Q. Most of your books take place in Trinidad or the Dominican Republic, but where were you born?

I am a “Trini” -- born and raised on the island of Trinidad in the West Indies. I spent a glorious childhood rambling about on the rivers and the beaches of Maracas and Mayaro, hiking the green mountains near my home in Diego Martin, and buying pallets (ice-cream) from the Pallet Man and fresh coconuts from the coconut man around the Queens Park Savannah with my father.

Q. What influenced you to become a writer?

I moved to Baltimore, Maryland when I was 10-years-old but I returned to Trinidad for three months every summer. So, I lived two separate lives: an American school life and a Trinidad summer life. I began writing because I missed Trinidad so much; riding my bike everywhere, building forts in the hills, and just limin’ (hanging out) with friends. I also missed the steel pan music, and the joy I felt in Trinidad. The energy on my island is incredible.

Q. Is that why most of your books feature Trinidad culture?

Definitely. My early books feature Trinidad’s majestic Carnivals (Jump Up Time), its delicious foods like roti, doubles, and pholourie (Jasmine’s Parlour Day) and my favorite beach, Mayaro Bay (A Wave in Her Pocket). I also retell folktales based on the scary stories I heard from my aunts in Trinidad. Those stories are in A Wave in Her Pocket and The Mermaid’s Twin Sister. My mother used to tell me I would turn into a mermaid if I went swimming on Good Friday, and I believed her, so I wrote about it in the Mermaid book.

Q. What other influences did Trinidad’s culture have on you as a writer?

Well, Trinidad is a mish-mash of cultures and traditions, including African, Indian, Chinese, Amerindian, Syrian, British and French. This lively, multi-cultural environment was invigorating for me as a budding writer. My father took me to hear the steel bands practicing for Panorama competitions. I attended a three-day Hindu wedding, and plays written by Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott and other talented writers like Earl Lovelace. My mother’s bookshelves were packed with poetry and Shakespeare, which she read to us. I started writing poems when I was eight about pulling seine (fishing) and jumbies (ghosts) that lived in the cemetery next door to my school.

Q. What writing tips do you have for young writers?

Read a lot. Go inward. Don’t be afraid to be alone with your thoughts. In Trinidad, I walked alone at the beach and years later, I wrote scenes in The Color of My Words based on my memories. Try to absorb everything--the beautiful, sad, painful and joyous moments—these experiences will be there to draw on later when you need to create a heartfelt scene. And when you’re crying over some guy or girl breaking your heart, stop and think, “I need to remember this moment.” And you’ll be just fine.

Q. Other than Trinidad, what influences your writing?

During the summers, my sister, Christine, and I walked to the Starlite Drive-In twice a week with our brother Gerard to watch the double features. We saw four movies a week. My brother is now a filmmaker and actor, so movies are big in our family. The Breakfast Club is my ultimate favorite. Most writers of young adult books are stuck in a teenage time zone—I read YA books, see most teen movies, and have more teen friends than adult ones.

And Music! We grew up with calypso, reggae, funk and soul, samba, Frank Sinatra, Santana, all playing in our house. I hung out with friends at Rhyner’s Record Shop in downtown Port-of-Spain listening to dub and rockers (forms of reggae music), American soul, and the incomparable Michael Jackson. Now I listen to music as I write. I have a playlist for every project to get me in the mood of the characters.

Q. When did you first get published?

I attended an all-girls Catholic high school in Baltimore and I wrote for the school newspaper and the literary magazine. I was thrilled to see my byline “by Lynn Joseph” the very first time. At 16, I got a summer job with a magazine, People, in Trinidad and they featured my stories on life in an American high school, and cute boys and their cars. Being a writer meant I could write about anything--I even interviewed movie stars, Patrick Swayze and Timothy Hutton (he’d just won the Oscar) while I was in high school, and Judd Nelson from The Breakfast Club when I was in college.

Q. Do your books feature mostly real-life experiences, or do you make up stuff, too?

I never plan it, but most scenes in my books come from something or some feeling I have experienced or observed. Like my first crush, which lasted for years (he knows who he is!). In my book, The Color of My Words, Ana Rosa describes her mad crush on her brother’s friend, who doesn’t notice her at all. I know that feeling so well! My first slow dance was at a party to the song, You Make Me Feel Brand New by The Stylistics. I thought that song would never end, I was so nervous. Then, I had to stand there and watch all the guys ask my sister to dance. Christine was the cutie pie; I was the nerd. In The Color of My Words, Ana Rosa has to stand by and watch the boy she loves dance with her sister. So, it’s real to me and to my characters.

