Mary Winn Heider on The Mortification of Fovea Munson

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Photo courtesy of Mary Winn Heider

Ever since Mary Winn Heider was my student at VCFA some years ago, I’ve looked forward to the books that I knew she’d write–curious, eccentric, inventive. Recently, having gotten my hands on a copy of her delightful middle grade novel, I spent an afternoon chuckling over it and marveling at the machinations of its author’s wondrous mind.

Allow me to introduce you to The Mortification of Fovea Munson, and to the author who brings Fovea and friends to life: Mary Winn Heider. I asked Mary Winn to talk to me about her wacky new book.

[UK] Talking heads and music, a loopy extravagance of wordplay, and a kid finding her way in the world–how on earth did all this come together in the labyrinths of your mind? I want to know how that brain of yours ticked its way into this story.

[MWH] Well, the first spark happened outside of my mind and sort of…by accident? I was looking around for a job and I landed a gig as the receptionist of the cadaver lab at a medical school in my city. It turns out very few people arrive unexpectedly at a cadaver lab! (Often those that do have nothing to say.) So as the receptionist, I did very little actual reception and had plenty of time to write—it was as dreamy as a cadaver lab can possibly be.

The lab was a great workspace, but it was also immediately clear that I should set a story there. It was all life-and-death-y while still being completely absurd, and if that doesn’t sound like middle school, then I don’t know what does.

As far as the rest of the puzzle, I knew Fovea and heard her voice right out of the gate. Everything else took its time. I didn’t know there would be heads until Fovea heard a noise in the lab and decided to go check it out. I had no idea what the heads wanted at first, although the options were limited. (In general, the limitations of having half of your main characters unable to move much of anything but their eyebrows was not something I’d thought through. If it had occurred to me to worry about it, I probably would have been way more stressed out about it than I needed to be. And this is probably true about most of the things we worry about when we write?)

Mortification of Fovea Munson[UK] Very true. And really, drafting is not the time for worry.

[MWB] The wordplay is inspired by my own family, but feels inevitable in this world, since medicine is a field of chewy language—all that Latin and Greek and euphemism. One of my favorite details is Fovea’s obsession with the Museum of Holography, but that didn’t enter in until my editor demanded (in the kindest way possible) that I figure out what Fovea actually enjoyed. After some mental flouncing around, I remembered that near the neighborhood where I imagine Fo’s apartment building and the lab exist, there used to be a real Holography Museum. It closed about twenty years ago, but I’d been to it just before that and it was so weird and cool—and I decided she might like it. It wasn’t until later that I realized what a perfect, intangible foil it is to her parents’ love of the corporeal.

So I don’t want to make it sound like I didn’t do anything (there was SO much to do!), but I did let myself be pushed around by the story a lot, and when I needed solutions to problems, I tried to use what already existed in the story as often as possible (like the Holography Museum, for example, or when I needed something flammable and I’d already stashed tampons in a drawer many chapters earlier. Chekhov’s tampons, I’m calling them.) That’s one of the things I love about revision—finding the threads that already exist to be tied together. I’m a big believer in our writerly inner geniuses, that we subconsciously plant things that later become useful or meaningful in ways we didn’t overtly recognize when we were doing it. It might not be a great way to get out of a labyrinth—getting pushed around by the labyrinth itself—but then again, it might?

[UK] Every book teaches you something you didn’t know before. What did you learn from writing The Mortification of Fovea Munson?

[MWH] Hmm. I learned I could write a novel, which is no small thing.

In the course of learning that I could write a novel, I also learned a lot about writing and about living and also about the cadaver business. I learned how amazing copy editors are…

[UK] Indeed. They are. Hats off to copy editors.

[MWH] And also how long you can leave a thawing head outside in the summer before it starts to go bad.

[UK] Wow. (To quote from the immortal Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes, “Wow. That’s all she could say. Wow.”)

[MWH] I learned that I love revision more than I love drafting and also that when I make mistakes like accidentally ordering 600 legs, that stuff is very useful material.

[UK] 600 legs? You really did? I’m speechless.

[MWH] That’s right. I accidentally ordered 600 legs, because ordering legs—among other body parts—was my job and I was probably daydreaming about my story when I should have been paying attention to the online form I was filling out. I was supposed to order ONE leg at 600 dollars and…you can probably figure out what happened. But the good news is that then I realized it could use it in my story.

[UK] ONE leg at $600….I am lost in contemplation of this, but go on.

[MWH] My grandparents donated their bodies to science and I learned how that process works on the other end. I learned how to write about stuff that scares me, and how to do it in a way that is both irreverent and loving. Although—full disclosure—I’m trying to do that again, now, and I think it might be something I’ll have to learn all over again every time I write anything. But I’m here for it.

[UK] I’m so glad you are. What a treat. I can’t wait to see what you come up with next, Mary Winn Heider!

