Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Interview Wednesday: Sheela Chari on Vanished

Please welcome Sheela Chari, debut novelist and author of the middle grade mystery Vanished just out from Hyperion. From Kirkus Reviews: Chari, in her debut novel, strikes the right note with this engaging, intricate story that spans generations and two countries.
[Uma] I was thrilled when I first heard about Vanished, because I've long been calling for South Asian American fiction for young readers in which culture and social issues do not in themselves constitute the story. Here you have mystery, music, school friendships, honesty and self-awareness all converging in a most engaging novel. What made you pull together these particular elements? 

[Sheela] Uma, thanks so much for having me on your blog! Vanished started off as a birthday present to my niece, whose name is Neela, just like the heroine. I had forgotten to mail her a present, so I started writing a story about her. The real Neela also played the veena, so I wrote about her and her instrument. I wanted to make the whole thing a fun mystery for her to read, so I asked myself, what would happen if Neela’s veena disappeared? How would she get it back?
That was how the book started, but as I continued, I began to seriously imagine the story not just as a birthday present for Neela, but as a real, legitimate novel for kids. At first I wondered, could I really write about an ancient, stringed instrument from India? 

No one knew what a veena was, or what it sounded like. More importantly, could I write about Neela and her instrument in a way that would interest kids? But once I started asking these questions, I found that they became easy to answer. I began to see that Vanished was not just a writing challenge, but that it became the kind of book that was important for me to write. 

Master veena player Jayanthi Kumaresh and
veena. Source: www.veenaijayanthi.org










[Uma] It's true that few people in the US are familiar with the instrument. (Note: Here on Jayanthi Kumaresh's web site you can listen to samples of the veena's evocative voice.) By that same token I'll bet you didn't see much of yourself and your background reflected in books you read as a child. Care to comment on that?

[Sheela] Throughout my childhood, I had grown up on mystery and adventure novels. My favorites were books like A Wrinkle in Time and The Secret Garden. But as an Indian child living in the United States, I had never read a book about a person like me. By the time I was an adult, there were several good books out there about self-identity and the challenges of living between two cultures, or else there were books set in India. But what I wanted to see were mysteries and adventure stories about Indian Americans who were out there experiencing life and solving mysteries, similar to their American peers. I wanted to write something fun and exciting that the real-life Neela could read and still say yes, this could happen to me.

That’s how Vanished came into being: partly through happy circumstance, partly through deliberate contemplation. As for the other elements – music has always been a very important part of my life. I was trained as a violinist from an early age, and I still play. It seemed only natural to write about something I felt deeply about. And if you think about it, music is truly the universal language that people can converge upon, regardless of their social or cultural backgrounds.

[Uma] For the purpose of this blog, I define an insider narrative as one set within a cultural group or geographical setting of which the writer has personal experience. One of the things I love about Vanished is how you draw those links between Boston and India, mirroring aspects of both realities, but in ways that blur the boundaries. Thus we have an American veena player, dragon motifs that cross many cultural boundaries, classical south Indian music tradition, and an Indian-American protagonist trying to be herself. What were the delights and the challenges of writing from such perspectives of hybridity and flux?

[Sheela] I’m not sure I set out to write with these hybridizations in mind. I do think I was concerned with balance, so as I wrote, I thought about the people the fictional Neela might interact with in her life – and then I tried to make them interesting! I wanted to make sure different types of people came into her life – young and old, male and female, Indian and not, and from different cultural backgrounds and cities around the world. I wanted anyone reading the book to find some part of the story relatable to them.

Church door, model for interior art. Arlington MA











Beyond that, I think a lot of the composites were a result of me being both Indian and American, and having a “dual insider perspective,” if I can play a little off your term! I was born in Bangalore, India, but grew up mostly in America. I was raised in a fairly traditional household. My parents brought up my brother and me vegetarian, we observed religious festivals regularly, and we spoke a mixture of Tamil, Kannada, and English in the home. But outside the home, my school friends were all American. I listened to rock music, then later to Western classical music. I dressed and spoke like everyone I knew in school, and never thought of myself as being different. It was only after I went to college and met other Indians, as well as people from all around the world, that I began to get a sense of my own heritage and background – when I saw it reflected in others! So I guess that’s a lengthy explanation of why my personality and upbringing have made me a blend of East and West, and why it would be inevitable that these two halves would appear in my writing.

