G. Neri is the Coretta Scott King award-winning author of the middle-grade books Yummy and Chess Rumble, both ALA Notable Books. He is also the author of the YA novels Surf Mules, and the Junior Library Guild selection Ghetto Cowboy. In 2010, he won the International Reading Association’s Lee Bennett Hopkins Promising Poet Award. He writes for reluctant readers, especially urban boys and teens from ages 8 to 18, creating unique formats and voices that speak directly to young people who don’t like to read.
His latest book, from Candlewick Press, is an urban horse story, a fish out of water story, and a fantastic read – Ghetto Cowboy. Check out the book trailer, then read what author G. Neri has to say about the process of writing this book.
Gigi Amateau: You’ve said that the article, “Street Riders” in Life magazine [April 22, 2005] inspired Ghetto Cowboy. How long did that story knock around in your imagination before you started writing? Do you keep a copy of the article?
Greg Neri: Someone sent me that article and said, “Here’s your next book.” I was like, uh-huh… but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The pictures really grabbed me. Especially one of a young black kid standing on the back of a horse.
I started writing little vignettes, some free-verse etc. Wrote about two-thirds on a draft but then got stuck. Put it away, tried again a year or so later, same thing. Then I put it away for what I thought would be forever, but after a few years had passed, I realized what was wrong with it, which was a very simple idea: I had the kid born and raised into this world, so I made him an outsider, so we could experience the surprises through his eyes. It became a fish out of water story. That did it. And yes, I still have the article.
Gigi: Tell me about the research you did related to horses and in particular the black cowboy tradition.
Greg: It was tough to find anything on this unique subculture at first, but I started digging around online and started finding little nuggets of gold in people’s blogs and on message boards in Philly. Then there were some controversial raids on these properties and articles started popping up too. I discovered the Federation of Black Cowboys and other groups devoted to urban horses. But what I really needed were personal contacts and slowly I found them online too. The clincher was discovering a fantastic photo book called Fletcher Street that really captured the real life neighborhood in North Philly. It brought it all to life. I ended up doing so much online research that by the time I actually visited these particular stables, most of the book had been written. But it felt like walking into my novel. I knew who people were and what was going on in the neighborhood. It took a while, but then I earned their trust and I felt this book represented their cause.
Gigi: In Ghetto Cowboy, the guys at Harper’s stable in Philly reclaim the word ‘cowboy’. How did ‘cowboy’ originate?
Greg: According to a lot of these guys, in the slave days before the Civil War, the slaves who worked in the house were called houseboys and the ones who worked with the cows were called cowboys. So it was a derogatory black word originally but these cowboys were so good, that the insulting word soon became a compliment and the white cattle men started using it too. Sounded about right to me.
Gigi: The voice in Ghetto Cowboy is distinct and clear and consistent throughout the novel. You chose also to write in first person present, an immediate and intimate point of view. Did you experiment with other povs? What made this the right voice and perspective for this story?
Greg: No, I always start with a voice. I don’t think I am particularly good at writing magnificent prose that will be quoted for decades to come. I prefer the inarticulate voices of real life urban teens—simple, raw, funny and grammatically incorrect. But all that makes it real. The voice speaks to me and I write it like dictation.
I also originally wrote the story in free-verse (I was coming off of Chess Rumble at the time), then my editor said, does it have to be free-verse? I think it’s a novel. And she was right. But the poetry of the voice was ingrained into it by then, so it has a certain rhythm and pop to it.
Gigi: Do you know about Texas Fred the Zydeco Cowboy in the DC area? You should check out his radio show, Zydeco Trail Ride, on WPFW 89.3 FM. I think he would really love your book. Texas Fred is definitely part of the cowboy tradition with a little Louisiana flair, too. A Creole cowboy!
Greg: I’m going to be on his show in September! He’s cool plus, I have a Louisiana Creole background and love Zydeco, so I’m excited.
Gigi: I will definitely tune in to hear you and Fred talk. One of things I love most about your book – it dispels some ideas about horses and horse owners. I’m thinking of this thought that Train has [on page 179] “But horses is like people: some come from money; some come from nothing. For these horses, the only thing between them and a can of dog food was us.”
Greg: As far as dispelling myths, all of this comes from the real guys on the streets. I loved finding out all these simple truths and finding ways to put them into the story.
Gigi: The main character and narrator of Ghetto Cowboy goes through quite a transformation. As the story progresses, the name by which he is called – all versions of his given name, Coltrane – changes from Cole to Coltrane to Train. How are you using Train’s name to tell us what’s going on inside him?
Greg: Well, I never quite thought of it like that, but you’re right. At first, he denies his identity, then begins to accept it, then takes pride in it. The Train leads everyone else and propels them forward.
Gigi: Do you ride now? And did you ride before you started working on Ghetto Cowboy?
Greg: I am only an occasional rider, at best. I’m probably much closer to Cole than Harper in this regards, which helped me capture his fears. But I am like Harper in attitude, working with young people and the like. So it balanced out. Also, I have a cousin who’s a race horse trainer and an uncle who was a Mexican cowboy in East LA and an accountant who owns horses near me. They gave me feedback to make sure the story was horse accurate and let me find my inner cowboy.
Gigi: The illustrations in Ghetto Cowboy by Jesse Joshua Watson make such a rich addition to the novel and deepen the reading experience. The two of you also worked together on Chess Rumble, a free verse illustrated novella. Do you and Jesse work together to decide which scenes to depict? Are y’all, like, totally synced up creatively?
Greg:We are synced up creatively. He totally gets what I am saying and finds the equivalent visually. With Ghetto Cowboy, he picked the scenes he felt he could bring to life. Since we were limited to a certain number of images he could do, we (me, the editor and art director) had a few back and forths about a couple of missed scenes to make sure we had good coverage. But I trust him implicitly. Jesse’s an incredible artist and I am proud to have him be a part of these stories. Dude rocks.
Gigi: In the book, you describe The Cowboy Way, which places honor, respect, and trust of your neighbor, your horse, and your friends at the center. There also seems to be a caveat there, too., maybe… but ride with a chip on your shoulder? So, this might sound totally off base, but when I read Ghetto Cowboy, I kept thinking of my basketball team, the VCU Rams. I feel like they play in The Cowboy Way.
Greg: Well, a cowboy should have attitude but it should be kept inside. They are known to be stoic but will stand up for what needs to be done. Actions speak louder than words.
Gigi: I know the book is just freshly out, but have you started hearing from any cowboy or riding groups? Are you planning a Ghetto Cowboy trail ride to celebrate the launch?
Greg: That would be great. I’ve heard from a couple and that meant a lot since they felt I got it right but there are many others that still need to see it. I would love to do a city ride through Philly!
Gigi: What’s next for G. Neri? A movie, a poem, another book?
Greg: I’ve delivered a couple of picture book biographies to my agent and am deep into my next YA novel, an interracial love story set in the Deep South in the age of Obama. It’s called The White Tree and it covers some of the many surprising developments down here in this so-called post race world. And I have another horse story in me, the true life story of my cousin who became an outlaw to save a horse from being raced to death. That one’s called Grand Theft Horse.
Gigi: I look forward to both of those new books! Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions.
Jonesin for EVEN MORE G. Neri or Ghetto Cowboy?
G. Neri’s author Site: http://www.gregneri.com/
Learn about Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club
If you like to listen to your books, sample this: Ghetto Cowboy audio clip