it now. They know how much it is done. I did a radio show, and to speak about it on the radio, lit up many, many people who called to say that they were victims of bullying, same thing with the Internet. People are openly talking about it and that's good.
Q: Was your son Christopher actually bullied when he was so young? How did he deal with it?
Myers: For one thing, he knew that I supported him. I was not going to look at him and tell that he was going to have to fight better. I was on his side. I was supporting him. I would do anything to not allow him to be bullied.
Q:What makes a person a bully?
Myers: Number 1, they think they can get away with it. And they'll do it. Next, the kid's somehow not so sure about himself. He does not feel good about himself. To make himself feel better, he picks on other kids.
Q: Do you think of yourself as an African-American writer or just a writer? I was wondering, because it seems like most of your books are about African-American characters.
Myers: I think of myself as, sometimes an African-American writer, and sometimes a writer. When I do a book about Antarctica, or poetry, it has nothing to do with being an African American. What happens is I think about what characters should I put in this subject. I just happen to choose characters, because I am African American. I also like to see African-American and characters celebrated.
Q: How many books have you written?
Myers: I've written 90, but only published 85. The other five? They stink. Nothing is going to happen with them.
Q: Do you enjoy doing research for your books?
Myers: I love research for books. I love learning something new. I do research all the time. I'm going to London Friday and when I go to London, I will do research. I went to Prague this summer, I did research on how they play basketball there. In London, I'm researching about a dancer, Jubba, who went to London in 1850. I'm very much interested in what happened to him after he went to London. I'm also researching Irish children from England who came to American and the West Indies in the 18th century.
Q: Were there any books that you especially enjoyed writing?
Myers: I enjoy all of them! I enjoy all the books. Especially enjoyed writing Falling Angels, because that was a book about my brother who was killed in Vietnam. This is a very good job. For kids who want to do this job, is to develop excellent reading habits. You have to be able to read to write. Every writer that I know reads a great deal. Second thing is discipline. Write 5 pages a day, 5 days a week, all year long.
Myers: And the combination of discipline and reading. I make a living by pre-writing. I'm a great pre-writer. I plan my stories. I plan very carefully. What I do is I outline a story in six boxes. Six part outlines. Expand it to scenes. I keep expanding the outline, until I see that I have a complete spectrum for a book. If it doesn't turn out, I destroy that idea. I outline every single book, every single story I write.
Q:We know that you play basketball and include it in a lot of your books. What is your favorite basketball team?
Myers: There's only one really great team around and that's the New York Knickerbockers. The Knicks are my favorite.
Q: Is Kitty and Mack a true story or is it fiction? We read it as part of our author study and we loved it!
Myers: Kitty and Mack is not a true story, but it is based on a true story. There was a really great athlete and he was injured. He thought his life was over.
Q: When did you start writing?
Myers: I began writing in school. I had my first poem published in the fourth grade. I was 9 years old. I've been at it ever since.
Q: Do you have a favorite author?
Myers: I don't have a favorite author. I read lots of authors. Right now I'm reading a story by Avi. Avi and I went to the same high school, briefly. We weren't there long. I'm reading a story by Sharon Creech and poetry by Seamus Heaney. I read a lot of authors. Primarily adult authors, but I like to see what my colleagues are doing. The young adult stuff especially.
Q:What would you do if you weren't a writer?
Myers: And if I wasn't a professional basketball player? LOL. If I had finished college I would have gone into law.
Q: When you start a new book, do you know you want to focus on an issue like bullying or racism? Or does that happen as you go along?
Myers: I know exactly what I want to say; I know exactly where I'm going with a book. The only thing that changes is the way the characters react. I think I know how a character will react, but that could change. Otherwise I know exactly where I'm going.
Q: What is your favorite story that you ever wrote? Why?
Myers: One favorite story is the Legend of Tarik. I enjoyed doing the research on that book. I went to Spain and North Africa. I liked writing the story.
Q:Do you think your books help kids?
Myers: I think that many of the problems I put into the books help kids engage problems intellectually, before they confront them on the street.
Q: How old were you when you wrote your first book?
Myers: I think I was 26. It was published, Where Does the Day Go. It was a picture book.
Q: How did you get started as a writer?
