Q & A: Paul Volponi

Mr. Volponi is a writer, journalist and teacher living in New York City. For six years he taught incarcerated teens on Rikers Island to read and write, and for six years taught teens in drug day-treatment centers, influencing many of his novels. To learn more about him and his books, visit www.paulvolponibooks.com

Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get started writing?

I was so inspired by the students around me, on Rikers Island and in the day drug rehabs where I was teaching in NYC, that I wanted to tell their unique stories. I use the word “their” sparingly, because “their” stories are really “our” stories. No lines. No fences. No separation between anyone on the streets here in NYC.

Do you have a special routine when you write?

I write every day for a few hours in the morning, worried that if I miss a day, I might not have the same ideas, or produce the same work tomorrow.

Tell us more about your last book, and what are you working on now?

In September 2009, I have a book out with Atheneum (Simon and Schuster) called Homestretch. It is about a Texas runaway who has been taught by his abusive father that he is better than the Mexicans who surround him in Southwest Texas. The runaway, Gas, finds work at a racetrack as a hotwalker, walking horses in circles to cool down their muscles after training. There, he is beneath all the Mexican grooms, who begin to look after him as a younger brother. The novel is an exploration in prejudice and a universal family, inspired by the work of the great southern writer Flannery O’Connor, with the protagonist being displaced by those he believes should be beneath him. For thirteen years, I’ve worked as a reporter at New York racetracks, and that’s what helps to give this book its authentic feel.

In February 2010, Rikers High (Viking/Penguin) will be out. The work is based on my six years as a teacher on Rikers Island. The overwhelming majority of incidents in the novel I witnessed firsthand. The only fiction is the creation of a protagonist, Martin Stokes—a.k.a. Forty (named for his bed number), who represents the journey of several real students blended into one. I believe teachers and students will feel a range of emotions ranging from stunned, sickened, and blessed to see what really occurs day-to-day in a jail school of that size.

In 2011, I’ll have Crossing Lines (Viking), inspired by the true story of a male high school student who felt the need to attend classes dressed as a woman. The story is told by a macho high school football player whose sister is a close friend of the protagonist.

in 2012, I’ll have the conclusion of Black and White, entitled Marcus and Eddie.

How would you define urban fiction?

I’m interested in stories that move me, no matter where they’re set. But my life experience is in an urban setting. So to me, urban fiction is my life, because that’s what I know and feel to be true, like many of our students.

Outside of teen urban fiction, who are few authors that you enjoy?

I like Mark Twain—my novel The Hand You’re Dealt has a protagonist named Huck (because the final card in Texas Hold ‘em is called the River), and some of the scenes are in homage to Twain’s Huck. I also love Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and my novel Hurricane Song, about a boy and his father w ho spend two nights in the Superdome during Katrina, pays homage to that incredible work.

Who’s your favorite character from your books?

I suppose Noah from Response, inspired by a real life NYC hate crime, is my favorite character, because he’s so truthful about the fear and hatred he feels after being attack on the streets with a metal baseball bat for being in the wrong neighborhood.

At one point, someone in Rikers High says, “Violence, violence, violence. That’s the kind of programs you are all addicted to. Like you haven’t had enough of it for real in your own lives.” What do you think about the violence in urban fiction? Is it simply glorification or are the books “cautionary tales” as some authors proclaim?

I only write what’s real, what I’ve seen. I try to be a mirror on society, showing you the images that pass by. If there wasn’t violence in real life, I wouldn’t show it in my work. It’s the same with rough language. I try to use the words that people say in real situations. That’s being truthful to the work.

Any predictions on the future of urban fiction?

Urban fiction is a depiction of what’s real. By definition, it will always have a future, because it is so deeply rooted in the present.

As a teacher on Rikers Island from 1992 to 1998, do you have any thoughts on how teachers could use urban fiction in the classroom?

I think urban fiction is a teacher’s best friend, because it brings the student full circle to his own life. And that’s what a student should be most interested in.

Why should librarians purchase urban fiction, for teens and adults, for their collections? And do you think they could promote it?

Solid books will promote themselves.

In your new book, Rikers High, Martin describes many negative experiences with corrections officers. What was your experience like working at Rikers Island and how did “the system” respond to your work as a teacher?

Everyone on Rikers is a piece of the puzzle. You go from being a person—to a number—to a piece of meat—then back to a person again, many times over in the course of a day, through many different sets of eyes.

In the book, Martin was “scarred” in multiple ways during his time at Rikers. If you could change one thing there, or at any other corrections facility, to help people to not reoffend and never return back to the facility, what would you change?

You can’t hold school in jail and make the jail part go away. It’s an experience that I hope teens will learn from, even if some of the lessons are over the line.

In the book, Demarco tells Shaky, “You need to put some thought into who you heroes are.” Do you ever think of reading as something heroic and how can the act of reading impact a young person’s life?

I think books impact the live lives of teens much more when they see themselves in the pages.

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