Process Notes: Rita Williams-Garcia on A Sitting in St. James

Once in a while you find a book that makes you stop and reread passages for the power of their words.

Or a book whose characters make you weep because they have the tenacious courage to hope, to claim their own humanity and agency in the face of horrific odds.

Or where a pair of characters whose love appears doomed seem to be leading you toward a trope that sank your heart, only to have the story chuckle at you and exclaim “gotcha!” before leaping off its own cliff to a far, far better outcome.

And then sometimes, you get all of these at once and you know this story has walked off its pages and has come to reside in your heart. That’s how I felt when I’d finished reading A Sitting in St. James by my dear colleague and friend, Rita Williams-Garcia. I read it in one big gulp, unable to stop, and at the end of it, I was bursting with questions.

What follows is a pared-down version of an hour-long conversation with Rita about her book, which the Kirkus reviewer saw as an example of “taking contemporary inspiration into the archives to unearth sorely needed truths.”

[Uma] A Sitting in St. James made me feel the past was in the present, raising questions about history but also about race and society in the here and now. How did you end up writing it in this way?

[Rita] Let me just say where it came from. The first thing was a daydream. I had this image of a boy, a white teen, grooming a horse, and I realized that I was back in time and that the boy was a West Point cadet. By the way he was grooming the horse, I thought, Oh, he’s thinking about someone he misses, longs for. Right away, I thought, Wait. He’s thinking about another West Point cadet.

Two boys in love in 1860-something? Hmm, I said to myself, it’s just an idea. Not every idea is going to become something. So I put it away, and every once in a while, I’d think about it. Later, I woke up from a dream, and in the dream was joyful, joyful music. It was African. I could hear a woman singing, instruments, all of that. But the scene didn’t match the joy. The woman was running with a baby. She had made it down to the shore and she threw the baby into the ocean. She was rejoicing and then she was in chains.

I got it. Many of us during the Middle Passage, if we could jump overboard, we did that, knowing that we would die. To her, death was better than captivity for her child. I told Kathi about it, and every once in a while she’d ask me what I was doing with those images. I didn’t know.

[Uma] That would be Kathi Appelt, who we know has magical story-whispering powers.

[Rita] Yes. She said, “You’ve got to do something with this.”

Meanwhile, I had pitched that other story, two West Point cadets in love, to my editor. So I started reading a lot about West Point culture. I came upon a diary of a Black cadet. I was just reading, reading. Then I was at a screening for a documentary I was in, about the Black Panthers, and at the end there was a panel. After seeing all the images of police brutality, this young boy asked, “Why do they hate us?” I was there for the children’s literature part of the panel, and the woman next to me said, “Okay, you’re here for the kids. Say something.”

I felt so badly for him, but what I said was something like “When they see us, they don’t see a human being.” What I remember is that I did not elaborate enough. I just kept thinking about that afterwards, and that’s when I finally realized that I wasn’t going to write that story I thought I was going to write. Instead I was going to write this whole big story to answer that boy’s question.

Stories always build over time for me, while I’m still reading and thinking it through. I knew it was going to be a North-South story, and my mother had always been fond of Louisiana, so at some point I knew I’d set it there. But then I knew Louisiana wasn’t the beginning. We always get this sense that whatever state we’re in, in the United States, that is its origin–but no, it’s not. The land was there long before Europeans came–the people there were not exactly crying out for European help. And the European story in Louisiana has to be French. I also knew I wanted to talk about the boy’s personal freedom to be who he was. So to get at the bigger picture of freedoms I went back to the French Revolution. And then of course, we’re going to go to the Haitian Revolution, because you had Haitians who then came to Louisiana.

Yet another daydream–I remembered a time when I was chopping cabbage. I had this thought about Hegel and something he had said about the cabbage and the blade. So I turned that into a kind of fractured fairy tale of a maiden who is given a cabbage by a lord, and she will then go off with him. It’s Madame’s fairytale of her origin, why she became who she was.

[Uma] I will never forget that scene, I want you to know. The cabbage head hacked off and the message behind it.

