Vaunda Micheaux Nelson on Fictionalizing Family History

One of the titles I discussed in my January VCFA lecture on historical fiction is a book I grew to know vicariously, to my great delight, as its writer navigated the many phases of its growth. No Crystal Stair is an acclaimed novel, a documentary novel, a story on the cusp between fiction and history, real and imagined.

I asked my dear writing colleague and friend Vaunda Micheaux Nelson to reflect on that process for me. Here is our exchange:

[Uma] Talk a little about the research you did –the sheer volume of it and over so much time!  And then about how this turned from nonfiction into the fictionalized blend of fact and imagination that it ended up becoming.

[Vaunda] The process extended over many years and continues, not only formal research but family history.  In brief, I acquired source material from the Schomburg Center in Harlem, Howard University, the Hatch-Billops Collection, newspaper and magazine articles, audio tapes, transcripts, court records, church documents, FBI files, census records, death certificates and other vital statistic sources, and oral histories – interviews with family members and individuals who visited the store and/or knew Lewis.  I traveled to New York City, Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, and Newport News, Virginia. When faced with contradictory information, I weighed what I could, and drew reasonable conclusions.

It began as a family history project.  I simply wanted to learn about my uncle and his bookstore and record what I found.  The more I discovered about Lewis’s life and contributions, the more I needed to share his story.  As a writer, I love exploring character.  And what a character Lewis was!  I enjoyed getting to know him through research, trying to figure him out.  Lewis’s life is important historically, but it’s also just a great story.

I write for children, so it was natural for me to want to share Lewis’s story with them, though I believed it would speak to adults as well.  Youth is a time that is heavy with searching, tripping, falling, getting back up, slipping, finding ground, flailing, and finally flying.  Lewis’s journey embodied this, so I suspected it would appeal to teens.  And, as a bibliophile, I was thrilled to share the story of a man who used books as a compass in his search for self.

It started as straight biography.  In my early drafts I used quotes by Lewis as chapter headings and envisioned photos as part of the final work.  But at some point in the process, and after feedback from people I respect, I realized that it wasn’t working.  I didn’t feel I’d told Lewis’s story in a way that would move readers to care about this amazing man and understand the significance of what he achieved. Those early attempts lacked the heart I hope I conveyed in the final book.  Also, there were holes and discrepancies in the information about Lewis’s life that I could not resolve.  Sources were contradictory, unclear, unreliable, and the people who might have been able to clarify or fill in the gaps were already in their graves.

I began telling the story of Lewis Michaux through the voices of those who surrounded him — family, friends, associates, and bookstore customers.  Recordings and interviews with Lewis enabled me to replicate his voice.  My husband, Drew, began calling the book “Documentary Fiction,” which seemed a good fit.  I included as much factual information as I could, while filling in the gaps with informed speculation (my best guess) about what might have happened to, or been said about, Lewis.

The new format gave me options and flexibility and allowed me to explore Lewis in a deeper way, to help readers see Lewis’s spirit, his intelligence, his charm, as well as his weaknesses.  I came to know the people around him more intimately.   One of the things I admire about Marilyn Nelson’s Carver: A Life in Poems is that she informs readers about George Washington Carver’s brilliance and accomplishments, while capturing the essence of the man, the nature of his spirit and how he touched the lives of others. This was my intent with No Crystal Stair. Sometimes you have to do an awful lot of writing to figure out exactly what it is you have to say.  The project may have taken 15 years, but as I think back on the process, I realize it needed those years.  I  needed those years to become a better writer.  And I made exciting discoveries along the way that led me in unexpected and rewarding directions.

The excitement of acquiring audio tapes and transcripts of interviews with Lewis fueled my energy for the work.  Reading his words and hearing his voice were invaluable to understanding and developing his character.  Also, there’s a short, online clip of his brother, Lightfoot, preaching that is priceless.

Considering the controversial rallies Lewis held outside the store and his close relationship with Malcolm X, I suspected the FBI had files on my uncle.  Receiving a fat packet of FBI files after nine months of waiting was a thrill, and again gave me a happy boost at a time of frustration.

[Uma] Assuming that every book teaches a writer something, what did this book teach you?

[Vaunda] After beginning the new format, I was finding great pleasure in the project. but one day I asked myself — what is this exactly?   Teen biography?  No, I had already crossed the line into invention, and invention spells fiction.  But was it teen fiction?  By page 14, Lewis is an adult.  Where was the teenage protagonist?   Even if I found an editor who liked it, could it pass muster in an acquisitions meeting?  What publisher would buy this book?

