Thursday, September 29, 2011

More on the Washington DC trip and the National Book Festival

Photo courtesy Paul Crichton of Simon and Schuster
I'm still in a slight daze after the magical experience of the National Book Festival.
  • the reception at the Library of Congress the evening before.
  • the tents on the Mall
  • the crowds
  • the fabulous line-up of speakers
  • running into Toni Morrison for two seconds in the Media tent
  • running into Jim Lehrer for thirty seconds in the hospitality tent
  • chatting with Lourdes Catalano, my generous escort who kept me from getting lost and made sure I got to things on time
  • rushing to catch the tail end of Rita Williams-Garcia's talk
  • the kids who came to my talk and then accosted me later in the day for photos, signatures in books, and conversation
  • kids who had been at my Friends Community School event the week before, who spread the love by bringing their families to the National Book Festival
  • friends from years ago who reconnected with me at the event
  • a teacher who had come all the way from my little corner of the desert, Aztec, New Mexico, and who happened by pure coincidence to be in DC for the 50th anniversary Peace Corps celebration. 
  • squeezing in time to videotape the moon gates in the Enid Haupt Garden outside the Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. A little research there for Dini and Dolly Book 2 (in edits now--keeping my eyes crossed and saying no more on that for the moment).
  • and of course I would be most remiss not to mention the Ritz of all port-a-loos!
In all, the 11th National Book Festival  was  one for the memory archive.

My DC days after the Festival continued to be filled with kids and books. Tuesday morning at Politics and Prose (September 27) brought 80-something kids from two schools, along with the high energy that comes from gathering so many 4th and 5th graders together in a single room. Great questions, great response to The Grand Plan to Fix Everything. We ran out of time. We ran out of books!

Many, many thanks to Gussie Lewis, Children's Events Coordinator at Politics and Prose, to everyone at the store, to Lydia Finn, publicist at Simon and Schuster, to parents who ordered books, and to the teachers who brought students in for this event.

And more thanks still to Politics and Prose for organizing book sales the night before the store event at the Takoma Park Library. Tami Lewis Brown, my fellow panelist along with Katie Kelly, has blogged about this lovely event over at From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors. Thanks to Karen MacPherson for coordinating our middle grade panel and making this event possible.

Still more to come from my week in Washington DC. 

Stay tuned for a visit with Barbara Brooks Wallace, author of Peppermints in the Parlor, The Twin in the Tavern, Ghosts in the Gallery, and other wonderful middle grade mysteries set on the east coast of the United States in a time of lanterns and carriages, forbidding mansions and children set adrift in a Dickensian world.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Washington DC trip and the National Book Festival

Hghlights: My visit to Friends Community School in College Park, Maryland, my son's old elementary school. What a delight! More to come on that, but here are a few photos to begin with.

Speaking at the Children's Book Guild of Washington DC.

Visiting the WETA-TV studios in Arlington, Virginia for an interview for the Book Festival web site. And more.
The New Deal Cafe in old Greenbelt, Maryland
Dinner with Connie Belfiore and teachers from Friends Community School
Good food and company at the New Deal Cafe
Driving through campus, University of Marylnd, College Park
With Mary Quattlebaum, Children's Book Guild of Washington DC luncheon
At the WETA-TV studio
With Lydia Breiseth, who interviewed me for the Book Festival web site
VCFA at the Book Festival!

And finally, the National Book Festival was beyond wonderful. The tents overflowed. The weather held. And people came--from the DC area, from the suburbs, from Philadelphia and Richmond and New York. What can I say? It restored my faith in the future of the book. Young people came in droves. Teachers brought their classes. Thank you to the organizers for inviting me. Thank you to Paul Crichton and his team at Simon & Schuster for making this possible.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Consider Supporting Literacy and Prose

This is a note to all of you who have read my books, held my virtual hand, read and commented on posts in this blog, and in other ways supported my writing habit over  many years. I don't often put out calls for donations on this site, but this is an exception. Because in Washington DC, the capital of the United States, there should not be children without access to books.

DC area school visit by T.R.Simon and Victoria Bond
When I'm in DC next week, in addition to a host of other engagements, I will also donate a school presentation in support of the efforts of an organization called Literacy and Prose. You can also find them (and "like" them) on Facebook, where you'll see pictures and video of past events and a calendar of future events.