Epistolary Day: Children and the Digital World

ReaderComeHomeDear Maryanne Wolf,

I used to be a restless kid, and yet I learned to read. It gave me a pathway into the life I have now, the writing life. Reading and writing together have helped me through troubled times, have helped me make sense of the world or question it or rail against its injustices.

Letter Five in your book made me profoundly sad for the children of tomorrow. You raise disturbing questions: what will digital media do to children’s malleable brains? Will their reading circuits be altered, and if so, how? You write about memory, and what it takes to form it, and how attention, grabbed in rapidfire sequence, detracts from the formation of a working memory.

Then I wanted to cheer when you wrote, in Chapter Six, of the incredible importance of reading to kids. Don’t move too fast to screens and devices, you write. You beg parents to embrace the endless rereading of a favorite book.

The first two years of the reading life, you say, should be the equivalent of Julian of Norwich‘s beautiful exhortation:

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

How to make all manner of things well in the reading worlds of the young? The digital page is a fake. I know that, even as I use it here to reply to your book. I know I can use the computer and the phone as tools, but that’s only because because I learned to read with the real thing. I can switch in and out of the technology while not succumbing to its flaws. I’m lucky only because I’m old enough.

That real book, the tree-based object I have given my life to, is something that young children should feel the joy of “reading” with their whole bodies and older children should be allowed to read with their entire, undivided attention. Toddlers can’t put an iPad in their mouths. The Internet can’t begin to build a moral foundation for a teenager.

You Are Welcome Here

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At the entrance to the High Line in New York City stands this sign. It warmed my heart, but it also made me sad to think that such a welcome even needed to be put into words.

The line is also a hashtag used by a higher education initiative designed to make international students feel welcomed.

 

 

 

 

 

allarewelcome.jpgFinally, it’s the theme of Alexandra Penfold‘s picture book, All Are Welcome, illustrated by Suzanne Kaufman.

It’s just too bad that the attitude of welcoming the stranger, a message that ought to be the norm, has suddenly become practically radical!

 

What a Book Can Hold: Kyo Maclear’s Picture Book Biography of Gyo Fujikawa

A couple of months ago, I posted about Gyo Fujikawa’s work and how her bright, inclusive books, created all the way back in 1963, contained a subtle call to the world to become kinder and better, to treat all children alike.

Now Kyo Maclear‘s beautiful picture book biography of Gyo Fujikawa offers another loving tribute to an artist who was far ahead of her own time.

Consider the title. It Began With a Page: How Gyo Fujikawa Drew the Way.

It began with a page. That is how the book opens as well:

Look to the right and the eye falls on little Gyo, five years old in 1913 and sketching away as her mother writes a poem, rendered in sweet bare-toed concentration by illustrator Julie Morstad.

It’s a dual kind of looking–back in time to the story’s chronology, yet capturing the  immediacy of the child’s reaction to the events of her life. Yet somehow, in the space between image and word, the book manages to leap forward as well, showing by example how art can heal and illuminate. At the same time, it recognizes the family’s aspirations and disappointments and the enormous tragedy of the prison camps that incarcerated Japanese Americans during World War II.

And then it shows us who that child grew into, and what imagination looks like:

At the library and bookshop, it was the same old stories–mothers in aprons and fathers with pipes and a world of only white children.

Gyo knew a book could hold more and do more.

It Began With a Page is a rich evocation of a life that offers direction in our own challenging present and reminds us that equality remains an urgent cause. As Maclear puts it:

…babies cannot wait.

Behold the Semi-colon

semicolonI have always thought of the semi-colon as the adverb of punctuation. The semi-colon is much misunderstood, mistaken for an indulgence, something tacked on to a sentence; often seen as a frill, a bad writing habit, something to be sought out in search-and-destroy revisions on a work in progress. Some argue it is easily replaceable by the comma or the period, depending on how much breath you want to give a reader. Like adverbs, it’s often disparaged as a writerly self-indulgence. So I’m grateful to Katherine Hauth for sending me the link to a PW article by Cecelia Watson: homage to a punctuation mark for which I’ve always had a sneaking fondness.

And now I know why. I loved the historical references in Watson’s article, but that wasn’t all. The little asides on germs and racehorses were nice enough, but no, they weren’t the compelling part for me; it was the gendered criticism of the little squiggle I’m partial to that got me.

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Criticisms of the semicolon—and there have been many—are often couched in peculiarly gendered terms. Ernest Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy, and Kurt Vonnegut avoided them, with the latter describing them as “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing.”

Ha! Really, Kurt Vonnegut? I’m getting hold of Watson’s book as soon as I can, for some immersive semi-colon therapy.

Lunch with Plummie

P.G. Wodehouse invited the New Yorker to lunch on October 15, 1960.