[Uma] You use images of objects with delicacy, so that their occurrence and recurrence not only create visual echoes, but convey to the reader a sense of Neela's growth over the course of the book--the snapping string, the dragons of course, and others. Were you aware of these as you wrote or was their placement intuitive, or a bit of both? Tell me about the importance of physical objects to you in this story.

[Sheela] Objects are important in that they carry meaning with them, both as the writer might intend, as well as what the reader associates with them. If you look more closely at the veena and wyvern for example, you will find that they carry interesting dichotomies. In the Author Notes section of my book, I talk about how in Indian Hindu mythology, the veena is both the instrument of Saraswati, the goddess of learning, as well as Ravana, the arch-villain in The Ramayana (a religious text). Likewise, the wyvern (the dragon that appears in Vanished) is also a symbol of valor and strength in medieval history, as well as one of pestilence and revenge. I didn’t go looking for these qualities. But interestingly, as I dug deeper into my story and did more research, I discovered that these objects “resonated” in unexpected, meaningful ways.

It’s interesting how you observed the appearances of the objects throughout --– I would say it was intuitive to the writing of the story. However, the veena was the most important object of all, not just because the mystery was constructed around its disappearance, but because the instrument represents the desire to own and covet it. At the heart of the novel is the issue of wanting what you can’t have, and how different characters deal with it.

[Uma] Vanished contains moral ambiguity in the person of good people who make poor decisions, past and present. Without giving anything away, I want to comment in particular on the wonderful turning point in which Neela herself makes a single decision that seems to right everyone else's mistakes as well as her own. Can you talk about how you arrived at the very interesting ethical through-line of this novel?

[Sheela] I know exactly which scene you’re talking about! And I must say that this scene, which takes place towards the end of the novel, is one of the earliest ones I saw in my mind. It was the scene that I was working towards as I wrote the novel.

[Uma] That's interesting. It shows, I think. Sometimes those ideas that first grab us have great tensile strength, and can pull a whole story toward them.

[Sheela] I think for many writers, we have such a scene on our horizon – it might be at the very end, or somewhere in the middle, it might be the scene where something important is revealed, or by which the main character undergoes a crucial moment of change. Whatever it is, it’s the reason we’re writing the book. This scene where Neela makes her decision was important to me because that was how I saw her becoming a better person, and the chance to be a real musician at last. Her quest throughout isn’t just to find the lost veena, but to find her reason for playing music, that would sustain her in the long run, and help her overcome her fear of performing.

[Uma] And finally, you catch the vulnerability of preteens deftly and with humor: Neela's stage fright, Matt's hesitation when he talks about his music, Pavi and her swimming, and other instances. How did you go about tapping the emotional lives of your characters?

[Sheela] Good question! I can only say that I had a lovely stroke of luck in having so many kids in my life – my own two daughters, as well as my nieces and nephew. Neela was also someone I knew from the time she was a baby, and I have watched her grow, talked to her at length, and know her like my own child.

But I think the truth is that like many children’s writers, I write from the memory of being a young person. One of the reasons I write middle grade is that its age group is the part of my childhood I so distinctly remember… it’s the voice that comes most naturally to me.

[Uma] And it speaks naturally in this very interesting first novel. Congratulations, Sheela.

The Kidlitosphere Interview Wednesday portal this week is Anastasia Suen's Chapter Book of the Day. Scroll down to the end of Anastasia's post to see the roundup.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Culture, Craft, and Fictional Worlds

Tomorrow, an interview with Sheela Chari, the author of Vanished. In the next few weeks, I'll be posting about a few more books with cultural contexts, both insider and outsider narratives.

Girls reading The Broken Tusk. Photo courtesy of Pardada Pardadi.
It's easy to talk about authenticity, but who knows what that is? I was born in India and grew up there, but my slice of the reality of India is only my slice. I can't absolve myself of all responsibility, however, because it doesn't end there. A reader who doesn't know India will assume that my representation is "real." One who does may find my sense of the place and people is at odds with her own. So I may protest that I can't represent a country, but by default, I'm doing so. Writing, especially for young readers, comes with a certain responsibility. A sort of "do no harm" principle can't be denied.