The goal of the Literacy and Prose Foundation is to improve literacy among disadvantaged children and teens in the greater Washington, DC area by giving schools and students books and access to authors and illustrators. The foundation excites children about reading by bringing books alive, then gives each child the specific book in which his or her interest has been sparked by the author visit. It is this heightened interest and ownership that entices children to read and leads to increased literacy.

When I speak to 4th and 5th graders at the Washington Middle School for Girls, where 87% of students qualify for federal free lunch, Literacy and Prose will give a copy of The Grand Plan to Fix Everything to each student to get signed and take home. They'll also give copies to the school and classroom libraries.

Sometimes the book a child takes home from a Literacy and Prose donation is the first book that child has ever owned. Think about that, and please consider supporting this wonderful program.  Send your check to: The Literacy & Prose Foundation, 3215 Morrison St., N.W., Washington, D.C.  20015. Tell them I sent you.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

National Book Festival and other DC area events

This year the 11th National Book Festival organized and sponsored by the Library of Congress, on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. will be a two-day affair, on September 24 and 25. President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama are honorary chairs for the event. The festival is free and open to the public. 
Over 100 authors will speak at the festival and sign books. Last year's festival, with 70 authors, drew a crowd of 150,000 people. A video of reflections on last year's festival can be viewed on the Book Festival web site. Authors from previous years reflect on their experiences of the festival as well. This year, I get to go, which seems completely unbelievable but it's true! Packing right this minute! I'll be speaking and reading from The Grand Plan to Fix Everything at 10 am on Saturday morning, and signing from 11:30 am to 12:30 pm.  

Here's the schedule for both days. If you're in the DC area of course you'll want to drop everything you're doing the weekend of September 24 and 25 and show up. Really, what could beat joining this enormous conversation of books sponsored by the nation's leading library?


In addition to speaking at the National Book Festival, I'll also be visiting Friends Community School, speaking and signing at Politics and Prose, visiting the Washington Middle School for Girls courtesy of a wonderful organization called Literacy and Prose, and speaking on a middle grade authors' panel at Takoma Park Maryland Library.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Process Talk: Tami Lewis Brown on The Map of Me

Road novel? Middle grade? Hmm, how does that work with a protagonist too young to get a driver's license, not to mention a tattletale sister ready to report her every transgression? The Map of Me is a warm, lovely, loving road trip book, full of the joys, disappointments, and absurdities of life, including chickens! Yes, that is correct--chickens. All of it is seen through the unflinching perspective of 12-year-old Margie.

I got to send some questions by e-mail to Tami. Here are her replies, all the way from Scotland where she's currently visiting. Nope. Can't drive there from this side of the Atlantic.

[Uma] Talk about writing materials as carriers of emotion in this book--the paper ripping in small pleats, the paper of Momma's note, the whiff of ink from the old ballpoint leaking in Daddy's pocket, the pens Daddy gave out at World of Tires, and of course the Map of Me, that assignment with tensile strength that pulls right through the story, even to the point of being smeared right onto Margie's palm right along with her life line. How did all these begin to cluster together for you to create momentum in the story?

[Tami] Wow. I’ve heard lots of other writers say this and never quite believed it but—I didn’t notice the cluster of writing instruments until you pointed it out. But you’re right, of course. Capturing emotion on paper is at the heart of this book. I started the novel when I was a student at VCFA. One of the scariest and most exciting things Vermont College taught me is how to tap into my emotions and translate them into story. Margie’s struggle with her revealing her “insides” on the page mirrors my own… and the rest was organic.

[Uma] Do you yourself have a writerly love affair with paper and pen? With maps?

[Tami] I’m a tactile writer. I do most of my first drafts and my best brainstorming writing by hand with a fountain pen. The physical connection of brain to hand to paper ties me to story in a way that tapping a keyboard doesn’t. I do love maps, and I have several framed maps in my house, but I especially love maps in the front of books. Once I realized that maps could be a literal and metaphoric thread in The Map of Me I began to pay a lot more attention to how maps and story work together. I was tremendously inspired by Julie Larios’s 2010 lecture about mapping the fictive dream.

