Interview an Author: Wendelin Van Draanen

Often in life, there are books you discover in your childhood that stick with you forever. For me personally, that was the case with the Sammy Keyes mystery series, penned by award-winning author Wendelin Van Draanen. The series follows a junior high school girl, Sammy, and her journey through both finding herself and solving the mysteries of the world around her. It’s humorous, witty, creative, and filled with loads of fantastic characters.

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Pictured: Wendelin poses adorably with her books (Credit: newtimesslo.com)

Wendelin Van Draanen has written more than thirty books for young adults and teens, but her two shining stars are, of course, Sammy Keyes, and the novel Flipped, which was transformed into a beautiful movie, directed by Rob Reiner. She’s an incredibly talented writer, and as I’m sure you can tell, her work has had a large impact on my young adult life. For that reason, I was so honored when Wendelin agreed to be interviewed by my publication. She had much to say about her spunky heroine, Sammy, but she also gave me loads of invaluable advice on how to navigate the world as a creative person and a writer.

Analog Magazine: What was your upbringing like, and how did reading and writing lend itself to you in your formative years?

Wendelin Van Draanen: My parents were Dutch immigrants, and we lived the immigrant lifestyle in which we were frugal. My parents were working towards their American Dream, and they were very much about, “You come to a new country and you become part of the fabric of that new country”, so they wanted to raise their kids as Americans. We were kind of insulated (not necessarily isolated,) but we were different from the neighbors in that [my parents] had an accent and they approached life in a very vigorous way and there was a lot of work to be done. We were always working on something, so there were no idle hands. When my siblings and I did get free from the chores, we would go out and just be wild in the neighborhood, to counterbalance the restrictive nature of home. We had lots of wild adventures that my parents would not have approved of. Books were a big part of growing up because we could go to the library, so every other week or so we would go get a haul of books, bring them home, and take them back. I was one of those flashlight-under-the-covers kind of readers, because we had a bedtime and we stuck to it. Then I could escape with my flashlight and my book and meet up with my friends under the covers. 

AM: What were your favorite subjects in school and what did you excel at as a student? What were your challenges?

WVD: My favorite subject for all levels of school was math, because math was the only subject that totally made sense. If you understood the concept and the building blocks for math, it made sense and it was easy. My least favorite subject was language arts. Those English teachers, man- you just could not please them! No matter what you did, you were going to get back your essay and there were going to be little problems with it here and there and then you’d have to redo it. Ugh, it was so frustrating. As you can probably tell from my upbringing, we were encouraged to excel, so a B+ was a very frustrating grade to get. With math, if you knew what you were doing, you were good. I feel like people who don’t like math are missing one of the building blocks. When I was a teacher, the subject I taught was math. And people say, “How do you go from being a math teacher to writing mysteries?”, and that is kind of weird until you think about it. Because a math problem is just a puzzle, and I love puzzles. I think it’s my mind just trying to make sense of something and find a solution for it. So I’m very attracted to mysteries, because I want to put those pieces together in a way that makes sense.

AM: What different careers have you had along your journey to becoming a full-time writer?

WVD: Ramping up to become a full-time teacher, I did a lot of odds and ends. I drove a forklift…I did a lot of different things. But my career-job was becoming a math/computer programming teacher, and then it was while I was working as a teacher that I was influenced by the kids in my class and inspired to try writing a story. 

AM: What inspired you to create the character of Sammy Keyes and flesh out her story into such an extensive, vibrant, staple of young adult literature?

WVD: I think it was being a teacher and seeing that students were still reading Nancy Drew, and that my students had very little in common with Nancy Drew. I just thought it would be cool to take someone who represented the kids who I saw every day in the classroom, and put them into situations where they would stumble their way through right and wrong. I think when you’re an adult and you can see the behaviors of people and recognize the mistakes that you yourself have made… there’s not a big reception on a teen’s part from an adult, you know? Their peers are very important to them, and so I wanted -more important than the adults- to create a peer who would have these experiences and think about things, and about right and wrong, and the steps to take given dangerous or stressful or emotional situations. I wanted to have her make the mistakes a normal teen would make, but then have her draw conclusions that she would then apply to the next time she was faced with a similar situation. I think that those factors are what drove me to write about Sammy. Growing up is hard- it’s much harder than calculus!

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Wendelin was happy to learn I have carried my love of the series into adulthood!

AM: The first Sammy Keyes book was written in the late 90s, and the last book was finished 18 years later. However, in the Sammy Keyes universe, only 2-3 years passes. Was it difficult for you to develop with modern technology while trying to keep up with the timeline of the story?

WVD: Technology, man. It is a beast and it keeps messing with you. Being a writer and including technology in your writing is a dangerous thing, because it may completely change in six months. Having a series that spanned 18 years which only spanned 2-3 in Sammy world was challenging. She doesn’t have a cell phone; how do you explain that none of her friends are texting? How do you make it relevant to kids now when all the technology makes the world such a different place? So, when they went and redid the covers recently, I asked if I could go through the entire series and emphasize little references to technology. When’s the last time you’ve seen a payphone? Sammy has a payphone! It’s like, “Okay, kids don’t even know how to use a payphone anymore.” But how do you change the series so that it is still relevant to today’s kids? And so, I went through and I would add a little word or I would subtract a little word, so that it would kind of mold to technology. Instead of flipping open your phone, you would tap on your phone. So I would change “flip” to “tap.” And I couldn’t get rid of the payphone- it was a big thing- so I would add the word “ancient” in front of it. So she goes to this ancient payphone. Just the technology and updating it across the series, and especially at the very beginning, there were some challenges. When we get to the end, Heather’s got a cellphone and technology’s referred to, but I had to get rid of CD players. There were things that were already outdated, like in Psycho Kitty Queen she had a CD player. I think with all the experience of writing over the years, I’ve become a better writer, but not applying my improved skills to Hotel Thief and Skeleton Man and Sisters of Mercy and other early books, I had to tell myself, “You’re just here for technology. That’s all you’re here for.”