I'm well aware that every choice I make in my writing either sustains the illusion of a credible fictional world or dissipates it. That's true of large choices of structure and premise, or small choices of details in a scene, or rhetorical choices in narrative and dialogue.

If it's all illusion, is it possible for writers to learn how to create that illusion so it rings true, does not patronize, and is not reductive and essentialist? It seems to me that if we pay close attention to elements of both the source culture and the target audience, and if the writer has a generous vision and an intelligent approach to it, it's possible to use the smoke and mirrors of the craft to do precisely that. We can avoid the kind of crashing and burning that we see in books where the writer has not given much thought to such matters, or worse, has adopted the faux colonial view that "othering" a whole culture is fine because, well, didn't Frances Hodgson Burnett and Laura Ingalls Wilder get away with it?

This attempt to analyse the nuts and bolts of technique assumes that the writer is aware of the passage of centuries and can write from a space beyond pure nostalgia. For the insider writer, it assumes an awareness of two emotional spaces--the one of the story and the shared understanding of possible target audiences. Inside and outside--concepts that apply to the story, the writer, the audience to come.

This is not to say that there won't always be readers who will find even well crafted books disappointing for completely personal reasons. If a reader's been taught to expect Jungle Book in every rendition of India, urban traffic jams (or girls reading books) may disappoint, although I'd argue that's precisely why we need new visions of those "other" spaces.

Still, just beginning with an examination of the pitfalls of writing across cultures is a start. What do those look like for the insider writer and for the outsider?

More to come, starting tomorrow with this week's Interview Wednesday.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Connections: Washington Post blog on Potter, VCFA at the Tollbooth, and more Grand Plan reviews

Harry Potter as Children's Literature: Diminishing Returns? by Daniel de Vise, with a follow-up guest post by Ernie Bond drawn from a discussion on child-lit. Literature? Mass market? Do young readers care?

Through the Tollbooth features a series of posts on the current VCFA summer residency, MFA program, Writing for Children and Young Adults. Mostly for alums and faculty and prospective students, but look past the cafeteria/dorm nostalgia for the interesting takes on craft that keep so many of us, alums and faculty, engaged with the program.


On a personal note, more reviews of The Grand Plan to Fix Everything:
Chicago Tribune
Sawnet (South Asian Women's Network)
James Patterson's READKIDDOREAD.com
India Currents
AARP books grandparents can find for their grandchildren

And just for fun, a few book sightings of The Grand Plan:
B&N, NYC, courtesy of Kate Hosford

BookPeople, Austin, courtesy of Cynthia Leitich Smith

ALA conference, courtesy of Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

Vaunda engaging in "book sighting" behavior at ALA





Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Interview Wednesday: Stacy Whitman of Tu Books, a Lee and Low Imprint

In 2010 Lee and Low acquired a spunky little startup called Tu Publishing, which had just launched itself on Kickstarter with a focus on diverse fantasy, science fiction, and mystery for middle grade and young adult readers and, it seemed, reader interest and support to match. "This is a natural fit for us," says publisher Jason Low. "Our customers have been asking us for years to publish stories for older readers. Tu represents an excellent way for us to bring diversity to a whole new audience."

Tu Books launches in September 2011. Individual title pages will be up shortly. You can also follow Tu Books on Twitter.

As a longtime fan of the work and mission of Lee & Low, I've been intrigued by the whole story of Tu's founding and acquisition. I was pleased to be invited to consult with editor Stacy Whitman on their forthcoming dystopic fantasy title, Tankborn. The experience got me thinking about the use of cultural consultants as a way to bridge gaps between outsider authors (culturally speaking) and insider readers, so I asked Stacy for her thoughts.

[Uma] Why use cultural consultants for the books you publish at Tu?

[Stacy] It's something that Lee and Low has done for years, and it seemed a natural extension for our books, particularly for writers who are writing cross-culturally. While fantasy and science fiction draws upon folklore and culture for its inspiration, sometimes those roots are obscured, so it might not immediately seem like there's a need, but if the conclusions we draw in a futuristic dystopia, for example, are rooted in incorrect assumptions, or if the language we use is based upon incorrect translations, readers familiar with the culture would be pulled out of the world and find it insincere at best, and appropriative or offensive at worst. The best way to avoid misrepresenting a culture (even if it's a twisted version of that culture, as in a dystopia) is to make sure to consult an expert--if the writer him or herself isn't an expert. The author of Wolf Mark, Joseph Bruchac, is the expert we'd go to for books about Abenaki main characters, so of course we trust his expertise for his own books.