[Uma] Me too! That lecture was fantastic. I'm mapping a novel right now, revising the map in fact as the story changes and finding that this kind of visual revision is telling me things I didn't know about it.

But back to your book. I was joking about middle grade protagonists and road trips but in fact a road trip is a particularly evocative story map for a middle grade novel, since those years from 8-12 are so much about crossing the borders between childhood and the teenage years. Your character takes several steps which make that crossing especially vivid. It's her transgressions, in fact, that lead the journey from impulse to hope and finally to realization. Talk about how that emotional map came to be.

Tami Lewis Brown. Photo by Jill Smith
[Tami] My critical thesis at Vermont College was on juvenile road novels because I feel very strongly that the middle grade years are all about crossing thresholds and moving from one physical, mental, and emotional place to another. Most great juvenile road novels start out at home then enter a transitional space—neither here nor there. The unsettling experiences on the road give the protagonist the power to return home with greater strength or knowledge. Sociologists and literary theorists call this a liminal journey. Setting up that liminal structure was my first task. Next I had to find out what tests Margie faced on the road and how those challenges changed her. Crossing all those middle grade thresholds involves risking, failing, learning from those mistakes (or not!) and trying again. Margie took big risks and suffered great failures, stealing a car and trying to bring Momma home, for example, but tiny flubs, too.

[Uma] So tell me more. About giving a series of disasters some resonance, meaning.

[Tami] Modulating the messes, making some worse, stringing the repercussions of others over a long time frame so they had deeper resonance, was a matter of revision. Ironically, I guess, I see revision as a lot of trial and error. I write to find out if something works and usually it doesn’t. But after lots of attempts success is even sweeter.

One of my favorite disasters is “the unfortunate square dance incident,” which seems relatively minor when it’s first described. In fact the whole thing is just retold, not played out in a scene. Briefly, Margie has a crush on Jimmy McDonald, but when he holds her hand a little too long during a gym class square dance Margie pulls away and sends Jimmy flying. Nobody gets romance right on the first try and Margie’s attempt is public, disastrous, and (I hope) a little bit hilarious. The experience teaches Margie about love and caution, especially when Jimmy doesn’t defend her when she gets in trouble over the incident. At the very end of the novel Daddy arrives and demonstrates that he genuinely cares about both of his daughters. Margie finally understands unconditional love and loyalty. When he reaches out she’s able to take his hand and hold on. The individual scenes were there early on but the connection between them came in revision.

[Uma] Revision. The best part. The real deal. The Map of Me is the real deal too. Great voice. Rings true. I flew through it, then went back and savored passages that left a mark on my mind. Congratulations, Tami!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Process Talk: Conversation With Joanne Rocklin, Part 2

In this part of my ongoing exchange with Joanne Rocklin, author of One Day and One Amazing Morning on Orange Street and other novels, Joanne opens the conversation.

[Joanne] Why do you write middle grade?

[Uma] I think we all have ages in our lives that are emotional turning points. Mine is very much located in that 8-12 range. I read voraciously. I spent a lot of time in imaginary worlds (sounds crazy but that's how it was). I think that was the age when I first learned the habits of a fiction writer, although I didn't know it then. So it's a natural age group for me to speak to when I write. And you?

[Joanne] I've always written middle grade; it's my natural voice because, yes, that was the age I read voraciously, too!  I also wrote reams and reams of letters to my best friend during summer vacations when we were at different summer camps. At some point over the decades we exchanged our letters--I have a box of my "middle grade voice" sitting in my garage.  I love that age--innocent yet knowledgeable at the same time, which gives lots of opportunity for humor! So...my turn. A somewhat related question: Can voice be taught?

[Uma] I'm going to assume we're talking about narrative voice here, as opposed to a larger authorial Voice with a capital V. Can narrative voice be taught? Hmm, can writing be "taught" in that sense? It can be learned, I do know that.  What I don't believe is that voice is something I need to "find," as if I'd misplaced the darned thing somewhere. Rather, I believe it's my job to create many voices, each one suited to the story it needs to tell.

