Brandy Colbert wrote the contemporary YA Finding Yvonne to fill a space.
“I wanted to explore the life of an unapologetically sexual black teenage girl, which we don’t often see— at least, not without their lives being ‘ruined’ shortly thereafter,” Colbert said.
The novel features a teen violinist forced to make a difficult decision when she becomes unexpectedly pregnant. National Book Award finalist Elana K. Arnold called it “a pitch-perfect song of a book about all the ways a heart can break and mend.”
Colbert, an accomplished writer, is no stranger to critical acclaim. She has won numerous awards in the past, including ALA’s 2018 Stonewall Book Award for her second novel, Little & Lion, which was listed in ALA’s 2018 Best Fiction for Young Adults and was named a Book of the Month Club selection, a Junior Library Guild selection, and a best book of 2017 by Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, Vulture, Bank Street, Bustle, Buzzfeed, Paste Magazine, and Seventeen Magazine.
Colbert’s debut novel, Pointe, won the 2014 Cybils Award for young adult fiction in addition to being named a best book of 2014 by Publishers Weekly, Buzzfeed, Book Riot, the Chicago Public Library, and the Los Angeles Public Library.
Of her accolades, Colbert said she is grateful.
“It’s really nice to be recognized for the work I’ve created, especially when it’s in a career I’ve wanted forever,” she said. “I think, if anything, it just compels me to work harder, keep getting better with each book, and focus on creating work that I’m proud of.”
Perhaps surprisingly, she writes without a process.
“I’m one of those writers who doesn’t really have a process,” she said. “I don’t outline or keep track of word count. I keep a lot of the plot and character development in my head and spend a lot of time daydreaming, so when I do sit down to write, I typically do so for long stretches and pages at a time.”
Colbert said she’s particularly fond of “the daydreaming part,” and that drafting can be fun too “when the words are really flowing,” as they were when she wrote Finding Yvonne.
“Finding Yvonne was different from any other book that I've written in that it felt like it truly poured out of me, where I almost couldn't get the story out fast enough,” she said. “I essentially locked myself in my apartment for a couple of months and came out with a completed manuscript I was so proud of at the end.”
Colbert also relays a surprising affinity for revision, a usually dreaded aspect of the writing process.
“Revision makes my brain feel a bit scrambled, but it can also feel like a fun puzzle, figuring out how to keep the essence of the story while also improving it,” she explained.
Her least favorite part of the process is one that every writer has struggled with at some point in their careers: thinking up titles.
“It doesn’t come easy to me, and I usually have to go through a few rounds with my publisher before coming up with one that we both love and think will resonate with readers, too,” she explained. “Copyedits are also difficult for me since I am a copy editor; clearly I can't copyedit myself, but it can be hard to let go of that control.”
Colbert said the process— or lack thereof— differs with every book; that it never gets any easier.
“Each book is a particular challenge,” she said, “but I also don’t think it would be fun if there weren’t some sort of challenge involved.”
She said the biggest changes occurred once she started selling books on proposal.
“[This] means I give my editor several chapters and a synopsis of where I think it's going,” she explained. “Then I have to write a first draft on deadline, which is a much different— and sometimes riskier— process from writing a whole book at once and selling the completed concept.”
Colbert’s earliest writing ventures tended to avoid risk too.
Her journey to publication is one familiar to many creative writers: an early love for writing sidetracked and reimagined.
“I was still writing [in high school and college], but I didn’t think it was a viable career or degree program to study,” Colbert said. She opted to study journalism instead.
Colbert’s background in the field continues to inform her creative writing.
“From a practical standpoint, I've been working on deadlines my entire professional life, so that was helpful when it came to meeting what are often tight and unpredictable publishing deadlines,” she explained. “I also really enjoy doing research, which is a big part of good journalism and can help elevate a book to another level.”
Colbert added that journalism helped her make creative writing a more routine part of her life, though she’s always enthusiastic to write.
“The motivation is always there,” she said. “I feel lost if I’m not working on something.”
Though Colbert continues to love and work in the journalism field, her love of creative writing never quite dissipated. She started writing for publication in 2005.
“I applied to and was rejected from many MFA programs, but I kept writing and eventually discovered my love for young adult fiction,” she explained. “YA literature was around when I was a teenager in the 1990s, but there was nowhere near the breadth and depth of what we have today.”
She now teaches in an MFA program herself— Hamline University’s MFA program in writing for children, to be exact. She calls the experience “wonderful, singular, [and] illuminating.”
“Honestly, I never imagined I’d be teaching in [an MFA program],” she said. “But it's been so lovely being surrounded by people who love children's literature, respect the craft behind it, and want to share that knowledge with others. It keeps me endlessly inspired with my own work. Hamline is a very special place, and I'm so happy to be a part of its program.”
Colbert’s next book is The Revolution of Birdie Randolph.
“I’m so excited about this book!” Colbert said. “It’s about a girl named Dove— whose mother calls her Birdie— who’s navigating first love, confronting long-held secrets, and finding her voice. It’s set in Chicago. The family lives above her mother's hair salon in the Logan Square neighborhood, and there's a focus on friendships, as well. I really loved writing it and can’t wait for people to read it.”
The Revolution of Birdie Randolph will hit shelves on August 20, 2019.
Hiba Tahir is a YA author, a freelance journalist, and an MFA candidate in poetry at the University of Arkansas.