Writing with Authenticity and Connection:
An Interview with Charlene Allen
Charlene Allen is an author of YA fiction who uses the experiences of her past, as well as her career as a criminal justice activist, to inform her writing. In this interview, Charlene talks about what’s inspired her to write, her advice for writers, and her upcoming workshop at SDWI.
Lily Damron: In your YA workshop, you talk about “embracing the energy of coming of age” and using your experiences to create a story that’s authentic to you. What have you done to find those stories in your career?
Charlene Allen: When I was a young adult, I paid so much attention to the world around me. I took in details. I took in moods, language, and emotions. When I write from a YA perspective, I find that all of that information is still in me, both felt and understood. The memory of a particular friend, for example, informs one of the friendships in My Fairy God Somebody. The relationship I brought to the page is infused with pajama’d conversations full of painful first disclosures, new discoveries, and even the joy of sharing impossibly satisfying food. I remember the two of us tucked inside a bond of what felt like endless trust.
When I write, it takes emotional effort to get and stay in touch with those memories, but it’s also very rewarding.
LD: You also talk about making a promise to readers in your writing. What is this promise, and how have you seen its importance?
CA: For me, the first line, paragraph, page of a work of fiction is absolutely a promise to your reader. This is how I want you to feel; this is how much of myself and my characters I am going to share with you. This is how I will hold you for the pages to come. None of that means that the promise flows off the writer’s fingertips when they sit down to write page one – at least it doesn’t work that way for me. But I keep the idea of that promise in the back of my mind, to help me stay grounded in the characters’ voices and authenticity. And I revisit my opening pages as I write other chapters and when I finish a draft, until I feel like I’ve made a meaningful promise that’s kept throughout the book.
LD: What do you hope your workshop attendees will take away from the session?
CA: I want people to leave the workshop jazzed to write! For me, there’s nothing more inspiring than talking with other writers, feeling validated by how we all walk the same path, and at the same time, learning new tools we can bring to the craft. We’ll also write together during the workshop, in an environment that’s designed to be both stimulating and supportive. I hope people will lean into that experience, allow for some of the vulnerability that’s key to good writing, and walk away a bit more connected to their own writer-selves.
LD: Your work as an activist and lawyer working to fight systemic injustice influenced your debut novel, Play the Game.When did you realize you wanted to turn that work into creative writing?
CA: People say “write what you know,” which I think can be useful advice, though I think most writing is a combination of material we know well and new material that intrigues us. I think it’s even more important to write what matters to us. I first conceived of the idea for Play the Game when I was working within the criminal legal system and I was struck on a daily basis by how corrupt the system was and how much of a deep impact it could have on people’s lives – disproportionately, the lives of young people of color. I wrote about that because it deeply matters to me.
LD: You received your MFA in 2018, after achieving a JD years prior. What inspired you to go back to school for writing?
CA: I’ve always loved to write. After decades of writing on my own, I understood that I needed both community and structure to advance my skills and grow as a writer. And, at that particular point in my life, I was ready and able to give myself those gifts.
LD: Is there any other advice you’d like to share?
CA: Community really is critical to writing. My advice is to find or build your writers community, invest in it, and continue to hold on to it through the ups and downs of your career.
Don’t forget to sign up for Charlene’s upcoming YA Fiction Workshop on December 9!