Author Paul Volponi inspires young writers

Author Paul Volponi visited May 29 and 30 thanks to a grant from the Altoona Area School District Foundation.  Librarian Justina McCaulley and English teacher Maggie Lewis were instrumental in writing the grant and organizing the activities for the two days.  Students attended assemblies, worked with him in the classroom and had lunch with the author.

Q: When did you start your writing career?

A:  I didn’t start writing my first book until I was 35.   I wrote it because I worked on Rikers Island, the world’s biggest jail. I worked in the school ther,e and my students inspired me to write my first two books: “Black and White” and “Rikers High.”

Q: How did you become a successful author?

A:  Soon after writing my first book, I was surprised when it got published right away. I First wrote “Black and White;” it was about two kids who committed the same crime but both got treated differently in the  justice system. The first publisher said, ‘You can’t publish this you’re not black; you have to be black yourself to write this story.’ I thought that was crazy, so I sent it to the next publisher. So we got lucky the second time, and we won book of the year award.  The library association liked my books and decided to put it in school libraries. The association who liked my book had never seen me before but put me in the the list of famous African American award list.

Q: How do you decide what to write about?

A:  I really like people. I like listening to people and other stories and wait for a story to touch me like kids in jail. I write about people stuck in the Superdome, Hurricane Katrina,  response about famous murders in New York City. ‘Top Prospect’ is about an eighth grader who gets a college football scholarship, so he has to live with that pressure. He inspired me to think wow that’s a lot of pressure for a kid to have so watching him being interviewed on ESPN gave me the push to write that book; I wanted to tell his story.

Q:  Where do you get your inspiration?

A:  Walking around anywhere. Sometimes I sit on the back of the bus and listen to people talk and sometimes that gives me story ideas. So sitting around listening to other people talk.

Q:  Where do you write?

A:  I really like writing at home. I keep moving from room to room; one year I worked in the basement where it was nice and cool in the summer.  My dog was hanging out with me. And then I moved to the second flood and had the cat hanging out with me. The cat goes to the bathroom right underneath from where I write and if I’m not doing well I have to smell the cat litter.  So I like writing at house, but I take notes everywhere. I walk around with a notebook in my pocket and just walk down the street and if I see something or get an idea I’ll write it down. But I won’t write in in my story until I get home.

Q:  What advice would you give aspiring writers?

A:  One piece of advice is to keep a reader’s notebook and write down cool names or cool things that jump out or somebody does this and they have this reaction.  It might not make a whole book on its own, but you may find a little place in the story to add it or as you go you can find a place to fit it in. I met two people here so far, two of your students, and I like their names. Their names were Jet and Zy.  I wrote both of those names down in my reader’s notebook last night, and they may become future characters in books.

Q:  Do you enjoy reading?

A:  When I was your guys age I didn’t read any books at all; I pretended to read books in school. I fooled my teachers into thinking I was really reading books, but instead I was just listening to the class.  And then when I went home to write my first book my wife laughed and laughed. She goes – you can’t write a book you never read – but I wrote the books anyways.