Myers: I started writing sports for newspapers and magazines. I wrote about kickboxing, basketball, bull fighting, and other sports.
Q: Do you give everything you write to your kids first?
Myers: Most of it I give to Christopher. He reads everything first. He reads it; my wife reads it. Then they write their comments. My wife reads the manuscripts. Sometimes I hire teenagers to read the books. They tell me if they like it or if they found it boring or interesting. They have very good comments to make. If I go to a school, I'll find teenagers. Sometimes kids write to me and ask me if they can read.
Q: Do you like to write? What's the hardest part?
Myers: There are no hard parts. It's all work and you have to put your mind and heart in it. It's work. It's all good. I like all of it.
Q:Why do you write mostly to teenagers?
Myers:I think I write mostly for teenagers because my own teenage years were difficult years for me. I look at those years, and they were so difficult, and I had questions about what life was about. Even when I try to write for adults, I find myself switching to teenagers, to teenage points of view.
Q: Do you hand write your books first?
Myers: No, I don't. I have been working on a typewriter since I was 13 and now on a computer.
Q:Why did you drop out of high school?
Myers: I dropped out of high school, but it was a mistake. I realized by parents could not afford to send me to college. I was so discouraged that I dropped out of school.
Q: Have you ever met any famous people?
Myers: This weekend, I had a snack with R.L. Stine and Gary Pickney too. I've meet all the young adult authors. I've met James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, E.L. Doctorow, lots of authors.
Q: What was your first job as a kid?
Myers: I worked in the garment center carrying packages to post offices. I was 14.
Q: Has New York changed a lot since you were young?
Myers: In some ways New York has also been a bustling wonderful city. It always has been, still is now. Sometimes a particular street will change. It's always exciting. It hasn't changed that much.
Myers: Somewhat harder now, because there are fewer rules. It's harder for a number of reasons. There is more violence and weapons are out there, very dangerous. When I was a kid, we had knives. Now kids have guns. There are older kids in the schools than there were when I was there. The oldest kids would be 16 or 17. Now you have 18 and 19 year olds.
Q: Are most of your books about people you know?
Myers: No. Most of my books are composite characters. I take two or three people and make one character out of them.
Q: Do you have any examples about how NY has changed?
Myers: When I was a kid growing up in Harlem, Harlem was more of an integrated community. In the 60s and 70s, it became all black. It's going back to being an integrated community again. It's in a transitional period. Neighborhoods change. Neighborhoods go up and down. New York is one of the finest cities in the world I think.
Q: Do you think your books will make little kids stop bullying?
Myers: No, my books will not make kids stop bullying. But I hope that when the questions come up, that the kids who do the bullying, will stop being looked upon as tough guys, or as cool guys. I think the whole idea of being bullying is a very bad thing and I think my books will do that.
Q: Do you speak in schools?
Myers: I speak at schools occasionally. Not that much, but occasionally.
Q:Will the Autobiography of My Dead Brother be made into a movie?
Myers: Right now, there are no plans to make it into a movie. There's an option on the 145th street stories. Whoopie Goldberg optioned At Her Majesty's Request. The Young Landlords was made into a movie. The author doesn't get to work on the movie much. They hired someone else to do the writing. You have to wait to see what the movies looks like when it’s finished. I wasn't happy with the movie, but I was happy with the money.
Q:Can you talk about your book Shooter?
Myers: After the Columbine incident, I was upset. I went out to Colorado and spoke to some people out there. What I saw was kids being bullied, pushed around, sometimes by fellow students, sometimes by family members. These kids would get so angry and upset. I saw kids being bullied, and I saw them reacting to being bullied.
Q: Were you ever a member of a gang?
Myers: I was never a member of a gang. I fought against the gangs. My brothers and I were involved in a gang fight. The gang tried to push us into actions we didn't want and we had to fight them. I have half brothers, nine of us altogether. I was a foster child.
Q:Was there one person who inspired you to become so involved in reading and writing?
Myers: My teachers encouraged me to read in school. I found that books were a way of me reaching out to the world that I could not do otherwise. My writing was a way to do that too. Walking into a library was my way of being a part of a reading and writing community. I could walk into a library and be part of that world and that was wonderful.
Meyers: As a last comment, reading good books opens the world to you. We all need to read more.