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.

Freedom in Structure and Other Thoughts About Words

This Thursday will be National Grammar Day in the United States, designated by none other than my colleague Martha Brockenbrough. I almost said “founded” but you can’t found a day, or find it, for that matter, can you?

Martha also wrote a book on the subject of good grammar and its place in the world order: Things That Make Us (Sic): The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar Takes on Madison Avenue, Hollywood, the White House, and the World. It’s the American answer to Lynne Truss’s well-known meditation on hungry (or murderous) pandas.

Seriously, who but writers finds grammar so compelling? Consider these principles from syndicated columnist Catherine Rampell’s English teacher. Here’s the first:

Learn all the rules of language, even the stodgy-seeming ones. You will find freedom in structure.

To which Rampell writes:

Initially, this exactitude felt constricting. But once we mastered Mr. Greco’s rules — learned who from whom, and whatnot — they were liberating. He taught us the masonry of language. Now we could build whatever we liked. I remember realizing, at age 12, how awesome it was that words and sentences could do my bidding.

I get that! I do. My 12-year-old self was thrilled to pieces when she understood the distinction between “who” and “whom.” Mind you, “whom” will probably fall off the language map in my lifetime–I found myself striking it out of a draft recently for sounding, well, stodgy. But the neural pathway the distinction wired for me–that’s the point of finding joy in the company of words.

Process Notes: Caroline Gertler on Many Points of Me

I’m always thrilled to see books by writers whom I can claim as my students. Not because I think I taught them how to write that book–do we ever do that, really? The most I can do is recognize students who have the talent and drive to take a book from idea to completion. After that my job is to point out how a writer can lift a story into the light.

For me, Caroline Gertler’s middle grade novel, Many Points of Me, was about light—the luminosity of stars, the sheen of freshly applied paint, the light of artistic inspiration and finally, the inner light that allows Georgia’s grief and anger to grow into resilience and hope.

I asked Caroline if she’d write to me about these layers and how they emerged as she worked on the novel.

[Caroline] Thank you, Uma. I love your take here, because light is such an important concept to me. I’ve mostly thought about light in terms of painting. I did an MA in art history, specializing in 17th-century Dutch art, and my absolute favorite artist is Vermeer, known as the master of light. I wish I had thought consciously during the writing process about how to play with these layers of light, as it would’ve been interesting to approach the novel from that angle—at least, at later stages during the editing process. But it wasn’t something I was aware of as I was working (and I didn’t have the benefit of your wise eyes on it!). This is one of the more exciting parts to me about having my novel out in the world—hearing readers’ responses, seeing how the story resonates with other people.

[Uma] I found the use of present tense oddly touching, given Georgia’s assertion about her father in your opening sentence: “Here’s the thing about when your dad was a famous artist: he still lives. He still is.” But coming to terms with the death of a loved one is often about accepting that they no longer are, that what you must own instead are feelings and memories. Will you talk about how it felt to explore that tension in your writing?  

[Caroline] That opening sentence really encapsulates what you describe about the conundrum of death—accepting the beloved no longer are, and only live on in your memories. The “what if” question that drove this story for me, is “what if your father was a famous artist—the world feels like they know him, own a piece of him—but you didn’t have as much of him as you wished you could’ve?” I wanted to explore how Dad’s memory would live on for Georgia, when she has his art, and some memories of him (which are still rather fresh while she’s young, but sadly, will fade somewhat, eventually), but she wishes she had more, and can’t get away from his constant presence through his art. That presence being both a sad reminder, and a blessing.  

As far as voice, I’m exhausted right now by the first-person present-tense of this novel, having lived in it for so long. My current book that I’m working on, I initially drafted in first person past-tense. Then switched to third person, to get as far away from first-present as possible! Now, I’m writing it in first person-past tense, and I think I’m settled into that voice for this book. Fingers crossed. My revision process in the early stages is drastic—page one rewrites for the early rounds.

[Uma] Finally, what kind of work did you do—on or off the page—to layer in the mystery elements of the novel?

[Caroline] You know my writing history almost as well as anyone, Uma, as one of my first classes in writing for children was taught by you—at least fifteen years ago, now. Back then, and even when I started writing this story, my intention was to write a surface-level, fun mystery.

[Uma] I remember that. But drafts are like that. Drafty. They teach you how to write the next round and the next and that is all you need.

Photo courtesy of the author

[Caroline] I didn’t want—or know how—to dig deeper emotionally. But as I matured into my self and my writing, I came to accept that my stories would never resonate or have narrative drive if I didn’t access more emotion. Plus, I’m not quite the plotter/mystery-conjurer that I wish I could be! I’ve also come to realize that in a sense, all novels are “mysteries,” in that they’re driven by a question, or set of questions, that need to be answered on some level by the end. And the best novels keep readers turning the pages because they need to know what happens.

So, the mystery in this novel ended up emerging more organically, by getting to know my characters and what they wanted, what was driving them. At some point very late in the revision process—I think just before my agent sent the manuscript on submission to editors—I did sketch out the mystery in a few lines on a separate piece of paper, just to make sure it worked.

