Last year Elizabeth Acevedo’s debut, The Poet X, won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, as well as the Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Fiction, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, and the Pura Belpré Award. Needless to say her new novel, With the Fire on High, was one of the most anticipated YA novels of 2019.
Acevedo’s sophomore novel (which turns out was written prior to her debut) is quite different than The Poet X, but fans won’t be disappointed. With the Fire on High tells the story of Emoni, a teenage mother who loves to cook, but follows her intuition to create. When she takes a culinary arts class she struggles to follow the rules rather than her instincts, and is faced with desires that seem completely out of reach. The novel is a fun tale of passion, creativity, and love.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Elizabeth Acevedo via email.
Rachel León: There can be a lot of anxiety surrounding publication of a second novel and this follow-up comes after incredible (though well-deserved) acclaim for your debut. I’m curious about the timeline of writing With the Fire on High and all the great things happening with your first novel.
Elizabeth Acevedo: I actually had a draft of With the Fire on High completed before I had ever finished The Poet X. I wrote this in 2013 during National Novel Writing Month and I had no hope for it other than to continue practicing my prose and see if I could get various elements (cooking, magical realism, traveling abroad) into the story cohesively. But I’m also the kind of person who is a more productive member of society, and generally less grumpy, when I’m writing. So as soon as I turned the final draft of The Poet X in to my editor I began thinking of my next project and I returned to this book; so much of it felt unique and sharply rendered, especially Emoni’s voice, and I wanted to see if with more time and care I could get the story to a more readable draft. I turned it in to my editor to see what she thought and she loved Emoni. She saw the something special that wouldn’t let me keep this novel shelved. So we jumped into revisions and production long before The Poet X had received any acclaim, long before it was even out. I hadn’t anticipated the response for that book and didn’t think that maybe I would want more time between projects, but ultimately I think it’s for the best. I wonder if I may have been a bit gun shy to put a second book out if I knew then how much love my debut was going to receive. I think the comparisons might have stunted my ability to just tell a good story.
Rachel León: Is your writing process different writing in prose than in verse?
Elizabeth Acevedo: I think both kinds of writing require me to learn what the book needs and how I need to accommodate my writing to tell the story clearly. With both books I aimed to find the character’s voice and let that be the chief concern: Is this character real, and do they sound like themselves in every passage? I tend to write drafts quickly, and revise slowly. The revision with prose is much, much slower than even I was prepared for. With the Fire on High has a larger cast of characters, two settings, and more dialogue. Which means more plotlines to keep straight and create arcs for. The Poet X largely took place in the interiority of the main character, which meant I had more space to ruminate.
Rachel León: When the novel opens Emoni has been a mother for years. As someone who became a mom early myself, it was refreshing to read a novel where teen motherhood was handled without pregnancy being the storyline. Where did you get the idea for the novel?
Elizabeth Acevedo: I grew up in a neighborhood with a lot of young mothers. My mom was a childcare provider for over twenty years and the majority of children she worked with had teen/young moms. I watched how she interacted with those parents with respect and dignity and I saw how those parents went to school, worked, picked up their kids, dropped them off early, called during the day to check in, etc. As a teacher I worked with teen mothers, specifically, and saw the same: young people making it work. It seemed to me that there were few stories that handled the subject matter of a teen parent who lives a full life and also loves and takes good care of their child.
Rachel León: Though With the Fire on High isn’t written in verse like The Poet X, there’s something poetic about this novel, which is yes, your voice, but I also think the way Emoni relates to food is a kind of poetry, too. Maybe that’s because cooking is also an art form, or maybe food lends itself to language somehow? Is that something you thought about as well?
Elizabeth Acevedo: I love this question so much. I often say that Emoni is trying to find her voice, and she’s also storytelling, only her medium is food. Initially I wasn’t thinking about that. I just knew that I wanted to ensure the prose was lyrical. That feels important to all of my work whether it be verse, prose, non-fiction, etc. I’m always searching for the music in the language. But specifically in this book there was such good figurative language and imagery to be found in the experiences that Emoni has: bitterness, sweetness, knife edges, flames, teeth, kneading, you know what I mean? It’d be easy for someone to look at this young character, a teen mother, from a poverty-stricken hood and wonder about what kinds of experiences she had had. And yet, in the writing of the story, I had to confront the brilliance that any young person with a passion has, and the knowledge base they carry with them. It was my job to let the writing show that her experiences are rich and full even if they are different from the experiences of most readers.
Rachel León: Did you have to do much research for this novel?
Elizabeth Acevedo: I did. I had to do a good amount because I really stepped into a lot of different lanes that required me to get a better handle on contexts I didn’t know enough about. I visited Frankford High School in Philadelphia and sat in on a culinary arts class and also made sure that I researched other models of culinary arts programs. I called my sister-in-law way too much to ask about the eating habits and sleeping habits of my nieces (they are three years old and eighteen months). I also had a reader who was a teen mother, and Puerto Rican, read the novel. I didn’t want to shy away from the hard truths of the story, but I also know I didn’t know enough about what it means to walk through the world with an experience like young parenthood, which is very stigmatized. I didn’t want to miss something, and so I did the best I could to acknowledge my ignorance and try to fill in my knowledge gaps.
Rachel León: What’s next?
Elizabeth Acevedo: My third novel, Clap When You Land, will be out in May 2020. This is a story of sisterhood, love, and loss. I can’t wait to keep bringing readers fierce and tender Afro-Latina heroines.
Rachel León is a writer, editor, and social worker. She serves as Daily Editor for Chicago Review of Books and Fiction Editor for Arcturus. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, BOMB Magazine, The Millions, Electric Literature, Los Angeles Review of Books, the Ploughshares blog, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere. She shares her anxiety and wide-eyed optimism to encourage other writers in the newsletter Pub Cheerleaders, which you can find at: https://pubcheerleader.substack.com