[Uma] Under what circumstances would you ask a cultural consultant to weigh in on a book?

[Stacy] Particularly when a writer is writing cross-culturally, we'd want to ask a cultural consultant to make sure that we got it right. A writer can do all the research right, live in the country they're writing about, and be fluent in the language, and still get a few small details wrong. Galaxy Games author Greg Fishbone lived in Japan for a while and can speak the language, but our Japanese expert felt as if sometimes the kid characters were a little too formal with their close friends. Greg didn't go to elementary school in Japan (he was a law student), so that expert perspective helped us to know where to improve.

We might also seek an expert (or two or three) when we're dealing with a historical subject (to double-check the writer's research where necessary) or a controversial one that might bring out inflamed opinions. And as far as writing cross-culturally goes, worldbuilding for a high fantasy setting in ancient China or Korea will require a lot of research even for an author who is Chinese or Korean--while they know their own culture, they might not know specific ways that people lived or what their bows were made out of or how peoples' beliefs changed over a couple millennia. (This should also be true for writers who write medieval Europe-inspired fantasy, though sometimes that doesn't happen as often as I'd like; hence some books are more derivative of another author's view of the Middle Ages rather than reflective of how people actually lived.)

[Uma] H.G.Wells is supposed to have said, "No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else's draft." How do you even begin to look for readers who will read for specific aspects of content and yet refrain from leaving their own footprint upon it?

[Stacy] It's a challenge sometimes! We reach out first to people who we know in the children's book industry, such as yourself, who know how things work in this industry who are also members of the culture we're seeking an expert in. Generally these people are also well-read and informed about diversity issues, so they know the kinds of mistakes we hope to avoid making. We also reach out to children's and young adult librarians through their listservs--though most librarians aren't writers, they're often involved with diversity discussions in their professional circles, and we might find a cultural expert among them. I've also approached university librarians, public librarians who are subject experts, and university professors with varying degrees of success. For those not familiar with children's literature, we often just need to explain who the intended audience is and exactly what our intent is (to entertain first, to educate incidentally, worldbuilding through specific detail rather than infodumps, etc.). In theory--though this hasn't happened to me yet--we might get detailed feedback that misses the mark, but even then hopefully that feedback would give us the information we need to address the core problem the reader sees with a particular mistake, even if the expert didn't understand the writer's reasoning in a particular spot.

[Uma] Reading Tankborn as a consultant, for a particular extrapolation of cultural context, was an interesting experience for me. It left me with a renewed understanding of just how deeply such content runs through a book, from linguistic factors and the names of things to the beliefs of people and their resulting actions. Talk about the vision of Tu in regard to the representation of diversity, relative to the kinds of fiction you publish.

[Stacy] Fantasy is often inspired by folklore and myth, both from living beliefs and ancient ones. So often, though, fantasy has a distinctly Western European flavor, mostly because the fantasy that we know here in the US is mostly inspired by the fantasy of the British Isles--Tolkien, inspired by Norse mythology and folklore of the British Isles; Lewis, inspired by Victorian fantasists and Christian theology. Tolkien created a whole language for his elves. Worldbuilding in fantasy can go quite deep, though few contemporary authors spend decades worldbuilding as Tolkien did. Whether the inspiration for that world is a historical one, such as an agrarian society in a land that resembles the British Isles, with social hierarchies that resemble historical British hierarchies, or modern urban fantasy, such as fairy-tale creatures entering the real world, we tend not to venture much beyond Western European folklore, with perhaps a caveat that vampires and werewolves might have Eastern European roots in some tales.

Science fiction, on the other hand, is an extrapolative sort of fiction. Gene Rodenberry's Star Trek universe was an inclusive one for its time, as were Heinlein's science fiction "juvenile" stories that often featured characters of color because these visionary authors pictured the future as one in which equality had already occurred. Science fiction isn't always as hopeful these days--dystopias aren't always science fiction by definition, but they're usually extrapolation of current social situations. But whether it's a hopeful or dismal picture of the future, it just makes sense that the people who are currently nearly 50% of the elementary and high school student population in this country would also have a strong presence in our future.