I decided it didn’t matter.  I needed to continue the project for my family for myself.  There was much support coming from that direction — including from Lewis himself.  His spirit was there — prodding.  So I forged ahead not caring whether it would find a publishing audience.  I forged ahead because a bit of Lewis’s independent spirit had rubbed off.  In the past, I fancied myself as someone who had the strength to deviate from the norm.  I was, but I had limits.  I still do, but NO CRYSTAL STAIR confirmed the truth of that cliched advice that many give but don’t really believe – “Follow your heart.”  Or as Lewis put it, “Never lose your individuality.”

The project also gave me some things to think about with regard to the complexity of character, both in fiction and real life.   Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey are often skimmed over or neglected by black history programs in schools.  Their ideas and philosophies about the fight for equality were out of the mainstream and, threatening for some.  Malcolm and Garvey were seen as radical, explosive, enigmatic personalities.  Most of the adults in my childhood saw Garvey’s Back-to-Africa movement as extreme.  Malcolm X was intimidating.   But there is much to learn from Garvey’s commitment to blacks building their own businesses, creating their own communities, becoming self-sufficient, and uniting globally.  Malcolm’s struggle for human rights “by any means necessary,” his personal evolution, his compelling speeches, and (like Lewis Michaux) his belief in education are powerful, significant, and worthy of study.  Learning about figures like Lewis, Malcolm and Garvey expanded my thinking.  Without alternative perspectives, we are in danger of believing there is only one right way of seeing and being.  It becomes too easy to fall into lock step rather than discover who we really are.

Finally this book taught me the importance of researching family history while the elders are still alive.  I am left with so many questions that Lewis, my parents and grandparents might have been able to answer.  As Lewis always said you can’t really know yourself unless you know your history and those who came before – the shoulders on which you stand.  With this project, I’ve become an advocate for recording family history, and I encourage the children I encounter uncover for the stories in their own backyards.

 [Uma] What were some obstacles you encountered?

[Vaunda] Many times I felt I was spinning my wheels, getting nowhere, looking for a needle in the wrong haystack.  I had to learn persistence, which sometimes payed off.   But sometimes, I hit a brick wall and had to accept the fact that I may never find resolution.

Lewis sometimes embellished the facts in one venue and then forgot, or didn’t care, that he’d done so — his true age, how long the bookstore actually existed.  These kinds of inconsistencies were frustrating when I was attempting to research and write straight biography.  I wanted to get the facts right.  But once I shifted to documentary fiction and allowed myself the freedom to speculate and imagine, the sense of mystery added intrigue and led me to wonder.  This wondering, I believe, brought me to truths that I might not have discovered otherwise.  However, as someone trying to uncover family history, I wish I had more answers.  My search isn’t over.

[Uma] Revision wasn’t a simple linear process for this book.  Will you talk about the work you did in revising, revisiting the same material over and over again?  How did revision make the book grow?  Change?  Deepen?  How did it surprise you?

 [Vaunda] The shift to the new format was a major but fascinating process.  Creating the voices was challenging, but some of the best writing fun I’ve ever had.  For example, the factual information regarding the incident where Lewis loses his eye went from a paragraph in the straight biography to three voices — Lewis, his brother Norris, and a police officer.  This change enabled me to convey emotion and show aspects of Lewis and Norris unseen in the original.

One of my main revision challenges was organizing the story, deciding who would speak when, and the content of what they might say to move the story forward gave me many hours of brain pain.  At one point in the process, I took the manuscript to the library when it was closed, laid it out on tables page by page, and started shifting — place this before that, that before this — no, no, that before this — or did it work better the other way around?  Initially, I placed a few chapters out of sequence.  Ultimately I decided to work chronologically to avoid disrupting the flow and momentum of the story.

Also, Malcolm is such a powerful and fascinating figure, he could easily have taken over the story.  My editor Andrew Karre and I worked together to keep him in perspective, to include only Malcolm X materials which were relevant to Lewis’s story.  Although there is much I would like young readers to know about Malcolm, I had to keep focus on Lewis’s story.   His brother Lightfoot also is a powerful character whose story could have overshadowed Lewis’s if I’d handled it differently.   I had to keep reminding myself to stay with Lewis.

[Uma] What did Lewis say that you’d want to say to readers?

[Vaunda] Lewis was promoting education, but not just as a means to job success.  He believed in the richness that knowledge can bring to everyday life.  “You have to know something to protect yourself,”  he said.  “Knowledge is power.  You need it every hour. Read a book!”