I was four years old then, and had not yet discovered my grandfather’s Herbert Jenkins editions of Plum’s novels. I’d discover them at 10, and chuckle over them for many summers to come. Strange as it may seem, there was much in that Edwardian world to entrance and amuse a kid growing up in India. I, too, had obsessions–not newts, but notebooks and pens and the other stuff of writing. I, too, had aunts. Not masses of them, but they were certainly strange, alien beings to me, the way adults are during the developmental phase of conjecture and bewilderment that we term childhood.

Although I leaped with delight into the Jeeves and Emsworth books, into legends on the golf course and the nutty exploits of Psmith, I would know nothing of Wodehouse’s life, its ups and downs, its errors and regrets, its triumphs and sorrows, until many years later, when I read Robert McCrum’s biography, Wodehouse: A Life. For me, the ex-child who once found something close to pure delight in his books, it matters that Plum’s story is told as clearly and compassionately as it is in this biography. McCrum unravels the charges of Fascism and treachery that tainted Wodehouse’s legacy, the blind spots and flaws that led to his dreadful miscalculations.

He recognizes the sweet melancholy in the books, the importance of their lightness and airiness, the universality of the human connections they delineate. I couldn’t have said so at the time, but all those things resonated for me at 10 and 13 and 15. They resonate still.

Courtesy of WGBH, I came across this talk by McCrum and was delighted to find out that he, like me, had discovered Wodehouse at the age of 10. There was something pleasing about that coincidence.  

When, at 15, I wrote Plum a fan letter, he sent me a typed reply with an ink signature and one of his wife’s return labels bearing their New York address. Plum adored America. (“It’s like being elected to a very good club.”) I can’t help wondering what he’d think of it, if he could see it today. Perhaps our time would remind him of another era when Fascist thinking spread its tentacles through Europe and otherwise well-meaning people did their best to carry on, ignoring what was going on around them.

Memoir and Nonfiction: Dreams and Nightmares

9781250204752_custom-82a0e3effa5978448ac625b9370c95382e915b28-s300-c85.jpgAarti Shahani covers Silicon Valley for NPR News. Her memoir, Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares, is the story of one immigrant family’s painful journey, spinning out from the Partition of India in 1947 to the present day. Memoirs give us a retrospective look at life, of course, but this one conveys the pain of childhood with a sharp, poignant awareness.  It shines the light as well on the loving tenacity of a daughter trying to make sense of the demons that haunted her father and the aspirations that drove him. We carry our earlier selves within us, Shahani seems to be saying, whether we’re aware of that or not.

In her interview with Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep, Aarti Shahani talks about dreams, reality, and sheer chance and how all these factors shaped the story of her family. At the very end of the interview, she talks about how, despite the way he’d been treated in the United States, he still wanted to come “home” there to die. Inskeep asks her to talk about why that was., what it was that still made America home. She responds by saying that she never had a chance to ask him. She says the book is in part a plea to Americans to think about what we are doing to the country, and in part a eulogy for her father. She tears up, and at the end, there’s a little snippet of conversation that almost feels like it should be off-mic. Steve Inskeep asks her if she has a tissue, if someone should get her one. She says, in a voice shaking itself into composure with a little laugh, “I have a sleeve. It’s okay.”

 

1426303327.jpgI have a sleeve. Curiously moving words. We have never needed to tell the truth about American nightmares, as much as we do today.

Ten years ago, Ann Bausum’s Denied, Detained, Deported: Stories from the Dark Side of American Immigration was a relevant and important book. At the time, it was possible to hope that the stories it contained would not be repeated in our lifetimes. Yet today with a new introduction and afterword, the book is an essential reminder that history has a way of cycling back if we don’t learn its lessons.

 

“I’m not really who you think I am.”

On the plane to Newfoundland I watched Captain Marvel. I’d missed it on the big screen and I must say it was quite wonderful seeing a woman taking charge of saving the world. “Buckle up, folks…”

And Brie Larson came through for me, whether she was kick-boxing or coping with memory flashes. I even found myself being faintly nostalgic for the 1990s! It was nice to check out of reality for a while and sink into a world in which female power prevailed, where you could sort of hand over the problems to a really competent superhero and rest assured that all would be well.

Of course, life isn’t that simple, and more to the point, the real heroes aren’t from some other galaxy. They’re right here among us. This is the point of the recent We Need Diverse Books story collection edited by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, The Hero Next Door. VCFA graduate Suma Subramaniam’s story, “Rescue” won the WNDB short story contest and is included in the book, which is a wonderful collection of stories about all kinds of heroes in worlds real and fantastic. Interestingly, in each of the stories, something is revealed about the character of the hero, and sometimes heroism can be seen in more than one person, so the quote from Captain Marvel seems apt: “I’m not really who you think I am.”

