March 31, 2020
Interview by Jessica Mack
Angalia Bianca is the winner of the CWA 2020 Book of the Year Award for Traditional Nonfiction. She has received international recognition and a Resolution for Bravery from Chicago due to her efforts on preventing violence. Formerly a criminal and con-artist, she ultimately spent twelve years in prison, and now is part of the violence prevention group Cure Violence, where she fights to change and save lives. Her award-winning book, In Deep: How I Survived Gangs, Heroin, and Prison to Become a Chicago Violence Interrupter, is a blunt and honest story of her life.
Q: How does it feel knowing that your personal story has touched the hearts of so many people?
A: It is very gratifying. The most important thing to me is to use my own life story to help others see that they too can change no matter their circumstances. I knew for many years that by being brutally honest with my story people would find inspiration. I am grateful to God that they do. While in prison, girls would ask me to write short stories so they could read in their cells, so I did, I would write a short story about different adventures of my life. They would ask me to write another and then another and so I did, and this passed our time in prison. I saved my prison journals of short stories and in 2004, while still in prison, The Illinois Department of Corrections—Lincoln Correctional Center—published a short story in their prison newsletter about my grandma and our Sicilian Christmas. That's one of the stories we used in my memoir.
Q: While writing In Deep, did you have a certain process you adhered to?
A: I worked side-by-side with my co-author Linda Beckstrom, who is a professional writer. She put together a layout and from there I began telling her my stories. She would write out a chapter and email it to me. I would print it out and go through every word. Twice a week we sat down to go over it together to make any changes and then move on to the next chapter. I knew that for her to really understand my life I had to show it to her first hand. I brought her into the different areas of Chicago, some of which are pretty bad neighborhoods. I showed her where I lived, got high, almost died, and introduced her to gang members. For every block we drove, I had another story to tell her. Linda was never scared. She completely immersed herself in my life.
Q: What was it like to work with a co-author? Did you ever have writer's block?
A: Linda did a great job and we worked really well together. I have an endless supply of almost four decades of real-life stories. Really, my memoir is just the tip of the iceberg of my life. It took us about fourteen months to complete and with the magnitude of content she had to work with we never had writer's block.
Q: What advice would you give to any new aspiring writer?
A: I am, and have always been, a very optimistic person. Once I make my mind up there is nothing that will deter me. I always knew that this book would not only be written but it would get published. However, it's a lot of work to write a book and it’s very hard to get published. I would tell people to never give up on their dreams, because dreams really do come true if you stay focused and you are determined.
Q: What do you think are the most important elements that make good writing?
A: The flow of a book is really important. Linda was able to flow my life story seamlessly to make it the page turner that it is. Also content and storyline and great writing are key to a great book!
Q: Is there anything else you'd like people to know about you and your book?
A: My book may sound like I am glorifying that lifestyle, but I am not. I had to be brutally honest in order to reach those who need hope the most. I knew I could not tell half of my story and still help someone. I never played the victim, even in my past life, so I am not the victim in my book. I am accountable for every bad decision I made. I am not proud of so many things I have done in my past but I am no longer that person. My hope is that by being honest people will be able to relate and realize that there is another way.
“Hope is what brings us out of the darkness and into the light.” - Angalia Bianca
Bio: Author of In Deep, CWA’s Book of the Year Award winner for Traditional Non-fiction, Angalia “Bianca” was raised in Oak Park, Illinois by her father and paternal grandmother. Growing up, she was heavily spoiled and grew out of control. She began using drugs, dropped out of high school, started abusing heroin at seventeen, and went on to struggle with addiction for thirty-six years. At twenty-one, she joined a Chicago Latino gang and eventually became a career criminal ultimately serving more than twelve years in state prison. Bianca has become a sought-after authority on violence prevention, speaking around the world. She has received multiple awards including a State of Illinois Humanitarian Award, City of Chicago Resolution for Bravery, the National Association of Social Workers Citizen of the Year, and others. She has reunited with her family and children and has dedicated her life to violence prevention and helping others. She travels internationally to deliver presentations on incarceration, gangs, violence prevention, anti-terrorism, human trafficking, substance abuse and social change at universities, high schools, Rotary clubs, state prisons, state and city legislation hearings/committees, and national conventions.
Interview conducted by CWA intern Jessica Mack
Jessica Mack was previously Editor-in-Chief for the Joliet Junior College Blazer, editing and preparing articles for publication and managing a general staff. Under her leadership, the Blazer was 2018 Best-In-Show at the Illinois Community College Journalism Association annual fall contest and received 2018 Awards for Excellence. She is currently working on her Masters of English at DePaul University with a focus on creative writing and hopes to become a book editor.
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