I think one can train one's ear to become sensitive to voices on the page, and by that too I mean many voices. For instance, when I get stuck with writing I read. It's that simple. And when I read I'm absorbing voices of characters and I'm also absorbing the narrative choices made by the writer. There may be some people who have a tin ear. Maybe they just won't get this way of learning to write, but in that case maybe they shouldn't be trying to write. There may be people who are more sensitive to narrative voice than others. Even so, I think one can learn to read to pick up the rhythm and flow, the echoes and recursions, of a narrative voice.

As to the other meaning of "voice"--the uppercase meaning of an author's stamp that carries across many works--I prefer not to pay any attention to that. It's just too bewildering to think of my own work that way. Crafting one story at a time is hard enough.

So maybe narrative voice can't be taught, exactly. But you can create circumstances that will allow it to rise to the surface, as it obviously  did for both of us, in both these books.

Over to you now, Joanne. How did that voice come about for you? What were the circumstances that allowed it to emerge? Did it emerge suddenly or incrementally?

[Joanne] I love thinking/talking about "voice" because often it's what separates mediocre from good to excellent work. It's fascinating, even more so because it can't be defined--or perhaps because different people are often discussing different things--even when they assume they're on the same page (excuse the pun!)

I think you've delineated its aspects beautifully just now, distinguishing between narrative voice and "Voice". There's the voice of a particular character, with all its particular quirks  There's the voice of the times, and the slang, lingo used...And also the sheer voice of using lovely, poetic language...which may relate to voice with a capital V, as you put it.

That Voice is what editors are looking for.  I think it means originality, fluency, courage, openness to intuition, personality, and what makes the reader enter your world and forget the real one, or at the very least, enjoy the writing. (Sometimes a voice that's too unique makes the reader aware of the author at the expense of the story!)

Anyway, I don't think THAT Voice can be taught--you either have it or you don't.  BUT, there are ways to make it more easily appear, if indeed it's buried in there somewhere. And that's to clear out extraneous critical voices in your head (i.e. critics, colleagues, other authors' characters, your mother, your own Superego) and just plunge in, listening hard to the voices of the characters in your head.

In both our cases, this time, the omniscient voice did something interesting for us--liberating our stories and characters, as well as adding some richness to our Voices.

[Uma] I think it's true that writing is an act of courage. For myself, I do need to get all possible critical chatter out of my mind. Only then can I listen to the potential of my own stories and move beyond the obvious. You?

The real tree that Joanne magicked into her book
[Joanne[ For One Day and One Amazing Morning on Orange Street,  I knew I wanted to get inside all the characters who lived on Orange Street, even animals and that tree. The omniscient voice served to link them all, and to enter and leave each character.

At the time, I was fortunate to attend a 6-week artists' retreat at the Ragdale Institute.  Nothing to do but listen to all those voices in my head.  I was in heaven.  (I realize saying that makes me sound slightly mad.  But it is a crazy life we lead, isn't it?)

The real house that crept into my book
[Uma] Yes, in the best possible way. A few years ago, I ended up spending some time in the Nilgiris, the mountains featured in The Grand Plan to Fix Everything. It was important for me to keep that "real" to the extent I could, so I listened to the "music" of the place--the wind, the echoes of faraway traffic, temple bells, goatherds driving flocks down dirt roads. All those sounds that fed a kind of melody that was starting to take shape in my mind.

Indian writer Ruskin Bond, a legend in his lifetime, says he's willing to read anything "if it has tone, style, and substance." I think it's the qualities of voice that give tone and style to the substance of a story.

The final installment of this conversation is still to come. We don't even know what it is--yet. Stay linked.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Goodbye to Yoda

Today our old tabby, resident feline wise man and champion sneezer, Yoda, reached the end of his road.

He was eighteen years old, by our best calculation. I'm happy we got to share several of them with him.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Interview Wednesday: Karen Sandler on Tankborn

I'm talking to Karen Sandler here, about her new YA release from Tu Books, Tankborn. Today's Interview Wednesday roundup can be found at Tales From the Rushmore Kid.

[Uma] A post-apocalyptic setting, a dystopian world, and the remnants of a caste system loosely related to ancient Hindu practice and their fragmented extrapolation into this fictional future. How did these particular elements come together for you in this novel?

[Karen] Believe it or not, this story was 30+ years in the making. Not that I was working on the novel for that long, but the first elements (caste system/Indian influence) started germinating back in the mid-1970s.

