Literary Hub

Meet National Book Award Finalist Elizabeth Acevedo

The 2018 National Book Awards will be held on Wednesday, November 14 at the 69th National Book Awards Ceremony and Benefit Dinner at Cipriani Wall Street in New York City. In preparation for the ceremony, and to celebrate all of the wonderful books and authors nominated for the awards this year, Literary Hub will be sharing short interviews with each of the finalists in all five categories: Young People’s Literature, Translated Literature, Poetry, Nonfiction, and Fiction.

Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X (HarperTeen / HarperCollins Publishers) is a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award in Young People’s Literature. It is a bestselling novel in verse about a young Dominican girl discovering her own true voice with slam poetry. Literary Hub asked Elizabeth a few questions about her book, her process, and her life as a writer.

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What do you always want to talk about in interviews but never get to?

I often wish I was asked more about the craft of the verse. I spent so many agonizing hours ensuring every line break was precise, every word and repetition chosen with care—because it was important to me to maintain the integrity of the lyric while also advancing the narrative. It’s that tightrope walk I’m studying in other people’s work and am continuously looking to understand further.

Who was the first person you told about making this list?

I was en route to a school visit and unable to tune in to the announcement. As soon as I got the call from my editor, I immediately called my husband, who was secretly watching AM2DM at work—he knew before I did. My best friend was the next person I called.

What time of day do you write (and why)?

I’m a night owl. I love writing best when the house is quiet and the street is making its night noises and it seems like nothing and no one needs anything from me except for the writing.

Which book(s) do you return to again and again?

Good Woman by Lucille Clifton. Clifton has been so important in my life; she’s a fantastic writer and so generous even though her writing is quite spare. She really made me realize poetry can be simple, and short, and still contain worlds. I read one of her most famous poems, won’t you celebrate with me when I was a teenager and it was the first poem I ever memorized by someone other than myself. Those lines were like a life raft and the first time I realized words can save our lives. The last lines read: “won’t you celebrate with me/that everyday/something has tried to kill me/and has failed.”

Which non-literary piece of culture—film, tv show, painting, song—could you not imagine your life without?

I am obsessed with the Food Network, especially the show Chopped. I’m always in awe of contestants who take the most obscure (to me) ingredients and finagle dishes that look like they were composed far in advance and not in twenty minutes. I also love how the show sparks my own imagination as I yell at the screen about what I would have cooked instead.

Young People’s Literature is now often seen as being more conscientious about representing a broad spectrum of sexuality and identity, functioning as both a window and a mirror to our culture. What do you see as the future of YPL, and what lessons would you like the wider industry to take away from the evolution of YPL?

I think Young People’s Literature will continue to become a landing place for young people to see themselves, perhaps when they’ve never seen themselves before. A beacon that calls them home—whatever class, race, gender, etc. they might be. But I also hope that YPL will continue being a springboard where young people arrive with their own notions of this country and world and when they arrive to the page they are flung into a different understanding of who we are and can be as a society. At its best, YPL honors the voices and experiences of young people and also challenges them to confront the most difficult issues of our times, the ones that they have the imagination and wherewithal to conquer where we adults have failed.

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