Aya de Leon directs the Poetry for the People program at UC Berkeley. Kensington Books published her debut feminist heist novel, UPTOWN THIEF, in July 2016. Her writing and performance work has received acclaim in the Village Voice, Washington Post, Oakland Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, SF Bay Guardian and the East Bay Express. A graduate of Harvard College, with an MFA from Antioch University, Aya has been an artist in residence at Stanford University, a Cave Canem poetry fellow, and a slam poetry champion. She publicly married herself in the 90s, and from 1995 to 2012 hosted an annual Valentine’s Day show that focused on self-love. She also blogs and tweets about culture, gender, and race.
Craft Tip: Adopt NaNoWriMo as a lifestyle. The more you write, the better you get.
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Rachael: Welcome to How Do You Write? I’m your host, Rachael Herron. On this podcast, I talk to authors about how they write, what their process is, and how their lives fit together. I’ll keep each episode short, so you can get back to writing.
Hi, writers. Welcome to episode number 30 of How Do You Write? I’m so glad you’re here.
Today, my interview is with the awesome Aya de Leon.
You are going to really enjoy listening to her. I love the way that she looks at and talks about writing, and I know that you will too. Today’s update, personally, would be a little bit shorter than last week’s, because last week’s was all about Rachael all the time. Thank you for indulging me. It really did feel a little bit self-indulgent to do that episode. But I liked doing it. It made me look at where I had been, and where I am going with this year, and I do love the start of a new year. I’m still fully feeling the freshness of 2017, even though the news is bat shit nuts. We’re not even gonna touch the Trump thing, because there’s not enough Lysol in the world. I’ve already made it really clear about my politics. If you don’t like them, see ya. But all that, all the politics stuff this week is crazy.
So let’s think about writing. Let’s get our minds out of the golden shower hotel room image, which is now seared into our brains as a collective world, and think about writing, which is actually much more interesting, and it’s better for us, really. So personal news…oh, this is exciting, and this may be of interest to you, if you already listened to this podcast.
I have perhaps started another podcast. It is with J. Thorn.
Please ignore my dog who’s barking out there. She’s trying to get into the office, and I’m not letting her. J. Thorn was on this podcast earlier. I can’t remember what episode it was, but maybe 10 episodes or so ago. And he and I really hit it off. I love that guy. We have way too much fun together. Our chemistry is fantastic. I just want to hang out with him, and so a podcast is kind of a good way to hang out with somebody. And it’s short, just like this one.
We talk about writing, we talk about the business. I made the jump to full-time writing in April of 2016. He is making it later this year. So we’re kind of walking through that vale together, and it’s just super fun. And it is called The Petal to the Metal. I’m the petal, he’s the metal. And you can find us at thepetaltothemetal.com, we’re already on iTunes and Stitcher. Please feel free to help yourself to the fun that we are having over there already. So it will be great to have you. And what else? My copy edits landed, which was unexpected. And I had kind of forgotten that I had an entire book’s worth of copy edits out there, and my copy editors, who are Random House Australia, are fantastic. Lex and Alex, who she works with, they do this real great… It’s practically a developmental edit, although, I’ve already had the developmental edit from my editor of the book, but they do such a great job. And the reason I’m saying that is because I always think that copy edits are like page proofs, that I will flip flip flip flip through their pages, I will accept all changes, by moving commas around and fixing missing words. Except it’s not like that. It’s a lot bigger and a lot broader, and I have to think. And I can’t do it in an hour, like I always tell myself I’m going to be able to do. So suddenly, copy edits are eating up most of this week. I should be done with them later today or tomorrow. So that was an unexpected kind of, what do they call ith? The stick in the bicycle spokes? I’m missing what I need to be saying, I must be a writer. But that’s okay, because I’m still plowing ahead with plans, and plotting, and I’m just having a general good old time with the writing, as usual.
And, oh, I have a book coming out next week, which, as I record, it is January 11th.
