Sunday, October 30, 2011

Interview on KSJD, Dry Land Community Radio

I meant to post this earlier but it got brushed aside by all the travel.

Here's my September 2011 interview with Danielle Desruisseaux on All Lit Up, KSJD Radio in Cortez, Colorado, whose fall membership drive is currently under way.

The brown and white object in the sign, I'm told on good authority, is a pinto bean.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Process Talk: Martha Alderson, Plot Whisperer

For more than fifteen years, Martha Alderson has worked with hundreds of writers in sold-out plot workshops, retreats, and plot consultations. Her clients include bestselling writers, New York editors, and Hollywood movie directors. She lives in Santa Cruz, CA. Follow her blog, workshops, videos, or follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

I consulted with Martha  some years ago over a work in progress that was in danger of stalling and possibly fizzling away. The novel has ended up ceding room to other work that was closer to being developed, but I learned a lot from the interaction I had with Martha. I learned to pay attention to the shape and energy of a story. I learned to nudge parts of my writing mind that didn't always want to cooperate. I learned to push my vision for my story to the next level. And perhaps most important of all, I learned to look beyond the words on the page to the story that ignited those words in the first place.

I'm happy to welcome Martha to WWBT now to talk about her new book, The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master. More links to Martha's blog tour on her blog, Plot Whisperer for Writers and Readers.

[Uma] The Plot Whisperer is a terrific title for your book and an intriguing role for you to take on in your work. It seems to me that you're after the Theory of Everything as far as fiction writing is concerned. What led you to this intersection of working with story and writers?

[Martha] I observed first-hand how people learn from working with children who had speech, language, and learning disability in an earlier profession. When I started working with writers in plot workshops, I gained a deeper insight into the process writers go through writing a story from the beginning to the end.

[Uma] Martha maybe that's why we connected! I was also in counseling and special ed before I came home to writing. What was that insight?

[Martha] Along the way, I discovered the two main types of writers – plotters versus those writers who write with little or no advanced planning. I was relieved to understand why some writers love the plot and structure work I share while other writers resist with dagger eyes when asked to learn the same information.

Beneath all of it, however, I find that every writer goes through the same trials and tribulations when crafting something out of nothing. The more writers I work with the more easily and clearly I spot the universality in everyone’s journey.

[Uma] Of course. I see that too, the more I teach.

[Martha] That writers can learn how to craft a successful story by studying the Universal Story and, at the very same time, learn more about themselves delights me.

[Uma] And me. I'm fascinated as well with what you call the ebb and flow of energy in a work. Most of us look for this energy in the words on the page. You help writers find it in something underneath the words, maybe even something that hasn't been developed yet. Talk about that process and how this book breaks it down for a reader.

[Martha] Writers, especially right-brained, highly creative, write by the seat of your pants-type writers, often get lost in the beauty of their prose and end up boxed into a corner where their story lacks fullness and refuses to come to completion. When these same writers replace resistance with an openness to step away from the words they write, they learn to see new and for them difficult concepts and how those concepts translate not only into the development of their story but into their own life too. 

Before long, all writers find the Universal Story’s energetic pattern becomes like a life raft, saving you from drowning in all the words you write.

[Uma] What appeals to me in this book is that you're offering a set of tools and a way of thinking, and not a formula. How much variation have you seen in how people use your ideas and suggestions and adapt them to their own needs?

[Martha] The ideas and suggestions morph with every single writer who uses them because writers not only adapt the ideas to their own needs but also because a writer is able only to grasp and then use in their own writing the plot and Universal Story concepts they are developmentally ready to grasp.

The more you write, the more new skills you develop which open you up in readiness to grasp yet more new concepts. That readiness grows and changes as you grow as a writer.

[Uma] A subtitle in your chapter on antagonists reads, "Never repeat, deepen." It's something I've had to remind myself in revision. How can writers train themselves not only to recognize patterns when they show up but to intensify them incrementally?

[Martha] I suggest using what I call a Scene Tracker. It’s a template or worksheet that allows you to plot out the seven essential elements in every scene you write. To analyze scenes at a thematic level before you have written a draft or two is usually premature. Far better is to wait until you better understand the deeper meaning of your piece. Then, stand back and analyze each scene for thematic elements which allows you to see where they show up now and where they could be inserted to create the most pleasing patterns for the reader and for the greatest good of the story.

[Uma] Your book promises nothing short of transformation, not just of the work but of the writer. Talk about that.

[Martha] I’ve been fascinated with energy for most of my adult life, which has lead me to lots of insights into the deeper level of life itself.