[Rita] The copyeditors had a hard time believing that a cabbage could cause someone to cut herself, so I had to take a picture of a cabbage cut that way to show its firm, hard surface and that clean edge. But because of the bloodthirsty mobs of the day, young Madame would have been able to make that connection, because of what was in the air.

To show all those different aspects of that history, I had to step away from the story of the boy and create this whole backstory for the place we now call the state of Louisiana, to show how it came to be. And I had to show this great mixing of people from all over the place, and the codifying that went with that. It wasn’t going to be America as we know it or even as we think we know it.

[Uma] I was very struck by who you chose to give voice to, and how. We have all these white people–and certainly all of them carry their own longings and their own horrors–but then we have Thisbe, who’s given voice by not having voice at all. I fear and hurt for her all along precisely because you build her presence through every silence, every urgent flinching, every word she chooses not to say. Can you talk about that?

[Rita] It was kind of a risk. We are in a time now when our voice is everything. We are extremely vocal, so much so that I think it’s hard for us to imagine what it is to be entombed in silence. Especially because oftentimes that silence is saving your life. There is a kind of lore that the house slaves had it better than those who worked in the fields. And in many ways that was true, the hard labor and so forth. But because you were in close proximity to the family, you had to be self-protective, and how can you be self-protective if you have no rights? I think enslaved peoople have always found ways to protect themselves and their children as much as they could, just operating on those margins. Your everything is subject to someone else’s whim or desire or whatever it might be. So that is where I started. I didn’t want to have the sassy slave that talks back. I wanted to dramatize the tightrope that so many enslaved people had to walk.

Thisbe is bright, she absorbs a lot, and she understands so much on so many levels. So that means that she has to know how to react for each situation and sometimes that means thinking fast and reacting fast. She’s not active on the surface but she’s so involved in her own struggle. She has had to navigate her life through many times when it looked as if there was no path to navigate. This is how she’s able to divert Madame when she has to. This is how she’s escaped the grasp of the son, Lucien. As much as silence is a prison, it’s also a weapon. So when someone demands that she speak, they don’t know that they could be causing harm to her.

[Uma] And there are the undercurrents between Thisbe and the sisters–Marie and Luisa.

[Rita] Yes, even though the white people are in the forefront, you get the undercurrents, tensions, and even to some degree the alliances, in the household. Marie and Luisa resent Thisbe–all she does is stand all day! And the skin color plays in as well. They are Creole mulattos, so-called at the time. Thisbe is definitely of African parentage so there is that tension as well. There is an alliance between Thisbe and Lily the cook, but Thisbe knows better than to speak any kind of Creole in Lily’s presence. So there is a hierarchy and then there are cultural differences among these people, even though they are all people of color. And then of course, Rosalie, fairskinned as she is, resents Thisbe for being so close to her grandmother. You’d think Rosalie would have greater privilege because of her skin color, but the one privilege she longs for, she can’t have.

[Uma] What about now? Why do you think it’s particularly important to give this history an unflinching look now?

[Rita] Because that boy still has to ask that question, you see, “Why do they hate us?”

Because why are we still asking who has rights in this country? Are we allowed to be citizens like everyone else? It’s all an outgrowth of the past. You think about the patrollers who used to look for runaway slaves, and we can see a clear line drawn from that all the way down to policing today. How police work with a presumption of guilt when they’re on the street or in homes in Black neighborhoods. So even though there are supposed to be laws on the books for fairness and all that, we’re still engaged in that fight.

[Uma] So what about the white people in the book who are engaged in suppressing their own? There’s the queer pain of Pearce and Byron, of course, but there’s also Jane, who proves to be irrepressible.

[Rita] I didn’t intend to write her in that way, but she just kind of came forward. The moment that she charged the postman with her horse, I understood how focused and centered she is. She’s not typically rebellious or anything, she is simply who she is, and she truly doesn’t see why she has to be something else. She is part of the issue of personal freedom that I wanted to talk about. Even though there are times we’re not sympathetic toward the white people they are subject to the laws of their society. Byron is expected to marry and be the heir. It doesn’t even occur to him to defy that expectation. That too I think is very much a part of the time. People looked the other way as long as you fulfilled your social obligations. But Jane is different. Today we might recognize her as being on the autism spectrum.