[Uma] And what do you want to say to writers who wish to write for young people?

[Vaunda] As writers we should never underestimate what kids can handle.  They’re smart and beg to be challenged.  Sometimes we make the mistake of believing young readers can’t deal with subtlety.  But that which is left unsaid is often what gets them thinking beyond the text.  The reading process becomes an interactive one, a give and take, a private affair that adds to a repository of experience they can draw from as they negotiate life.

[Uma] So there you go. Write to stretch the minds of your readers. Thank you, Vaun!


Stan Yogi and Laura Atkins on Fred Korematsu Speaks Up

628dd2bfb56cd1d0122408860ee65943Since it was published in January, in a modest print run of 3,000 copies, Fred Korematsu Speaks Up has sold out and gone into reprint. Which is as it should be. I asked Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi to tell me what drew each of them to Fred’s story, tragically relevant as it is to our own times.

Stan: Fred Korematsu is one of my heroes. As a young man, Fred defied the government’s World War II orders forcing 120,000 Japanese Americans (including my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles) from the west coast into concentration camps only because they looked like the enemy. Fred’s family and community did not support his actions. It took tremendous courage for him to stand up for his rights as an American citizen. 

His story is all the more important now with threats to Muslims, immigrants, refugees, communities of color, women and LGBT people. Kids need to know that we can organize and fight against injustice, just like Fred.


Jana, Mona, and Batool from Fred Korematsu Elementary School in Davis, CA. Young people. Our last best hope. Photo courtesy of Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi.

Laura: I was over the moon when Molly Woodward, the editor at Heyday, asked me to get involved in the book. I was brought on to add my children’s book experience.

I grew up in an activist family and became an activist myself, arrested twice in high school at protests, and working as at Children’s Book Press and as an editor at Lee & Low Books, with a focus on diversity and equity in children’s books. I love that this series highlights people who have fought for their rights, showing the power of individuals, and collective action, to make a difference. 

This couldn’t be more timely. We’ve now presented to over 1,200 kids, with over 1,000 more in the coming few weeks. It’s been inspiring to share Fred’s story with them, but also to talk about standing up and activism more generally. At a school presentation in Davis last week, three girls told us how they raised money at the school after their mosque was vandalized. They were proud to share their efforts, and clearly supported by their teacher and community. It’s an honor to be connected to kids in this way, and I hope that our book helps to inspire more to know that they can also speak up.


Stan and Laura with Karen Korematsu

One additional note: Karen Korematsu, Fred’s daughter, founder of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute, wrote an op-ed that was published in the New York Times. It’s about her father’s life and legacy and the relevance of that narrative to here and now.


When President Trump signed an executive order temporarily banning travel from seven majority Muslim countries, he hurled us back to one of the darkest and most shameful chapters of American history. Executive orders that go after specific groups under the guise of protecting the American people are not only unconstitutional, but morally wrong. My father, and so many other Americans of Japanese descent, were targets of just such an order during World War II.

United States policies already seem to be tilting toward inhumanity, intolerance, xenophobia. Here is a history that deserves to be remembered, if we are to keep from repeating it. Stan and Laura have done a remarkable job in bringing Fred’s story to young readers.

Margaret Peterson Haddix on Uprising

uprisingI felt like I heard a voice telling me, “They thought we didn’t matter.”

Uprising is the story of three immigrant girls in New York City at the time of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. We might imagine such a storyline not to be desperately relevant today. We would be wrong. I asked author Margaret Peterson Haddix how she began thinking about turning this historical event into a novel for young readers.

[Margaret] Uprising was one of only two books I’ve ever written where the original idea was not my own. My editor, David Gale, suggested I write about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire because at the time (in the late 1990s) there weren’t any YA novels related to the fire, and he thought that was a huge oversight. He knew I was interested in history (it was one of my majors in college) and he thought I could bring out the drama of the story.

In the beginning, I agreed that a YA novel about the fire was a good idea, but I didn’t think I was the right author to write it. Partly, it just seemed like such a depressing story—I knew there was hopefulness in the way laws were changed because of the fire, but I didn’t think that provided much consolation for the dead.

The tale of the fire also seemed like such a New York City story, and I’m not a New Yorker; I grew up as a Midwestern farm girl, and I currently live in Ohio. I’m also not Jewish or Catholic, and my ancestors weren’t Italian or Eastern European, as so many of the girls in the fire would have been. So initially I felt that this was not my story to tell. There’s been a lot more attention and focus on cultural appropriation recently than there was in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, but it was still something I was concerned about.

