(Editor’s note: NonDoc’s Author Umbrella interviews up-and-coming writers, particularly authors of color, authors of disability and LGBTQ+ authors. The interviews have been transcribed and lightly edited for length and clarity.)
This installment our Author Umbrella series features an interview with J. Elle, New York Times bestselling author of young adult and middle-grade fantasy fiction. Best known for her debut novel, Wings of Ebony, her work has been translated into three languages.
Originally from Houston, Elle was a first-generation college student and is a former educator. She credits her nomadic lifestyle and humble inner-city beginnings as the inspiration for her novels.
When not writing, Elle can be found mentoring aspiring authors, binging reality TV, loving on her three kids or cooking up something true to her Southern roots.
Elle spoke to NonDoc last year, just before the release of Wings of Ebony, her first novel, which followed Rue, a Black teen demigoddess, in her rise against racist deities targeting her neighborhood with drugs, violence, and crime.
Now she’s back to discuss the heart-pounding sequel, Ashes of Gold, which hit bookstores Jan. 11.
A quick synopsis of the novel:
Rue has no memory of how she ended up locked in a basement prison without her magic or her allies. But she’s a girl from the East Row. And girls from the East Row don’t give up. Girls from the East Row pick themselves back up when they fall. Girls from the East Row break themselves out.
But reuniting with her friends is only half the battle. When she finds them again, Rue makes a vow: she will find a way to return the magic that the Chancellor has stolen from her father’s people. Yet even on Yiyo Peak, Rue is a misfit—with half a foot back in Houston and half a heart that is human as well as god, she’s not sure she’s the right person to lead the fight to reclaim a glorious past.
When a betrayal sends her into a tailspin, Rue must decide who to trust and how to be the leader that her people deserve, because, if she doesn’t, it isn’t just Yiyo that will be destroyed — it will be Rue herself.
One of the coolest aspects of the Wings of Ebony duology is that you’ve deftly and honestly explored the exterior factors contributing to systemic poverty, while also highlighting the strength and beauty of Black communities, like East Row. What new readers may not know is that East Row is a depiction of a very real place: Third Ward in Houston, where you grew up. Have you gotten to visit your hometown since Wings of Ebony came out? And, if so, what have been some of your neighbors’ reactions about a book that debuted on the New York Times bestseller list and been incorporated into school curriculums nationwide?
I have gotten to visit my hometown! That’s been the most amazing part of returning to Houston. When I started writing Wings of Ebony, I lived thousands of miles away. But mid-summer 2020, I moved back to Houston, just in time for the release of Wings of Ebony. I was able to do some really cool photographs in the city in conjunction with [its] release, which meant the world to me. It’s been really special being here.
It’s been wild meeting actual Houstonians who have read Wings of Ebony and have seen a world they know reflected in the pages of a YA novel. I released Wings of Ebony, my debut novel, in a pandemic, so connecting with readers has been a more detached experience for me than it used to be for authors when in-person events and signings were a thing.
But being in Houston has changed that tremendously. I’ve met readers randomly at my kid’s school, perusing the bookstore, getting groceries. It’s really wild. I’m so grateful to be here during this time. It’s still unbelievable to think any of this writing journey is actually real. To think that I wrote a story that was on my heart and now there are people who connect to it all over the world. I’m stunned!
Signing more books and basking in the shock of all this. A whole table?? Look at that pretty sign 😭.
— J. ELLE (@AuthorJElle) January 29, 2021
Speaking of the New York Times bestseller list, Congratulations! As a former Houston teacher and someone who grew up in poverty, your story is particularly inspiring. How did that moment — seeing your name on the list — feel?
It was a complete shock. I was thrilled beyond words, literally. Hitting the New York Times bestseller list isn’t one of those things you can actually methodically expect. It’s a complete surprise because the algorithm isn’t necessarily public and the factors that go into consideration aren’t super obvious either.
Hitting the indie bestseller list was a huge moment for me as well. Indie booksellers have an entirely different experience than larger chains. They tend to be more community-oriented, and so knowing that my book had found readers in communities all over meant so much to me. Ultimately, my biggest hope with this duology is that it reaches as many readers as possible who need it. It’s been a dream!
You wrote an essay for Mackin Community about the power of literacy as a gateway to upward mobility. Three lines, in particular, resonated powerfully with me: “[R]eading has the power to foster a love of learning. And isn’t that the goal of education? If it isn’t, shouldn’t it be?” By embracing the magic of inner-city communities, how do you hope Ashes of Gold affects young readers and, perhaps, the educational system as a whole?
Ashes of Gold is such a different book than Wings of Ebony. I set out to give readers something different and fresh because sometimes a sequel can feel like a letdown if it’s too much of the same as book one. So there are new characters, much more of the magical world, new mysteries to explore.
But the thread that binds both books is that there are many teachable moments intentionally paralleled to real history. I won’t spoil anything from Ashes of Gold, but I’ll say that readers will be wow-ed with just how twisty the story is. They’ll find more and more surprises the further they read. And isn’t that the beauty of learning? Discovery! I want reluctant teen readers to expect books to be enthralling. To expect learning to be immersive and all-consuming and fun!