[Uma] She is complete within herself. They’re all that way, your characters, even the dislikable ones. Rosalie’s a good example, all her complications and longings.

[Rita] I hope so. To me they’re all human and I want us to see their humanity. I’m decided at some point I’m going to do for the characters–all of them, Black and white–what racist white people wouldn’t then, and won’t now, do for us. I’m going to infuse humanity so we can all see it and identify with it.

Rosalie is quintessentially in between worlds, a mixed-blood girl. She loves her Black brothers, even though they tease her, but it’s not until she’s older that she realizes what her mother means when she says Rosalie’s tears will kill them. Her black stepfather despises her–she’s a constant reminder of humiliation. She loves Byron, but she also knows her place. She is property, so she is subject to whatever the whim might be. She has taken the time away, and has learned to better herself–that is why I gave her the dressmaking skill, and societal norms given her through the books the nun gave her. And then there’s the torment between friends and siblings, also feels very real to me. We will fight for each other but we also torment and tease mercilessly. Even the Victor Hugo quote she uses with Laurent. It’s a little jab at him, as if to imply he won’t ever be able to have such elevated conversations. But she knows too that in losing him, she will be bereft of a partner as well.

To me the book is about personal freedom but you can’t escape what it means for that larger sense of freedom that we all cry out for.

[Uma] A book of the 1860s and also a book for the moment.

[Rita] Yes. But that’s why I knew early on the kind of book this wasn’t. I wouldn’t have any Harriet Tubman moments, you know. No grand rescues, no heroic figure at the center, nothing like that. Instead, I had to immerse myself in Louisiana Creole culture. That’s fascinating in itself, because the first definitions of Louisiana Creoles are the descendants of European settlers. And later you had this mixing of cultures and that became Creole identity. I found a book of Creole houses, in which I was able to see all kinds of details that were essential to my scenes. That’s how I found out what goes on the dining table or what Madame’s salon would look like. The prie-dieu where she would kneel to pray, but then I thought, Wait! At her age, she’d want to avoid doing that so she must get Thisbe to do the kneeling for her. And when I saw the garçonniere, it made my story of the boys and their relationship possible. These houses were all quite open then–not too many private spaces. But the garçonniere–there, you have a tradition of providing separate quarters for boys after the age of thirteen or so. So that would work perfectly.

[Uma] Wow. So historic architecture gave you something that worked for the architecture of your story. Rita, the research you did for this sounds pretty formidable.

[Rita] Yes, I guess it was, but I learned so much. It gave me all the intimate details that help to solidify character and set them in place. We also visited plantations. That really helped to make it all much more real. Richard Follett’s The Sugar Masters helped me develop Lucien. It helped me shape Lucien’s concerns, gave me a sense of all the things that can go wrong during planting and harvesting. But this book also detailed the cruelty enacted upon enslaved people and I needed that. Origins of Class Struggle in Louisiana by Roger Shugg–the postman came out of this book. Shugg’s work gave me insights into a group or social class of people I wouldn’t necessarily like. I also got a lot of the background to slavery as an institution.

[Uma] Thank you Rita. What a gift your book is, and this conversation as well!

Guest Post: Terry Nichols on Real-life Setting in The Dreaded Cliff

From my friend of many years and one-time park ranger at Aztec Ruins National Monument, Terry Nichols, here’s a delightful middle grade that Kirkus called “linguistically rich and frequently humorous.”

From Kinkajou Press, The Dreaded Cliff. It’s the story of a packrat, Flora, and her journey through a magical landscape of prickly-pear and yuccas, junipers and towering sandstone cliffs.

The setting sings in this book, so I asked Terry if she’d write about how her real-life high mesa setting (she lives in an adobe house surrounde by this very vegetation, with those very cliffs looming beyond) plays into her story of Flora the packrat and her journey.

