Art Talk with Ann Angel
Ann Angel. Photo by Shannon Wucherer
In the days of Facebook and text messages, capturing a teenager's attention can seem like a Herculean task, particularly in the literary realm. Yet writer Ann Angel has successfully built her career on that ever finicky YA market. She has written biographies of Louis Pasteur, astronaut John Glenn, and Big Read author Amy Tan, and created a reader's guide to Sandra Cisnero's House on Mango Street. Her latest book, Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing, has been honored with the 2011 SCBWI Crystal Kite Award and the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults. She also collaborated with her daughter on a book for adults called Silent Embrace: Perspectives on Birth and Adoption, which was released in 2010. We talked with Angel about her earliest forays into writing, what attracts her to the personalities she writes about, and the emotional intensity that comes with inhabiting a literary subject's life.
NEA: What is your version of the artist’s life?
ANN ANGEL: My version of the artist’s life comes from my own life but also the lives of those artists such as Janis Joplin, [author] Robert Cormier, and Amy Tan, whom I’ve written about. We tend to be huge risk-takers in our work and, sometimes, in our lives. We tend to hyper-focus on our creative pursuits, but believe that to do this makes our art and work stronger and more engaging. I think that the time and attention we pay to our art makes our work come alive with imagination for ourselves and for our viewers, listeners, and readers. The risks we take in our lives give us the experiences of our art. Sadly, in some instances, such as Janis Joplin’s, those risks can be deadly.
NEA: How did you decide to focus your career on writing? What advice would you give to someone who was looking to do the same?
ANGEL: I was in seventh or eighth grade when I discovered that my storytelling abilities gave me the power to move the most powerful person in my world, Katie, my Irish twin sister. I wrote a story of a young woman waiting for her fiancé to return from Vietnam. Of course the fiancé returned in a flag-draped coffin, which was not only predictable but terribly melodramatic. Still, it made Katie cry. From there I wrote poetry, song lyrics, and short stories and always, always tried to find someone to read or listen. I also drew and painted. In fact, much to my mother’s horror, I painted the entire east wall of my bedroom with giant buttercups and daffodils, butterflies, and daisies and then took the same orange acrylic pain to my white provincial furniture. As much as I loved painting and drawing and still do some of this, I especially loved the way writing connected me to readers through story. For that matter, I loved the way reading connected me to other lives and so I spent most of my time reading and writing and finally chose that as my path. The truth was, even without an audience, I could lose myself so completely in characters whose lives seemed so much more interesting than mine, that it was great entertainment.
I fear my answer to what advice I would give to someone who wished to be a writer sounds cliché, but it is the writers’ truth. Read everything you can and write as much as possible. Then read and write some more. Meanwhile, you can also learn about, and experiment with, form and craft and bring the entire paint box of craft to the table when you tell your stories.
NEA: On your website, it says that your philosophy is “To write is to be fully in touch with the world.” Can you elaborate on this?
ANGEL: When I write, I’m often inside the head and heart of my subject in such an emotionally intense way that I feel like I’m living my life while also living my subject’s life. It makes me feel almost synesthetic in the way my world is full of taste, sound, color, sensation, and feelings from multiple perspectives all at once. Whether I’m writing fiction or nonfiction, I feel like I’m living many lives and they’re absolutely drenched in sensory detail. Sometimes the details of my subjects’ lives clash with my own to create the feeling of an out-of-body experience. Other times they create a synchronous experience that enriches my own understanding of the world in unexpected ways.
NEA: Many of the recent biographies you’ve written for teens are about writers or musicians. How difficult is it to make artists interesting to adolescents?
ANGEL: I only choose to write about topics that are important to me, either because the writer or musician is someone who affects my own world deeply, or the subject is one that readers can benefit from knowing more about. I’m passionate about my topics and so I try to infuse my writing with that passion and love of subject. My narrative voice, if I’m doing it well, captures the tone of my passion while conveying the truth of another artist’s life.
NEA: What attracts you to the particular personalities you’ve written about?