The turning point came for me after I did a little research. I was thinking about the victims of the fire one Sunday morning, and I felt like I heard a voice telling me, “They thought we didn’t matter.” I happened to be sitting in church at the time, so I could make this into some mystical tale of how I had divine inspiration, or felt like I’d gotten permission from the spirit of one of the dead girls to tell her story, even if I wasn’t like her. I’m not sure I want to go that far with it, but that voice and that one sentence changed my perspective. Before, I’d been thinking mostly about how the workers’ deaths mattered. But afterward, I felt strongly that if I wrote the book, my focus would be on how much their lives were worth, too. That, I decided, meant I would also have to tell the story of the shirtwaist strike that occurred shortly before the fire, and the story of the rich women working for the right to vote who joined forces with poor female immigrants during that strike. It was a lot to link together, and I wasn’t sure I could carry it off, but I saw those connections as essential.

I also stopped thinking about how I was different from the workers and started thinking instead about how much I had in common with them. Even now, anytime I go to New York City I’m simultaneously awestruck and humbled, and there’s a little voice in the back of my head whispering, “You’re just a nobody from nowhere. You don’t belong here.” I have to believe a lot of the Triangle workers felt that way, too. Many if not most of them weren’t native New Yorkers, either—they were immigrants from poor, rural areas. I could understand that.

So I had a way in to the story and an idea of the characters and scenes I wanted to depict. But because I was writing other books, it was another six or seven years before I started diving intensively into the work.

[Uma] How much research did you have to do? What were your sources?

[Margaret] I did more research for this book than for anything else I’ve ever written. I list twenty different reference books in my author’s note, but that was only a fraction of what I read. In an attempt to make my depictions of Yetta and Bella as accurate as possible, I read about what Eastern European and Italian immigrants’ lives would have been like in their homelands and once they arrived in America. To depict Jane’s life, I read about the suffrage movement between 1909 and 1911 and the lives of upper class young women in New York City at the time. I studied Jacob Riis’s pictures of tenement life and portraits of Vanderbilts dressed up for extravagant balls. And I read so much analysis of the fire itself that I completely desensitized myself for a while, until I was actually writing those scenes and putting my beloved characters in that horrible spot, and then it became real to me again, and more horrifying than ever.

I read newspaper accounts from the era, not just about the fire, but about other things going on that Bella, Yetta, and Jane would have been aware of, such as the first airplane flight in New York City. I was fortunate that my local library had just made a database of New York Times articles available, dating back to that era. Cornell University also has an amazing website related to the fire that was extremely useful.

I also went to New York City to do research, so I could go to the tenement museum there and walk around the area where my main characters would have lived. Because the building where the fire occurred is still standing (it’s now part of New York University) I got special permission to go in and gaze out the windows on the eighth floor that some of the workers jumped from. I also went up to the roof of the building, which helped me to imagine how some of the workers who survived the fire would have climbed up a ladder through smoke and flames to one of the buildings next door. Being there made a difference.

[Uma] How did you balance big historical realities with a sharper, closer look at the journeys of your young characters?

[Margaret] I saw the big, historical realities as a framework I had to work within. It actually helped me to have that framework, because then I knew what shaped my characters.

[Uma] Assuming that every book teaches a writer something, what did writing this book teach you?

[Margaret] I’m torn between, “Challenges are good for you, even when you think they’re going to kill you,” and “Sometimes the only way to accomplish something hard is being too stupid to know that it’s actually impossible.”

[Uma] What were some obstacles you encountered?

I already mentioned the doubts I had about whether I was the right person to write the story. I also had trouble finding as much information as I wanted about Italian immigrants. Because I wanted to represent the perspective of the three girls equally, I struggle to make sure the story arc for each of them was equally compelling throughout the book. Most of my previous books had been from only one perspective, and I’d considered myself radical and brave for alternating between a brother and sister’s perspective in one of my earlier books, Takeoffs and Landings. So I really questioned if I could carry off giving three main characters a voice every third chapter.

I also knew I was going to have to let at least one of my main characters die. Not doing that, I thought, would be dishonest. But by the time I wrote those scenes, I was heavily invested emotionally in all three characters. I ended up crying as I wrote.

