Nearly ten years ago, Greg Neri welcomed me, a newbie writer, into his critique group. I’ve watched his career ascend like a missile. That success, his multi-cultural roots, plethora of talents, warm heart and slightly rebellious spirit bring an interesting angle to writing.
Sue: You’ve published four books, one a graphic novel, another in verse, and you’ve been the recipient of literally dozens of awards including Coretta Scott King honors, ALA Notables, YALSA Top Ten and the IRA Lee Bennett Hopkins Promising Poet Award. You’re a magnet for MG and YA readers, particularly boys, and your selection of subject matter has touched on rather gutsy subject matter. How do you do it?
Greg: It all starts with the gut. The gut never lies as far as I’m concerned. We only get in trouble when we listen to our brain trying to justify another way out. So I’ve learned to follow my gut on stories. Your gut is like having your own personal version of The Force. Follow your gut, Luke.
If I have one so-called “talent”, I think it’s the ability to recognize a great story when I see it. And that’s all gut reaction. My books are inspired by real life—unique places, unusual people, compelling events. If I listened to my head, I would have been scared off to pursue any of the subjects I wrote about. A middle grade story about a gangbanger who kills a teenage girl and gets assassinated by two other teenagers for becoming a liability? Yeah, right. But Yummy: the Last Days of a Southside Shorty ended up being my most popular and critically-acclaimed book.
On every project I did and am doing, something unusual happened. I stumbled across a real life story so unknown and compelling that it had to be a book. I mean reality is truly stranger than fiction. Black urban cowboys in Philly? Whoa.
So it felt like it fell on me to bring these worlds to life because other people needed to hear about these amazing stories too.
Sue: So why use fiction then to delve into these real worlds?
Greg: Fiction is just the way it comes out. I collect so many different and compelling stories within a world that I need to find a vehicle that will allow me to pick and choose from all those different moments to get at a deeper truth. I sometimes call myself a mash-up author. Just like DJs sample music and remix it into something original, I sample life and remix it into a new story.
Sue: So how do you decide to take that leap of faith on a new story?
Greg: Fortunately, the story decides for me. It feels like I have no choice—a story finds me, literally stops me in my tracks and won’t let go until I write about it—even if I am committed to something else. That is the only way out. But I can always tell if it’s the right choice: the writing comes easy. When it’s the wrong choice, its clearly an uphill battle.
Sue: What has been your riskiest decision?
Greg: To buy back a novel that had already sold to a major publisher because the sale went against my own gut reaction. It was a mistake and the toughest thing I had to do was to break free from that untenable situation (though it took a long time to realize it). There’s no one to blame, it just happens sometimes that things weren’t meant to be even if you really wanted it to work. But sticking it out longer would have ended my writing–I think I would have quit. But you can only learn from your mistakes—there’s nothing to learn from success (except that it might be nice to have).
Sue: Have you ever chucked a story because your gut told you to move in a different direction?
Greg: Yes, the novel I just finished came in the middle of a two year struggle on another book. The real incidents in the new story I came across were so powerful, my gut said I had to do it, even though technically, I was obliged to do the other. But it all works out in the end. Had I ignored the calling, I would have been twice as frustrated and had nothing to show for it. Now I will get 2 books out of it and renewed faith in my ability to write.
Other times, you chuck the idea you had for the execution of a book. All my stories started off as the wrong thing in the beginning and became something else in the end: free-verse became a novel, a picture book became a graphic novel, a short story became a free-verse novella. So I’ve had to chuck the initial idea I was trying to force on the story in order to accept the story as it wanted to be told. I’ve come to learn that stories are like children: you might want them to become a doctor, but there’s no stopping them if they want to start a punk band instead.
Sue: Has your agent supported your decisions?
Greg: I told my agent that at least he will never get bored with me. Seems every project I do breaks some rule, but he has always backed me. Especially when things get tough. A good agent in like having your own therapist to keep you going and a henchman to do your dirty work when it comes to that.
Sue: Would you give us a peek at your next projects?
Greg: Finished a free-verse picture book biography on the childhood of Johnny Cash, a book that took 10 years to happen. The project lay dormant for many years and then, I revived it on a whim because my gut told me it was too good to let it disappear forever. And with a few bold changes, it came to life again. That’s coming from Candlewick next year. Then I just finished the novel I referred to above which is going out to market as we speak. I am also finishing the writing on a new graphic novel called Grand Theft Horse about my cousin, a 60 year old Texas widow who stole a thoroughbred horse on Christmas Eve to save it from being raced to death. She became an outlaw—a cause célèbre, who learned the law at the library at night in order to beat a high powered LA attorney bent on ruining her. Otherwise, I’m back on that epic book that I put aside, which is now smaller and simpler and not so damn important, but hopefully just a really great story.
To learn more about Greg, go to http://gregneri.com/.