Author Interview: Ellen Hagan

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Ellen Hagan is a Kentucky native writer, performer, and an educator. Today, she’s joining us on the Ready Chapter 1 blog to discuss her newest novel, All That Shines, which comes out on September 5th. Thank you so much for collaborating with us, Ellen!

Hi! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your upcoming novel, All That Shines?

Hello! I am so thrilled to be talking with you all. My official bio is here.

My name is Ellen Hagan. I am a writer, performer, and educator. My books include: Don’t Call Me a Hurricane, Reckless, Glorious, Girl, and Watch Us Rise, co-authored with Renée Watson. I am also a poet, with collections including: Blooming Fiascoes, Hemisphere, and Crowned. My work can be found in ESPN Magazine, She Walks in Beauty, and Southern Sin. In addition to writing, I work for a social justice-based arts in education program called DreamYard Project where I am the Head of Poetry & Theatre Departments, which means I get to work with amazing artists to build beautiful classroom experiences and lead workshops in art making and race equity. I also direct the International Poetry Exchange Program with Japan, South Korea, Australia and the Philippines and in the summertime, I co-lead the Alice Hoffman Young Writer’s Retreat at Adelphi University. I recently joined the faculty in the MFA program at Spalding University and have been mentoring students there as well. I love combining writing and teaching and feel so lucky to do this work. I was raised in Kentucky, and currently live in New York City with my family.

My unofficial bio is: Born and raised in Kentucky. Love my family & cornbread & the long winding hills of the Bluegrass. Studied acting and writing growing up. Was mentored by brilliant writers like Kelly Norman Ellis and Crystal Wilkinson. Grew up to become an Affrilachian Poet and learned storytelling at the University of Kentucky studying theatre. Went on to study fiction at The New School in New York City and have been here for over twenty years. My partner is a photographer and filmmaker and my children are poets and visual artists. We try to make art and share it as much as possible. I’ve been a teacher for two decades and love the community building part of art making. I am so excited to continue to see what is possible with art and community.

I am so excited to share All That Shines with you all and would love to share a synopsis with you.

A courageous novel in verse that questions what it means to lose everything you once treasured and rediscover yourself, falling in love along the way.

Chloe Brooks has only ever known what it’s like to have everything. Her parents’ wealth and place in society meant she had all she wanted, and friends everywhere she turned. Until it all crashes down: Her father is arrested and taken away, under investigation for fraud. Chloe learns that the life she led all these years – money for whatever she wanted, lavish vacations, designer everything, friends who show up for the extravagant fun – aren’t hers anymore. They’re repossessed, foreclosed, whisked away. And Chloe feels like who she was is gone, too.

Chloe and her mom retreat with just the suitcases they can pack to a run-down apartment complex outside the city, stuck out amid horse farms where Chloe can no longer afford to ride horses. With no old friends calling, she meets a crew of kids who live here. Who don’t know who she is… or rather, who she WAS. And they, including the unexpectedly appealing Clint Jackson, start to show her sides of life in this place that she would have ignored. And Clint seems to see her for who she really is… if Chloe even knows who that is. She might even find herself in love…. but will her new friends still be her friends when they figure out she’s THAT Chloe Brooks, what her family has done? Can she be herself, the self she’s finding now?

ALL THAT SHINES is full of the rolling hills in Kentucky, making music, horse-riding, late-night kissing in the tall bluegrass, catching the sun sinking into the earth and falling fast in love, with both yourself and the people around you.

What did your journey to publication look like for your debut novel?

My debut YA novel was: Watch Us Rise, which was written with Renée Watson. We had known each other as teaching artists for several years and always wanted to work together. We had ideas about writing a book that was focused on young women pushing back against racism and sexism happening in their schools. We wrote several sample chapters and put together a timeline to share with her team at Bloomsbury. The book had poems, blog entries and was told in two voices. We went through a round of edits before selling it to Bloomsbury and every time we got notes, the book became stronger and stronger. The book was published in 2019 and was the beginning of my career in YA and Middle Grade. I am so thankful for that friendship and partnership and our relationship with our editor Sarah Shumway Liu at Bloomsbury and our agent: Rosemary Stimola. It is a community of people who make a book happen and that first YA was such a beautiful experience.

What is your favorite part about writing novels in verse? Do you have any advice for writers who want to try writing in verse but aren’t sure where to start?

I think for young people, poetry can hold such emotion and heart. Poems are language distilled – when you think about the economy of language you are thinking about the most powerful and potent words and how they look and sound on the page. I love the layout and design of the poems on the page and how you can move seamlessly through the story. There is a power in telling a story with this distilled language.

If you are just getting started, my advice is just to write! Do not let the editor get inside of your head. Set a timer and try to get as many pages as possible. Do not judge or give yourself notes – just let the words flow. Once you have lots of words and pages, then you can go back and fine tune and craft. I also always say to read as much as possible. Some of the poets that I love include: Aracelis Girmay, Kamilah Aisha Moon, Danni Quintos, Yesenia Montilla and Naomi Shihab Nye. Hope you will check them out!

If you were to write a book outside of your normal genres, which genre would you choose and why?

I am excited to be working on an adult novel at the moment. I love poetry and Middle Grade and Young Adult, but I love experimenting with different genres, so I can’t wait to see how this goes. I would also love to write more plays and experiment with screenplays. My undergraduate BFA is in acting and I spent a great deal of time writing plays and one woman shows, so would love to get back to that at some point and see where it goes. I love the collaborative nature of playwriting as well.

RC1’s big thing is our Peer Critique Forum. What do you think was the most helpful critique you’ve ever gotten? How did it change the way you write?

As a teacher, I am always in conversation with my students, and I love when they ask me to read sections out loud or give feedback around dialogue and making sure it sounds as real as possible. They remind me to pay attention to the rhythm and flow of the language. I want to make sure my images are coming alive on the page and that my poems feel fresh and unique, so by hearing them out loud I can feel how they move. I also think it helps to have close friends who are amazing readers and can give you honest and real feedback so that you can sharpen your work as much as possible. Take the feedback and don’t be afraid to think of your work as a puzzle – take it apart and put it back together. Experiment, play and have fun!

In your opinion, what is the best and worst aspect of traditional publishing?

I have published in so many different ways – self-publishing, with small independent presses, University presses and then magazines and small literary journals, so I think all roads toward publication are exciting and unique and would encourage you to try out as many as you are interested in. As long as I focus on making the best art possible, there are so many ways to shine! The best part of traditional publishing is working one on one with an editor to fine tune your work and make it as strong as possible. I love the collaborative nature with editors, designers, copy editors and publicists. There is a big team that works together and I love that it feels collective and community driven.

Can you provide links to any websites or social channels you’d like readers to follow?

As a teaching artist, I am always excited to share writing activities and prompts that I use for myself and in the classroom. I have some poems and prompts that I love here: Oprah Daily Prompts and on my website as well. Everyone has a story to tell, and I look so forward to hearing your stories! You can follow me on Instagram and Twitter @ellenhagan

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