I have always loved stories of transformation, of ordinary people or characters confronted by extraordinary circumstances and not only overcoming but excelling in the face of fear and even death.

Transformation is part of the nature of life as all of us evolve and change. The changes we undergo sends out ripples of energy that touch and transform those lives around us.

Thank you, Uma. I remember hosting a blog stop on your blog tour for your picture book Out of the Way! Out of the Way! (which I love!). I had such fun that day interacting with and supporting a writer I love and respect. Thank you for returning the favor.

[Uma] Thank you Martha, it's my delight. Good plotting to you and here's to many more transformative moments!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Two Icons: A Celebration and a Loss

Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth with illustrations by Jules Feiffer, turns 50 this year. I didn't read it until I was an adult, although it was published the year I turned five. It's a tour de force filled with wit and whimsy, riddled with wordplay, light and airy yet deeply satisfying. Monica Edinger interviews Leonard Marcus on the publication of the 50th anniversary edition. On the NPR site, Norton Juster writes about "My Accidental Masterpiece."

An equally iconic picture book is The Shrinking of Treehorn. Its deadpan quirkiness and undeterred little character carry the day. The trilogy edition with its two sequels, Treehorn's Treasure and Treehorn's Wish, is a cheerful, chubby affair, complete with Edward Gorey's surreal illustrations. On Monday morning, or perhaps on Sunday night, Florence Parry Heide died at the age of 92. In the Treehorn books and her many others, she leaves joy behind in the world. Hear her voice spring to life in this interview on Curious Pages, the idiosyncratic blog that recommends "inappropriate books for kids."

Hurray for The Phantom Tollbooth and hurray, hurray for Florence Parry Heide.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Connections: California Research and IBBY Regional

I'm back from a physically and emotionally exhausting and at the same time an oddly energizing trip to San Francisco, Yuba City, and Marysville, California, with the 9th IBBY Regional Conference in Fresno on the heels of all that travel.

Here is what I've learned about researching the historical background for my fiction related to a very particular period and the cultural fusion of a very particular community:
  1. I pursued all possible sources of information and didn't know until very close to the trip that I'd find the ones I truly needed. For me, this research, much like writing itself, was an act of trust.
  2. I needed to find many perspectives on a single event, story, period, so that triangulation could give me a fuller picture, with greater depth.
  3. I'm very glad I read those many perspectives over a period of nearly three years before I talked to anyone who could be considered a primary source.
  4. Generous, giving people showed up along the way to help me. Trusting the process paid off.
  5. Resources (maps, books, phone books, photographs, and more) showed up to give me answers to questions I hadn't even thought to ask.
  6. I realized I would not know who the right people were to speak to until I'd found them.
  7. When I'd found them, I realized I needed to toss my notes and my prepared questions and just practice the fine art of listening.

Thank you to Sharon Levin for getting me to Fresno and helping me make the transition from research to conference mode!

The 9th IBBY Regional Conference (sponsored by USBBY: the theme was "Peace the World Together With Children's Books") was chock full of inspiration, connections, and marvelous conversations about the rich international world of children's books.

High points for me included:
And now back to breathing for a while, and then to work. But for now, I'm filled with gratitude for the wealth of material this trip has yielded me. And gratitude as well that even in a world where life can be daunting and peace is still a faraway dream, I am able to do the work that I love.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Debby Dahl Edwardson on Names, History, and Novel Structure

Last week I raced through Debby Edwardson’s novel, My Name is Not Easy, consuming it in one big gulp! Her writing is beautiful, touching and true to the hearts of her characters. Quite apart from the importance of this story, and how needed it is in the world, the book appears deceptively simple, then gets you in the jugular when you’re not expecting it.

And now we have the incredible news that My Name is Not Easy is a National Book Award finalist. Congratulations, Debby!

[Uma] As someone whose name many people "choke crackers" I'm fascinated by the issues raised by names and naming in your book. Talk about why names matter and how the claiming of a name can shape a person. How and why does this resonate for you?

[Debby] In order to explain why this issue resonates with me, I have to explain it from an Iñupiaq perspective because this is where I live and it’s where the book is rooted. In the Iñupiaq belief, a person’s name has a spirit of its own and that spirit travels from person to person such that when you name a child after someone—and you always do—you are essentially bringing the namesake back to life.  In this way, an Iñupiaq name implies an additional level of kinship, serving to extend one’s family ties. If I name my daughter after your grandmother, for example, she becomes your grandmother and you will even call her grandmother, sometimes, recognizing the kinship. From this perspective, naming is a very serious matter, so serious that I felt compelled to put a disclaimer in my first book, Blessing’s Bead, explaining, essentially, that there is no such thing as a fictional Iñupiaq name because all Iñupiaq names come with their own history and their own kinship. All the names I use in my books are either family names or invented names—because the use a person’s name is a very serious thing. You can’t just say, “Oh I like the sound of that name, I think I’ll use it.”

