Questions for author Paul Langan and D.M. Blackwell from Marshall Middle School and Mireles Academy Mayor Daley’s Book Club Middle school participants
Where do you like to write - do you have a favorite place to write?
PL: I need quiet and solitude when I write. One reason for this is that I get distracted easily. Another reason is that I talk to myself when I work. If you were to see me, you might think I’m a little crazy. I often get out of my chair and act out scenes or perform conversations characters have. When working on Blood Is Thicker, I kept rapping out loud to get Savon’s rhymes right.
So where do I write? Wherever I can find a quiet space. Sometimes I go to the back corner of my local library. Other times, I go to my basement at home. But now that I have three kids, my house is pretty loud. So recently I rented an apartment where I could “escape” to write. I call it the “cave.” If you saw it, you’d see why.
DM: Yes. I have a place at home. It’s an open space of a room that gets lots of natural light. There is something about a closed space that works against my creativity. As long as I have an opening (preferably windows), I feel like the ideas flow better.
Do you have a favorite ritual when you write, and if so what is it?
PL: Yes. I gear up for writing weeks in advance by rereading earlier Bluford books and researching the characters I am going to writing about. This helps me get all the details right and “tune in” to the character’s voice. Then a week or so before I actually write, I pull out my writing soundtrack—a collection of old school/early-90’s hip hop that puts me in the mood (am I dating myself?). Once I start writing, I begin each day with a prayer that the story I am going to write will do some good in the world. Then I grab some green tea with honey and my laptop and head off to one of the places in question 1 (above). Some days the writing comes quick and my fingers are a blur on the keyboard. Other days I struggle and get frustrated. But you just have to keep going. Each book is a mountain to climb. You can only get to the top by taking a step, by putting words together—muscling the story into the world.
DM: On writing days, I will typically set the alarm for between 5 and 6 a.m. I’ll sit in my writing space and get the ideas going as the sun comes up. That’s one of the rituals. I have to be there for it. Once the sun is up, I feel like the writing will be good that day. Also, whenever I’m just beginning a story, I jot down every single idea in a marble-covered composition notebook. I’ve been doing that ever since I was a teenager…many years ago. I have stacks of them now.
How do you write a book with a co-author? How do you decide who does what job or divide the work?
PL: Writing a book with a co-author is like performing a song with a band. Everybody plays a different instrument—strings, drums, bass, vocals—and if they do it well, all you notice is that the song is good. DM and I are old friends, and we bring out the strengths in each other. When we worked on Blood Is Thicker, we spent a lot of time talking to hammer out a basic story line. Then we took turns writing and rewriting—sometimes many times—until we got a story we both liked.
What career would you have chosen if you had not become a writer?
PL: Politics and teaching. I like a good argument and I am opinionated about the many challenges our country faces. You may detect some of my opinions in the Bluford Series if you read closely. I confess, BTW, that I am THRILLED at the events of recent days! It has been difficult to write with all this excitement!!!
As for teaching, it was my first career choice. But right after college, before I even got into the classroom, I started writing for Townsend Press. I’ve been doing it ever since, though I did teach a college class for a time and loved it. I hope to do it again at some point.
DM. I might have been a game show host. I still think I’d make a good one.
Who is your favorite author? Your favorite book?
PL: No easy answers to this one. I read almost anything. When I was in 7th grade, I was obsessed with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I actually pretended to be sick so I could stay home and finish those books. I couldn’t sleep at all. I’d have a flashlight and be reading until dawn under the covers so my mom wouldn’t yell. I wish to have the power to make readers feel that way! And I confess I felt that way again reading the Harry Potter books! I like Gary Paulsen (see reference to him in The Bully), Sharon Draper, and Annette Curtis Klause’s work too—writers that render action and emotion so powerfully you feel it burn through the pages into your fingers.
DM: I have two favorite books, each written by an author whom I admire. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, and The GivingTree by Shel Silverstein. Both books teach powerful lessons, and have become classics over the years. I admire the authors because their words have touched countless lives around the world. They remind me of the beauty of storytelling. As an author, I aspire to have such an impact on readers
How old are you?
PL: I am 36. Does that seem ancient to you? I think of it as young enough to remember the struggle of growing up and old enough to be completely free of it. As I get older, my thoughts may change here . . .
DM: Old enough to teach at Bluford High.
Where did you grow up?
PL: I was born in Philadelphia but spent most of my childhood in southern New Jersey—close enough to the city to be a Philly sports fan. I am very happy that the Phillies won the World Series this year, but I’d rather see the Eagles win. I won’t hold my breath for that one though...
DM: Atlantic City, New Jersey.
In your own opinion, what is the best book you’ve written?
PL: Tough question. I don’t like looking at my work—kind of like seeing an old picture of yourself when you’re wearing clothes that are out of style. If this doesn’t make sense now, it will in a few years! When I read my work, I keep thinking about words I should have changed or scenes I should have added. But since you ask me, I like The Bully because it captures the pain and hurt of bullying—something I experienced as a kid. I also like Brothers in Arms and The Fallen because I wrote first person, a tactic that lets me reach readers more closely, almost like I am talking directly to them.
