Camille Acker: How I Write

"I try to keep an ear out when I’m in the world and on the page for how the rhythm and pattern of speech can feel as true to life as possible."

Camille Acker
Camille Acker. Photo by James Britt

In her debut collection, Training School for Negro Girls, Camille Acker brings readers short stories that are powerful, intense, and moving. Organized into two sections, called “Lower School” and “Upper School,” her stories revolve around the lives of African-American girls and women. The setting is Acker’s hometown of Washington, D.C., and beautifully tackles both everyday struggles along with larger issues and themes, including race, gender, and gentrification in America. Training School for Negro Girls has received numerous rave reviews and brought recognition to Acker’s compelling work. “After years working at something so long trying to get your ideas out in the world, it does feel sort of strange when it happens,” says Acker. “I never imaged my short story collection would be in the New York Times.”

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Location setting

I think the collection was strengthened by the stories being set in one place. I wanted to tell stories of black girls and women in different areas and parts of the city. And I wanted the collection to be a reflection of the city itself, the city I grew up in, including the history and the culture in this place for black people. I also wanted to show the city has changed over the last decade. I wanted it reflect all of that.

Dialogue

I really try to listen to the way people actually speak. Eavesdropping is one of my favorite things. I try to keep an ear out when I’m in the world and on the page for how the rhythm and pattern of speech can feel as true to life as possible. I listen to the pattern of how we actually communicate, what we say and what we don’t say, and the shorthand we have with each other.

How much do you know before you start writing?

There were some stories where I knew the arc when I started writing. This is where I’d start, where the climax would be, how it would end. Some stories I just really jumped into it because something sparked it for me. Sometimes I’m compelled by a voice or phrase or incident, and I just write. Other times, I’ve been methodical about it. I’m not a big outliner, but I do write phrases and go from there.

“I try to keep an ear out when I’m in the world and on the page for how the rhythm and pattern of speech can feel as true to life as possible.”

Why split the book into two sections?

Part of it was thinking about it as a school to further that thematic idea, and having an upper and lower school helped me in my mind to organize it. After the first three stories I wrote, I thought this could be a collection. It was helpful for me to start thinking about plot ideas, and I focused on stories that would fit into one of those sections. I found it a good way to organize it for myself and readers.

Intended audience

I saw my primary audience as black girls and women but also recognizing that if I were able to tell a good enough story, it would be able to be more universal. The situations the characters are in are situations that everyone understands – how to move forward in life, things like class and lack of economic empowerment and navigating relationships on every level. I hoped that there would be a larger audience for it but also wanted to make sure that it connected with black girls and women. I wanted to tell stories that felt authentic and powerful.

 

Allison Futterman is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, North Carolina.