This is culturally specific, of course, but actually, that’s the point: names have a significance specific to specific groups of people. So when you’re speaking of a people who have been forced, throughout their schooling, to leave their cultures and their names at the schoolhouse door, and when the people in question, believe that a name has a spirit or soul attached to it, then the act reclaiming one’s name becomes both spiritual and revolutionary.
I love to watch the way growing numbers of young Inupiat are reasserting their right to their Iñupiaq names, by the way, and I suspect it’s a global movement. My oldest daughter’s husband is Tamil and they have never used their English names with each other. My granddaughter doesn’t have an English name—she has an Iñupiaq name and a Tamil name and nobody is worrying about how the world will react to this. The world will just have to adjust! That’s the new order—and it’s a very promising one, I think.

[Uma] I love that, Debby. Alaska and Tamilnadu, bound by names! Let’s talk about history. My Name is Not Easy spans the period from 1960 through 1964. What's the history that made you choose this time?

[Debby] The easy answer is that this book is based on a true story, the story of my husband’s experiences at a parochial boarding school in Alaska, and these are the years he was there. And of course I was a child of sixties, too, so it resonates with me. But the real answer, I think, is that this was an era of political awakening, nationwide, and My Name is Not Easy is essentially a political coming of age story. The students at Sacred Heart are coming of age in a situation that is difficult and painful in many respects but it’s also one that will prepare them to play a lead role in securing the future of their peoples.

As I said in my Author’s Note: “students similar to the students of Sacred Heart became leaders in their home communities—state legislators, city mayors, and tribal presidents. These people lobbied for change in Washington, D.C., and united their tribes to speak forcefully with one voice through the Alaska Federation of Natives, the organization that was instrumental in securing passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA).”

I’m not writing about ANCSA (which returned 40 million acres of Alaskan land to Native ownership, paying a cash settlement of $900 billion for lands lost) and I am not writing the story of the young Alaskan Native leaders, all in their early twenties, who in 1968 successfully stood up to the most powerful political forces on the planet and beat them. But the truth is that all of the leaders who fought the land claims battle in Alaska were boarding school alumni and this is their story. If you focus in on it,  My Name is Not Easy is the story of a group of young people from diverse tribes who came together and created family. But if you pull the lens out a bit, you see a generation on the cusp of a political awakening that shook Alaska to its core.

[Uma] The era of boarding schools is such a painful one. Have you heard from people whose stories may find echoes here?  Why is it important for us to pass on the remembering of such wrongs to the next generation?

[Debby] Other than my husband and fellow Alaskan writer William L. Iååiagruk Hensley, who wrote a blurb for the book, I have not heard from the people whose experiences might find echoes in these stories. The book is on backorder right now, so most of them haven’t had a chance to read it. In a way, though, I think I’ve already answered why it’s important to remember this history. Willie—who incidentally was one of the leaders of the land claims movement —said it very well in his blurb, when he kindly referred to the book as “an excellent work of fiction with important truths to be remembered.”

Some of the truths, like the ones mentioned above, are empowering, but others are very painful. The boy at the end of the book who can understand and hear his language, clear as birdsong,  but will never again speak it, is my husband. And as I was writing this book, our daughter, Naÿinaaq, was making a documentary entitled Nipaa Iøitqusipta—The Voice of Our Spirit, which examines the decline of the Inupiaq language. It’s a very painful subject for my daughter’s generation. Taqnak Rexford, one of her peers, voiced it elequently on Facebook recently:
I am Iñupiaq, and I live most of this lifetime without my language and sometimes that pain becomes too much to carry. Most often I’m not even aware I carry that energy around in me, but sometimes it leaves me in deep, almost violent waves of tears. These are ancestral tears. I am absolutely positive it’s not just me crying, it’s all of my relatives who have passed away who are witnessing our younger generations' lives without their language. This is a collective and generational weeping.”
This younger generation has grown up understanding that they don’t have the language because their parents and grandparents were punished for using it—but in a very real sense, they don’t really understand what this means because they weren’t there and they haven’t felt, on a purely visceral level, what it means. Fiction can take them there and let them experience it and through experiencing it, they can understand and through understanding they can heal.... 