Here’s what she wrote:

At the story’s beginning, Flora’s experience of the Southwest landscape is similar to a human’s—though on a smaller scale. Her world centers around the jangly-crate, stashed with her packrat nest of treasures. Like a real packrat who stays within a 160-foot radius of its nest, Flora wanders as far as the prickly pear cactus, the munch mound, the yucca grove, the big juniper tree. Venturing to the other side of the bloated burrow is closer to the dreaded cliff, but there she finds sublime eggplants to nibble. And learns the truth about the ancestral packrat home, jammed in a dark crack in the cliff.

But for Flora, the packrat home’s history is a little too big for her to process. Packrats are like that.

Flora’s physical world needs to expand before she can confront and embrace the dreaded cliff. When the jangly-crate rumbles to unfamiliar territory, her universe stretches to slick rock, sudden thunderstorms, a deep canyon, puzzling creatures, pressing dangers. She’s catapulted into a fantasy world of sorts, where she must learn to interact with animals who behave oddly. Her predicament challenges her to think and feel and act in big ways, defying ordinary behavior of a high desert packrat.

Photo courtesy of Terry Nichols

Although Flora’s journey is deadly serious, this is a children’s story, after all. If I laughed when I wrote, I knew I was on to something. I didn’t deliberately plan Flora’s character. She poked her head into my life, and I found myself writing about this plump, cactus chomping, word-mangling rodent who tumbled into a canyon and discovered all these quirky friends. Ideas for the characters and plot grew not from my scheming mind, but from another place—maybe I’d call it my heart. Whatever the source, ideas popped, and I wrote. If I tried to plan or work at writing, it took forever, yielding a forced, flat result. Then I’d stop writing for months. Thankfully, Flora and I completed our journey in the remarkable Southwest landscape.

And then of course there’s the wordplay that the Kirkus reviewer mentions.

Excerpt:

Flora wasted no time gorging on an eggplant-blob. She snipped purple blossoms for decorating her nest, stuffed them in her mouth, and hopped from the box. “Thank you for sharing. I feel sublimated. Bits of delicate petals flow from her mouth. The “sublimated” word didn’t sound right, but the packrat etiquette felt perfect. “I must be going now.”

It’s a lovely little book, full of heart, where even the villain turns out to play a part in the big picture of the unfathomable desert. Congratulations, Terry!

Unheeded Warning: The Village Where the Chipko Movement Began

Years ago, I wanted to write a children’s book about the Chipko movement, an astonishing story of love and clarity. In the story, 18th century people of the Bishnoi community in Rajasthan in northern India, led by their women, hugged their trees to prevent them from being cut down, because they knew the value of that forest and didn’t want it to be sacrificed to a king’s ignorant ambition.

Deborah Lee Rose beat me to it with her beautiful book, The People Who Hugged the Trees, so I never completed that project, but the story remains vivid in my mind.

In the 1970’s, a woman named Gaura Devi in the area now known as Uttarakhand brought the ancient story to life in her own village to protest the cutting of trees by contractors. The 45th anniversary Google doodle commemorating that event includes a soundbyte history. The movement is credited with the passing of the Indian Forestry Act of 1980 and other measures related to biodiversity and conservation.

As history marches on, Gaura Devi’s Uttarakhand, like much of the lower Himalayan region, is threatened by fast-melting glaciers. No one’s been listening to local activists, or paying attantion to the findings of the special committee ordered by the Supreme Court of India after the last (2013) severe floods. Excert from the CNN report:

Ravi Chopra, director of the People’s Science Institute, was part of that committee and advised the government against building back-to-back dams in the Alaknanda-Bhagirathi basin, high in the Himalayas. They discovered that the run of the river dams, which operate by digging large tunnels into the side of the mountain, actually “weakened the mountain by introducing fractures and fissures,” increasing the risk of landslides.

Chopra said nothing much came of the committee’s recommendations. Dam building continued. And now another Earth Day is behind us. Time will keep moving and so will the planet. Yes, planting trees is a good thing, but it’s not enough.

