Coe Booth on being a Bronx Native and a “Pen-and-Ink” Geek

Coe Booth. "I find writing about characters who live in the Bronx interesting because the setting itself is one of the many challenges they have to overcome."

Join Figment and Coe Booth tonight on #figlitchat at 8 p.m. EDT for a discussion about writing teens as they really are.

Coe Booth is the author of Bronxwood, a new novel about a teenager’s struggle to grow up amidst family turmoil while keeping his dreams alive (you can start reading the story for a limited time on Figment). This is the third novel that Booth, who also teaches writing and mentors teens, has written and set in the Bronx, after 2006’s Tyrell and 2008’s Kendra. Booth says of the setting that she always tries “to think of the Bronx as one of [her] characters, one that has a big influence over all the other characters.” Read on to learn more about Coe’s writing process, dialogue secrets, and sequel-writing hurdles.

You grew up in the Bronx. How did that experience work its way into Bronxwood?

Growing up in the Bronx was actually a lot of fun. Yes, it can be a tough place at times, especially in certain neighborhoods, but kids make the best of any situation. When I write, I try to think of the Bronx as one of my characters, one that has a big influence on all the other characters. Because, actually, my characters wouldn’t be who they are, and they probably wouldn’t make the choices they make, if they were from a different place; they’ve had to grow up fast! I find writing about characters who live in the Bronx interesting because the setting itself is one of the many challenges they have to overcome.

You’ve written two books about Tyrell—2006’s Tyrell and now its sequel, Bronxwood. What’s the hardest part about writing a sequel?

The hardest part for me was getting over the feeling that writing a sequel should be easier than writing the first book. It’s not! While you come to the sequel knowing the characters already, you still have to make room for them to change in ways you might not have thought of before. And you have to let this new book be its own thing. When I started writing Bronxwood, I tried to match the structure of Tyrell, but it didn’t work. So I had to put the first book out of my mind and just figure out how to write this book and tell this story as if the first book didn’t exist.

Tyrell has a heavy load to deal with at home and dreams of escaping it all by leaving the neighborhood of Bronxwood. If you could live anywhere in the world, where would you live?

Even though Italy is my favorite country to visit, I’d definitely choose to live in Paris. I’ve visited there a bunch of times, and each time it gets harder and harder to leave. There’s something about Paris; it’s just such an alive city with so much personality and character. I love walking around people-watching and sipping espresso in outside cafes. And, c’mon, you have to love a city with that many bakeries!

Some of the happiest moments in Bronxwood are those in which Tyrell and his best friend, Cal, are just joking around. How do you manage to write convincing dialogue?

I’m an eavesdropper, and a proud one! I think too often writers look to movies or TV to learn how to write dialogue instead of listening to the people around them. When I want to get inspired, I go somewhere where I can hear guys talking. I pretend to listen to my iPod and just soak in what they’re saying and how they’re saying it. There’s a rhythm in natural speech; it’s a beautiful thing. As a woman, trying to capture realistic “guy” dialogue on the page is extremely challenging, but when it’s flowing it’s also a lot of fun!

On your blog, you say that you’re “a pen-and-ink geek.” So what’s the ideal pen-and-ink combo for novel writing?

Oh, that’s a hard question—there are way too many options and combinations! I definitely prefer to use fountain pens and bottles of ink. It’s so much fun figuring out which ink works best with which pen and on what paper. Yes, it’s all extremely geeky! I have six fountain pens with different color ink—everything from turquoise to violet to chocolate brown—and I change pens and write with whatever ink matches my mood at the time. Or what matches the tone of what I’m writing. I mean, you can’t write an intense, sad scene with hot pink ink. It just won’t work!

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