What's in a Page: Kwame Alexander says The Door of No Return is 'the hardest book' he's ever written
After writing a number of best-selling YA and children's books including Swing, The Undefeated, and The Crossover, Caldecott and Newbery award-winning author Kwame Alexander faced his biggest challenge yet when he sat down to write his latest novel The Door of No Return (out September 27). "It is the hardest book I've ever written," he said during a phone interview in early September.
Told in verse, this powerful novel tells centers on Kofi Offin, an 11 year-old living in Ghana in 1860, and how he gets caught up in the slave trade after a tragic accident involving his brother. Stunning in the precision and economy of its language, Alexander weaves an unforgettable story with a protagonist whose humanity and heart never gets lost amidst the horrors he faces. The book is the first in a three-part trilogy that will follow the rich saga of Kofi's African family.
Click on the video above to hear an exclusive audiobook excerpt from The Door of No Return, narrated by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith.
Alexander, 54, sat down for EW's What's in a Page column to talk about his writing process and the books that have influenced him.
What's the first thing – ever – that you remember writing?
It's a poem I wrote for my mom on Mother's Day. I was 11 or 12 and I had no money. I had like $3 and so I went to what was then called People's Drugstore, it's now CVS. And I bought a gold-plated frame and I thought I was gonna put a picture of myself in it and give it to my mom. And I couldn't find a picture that fit the frame. So I said, "Oh, I'll write a poem, I'll type a poem." And I'll put the poem in there because it was 8.5 x 11. So I wrote my first poem for my mother and it was a horrible poem, but she loved it and she cried and I was like, wow, poetry kinda works.
What is the last book that made you cry?
Can I say my own book? Whenever I finish writing a book, I'm sad. I don't want to leave the character. It's been such an arduous writing journey getting to the end. So I typically cry at the end of writing my book. So I guess it would be The Door of No Return. But the last book that I read that I cried? Wow. That's a tough one.
Which book is at the top of your current to-read list?
So when I was writing in The Door of No Return, I didn't want to read any other books that were similar or had some sort of connective tissue because I thought that I didn't want to borrow inadvertently from that book. I was talking to a friend of mine, Jackie Woodson, and she was reading Ta-Nehisi Coates' debut novel which is called The Water Dancer and she was like, "Oh, Kwame, you gotta read this, you gotta read this." And she was loving it and she was into it. And I was at her home, her writer's retreat in upstate New York. And I saw the book sitting on a table and I picked it up and I read the dedication and I was like, "Nope, can't do it." Cause the book just looks elegant. It's so well written. Obviously it's about water. Water plays a big role in that book and as you know, water plays a big role in my book. And then just some of the themes and the topics, I think, are related. So I cannot wait to read that book. I just bought it and I am going to get into it.
Where do you write?
The last three years I've been living in London and so I had a writer's studio penthouse. It's always been a dream to have that kind of spot to write in. And so I got this penthouse that overlooked London to have balconies all the way around, huge windows. And I would wake up every morning at about six, put on some bebop, some straight ahead jazz blasting on my Sonos, make myself some English breakfast tea, look at the sun, look at the skyline, look at the city. And then I sit down about 6:45 and just start writing until about 11 or 11:30 every day. And then I'd go for a walk around Regent's Park and that was my day for the last three years.
So the pandemic was like a portal into discovering this sort of really cool, new, inspiring way to create. Now I'm living back in the States. I don't have a penthouse here, but I live out in Northern Virginia, so I'll stare at the deer and the trees, but I'll still listen to jazz and I'll write in my writer studio that is sort of like a loft that I built on the side of my home. So that's generally where I write.
Which book made you a forever reader?
I was an avid reader because my parents were writers and they were professors and they were very much into literature. So I had writerly parents who introduced me to books at a very early age. There are probably three books at different stages of my life that helped sort of shape me and mold me into who I am. At three years old, it would've been Fox in Socks by Dr. Seuss. And then probably after that, it would've been Spin a Soft Black Song by Nikki Giovanni, which is a book of poems, and I just fell in love with it and ended up naming my sister after one of the characters in that book.
And then I fell out of love with books in middle school because my teachers were giving me books I didn't want to read. And I found it boring and staid. And I picked up a book, maybe in eighth grade, I picked up a book, an autobiography in my garage that I found one day it was called The Greatest: My Own Story, the autobiography of Muhammad Ali. And I couldn't put it down and I read all 400 and some pages in one night and that reminded me, okay, books are cool, books are fun. I just gotta find the right one for me.
What is a snack you couldn't write without?
Oh, it's tea. It's Earl Grey tea with honey or English Breakfast or green tea. So it's definitely tea.
If you could change one thing about any of your books, what would it be?
I don't think I would want to change anything. I mean, there's a line in my novel Booked that that I'd probably go back and alter a little bit but I'm not telling you what that line is.
What is your favorite part of The Door of No Return?
I'm not being cliché with this answer. It's just that last poem in the book. For me, I try to write books that traffic in joy and kindness and this book, just thematically, I knew that it was going to go in the opposite direction. It was going to be a lot less joy and kindness. And so how do I maintain that authenticity of how I like to write and the stories I like to tell is what went through my mind. And so when I got to that last poem, I had been down this sort of dark road and that poem helped me get back to why I like to write. I like to inspire. I like to engage. I like to entertain. I like to inform. And ultimately I like to fill young minds with possibility, with hope. And I felt like that poem did it. And for me, it did it and hopefully it'll do that for the reader.
What was the hardest plot point or character to write in this book?
Oh my god, hands down, it was the interaction between Kofi and Afua on this wooden machine that moved across water. It was trying to write her story in a way that was authentic and true, but still make it palatable because of some of the brutality. To make it palatable for young readers and really using my then 12 year-old as my marker, like how do I write this in a way from my daughter that she will not be just utterly destroyed by it, but that I still adhere to the truth? So it was definitely that plot point, for sure.
Write a movie poster tagline for your book?
I thought about this because I just wrapped season one of a TV show based on my novel, The Crossover. So I've been in that sort of Hollywood TV mode of thinking. This may not be the final tagline, but here's my initial pitch and it's, "The saga of an African family."
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