Guam, Past and Present

With Earth Day appoaching, on my reading list is The Properties of Perpetual Light, a new book by Julian Aguon, founder of Blue Ocean Law, an international law firm based in Guam, specializing in human and indigenous rights, self-determination, and environmental justice in the Pacific. The book addresses the history of colonization and militarization of Guam — and how Indigenous people have resisted U.S. influence.

Made me think–do I even know a single children’s writer from Guam? I don’t, so I thought I’d go browse the Regional Chapters list on the SCBWI web site. Guess what? No SCBWI Guam chapter.

I did find a couple of small presses:

Taiguini Books, an imprint of the University of Guam Press, committed to expanding its collection of cultural literature to include novels, collections of short stories, poetry, and children’s books written about and for the people of Micronesia.

And the Guam Bus, with books in CHamoru and English.

Which led me to this article about–what else?–the damage of colonial occupation and the U.S. Army’s efforts to stamp out the CHamoru language. Another fascinating rabbithole. I discovered that newer references spell the language CHamoru, with two uppercase letters “C” and “H.” I got why they’d change the spelling from the colonial era “Chamorro,” but why the caps? An arctiel in the Guam Daily Post gave me context. Here’s an excerpt:

The CHamoru language, also known as Fino’ Haya, does not have the letter “c” in its alphabet. Sounds associated with the letter “c” in English are represented in CHamoru with the letters “k,” “s” and in the case of the “ch” or “tze” sound, that letter in CHamoru is written as “CH,” which represents the one sound. It constitutes one letter in the CHamoru alphabet, not two. Therefore, when representing that sound at the beginning of a proper noun, the capitalized letter CH is used.

And there’s Nihi! a group that defines itself as “a small but growing indigenous production house based in Guåhan, committed to uplifting indigenous voices and stories from our home and all across our region.” Partnering with the Seventh Generation Fund, the Micronesia Conservation Trust, and Oceania STEM. Guåhan! It’s a name with a musical sound and a distinctive look on the page.

Islands in the sea, with something important to say to the rest of us. I’m looking forward to reading Julian Aguan’s book.

Sparrows in a New Don Freeman Book

Remember Corduroy, the bear who lost a button and found a friend? When Don Freeman, creator of the much-beloved little bear, died in 1978, his wife, Lydia worked with his former editor on a book Don had left unfinished: The Sparrows of Stonehenge. The project never made it to press, but Don’s son Roy Freeman picked up the work and it’s in print now. It’s a time-capsule of sorts, offering a misty, somewhat haunting view into a picture book creator’s mind. There’s the allure of the henge itself, of course, standing in its green Wiltshire meadowscape, raising questions in the minds of viewers.

The delight of this book from out of the past lies in the fact that it does one thing that picture books do better than any other art form. That is to say, it endows the world’s smallest denizens with the ability to answer our biggest questions. We turn to sparrows in this book, starting with Farrow the First, the ancestral sparrow whose descendants still swoop and chirp around the stones.

The collective third person viewpoint of the sparrow family drives the story, which includes the lovely little conceit that the sparrows directed the building of the henge. They even name it. If this places us present-day humans in the peripheral role of slightly confused witnesses to history, while small avian participants sing their hearts out—well, really, that’s not so far from the truth.  

And if it all feels as if it’s come straight out of a sketchbook, it has. Of interest to Freeman fans and children’s lit enthusiasts.

Visualizing the Long Project

©John Hendrix, used by permission of the artist

Thank you to Caroline Starr Rose for letting me know about this marvelous graphic depiction of a process with which I am all too familliar, having been in “this writing business. Pencils and whatnot” for about thirty years now. Being the slow, plodding writer I am, stubbornly Poohish, I know all about the arc of the long project and have occasionally surprised myself retracing my own footsteps in search of Woozles, or could they be Grandfathers?

Artist John Hendrix (author-illustrator of John Brown: His Fight for Freedom) has captured it all in visual form with the brilliance and succinctness that induces instant illustrator-envy in wordsmiths.