ANGEL: Each book I’ve written attracts me for different reasons. For instance, Robert Cormier, 12 years after his death, continues to be one of the most censored authors of our time. I respected him for the way he wrote honestly about tough young adult topics and I respected him for the way he lived his life, defending books against formalized censorship. He often said he wanted to decide what his own children could or couldn’t read and he didn’t want any special interest groups telling him what his children could or couldn’t have access to. I was drawn to Amy Tan because her stories of mothers and daughters connected me to my own daughters when I shared her books with them. But Janis had the most power over the choices I made. She was my flawed hero and cautionary tale. When I first heard her sing, I couldn’t get over that amazing voice. I loved the way she stood out there all alone in a world full of guy rockers and made sure her voice was heard above all else. She made me realize I didn’t need to follow a crowd and I could grow up to be a writer and artist myself. Then, when she died and I learned, along with all her other fans, that she’d died of an overdose, her death taught me never to give up the one thing I could control---I stayed away from drugs.
With fiction, many similar characteristics and values sneak their way into the short stories I’ve been publishing and into the novels I’m working on. My characters don’t always behave and sometimes they get away with it, but often the consequences of their choices are pretty steep. If I have a character follow the crowd, she often discovers herself in territory where she’s going to have to make a moral choice. My characters tend to be drawn in real worlds where magic moments can happen. They only have to see the magic or the imaginative, I think. But my characters tend to face some pretty serious choices and problems. Usually, I’m surprised to find that they don’t choose the high road the first time. And I get a kick out of discovering my own values shift a bit in discovery of the lesson each character will take from her choices.
NEA: How does your process differ when you’re writing fiction and nonfiction? Do you find one more challenging than the other?
ANGEL: When I write nonfiction, I begin with research and only write the story when I know what the narrative focus will be. I know how things will end up and I actually stick pretty close to my original outlines. But I continue to research and gather interviews even as I write, and I allow what I learn to change the path of my writing if it can make this work more complete and powerful. When I write fiction, I begin with a voice or a detail that seems significant. I write to find out what that story is. I research details or elements so that I can write clearly and specifically about the details in my characters’ lives. I’m often as surprised as readers to learn what my fictional characters learn, or to see how their lives are changed by the problems they face and attempt to conquer. But my fictional characters, like my nonfictional characters, don’t always conquer all the problems they face.
NEA: What was it like to collaborate with your daughter on Silent Embrace: Perspectives on Birth and Adoption?
ANGEL: My daughter Amanda had the idea for Silent Embrace. She’s an adoptee and a birth mom in an open adoption, and she felt it was important that birth mothers talk about their experiences to one another, to adoptive parents, and to their birth children who might be searching. I also thought that this is important because I saw how birth parent silence could become equated with shame in our culture. In support of Amanda and my three other children, I encouraged the book with all my heart. Amanda and I read over about 100 essays on the topic and I loved those days when we’d sit together and talk about the shape of the book. It’s set up to begin with the decision for adoption, followed by the decision to remain silent, then the decision to search, and the results. We both agreed this story arc would give hope even as it told unsentimental stories that showed that the process and these relationships are complex. It takes hard work as well as love to keep these relationships healthy and alive. I wrote an essay about our family’s complexity, about how we share our lives with birth parents with a place in our kids’ lives, with half-siblings, with our birth daughter, and with her adoptive parents. My kids have siblings and half-siblings and some have open adoptions, while some do not.
Amanda and I shared a lot of the feelings we both have about our non-traditional family through the selection process. That made us closer as adults and I loved every minute of it. I think we found healthy ways to approach one another with honest feedback when discussing our writing. There were times, though, when I think Amanda, who’s newer to writing than I, might have felt enough was enough. She certainly acknowledged that she found the challenge of telling her story frustrating at times. In the end, I think Amanda’s is one of the strongest essays in the collection because she speaks honestly and unsentimentally about the greatest sorrow of making the decision, and the joy of having this daughter and her parents in her life. She acknowledges that she is proud of the book and of sharing her story. She loves the way this book is an example of how birth parents can live with pride in the choices they made. And, of course, I’m a really proud mother and hope Amanda continues to write her stories.
NEA: What does the phrase “Art Works” mean to you?
ANGEL: Art Works to heal and to find joy through shared struggle and experience. It works to help us understand our world even as it engages us to live fully in the world. Art is the creative, fully-engaged way we live. It is prayer and spirit and sustenance. It is advocacy and thoughtful consideration. It is social change and contemplative living. Art Works because it can leave this world a better place than we found it.