Saturday, January 10, 2015

2 Kekla Magoon, author of X: A NOVEL, on writing with the daughter of Malcolm X

What was your inspiration for writing X: A NOVEL?

Ilyasah had long been interested in telling the story of her father's young life. In fact, she had been doing so for many years, in speeches, essays, articles, and so on. She wanted to write a novel to reach a different, younger audience with Malcolm's story. When she approached me to work on this project with her, I immediately connected with the emotional throughline of the novel she had outlined. My inspiration was simply that I am passionate about studying and writing from within this period of history, and the excitement I felt about exploring the compelling character of Malcolm X.

What book or books would most resonate with readers who love your book--or visa versa?
If it's not too obvious, I'd like to suggest readers check out The Autobiography of MALCOLM X. You'll get a sense of Malcolm's adult perspective on the period of his life (from childhood to age twenty one) that we cover in X: A NOVEL, plus you'll get to read on about his life as an adult and the amazing work he did to empower and inspire people within America's black communities, and around the world.

How long did you work on X: A NOVEL?

Ilyasah and I first spoke about the project in April 2012. We started developing the outline and first chapters of the book in the summer, plus I did a lot of reading and research during that time to learn more about Malcolm's life. We sold the project on proposal to Candlewick in the fall and we finished writing the first draft in spring 2013. Then, of course, we received feedback from our editor, Andrea, and we spent another year or so revising and shaping the book. Following that, the book went through copyediting, proofreading, design, and typesetting to transform it from a manuscript to a book. It hits bookstore shelves January 6, 2015. So, from first idea to publication, the project took nearly three years!

What did this book teach you about writing or about yourself?

I am not usually an outliner, and I usually work on book projects alone, so I learned a lot about how to stretch myself in new ways creatively. The novel is based on the true events of Malcolm's early life, so we were working within a very clear structure and timeline, with events that had to happen in the book. It was very different than my usual process of making things up as I go along! Collaborating with another author was also new for me, and it was pretty exciting (and a little intimidating at first!) to be working with the ideas, notes, and vision of someone so close to Malcolm X, who had always been such a larger-than-life, iconic figure to me.

What do you hope readers will take away from X: A NOVEL?

First and foremost, a great read! Ilyasah and I both have spent a great deal of time working with and speaking to young people, and we feel strongly that young voices are so often underestimated in our society. We hope that readers of X will come away with one of the most valuable lessons Malcolm learned within his own life--that every young person, no mater his or her circumstances, has the potential and the opportunity to rise to great heights, and to give back to the world in a meaningful way. Malcolm himself only learned this after much suffering and struggle as a young man, and he spent the rest of his life telling his own story to urge those feeling the most lost, and degraded, and in despair, to follow in his footsteps and become the best they could be. Ilyasah and I hope X: A NOVEL helps carries that message to a new generation.

How long or hard was your road to publication? How many books did you write before this one, and how many never got published?

Really? You want me to count the unpublished things? Haha...hold on while I pull all the shoeboxes from under my bed and take inventory. The road to publication is hard for everyone. X is my sixth published YA novel. It is Ilyasah's first novel, which is why she decided to work on it together with me, since I have lots of experience writing in this genre. She has previously published her own memoirs in GROWING UP X and a picture book called MALCOLM LITTLE, THE BOY WHO WOULD GROW UP TO BE MALCOLM X.

Was there an AHA! moment along your road to publication where something suddenly sank in and you felt you had the key to writing a novel? What was it?

Sure. Of course. This moment has, like, totally happened for me. I am now officially a genius in all literary things. Hahaha. The strange thing about studying writing is that the more you learn, the more you realize you don't know. There's a famous quote like that about knowledge in general, and it's really true. With each novel, there is (hopefully) a moment when I achieve a sense of clarity about the book, and where it is going and what needs to be done to get it there. However, each book has its own personality, so these moments are different, and I have to hope for a new one each time I dive into a manuscript. With X, I lucked out because Ilyasah got to have most of the major AHA! moments before I even got there. She knew the story so intimately before any words were on the page.

What's your writing ritual like? Do you listen to music? Work at home or at a coffee shop or the library, etc?

I'm a fan of the coffee shop vibe. Low-volume, semi-poppy, semi-indie music playing softly in the background, random chatter from other patrons, the obnoxious hiss of that nozzle that foams the milk.....I dig all of it. It's like a symphony.

What advice would you most like to pass along to other writers?

Keep writing. It's the corniest and most obvious advice, but it is also the single most necessary ingredient to achieving anything as a writer. You have to practice, and you have to produce something, even if it is only a little bit, and even if you cannot do it every day. You have to keep believing that your words are important, and keep doing whatever you can to put them on paper.

What are you working on now?

After many years of writing historical and contemporary realistic fiction, I am trying my hand at middle grade fantasy. SHADOWS OF SHERWOOD is the first book in my Robyn Hoodlum Adventures series, about a biracial twelve-year-old girl whose "Robin Hood" antics anger the authorities in her dystopian city (Bloomsbury 2015). I'm also writing Book Four of VOYAGERS, a multi-author middle-grade space travel adventure series (Random House 2016).


X: A Novel
by Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon
Released 1/6/2015

Cowritten by Malcolm X’s daughter, this riveting and revealing novel follows the formative years of the man whose words and actions shook the world.

I am Malcolm.
I am my father’s son. But to be my father’s son means that they will always come for me.

They will always come for me, and I will always succumb.

Malcolm Little’s parents have always told him that he can achieve anything, but from what he can tell, that's nothing but a pack of lies—after all, his father's been murdered, his mother's been taken away, and his dreams of becoming a lawyer have gotten him laughed out of school. There’s no point in trying, he figures, and lured by the nightlife of Boston and New York, he escapes into a world of fancy suits, jazz, girls, and reefer.

But Malcolm’s efforts to leave the past behind lead him into increasingly dangerous territory when what starts as some small-time hustling quickly spins out of control. Deep down, he knows that the freedom he’s found is only an illusion—and that he can't run forever.

X follows Malcolm from his childhood to his imprisonment for theft at age twenty, when he found the faith that would lead him to forge a new path and command a voice that still resonates today.

Purchase X: A Novel at Amazon
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Kekla MagoonKekla Magoon is the author of five young adult novels: How It Went Down, Camo Girl, 37 Things I Love, Fire in the Streets, and The Rock and the River, for which she received the ALA Coretta Scott King New Talent Award and an NAACP Image Award nomination. She also writes non-fiction on historical topics, including Today the World is Watching You: The Little Rock Nine and the Fight for School Integration 1957-58 and the forthcoming PANTHERS! The History and Legacy of the Black Panther Party in America. Raised in a biracial family in the Midwest, Kekla now teaches writing in New York City, conducts school and library visits nationwide, and serves on the Writers’ Council for the National Writing Project. Kekla holds a B.A. in History from Northwestern University and an M.F.A. in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Visit her online at


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