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!


  1. I am a total sucker for maps and journeying, so the title already started to tug at me. I already have ideas for maps in the front of some of the picture books I am writing! I am intrigued by the idea of how maps and story intertwine and love the layers of journey explored here. It's an important metaphor for my own life, in part because of the years of traveling.

    Thank you, Uma and Tami, I suspect I am going discover quite a bit of myself in Margie when I read this! Also makes me revisit the idea of the MFA!

  2. Thanks so much, Uma! Talking to you about my novel gave me a new, deeper understanding of it. You're a master!

    And yes Joanna consider an MFA. Vermont College is wonderful!

  3. You're welcome Tami--it was a joy to read your book and to cybertalk with you. My confession--my love affair in childhood was with a typewriter. A dumpy little Remington "portable" (try picking this puppy up and risk serious muscle strain!) with shiny letters on metal strikers. I like paper and pencil well enough, but those manual keys and the smell of the inky ribbon...that's the locus of my nostalgia.

  4. So, so looking forward to reading The Map of Me...thanks for the interivew!