Tu is dedicated to diversity in fantasy, science fiction, and mystery. That might be expressed by a contemporary main character of color in a modern American world--which would require knowing the character's similarities and differences compared with their white peers, what their family culture was like, how much "old country" culture the family retained and how much they'd assimilated into American culture if they're immigrants or descendants of immigrants, what kind of neighborhood they lived in and what their socioeconomic status is. There's much there that could be quite individual to the character. So a cultural inspiration might be as (seemingly) simple as a story starring a modern-day Japanese American boy meeting squid-like aliens and heading off for adventure in space--and learning that his family takes their shoes off at the front door and that they're vegetarians, one thing being a very traditional Japanese practice and another being a practice that may or may not be Japanese, but is a detail of that particular character's life.

Or it might involve deep worldbuilding in which a whole new world has to be created, and the inspirations for that world are complex. The more different from our present-day world a fantastic or speculative world is, the deeper the worldbuilding has to go, such as Karen Sandler's Tankborn, a dystopian world that bases its culture on the Indian caste system but in a very twisted way; every layer of life from language to socioeconomics to family groups is inspired by that culture, though there are complications because it's an extrapolation of our world, just one in which the most powerful people in a particular group happened to be Indian (and not just some generic "Indian" but of a particular region of India).

[Uma] When is a book ready for a consultant's reading and comment? How do you broker the feedback with the author and come to decisions that will work for everyone without sacrificing the intent and integrity of the work?

[Stacy] Occasionally I might ask an expert to look at a book before I acquire it to be sure that my impression of it "feeling authentic" is actually a good one. But generally I ask for a consultant's feedback shortly before the book is ready for copyediting--late enough in the process that the author and I have gone over the book a couple of times at least. That way, we've been able to fix most of the pressing problems a book might have, and the consultant would be able to avoid stumbling over problems that would get in the way of focusing on culture issues. By then the author would have done basic and deep research, and I would have investigated a few things that I had questions about.

Generally I go over the feedback from the consultant before sharing it with the author so as to add my own comments and suggestions on how that feedback might be implemented. Usually the feedback isn't pointing out problems that are so huge that we should go back to the drawing board, and authors are happy to implement changes that would make their book better.

For example, in Tankborn, the linguistic inspiration for most of the language came from Sanskrit, and you caught a term that didn't sound quite right to you. While changing that term was a little painful because the author had been using it for a long while, she was also glad for the suggestion of a new word that would fit the linguistic pattern better.

Sometimes the author might have a reason for a particular decision based on a culturally-appropriate situation that the consultant hadn't been aware of, so sometimes it just takes some discussion for us all to realize that both points of view are valid--and then the author might revise to make sure that the situation he or she was referencing became more clear.

Sometimes, though, you can't please everyone. Sometimes you might need to consult experts from opposing viewpoints within the same culture (or two clashing cultures within the same country). Then it can get difficult! Sometimes experts will insist that their point of view is the only right point of view while their opponents will argue that no, *theirs* is the valid point of view. Sometimes this is true, and sometimes not. Then you and the author have to make educated decisions, doing your best to use the feedback you can but also allowing that in fiction, a character has a certain point of view and sometimes you can't always reflect ALL points of view. This is where the unreliable narrator might come in, leaving questions in the reader's mind that *should* be there. I haven't worked on a book that dealt with the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, for example, but there are strong feelings on both sides that I imagine couldn't *all* be appeased in a work of fiction about it.

[Uma] Any other thoughts on the process?

[Stacy] I love getting feedback from cultural experts because not only do I learn more about the culture that has already fascinated me for upwards of a year by the time we get expert feedback, I get a check on my editing and research skills--it's another pair of eyes to catch anything I didn't. I am a Swedish-Irish-Scottish-English-Prussian-German-tiny-bit-Cherokee-maybe woman from the rural Midwest. I may be able to give feedback on growing up poor or on a farm--and in fantasy, my experience raising horses has often been useful!--but my experience with many cultures is limited to the friends I've made from those cultures and any reading or travel I might have done. But even if I was a Latina or Asian woman, I'd have a particular cultural and socioeconomic point of view that wouldn't necessarily mean I had any understanding of cultures outside of my own experiences, and that is where cultural experts come in, helping the editor to ask questions from a different point of view, so that the writer to consider can make their book better.

