Mary Winn Heider on The Mortification of Fovea Munson

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Photo courtesy of Mary Winn Heider

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guest Post: Michelle Knudsen on the Evil Librarian series

Michelle Knudsen says:

People sometimes give me the side eye when they learn about my Evil Librarian trilogy. “You wrote Library Lion,” they say. “You love libraries! Why would you write  a book about evil librarians?”

IMG_1387.jpgLibrary Lion occupies a comfortable spot on my bookshelf. My copy is well-thumbed. It’s a book I reach for when I teach, offering nice examples of an outsider protagonist and a matter-of-fact adult ally, raising interesting and important questions about rules and contingencies. So I was curious about the path from this beloved and loving depiction of libraries to…her YA Evil Librarian series. Here’s what Mikki has to say on the subject:

First, just to set the record straight: It’s only one evil librarian, and technically (this isn’t a spoiler; you find out pretty quickly) he’s not an actual human librarian, but a demon posing as a librarian. It’s an important distinction. And when he’s in his librarian disguise, he takes his library duties very seriously. So really he’s a good fake-librarian; he’s just also an evil demon planning to do terrible things in main character Cyn’s high school—including stealing away her best friend and forcing her to live with him in the demon world forever. (The one thing that’s safe is the school musical, because it turns out that demons really love Sweeney Todd.)

Libraries have always been safe and beloved places for me. My mom would take me regularly when I was a kid growing up in Staten Island, NY, and I still remember the moment I discovered the shelf of dragon stories that it’s probably fair to say changed my life. I was a library monitor in junior high school and worked in the Cornell University Library as a college student and later as an adult. I wrote Library Lion while working at CUL, and it was inspired by the amazing people I knew there as well as the feelings of wonder and welcome of that library especially but also of all the libraries I have ever known.

I suspect the reason the idea of an “evil librarian” appealed to me was because it’s so hard for me to imagine anything negative about libraries at all. Placing something evil in such a sacred space seemed to magnify the danger in the story and underscore the wrongness of the villain that Cyn and her friends have to find a way to vanquish. I loved writing this series, but now that the trilogy is complete, perhaps the next library that shows up in one of my stories will be the regular kind—safe and magical and demon-free (except for the ones tucked securely inside the books).

Curse of the Evil Librarian (Book 3 in the YA Evil Librarian series) comes out on August 13, 2019! Congratulations, Michelle Knudsen. Wishing you a safe and joyful passage from demon-gripped libraries to whatever setting lies ahead.

Cultural Complexity and Women’s Aspirations in The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad

candleandflameBritish Columbia writer Nafiza Azad locates her debut novel, The Candle and the Flame, in Qirat, a land located somewhere on the Silk Road. It’s peopled by royals and commoners, Shayateen who thrive on chaos, Ifrit who seek order, and humans with all their flaws and failings, joys and griefs. Qirat is a place of great beauty but what really drew me into this book is how much its cultures coexist. Deepavali lamps celebrate the Hindu holiday. The Azaan summons Muslims to prayer five times a day–in fact this is probably the best fictional rendering I’ve seen of those recursive calls of the muezzin. Rather than feeling imposed, they take on a kind of temporal force through the story, not to mention that the handsome muezzin turns out to be the love interest in an amusing subplot.

In the novel, the land of Qirat has been severed in two, the result of compromises following a terrible attack by the demonic Shayateen. It’s a backstory that feels subtly infused by the history of the Indian subcontinent itself, creating in the process a kind of aspirational mirror of the real world. The female characters are interesting and complex, sometimes pawns in a bigger game, but often engaged in a struggle for agency in their lives and for justice in their world. Fatima is the one we keep our eye on, but they’re all subtly drawn.

I found it interesting that the fractures in this world are not along religious or linguistic lines. Rather, they are rifts caused by the misdeeds of demons and people. Azad’s immaculately crafted prose weaves in the words of many languages—Urdu, Hindi, Arabic, Persian, Punjabi—seamlessly and mercifully bereft of italics.

Read in e-galley.

Rajani LaRocca on Midsummer’s Mayhem

Midsummer's Mayhem final cvr.pngRajani LaRocca‘s Midsummer’s Mayhem is a marvelous mashup of two things you might not think were capable of working together–Shakespeare and fusion cooking! I asked Rajani:

[Uma] How did Shakespeare and fusion cooking come together for you?

[Rajani]  I’ve loved Shakespeare since I was a child. I played Cassius in our (very abridged!) 5th grade class production of Julius Caesar, and that sparked my interest. The next year, we read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I was smitten with the tale of feuding fairies and the hapless humans who got ensnared in their mischief. And there is a connection to India that I noticed as a child and remembered as an adult when it was time to write MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM!

My greatest joy—my half-Indian, half-Italian, all-American family—is fusion personified. I’ve always enjoyed experimenting with flavors, but writing this book made me take this pastime to a new level, translating favorite foods from my own childhood into tasty baked treats.