The book is called Build It Strong and that comes out on January 17th. And I was in a webinar earlier this week, in which the host, Megan O’Toole, whom I worship, and she again mentioned that you need to have a social media strategy. And it’s so hard. I am on all the platforms. I am good at some, I am terrible at others. But everything that she was saying just made sense again. Social media is easier if you have a plan. So now on Mondays, I’m sitting down and I’m sketching out my social media plan for the rest of the week. And when I sat down this Monday, I realized that, “Holy hell! I have a book coming out next week, and I have done almost nothing to promote that book coming up.” I might have actually done nothing. Not almost nothing, I’ve done nothing.
So I made a quick graphic on Canva, of the book that comes before the book that’s coming out next week, and I said it’s tagline, “The Bachelor meets the Property Brothers,” and I said, “Buy it now, before the next book comes out next week.” And this morning, when I looked at my sales, I was like, “Holy cow! I sold a lot more.” Oh, because I put it on social media, and people were thinking about it, and they clicked and bought. And it’s such an easy thing to do, and it is such an easy thing to procrastinate doing. So I am trying to be better in that regard. That is all my news, I think, I just wanted to quickly thank our new patron, Greg Hannagan. I wanna say that your patronage means so much to me, both personally and professionally. That is huge that you want to give a dollar or two or three a month to support me writing these essays on creativity.
And I would also like to correct something that I said in the last episode. Marrije pointed out to me that Patreon is not a tip jar. And that’s something I forget. It is not a tip jar. And she said, “Patreon is not your tip jar. It’s good, honest payment for the stellar essay writing you do, and the vital inspiration it delivers to your readers.” So, heck yeah. That’s what it is. Thank you patrons, with all my heart, as usual. Now, please hop right into the interview section, and enjoy the conversation with Aya de Leon, and we’ll talk soon.
Hey, and I also wanted to mention that the quality on the audio recording of our interview is not great. It is my fault, not Aya’s, and in fact, she saved the day by having an extra piece of recording software that captured our recording. I apologize for the quality, but please listen, because it is awesome. You will enjoy it anyway. Okay. Here we go.
Hey, if you’re a writer, did you know that I send out a free weekly email of writing encouragement? Go sign up for it at rachaelherron.com/write, and you will also get my Stop Stalling and Write PDF, with helpful tips you can use today to get some of your own writing done. Okay. Now on to the interview.
Aya de Leon
I am going to jump right in because I’ve been desperate to talk to Aya de Leon, who is a fantastic writer. And I’m just…Aya, if you don’t mind, I’m gonna give you a little introduction.
Rachael: Aya de Leon directs the Poetry for the People program at UC Berkeley. Kensington Books covers her debut feminist heist novel, if you heard that correctly, called “Uptown Thief,” which is wonderful, in July 2016. Her writing and performance work has received acclaim in the Village Voice, The Washington Post, the Oakland Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express. She is a graduate of Harvard College, with an MFA from Antioch University. She’s been an artist and resident at Stanford, a Cave Canem poetry fellow, and a Slam poetry champion. She publicly married herself in the ’90s, and from ’95 to 2012, hosted an annual Valentine’s Day show that focused on self love. She also blogs and tweets about culture, gender and race. Aya, thank you so much for battling technology in order to do this.
Aya: Oh, it’s my pleasure.
Rachael: Well, How Do You Write? the podcast, is all about your particular process. And I just enjoyed your voice so much on “Uptown Thief,” and I would love to talk to you about that. What is the best time of day for you to write and where?
Aya: Well, back in my youth… No. Back before I had a kid, I was definitely a morning writer, and morning just made a huge difference to my writing. And I’m a morning person in general. I will say, after becoming a mom, I have become a when-I-can writer. So for quite some time, I was…the best time of day when my daughter was napping, and she was asleep in a carrier on my chest, when she was a baby, and I would write write write. And I now have the capacity to write in the evening. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, if I can’t sleep, I’m like, “Well then, let me just get to it.” So parenting has definitely changed…
Rachael: I love stealing that kind of time.
Aya: Yes. Exactly. So parenting has definitely changed my overall writing, but I’m definitely, when left to my own devices and I don’t have obligations that shift things otherwise, I’m definitely a morning writer.
Rachael: And how do you write, when you get to the page? Are you longhand or computer?
