When America is not so beautiful, or right, or just, it can be hard to know what to do. Best friends Walt and Noah decide to use their voices to grow more good in the world, but first they’ve got to find their cool.
As the personal and social tensions increase around them, Noah and Walt must decide what is really true when it comes to love, friendship, sacrifice, and fate. New York Times bestselling authors Kwame Alexander and Mary Rand Hess (Solo) tell a lyrical story about hope, courage, and love that will speak to anyone who’s struggled to find their voice. Swing is out and available for purchase now.
We’d love to learn more about your co-writing process. How do you keep the voice consistent? Do you work off of a detailed outline or do you have a more free-form style? Do you prefer to communicate via email or over the phone or in person?
Kwame and Mary: There is organized chaos in our writing partnership for sure. It is messy, meaningful, and magical all in one. We have very similar writing styles, but our writerly differences, thankfully, compliment one other (and it helps that Kwame is a masterful storyteller with incredible instincts). We also share a passion for telling layered stories that use art, music, poems, texts, lyrics, and various media to reveal the plot (with lots of humor and some drama mixed in) that we hope, in the end, entertain, empower, and create conversation about what’s going on in our world today. The key to it all has been flexibility, hard work, creativity, and a willingness to revise, revise, revise…to get the story just right. All in all, Swing took around two years to complete. We started off at a working retreat with our writing group in the Northern Neck of Virginia, where we ironed out a detailed outline and character development. After that, we each took turns at writing a draft, and then worked together in a piecemeal fashion to get the story, pacing, characters, and voice where it all needed to be. We wrote on planes, on a bus while on our way to remote and beautiful places in Ghana. We wrote on trains to New York City, in coffee houses, in Kwame’s writing studio. at my dining room table. We exchanged our poems and scenes over email, texts, and the phone, and could be across the world from each other when working. We weaved the story separately and together while literally burning the midnight oil. And somehow it worked out, all while listening to copious amounts of jazz with very little sleep.
Did your collaboration process change between writing SOLO and SWING?
Kwame and Mary: It was very similar… in that organized chaos kind of fashion. We had fun, but worked hard and revised often. During Solo, we listened to tons of 80’s and 90’s rock & roll. We sometimes made fun of each other and our music preferences. We still argue about it.
Why did you decide to write about baseball in SWING? Are both of you baseball fans? If so, what’s your favorite team?
Kwame and Mary: Baseball is that all American sport. It represents so much metaphorically and historically. It’s a game of patience and mental discipline. If you read about the history of this sport, it makes you appreciate the struggles the trailblazers had and how they made it the accessible game we all enjoy and love today. It is that one sport that’s cool, swagger, and jazz, all while feeling like living history. And jazz is also an American classic just like baseball. Both go together like apple pie and ice cream.
Mary: I am sentimental when it comes to the Baltimore Orioles. My husband took me on a date once to see them play years ago when we were in college. It was the first professional team I saw play and everything felt so laid back, and yet, alive.
In the book, Noah gets advice from Walt’s cousin who works at the Dairy Queen. Who did you seek advice from when you were in high school?
Mary: My mother has always been wise and yet so open-minded. Growing up, she allowed me to express my opinions freely, listened without judgement, and gave feedback when necessary. She never told me I couldn’t try something new or be what I wanted to be (a rock star…then an artist and author). She gave me the space to dream and was always there as a sounding board when I needed her “sound” advice. She is still that person for me to this day, and I talk with her almost every evening.
Kwame: Pablo Neruda and my grandmother.
Mary & Kwame: Growing up, our thoughts, opinions, and voices are often inspired by the things we see, hear, and experience, and by the advice we’re given. With so much going on in the world and in our country, finding trustworthy people who will listen and give helpful advice is so important. Walt sought advice from his cousin Floyd at Dairy Queen. Noah sought advice from Walt. Sam seeks advice from Noah. Noah and Walt seek advice from Divya and Robert, and glean a kind of advice and inspiration from jazz music, art, and people from the past too (like Corinthian). Peer-to-peer and multigenerational influences are powerful. And in the midst of seeking to find their own voices—to share their concerns, hopes and dreams—they experience the sometimes not so good side of America. These political and social issues they experience, along with the advice they hear, have a profound impact on all of their lives, and forever shape them.
What are you working on next?
Mary: I’m writing a couple of screenplays, and just finished up a book about an orphan chimp with National Geographic photographer and writer Gerry Ellis. I’m also working on another picture book about a quirky family of animals (which I’m excited to share more about when I’m given the green light), and am always brainstorming my next novel.
Kwame: Running Versify and trying to change the world for the best yet, one word at a time.
* * * * *
Kwame Alexander is a poet, educator, and the New York Times Bestselling author of 28 books, including SWING, SOLO, and REBOUND, the follow-up to his, NEWBERY medal-winning middle grade novel, THE CROSSOVER.
A regular contributor to NPR’s Morning Edition, Kwame is the recipient of numerous awards, including The Coretta Scott King Author Honor, The Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Prize, Three NAACP Image Award Nominations, and the 2017 Inaugural Pat Conroy Legacy Award. The 2018 NEA Read Across America Ambassador, Kwame is the founder of VERSIFY, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and the host and producer of the literary variety/talk show, Bookish, which airs on Facebook Watch.
Mary Rand Hess is a poet, screenwriter, editor, and New York Times bestselling author, who has had the privilege of working with award-winning, high-profile figures in the literary, sports, and entertainment industries. Her work has appeared in national and international publications. She is the author of a handful of books, including Solo (Blink YA), which she coauthored with Newbery Medalist Kwame Alexander, Animal Ark: Celebrating Our Wild World in Poetry and Pictures (National Geographic, 2017), also coauthored with Kwame Alexander and Deanna Nikaido, and The Day I Met the Nuts (Story Pie Press), a bestselling food allergy book for children. She is currently at work on another novel-in-verse with Kwame Alexander, and a book about chimps with renowned photographer Gerry Ellis.