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Talking TBR lists and #BLM with YA novelist and creative writing professor Juliana Goodman

Juliana Goodman is a visiting assistant professor in The University of Tulsa’s Department of English Language and Literature this year. A literary arts fellow with the Tulsa Artist Fellowship, she received her B.A. in English literature from Western Illinois University and her M.F.A. in fiction writing from Purdue University. Goodman’s first novel, What about Katia?, has just been purchased by Kat Brzozowski at Feiwel and Friends. It will be published in the winter of 2022.

Recently, Goodman made time for a conversation about an array of topics. Here is a slightly condensed version of our chat.

Congratulations on publishing your first book. Would you tell us about it?

Visiting Assistant Professor Juliana Goodman smiling, wearing a Purdue sweatshirt and holding an open bookWhat about Katia? is a young adult (YA) fiction book about a 16-year-old Black girl named Beau whose sister Katia is shot and killed by a white police officer who says that Katia was trying to break into his house. Beau is not sure that is the truth and all she knows is the only other person to witness the crime was Katia’s boyfriend, Jordan. Nobody knows where Jordan is, so Beau takes it upon herself to try to track him down so she can find out the truth about what happened that night.

Your novel contains themes and messages there that are relevant to what’s going on in the world right now, particularly with the Black Lives Matter movement. How do you feel the YA genre lends itself to addressing the issues you raise?

I think the YA genre is really good in addressing these issues because I think it’s usually children and teens who become the loudest voices. They are growing up now during all of this and so they are going to be the leaders eventually, and I think it’s important for them to know what is really going on.

My book is a way for them to be taught lessons about racism they might not know. When I was a young girl, I was experiencing a lot of microaggressions and racism, but I did not really know that that’s what that was and so I did not know how to cope with it. This book is for young Black girls to show them, hey, this is what is happening to you and this is why: racism.

While we’re discussing issues like racism and microaggressions, are there any books you would recommend to someone wanting to know more?

One of my favorite books is called How It Went Down by an author named Kekla Magoon. It’s about a young African American boy who is shot and killed and it’s told through at least 10 different viewpoints of the same incident and how it affects different people in the neighborhood. It came out a while ago and I don’t think it has gotten the attention it deserves. But it is a really powerful book.

What’s your approach to writing? Do you have a specific writing schedule or time that you set aside to write? What kind of environment do you do your writing in?

Mine is all over the place because I spent the last 10 years moving around to different places. Lately, I would say – before the pandemic – I was going to Starbucks at the Central Library. I would write in there because it was quiet and smelled really good. Once that closed down, I had to create my own office.

I have one at the Tulsa Artist Fellowship located on Detroit, but it’s right across the street from a bunch of construction so I don’t really go over there much. Now, I have set up my own space in my apartment and I got myself a desk so I can stand up and work or sit down and work.

I have tried to set time aside, but usually I get distracted with other business stuff and don’t do it. But sometimes I just get that urge to write and whenever that hits, whether if it’s midnight or 3 a.m. or 7 a.m., then I just sit down and write as much as I can until I have to get up and go walk the dog or something.

Are there any books you have read recently that you just could not put down or is there one you are reading now that you are enjoying? What’s on your nightstand?

I always keep a ton of books there. I have not been able to read much lately because I am trying to finish my own revisions, but there’s a book by Tiffany D. Jackson called Let Me Hear A Rhyme and it’s about a teen girl whose older brother was murdered. He was a rapper before he died so she and his two best friends team up to make him a successful rapper after his death by not telling anyone he’s actually dead.

Another book I just got in is called Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron. It’s a fantasy story about teen girls who have to attend this annual ball. Basically, it’s a retelling of Cinderella except Cinderella is, I guess, dead.

Do you have a favorite literary genre?

I pretty much only, exclusively, read YA fiction. Within that genre, I’ll read pretty much anything, but I prefer contemporary stories, usually something with some drama in it. I don’t really like happy stories.

What, for you, makes a book good”?

I really like books that have description, but also really good dialogue and focus more on telling the story rather than purple prose. If there’s too many paragraphs describing what the shirt looks like or the homestead, I just get really bored.

Is there any book that you would credit as a major influence for you, particularly in your career as a writer?

A book that has given me a lot of inspiration is called Like Sisters on the Homefront, by Rita Williams-Garcia. I read that story years ago. It’s about a 14-year-old girl and she has an infant son and her family sends her off to Georgia to stay with her family. She has to go down there and learn to fit in, I guess, and how to talk to her cousins. Kind of just how to cope with life. I really liked it because all of the main characters were Black girls and that’s really rare to find in mainstream YA fiction.

Is there a work by a famous African American author that, to you, is a must-read?

Native Son by Richard Wright. That’s a pretty good one.

You’re a visiting professor here at TU. What is a book you would recommend to one of your students or anyone who is an English or creative writing major?

Touching Snow by M. Sindy Felin. I think it won the National Book Award or it was a finalist a few years ago and I had never heard of it. I just picked it up from the library randomly one day and it was just one of the most beautiful stories I had ever read. It was really tough to read because it involves child abuse. It’s about this 13-year-old girl. Her and her family have just moved from Haiti to New York and it’s about how they cope with everything changing – money, things like that. It was written in a way that it could have been an adult book, but I guess people think that YA books can’t be literary and this one was just very literary and very beautiful.

You noted that some people think YA fiction cannot be literary. What do you feel are some other misconceptions about the YA genre?

I actually had a student last year who said that YA readers have short attention spans and they, you know, need to be spoon-fed lessons. I think the YA category should be looked at the same as adult fiction where you have adult sci-fi, adult romance, and YA is pretty much the same thing except all these different genres are marketed towards kids.

There are some very commercial, like the Harry Potter and Twilight series, but there are also some other books that don’t get a ton of attention because they are not being streamed that are very literary. They might be more challenging for younger teens, but older teens can read those books, as well as adults. I think adult women purchase YA books more than any other group. It’s very, very popular and I think no matter what kind of reader you are and what you are interested in, if look in the right places, you can find a book you will like that’s YA.

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