Friday, August 24, 2012

On Childhood Reading, Writing, Culture, and More: Video interviews from 2011

Some of this material was posted on the Colorin Colorado web site. Thank you, Lydia Breiseth!

Oops, I just found an error in something I said! Poona=old name of the town. Pune=new name. I know that. How did I mix them up? It's just the verbal equivalent of typing "teh" for "the." My apologies.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Process Talk: Shelley Tanaka on Nobody Knows

When we think of novelizations of films, it's the commercial blockbusters that come to mind: Star Wars, or the legions of Oz sequels. But here is Nobody Knows, Shelley Tanaka's novelization of the Japanese movie Nobody Knows/Dare mo shiranai from filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda.

Published by Groundwood Books, Shelley's novel, like the movie, is a small gem, a tale of children, abandonment, heartache, and the survival of hope against all odds.

Here's my virtual conversation with Shelley.

 [Uma] How did this project come about for you?

[Shelley] I saw the film not long after it was released. I couldn't get it out of my head -- the beauty of the children, the power of the director's shots, and the fact that the film seemed so rooted in the child's point of view -- something I'm very interested in as a writer and editor. I thought the story might make a good book, and Groundwood's publisher, Patsy Aldana, agreed.

It took a long time to obtain the book rights (the film came out in 2004). Hirokazu Kore-eda, who wrote and directed the film, was consulted about intention and treatment before I started to write. Originally I wanted to make the story more hopeful, so I suggested a new ending where Akira sees the nice clerk from the convenience store, and he turns to approach her, and the reader is left thinking he might finally be about to seek adult help. I also tried to worm out of showing Yuki's death and burial. Patsy immediately said that was a cop-out, and Kore-eda basically said my proposed ending missed the whole point of the film.

They were right, of course.

[Uma] There's a darkness to the film that is captured in cinematic ways--take the mother. The film uses visual and auditory techniques to show us her shallowness, with its implied impending danger for the children. We absorb these things through camera angles, through the surreal, childlike quality of her voice, through sideways glances and gestures. Even the way she serves Akira his noodles is self-absorbed--it's not about him and his hunger, it's an almost petulant gesture. Can you comment on the mother in film and in print?

[Shelley] In the film the mother's baby voice and her body language say everything about her character. But I had to sort of forget about her because although we see that she is a child herself, her children don't really see that. I compared her to Yuki at one point, tried to get across her fragility and her immaturity, but this isn't her story. We don't even really want her to come back, because she's such a disaster. We just want her to keep sending money so the kids can do a better job of looking after themselves. But the children want her back. She's their mum. They love her and want to be parented, as bad as she is at that. It's interesting when the audience doesn't want what the characters want.

[Uma] What strikes me about your text is its great economy of words. How do you convey great subtleties in very spare text?

[Shelley] So the novel is pretty faithful to the film. I struggled with a few spots. In the film there are a number of phone calls, where Akira does make contact with his mother. I couldn't make sense of these, and they opened up the whole question of him knowing where his mother was, which became confusing and distracting in the book. There are also a couple of scenes where Akira is not present -- when Yuki falls, and when the landlady walks into the apartment and only the girls are home. I left out the fall because I didn't think we actually needed to witness it, but the landlady scene was important --  she backs out of the apartment when she sees the children on their own, the place a mess. She doesn't want to know.

[Uma] Novelizations usually add material to the story of the film, since novels tend to be longer than screenplays. That's not true in this case. Can you talk about your obligations to the movie and its story when you wrote this novel?

[Shelley] After my proposed changes were shot down, I realized that the novelization would have to stick as close to the film as possible. Whenever I tried to embellish or write more, it felt false. Everything is in the film. I figured if I could transfer the film to the page, then the reader would bring the rest, the same way the viewer does to the film.

For me, it's the loving moments that are the most gut-wrenching. There is an amazing scene in the film where Akira and Yuki go to the station to meet their mother, who never comes. An enormous amount of emotion and narrative are conveyed simply through the expression on Akira's face. Yuya Yagira, who plays Akira, won Best Actor at Cannes, and in my view, he deserved it for this shot alone. I did go into Akira's head here, and was afraid of tipping over into the sentimental, as I'm very squeamish about the L-word. But I had to. There's a whole novel in his face here.

[Uma] Shelley, you're a talented nonfiction writer. What did you learn from this movie, from using it as primary source material, if we want to frame this in nonfiction terms?

[Shelley] After watching the movie many, many times, I realized how nuanced and rich the film is, how Kore-eda avoids making it too bleak or relentless. Nothing is gratuitous or graphic. He cuts away from the most searing moments. There's a lot of light -- the sun shining through the trees, the red flowers, the plane in the sky, the children's faces. The emotion -- happy and sad -- is pure and simple and true to the world of the child.

