“My talents, gifts, and skills are a product of where my roots broke ground, the community that reared me.”
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Ms. Elle, your debut novel, Wings of Ebony, was published in January. Please tell us about your new book.
J. ELLE: Wings of Ebony is an urban-fantasy novel about a Black teen from Houston who learns she’s half goddess and must lean into her ancestor’s magic to protect her community from drugs, violence, and crime.
You have created a whole, new world in the magical Ghizon of Wings of Ebony. How do you go about building a world from scratch? What were your influences?
I wish there was a formula because frankly it’s the hardest part of writing for me. Characters come to me quite easily. But the world and the magic, creating an imaginary place that rings with just enough familiarity for readers to feel grounded in the story is hard work. It’s also the most exhilarating part of the story for me. I absolutely love it. In Wings of Ebony in particular I wanted to create a world that was recognizable enough that readers could be more wrapped up in what was happening, the real-world parallels, instead of lost in the newness of the magic, et cetera. So I kept Ghizon fairly contemporary.
I love the way Wakanda in Black Panther and even Brandon Sanderson’s magic have a science-y bend, I definitely took inspiration from those brilliant works. But I also love the magic of Greek gods and the mythos of all powerful beings which led me to being inspired by Diana in Wonder Woman. Each book’s process and journey to creation is so vastly different. And exploring new influences is a huge part of the fun of being a writer.
Another aspect of your novel that resonates is your evocation of the sights, smells, sounds, and “feels” of Houston. Do you have a particular technique for writing local? What other writings about Houston have inspired you?
I love to close my eyes and really imagine myself in a space and sort of zoom into what makes me feel present in that space. Why do we relax when we sit down in our bed after a long day? What is it that makes us feel “at home”? Is it the smell? Certain sounds that comfort? I love to dig into the sensory pieces of a setting, and I try to bring that to the page to immerse the reader wholly in the story. For Houston specifically, and the East Row community, I worked really hard to make the people and places feel real. I wanted Ms. Leola’s poundcake to make reader’s mouths water, so I wove in details of how characters reacted to eating it. Not just with dialogue, but with physical reactions, too. In fact, it’s my dream to vacation in each real-world setting that I’m writing as I write it to really breathe in the space as I create. Hopefully I can live that dream someday!
In terms of books inspired by Houston, I haven’t read any books in my fav genres that depict my community on the page. That’s another reason I felt compelled to write Wings of Ebony.
You’ve said that you thought you wanted to be a lawyer; you attended the High School for Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice in Houston (now the High School for Law and Justice). You spent some time teaching. What was your inspiration to begin writing, and what is your process like?
I did want to be a lawyer for a while. And then I wanted to be a senator and run with education policy as my platform. I’ve realized that ultimately I have an activist heart and I yearn to work in an industry that allows me to bring about meaningful change. Teaching really clued me in to the role that kids play in that dream. They’re literally up to the plate next as the future change makers and dreamers! (I really miss the classroom.) But writing for teens and tweens is scratching that activist itch. I hope my books do a lot of good for a lot of kids, shining light in very dark places and making this place better for the next generation.
My writing process is a bit erratic. I’m a very visionary– and ideas-type person. And I have to work from a place of passion. (Well, I work best when I’m working from a place of passion.) I’ve found that when an idea comes to me I have to give it space to bloom into a messy first draft. I have to take notes at random times throughout the day and night. I have to write chapters upon chapters that’ll never make it in the final book because that’s how I get to know my characters best. Once I have a solid idea of what a book is going to be about, I sit down and outline using Jessica Brody’s Save The Cat. From there, I craft a detailed synopsis. Sometimes they’re three to five pages, other times they’re more like thirty-seven pages, ha ha. But the idea is that I have a cohesive summary of the story where the plot and character arcs are evident. That’s when I know I’m ready to punch out a usable draft.
What was your big break? Please tell us how it came about and what it’s been like to work with the Denene Millner Books imprint at Simon & Schuster. What advice do you have for other aspiring writers still hoping for their first big break?
I posted a tweet on Twitter in October of 2018 and hundreds of publishing professionals saw it, from literary agents to editors. I was inundated with requests to see pages and ended up with multiple offers of representation. From there I revised my story a bit, under the guidance of my literary agent. We went back and forth on a couple drafts until she thought it was ready to be submitted to editors. We sent it out on January 22, 2019, and that’s when the wait really began. At the five-month mark we received an offer from Denene Millner, and other publishers got wind of that news and quickly echoed their interest. I was enamored with Denene’s reputation and I really wanted to work with a Black editor on this story because it’s so personal to me, my community. So we signed with Denene/Simon & Schuster and here we are.