And finally, I faced a problem that often comes up with historical fiction. The early 1900s contained a horrifying amount of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism. And all of those things were common, casual, and, in many cases, viewed as merely accepted wisdom, not anything controversial. Painting my favored characters as somehow being above that seemed, again, dishonest, as well as dangerously inaccurate to the time period. But I very much did not want to give readers the impression that I as the author approved of those racist, sexist, bigoted attitudes.

[Uma] Why do you think historical fiction matters? (OK, so pay attention to her replies here, because if you think this stuff mattered before 2017….)

[Margaret] Where to start on this one?

Because history matters.

Because history repeats itself, and one of the only ways we can avoid just repeating the same mistakes again and again is to learn about and learn from the mistakes of the past.

Because it’s hard to know who we are without knowing where we came from.

Because history gives perspective, and can help us understand and appreciate the present.

Because history is full of amazing stories.

All of that speaks largely about why history matters, not necessarily historical fiction. But I think historical fiction is an excellent way in to discovering history. And just as fiction in general can show truths that may be too slippery or remote to appear clearly in non-fiction, historical fiction can bring aspects of history to light that don’t show up so clearly in textbook recounting of what is known about the past.

Also, as many others have pointed out, the history most people learn is largely from the white male perspective, because that’s who has had power. In many instances, women and people of color were considered so unimportant that their histories weren’t even recorded or kept, so there’s little way to recover it. Historical fiction, based on what can be known, can serve an important function in filling in the gaps.

And finally, when we read straight history, there’s a sense of inevitability. We know who won the Revolutionary War; we know Hitler ultimately lost World War II; we know the Cuban Missile Crisis ended without anyone resorting to using nuclear weapons. Good historical fiction puts readers back in the moment when outcomes seemed uncertain, and fear and hope and dread and resolve mix equally.


Talk about the work you did in revising the novel. How did revision make the work grow? Change? Deepen? How did it surprise you?

[Margaret] I am always surprised, revising, when I see how tentatively I understood my characters in the first draft. I am so much more decisive going back through the manuscript changing dialogue that my characters would never say, or actions they would never do. I can’t think of any specific examples of this from Uprising, unfortunately.

I agonized as I was writing that the book was just going to be too long, and I even toyed with the notion at one point of splitting it into two books—one going through the end of the strike, and one focused more on the fire. But I felt strongly that both events had to be in the same book, so I discarded that idea pretty quickly.

A lot of my focus during the revision was on accuracy. I went back and re-consulted a lot of the resources I’d used initially, and that was definitely a necessary step, since my memories had shifted. I got help from an Italian-Canadian friend with all the Italian language references, and from a professor for all the Yiddish. I recruited my kids, then in middle school, to help me track down pesky details like whether cars in 1909 would have locks on the doors. For months after writing the book, I’d see random references to something that happened after 1911 and panic: Oh, wow, crossword puzzles weren’t invented until 1913? Did I put any crossword puzzles in the book and accidentally make it anachronistic? I never found anything like that that I’d done wrong, but I certainly fretted about it a lot.

[Uma] Anything else you’d like readers to know?

[Margaret] One of the awful things about researching Uprising was my constant sense that we’re still still grappling with a lot of the same issues now that Americans were arguing about back in the early 1900s. The worries about the gap between the wealthy and the poor now echo concerns from the early 1900s. And you could take a discussion of immigration issues from, say, 1909, substitute the word, “Mexican,” for “Italian” and “Muslim” for “Jewish,” and it would be pretty much identical to the arguments we’re having now. I found that really depressing. How could we not have made more progress in the past century?

The thing I kept holding onto was the idea that at least women can vote now. Women’s lives and viewpoints have definitely changed in the past hundred years, and that’s important to remember.

The other thing that struck me, again and again, was how amazing the ordinary female factory workers were in 1909. Many of them had come to the United States all alone without speaking English or even, in some cases, knowing how to read. They found jobs, they worked ungodly hours for pitiful wages, they struggled against incredible odds and brutal discrimination—and yet many of them not only survived but summoned the will to stand up for their rights and the rights of their fellow workers. I felt extremely wimpy complaining about any problem in my life while I was doing that research. And that became one of the major reasons I wanted to tell those girls’ stories.

[Uma] I used Uprising as a sample text in my January 2017 lecture at VCFA. It gave us a lot to talk about. Thank you Margaret!




Love and the Blank Page

Never mind romantic love–let’s talk about love affairs with paper and pencils and words!