AM: The Sammy Keyes series is full of several diverse, unique, well-developed characters. Are any of the characters inspired by real people from your life?

WVD: That’s interesting, because the answer to that is pretty much no- Sammy’s a hybrid of the characteristics that I liked in the students I saw everyday. I would say that if there were, it would be an amalgamation of people. The ones who are the bad guys- they are more a person who has become a character than a character who was just a character. I usually start from a place with the bad guys, I start from a place of annoyance about a person, and then over time, they become the character. I usually hold onto who they were to begin with. You have people who are mean to you in life, and sometimes you can’t do anything about it. But if you do something about it on a page…it’s very satisfying. 


I guess that it seems from the outside, I have everything, and I realize that is, in fact, partly true. But there’s been a lot in the past that could easily have taken me down, and I’ve battled really hard not to let that happen.”


AM: One of the most notable aspects of the Sammy Keyes series is the undertones of real-life social and human issues, such as gang culture in Snake Eyes and environmental awareness in Wild Things. Did you purposefully add in these elements to introduce young readers to these topics in an accessible, creative way? 

WVD: Absolutely. I always have a theme that I work with, and I have something that I want to say, but my approach to saying it is usually the backdoor as opposed to coming at you with a message. Mostly, I just want to present a situation and I want my readers to come away thinking about it, discussing it or expanding their view of it. In Wild Things, the whole thing about Sammy is that she thinks, “Why would anybody want to save a condor? It’s stinky and eats dead stuff, it’s ugly, what’s the big deal about saving a condor?” And then, by the end, she understands. But I think a lot of kids would relate to Sammy thinking, “Oh, well, it’s a bird who eats dead stuff. Who cares.” It’s like a game of basketball as opposed to running laps. You get to play a game, you get a little competition, you’re jumping and you’re running…as opposed to “Here’s the whistle, you’ve got to go around the track.” I’d way rather have my readers play a game of basketball than feel like I’m marching them around a track.

AM: Was it difficult for you to ultimately end the series after eighteen books, or did you feel relieved by the sense of closure to Sammy’s story?

WVD: Oh my gosh, it was so hard and emotional for me. She was like the daughter I didn’t have. First she was my peer, and then time went by, and she didn’t get any older and I did. I had  two sons, so I didn’t have a girl. The eighteenth book came out about the time my son turned eighteen, so he was leaving home, and there were all these things ending at the same time. I was so emotional, and just the thought that I’d been with this girl and I’d lived in her world for all these years, and I’d think about her all the time. To create a story, you need to have a character and their world in your head, and I had her in my head all the time. And then, all of the sudden, it’s like I’m reaching the end and this was the last one. I do feel like a series should have what I call a “swan dive”: you should go out big and strong. You shouldn’t fizzle away. Anyway, I reached my goal, she had survived middle school (barely), but it was time, and it was really hard. People have asked me if I’ve planned to write a YA version of Sammy, and I just don’t. I think she belongs where she is; there’s a reason that she exists where she does. I think middle school years are the hardest years, and if you have a friend like Sammy to help you through those, I think you’re going to be alright.   


“I always have a theme that I work with, and I have something that I want to say, but my approach to saying it is usually the backdoor as opposed to coming at you with a message.”


AM: Do you have a proudest series that you’ve written so far, or would that be like picking a favorite child for you?

WVD: I have two short series for younger readers, and I have Sammy Keyes. If we’re talking proudest series, that would have to be Sam. It took such a big part of my life to create. Picking a favorite title of any kind is not something I want to try to do, because they’re all special in their own way. 

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Look at her with all her books. LOOK. 

AM: What is something that you wish more people knew about you?

WVD: Wow. I’ve always tried to keep myself secret. I think that I have an initial impression that is not in keeping with what is actually me. I have blonde hair, I’m tall, I’m thin… but I’m not that person. I am someone who struggles with her ups and downs. I run a lot because it helps to stabilize my mood, and I get cloudy- let’s put it that way. I get cloudy and I feel misunderstood. I think it’s partly my own fault because I’m blonde (and I can’t help the tall), but this is just my structure. I think it projects an image which is not in keeping with who I am and my soul. You would hope that people would judge you on your work and the way you conducted your life, but in our society, we’re very snap-judgmenty. And so, I withdraw. I tend to withdraw as opposed to fighting a battle that I feel one couldn’t possibly understand. I guess that it seems from the outside, I have everything, and I realize that is, in fact, partly true. But there’s been a lot in the past that could easily have taken me down, and I’ve battled really hard not to let that happen. And so, just the notion that “You’ve got all that” doesn’t reflect what it took. Anyway, that got a little heavy.       

AM: What are your other hobbies besides writing?