Aya: I was a hold out from longhand for years. You know, maybe in a decade, I only wrote longhand, and I took the opportunity of typing it into a computer. Because I would revise on a computer. It was much faster. The thought of typing the whole manuscript more than once seemed daunting. Although some people find that that’s an incredible revision opportunity. It is not for me. But I used to write longhand in my 20s and then type it in, and that was a great revision opportunity. Now, I definitely compose on the computer, and I work a lot in Word, although recently I’ve become a super fan of Scrivener for outlining.
Rachael: I love Scrivener.
Aya: Yeah. I don’t think I understand everything that I could understand about Scrivener and know all of the ways that it can be great, but I usually do sort of some initial outlining in Word, then I put the Word outline in Scrivener, then I write the first draft in Scrivener, and export it back to Word.
Rachael: That’s very, very close to what I do. And yeah, I don’t use all the bells and whistles either myself. There’s a lot in there that I could use, but I don’t love to. How do you refill the creative well for yourself when you’re running dry?
Aya: You know, this is such an interesting question. I think the thing that I have to say is, I’m not sure that I really run dry in terms of the creative well, in part because I’m an idea person. So I just have so many ideas. I really have more ideas than I have time to write. And I’m not sure why that is, but I’m one of those people for whom the struggle isn’t to get the idea, it’s really to get the idea into language that communicates it to other people.
Rachael: People like me, who are not idea people, are always so jealous of people like you. I have a good friend, and I’ll just sit down with her and I’ll spitball one idea at her, and she’ll throw 12 amazing ideas back at me, which I never would have had, and they just pour out of her. So that is really cool that you have that.
Aya: Yeah. I think one thing that I will say for myself is, I’ve always been an idea person, but it’s really only in the past, I would say, three to five years, that I’ve been able to have the craft to execute. So it’s been…so I think, while there’s the frustration of having a dry well, that’s a particular frustration, I think, for me, the frustration has been like the opposite. I feel…I’ve felt waterlogged. Like I just had all these ideas inside me, and I couldn’t figure out how to get them out of me, and into a format that it could go out to the world. So I felt very backlogged, very waterlogged. So it’s been [crosstalk].
Rachael: I think that’s a very specific painful frustration too.
Aya: Yes. It is a particular frustration. And even in the past, when I had the time, it was like I just, I didn’t have the skill. And slowly, even as I developed the skill, I didn’t have the pathway. So I feel like now, I’m more of…you know, I’m slowly becoming like a water system, right? When stuff can…
Rachael: I love that.
Aya: …it can come out of the well, and then irrigate whatever it needs to go out and irrigate. Yeah, so that’s been exciting.
Rachael: That’s a great metaphor.
Aya: Yeah, I know. It’s like, I think my super metaphor is working.
Rachael: What is the worst writing advice you’ve ever been given?
Aya: You know, the worst writing advice I think I was ever given was, that if I was a serious writer that I should stay away from the genre fiction, because that would kill any hope I had of being taken seriously. And I think…you know, that advice was given by a woman of color, and I think that she meant well, but if I were to edit her, what I would say instead, right, as opposed to the don’t do it, I would give the constructive confrontation. Also, this was advice given years ago, when that was more true. And the advice I would give would be something like, know that in the literary industry, it’s an apartheid structure, where there are books that are considered important, good and serious, and they’re called literary fiction, in the world of novels. And then there are books that are considered trashy and of little intellectual value, and they’re called genre fiction. More people read genre fiction. A much smaller group of people read literary fiction. Plenty of people read both. There are books that are trashy and cliche in both fields, or in both genres, and that there are traps.
There are different kind of traps, particularly for women and people of color, in both arenas. And just think about it. Like what I would say, instead of just think about it, know that there are dangers of not being taken seriously as a genre writer, and that there can be down sides, depending on the kind of career you wanna have, and the audience you wanna speak to. And there are also down sides of being a literary writer, particularly as a person of color, you can get very disconnected from your community, and be sort of positioned such that you’re being read by a lot of white audiences, but not being read by people of color, and not being set up in your work in conversation with people of color. So there are different traps and different down sides. As a genre writer, you might make a lot of money, you might not make a lot of money, but there’s definitely more potential for commercial success there. So, yeah, I would have laid it out a little bit more like that. To look at both sides.