Also, I want to add that even an expert has a particular point of view that might not be shared with everyone in their culture. No culture is monolithic. There may be a Japanese American--or several, even--who reads about Tyler Sato's life in Galaxy Games and says, "That's not MY experience as a Japanese American." (Well, NO Japanese American, that I know of, has met aliens yet, but hopefully you know I mean the realistic parts of his experience.) But I feel it's better to consult someone who can give us their point of view than have no point of view from that culture at all, and there are of course some things--like language--that can be quantified and universalized more than others.

[Uma]  Thank you Stacy. I look forward to the launch this fall.

[Stacy] Thanks so much for having me!

More from Stacy Whitman's Grimoire: Thoughts on post-apocalyptic world-building and three posts on diversity in science fiction and fantasy for young readers.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Interview follow-up: Beyond Lucky by Sarah Aronson, Part 2

Today I'm continuing my conversation with Sarah Aronson about her new middle grade novel, Beyond Lucky. Sarah teaches classes on writing for young readers online at writers.com and is a graduate of the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

[Uma] Let's talk about character development. At the outset, Ari's way of being in the world is highly ritualized and related to external factors--the card, his reliance on Wayne as role model, the Presidents. Yet as the story progresses we can feel him beginning to take the position of starting goalie, so to speak, in his own life. Talk about how Ari's character evolved for you. Did he surprise you along the way?

[Sarah] Boy did he!

Ari may start out unsure, but as he plays, as he becomes a bigger part of his team, as he studies for his bar mitzvah, he understands his place in his community. At the start, he looks to his role models—the presidents and his heroes—for guidance. By the end, he changes.

I’ll just say: Ari is tougher than he may look!  I talked to a lot of goalies, and they are pretty intense people. Most are confident, and it was important to me that Ari’s confidence grow. There was one scene in one game where he literally stepped out of the scene and demanded to nab the ball. It seems sort of hokey, but when you can really hear a character in your head, that’s what it’s like. As I wrote the final version of the book, I was really proud of him. I like him, too. He knows that there are ideas and concepts worth standing up for. In one scene, he does what I sometimes have a hard time doing.

[Uma] Ari's Jewish identity is established clearly in the book, but with a light touch. Religion and culture are backdrop and context but they are not the story. Talk about those choices.

[Sarah] As the granddaughter of a rabbi, I read a lot of Jewish books--Sydney Taylor's All of a Kind Family was definitely my favorite. (As an adult, I found out she lived in the apartment below my aunt and uncle and complained all the time about their noisy baby--my cousin!)

Anyway, other than that, most of the Jewish books I was given were about the Holocaust. It was pretty hard trying to forge a positive Jewish identity on that reading diet. When I decided to write, one of my goals was to write about Jewish characters in secular settings...without being preachy or didactic. I hope I succeeded.

[Uma] Sarah that is so important. Not that oppression stories or social issue stories don't matter, but no group (oh, this is my ongoing refrain!) should be defined solely by them. In your book, Ari's bar mitzvah preparation runs headlong into the larger story because both are a part of his life.

[Sarah] I really wanted Ari's Judaism to add context and relevance, but not turn readers away. Judaism, like all religions, offers a foundation, a community, and some big time conflict. It helps define who he is. In my real world, sports and religious commitments often clash. At 12, he would be in the thick of his bar mitzvah studies. It's an amazing time of self discovery and learning.

There were a lot of Torah stories that could have worked in this book, but I love this portion for him because it is about responsibility...and burdens. Like a lot of my students, Ari got the portion he was meant to read and study.

[Uma] What are your thoughts on the role of friendship in this story?

[Sarah] Wow. That is one big question. When I first started writing this book, I thought a lot about Mac and Ari. In fact, Uma, I think you once asked me why these two very different boys were friends.

[Uma] I'd forgotten about that. You're right. I guess I was intrigued by the question even before the story had fully taken shape.

[Sarah] I had to dig for that answer.

But once I knew, it opened up a lot of emotion.

Friendship begins and grows in the strangest ways. Sometimes friends are so similar; sometimes, they are different. What really interested me with my characters: as boys, how do they express friendship and loyalty? How does the team fit in? Is there really no “I” in team?

That was the tip of the iceberg.