WVD: Reading, running, and rock ‘n’ roll. There is nothing more freeing than rock ‘n’ roll. My husband’s a drummer, and he’s also a young adult book writer. He and I, and our two sons once they became teenagers, started a band together. I have trouble sitting still, so rock ‘n’ roll is very physical for me. It’s just a fun release, and doing it with my family is so cool. Reading is what I do because I love to read, and running is for my health, my cardiovascular system, and mostly, my sanity.  

AM: How do you think social media has lent itself to you as a writer and a creator? Do you feel like it has created a more personable relationship with your audience?

WVD: Yeah! I would say that for the positives, that’s true. I would also say that it helps me still feel connected to my career of being a teacher. Teachers on Twitter are very positive people. Twitter has a lot of negative people, but the teachers put forth support, they share ideas, they’re very forward-thinking, and I love feeling like I still have exposure to that community. That to me has been the best part of social media- the teacher presence.     

AM: Lastly, what advice would you give to other young writers and readers?

WVD: To be a writer, you need to be a reader. I really firmly believe that. Read read read, and then to be a writer, you have to write. And writing, actually, is work. You have to sit down and do it. I have a lot of people in my life who have always said they always wanted to write a book. Maybe they got to chapter one, and then they discovered that it’s work. If you really want to be a writer, you have to read a lot, and then you have to write a lot. Like anything else, you only get better at it when you do it. ★

You can keep up with Wendelin by checking out her website or by following her on instagram @wendelinvand

Interview an Author: Julia Phillips

I remember the day I walked into Jabberwocky Books in Newburyport, Massachusetts, and laid my eyes on the novel Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips. I’m sure other bookworms agree: sometimes you just lay your eyes onto a new title, and instantly, you know what book is yours. 

Apparently, my instincts about the book were right- this unique mystery novel drove me in and kept me hostage to the pages until I’d devoured it. Unsurprisingly, Disappearing Earth is now a national bestseller and a National Book Award finalist. And, according to The New York Times, “A superb debut…a nearly flawless novel.”

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips

Today I had the honor of speaking with Julia Phillips, whose personality and answers to my questions were just as crisp and graceful as her writing. 

Analog Magazine: What is your background as a professional writer and when did you decide to pen your first novel?

Julia Phillips: I wanted to be a novelist from the time I was a little kid. It was always my dream. While drafting the manuscript that became Disappearing Earth, I worked as an editor at a small publishing house, then as a freelance corporate copywriter. The whole time, I fantasized about this project emerging in the world one day as my first book. It’s the dream of my life.

AM: Are there any authors, books, and writers who you feel have inspired your writing style or shaped you as a writer yourself?

JP: Oh, so, so, so many. Every book I’ve ever read has inspired and shaped me. While I worked on Disappearing Earth, I thought a lot about the writing of Louise Erdrich and Alice Munro, two master storytellers. Some of the particular works that informed this novel include Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala, Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich, So Much Pretty by Cara Hoffman, and Dead Girls by Nancy Lee.

AM: Your debut novel, Disappearing Earth, takes place in the distant, remote area of Kamchatka, Russia. Why did you choose this setting and location to be the backbone of your story?

JP: Russian and fiction were my two main academic pursuits in college, but I struggled to find a way to combine the two. When I studied abroad in Moscow, I felt far from English-language storytelling. In my creative writing classes, I didn’t know how to capture what had excited me abroad. The best way forward seemed to be setting a book in Russia. Writing a novel in Kamchatka became my dream.

Kamchatka was a compelling setting for a few reasons. Though it’s one of the country’s most remote territories, the peninsula more clearly illustrates the effects of Russia’s shift from socialism to capitalism than larger and better-known cities like Moscow or St. Petersburg might. Before 1990, Kamchatka was classified as a closed military zone; no foreigners were permitted there and even Russians needed special dispensation to visit. It was an isolated area of an already insular state – an intensified version of mainstream Soviet culture’s self-reliant course.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, though, restrictions on Kamchatka were abandoned. The peninsula’s undeveloped land, rich natural resources, and distance from the government’s seat in Moscow made it attractive to everyone, from foreign investors to adventure tourists to poachers. Suddenly globalized, radically changed, Kamchatka remained a microcosm of its nation, which now had a different name.

There was no way for me to understand all of contemporary Russia, I thought, but perhaps I could get to know Kamchatka. The region is huge – the size of California – but self-contained. No roads connect it to the mainland. Most of its population lives in one city. Living in that isolated place for a while, I would be able to meet many people, hear their stories, collect the details that underpin convincing fiction. And beyond all of that reasoning, there was a romantic motivation: Kamchatka is very, very beautiful. Volcanoes and geysers. I wanted to go there because I loved what it looked like.

AM: Disappearing Earth breaks away from the ‘normal’ novel structure and instead tells the story through several smaller, unique anecdotes. What inspired you to array the novel in this way?

JP: This novel is the story of a group of people, a whole community affected by a single event, so I wanted to structure it in a way that drew out the connections between characters. Their shared experiences were just as crucial as their unique qualities in moving the plot forward. To me, the moral argument of the book is that we survive by coming together. In our most desperate moments, we save, and are saved by, each other. 

AM: What was the research process like for you to pen this story? Did you run into roadblocks along the way?