More specifically, Ashes of Gold is a story of worthiness and love in its many nuances. Love isn’t some altruistic, colorful, hollow platitude. It is a real, tangible, affecting reality that impacts everything — even, yes classrooms. It’s love that fuels those extra hardworking teachers. You know the ones. They’re going above and beyond to bring their curriculum alive for their students to foster an unforgettable learning experience. It’s love that fuels community leaders working tirelessly to bring about systemic change. Love is powerful and that’s something I explore very intimately in Ashes of Gold, in hopes that readers walk away from its pages understanding they are worthy of love, the highest and most resilient and unwavering sort of love.
Wings of Ebony spurred candid conversations about tough topics such as racism, privilege, and allyship. In what ways will Ashes of Gold expand on those topics, and what questions do you hope the duology’s conclusion will spur in classrooms?
Great question. In Ashes of Gold, I made an intentional pivot to widen the scope of Rue’s story. I have seen Black heroines, Black characters, be boxed into this idea that they exist on the pages of a story to battle racism. To be the hero. And I didn’t want that to be the only presentation I gave readers, because Black characters — Black people — exist to do more than fight racism. It was imperative for me to be super intentional about that message in Ashes of Gold and make the final iteration of Rue’s story reflect a wider breadth of her humanity. She’s a teenage girl. She gets to have a crush. She gets to be kissed. She gets to be a kid. While also being a fiery, magic-wielding “superhero.”
There’s this grave misconception, which I find quite damaging, where Black girls are seen as tough only. Rue is tough. But she is also incredibly vulnerable. And where we finish Wings of Ebony, it appears Rue is unstoppable. But I wanted to work with meticulous intention in Rue’s second book to explore her very real vulnerability. Rue has much growing left to do. I’m excited for readers to dive into it with her.
In addition to being a bestselling author, you’re a mom and a wife, in addition to all the other hats women wear on a daily basis, particularly women of color. What advice do you have for women struggling to navigate the stress of day-to-day life and juggle it all?
I don’t know that I can speak from a place of knowing how to balance things well — haha! I can, however, share some things I try to remind myself of. Things I actively fight to remember.
For the working mom, there is an expectation to have things figured out. To know the answers or where to find them. To mend the boo-boos. To be the fixer. As if our capacity to pour out is inexhaustible. When the reality is, it’s OK to be tired. It’s okay to not have the answers. It’s okay to let someone else carry the torch. It’s okay to give yourself space to breathe. It’s critical, actually.
I am trying to be better about reminding myself that I can not pour out if I’m not pouring in. Take time to fill your well. To rest. To love on yourself. To make you smile, too. I promise you’ll be significantly better at your hat-juggling if you stop pushing self-care further down the To Do list.
With Wings of Ebony’s immense success, many in the industry cite your name as the gold standard for author marketing and social media savvy. As you gear up for Ashes of Gold, what key lessons are you using to guide your book release this time around? And has your success meant more or less pressure for the second book?
Oh gosh, I have so much to learn still! To be really candid, this time around, I’m tired. In a way that I wasn’t last time. Last time I was tired, but I believed my exhaustion was worth being sacrificed on the altar of my book’s success. I errantly believed if I worked myself until I was too spent to lift a finger, I would at least be able to say I’d done all I could to help my book reach readers. And the reality is, I couldn’t get out of bed for weeks once my book was released because I was so so very worn out.
Heading into book two, I decided to do things differently because my health, energy, presence in my family to my children, cannot be overvalued. Those things are infinitely more precious to me, so I’ve been working very hard to keep my authorly tasks in their proper place. To view life as more than my writing success but also my success in other areas — nurturing the hearts of my children, pouring into my teenage sisters, soaking up the time we have with elderly grandparents. And trusting that Rue’s readers will find her!
The thing that’s been so exciting having a book out is seeing how vocal readers are about their fierce love of Rue. That passion is contagious, and I’m convinced their dedication to writing blog posts, doing interviews like this one, sharing social media posts has helped Rue reach more readers than I ever could.
What does this look like for me in promo season? I am much more choosey about what opportunities I give time to. I do social media posting as needed, then get off social media. I have entire days where I commit to not thinking about my book at all. (Which is harder than it sounds!)
And I celebrate every single seemingly small win. I learned Wings of Ebony and Ashes of Gold will be published in three languages! I made sure to not gloss over that moment but really sit in it and allow myself to be proud of my work — to actively fight the urge to move the goal post. I’m just so happy Ashes of Gold gets to exist! I trust her readers will do her proud.
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Wings of Ebony has galvanized young readers, from all over, to create art for a world that you built. How does that feel? And what are some of your favorite pieces of fan art you’ve come across?
Fan art is such a cool thing. I was not prepared for all the cool inspiration I’ve seen readers create. Goodness! I have seen a Wings of Ebony plush blanket, designed by Fae Crate, which is so gorgeous and soft. I also have seen some of the coolest cosplay, makeup looks, baked good designed around this book, painted portraits of Rue. Characters like Rue didn’t exist when I was a teen reader. So it’s just unreal to be creating art that could not exist decades ago. To be a part of that is so incredibly humbling.
Out of all the interviews you’ve done since Wings of Ebony’s release, what’s one question you haven’t been asked that you secretly wish a reporter would finally ask?
Will there be more books from Ghizon’s history? And the answer is I don’t know. But, gosh, I hope so!