I asked Suma a few questions about her story:

HEROcover.jpg[Uma] What resonated for you in the anthology theme of everyday heroes?

[Suma] This theme resonated for me as conflicts and universal challenges unfold across all families regardless of culture. In tough times, ordinary people step in to help and we see great acts of humanity. Some of these people are not necessarily famous, but they do great things when no one’s noticing them – sometimes at a significant personal cost. I have been helped by many such people and pets in my childhood and adult life. My story in The Hero Next Door is written in honor of those people (and pets).

[Uma] Talk about the intersection of family conflict and the role of the dog in your story. Where did that combination come from for you?

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Photo courtesy of Suma Subramaniam

[Suma] The inspiration for “Rescue” came from a couple of stories and news articles I had read about domestic abuse. When I researched the subject, I found very little information on how children navigated family separation and domestic abuse in South Asian families. I knew instantly that I had to write a story about it as seen through the eyes of a child. The idea of having a dog in the story came naturally as I could not imagine Sangeetha’s life without a four-legged friend. Children often feel their whole world has turned upside down when they’re facing separation and domestic abuse.

 

Having lived with several dogs over the years, I have found that dogs bring joy in families and offer a healing path in the gentlest ways. When I immigrated to the United States more than a decade ago, my dog helped me feel less lonely. Dogs have a way of being patient, compassionate, trustworthy, and kind. They teach us valuable life lessons in the short course of their lifetimes that can help children in more ways than one. Sangeetha, therefore, had to have a dog who would be that special friend.

[Uma] Every piece of writing teaches the writer something. What did writing this story teach you?

[Suma] Writing this story taught me to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. I wrote Rescue to practice writing short fiction without the ultimate goal of publication in mind. Putting out the finished product into the ether led Rescue to the right hands – to people who got the heart of Sangeetha’s story and were excited about championing it.

And I am so glad that happened, Suma. Good luck!

The Hero Next Door includes stories by William Alexander, Joseph Bruchac, Lamar Giles, Mike Jung, Hena Khan, Juana Medina, Ellen Oh, R.J. Palacio, Linda Sue Park and Anna Dobbin, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Ronald L. Smith, Suma Subramaniam, and Rita Williams-Garcia.

 

Fiction, Truth, and Banned Books Week

“Make Orwell Fiction Again” reads a tote bag on the Banned Books Week web site.

What writer does not support Banned Books Week? Here’s Marion Dane Bauer on the banning of her Newbery Honor-winning novel, On My Honor, and on censorship and its effects upon writers.

As the Banned Books Web web site puts it:

Everyone is entitled to express their opinions about a book, but they don’t have the right to limit another person’s access to information.

Still, what does Banned Books Week mean in 2019? For that matter, how come Orwell is so relevant in 2019?

giverMaybe that question can be answered by thinking about another iconic banned dystopian book: Lois Lowry’s The Giver. The book delivers its most shocking moment in Jonas’s realization about his father. It is the moment that sets the rest of the story in motion, and leads to the character’s assumption of a heroic role. Anyone concerned about power and its appropriation should read Lowry’s novels set in the world of The Giver, its concerns drawn from the essence of our own, flawed human souls.

Who are our heroes today? Our children, that’s who. Today, the world’s children are taking to the streets, betrayed by the grownups who have failed to save the planet. In the end, the children are more honest than the grownups who “continue to look away.”

As for making Orwell fiction again, maybe that’s not the point.

 

Going Forward: What Else is There?

From Lahore, Pakistan, Mohsin Hamid writes on behalf of hope for humankind.

None of us is a native of the place we call home. And none of us is a native to this moment in time. We are not native to the instant, already gone, when this sentence began to be written, nor to the instant, also gone, when it began to be read, nor even to this moment, now, which we enter for the first time and which slips away, has slipped away, is irrevocably lost, except from memory.

Humans have always moved, Hamid writes, so why are we now divided into natives and migrants, and why must there always be a struggle for supremacy? Why do we have to accept a world of walls and barriers? Why must we buy the false notion that we can and should return to a better past?

Hamid’s eloquent essay reminds me for some reason of the E.E.Cummings poem, pity this busy monster, manunkind. Only I’m fairly certain the good universe next door is really our own “world of made.”

Of course, you know there’s a picture book for every existential dilemma known to humankind (or humanindifferent, for that matter) so here’s one particularly suited to our own precious, fleeting instant.

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The great forest is on fire. Everyone is terrified, panicked, fleeing. All but hummingbird, who flies back and forth to the stream, bringing a drop of water back in her beak with every trip.

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This is simple enough for a child to understand, so what’s wrong with us?

Clear, sparse text with bold illustrations in black, white, and red, by Haida artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas. An afterword from Wangari Maathai underscores the message. Do what you can. What else is there?

From Greystone Books.