Process, however, is process, and I find myself nostalgically retracing this very route in thinking about the road I’ve taken with a few novels, several picture books, and one 6-year nonfiction odyssey. Big takeaways:

  • Be open to the spark. Indulge in chasing the perfect butterfly.
  • Expect to fall, sooner or later, into the pit of despair
  • Be aware that you don’t always control the time axis, which is sometimes short and taut, sometimes unpredictably elastic
  • Final = different, not better
  • Trust the process
  • It will soon be lunch-time (wait that’s Pooh, not artists)

Prints (color version with a little additional enhancement) available here.

The Dead Bird

A bird is meant to defy gravity, right?

So finding a dead female varied thrush outside the door is just a heartstoppingly sad experience. I have stickers all over the glass windowpanes to stop birds from crashing into them. Did this bird miss my UV stickers? Was she a window casualty? Such a terrible thought.

She was beautiful, regardless, claws delicately curled, eyes closed, a few drops of rain on her speckled breast. A perfect life form.

And because there is a picture book for every event the universe can possibly render up, my dead bird reminded me right away of The Dead Bird by Margaret Wise Brown. There’s a newer edition of the book, but the one that lives in my mind is the one with the bright green cover, published after Brown’s own death with illustrations by Remy Charlip.

The child sensibility is so strong and so wonderfully eccentric in this book, as when the children sing to the bird. Snippet:

We sing to you
because you’re dead
Feather bird
And we buried you
In the ground
with ferns and flowers

The children put flowers and ferns into the little bird’s grave and they cry, because the bird is so beautiful and because, of course, it is dead.

No question. Picture books are the best life manual one can possibly find.

The Story Before the Story: Mark Karlins on Kiyoshi’s Walk, Part 2

Kiyoshi’s Walk by Mark Karlins, illustrated by Nicole Wong, is a meditative reflection on poetry and love, family and connection and the beauty around us. Earlier, Mark told me about his journey as he dreamed of this picture book. Here’s more from him now on the path by which the book grew into itself.

[Uma] You began this part of your reply to me with a question: Where do stories go when no one reads them? Where did this one go and what happened when you sent it out into the world?

[Mark] When I sent Kiyoshi’s Walk to publishers, no one wanted it. Difficulties, people say, make you stronger. Tell someone that when they’re in the middle of a difficulty. I didn’t touch the story for several years.

[Uma] But you also said there was a story before the story. So what was that?

[Mark] The arc of the writing of the story actually began before I wrote the story. Elements from my life that made their way into Kiyoshi’s Walk had been brewing for years.

The story begins with a reference to “the wise poet Eto.” When I was in college, I was searching for a mentor, a wise poet, someone like Eto. I remember the black and white photo of the poet, Robert Kelly, on the back cover of one of his books. He was walking out of a misty forest, his long beard flowing. At poetry readings, his voice was deep. I remember thinking of it as a river.

The grandson Kiyoshi is a central character in the story. Can writing spring from unknown desires? I wrote Kiyoshi’s Walk, a story that’s about a child learning how to write poetry and also about the relationship of a grandfather and grandson, years before Jesadha, my first grandchild, was born. Was I delving into and exploring a relationship I wish I had? Kiyoshi’s Walk is, among other things, a love story, a story about the love of a grandparent and a grandchild. Jesadha is now the center of my life. He makes me feel alive.

[Uma] And there’s no Basho now. No boats. How did that happen?

[Mark] Eventually, the story was picked up by Cheryl Klein at Lee & Low. Cheryl, a great editor, can make you see things in a different way. What, she wondered, would the book be like if it took place not in 17th century Japan but our contemporary world? She also discovered, during an editorial meeting, that Basho never had any children, let alone a grandchild.

I tried a new draft, placing the story in a contemporary city rather than in rural Japan. I thought about and tinkered with the two versions, showed them to Mary Lee and to my friend and colleague Uma…

[Uma] That would be me.

[Mark] …who said I should give the modern version a try. I sent both versions to Cheryl.