And I saw that the ending is not without hope. The children have survived a terrible crisis. Yuki's spirit is with them. The two big girls have become close. The little brother is his irrepressible self, still full of unalloyed joy when he finds a coin in the telephone booth. Despite everything, the kids are together by virtue of their own basic goodness and resilience.

They do their best. They get through. And we're cheering for them at the end.

[Uma] We are indeed. Movie and novel are rich and layered, and true to a certain kind of esthetic choice--simplicity and a kind of spare and subtle touch that evokes at all times a great respect for the children whose narrative this is.  Thank you, Shelley!

Monday, August 06, 2012

Process Talk: Ann Stampler on The Wooden Sword

On her web site, YA and picture book writer Ann Stampler says:
My forays into other careers notwithstanding, I have always wanted to be a writer, and have always, ever since I was first able to write, had notebooks and file folders and bankers’ boxes full of stories, and pieces of stories, and fragments of novels, and random paragraphs.  As a teenager, I saw myself as smart and socially hopeless.  Now I see myself as less smart and less hopeless, but I’m still basically the same person I’ve always been; I’m just a lot happier about it. 
I also love what she has to say about the power of story:
I was lucky enough to be raised in a family that read to me and told me stories, and my love for books and stories has stayed with me throughout my life.
Welcome, Ann Stampler.

[Uma] You're a passionate advocate for retold folklore. Tell me why you believe these old stories matter.

[Ann] Folk tales are a remarkable tool for conveying a culture's values and flavor from one generation to the next.  The best folk tales have compelling story lines that make them interesting to hear and compelling for storytellers to carry from village to village and continent to continent.   But the tales' embedded values -- the wisdom and the messages they bring us from our ancestors -- are what make them so special.

[Uma] In your picture book, The Wooden Sword, the encounter of a powerful shah with a poor shoemaker leads to a testing of faith, the triumph of hope and the forging of connections, with a little wink on the side to the reader. What was it that drew you to this story?

[Ann] In terms of story, I love the humor in this tale, the fact that both the shah and the poor shoemaker are, in some sense, tricksters who outsmart each other and ultimately enrich each other's lives.  In terms of message, the notion that an optimistic faith -- along with cleverness, resilience and hard work -- can get us past the obstacles that life throws in our paths seemed important  to share with this generation of children.  Finally, in today's political climate, a story that shows people of different faiths, who practice those different faiths, coexisting and coming together with mutual respect, was difficult to pass up.

[Uma] You have included a detailed author's note in the back about the variants of the story and the choices you made in retelling it. Why do you think such a "story behind the story" is important information for young readers and for those who introduce this book to them?

 [Ann] With all folklore, we have evolved beyond the point when the re-teller can just go, uh, this is a story from, er, Africa, and proceed to misrepresent both the bones of the original story and its cultural context.  At least I hope we have.

Folk tales are great stories, but they are also cultural artifacts that we preserve by telling them well.  I always write an author's note for the folk tales I retell to give readers a sense of where the stories come from, how they reached me, and how they might have been changed in traveling from their original countries to me in the U.S.  With my earlier books, this has been easier to accomplish, since the stories came to me via my immigrant grandmother, and I could see how her spin affected the tales by reading and hearing other versions, and by understanding her point of view.

 The Wooden Sword, however, is the first story I've done from outside my own culture.  I knew an Eastern European version of the story, but it didn't have the same resonance for me as the Afghani* one I chose to retell.  I worked very hard to get the story right, as did the illustrator.  But The Wooden Sword comes from a culture that no longer exists in situ; it comes from the Jewish community of Afghanistan, which emigrated, en masse, in the mid-twentieth century.  And I found myself relying on people, more than books, as resources, including Afghani Jews, a professor of Islam at Loyola Marymount University, and folklore and other scholars in the U.S. and abroad, all of whom were extremely generous with their time and knowledge.  It seemed to me important to share the background of the story and how I came to tell it as I did, to make it possible for readers (presumably not the five and six year-old-readers who are The Wooden Sword's primary audience, but for the parents and teachers who read it along with them, and for those children if they pick up the book again as they grow older and begin to see different layers of the tale) to understand just what they were getting.

While I think that this story has messages that are valuable for children of all (or no) faiths, in addition to being a lot of fun (which I get to say because I didn't make it up!), I've been particularly gratified to learn that both Jewish and Muslim children and families have enjoyed it.  I believe that the author's note, explaining my choices in writing the book and the origins of the story, helps to give context to the spiritual and cultural underpinnings of the tale, and makes them easier for parents to discuss with their children.

[Uma] Thanks Ann! What an interesting intersection of story, history, geography and culture.

*Note: On the choice of the adjective "Afghani" vs. "Afghan" Ann writes:
I know that Afghan versus Afghani has been debated at length; I went with the choice of the Afghani expatriates who helped me with the book, and whose perspective is closest to that of the community from which the story comes.