DM: It’s still in the works. That’s the way I think of it. The writing can only get better that way, if I keep something to strive for.
What was your inspiration for the story Blood is Thicker?
PL: Many things! Part of the inspiration was simple: to find out what happens to Hakeem while he is separated from Darcy. I am as curious as anyone to see what happens next! Another motivation was to allow Hakeem to present his “side” of the events that happened in Until We Meet Again. Up until this book, all we ever knew about Hakeem came through Darcy’s eyes. I felt Hakeem, who is a deep and complicated young man, was getting shortchanged. You may notice in other Bluford books that the Series sometimes jumps from one character to another. I do this because I think each student at Bluford High School is a full person, someone with pain and worries, histories and secrets waiting to be told. Blood Is Thicker was Hakeem’s turn to take the stage.
There were personal dimensions to this story too. When I was a kid, I moved a lot. The pain of being an outsider is something I know well. Further, when I was in high school, my stepfather was ill with advanced heart disease. The difficulty of watching his health decline—of worrying about the future, of trying to be strong for my mother—is something I lived with for a few years. I decided when I wrote an earlier book, Until We Meet Again, that I needed to explore this painful territory with Hakeem, for myself and for the many young people who deal with these issues each day.
DM: It was a combination of things really. I remember being excited about casting Hakeem in a different setting, far from California. I was also excited about the opportunity of adding a more hip-hop element to the Bluford Series. At the time, I was exploring that world myself as a writer and music fan, and was especially intrigued by the hip-hop style of communication. Savon was the perfect opportunity to channel all that I was learning about into the story.
It was important to stay true to the Bluford Series and its characters, but to also broaden the experience that Hakeem would have interacting with new people in a new city. Most importantly, I wanted to see him transform as a result of this—grow in confidence and depth.
10. Which character (in Blood is Thicker) do you relate to the most and why? PL: Definitely Hakeem for the reasons stated above. During the time my stepfather was sick, I recall trying to be a good big brother for my little sister and a strong support for my mother. But the whole time, I was having trouble myself. Hakeem wrestles with this difficulty and doesn’t even have the chance or space to explain it all. Instead he tries to put up a good front and act is if everything is fine, but it’s not. I remember feeling that way.
DM: I’ve always related to Hakeem. Growing up, I had a stutter and used writing as a way of speaking. I can also relate to his lack of confidence in earlier novels. That’s why I’m so interested in that character’s growth, and always rooting for him. I know that Hakeem represents many young men growing up today. Flaws and all, I think of him as a role model.
11. Are any of the characters based on your own life or your personality?PL: Again, see questions 9-10. Interestingly, one summer in middle school an old friend of mine ended up staying with my family and me. We had been close when we were little kids, but once he started sharing the house with me, it seemed as if I was always getting in trouble and he was always the one who kept getting praised. He did chores better than me, helped out more than me. As a result, he got in trouble less than me. I got so mad (and jealous now that I think about it) that we started fighting. In a way, I was a bit like Savon that summer. I am sure I tapped some of that emotion when writing Savon.
DM: I think these stories share experiences that are universal. That’s why so many readers have identified with them.
12. How did you decide the characteristics of each character? Did you create each of them or does each characters' personality remind you of someone you know? PL: See questions 9-11. I think all writers, as human beings, can’t stop their characters from being shaped by people they’ve known in their lives. But once a character starts forming, a writer must step back and let him or her develop into a full person, someone so full and interesting that readers want to know more. If done well, a character becomes larger than life—not a copy of someone the writer has known, but a unique new creation. This is the magic of story—when a person who exists in the ink on a page becomes so real that a reader can hear her voice, picture his face, and relate to his or her feelings. This is where fiction achieves “truth.” For me, truth is something you feel in your bones when you read. It makes your eyes open wider and your head nod in recognition. I’ll let you be the judge of whether DM and I achieved this!
As far as characteristics were concerned, DM and I worked to make Savon and Hakeem very different, with their own interests and tendencies, their own tempers and styles. But at the same time, we tried to craft each so they possess some interesting similarities. I am curious what “characteristics” you feel apply to each.
13. I know that the genre of this novel is realistic fiction, but did you or someone you know experience any of the events in the novel? PL: Yes. See questions 9-11. I think there is a pattern here! Many of the characters in Blood Is Thicker are shaped by the experiences DM and I have had and the people we have known. And yet all these characters are independent people too. Events in the story have a similar blend.
14. Will there be a sequel to the book that explains what became of Anika? PL: Yes. Anika is not out of the woods yet, and work has already begun on a story which will reveal much about the path her life takes. I won’t spoil anything here!
DM: Yes, in the works. I really like that character. Characters like Anika, the rebellious types who do not always follow rules or do what is expected, are exciting to me. As a writer, those characters give me a sense of freedom. But with that freedom there comes responsibility.