For non Native readers, these stories are important because they allow us to bear witness. We cannot change what happened and we cannot fix it but we can bear a portion of the pain and in doing so we strengthen our own humanity and increase our understanding of what it means to be human.

I know this from personal experience. As a child growing up in Minnesota, I lived in a community that had a sizable Jewish population. Because it was the story of my friends and classmates, the Holocaust became a shared story for me, one I internalized in ways that to this day affect me in profoundly. If I can effect that same experience for the readers of my book, I will have done my job as a writer.
[Uma] What were the challenges of writing in the shifting viewpoints you adopted for this book?

[Debby] I wrote this book as my creative thesis when I was a student in the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. I started it with a blank page on day one and when I was asked, at that time, to talk about how I planned to tell this story, I said, with absolutely no forethought, that I was going to tell it in multiple voices.

It was an obvious choice, of course. It’s a communal story—a multi-tribe story—so the need to tell it in multiple voices seemed almost a given. There are many indigenous tribes in this country with cultures that are in many ways very different from one another but one striking commonality is that indigenous peoples tend to put the needs of the community above the needs of the individual, thinking “we” more often than “I.” It’s interesting, though, that I started this telling as first person present tense moving back and forth from character to character—interesting, because this is hardly the equivalent of the indigenous “we” voice.  And it resulted in a first draft that was huge and rather shapeless.

After much groping and fumbling around in the dark, my final advisor—Marion Dane Bauer—suggested that I try telling it as linked stories. This gave me the freedom to play with it and allow it to become what it wanted to become—a novel told in stories, I guess. As soon as I let it out of its forced container, it seemed to develop in a fairly organic manner, moving from first person accounts in the beginning to multi-voice omniscient accounts, near the end. This seemed to fit. It was a long journey, but one which I thoroughly enjoyed.

[Uma] And one that has brought you well deserved recognition, Debby. Thank you so much for talking to me on Writing With A Broken Tusk.

2009 Cynsations interview with Debby Edwardson.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

National Book Awards 2011

It is not my scheduled day to post on Write At Your Own Risk but hey! This is enough reason to shout out. Look at the National Book Awards finalist announcements! Just look--one faculty finalist and two-count-em-two finalists who are VCFA grads from our own MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

Congratulations to all the finalists: Franny Billingsley, Debby Dahl Edwardson, Thanhha Lai, Lauren Myracle, and Gary D. Schmidt.

Friday, October 07, 2011

VAQ, or Very Annoying Question

If you're a children's writer, you occasionally (or perhaps not so occasionally) get asked this VAQ (Very Annoying Question): So...when are you going to write a novel for grownups?

Children, I might add, never ask me this. Only a certain kind of adult, the kind who look down upon children for R2C2E (Reasons Too Complicated To Explain)*.
To them I say, just look at the letters I get from children. Just look. They are voiced, genuine, no pretensions. They are illustrated! Does it get better than this?

A letter I received in yesterday's mail read:

" I want to kno. Did you always write from wen you were little and how did you now how?"

Need I say more? Children are as real as anyone else, perhaps more so. They are the finest of audiences.

They are us, because like it or not, we grownups still carry around remnants of our own younger selves, like so many backup copies waiting to be accessed when we need them. Sometimes those are our genuine selves, bursting with questions, seething with just anger, or filled with possibility.

Why on earth would I want to write for anyone else? Especially people who ask those VAQ's.

And lest anyone think this acknowledgment of the young is a sentimental affectation of our times, here's something about child artists of prehistory from NPR's 13.7 Cosmos and Culture Blog. As a former child wall-writer, I find this rethinking of prehistory exciting--if overdue.

*anyone get the Haroun reference?

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Dorje's Stripes by Anshumani Ruddra

The Bengal tiger is a gravely endangered species, its population estimated at fewer than 2,500 animals and dwindling at an alarming rate. How do we bear witness to such a tragic fact about our world? Is there any hope at all?

Yet to come*, an interview with Anshumani Ruddra, author of the glorious picture book Dorje's Stripes, published by Karadi Tales in India and now available in North America from Kane Miller.

*or maybe not. I sent those questions weeks ago and the writer hasn't replied yet (as of today, October 26, 2011). So maybe what's here is it for Dorje's Stripes.

Touching Silence

Essayist Reg Saner says, in Reaching Keet Seel, his collection of reflections on the Colorado Plateau, "Mountains echo whatever you tell them, but desert space is always a listener, its only voice a quiet so unbroken it hushes you, thereby making you fit to enter in."