[Uma] Every book teaches the writer how to write that book. What did this book teach you?

[Caroline] I learned so much about revision through the process of writing Many Points of Me. I had a beloved James Bond-type scene in the novel which I held on to for years, until that very last revision before going on sub to editors. In a previous version, Georgia submits Dad’s sketch to the competition on purpose, because she’s desperate to win, and doesn’t have anything else that works for her entry. And then, she tries to get it back by breaking into the office at the Met where the entries are being held. I had so much fun writing that scene of her escaping through the internal corridors of the Met, evading the guards, but by the final drafts, that scene didn’t make sense anymore for what the book had become. It was a prime lesson in “killing your babies.” But by the time I realized it had to go (several people had gingerly suggested it over the years), I was ready, and knew what had to happen, instead.

I’m so happy to have run alongside on the very first part of this book’s journey. Congratulations, Caroline Gertler.

Process Notes: Larissa Theule on Kafka and the Doll

Kafka and the Doll is a picture book inspired by a fabled tale from legendary writer Franz Kafka’s life. The book opens in Berlin in 1923, when Kafka and his sweetheart, Dora Diamant meet a little girl in a park in Berlin. The girl, Irma, is crying because she’s lost her doll, named, engagingly, Soupsy. Kafka assures her that the doll, named Soupsy, is not lost but merely travelling. What ensues is at once kind, inventive, and captivating. For three weeks Kafka writes and delivers letters to the child from her globetrotting doll. The letters thread through the journey of writer and child, becoming emblematic of growth and life, affection and loss.

I told Larissa that I found the book’s greatest strength to lie in the risks she took in deepening and changing the anecdotal story about Kafka and the doll. I asked her if she’d write about that for me–about why she made those choices and how it felt as they shaped the book.  Here is her reply:

When working on Kafka and the Doll, I knew from the beginning that I needed to shape the narrative around Kafka’s real-life character as much as possible. Because the letters are lost and the girl was never found, the details of the legend are nebulous. But Kafka’s character is well known. He wrote surreal and bewildering fiction, but he was also playful, generous, and wonderful with children. One of the first thoughts I had when reading about his kindness to the little girl in the park was that he might have been an excellent parent, or teacher, as his instinct was to validate the child’s grief and guide her through it. We can feel sure the story-letters he wrote entertained the girl, affirmed her deep, complex feelings, and helped her face the world—like a children’s book might do. I wanted Kafka and the Doll to offer the same trust and validation to a child reader, which is one reason why I chose to leave the ending wistful and a little sad, but ultimately triumphant. Wistful endings can be scary to write because you risk leaving the reader feeling unsatisfied, but in this case, I believe (I hope!) the child reader feels seen. 

Green’s stylized artwork in the picture book is whimsical yet sensitive, evoking changes of season and shifts in mood. Her depiction of Kafka presenting Irma with a journal opens up a whole new layer of story in the space between text and image. This is a bold book, written and illustrated with conviction and respect for today’s young readers.

Threads of Peace Bound Galleys!

Nothing like the arrival of a box of bound galleys on your doorstep to yank you out of reality and place you in the slow, unfathomable timeline of the book’s creation.

This book has been six years in the making, and that’s just from contract through galleys.

I have learned the lessons of a lifetime from all that it took. Here’s what that plot looks like, thinking back:

  • 2010-ish: the first dawning of an idea–a picture book, surely, on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King’s trip to India in 1959
  • 2011: a tentative draft that never quite sat right in its little 32-page container
  • submission and editorial feedback–interesting, but this isn’t a picture book. Middle grade nonfiction?
  • 2012: a proposal–reach big. Why not? The transnational diffusion of Gandhi’s methods to the US civil rights movement?
  • acceptance, followed by terror at having to write something that felt beyond my capability
  • 2013: the first ragged draft
  • six rounds of rewriting–throwing it all out and starting over
  • 2015-2018: three rounds of edits. Editorial letters provided obligatory encouragement while urging me to write boldly, to claim my role as the teller of this story
  • 2019: revising, revising, revising
  • uncounted rounds of reading, questions, and comments from my patient, thoughtful critique group
  • 2016-2019: three years of searching for photographs and navigating permissions mazes
  • 2020: three–did I count them correctly?–rounds of keen-eyed perusal by the copyediting geniuses at Atheneum
  • 2020-21: inviting comments from three generous, knowledgeable content readers and addressing every single one of their responses
  • checking every quoted line at least three times
  • checking sidebars, source lists, photo credits, everything
  • 2021: letting go…reluctantly, understanding that writing this book has changed me

Now I am not sure what I’m meant to do with my days.

I’ll get past this. I’m sure the reviews (gulp) will help me face reality. For now, I’m grateful to be in the twilight zone of bound galleys.