Julie Larios writes about the beauty of pencils. Snippet:

I was a seven-year-old who loved school supplies…

Me too, me too! Pens and pencils. Paper, notebooks, erasers, paper-clips. I loved them all. I loved my father’s old Remington Portable typewriter with its clackety-clack keys. I was a goner from the moment I realized that the wall was not the only place I could apply a crayon. Putting writing implements to paper made me feel as if a part of myself were melting into words and images and ideas.

My seven-year-old self felt no terror at the blank page. That’s the kind of thing that changes with time. As Rachel Vorona Cote writes about the paradox of the blank book:

It invites our most intimate scribbles while its creamy, pristine pages cast doubt upon the merit of our words. What ideas burn so brightly that they should besmirch generous, bare pages? Yes, blank books promise—but they also protest.

img_1061True. When your handwriting has degraded to a scrawl, it seems as if form and content have both deserted you, leaving you looking especially stupid.

Yet when people find out you’re a writer, they give you these gorgeous gifts of journal notebooks. The notebooks then sit on your shelf in a row and mock you with their deliciously smooth, blank pages.  So when I started teaching at VCFA back in 2006, I took one of these gifts to residency. I took notes during faculty and graduate student lectures. I doodled. I wrote down fragments of thoughts when I felt moved or puzzled or annoyed. I grumbled when I needed to. Later, I dared to read some of the entries. Most were inane. Some were filled with unexpected memories of particular moments. I was surprised to see that a few threads have managed since then to find their way into now-published stories.

Now I have a fountain pen and a few colors of ink to choose from. And I take the notebooks with me whenever I travel. I write in them occasionally even during alternate semesters, when I don’t teach. There’s something satisfying about letting a thought go from brain to arm to fingers and then onto a page. Imperfect. Incomplete. But still, organic. Real.

Love, Ish by Karen Rivers

loveishAt the center of Love, Ish is a girl with a light and lively voice and an irrepressible spirit. Congratulations, Karen Rivers, on a richly layered middle grade novel.

Ish’s voice is beautifully crafted, knowledgeable, and more, when the downturn couldn’t be worse, it’s funny. It makes us care. Mars is a metaphor for Ish’s journey, and maybe even for life itself.

A fuller review for CLCD will appear on the Barnes & Noble web site in a couple of weeks.


The Practice of Art

Back in 2008, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a New Yorker article titled Late Bloomers: Why Do We Equate Genius with Precocity? In it, he writes:

A painting done by Picasso in his mid-twenties was worth…an average of four times as much as a painting done in his sixties. For Cézanne, the opposite was true. The paintings he created in his mid-sixties were valued fifteen times as highly as the paintings he created as a young man. The freshness, exuberance, and energy of youth did little for Cézanne. He was a late bloomer—and for some reason in our accounting of genius and creativity we have forgotten to make sense of the Cézannes of the world.

img_0205Years later, in Paris, in the Cézanne room at the stunningly beautiful Musee D’Orsay, I remembered the article. It took the artist practice. More, it took mentoring and seeking. It took years of experimentation. In the end he produced works that are now judged to be masterpieces, but he himself was sometimes  dissatisfied with them.

If Gladwell’s examination of genius and its realization means anything, it is that art will find meaning in its own way, in its own time. Much like architecture, in fact. When they built this train station, after all, no one could have foreseen that it would end up as a museum!


Fred Korematsu and Another Infamous Executive Order

628dd2bfb56cd1d0122408860ee65943Fred Korematsu Speaks Up is a new children’s book co-written by VCFA graduate Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi. When Laura first talked to me about this project I was excited. It seemed a vitally important story to tell. A story that shouldn’t be forgotten.

Today, the signing of executive orders is carrying a kind of crazed trigger-happiness that threatens to turn the clock back upon civil rights. Today, Fred’s story begins to carry a tragic new urgency.

I’ll be talking to Laura some more about her book. Meanwhile, here’s a snippet from the web site of the ACLU of Northern California:

Monday, Jan. 30, 2017 is Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution, established by the California legislature in 2010 to commemorate the ACLU of Northern California’s client who was interned during World War II.

Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017 is the 75th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, which began Japanese Internment.

It would be a shame to let that February 17th anniversary go by without taking some action, whatever we can, each of us who cares. Action to stop the erosion of civil rights and liberties in the land that was supposed to be the cradle of both.

Susan Krawitz on Viva, Rose! (Part 2 of 2)

gringoposter[Uma] In historical fiction the research can take its own time as well. How much research did you have to do? What were your sources? 

[Susan] I did SO MUCH RESEARCH. Whoops, that’s in caps. Sorry. 

So much. That’s better.

