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Traci L. Jones Interview 2006
Standing Against the Wind
Ages 12 up

Patrice Williams was happy living in Georgia with her grandmother, who called her “cocoa grandbaby.” Then her mother lured her to Chicago and ended up in jail. Now Patrice lives with her Auntie Mae, and her new nickname is “Puffy” – thanks to her giant poof of hair. But Patrice’s hair isn’t the only reason she sticks out: she cares about her grades and strives for the best. That’s why Monty Freeman, another eighth grader who lives in the building, asks Patrice to tutor his little brother. Even though Monty’s friends make Patrice uneasy, Monty himself is friendly, confident, and surprisingly smart. When he becomes her guardian angel, Patrice begins to think something stronger than friendship might be growing between them. Still, nothing will stop her from applying for a scholarship at prestigious Dogwood Academy – her ticket out of the project and a school populated by gangs and drug runners.

In her debut novel, Traci L. Jones presents a girl with grit she never knew she had, and a boy so inspired by her that he begins to take pride in his own abilities.

From Standing Against the Wind

Most days, Patrice Williams really didn’t know which she liked least: walking home or actually getting there.

“Just two more blocks,” she whispered to herself as she stood waiting for the light.

During the bitterly cold days of winter, the thirteen-year-old had gotten into the habit of counting the blocks until she was safe at home—safe from the freezing cold wind, safe from the nasty comments made by girls who had cut school and were always hanging out in front of the local drugstore, safe from the gang of boys who had all but quit school and who hung out in the broken-down playground in front of her building. They all seemed to have something mean to say about her.

“One more block.”

Patrice’s quick steps slowed as she noticed the gang of boys from her middle school gathered at the foot of the stairs in front of her building. She had hoped that Chicago’s frigid cold would have driven them inside. But even in this weather they were assembled at the only unlocked entrance, attempting to make everyone else’s life miserable. They were talking and laughing, looking like teen dragons as the puffs of warm air from their mouths mixed with the clouds of cigarette smoke they blew nonchalantly. Those not smoking blew on their hands and rocked back and forth on their feet, trying to keep warm and look cool at the same time.

The January wind blew directly into Patrice’s face. It seemed to reach right through her coat’s thin fabric and under her hand-me-down sweatshirt, and pinch her arms with icy, sharp fingers. With the straps of her old backpack long since broken, Patrice’s hand felt frozen in a tight fist around its tattered handle. She shivered again, this time more from nervous anticipation than cold.
—Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2006

Traci L. Jones, Author

ETC: Every detail of the book feels true, especially the emotions Patrice has in her new neighborhood and the reaction of the kids to her. How did you achieve that?

JONES: I think there are some emotions that most preteens and teens go through, regardless of their economic status or their geographic location. I just tapped into some of the feelings I remembered going through and wrote about them as honestly as I could.

ETC: Did any aspect of the story take you in a direction that surprised you or made you realize something you hadn't before?

JONES: The character of Monty came as a complete surprise to me. I had read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott for a writing class I was taking, and she described the writing process in a way that rang very true to me. She said it was like taking a Polaroid picture in your mind. That's what happened with Monty. I had a picture in my mind of Patrice walking down the street toward her building, and as she drew nearer a group of boys began to appear and suddenly there was Monty. I knew right away that he was going to be a pivotal character, and it was really a bit of a surprise for me.

ETC: Auntie Mae says Patrice "ain't got no fight in her" (p. 9), but as readers learn, she does. How did you conceive and develop Patrice's character?

JONES: I started the book while in a writing class at the University of Denver. Originally Patrice was going to be much younger and much spunkier. The feedback I got from my fellow students about the first few pages wasn't great. They found the character too perfect and therefore a little boring. Flaws and insecurities are more interesting and allow for more growth. More than anything I wanted to show that there are better ways to fight than just with your fists, but first there had to be something, both internal and external, for her to fight against.

ETC: What aspect of Patrice's character do you admire most?

JONES: I love the fact that Patrice knows her strengths and is steadfast in the face of peer pressure. Too often girls will downplay their intelligence in order to be popular. Patrice would rather be smart than socially accepted, which is a hard choice for teens to make. I like that she has accepted and embraced her inner geek. I especially love that she seems to be in the world, but not of the world. Her environment and her peers don't change who she is inside.

ETC: Patrice is empowered and perseveres in spite of the bullying and harassment of her peers-what advice would you give other young women facing similar challenges?

JONES: Patrice isn't perfect. In the face of bullying she cries and feels sorry for herself. She rarely fights back, but through it all she doesn't change who she is fundamentally, and she never stoops to the level of her bullies. She never takes too much of what they say to heart. She is sure enough in herself and her abilities that even through her tears she can allow much of what they say to roll off her back. She doesn't absorb the meanness of the bullies. That is how I would like young women to act when confronted. I would tell them not to allow the words or actions of others to change who they are, what they think or what they believe in. I urge them to keep their dreams even when others seek to dash them. I want young women to realize there is no value in the words of those who do not love or respect you. They shouldn't give such people another thought. Don't give others power over you by spending time and energy worrying about what they are saying to or about you. Focus on the words of the people around you who love and support you. Only respect the words of those who act respectfully and kindly towards you.

ETC: Monty is a character with a lot of backbone, and the relationship between him and Patrice is heartwarming. How did that develop? What do you think their relationship will be like in five years? In ten years?

JONES: My writing is very influenced by what I happen to be reading at the time. I'm a sucker for Regency romance novels. I only read two authors of the genre, Stephanie Laurens and Julia Quinn. I had just started a Laurens novel when Monty appeared in my head. He's my updated, younger hip-hop version of the quintessential knight in shining armor. I like to think that Monty would have worked hard his freshman year in high school and joined Patrice at boarding school. In ten years I picture them still friends, but with other partners-Patrice at a law firm, maybe a professor of economics, Monty, an architect.