For Colored Girls Book Club + Tiffany D. Jackson

 
 

Tiffany D. Jackson is a powerhouse writer whose books Allegedly, Monday’s Not Coming, and Let Me Hear a Rhyme have all published to amazing success. Jackson doesn’t shy away from difficult topics like missing black girls, juvenile incarceration, and the death of black bodies, but she also brings a lot of joy and her West Indian experience into her characters, giving her stories a good balance.

For Colored Girls Book Club caught up with Tiffany via phone and talked about her notorious plot twists, how she relates to her characters, and why it’s important for her not to shy away from hard topics.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

 
 
Image via Tiffany D. Jackson’s Instagram  @writeinbk

Image via Tiffany D. Jackson’s Instagram @writeinbk

 

For Colored Girls Book Club:        

The first book of yours I read was Monday's Not Coming, a book about a missing black girl, among other things. Can you tell me what the process of writing this was? What was it like writing this?

Tiffany D. Jackson:

To be honest, it was hard. I had so many different stories about missing black girls in my head, but two specific cases inspired this book: one about four missing black girls in Southeast Washington, DC, and the other about two missing siblings in Detroit, Michigan. I kept thinking about both of those cases and just the idea of girls being missing and no-one really looking for them, and the idea that an entire community wouldn't even notice they were gone. Writing this book was difficult because I had to put myself in the victim’s and also the best friend’s shoes and wonder what it would be like. And so, emotionally it was tough to write.

FCG:                          

You wrote so empathetically about the situation, so as reader, I couldn’t help but feel for both Claudia and Monday. And that twist at the end. Was that one planned?

TDJ:                           

[The twist] actually hit me in the middle of the night. I’d written the book pretty much in chronological order, and then, 2:00 in the morning I thought about changing the whole thing. So, I got up, printed out the book, laid it all out, and was like, "Okay, this is what I'll do." And that's honestly how it happened.

None of my plot twists are really planned; they usually come alive in the third or fourth draft of the book. I don't want readers to feel like there's a gimmick, but I do feel that when writing books with such important topics, you want that book to really stay with people. Techniques like plot twists or really shocking endings help accomplish that. I particularly want kids to remember these stories; that way, hopefully, these stories will not continue, but change, and [kids] could be a part of that change.

 
Allegedly  by Tiffany D. Jackson. Image via For Colored Girls Book Club on Instagram

Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson. Image via For Colored Girls Book Club on Instagram

 

FCG:                          

And speaking of the plot twist: Allegedly. I imagine you get this a lot, but that floored me. I thought I knew what was going to happen, and then I absolutely did not. At all. Is that another one that just came to you?

TDJ:                           

Actually, that plot twist hit me while I was in the shower, and I was like, "Damn it, that's good." And I had to jump out and write it down real fast. That was also probably draft four or five, because I let my beta reader read the first ending, and then let her read the real ending, and she was like, "Whoa." And that was the reaction I wanted. I do get the question of whether or not it was planned a lot. It definitely was not planned, but it’s memorable, no?

FCG:                          

It absolutely is. I think about that book at least once a day. Mary was this young black girl messed up by America’s justice system, but who was also, herself, messed up.

TDJ:                           

Yes. From the very beginning, I’ve said Mary wasn't just born bad; she was created. It's very much nature versus nurture. If you think about how the systems failed her left and right, you have to think about how that can actually happen in real life. That if you don't tackle a problem early, like when Mary is four or five, what are the consequences of leaving those problems unaddressed? What are the consequences of sending a girl like that to a state prison and still not giving her the tools that she needs like therapy, etc. What happens when we don't do what we're supposed to do for children?

FCG:                          

The infrastructure fails them, and we can't really blame them because they didn't create themselves. How much would you say that your love of horror influenced your writing of Monday’s Not Coming and Allegedly?

TDJ:                           

A lot. Everyone is actually very surprised I don't write horror, but this is as close as I can get, honestly. I've been watching horror since I was four years old. I was the kid watching all these scary movies, and I think they spoke to me because they shocked me and they made me look at individuals so differently. You never know who could be the killer. So I'm not generously trusting at first meet.

FCG:                          

Whenever I read your books, I don’t take a character at face value anymore ever because--

TDJ:                           

I have scarred people.

 
 

FCG:                          

Seriously. I wouldn't call it a trust issues exactly, but I definitely do a double take sometimes. When I picked up Let Me Hear A Rhyme, I was like, "Is she going to mess with me? Am I allowed to just sit down and trust my feelings of these characters?" But I think that's good, because you make people come into a book needing to pay attention. And at the same time, your stories are often inspired by real events. Why is it important for you to do that?