I asked her, “Would you just pick one of them for me?”

“No.”

By the time I had finished the “final” draft, there was no Basho, no river in Japan, no paper boats sailing towards the stars. Yet draft after draft, image after image, I still felt that the first story was there, a shadow story informing the versions. Now the story is contemporary and takes place in a small American city.

[Uma] Or a Canadian one–let’s say it looks like somewhere in exurban North America. But then the story changed some more?

[Mark] The story didn’t go where I had originally planned. It took on more of a life of its own, with the help of others. There were surprises in the writing. During the process I lived in ambiguity and uncertainty, which is an apt description of my creative act and its long arc.

After the book is published the arc continues.

When I read the published book out loud, when others read it, when children look at the illustrations, the story continues. What I wrote in a room by myself becomes a performance piece. It becomes interactive, child and adult sharing, each of them weaving the story, in some way, into their life.

[Uma] That’s the beauty of the picture book! Congratulations, Mark, on a joyful, lovingly crafted book.

See Caroline Starr Rose’s interview with Mark about Kiyoshi’s Walk.

The Meandering Walk Called Writing: Mark Karlins on Kiyoshi’s Walk, Part 1

Happy Book Birthday to Mark Karlins on Lee and Low’s release of Mark’s picture book, Kiyoshi’s Walk, illustrated by Nicole Wong. I sent Mark a couple of meandering questions, since I was lucky enough to stroll alongside during part of this book’s journey. Here’s our conversation.

[Uma] I’ve been thinking about the arcs of writing projects—how some take odd turns, or become something entirely different from what we imagine they’re going to be. Will you talk about the arc of this project—how it came to you, how it changed, and some of its unexpected turns? 

[Mark] I started by not knowing where I was going.

Nine years ago I wrote a few words and then a few more. I was on another of the meandering walks I call writing. After a few misturns and a patch of muddy ground, I found myself in a seventeenth century Japanese forest. The poet and wanderer Basho and his grandson, Kiyoshi, were beside me.

“Where do poems come from?” Kiyoshi asked.

“Come,” said Basho, “let’s walk.”

They walked past deer, birds, cottages with windows lit by kerosene lanterns. Basho wrote.  Kiyoshi wrote. Their poems were haiku that came from what we now call Mindfulness. They saw clearly, they listened, they let what was in their hearts join with what was in the world. Their poems blossomed.

[Uma] And then you wrote to me that they folded their poems into paper boats and set them on the water.

[Mark] Each boat was the length of a small child’s hand. On an inside wall of the boats, a poem. The river was dark. The sky was dense with stars.

[Uma] That’s poetry right there. And now can we go back to the long arc?

[Mark] The long arc of my writing depends upon images.

I’ve always been attracted by images. They speak to me deeply, like lampposts lighting the way. During the writing of Kiyoshi’s Walk, the boats were central, radiant images that kept me writing.

There were also other images in the writing of the story. A deep pond sounded with frogs. A pair of cranes appeared. When I was stuck at one point, I opened an art book and found what I was convinced would help lead the story in the direction it needed to go:

In my book, Basho and Kiyoshi would hang their poems in spring blossoming trees. The poems would also be boats. Was this too much? Was I falling in love with images and not giving the story its proper structure? After all, a satisfactory structure is one of the pleasures of reading a picture book.

[Uma] But your story didn’t embrace structure readily, is that right?

[Mark] For years the story drifted—a new line written here, another line taken out there. I read the story over and over—to my wife (my longtime and always first reader), to myself, at a night of faculty readings at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I wrote haiku under the personas of Basho and Kiyoshi. I wrote haiku for myself. I read about poetry and Japan. I wondered why I was so attracted to this story.

[Uma] Kiyoshi’s obviously still in the book, but there’s no Basho present now, and the setting has changed. Yet that orginal vision of finding poetry in everyday observations has found itself. In a starred review Kirkus described the book as “a meditative walk,” saying it “unleashes the power of poetry.”

More soon from Mark about the publishing journey of this beautiful picture book.