Rachael: Yeah. And I love that way of laying it out. It’s about being educated and knowing what those traps are, in order to…to extend this metaphor, in order to build those bridges across those pitfalls.
Aya: That’s right. And I think, you know, it’s interesting, so I was given the advice many years ago, when I was writing a mystery that was gonna be the beginning of a mystery series, and I wrote that mystery and I put it aside, because I was like, “Well, you know, this is literary suicide, and I don’t wanna commit literary suicide,” and I started working on a literary novel. I don’t know that I would really refer to it as a literary novel. I would just say, it was a novel that didn’t have any particular genre to it. And what’s interesting is when, you know, 15 years later…maybe even more, maybe closer to 20 years later, when I went back to those novels I had worked on in my early 20s, the genre novel just didn’t speak to me. So I thought that was interesting. You know, I had been passionate about it at the time, and I had put it aside, thinking, “Well, let me at least put out one literary novel so I can get taken seriously, and then I’ll come back to the genre.”
And yet, that original genre novel, it didn’t speak to me, it didn’t stand the test of time, whereas the literary novel did. Ironically, I ended up publishing genre fiction first anyway, something completely different, “Uptown Thief,” which is not a mystery, it’s a heist, but yeah, so things did come around. So I wouldn’t say that that advice was overall bad or wrong or had no merit, but I do think that it’s more useful to help people understand their options, than just to sort of frighten them with gloom and doom predictions.
Rachael: Absolutely. I love that. What secret writing tip of awesomeness have you discovered the hard way?
Aya: I would definitely say, what I’ve discovered the hard way is the hero’s journey arc. When I started “Uptown Thief,” it just, you know…I mean, it had, structurally, like there was some general romantic structure, and some general heist structure, and some general thriller structure, but it didn’t have a strong character arc. And it got much better when I got that character arc in there. And so now, I’ve been working on a number of novels since, and each one, you know, I go into that hero’s journey. And, okay, how do we…you know, where are we going? Who is showing up? You know, the ordinary world or refusal of the call, all of that has been really helpful in structuring books. And so I spent eight years struggling to get “Uptown Thief” into the formula, the sort of genre template that I developed.
I mean, it’s a hybrid genre, and some parts of it, you know, the romantics, suspense, is nothing new, but there’s…you know, there’s a particular thing like this very political, sexy, heist, thriller. And so I have kind of created a template, which I can now recreate, and the hero’s journey has been great. Really, really helpful. Particularly with this young adult novel that I’m working on now, tentatively called “Growing Darker” a teen black girl spy novel. That was just a [inaudible 00:21:07] it’s great. And also helpful was the sequel or the next book in the series with Uptown Thief, the Justice Hustlers series, the next book is called “The Boss”, and Tyesha gets her own book.
Rachael: And that comes out next year, right?
Aya: Yes. That comes out in June of 2017. So very quick.
Aya: Which is the other gift in genre fiction, right? In genre fiction, those pressures, you wanna get that stuff out there. So, you know, my books are coming out 11 months apart. Which, you know, to my literary fiction colleagues are like, “Oh my God!” you know. But from genre fiction, like that’s long. You’re making your audience wait a long time. They rather have them out every six to eight months, which to me is really impossible.
Rachael: Yeah. The readers are ravenous, which is awesome for the bottom line too. I also write genre fiction, and I absolutely feel that.
Aya: Yeah, exactly.
Rachael: And I love what you say about the formula too. When I finally figured out my way into these books and my formula, the formula actually made the books more resonant and more realistic. By using a formula, you become less formulaic, I think, in a way. And that’s super interesting. Can you give us a quick craft tip of any sorts?
Aya: Oh, yeah. I don’t know if this is officially a craft tip. I think in some ways it’s more a productivity tip. But I’m just the world’s biggest fan of NaNoWriMo, and I believe in NaNo…
Rachael: Oh, I love NaNoWriMo.