From 1976-1978 I worked as a software engineer for the aerospace company Rockwell International in Downey, CA. Rockwell was contracted to build the Endeavor, the first space shuttle (which never flew a mission). I had a newly-minted BA in math with a minor in physics and had taken a short course in Fortran (a programming language), so I was wetter behind the ears than most.

One of my co-workers was Dr. Azad Madni, whose simulations modeled the as yet untested space shuttle’s flight path. Azad told me stories of life in India. We remained friends for years and I’ve recently made contact with him again through the internet.

So that started my fascination for Indian culture. The next piece of the puzzle, genetic engineering, came about in the mid-1980s. That topic area intrigued me as well and led to me writing a screenplay titled ICER. ICER portrayed a dystopian society in which genetically engineered slaves (gene tricks, or jicks) did the scut work for the privileged bio-norms. The characters were adults rather than young adults, it took place on (a perhaps post-apocalyptic) earth, and there were many spaceships crashing into one another. The script underwent many re-writes over the years, was optioned a couple of times, and Steven Spielberg’s company actually read it at one point, but it was never produced.

I always loved that story though and often pondered novelizing it. When I was considering making the switch from adult romance to YA, I started thinking about ICER and how it could work with younger characters. I ended up retaining very little of the screenplay’s plot—only the idea of genetically engineered slaves and Kayla’s name and sket transferred over directly. Devak’s name was originally Davik (which I made up), but I changed it when I decided Indian culture would have a heavy influence on Tankborn’s society. Exactly when in the creative process that happened (India’s influence) I don’t recall. I do remember thinking, Well, it could be China, considering that nation’s growing influence. But thanks to Azad, I felt more of a link with India. (There is one Chinese character in Tankborn—Junjie. You’ll see more of him in the second and third books of the series).

The religion also evolved as I wrote the book. One night at dinner I had a long conversation with my son and daughter-in-law (and my long-suffering husband) about how incorporating religious beliefs increases the complexity of a fantasy or science fiction novel. We brainstormed ideas of how the religious beliefs of Tankborn’s castes might have developed. I’ll be touching even more on Lokan religion in the second Tankborn book.

[Uma] Friendship and loyalties lie at the heart of this novel. Talk about how the structure of the story came to be, in the intertwining narratives of Kayla and Mishalla.

[Karen] After writing 16 adult romance novels, I wanted the freedom in Tankborn to focus on strong, non-romantic relationships. I knew there would be a romance plotline in the book (two, actually), but from personal experience, I know how important friendships can be to teen girls. In the frightening new world that Kayla and Mishalla enter, where they truly don’t know who to trust, where one wrong step can lead to obliteration, their friendship with each other is their only bulwark.

Mishalla started out as a passing mention. Early in the book, Kayla thinks of her friend, sent far away, now lost to her. I hadn’t intended to do anything more than that with her. But as the story developed, Mishalla demanded her voice be heard. I then had to justify hearing the story from Mishalla’s point of view. Her experiences had to be inextricably linked to Kayla’s and their goals had to ultimately become the same one.

One of the most challenging aspects of storytelling is weaving in all the strands and knowing (to quote Bob Seger) “what to leave in, and what to leave out.” I can have a perfectly lovely scene or exciting action, but if it doesn’t move my story forward, I have to cut it. Interweaving Kayla’s and Mishalla’s POVs in Tankborn didn’t happen all at once. It took many iterations and much brainstorming to figure out how they would each tell their part of the story.

[Uma] Thank you Karen! Good luck.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Process Talk: Conversation With Joanne Rocklin, Part 1

Joanne Rocklin and I are talking about our writing, our systems (or lack thereof) and our middle grade novels, One Day and One Amazing Morning on Orange Street and The Grand Plan to Fix Everything.

[Uma] What came first for you in this story?

[Joanne] I would have to say that the tree came first, the beautiful, generous orange tree in my Los Angeles backyard, which so captured my imagination, and provided so much solace, to my surprise, the summer after my mother died.  I'd stopped writing for a long while and spent my time gardening, reading, playing with my dog, spending time with friends and family, and generally living in the moment.  I'd always been ambitious and striving, and this was a "new me." And I wanted to write about a city block in L.A., that complicated, beautiful, orangey city I knew I'd be leaving soon. And I wanted to write about the kids on it, present, past and future, and their relationship to this tree. ALL the kids--which meant many viewpoints, and a somewhat omniscient voice, as well. It seemed the only way to write it! So I would say that place and voice came first, no matter who tried to talk me out of it! (crit group, editors I submitted to, etc.) My agent believed in my format, confirming my joy in writing this story.  Telling the story over 24 hours came early, too--a long, summer day.