TDJ:                           

Well, for one, I think it's important for people to know that these instances existed. They exist. These are real [issues] that kids are dealing with, and these stories can provide a full scope of that problem. When I was younger, I would hear things, but I didn't understand the full scope of what that meant. When I was six or seven years old, I heard about a girl who got kidnapped around the corner. It didn't mean anything to me at the time. I was like, "Wow, she got kidnapped," but then I never followed up. When I heard about kids living in group homes, I didn't understand what that meant. I thought, "That means it's a home where there's a group of kids," and that was it. There are even adults who don't understand what the system is like, and so I think it is important for us to look at some cases and really highlight the complex problems that surround that case and the environments they happened in.

FCG:                          

Would you say Let Me Hear A Rhyme is also inspired by a true story? I know it invokes Biggie in the story and the language, but was there was an instance or an event that inspired Let Me Hear A Rhyme?

TDJ:                           

No, actually. This is my first book that's not inspired by a real case. It's also probably the only book that probably won’t be as dark as my others; I call it my happy book. But I do think that it still stretches into real life in terms of thinking about people that we have lost and what they could have been. There's always those urban legends, people that aren't going to be talked about in history books. Really great basketball players who were unfortunately killed, or a straight A student who was gunned down. And I often think about that, especially growing up in Brooklyn. You always hear about something happening to someone, and then you hear about all the good things that they were going to do. Then I always think about, what if they lived? What would have happened? And you think about people like Biggie. Sometimes I think, if he was still alive today, what would hip-hop look like? What would his music look like?

FCG:                          

I think in the book, you ask and answer the question. This was also your first book with a male protagonist. I love the fact that you made them joyful. They weren't always just burdened by the fuckery of society, even though you can see its influence in their experience.

TDJ:                           

Right. They're just not bothered with it so much. They're enjoying each other and they're cracking jokes with each other, which is very much everything that boys do. I always say, if I read a book with boys in it and they are not cracking jokes on each other, it's unrealistic.

FCG:                          

Because this is a book that centers rap and hip-hop, it would have been very easy to focus solely on a male perspective, especially since rap is a very male dominated space. But you brought in women into the narrative through Jasmine and through Ronnie. Was that intentional? Were you like, "I have to make sure that women are heard?" Or is it just something that's like, "Duh, I can't tell this story without women in it."

TDJ:                           

Yeah. There's no way I could've told this story without recognizing the ladies in some way. I was a girl who was 100% obsessed with Lauryn Hill, but I also loved Lil’ Kim, and so there was always this kind of battle of, who should I be like more? Who is the more influential woman in hip-hop? And no-one ever really stepped out to say, "We don't all have to fit the same mold. You can all be influential in hip-hop.” I think that was something I really wanted to bring in with Jasmine—her being “one of the guys” and able to spit just as hard as the boys can. But then also Ronnie, who was strong, but who you had all these misconceptions about, the same way that everyone always had misconceptions of Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown. I wanted to make that very clear in a way too.

 
Let Me Hear a Rhyme by Tiffany D. Jackson. Image from For Colored Girls Book Club on Instagram

Let Me Hear a Rhyme by Tiffany D. Jackson. Image from For Colored Girls Book Club on Instagram

 

FCG:                          

Would you ever write a sequel to any of your books?

TDJ:                           

I feel like Monday’s Not Coming doesn't need a sequel. I feel like everything is there and is set. I always said that if eventually it was ever turned into a film, I would write a sequel, probably from Ted's perspective. But I would love to return to the world of Let Me Hear a Rhyme. I don't know how I would. I haven't really thought about it, but there are so many different characters. Maybe in the future. Let’s see.

FCG:                          

Do you have a favorite character you've ever written?

TDJ:                           

Actually, I really love Jarrell in Let Me Hear A Rhyme. I mean, I love all the characters in Let Me Hear A Rhyme. I can be incredibly sassy like Jasmine. But I'm straight jokes like Jarrell, and I also can be very serious and focused about work like Quady. They're all just smart-mouthed Brooklyn kids. But I love all my characters. In terms of favorite characters from each book, I would probably say I love Ted in Allegedly. I know people have their own feelings about him, but I love Ted. I loved his love for Mary. And I loved Claudia in Monday's Not Coming because she was very much like me in terms of being a very shy girl. It's hard to choose your favorite child.

FCG:                          

What story would you like to tell that you haven't yet told?

TDJ:                           

Hm. I haven't [written] a horror book yet. I haven't figured it out yet. Someone literally just tweeted me yesterday, "When are you gonna do a Obeah woman book?" And I was like, "I don't know." I would be so scared to do that, but I feel like, yes, there's so many and ... Even my uncle was like, "Does anyone really know you're a West Indian author?” I guess my answer to your question is I haven't found the horror book that I wanted to write yet.