One really, really great source was a book by well-known journalist John Reed called Insurgent Mexico. He was history’s first embedded journalist, tasked by a publication called Metropolitan Magazine to live with Villa’s army for four months and send stories back home. Reed was hugely sympathetic to the revolutionary cause, and wrote passionately detailed articles about the revolution and its people that read like fiction. He was one of the first journalists to employ this technique, which is now widely used by modern journalists.

I also studied all I could find about Jewish settlement in the west, using online sources, non-fiction books, and fiction, including picture books. One, Zayda Was a Cowboy, by June Levitt Nislick, was named a Sydney Taylor award notable book by the Association of Jewish Libraries, which led me discover that the AJL also offered an annual manuscript award.

russiannesteds[Uma] Which you won! Congratulations. Like nesting dolls, one thing led to another.

[Susan] Thank you. I believe winning this award, which is intended to lift books out of the slush pile, was instrumental in getting Viva, Rose! published.

I could say some of my own life experience served as “research” as well. Before my daughter was born, I spent a lot of time riding horses and climbing rocks (my one and only trip to Texas was to a climbing site near El Paso), and those experiences ended up in the book. 

And last and most fun, I did some genealogical searching, with the help of my sister and her friend, on the web. We uncovered all kinds of fabulous information about our Texas relatives from old census records. We also discovered some of their descendants still live in San Antonio, and I recently sent one an email—and he actually wrote me back.

[Uma] How did you balance big historical realities with a sharper, closer look at the journey of a single character?

[Susan] It can be a challenge to fully serve history and also fully serve a fictional character in a fictional story. Though ultimately, I couldn’t plop all the nerdy research details I loved into the book, I felt they served as a sort of a radiant, energetic imprint beneath the story. And it wasn’t possible to adhere strictly to the whats and whens of the Mexican Revolution—if I did, the fictional tale would suffer. But the issues and events of the time HUGELY informed the book’s character and plot choices. I hope I conveyed an accurate energetic sense of the hopes, fears and goals of the people involved in the Mexican Revolution. Which, not surprisingly, are also the hopes, fears, and goals of many in today’s world, as well.

[Uma] Anything else you’d like to add?

[Susan] One of the best parts of this book’s award and publication was the delightful discovery that not all who wander are indeed, really lost. 

Viva, Rose!, which is the first book I’ll publish, took over a decade to go from inception to print, but it’s clear to me that everything I’ve ever done in the writing vein contributed to this outcome. The time spent as a journalist and newspaper columnist, the short stories and screenplays I wrote, the years as a freelance editor; even the bad poetry I wrote in college. All of it went into some huge mental and emotional MixMaster and became the slurry that formed this book.

There were some huge bumps along the road (including an agent who signed, then dropped the book before submitting it!), and it’s such a relief to realize that all the side gigs, delays, and wanders were actually not in vain. I see their imprint in this book’s pages and am now so grateful for every step it took to reach this goal. And I’m also grateful that no matter how far (or impossible!) the finish line seemed, I just couldn’t seem to stop imagining it existed and stepping towards it.

[Uma] Imagining it existed. The story itself, the shape it took, and the book. Such a wonderful journey, Susan. Viva Susan, and Viva, Rose!

Veera Hiranandani: Teaching Writing and the Pure Act of Story-making

9780375871672_p0_v1_s260x420Veera Hiranandani is the author of the Phoebe G. Green series and The Whole Story of Half a Girl. See my earlier interview with her.

Veera also teaches at the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY and at the Writopia Lab in Westchester, NY. (Her upcoming spring workshops, Writing Middle Grade and YA Fiction and Story Mapping are currently open for registration.)

I’m happy to be talking to Veera again.

[Uma] Veera, what makes teaching a good fit with writing for you?

[Veera] They intersect in many ways and constantly feed each other. I haven’t always practiced teaching and writing together in the way I’ve been able to the last few years. During a writing workshop, though I’m supposed to be the “teacher,” nothing teaches me more about writing than working with my students. I’m always learning.

P1070394.jpg[Uma] Tell me more. What does your writer self learn from teaching? 

[Veera]  As a writer, it’s hard to see your own work from an objective point of view. I’m usually too close to it. When I work with a student who’s wrestling with some of the same things I am, I’m able to bring that objectivity or at least some of it back to my own writing and get a fresh perspective.  