Aya: Yes. And I’ve just decided my new thing is to adopt NaNoWriMo as a lifestyle. But, you know, any time of the year I’m liable to just say, “I am gonna take the next 30 days to bang out a first draft.” I think it’s just great.
Rachael: Yes. It’s fantastic. I’m on the writers board, and my first published novel was actually my first NaNoWriMo novel.
Aya: That’s so great.
Rachael: Yeah. It’s so cool. And the book that I just finished in 30 days in November, I was just finishing editing it, and it’s good. I think there is just such raw raw talent and excitement and strength that goes into those books. I’m so glad you like it.
Aya: Oh, yeah. Because I similarly, in November, I did a NaNoWriMo novel and, you know, gave it an edit. Like, you know, a second draft edit of just a couple of days, cleaning up. Because when I go through in my initial draft, there are some things that I just can’t wrap my mind around in the moment, and I’ll be like, I’ll say something like, “Describe the beautiful park they’re in.” Like I just don’t wanna sit down and…I don’t wanna slow down and visualize a park and figure out how to work it in. I just wanna keep going like, action, dialogue, action, dialogue, minor description, action, dialogue. That’s how I get through that first draft. And then, you know, so I just write in big caps, “Describe her,” or [crosstalk].
Rachael: That is exactly what I do.
Aya: Exactly. And then you can go back through and fill those things in. But the thing that’s been so interesting is, you know, that’s what they say, like the more you write, the better you get. And so, I’ve done several NaNoWriMo drafts over the last six years, and funny thing, as time goes on, those first drafts come out more and more polished, because I am a better writer. And so that’s been great.
Rachael: I love that. That’s what I preach the most is the more you write, the better you get.
Aya: Oh my God.
Rachael: Just sitting down at the page.
Aya: So this November, I hammered out a draft of this young adult spy novel that I’ve been, you know, had in my head, and I outlined it really well and thoughtfully. And then I wrote…you know, I wrote the draft, and then gave it a couple of days, and I was really shocked. Like I sent a draft to my agent, just to see like, “Am I on the right track here?” like, you know, is this readable, does this make sense? Does this seem like I’m going in a good direction? And she was like, “Wow! This is actually pretty close.” She said, “You know, I think we can send this out at the beginning of the year.” And so, for me, you know, “Uptown Thief” took eight years, the sequels are under contract, so they are not having to go out. I’m just working with the one editor.
But it was kind of mind blowing to think that, you know, through the practice of NaNoWriMo, not only have I learned…you know, and writing these other novels, not only have I learned to write quickly, but I’ve learned to really sink in these scraps of time in a busy life, to really engage in a first draft that’s much closer to being polished work, than I really thought. So that’s just, it’s exciting. And it’s, I think that’s the thing that’s amazing is, you know, the investment in investing decades of work into fiction. You know, it’s like the Buddhist tale of the raft. You spend all this time building this raft, and you’re building it, and you’re building it, and then you’re like digging your pole into the mud and poling down the river. But then at some point, the current takes you, right? And you’re just chilling.
And so I feel like that’s what’s been really good. It’s like the combination of the investment in the writing, but also the investment for me, in the emotional work of, you know, fighting those places where, that lack of confidence in myself. It doesn’t mean like, “Oh, I have high self esteem at all times.” It just means that I’ve learned to detach from those critical voices and just go for it. Right? And so the payoff has been lovely.
Rachael: Detaching from that, from the voice of doubt is so huge. It’s absolutely enormous. I wish it was just something that we could sell to new writers. You know, here’s how you detach that from your brain. But at least maybe the more we hear it, the more we talk about it, then at least when those voices come up in a new writer’s brain, they go, “Okay, this is normal. This is the way it feels.”
Aya: Yeah. And I was just gonna say, as I say to folks, the first draft, you have nothing to clean up. Like make a mess, so then you have something to clean up and make better.
Rachael: Yes. Absolutely. It’s getting that clay on the wheel. It doesn’t look good when you put it on the wheel. You gotta spin it into shape.
Aya: That’s right. Yeah.
Rachael: On really bad days, if you couldn’t write or teach in, around the word, what other profession would you choose?