JP: I learned about Kamchatka from the US for two years, then spent a year living on the peninsula and gathering material for this book. After I returned to the US, I started writing the book; I went back to Kamchatka in 2015 with my first draft in hand in order to do more research and start filling in the things I’d missed. I kept revising the book with the help of peer writing workshops until 2017, when an agent, then an editor, took the manuscript on and edited it with me. There were certainly roadblocks along the way. The most substantial ones were always logistical: it costs a lot of money and time to get to Kamchatka from the US, so it took years for each trip to come together. In comparison to that geographic challenge, everything else felt relatively straightforward.

AM: Was there ever a point within writing the story that you considered scrapping your original idea and going in a completely different direction?

About - Julia Phillips
Photo: JuliaPhillipsWrites.com

JP: Hmm…I don’t think so. I worked on this project for ten years, so there were loads of times I felt discouraged, sad, and frustrated about it. But I don’t remember a moment where I felt so down on it that I seriously considered scrapping the whole thing. The project always compelled me even when I doubted my ability to pull it off.

AM: Several readers, including myself, have picked up on the tone of women’s issues and repression in your novel, particularly through the lens of sexism and homophobia. Why is it important to include these issues in your writing, and do you feel like the novel accurately depicts the scope of these issues in Russia?

JP: The theme of violence against women was essential to the project from the very start. This novel is structured polyphonically, with every chapter focused on a different woman’s point of view, because it is intended to explore the spectrum of harm in women’s lives—from the rare and highly publicized (an abduction by a stranger) to the mundane and hardly spoken about (a difficult doctor’s appointment, a social slight). I wrote Disappearing Earth to run the range of violence in contemporary womanhood, because I’m fascinated by how those hurts echo each other, overlap, and connect us. 

And that’s a great question about whether the novel accurately depicts women in Russia. I very much hope it is resonant with folks there, and I tried hard to make it reflect my perception of this particular place as much as possible, but everything in the book is coming through my American filter, and it is inevitably biased because of that. It’s an American work, an American point of view, created by someone American. It’s hard for me to gauge therefore whether it’s an accurate depiction of someone’s real-life Russianness.

AM: From your perspective, what is the importance of leaving the conclusion of Disappearing Earth purposefully vague? Have readers reached out to you and for more clarity in regards to what the ending means?

JP: I’ve been surprised and gratified to get to talk with lots of readers about their reactions to the book’s ending. It’s probably the most frequent topic that comes up in conversation with folks who have finished the book. That’s been a fantastic craft lesson for me, because I don’t see the novel’s conclusion as open-ended; to me, it is about a specific and concrete thing. So getting to learn from other people’s interpretations and reflect on my writing going forward has been a real gift.

AM: What was your reaction to the overwhelming success of Disappearing Earth?

JP: This is a really kind question. Really, every bit of the publication process for Disappearing Earth, from the book’s acquisition to its editing process to its release, blew my mind. The whole thing has been a dream come true.

AM: How would you feel if a studio approached you with interest in turning Disappearing Earth into a film? Could you see that potentially happening in the future?

JP: That’d be incredible! My fingers are crossed.

AM: What are your other hobbies and interests besides writing?

JP: Reading, for sure, and listening to loads of podcasts. Cooking, seeing friends, going for walks. Watching TV and movies, especially comedies. Reading DIY/decor blogs and fantasizing about restoring some gorgeous old house.


I wrote Disappearing Earth to run the range of violence in contemporary womanhood, because I’m fascinated by how those hurts echo each other, overlap, and connect us. “


AM: What is something you wish everybody/more people knew about you?

JP: Ha! To be honest, there isn’t anything I want everybody to know about me. I often get nervous about the bits of personal information that I’ve shared too casually in the past. 

AM: What are your general goals and aspirations for the future?

JP: I want to feel immersed in my writing, and challenged, stimulated, and pushed to grow by creative work. I want to support other writers and artists in sharing their works with the world. As I look forward, I hope to publish multiple books and tell stories that move their readers. And one day I’d love to have my own room to write in. With bookshelves on all the walls!

AM: Can we expect another novel from you in the future? And, if yes, will you stick with the mystery/thriller theme?

JP: Absolutely. I’m working on another novel now. I don’t know what themes will compel me far in the future, but for now, I love a mystery – I love a book that begins with a thrilling question and gives us some answer by the end.

AM: Lastly, what advice would you give to other young writers?

JP: I’d offer anyone interested in writing three pieces of advice: first, read as much as possible; second, write as much as possible; third, embed yourself in an artistic community. Through reading, you’ll learn so much about storytelling and craft. Books offer an education with no equivalent. And through regular writing, you’ll sharpen your skills, learning what works for you on the page and what doesn’t. The third piece of advice, community building, might be the most important. It’s so challenging and limiting to create art in a vacuum. Connect with the folks around you (whether in person or online), read and cheer on their work, participate in conversations around creativity, and get feedback from others on what you’re producing. In those ways, you’ll not only fuel your own growth but also help foster a world of stronger, better, more supported artists. ★

Everything Turns Gold: An Interview with Joshua Sweet

“For American people, I’m not American enough because I’m brown, even though we could have been born in the same hospital. I’m automatically seen as not American enough, because I’m not the same as them.”