Leda Schubert on Nathan’s Song

Nathan, growing up in a shtetl in Russia, loves to sing. When he hears opera for the first time he is transfixed and longs to learn this kind of music. His family and community, including his little brother Samuel, gather money to pay for his passage to Italy. What happens next is a marvel of picture book writing. I talked to my friend and long-time writing colleague Leda Schubert about the choices she made in telling this story from her own family history in her new picture book, Nathan’s Song.

[Uma] So how do you take a life like your grandfather’s and pack it into thirty-two pages? how do you decide what belongs and what is not germane to the story the book needs to tell?

[Leda] Good question, Uma, and I have several responses. First, I’ve been writing picture books for a very long time, and I’ve read thousands and thousands of them over my longish life. I think the form is embedded in my DNA by now. (I must add that many of these manuscripts have not and will not see the light of day. If you’re reading this and seeking publication, don’t give up!) That isn’t to say that I’ve mastered the picture book. Not likely. It’s one of the simplest and most complex of forms, isn’t it?

Second, I can’t remember much about anything. My grandfather lived into his 80s, but he was reticent about his past, particularly about his childhood in Russia, and I expect it would have been painful to recall. He did tell me the bare bones of this story, however, and some of it stuck with me. Maybe enough for a story, I thought. In real life, he drank a bit too much, got on the wrong boat in Odessa, and ended up first in Brazil, where he sold rags from a cart, learned Portuguese, and eventually made his way to New York. And he did sing opera. He was a gorgeous singer, even singing in Broadway/off-Broadway productions. He did make hats, he did fall in love with my grandmother, and he did sing for us at family gatherings on occasion.

Third, the rest? It had to do with the shape of story.

In the end, readers make a story their own, I think, but for me his story is about leaving home, finding home, and family love. It’s a story that’s true of millions and millions of people, often forced to abandon everything they’ve known and embark to unknown lands. (It is also true that several of my picture books have turned out to be about music–Ballet of the Elephants, Listen: How Pete Seeger got America Singing– which is central to my life.)

[Uma] I’m always fascinated at the way stories turn and create patterns. I was delighted that while Nathan may have meant to go to Italy and ended up in America, Italy came to him in New York, in the person of the marvelous Nicolo. Your thoughts?

[Leda] I have to say that was something I never even realized. It’s important to acknowledge, I feel, that there is something mysterious about writing. There are subconscious forces that shape our work. A writer must give those forces time and space to emerge. “Nathan’s Song” sat somewhere in my mind for decades.

Finally, as you ask, anyone writing about anything has to figure out what to leave out. What propels a story and what doesn’t? What are the underlying bones–the trajectory? I knew I didn’t have the space to go into more detail (I tried to cut even more), so what mattered most? What would an illustrator be able to work with? What could I rely on the artwork instead of the words to carry? What kind of action would there be on each page? For example, I didn’t need to describe the ship, Ellis Island, or Nathan’s village. I chose also to eliminate the Brazil years; they derailed the narrative. I didn’t need to write about the family back home in Russia, or what they would do in the US. Etc. Of course the editor chooses the artist, and I was incredibly lucky that Lauri Hornik found Maya Ish-Shalom. I couldn’t be happier with her glorious work, which is so bright and joyful.

This is from the School Library Journal review of Nathan’s Song:

This title pays tribute to courageous individuals, with an underlying message of the unbroken connection of family love.

[Leda] What is harder for me than compressing is expanding. How do you write a novel, Uma?

Hmm. How indeed. Very carefully?

India and Black America

India and Black America have often been on intersecting paths, paths that have largely been ignored in the national discourses of both countries.

Example: the influence of a former Inner Temple lawyer from Gujarat upon the life and thinking of a young Black minister from Atlanta, Georgia. I’ve been gripped by that story since 2006, and the resulting book will be out later this year.

But Black and Desi people share history along many dimensions, as this India Currents article demonstrates. Snippet:

…a young Black man sat down inside the British Embassy in Washington, DC, and refused to move. African American pacifist Bayard Rustin became director of the Free India Committee in 1945, working to end British rule in India. But it wasn’t enough to just talk, so Rustin began leading sit-in protests at the British Embassy, repeatedly getting arrested as he worked to help free India, two decades before he went on to organize the 1963 March on Washington, site of Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I have a dream” speech.

The history of Indians in the US and Canada has been all about navigating the complexities of racialization.

And of course, there’s Kamala Harris, personifying an identity that went under the radar until now. Today, the Blindian Project celebrates Black and South Asian relationships.

All of which seems appropriate to think about, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in this still-new year.

Who We Really Are

Courtesy of the brilliant Maria Popova of Brain Pickings, here is poet Marie Howe’s reflection on humans and time and the big, big picture:

The Universe in Verse: Marie Howe reads “Singularity” (after Stephen Hawking) from Maria Popova on Vimeo.

Leads me back to Whitman. Seems as if many things these days lead me back to Whitman or Gerard Manley Hopkins. What is that all about?

Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.

Because look.

Giant tree ferns in New Zealand. Rhesus monkey mama and baby and ancient rock art in India. Stardust, all.