Aya: As a younger person, I used to always have a fantasy of having a profession that didn’t involve any paper. I wanted something with no paper. I think one was cosmetology. I was like, “I’ll just do people’s hair. They’ll come in, they’ll sit down, I’ll do their hair.” I also have to say, like the job that I probably loved the most, back in the day, was being a day camp counselor. I loved that. There was no paper. So it’s like teaching, because you’ve got to be around young people all day, but it was like summer, so you didn’t have to teach them anything.
Rachael: And you’re playing.
Aya: You just did fun activities outside, yeah, in beautiful weather. So I would definitely…yeah, that would be so fun.
Rachael: I want someone to have a day camp for me. You know, it sounds awesome.
Aya: I know, right? Grown up day camp.
Rachael: Adult day camp.
Aya: It’s so fun.
Rachael: If you were starting over as a brand new baby writer right now, what advice would you give yourself?
Aya: I think it would be, you know this, it would be to write…to just go for it, you know, and write in big chunks quickly. And I think that would have been really fun. And I think the other thing that I would have encouraged myself is, from very, very early on, I just couldn’t write short stories. I only had ideas for novelx, and it felt really awkward. I still…you know, I feel pleased with the novels I’ve written, but I just can’t write a short story. And I think part of it is because, is this idea thing, you know, that I have like this bubble of ideas. I don’t usually have an idea that’s sort of like a contained idea that I can play with in a small container, and I would have just told myself like, “Don’t worry about that. You’re gonna be fine.” Because I felt…it felt awkward as a new writer to have this sort of huge idea that I had.
You know, with the short story, you might have like, you know, an idea that weighs a pound, and you have like half a pound worth of craft skills, and you can get it together. And for me, I just had these like 100-pound ideas, and I have my half a pound craft skills, and it looked like, “I’m never gonna be able to execute this.” So it took some decades, but, you know, I have now become able to have the craft skills to execute these ideas. Which is, like I said, really fun now. But it was very daunting then.
Rachael: I think that’s another real strong point with NaNoWriMo, when you think about it. Because NaNo says to people, “Bring your hundred pounds of ideas and your half a pound of craft, because craft doesn’t matter right now. It’s just getting the ideas onto the page.” Which is kind of the magic of NaNo.
Rachael: That’s so awesome. Well, where can we find you? What would you like to tell us about now [inaudiblea 00:30:37]?
Aya: Well, as I mentioned…or as you mentioned, my book, “Uptown Thief” is out. The sequel…
Rachael: It’s so fun, you guys. So fun.
Aya: It’s really, I had so much fun writing it. And the sequel, “The Boss” which is Tyesha’s book, comes out in June of 2017. And be on the lookout, hopefully something will happen with this black girl, young adult spy novel, and…
Rachael: I love it.
Aya: Yeah. And I’m also, you know, you can keep up with the latest going on in my world at ayadeleon.com, or, I’m on Twitter, always with an eclectic mix of writing stuff, political stuff, feminism, mom stuff, @ayadeleon.
Rachael: Perfect. Thank you so much for helping me overcome these technological difficulties today, and being patient with me, and I’ve wanted to talk to you for so long. And this has just been such a treat, Aya. I really appreciate it.
Aya: The pleasure has been mine, and we’ve gotta help each other with these technological glitches, I would say. If I were left to my…if I, left to my own devices, I’d still be writing in DOS on a 286 desktop. So, yes, you’ve gotta band together.
Rachael: Well, thank you Aya, and we’ll talk soon. Happy writing to you.
Aya: Yeah. Same to you. Take care.
Rachael: Okay. Bye.
Rachael: Thanks so much for joining me on this episode of How Do You Write? You can reach me on Twitter, @rachaelherron, or at my website, rachaelherron.com. You can also support me on Patreon, and get essays on living your creative life for as little as a buck an essay, on patreon.com/rachael, spelt R-A-C-H-A-E-L. And do sign up for my free weekly newsletter of encouragement to writers at rachaelherron.com/write. Now, go to your desk and create your own process. Get to writing, my friends.
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