Joshua Sweet is hard to miss. Before I even knew him personally, I was able to recognize him as someone who turns heads instantly, someone who raises questions and charms his peers, and ultimately, someone with a compelling story to tell. With that being said, I was very appreciative when Joshua agreed to be interviewed by me about his music career for Analog. He had a lot to say about his artistry, his upbringing, and ultimately, his goals and aspirations for a bright future in music.

I’m curious how the stage name Joshua Sweet came to be. Unsurprisingly, there is a precise story behind it. “People used to tell me I was too sweet, and that I’m too nice to people,” Joshua says. “I always took that in a very bad way. It always made me feel horrible, like I have to be mean or something. But then I decided to myself, ‘I’m not going to change for anybody. I’ll show the world who’s too sweet.’” 

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Photo: Terrence Michael Studio

Although he had previously released a record under the name Joshua Johnson, he’s happy he made the switch to a new direction. “I was like, ‘I have to do it.’ Then I came out with my song, ‘Thanks Anyway’ as Joshua Sweet, and then it just took off from there. Joshua Sweet is me.”

As he explained to me, Joshua’s early life was full of turbulence, constant moving, and strict rules put in place by his parents. Growing up in an extremely Christian household with two successful Indian parents, Joshua recalls feeling confused about his identity. “I was never really accepted by the Indian community. They never really liked me, because I was born in America, my name is Joshua, I grew up Christian, my dad’s from England and my mom’s from Malaysia,” Joshua says about his family. “I never really had a community to fall back on, so I really had to find myself and build a sense of belonging.” For a channel of creativity and expression, Joshua remembers the close relationship he maintained with his brothers throughout his childhood. “We didn’t learn from our parents, we learned from each other. Without a doubt.”

Coming from a postdoc father and a business-oriented mother, Joshua also recalls the strict expectations put in place by his parents, and how that slowly faded over the years. “When you’re moving around so much, it’s hard to keep track of your kids. Eventually they just started loosening up. For example, I was never allowed to have earrings growing up, so [one day] I just kinda did it. But because it was so much later in my life, they were kinda like, ‘Yeah, whatever.’”

This dynamic relationship between masculinity and femininity has always played a substantial role in Joshua’s physical image- one which is reminiscent of the androgynous energy put forth by Prince and Michael Jackson. Unsurprisingly, Joshua often finds himself being compared to many of his favorite artists. He cites Michael Jackson and Prince as some of his most substantial influences, but also includes more modern icons such as Bruno Mars, Shawn Mendes, Justin Bieber, and Harry Styles. Joshua recounts Harry Styles in particular as one of his most favored idols, especially in regards to his femininity. “I started wearing women’s clothes in middle school, and people weren’t ready for that. I was definitely ahead of my time. When Harry Styles started doing that, I felt a sense of belonging and acceptance. One day, I want to tell him how much I appreciate that.”

In late August of 2019, Joshua Sweet released his newest song and music video, “Strangers.” With college starting just a week away, Joshua recalls his reservations about starting that new epoch of his life. In fact, he admits, that period of his life was one of his hardest moments in 2019. “I was about to release my video, ‘Strangers.’ I was just thinking to myself, “I have to get out of here, I can’t go to school. It’s not for me. Part of me still believes that. I was having all these internal conversations with myself, like, ‘I need to release strangers before I go to school and hopefully someone will find it.’’ According to Josh, his other dark moment of 2019 came in December, when popular rap artist Juice Wrld died after a drug-induced seizure. Even though Joshua states he was never a huge fan of the artist, being informed of the death still hit him hard. “It hurt knowing that someone that age could lose it all,” Joshua says in regards to the loss of Juice Wrld. His life basically just started. He was 21, and the life that he was going to be known for and cherished for had just started. He lost it within two years of being a big artist. Two years goes like that; I’ve been making music for longer than two years. That definitely got in my head a little bit. When I see celebrities die, it makes me feel weird, even if I don’t know them. They had this whole life that they probably wanted so badly, and now they can’t have it anymore.”

It’s clear to me, and many of the people around Joshua, that his appreciation and zest for life is enormous. He is someone who approaches every day with a positive attitude, and a general goal to make the best out of all of his experiences, both good and bad.

However, despite these privations, 2019 certainly treated Joshua Sweet well. In fact, he recounts it as an altogether fantastic year for his growth as an artist. He was granted his first interview as an artist in January of 2019- an experience that marked his prominence as “the real deal.” He also discovered a fan cover of one of his songs on YouTube, and then, out of nowhere, discovered he had a fan page on Instagram. When I ask him how it feels to have a designated fan page, he laughs and says, “It definitely felt weird at first, because I didn’t know what was going on, because I’ve never had a fan page going on. So I was a little scared at first, actually. But then when I talked to them, I saw that it was real. I couldn’t believe it. It feels like you just had a child or something. You’re just in shock and you start reflecting on your whole life. I knew it was going to come, but I didn’t know how soon. I try to use my platform for good, because I know people are watching me.”

While many of Joshua’s themes and lyrics are centric around a typical pop, love/breakup dynamic, he also enjoys branching out into other subjects, such as social justice issues. Joshua says he is a firm believer that our generation will change the world for the better, and ultimately, undo the harm caused by prior generations. Joshua says, “I know we’re going to change everything, and the way society was built by prior generations. They have a lot of wrong beliefs, in racism, sexism, and the people “below them.” This year, Joshua hopes to release his song and music video for “Fear the Youth,” which covers this exact topic. 