[Uma] Your Mimi’s charm comes largely from her uniquely quirky eccentricities. Tell me how you went about developing this most endearing character.

[Rajani] Much of Mimi’s personality came to me as if she were a real person whom I happened to meet. For example, I knew that baking was Mimi’s great passion, so I made her point of view very baking-centric: that’s the lens through which she sees the world, and there are lots of baking and foodie terms sprinkled throughout the book. I also knew she was the youngest child in a large family full of accomplished people. Like a lot of youngest children, Mimi tries many of the activities her older siblings love, only to find that they don’t really bring her joy in the same way. Mimi tries to find her place in in the world, and wonders what she can do to distinguish herself. But at her core is her affection and concern for her sometimes exasperating, often wacky, always loving family.

Rajani_LaRocca__Author 1.jpg[Uma] Every book you write teaches you something. What did writing this book teach you about writing–or about yourself, if you like?

[Rajani] It took me several years and many revisions to write MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM, and the process taught me so much about the craft of writing a novel, about how to take a story idea and turn it into the book I want it to be. But I’ve also come to realize that Mimi’s story is a metaphor for my journey to becoming a published writer. At any age, there is a gap between what we are currently capable of doing and what we wish we could do. It is uncomfortable to be in that gap, but it’s also where we grow and learn so much about ourselves. Just like Mimi, I’ve learned to appreciate what I have to give to the world. I hope MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM inspires young readers to create with their hearts and to have the courage to share those creations

 

[Uma] What’s one joyful and unexpected outcome of writing this book?

[Rajani] Although writing is often thought of as a solitary pursuit, for me the process of writing and publishing has been about connecting with other people. I can’t count the number of people who have helped me: my first writing teachers who gently guided a newcomer without crushing dreams; my incredible critique partners who read, suggested, laughed, and cried with me; and my tremendously generous, brilliant Pitch Wars mentor, Joy McCullough, who helped me in my final push with MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM. The connections continued with my amazing agent, Brent Taylor, and my fantastic editor, Charlie Ilgunas, who helped the book become even better. I’ve become friends with some wonderful fellow 2019 debut authors, and we’ve supported each other through this zany debut year. And in just a couple of weeks, my book will connect me to young readers…and that is the ultimate dream come true!

Congratulations, Rajani! Much luck with this quirky, funny book, and with your future writing projects.

The Serpent’s Secret by Sayantani DasGupta

kiranmala-reveal-cvrBefore its publication, I did my best to get my hands on a copy of The Serpent’s Secret. I don’t know why it should be so complicated to get a review copy from New York to a Canadian address! Between mailing issues and the promise of a copy via Scholastic Canada, and the failure of the e-galley to open….let’s just say it’s taken me half a year to open the book and start reading.

I was hooked right from the first words in the dedication:

To immigrant parents and children everywhere–who imagine an idea called home into being through the telling of stories.

I was hooked by the character, twelve-year-old Kiranmala of Parsippany, New Jersey. Ordinary girl, right? Maybe not. Because Kiran’s swiftly sucked into a spiraling story in which everything she knew to be reality is upended. Her parents are gone. There’s a demon, a rakkhosh, eating everything in her kitchen. And who are those guys dressed in funny Halloween costumes? In short order, she’s charged with no less a responsibility than saving the world. Each character is delightfully and lovingly crafted. Narrated in the first person,  the book hums with Kiran’s personality, every scene infused with purpose, sly humor, and an unerring sense of the middle grade character on the brink.

And I was hooked, finally, by the underlying worldview in Sayantani’s book. This is a world in which immigrant identity isn’t the issue, and one in which the cultural particulars not only ring utterly true but are regionally specific, going beyond the all too common representation of the entire subcontinent as one monocultural space. And there’s the girl at the center of the story. She’s the one who must be in control, even (maybe especially) when the ground under her feet has just given way! Magic can happen, the book suggests, in your space, wherever that is. We’re all in it together, if we just let ourselves ride into a destiny waiting for us to take charge of it!

Every girl at that puzzling, promising, in-between age of 12 ought to read this first book in the Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond series. Look for Book 2, The Game of Stars.

 

 

Sayantani DasGupta on Identity, Resistance, and the Personal Rakkhosh

kiranmala-reveal-cvrHow do you create celebration out of despair? Someone whose work and thinking I’ve been privileged to follow over the years, physician, teacher, and now children’s writer Sayantani DasGupta explores these overlapping terrains in her article, Nothing About Us Without Us: Writing #OwnVoices Fantasy in The Age of Black Panther

Excerpt:

…when I was young, I rarely saw myself celebrated, or even portrayed at all, in books, media, or the wider culture. As the saying goes, “it’s hard to be what you cannot see,” and since I hardly saw myself at all, I almost became convinced that maybe I shouldn’t even be – in other words, that I should make myself small, quiet, and nearly invisible.