These stories give me an opportunity to entertain, but to also deliver a lesson or message. I always want there to be something meaningful in what I create that lasts long after the book goes back on the shelf. So, while Anika gets to rebel and speak her mind, she also has to face certain consequences and learn from her actions. That makes her experience more real for the readers. Young people want to identify with what is real. Hopefully they grow as a result.
15. We noticed that both Hakeem and Savon use music as "a way of escape." Was this intended when you wrote the story or was it just a coincidence? PL: A great connection. In my head, it was writing—not music—that connected them. But I agree music functions this way too, perhaps even more so. Hakeem writes songs to “vent” and deal with the difficulties in his life. Savon writes and performs raps for the same reason. While on the surface, the two boys may seem quite different, they also have similarities. Remember Hakeem and Savon are related. Their fathers were raised by the same parents, and they share bloodlines as cousins. For this reason, I suspect they have certain skills and talents that run in their family, though they might not even notice (or want to notice). I wanted the events of the story to help Savon and Hakeem begin to see some of these connections. Perhaps one day they’ll compose something together! Would it be a rap or a song? A bit of both? Maybe it will appear in a future story...
16. Why did you choose the city, Detroit, as the major setting of this story? PL: I always knew Hakeem’s Dad was not originally from California. I figured he, like many people, left his hometown and moved there in pursuit of opportunity (and warmer weather). In my own lifetime, hundreds of thousands of people have left Philadelphia—my hometown—for similar reasons. I decided I wanted to give a shout-out to another city hit by the same harsh realities as Philadelphia. Detroit—a great city with deep cultural and historic roots—was the perfect place. Detroit not only fit the storyline, but it also allowed me to get the Bluford Series away from the “coasts” and into the middle of America. Just like real people, the characters in the Bluford Series have relatives and extended families that live in many places—perhaps even Chicago...
As for moving the actual events of the story, well that had to happen in order to be realistic. When Hakeem’s father got sick, he lost his job and ran out of money. He began to think about what might happen if he didn’t survive his illness. While he wouldn’t admit these fears to his children, he figured the best thing he could do for his family was to get them to a place where someone could help look after them if he died. In this case, that impulse led him home, to his brother’s house in the old neighborhood.
17. Did Hakeem's family ever go back home to California?PL: Well, I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll just say this. The Bluford Series is a work in progress. Almost anything could happen, and no endings have been written. So could they return to California? Maybe, if certain events made it possible. I bet you can guess what they are. But will such things happen? Only time will tell...
18. Is the story ‘Blood is Thicker’ based on a true story? PL: No, but at the same time, I think there are plenty of things that are “true” about it. For example, people get sick and lose their jobs. Families lose their homes as a result and are forced to move. This happens all the time, especially right now. The stress of this is incredibly difficult, particularly for a kid in high school. So, while the events in Blood Is Thicker are not based on a single true story, they are all realistic. And, as I said, there are elements in the story which are informed by experiences I had and people I knew. Most novels are like this, containing bits of real things and imagined things blended together in such a way that you can’t separate them.
19.How did you come up with the names (Hakeem, Savon, Darcy, and Anika) in this story? PL: Well, names are special in the Series. Many have long stories attached to them and are actually connected to people I know. But since you asked about four specific names for Blood Is Thicker, here’s the scoop. Hakeem and Darcy are among the first two characters in the Series. Hakeem’s name comes from a high school student I once worked with in Philadelphia. Darcy’s name comes from Anne Schraff, who wrote the first Bluford novel (Lost and Found). As for Anika and Savon, their names come from DM who is amazing at generating names that perfectly fit a character’s personality.
20. How does the title, Blood Is Thicker, relate to the story?
PL: I’d like to ask you this same question! Your answer would probably be more interesting than mine, but here goes. First of all, the title is the short form of the old expression Blood is thicker than water. That expression is a way of saying that the ties of a family are stronger than the connections between people who are not related.
In Blood Is Thicker, this idea cuts both ways. On one hand, the title suggests closeness. Hakeem and Savon, for example, are bound together by their family ties—even if they don’t always get along. But on the other hand, the title suggests distance. Hakeem’s ties to his family are so strong that they force him away from his old friends at Bluford High School, including Darcy.
There are other layers of meaning here too. Family ties are strained between Savon and his parents, but the “blood” pulls them back together. Similarly, the “blood” ties that connect Hakeem’s father and uncle allow the family to come together when illness strikes. In short, this story explores the deep and powerful connections—for better and worse—that exist within a family. The title reflects this.
On a final note, I also intended the title to be a bit scary. Will blood be spilled in the book? Is something dangerous going to happen? These were questions I wanted to plant in readers’ minds with the title--to hint at the dramatic events later in the story. I am sure there are other ways the title relates to the story too.
DM: It’s an expression that is meant to represent the closeness of family. Blood is thicker than water. We shortened it. Knowing the meaning, the title speaks to the relationship between Hakeem and Savon. No matter what tension divides them, they will always be family.
In the end, I think Hakeem and Savon being blood relatives is what saves them. If they didn’t have blood between them, they might not have taken the time or given any effort to understanding each other. In the story, Hakeem and Savon only came to peace when they came to understanding.