[Uma] That sounds similar to my experience with The Grand Plan to Fix Everything. I'd had a character and a premise knocking around in my mind for a while, and going nowhere, but it wasn't until the place came into the story that things began to click for me. My shift from single viewpoint came when my character wrote a letter, and on impulse, I followed it instead of staying with her. I returned to her, of course, but by that time all the other players on two continents had begun to do their little dances. It was exciting and energizing to find the plot growing in this very intuitive way. And you? Talk about how your plot evolved.

[Joanne] As for the plot, I knew that I would have a mysterious stranger, but I didn't know why he was mysterious, at first. I knew I wanted an adult who held the street's past in her memory. I knew that each child would have his or her own problem, and that one of the children would be recovering from an illness. I knew that the ending would culminate with some resolution to their issues, and all having to do with the tree. I trusted that these big holes would be filled in as I wrote my drafts, and they were.  Writing is wonderful that way, isn't it?

The amazing thing that happened, for me, was the discovery of my theme, which arrived as a gift during my later drafts: appreciating the ordinary, beautiful moments of the Magic Now, so important for my healing during my mourning period.  

[Uma] That's extraordinary. I should tell you that my big surprise in The Grand Plan... came with all the adult characters who showed up to play comic counterpoints to the kids' serious roles. I had no idea when I started out that this was going to happen, and I think it's all due to the omniscient voice that slid in and began telling me about all the things going on in different places while the girls were trying to cope with being separated. 

So I want to ask you something related to this. There were so many of those magical moments in your book--all the things and people appearing and disappearing and causing the story to shift and change. Can you talk about the surprises you had as you wrote successive drafts?

[Joanne] Yes! Isn't that omniscient voice kind of magical itself, sort of like a master puppeteer, leading the writer to interesting interpretations and layers!  It really opened things up for me. (and I loved the way your adult characters' mirrored a Bollywood movie, and the kids' were often the sensible ones...only by using the O.V. could that have been so apparent!)

I didn't actually think of my characters appearing and disappearing; more like "having their turn."

[Uma] Okay, that makes sense. And yes, those shifting viewpoints only became possible when I moved away from the conventional single viewpoint narrative. But you were saying...surprises? Realizations?

[Joanne] Yes. When it came to Ruff the dog's turn, I began to contemplate memory and feeling and perception as it relates to an animal, and I think that led me to think of memory in general.  And so, a turning point in a second draft-- I realized that Ms. Snoops' memory is failing in the short-term, but not in the long-term, which changed the tenor, and added to the poignancy of the book, I think. (and a friend's husband was declining in that respect, too, at the time...)

Gertrude's Great Depression story came in later drafts, too, quite late, actually.  The orange tree was "telling" me to add another story about its past life.

Certain physical details of the plot: the wishing stone, Larry's poem, the hummingbird, surprised me (in later drafts) with their symbolic relevance to the needs of the kids: the poem shows Larry's growing understanding about what it means to be a man, or a human being; the hummingbird shows Leandra's capacity for love...

And the surprise of the ending was how very easy it was to write--all the disparate elements coming together naturally, like the parts of an orange.  All the flaws, fears and desires of my characters are transformed to strengths.  And also, in that space of time they suddenly understand what is important in life--the beauty of the ordinary present moment, best when experienced with others, and which makes life worth living.

[Uma] I found that to be true in The Grand Plan... as well.  The ending was inevitable. In part it was dictated by my intentional spoofing of Bollywood tropes (so there had to be a dance, in some odd location!) but in part it was the point of connection for which all the characters' trajectories were headed. Many roads in this case to a single intersection.

More of this conversation to come. As in the writing of both our books, we're letting this exchange pace itself, take its own time and wander in whatever direction seems likely. I can't predict when the next post will happen, but stay linked.

Friday, September 02, 2011