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Passion for helping others and even exploring philanthropy is one of Joshua’s biggest goals once he becomes a prominent artist. As of right now, Joshua is growing out his hair for the sole purpose of donating it (and yes, although I’m sad by the prospect that he’s going to cut it, I understand his mission). He says that while he certainly wants to live well, money and cars aren’t as important to him as pure, wholesome happiness. At the root of everything, Joshua Sweet just wants to spread his sweetness. “I strongly believe that we should be kind to one another, regardless of our differences,” Joshua says about his values. “That’s definitely a huge value of mine, to treat people equally and respectfully regardless of if you’re gay, straight, trans, black, white- we’re all human. I feel like we lose sight of that sometimes.”

Along his journey of pursuing music professionally, Joshua says he has certainly learned a lot about success, connections, and community. Additionally, even though he was originally apprehensive about entering college, Joshua appreciates the lessons he has learned along the way and the friends he has gained. On campus alone, Joshua is aware of his success and knows that people will approach him solely because he is an artist. However, he has no reservations about the somewhat surface-level attention he receives. “I guess I kind of knew that would happen, so that’s why I don’t even hate it. I was signing up for this life and what comes with it. And I am fully ready for it.”

Beyond adoring college acquaintances, Joshua is also grateful for the support and interest his friends have shown in his lifestyle. He says that his friends accompany him almost anywhere- from the studio to record new music to photo shoots, they’re always close by to offer their loyalty. Having a large network has also initiated Joshua to extend his recognition. “People who I don’t know will come up to me and tell me that they like my music, and it’s the greatest feeling in the world. When you show your music to one person, they’ll show it to another, and another, and another. That’s how a lot of people find me. People will show their parents my music, and then their parents will be impressed with me. It’s just the greatest feeling ever.”

Although Joshua does record all of his music at a studio, he prefers to write whenever and wherever inspiration hits. “I don’t write in the studio because that’s actually very financially irresponsible, because you’re paying for that time,” he says about the expensive nature of studio time. “I write wherever inspiration hits me, really. It could be in my dorm room, in my room at home, or even in class, it will hit me sometimes. I have this song called ‘Broken Girl’ that nobody’s ever heard before, but it hit me in the middle of class. The lyrics just randomly came into my head, and I just started writing in the middle of the lecture.”

As of right now, Joshua says he has put writing on hold so he can focus solely on recording. “I want to release my song ‘Lucy’s Jewelry’ and release my video for ‘Fear the Youth,’” he says in regards to his plans for 2020. Additionally, in an ideal world, Joshua hopes that 2020 may be the year his music career takes off drastically. “My aspiration for 2020 would be to randomly become one of the biggest artists ever. In the real world, though, my goal is just to work my hardest and be happy. I know that hard work is what’s going to get me there. I’m optimistic in the sense that I know I’ll get there.”

Even if Joshua ever changes his mind about pursuing music (which is, from what I can tell, extremely unlikely), he has a backup plan for his career. “I would be an actor,” he says about himself if he had to pick a different career. “I am an actor already, but definitely not as serious as music. I’m aiming for music, and then I can branch off into acting. I feel like acting and music go hand in hand. When I think about having a career, I can’t imagine myself at a 9-5 desk job.” (Neither can we, frankly.)

Before we end the interview, I still have a couple more questions for Joshua. I ask him what he wishes more people knew about him, and he says, “No matter who someone is or what they’re going through, or how you perceive themselves, they’re always welcome to talk to me, and I will always accept them no matter what they feel they’re different for. They don’t need to feel uncomfortable or anything. When they’re with me, they’re cared about a lot.”

Speaking to Joshua face-to-face for this story, I am able to experience firsthand his warm, kind-hearted nature towards himself and others. While he certainly funnels a lot of thought and attention into himself, a large part of his identity is still essential around how he can leave a positive mark on others. 

Lastly, before we close, Joshua has a final piece of advice for other budding young artists hoping to achieve success. “Just because someone tells you that your idea is bad, doesn’t mean it actually is bad. They’ve never seen the outcome, and they don’t know what’s what. If your peers had all the answers in life, they would be further than they are now. No matter what, your ideas are just as good or even better than what their’s ever could be.” ★ 

Joshua, we wish you success and luck with everything!

A Warrior with Words: Tiana Ferrell

“Being different isn’t a personal attack, it has no reflection on you. Different is just different: the way we look, the way we love, where we come from. That was Dr. King’s dream, to have us accept our differences as well as our commonalities.”

Perhaps as one of the most influential civil rights activists and journalists of the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, Ida B. Wells is undeniably underrated. Being born into slavery and losing her family to the yellow fever epidemic in 1878, Ida certainly had several personal battles waged against her. However, this powerful woman went on to co-own the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight newspaper, document cases of lynching throughout the country, and even become a founding member of the NAACP. Later in her turbulent life, she married and had a family, while still continuing her journalistic work and her fight for freedom. 

For this feature, I had the honor and privilege of speaking to Tiana Ferell, the great-great granddaughter of Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Ferell, a prosperous writer and producer based in the Atlanta area, had plenty to say about her craft, her passions, and of course, her incredible ancestor.

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Analog Magazine: Tell us a little bit about your titles and roles, and what your day-to-day life entails.