I’d love aspiring writers to know:
1) Each person’s path to publication is different. Sometimes it’s a Twitter pitch, other times it’s cold querying agents’ inboxes, and sometimes it’s self-publishing. There’s no one path and no path is better than another. So be open. Don’t let one path closing shut you down to others.
2) I’d also encourage them to remember why they want to write and hold on to that love of storytelling, despite how high the hill seems to climb. Tenacity is their greatest weapon in this industry, so sharpen, keep it at the ready.
3) And finally, understand that an agent or editor’s rejection of your story isn’t a rejection of you personally. Separate yourself from your art and be really sober minded about feedback. A lot of times, not always, but often there’s great merit to those detailed rejections, and it would be prudent to give it sober consideration. Hang in there!
For those who’ve read and loved Wings of Ebony, which authors and books would you recommend to them?
If you’ve loved Wings of Ebony, you must also read:
- Bad Witch Burning by Jessica Lewis
- The A Blade So Black series by LL McKinney
- Legendborn by Tracy Deonn
- Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older
- Dear Martin by Nic Stone
- SLAY by Brittney Morris
Since this is Lone Star Lit, I always ask what Texas means to a writer and their work. How has Texas, and especially Houston’s Third Ward, shaped you and your writing?
I’m from the “hood” in Houston, Texas. And I’m very proud of that fact. So much of who I am is rooted in where I came from. My talents, gifts, and skills are a product of where my roots broke ground, the community that reared me. So if someone can appreciate me as a person or my art, they can by extension appreciate where I’m from. If they can look at me and see my magic, they can look at the neighborhood I got it from and see the magic there, too. My successes and achievements cannot be separated from my community, which a lot of people like to try to do.
When I speak about my home, the southeast side of Houston, it’s not “them.” It’s “we.” I wanted readers to experience that as they walked through Rue’s shoes. I wanted them to live in the joy, the togetherness, the resilience, the unbridled love. That’s why I’m inspired to write stories in that space. Houston gave me the story. And I will forever be grateful.
I’ve a new question to ask writers this year: How has COVID-19 affected your work, and what measures have you found successful in adapting to this new environment?
Interestingly it’s been helpful to have my partner home all the time. That has made it easier for me to find pockets of time to write uninterrupted. When I drafted Wings of Ebony I was in a very busy season of life as a military spouse, moving around all the time and solo parenting often. One year I remember we saw my husband eight weeks total—that entire year. And that had all kinds of emotional fallout for our kids. It was a lot to grapple with, but writing was my fun place. I wrote early mornings before the littles got up, late nights—all night, sometimes. Now, because our life has shifted so much in COVID, my partner is a full-time graduate student and home all the time which really helps!
In terms of the craft itself, I have really found that notes of missing family, longing for that sense of togetherness, is creeping into my stories more and more. In Park Row Magic Academy, a middle grade novel I have coming out next year, I even have the pandemic loosely referenced (in a casual way).
Can you tell us what’s next for you and your work? I’ve read that there’s a sequel to Wings of Ebony; can we get a peek at that?
I’m working on my next two series, trying to decide which would be the best follow up to Wings of Ebony, though my immediate next book is the sequel to Wings since it is a duology. I’m not able to share any peeks of it just yet, but I’ll say that Rue finds herself challenged in a way she doesn’t expect. It also features the love triangle a lot more heavily! So get ready to declare your ship loyalties! Are you #TeamJulius or #TeamJhamal? Ha ha.
10. What books are on your nightstand?
Our Kind of People by Lawrence Otis Graham
The Black Friend by Frederick Joseph
A Phoenix First Must Burn, an anthology edited by Patrice Caldwell
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
J. Elle is an author and advocate for marginalized voices in both publishing and her community. Born in Houston, Texas, Jess is a first-generation college student with a Bachelor of Journalism and Master of Arts in Educational Administration and Human Development. Her passion for empowering youth dates back before writing to her first career, in education. She’s worked as a preschool director, middle-school teacher, and high-school creative-writing mentor. In her spare time, you’ll find her volunteering at an alternative school, providing feedback for aspiring writers, loving on her three littles, or cooking up some dish true to her Texas and Louisiana roots. Wings of Ebony is her first novel.