Some days it seems as if I'm being badgered by voices, all kinds of voices telling me all the things I ought to be doing, all the things I should have done already, all the hundreds of ways I'm falling behind. This is not a frame of mind conducive to entering into real spaces, let alone fictional ones. Listen to all the voices and it's likely I'll begin to feel the way I do when I hear about symptoms of some rare disease--they all sound familiar and they all sound so final, so impossible to argue with!

The desert rescues me at such times. It gives me sky and 360 degrees of horizon, and silence.

But it seems to me that I ought to be able to recreate that for myself, an interior space that can be summoned up when the voices of reality become too loud and insistent, when the work demands quiet, to allow those other fictional voices to make themselves heard. It doesn't matter how. Walking, exercise, music, daydreaming, gardening. Whatever it takes. The rituals might change from one person to another, or even with the passage of time. But they matter because the ability to touch silence matters in the life of a writer.

Autopost from Write At Your Own Risk, the VCFA faculty blog.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Beyond the Blue River by B. Vinayan

When Tulika Books editor Radhika Menon first told me about this novel, I must admit to having been slightly dubious. At least in part, this reaction was to the protagonist of Beyond the Blue River, Grace, who is not human.  Nothing against non-human protagonists, but she's not even animal.

Mineral? You'd be closer. Grace is an autorickshaw!

Yes, that's right. One of those little cabs mounted on a sputtering engine that serve as transport vehicles all over the Indian subcontinent and parts of southeast Asia. Known variously as autos, scooters, autorickshaws, phat-phatti, tuk-tuk....

"An autorickshaw?" I said.

"Read it," she replied. "I would love to know what you think."

I did read it.

Ten pages in, I still wasn't sure. By page 20, I was murmuring, "Hmm..." and by the time I hit page 23, the close, careful, funny language of Grace and her autorickshaw buddy Rani was creating a sort of comfortable internal hum in my mind. Oddly, the point of view was starting to feel credible, in this eccentric, Yellow-Submarine-reminiscent world painted by Vinayan with unmistakably Indian tints.

While it took me 20-plus pages to suspend disbelief, that could have just been my adult mind at work. I suspect that as a 10- or 12-year-old, I'd have lapped this up. Even now, adult skepticism and all, I found much to love, to be amused by, and to linger over, all of it aided by big helpings of wonder.

A tune hummed by Guru, her driver, is what sends Grace off on her journey. The journey itself is replete with marvelous landscapes. A truck at the seventh milestone is a kind of mentor figure. A mountain is endowed with breath and rocky shoulders. And then there's the legendary Blue River itself.

Even the antagonist is a worthy one--Karuth Aarg is an embodiment of the power of creation itself, born of a flame reminiscent of the Big Bang. From the wind walls to the Tweedledum-Tweedledee figures of the Itsians to the etceteras ("extremely tiny creatures"), the quirky inhabitants of this world seem set against the cosmology of our own. It all somehow finds expression through the imaginings and longings, and eventual awakening, of a small and lovable machine. Yes, Grace the autorickshaw whose mineralness initially gave me pause. By the end of it, I was prepared to love her unconditionally.

I know. It sounds crazy, and it is. But it all works in a weird way. I think it works because the original fantasy in this book comes right out of a particular place with its very specific sense of relationships and frictions, rights, wrongs, and pressures. Beyond the Blue River is a gentle, odd, engaging story about "the whole wide world, and, who knows, maybe even everything beyond it."

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Still more on the Washington DC trip: Barbara Brooks Wallace Interview to Come

When I read books like Leonard Marcus's Dear Genius, I always feel jealous of those writers who entered our field in its "golden days." You know, back when Ursula Nordstrom ruled children's books at Harper and Row. Those days. So when I talk to writers who worked with some of those editors of legend, it always makes me feel as if I can somehow touch those days, catch a little glow of another time for myself and use it to warm my own little corner of the writing universe.

Photo by Sally Canzoneri
In the virtual world of emails and bulletin boards, Barbara Brooks Wallace has been a colleague and friend for years. So on this trip to Washington DC, I was delighted to be able to snatch an afternoon to go meet her in person.  A more detailed interview will follow on the Children's Literature blog, but here's a picture for starters.

Thanks in spades are due to Sally Canzoneri for navigating DC and VA traffic to get me there and back so we could still be on time for a quick dinner before the Takoma Park Maryland Library event. Of which (the event, not dinner, although that was grand too) more soon, as soon as a few pictures arrive.