Tiana Ferrell: I have so many! I run Tiana Ferrell productions, so we produce stage plays, we write content, and we do a lot of project management. That’s the bread and butter. On a day-to-day basis, I am writing, interviewing, and bringing projects to execution, if it’s a stage play or a screenplay. I also, of course, continue the family legacy of Miss Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Sometimes that includes partnerships with our Ida B. Wells Memorial Foundation, or The Ida B. Wells-Barnett Museum in Mississippi. There’s always different projects going on. With continuing the legacy through my production company, I wrote and produced a stage play on the life of Ida B. Wells. It’s not her entire life, but the beginning stages. She was such a well-rounded person, and I wanted to share an unsung story because Ida is still new to history. We didn’t know about her until the 1970s when her daughter, Alfreda, published her autobiography. There’s still a lot of things we don’t know about Ida B. Wells. I wanted to share what ignited that fire in her, and the Ohio Railroad in Memphis through the ladies’ car incident. A lot of people don’t know about that story, and it’s one of those things that was swept under the rug, because we didn’t want to accept (we as in America), that African-Americans have rights. She won her case in court in Memphis, and we wanted everybody to know that. That was something kept secret that I wanted to bring to the forefront. 

AM: Where were you born and raised, and how did your upbringing affect your future goals?

TF: I was actually born in California. I moved to Atlanta when I was around six, and I moved around a couple places, like Memphis and Holly Springs, Mississippi at one point. However, I always came back to Atlanta and Atlanta is my home. My upbringing prepared me for the challenges that I would face. It made me stronger, knowing that I looked differently than some of my neighbors, and that once I got a certain age, I would be perceived as such. I was so naive growing up; I was the only black child in the school. But I thought that I was like everybody else, and when my family explained to me who Ida B. Wells was, I wasn’t impressed as a child. I just thought she was a dead relative, right? One day, when I became a teenager, I was in the store with my friends and someone looked at me like I was stealing, and I thought, “Wow, I am different. This is what they were trying to prepare me for.” I read Ida’s biography when I was a teenager, and at that moment, it kind of clicked. Like, “Wow, this is who we’ve been talking about at the dinner table!” Every time I complained about something minuscule, like “It’s cold outside,” I would think, “Do you think Ida B. Wells would be complaining that it’s cold outside?” So everything just came full-circle and made sense. I was very shy (I still am incredibly shy), and I think my upbringing definitely prepared me for things, because I always, even today, have to say, “Okay, what would Ida do? Why are you shy? Why are you nervous? Why are you uncomfortable?” I’m sure Ida B. Wells’ entire life was uncomfortable, and she made it through the discomfort, and you’re complaining about being shy- how trivial. Although the world still needs some work, I definitely have it easier because of Ida B. Wells.  

AM: What were your parents like?

TF: I am related to Ida B. Wells through my father’s side, and my father’s mother is Ida B. Wells’ granddaughter. My father always reminded me where I came from and why it’s important to give back. He encouraged me to go to Ida’s alma mater, Rust College, because I had no interest in doing that. I wanted to go to all of the well-known schools that everybody else is attracted to. They convinced me to channel Ida, and although I did not graduate from there because they didn’t have the curriculum I was looking for, I felt a connection to her when I was walking the streets and able to visit her parents’ resting place. I was able to feel the souls of my ancestors. I’ve always been reminded by my parents, especially my father, how important it is to continue the legacy. They always reminded me that it’s important because Ida B. Wells wasn’t known until her daughter published her biography. It was up to our family to ensure that the world knows how special she was.

AM: When did you start getting into activism/advocacy/writing?

TF: I would say my early twenties. Like I said, I struggle with my shyness, so it was definitely something I wanted to do when I was a teenager, but I just wasn’t ready to have the spotlight on me. It was definitely my early twenties- when the cause outweighed the shyness. Something needs to be done, something needs to be said, and I can’t keep waiting on someone else to say it. That was the tipping point for me; again, “What would Ida B. Wells do? She wouldn’t wait on the perfect scenario. She wouldn’t wait until tomorrow. Tomorrow’s not promised- we have to do it today. My grandmother encouraged me to do some things as well. She said, “I’m not gonna live forever, it’s time for you to take the torch. You have to be more involved.”

AM: At what age did you realize your great-grandmother, Ida B. Wells, was a critical member of the civil rights movement?

TF: I would say my early teens. To see not only what she did, but to know that she was shut out because she was a woman. Even some of her friends, who respected her, left her out of their autobiographies. It’s just like, “Wow, she’s so ahead of her time.” It’s very impressive. 

AM: How would your family and friends describe you?

TF: Like I said, I am incredibly shy, but if I set my mind to do something, I’m going to see it through and I’m going to do it very well. There’s no half-stepping. They would also describe me as strong-headed and determined. I care about my community, probably more so than I do myself. I definitely want to make the world a better place for those who come after me. I’m also very organized- I am a Type A personality. My closet is color-coded! Lastly, I hope that they would say that I am nice. That’s what I want to be remembered for- just being kind. 

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AM: Have you ever experienced prejudice or sexism in your own life while striving for your professional goals?