Sarah's connectivity chart
I think all of us—boys and girls, men and women—have all had friends who’ve made dubious choices. We’ve all had disagreements with friends. And we all have tentative friendships. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t sometimes have a hard time navigating friendships, especially when they are not completely mutual, when we are the vulnerable ones.  Ari is vulnerable—on and off the field. And wow, does it hurt when a friend is not who you want him or her to be.  I hope that when readers get to the end of Beyond Lucky, they feel strong enough to stand up for what they believe in. I hope they cheer for Ari. For me, this story showed me just how important a good friend can be.

[Uma] And what about the rest of the story iceberg? The subplots, the way that things are connected?

[Sarah] I used a connectivity chart. It really helped me figure out my subplots!

I compared the chart to the important scenes....and analyzed if the important characters (the ones that would logically were the most important to Ari) were there. Some were. Others were not. Thanks to my connectivity chart, I found new scenes for his friends...as well as flashbacks and scenes for Sam.

[Uma] Thanks, Sarah and yes, the very best of luck with this book and with all your projects.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Interview Wednesday: Beyond Lucky by Sarah Aronson

Writer, teacher, and VCFA graduate Sarah Aronson's new novel, Beyond Lucky, launches this month from Dial. It's a soccer story, a friendship story, a story that crosses from funny to tense to heartful and back again. It was my pleasure to see parts of it in draft form when I was phasing out of teaching on writers.com and Sarah was phasing in.

Congratulations to Sarah on this engaging new book, of which Publisher's Weekly says:
Aronson skillfully dodges the predictability of sports-themed books by creating multilayered characters and an intriguing whodunit involving a valuable missing rookie card....includes a lot of fun on-field action, but the off-field story is just as interesting....Aronson's graceful storytelling will keep even nonsoccer buffs turning pages.

[Uma] Why luck? What is there about luck and the condition of being lucky or unlucky that makes such a wonderful thematic element for a middle grade novel?

[Sarah] Well, in a global way, what could be a more fun theme than luck? It’s unpredictable, and yet, don’t we all believe in karma? That what comes around goes around? Don’t we always want the good guy to get the girl? When I was a middle grade reader, I also believed that luck could be earned. As I got older, I was drawn to stories about the ironic nature of luck.

Even now, I am a little bit superstitious. I’m still obsessed with justice. There is an episode of The Twilight Zone—the one where the guy breaks his glasses after organizing all the books he wants to read—that still find their way into my dreams.

[Uma] Oh I know that episode. It's the ultimate reader's nightmare, just when the poor man is coming to terms with the terrible world he's in. A telling portrayal of a ritualistic reader and of the hope that underlies all ritual. Now talk about the ritualistic athlete. Don't sports superstitions exist in their own strange universe?

[Sarah] When you are talking about sports, you cannot deny the importance of superstition. Athletes are some of the most ritualistic people there are.  Sports experts talk about pre-game rituals as the only things the athlete can truly control. At one point, Ari discusses the “sine wave” of luck. How sometimes you have it, and sometimes you don’t. This is something I think about a lot, too.

I guess that is what drew me to the theme. It’s funny—as a writer I have a lot of rituals, too. Every morning, when I sit down to write, I start by making coffee. I take a yoga class most mornings. I keep a stack of notecards by my desk. These notecards contain writerly inspiration. Every day I read one. 

Today’s card contained a quote from Vince Lombardi:

"The price of success is hard work, dedication to the job at hand, and the determination that whether we win or lose, we have applied the best of ourselves to the task at hand."

But getting back to your question….when I understood Ari’s need for rituals, I also began to know him better.  Ari is a goalie—the ultimate position when it comes to a lack of control. And his brother is a fire fighter.  I thought about his hero, Wayne Timcoe, and how important his trading card would be to him, and that made me think about one of my favorite books, John Steinbeck’s The Pearl. In The Pearl, Steinbeck deals with luck and the aftermath of finding the very thing the family thinks will make them lucky. I remember reading this book—especially the ending. Rereading that book helped me rethink about Ari and his friends about how we overcome our dependence on luck.

[Uma] I read The Pearl in one big gulp, many years ago. What a great example of how texts speak to us. In our own way, as writers, what we're really doing is speaking back. Thanks, Sarah.

Tomorrow, character development and the role of friendship in Beyond Lucky.

Meanwhile, here's the trailer:

Today's Interview Wednesday portal from Kidlitosphere is at Tales From the Rushmore Kid.