I’m also privileged enough to teach both children, teens, and adults. Working with such a wide age range compliments so many parts of me as a writer. When I teach young people, though many have dreams of being a “real writer” when they grow up, I find the work they do is so real, because it’s not motivated by professional and adult concerns. They’re not thinking about the market or query letters or finding an agent, they are simply wrestling with the stories in their heads and how best to get them out in the form of the written word. Watching and guiding them through the process is to witness the pure act of story-making, one I can sometimes lose sight of. 

When I work with adults, I get to relearn many elements of craft as I try to figure out how best to communicate this information with my students. I constantly think about what kind of feedback would be helpful to me as a writer when I’m giving feedback to others.  I’m inspired by their productivity and their ability to go back to the drawing board to get something right. I also feel like I’d better walk the walk when I talk about the benefits of having a writing schedule, plotting, and pre-writing work, so they keep me on my toes. 

[Uma] Walking the talk. Too true. So how do we reflect that back in our teaching?

[Veera]  As I’m writing, I really try to remember and be sensitive to what leads me to my own writing breakthroughs. What was the process that allowed me to figure out this character, or this scene, or this plot, and how do I share it with my students? I find that I’m a much more reflective writer because of my students. 

When I look back to all stages of my life, I feel like I’ve always had a writer and a teacher in me. Getting to do both things professionally allows me to connect with a fully realized version of myself. I only hope I’m able to do both for a long time.  It’s such a satisfying circle, the way each process serves and stimulates the other. I can’t really imagine doing one with out the other anymore. 

[Uma] Thank you, Veera, for placing this work in the context of a writer’s life. Here’s to the pure act of story-making!

Susan Krawitz on Viva, Rose! (1 of 2)

vrcover3My cyber-writing-friend and colleague Susan Krawitz celebrates the publication of her middle grade novel Viva Rose! She has a few things to say about family tall tales and their transformation into a fascinating story for young readers. 

[Uma] Viva Rose began with a family story—tell me that story. 

[Susan] When I was a kid, two of my grandfather’s sisters lived together in a big house in Bensonhurst Brooklyn. It happened to be the same house Moe, Curley and Shemp of the Three Stooges grew up in, but that’s another story altogether. Anyway, when the family would gather there for holidays, my wacky uncle Sheldon liked to tell the kid-crowd stories of my grandfather’s cousins Rose and Abraham Solomon who, in the 1920s and 30s, used to visit from their home in San Antonio Texas. Rose had a lovely singing voice, and always came bearing gifts, and Abe wore full cowboy regalia so he could look like a rube and pool-shark the locals at the billiards hall. Uncle Sheldon said he played chess on horseback—balancing a board? Play-acting a knight? It wasn’t clear. But the wildest tale of all was that he’d joined Pancho Villa’s army during the Mexican Revolution of the early 1900s. 

serapesombreroBut were these stories true, or was Uncle Sheldon just entertaining the kids? Great-Aunt Edie did have a Mexican serape draped on a chair in her room, and a sombrero hanging on her wall. At any rate, the tales of our Russian/Jewish immigrant cowboy relative were fun to think about, and the serape and sombrero made me curious. 30 years ago I gave my sister, who’s a historian, a T-shirt with a picture of Pancho Villa’s gang on it, and we joked about which bandido might be our cousin. And then she came back from a trip to San Antonio with a printout of a 1932 newspaper article she’d found in the library’s microfiche that confirmed our family’s Abraham legends and created some new ones as well. 

[Uma] I happen to know a little something about how you began thinking about turning this history into a book for young readers. Will you tell that story? 

[Susan] I can truthfully say that the kernel of this story was the very first one that lodged in my heart and urged me to write it as a novel. I tried it as Abraham’s story first, but that tack didn’t seem to have much steam. And then, Uma, our mutual friend, Audrey Couloumbis sold a pair of middle grade Western novels featuring fabulous female protagonist (The Misadventures of Maude March and Maude March on the Run!). You and I were in an online critique group with Audrey at that time, and she said to us, “Who has an idea for a Western?” Both you and I raised our hands.

[Uma] Well, I kind of raised my hand. You were more enthusiastic.

[Susan] When I came up with a plot idea that made a thirteen-year-old Rose the protagonist, the story engine really began to chug. That happened more years back than I care to admit, but I was so delighted to discover recently that you also grew a book from that conversation, and it will be published right around the same time as Viva, Rose! 

[Uma] Not a Western, but set in the western United States, and also historical, yes.  

[Susan] Doris Lessing said, “In the writing process, the more a thing cooks, the better.” 

[Uma] Too true. Thank you, Susan. More in Part 2.