TF: Definitely. Especially in civil rights organizations, a lot of men over-talk you or don’t take you seriously. When I pitched my play, I wasn’t able to get a lot of people on the line because I was a woman. I remember speaking to some of my partners who said, “We have to get a man on our team, because this is just the way it is sometimes.” Sexism is a big one, and racism. I remember I was at an event and I was called a racial slur. I walked past somebody and I heard it, but I just kept going. They didn’t realize that I was coming up to speak. After, that same person wanted to shake my hand and take a picture with me! Because, you know, now I’m different. I’m the token one, right? However, I never even said anything to that person; I just went on about my day. Sometimes I’m baffled and dumbfounded that it’s still going on. I think to myself, “Did that make you feel any better, saying that to me or somebody else? I’m still here, we’re still going on with our day.” 

AM: What type of journalism and digital media are you interested in, and how do you feel that has bettered you as a person?

TF: I kind of transitioned from journalism into storytelling. My goal now is to educate through the arts, because now, in a world where everything is at your fingertips, and our attention spans are so small, a lot of people don’t read anymore. How do I reach them? How I do I educate them? I do it through entertaining them; that’s my goal now, and that’s what I’m working towards. The arts are so important. Before a child can talk, they sing. Before they can write, they draw.

AM: What topics do you enjoy pursuing in your writing?

TF: Definitely activism, and I like to explore historical topics. I also just like to tell true stories, because there are so many things that happen in our lives that we can piece together. Not only is there a story, there’s always a teaching element to it

AM: Can you tell us, in turn, what Ida B Wells’ journalism career meant to you in regards to carrying on her legacy?

TF: I think now I’ve accepted that it’s in my DNA and it is my destiny. For years, I was told that I was a good writer, but I didn’t enjoy it so I sort of ran from it. When I was in high school, my teachers told me that my writing was awesome. When I got to Rust College, where Ida attended, my English professor told us on the first day of class that she doesn’t give out 100s because there’s no such thing as a perfect paper. You miss a comma, you miss a period, or something like that. We had this big paper due, and she gave us a few weeks to do it, but of course I procrastinated and did it the night before. I received a 100 on it, and she said it was impeccable. At that time, I didn’t know what “impeccable” meant, so I went to go look it up and said, “Wow, it means flawless.” And at first, being a teenager, I thought, “Ha ha, I thought you didn’t give 100s!” She pulled me to the side and said, “Tiana, you are phenomenal. I have never given out a 100. There was not one error in your paper.” But again, I kind of blew it off. I can’t remember the day I accepted that I had a gift as a writer. That wasn’t me trying to chase Ida, but I learned that you can’t outrun destiny. I should have been writing since college, but I took a detour. 

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AM: What modern pressings issues do you see in American society that deserve more attention and activism?

TF: Definitely equal rights for women. That’s something we hear brought up frequently because it’s still going on. You’d think that we wouldn’t be talking about this anymore, but when it comes to fair wage and feeling safe, not getting catcalled or sexually harassed, and things of that nature, we still have work to do. I also think that LGBTQ rights definitely needs more attention. I think we definitely need more education on love; it just goes back to that old saying that we’re afraid of what we don’t know and what we don’t understand. It makes us act foolish at times because we think being different is “bad.” Being different isn’t a personal attack, it has no reflection on you. Different is just different: the way we look, the way we love, where we come from. That was Dr. King’s dream, to have us accept our differences as well as our commonalities. I think that’s something that needs to be reminded to us- that all of our issues may not seem that big. I moved to Holly Springs a few years ago to try to go back to work and help my community. I wasn’t embraced by everybody there- just because I’m from a big city, I’m different. A lot of people weren’t okay with that. 

AM: What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned so far in life?

TF: It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice. And storms don’t last forever. 

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AM: What are your aspirations for the future?
TF: I am working on a couple of movie scripts right now, so hopefully I can have those done by the end of the year. And again, I just want to share with the world about Ida, whether that’s through the stage play or another medium. 

AM: What advice do you have for other young writers, PR professionals, and college students interested in going down a similar path?

TF: Get as much exposure as you can, whether it’s an internship or from your professor. I was the girl who sat after class for as long as my professor would allow me to. I fell in love with PR during an internship for my masters program, because again, I was a good writer. Just because I did that internship, I realized PR was something I was good at. If you’re doing a press release, make sure you get to the point as quickly as possible. When you’re emailing it out, you have to make sure you come up with a good subject line as well. When it comes to gaining exposure for your clients, you have to make connections. A lot of people call themselves PR professionals, but they don’t have a contact at the local radio station. You have to have those connections so you can call someone and say “Hey, Tiana, I really need you to cover this,” because your clients expect you to have some sort of coverage. When it comes to other areas, rather than just saying “network,” I would say use your network. That was something I had to discover. I was like, “Wow, I know a lot of people, but I’m afraid to ask for certain things. Use your network and say ‘Hey, do you have a couple of minutes?’ Or, ‘Do you happen to have the phone number of this person?’. Use your network! When it comes to writing, or whatever your craft is, just hone in on it. There’s no getting around it; you have to practice and you have to educate yourself. Now, I’m constantly taking different writing classes. When I decided that I wanted to write a play, I took a playwriting class at MIT. You always have to continue your education; that’s very important. Any professional organization, such as attorneys, need their education credits every year. It’s no different for writers or anybody else. Continue your education so you can stay on the forefront. What you put into it, you’re going to get out of it. If I could tell my younger self anything, it would be to be patient. We want everything to happen yesterday. Now, I see that everything that did happen was moving me in the direction that I was supposed to go. We sometimes get down on ourselves, but the universe is moving us in the direction that we are supposed to take. ★