Paula Chase Hyman: Extroverted, Earnest, and Earthy

Today I'm honored to host Paula Chase Hyman, author of the Del Rio Bay series of books and co-founder of The Brown Bookshelf, a site "designed to push awareness of the myriad of African American voices writing for young readers."

With humor and a clear eye, Maryland author Paula Chase sees straight to the heart of today's teen culture. —Washington Parent

Briefly describe Paula Chase Hyman at age fourteen.

It’s probably going to come as no surprise that I had a similar life to my character, Mina. I was a really active and outgoing teen, running track and cheerleading. My weekends were always full either hanging out with my parents, because I was an only child, or in most cases being with my best friend Nicki. We’d spend whole weekends at the mall actively boy chasing then get home and, for hours, get lost in exchanging stories about these characters we’d made up. I have no complaints about my teen years.

Would you ever write a book with a white protagonist? Why or why not?

Sure. If the character spoke strongly to me and “told” me she should be White, definitely. The Lizzie character in my series is White and writing her was no different than writing Mina or Cinny. It’s weird. The race of the character isn’t really a conscious thought when I write. Maybe it’s because I’m African American that my protags end up being the same. But then that doesn’t explain why my WIP is about a bi-racial (Korean and African American) girl. The characters come to me however they come and I act on it.

Would you write a boy protagonist?

Yes, if he spoke strongly enough to me and I felt I could capture his spirit authentically. The good thing about writing my series was it was akin to writing an ensemble show. Michael and JZ were central characters and I felt I captured them well. And since the guys in the series took the stage for Flipping The Script, it’s pretty close to me writing a “boy” book. But my golden rule is – as long as I can feel that character in my head, I’ll write it. With the popularity of vamps and werewolves, I’ve often wondered if I could write that sort of book. There’s a part of me that feels I can’t but I know if such a story came to me strong enough I could.

Could you describe your path to publication of the Del Rio Bay series? Describe a “low” moment and a “high” moment.

I think my path was shorter than “average.” From final manuscript to Kensington acquiring it was only three years. I wrote So Not The Drama in about two months in 2003 and wrote Don’t Get It Twisted in one month, directly after.

Then I spent the next two years looking for an agent. A low was when I’d been working with this one agent for a year. He was trying to help me get the manuscript in publishable shape. There no promises to rep me. He was just being a great guiding source, but I felt like if I got it ready he’d take me on. After a year he admitted he still wasn’t passionate enough about my writing to rep it. He said my writing was too earnest for the YA market, at the time. It hurt because my style is my style. I knew he was thinking of his chances of selling it and that it wasn’t personal. But it was still very personal to me because that earnest edge is simply me. I took about four months off from writing and the agent search after that.

My current agent got my style and felt it was something we could use to our advantage. A high moment was getting the call from my agent when the first two books sold. It was funny. I still remember her telling me how much they were offering and I clearly remember thinking “thousand?” Because the number wasn’t something I was expecting because I’d heard that most first time authors were lucky to get $5,000. That was also my first real lesson in that any and every number touted in publishing is subjective!

If you had to give some “words of wisdom” to a young writer of color who wants to write books for teens and get published, what would they be?

Don’t let anyone box you in. It would be easy for a young writer of color to look at the literary landscape and become very discouraged because still, much of what’s out there is somewhat “typical” of what authors of color are supposed to write. But never let that stop you. As challenging and frustrating as the market can be, never let it dampen the story you want to tell.

Go wild. Imagine a pinnacle achievement or dream that you’d love to see come true in your career as a writer. A Newbery award acceptance in a shimmery gown, a front page story in USA Today, a segment on Oprah ...?

Geez, my moment is going to come off so boring. But honestly, a pinnacle achievement for me would be success defined by making enough money from my novels to live comfortably, i.e. a little better than I currently live. That’s it. That’s all. All I want from my career is that I can do it full-time and actually sustain or enhance my current lifestyle. See, told you my answer would be a snoozer.

Au contraire, you're always spellbinding, Ms. Paula. I especially love following you on twitter. Thanks for chilling with us on the Fire Escape.