Q. Did you study to be a writer?

I attended the University of Colorado, Boulder and graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in English, so I did a lot of reading, and a lot of hiking in the gorgeous Rocky Mountains. I didn’t know then about the MFA (Master of Fine Arts) degree where you can study creative writing. I thought writers just wrote.

I moved to New York to work in publishing and, by chance, I ended up in the Children’s Book Department of Harper & Row working with two phenomenal editors Laura Geringer and Joanna Cotler. I learned everything about children’s book writing from them! It was an extraordinary apprenticeship. While working for Laura and Joanna, I wrote my first children’s book Coconut Kind of Day, but I was too shy to give it to them so I sent it to another editor, Dinah Stevenson, who publishes award-winning multi-cultural books. That’s how I started. It was the most exciting thing I had ever done.

Q. Why did you become a lawyer?

I attended Fordham University Law School because I was fascinated by how laws develop and change to reflect or create history, especially constitutional and civil rights laws. Reading cases is just like reading stories of people’s lives. By 1993, I had graduated from law school, was married, had a gorgeous son named Jared, and a job at a top law firm. Along the way I wrote my children’s books, A Wave in Her Pocket, An Island Christmas, Jasmine’s Parlour Day, and The Mermaid’s Twin Sister. Apparently, I wasn’t busy enough so we had another beautiful son, Brandt, in 1994.

Q. How did being a lawyer and mother affect your children’s book writing?

I had no time to be alone anymore. No time to think, and certainly no time to write. Eventually, I took a hiatus from law and traveled back and forth between New York and the Dominican Republic researching and writing The Color of My Words for two years. That country dazzled me. I loved the music, the people, and the culture--it all reminded me of Trinidad. Although I did not speak Spanish, I felt the same way I used to back home because that same joy permeated the air.

Q. How did you pick the Dominican Republic for the setting of The Color of My Words?

I read an article in Caribbean Travel & Life magazine about Jewish refugees who escaped Europe in the 1940s to settle in Sosua on the North Coast of the D.R. A few years later, I read about freed slaves emigrating from the United Sates to the coastal town of Samana in 1824 and developing a boatbuilding and agricultural society. I was drawn to the similarities between these two different groups of displaced people from different centuries, finding a new home on this island. I felt as if the Dominica Republic was calling me. So, I went by myself and traveled around exploring and meeting people. The Color of My Words was the result of those encounters. I was fortunate that editors Joanna Cotler and Justin Chanda from HarperCollins loved Ana Rosa and her story of wanting to be a writer. I felt like I had come full circle.

Now, I’m writing a middle grade novel, Heart & Joy, in which the protagonist’s grandfather is one of the original exiled Jews. It is based on my interviews with the people of Sousa. Also, in Flowers in the Sky, to be published next year by HarperCollins, the main character, Nina, is from Samana. So, the D.R., is still very much alive in my heart and in my writing.

Q. You have not published a book since The Color of My Words ten years ago, why?

After I finished writing The Color of My Words, I began work as a litigation lawyer for the City of New York near the World Trade Center. I loved my job. I got to do trials just like in the movies, and I watched A Few Good Men the night before my first trial to see Tom Cruise in action. I was also working on a new novel, which began with a girl sitting by the Twin Towers because I sat in front of the WTC fountain every day for lunch. Then, tragedy struck - September 11th, 2001, a day none of us will forget. I was on my way to a trial just two blocks away with Pat Miller, my trial supervisor at the Corporation Counsel’s Office. I still thank her for getting me safely over the Brooklyn Bridge that horrific day as I was in shock. I left New York and relocated with my sons to a tiny island in the Caribbean: Water Island, far from the troubles of the world. But, the tragedy stayed with me. I never did another trial. It was years before I started writing again. Sometimes in life you just have nothing to say.

Q. So what’s new, now?

I’m back in New York, loving the beaches of Long Island and the mountains of the Catskills. I’m a part-time lawyer, but I’m 100% a writer. I wasn’t the most popular teenage girl, but I’m the most popular Mom amongst my sons’ friends. And, music is still always playing in my house. In fact, my son Jared left his Recovery CD in my Jeep by accident. But there’re no accidents. Eminem’s song “Not Afraid” woke me up and his incredible intensity got me writing seriously again. Thanks, Mr. Mathers. My new YA novel, Flowers in the Sky, will be published next year by HarperCollins, and in October 2011, I was Bermuda’s Writer in Residence, teaching a Writers Workshop on children’s literature to a group of talented writers. Like Eminem says on his Recovery album, “I’m back!” And I’m so happy to be doing what I love.

For more information, please check out this interview.

Lynn Joseph | Trinidadian Author of Children's and Young Adult Novels
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