Small, quiet, and nearly invisible no more. Racism and intolerance are the demons in our world. Supernatural solutions are the tools of fantasy but the real stuff? For young Kiranmala as for all of us humans, that comes from within. From resistance and community and a refusal to be silent.

Congratulations, Sayantani, on your beautiful new book. May your voice ring many bells among young readers and the  people who care about them.

A Second Look at Aliens

aliensonvacationWhen I first read Aliens on Vacation by Clete Barrett Smith, it felt like a funny romp of a book—a middle grade novel with a lovable protagonist, a cast of eccentric characters, and a terrific premise. I turned to it again more recently when I was looking for funny books to include in my Highlights workshop lecture. To my pleasant surprise, I found the delightful story and funny passages that I remembered but I also found more. This is something that is always enjoyable, but it’s especially gratifying when you’ve had the privilege of working with the writer.

In this first book of the Intergalactic Bed and Breakfast series, David (“Scrub”) goes reluctantly to his grandmother’s B & B for the summer. He encounters some pretty weird visitors, as well as a grouchy sheriff and his wackily appealing daughter. Grandma is a hippie grandma like no other. And yes, on the surface, this remains a fun tale about middle-grade anxiety, family and social relationships—and aliens.

But look more closely. You will find compelling layers that bring us in touch with our own knee-jerk reactions to those whom we don’t understand. Suddenly I found myself recalling how, as an immigrant living in the United States for three decades, the term “resident alien” always made me squirm. Substitute “foreigners” for “aliens” and this little book becomes a fable about xenophobia.

A satisfying resolution emerges with the aid of the Intergalactic Police—where are they now, I want to know, in the real world? Wouldn’t you love to call them up?

All kinds of other subtleties lurk still deeper, including questions of Scrub’s own family history and possibly even his identity. It’s a lovely way to open up a funny, quirky world, but don’t miss the mirrors in this book. They reflect our own human foibles.

 

Safekeeping by Karen Hesse

IMG_2076It is hard to believe that this book was published in 2012. The borders it crosses are at once of some imagined tomorrow and emphatically of now, now, now. Opening in a bleak near-future Vermont landscape, the novel introduces the reader to young Radley. She arrives home from a service trip to Haiti, only to find that the American People’s Party has won the election and is in power in the United States, and her parents have gone missing. After hunkering down for a while, terrorized, in her home, hiding from police who, she believes, are after her, she decides to head north.

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Just take a look at the concluding passage on this page–the escape to Canada, the metal guardrail, the relief of the crossing. It could be about border-crossings today, northward crossings we never thought we’d see in our time.

The realities of 2017 have at times had the effect of making me feel utterly useless. I’ve questioned whether there is anything to be gained by the work I do, even questioned my belief that somehow, in my small way, I can try to make the world a better place.

One could quibble that the plot in this book turns too easily, or that allies show up a little too readily, or even that Rad’s greatest loss is a touch predictable. But Karen Hesse‘s Safekeeping gave me a little jolt of something completely necessary and vitally important. A kind of sweetness, like that of the girl she writes about, hungry for human contact and learning to trust her own best instincts. It reminded me of the strange and mysterious power of fiction to speak to reality. And in the end, it’s the remarkable prescience in the storyline that kept me turning the pages.

 

Prescience in Fiction 

messengerAnti-immigrant rhetoric…build a wall…despise the other…blame victims…carry weapons.

I’m not referring to hate speech spouted by some egomaniacal aspirant to power in the United States. This is all from the fictional world created by Lois Lowry in her astonishingly relevant The Giver quartet. I’m just rereading Book 3, Messenger. The last time I read it, Matty’s gift felt almost mythic in its savior-like quality. Now I’m struck by the degree to which  the world in the book is our world. By how  farsighted fiction can be. Walls. Immigration. Hatred. Weapons.

First published in 2004. Read it now.

The Flint Heart by Katherine Paterson

flintheartLast January at VCFA, Katherine Paterson signed a copy of The Flint Heart for me, the middle grade fantasy she wrote in collaboration with her husband John. On first read it was a lovely romp, with its charming child characters, its fairytale backdrop, the sinister Heart itself, an adorable anthropomorphized hot water bottle, and its sly asides on the nature of writing and life. My writer self delighted in the glorious fun of its many literary allusions. But read it again and it becomes something more–a parable for our times, perhaps. A commentary on power, on those who hunger for it and on what it does when one gets it, even by chance. It offers the discerning writer a way to mingle the real and fantastic. The structure is impeccable. The story weaves from one world and one time to another with seemingly effortless ease. A revival of the British fantasy by Eden Philpotts, The Flint Heart is a gem reimagined and infused with the customary Paterson magic.