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!

A Child’s-Eye View of History: The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani

On the day in 1947 that she and her twin brother turn 12, Nisha yearns for her mother: “It was the day we came and you left…” She begins to write a diary each night. In it, she composes letters to her mother, even as the country around her fractures in the historical event known as the Partition of India.

Veera Hiranandani (see my 2012 Process Talk with her) has created a sensitive, watchful child character in Nisha, who embodies the fracturing of the country, because her mother was Muslim and her father and his family are Hindu. It is a month out from the independence days of the two newly created countries, and Nisha’s letters unpack her uncovering of family secrets, the relationships they leave behind and the perilous journey they must undertake to escape a place that is no longer home.
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At another level, the simple, direct first person narrative in these letters delicately probes a young girl’s dawning understanding of how the world works:

I didn’t want the new India. I wanted the old one that was my home.

As well the letters document the events unfolding around Nisha, as she sees how hate can raise its ugly head readily in a place where it didn’t exist before. Or did it? Was it always there, waiting for the machinations of governments and politicians to give it permission to grow? At its most personal, this is a story of a sister and brother fleeing with their doctor father and their unwilling grandmother, facing along the way the hazards of starvation, illness, and frenzied mobs fueled by religious hatred.

History writ small in this way reels us close into itself, with passages like this:

But here is the question that is most on my mind. I’m afraid to say it, even afraid to write it down. I don’t want to think about the answer, but my pencil needs to write it anyway: If you were alive, would we have to leave you because you are Muslim? Would they have drawn a line right through us, Mama? I don’t care what the answer is. We came from your body. We will always be a part of you and this will always be my home even if it’s called something else.

Here is a fictional rendering of the author’s family history. Its epistolary form makes it intimate and tender. It renders one of the world’s great tragedies accessible to young readers. In the end, this Newbery Honor-winning novel reminds us that love can be present even when it isn’t verbally expressed. It can bind people together. It can give rise to generosity and kindness in the midst of suspicion and hate.

 

Guest Post: Susan Fletcher on Journey of the Pale Bear

Susan Fletcher‘s prose is glorious, and the history behind her middle grade novel, Journey of the Pale Bear (Margaret K. McElderry Books, October 2018) is fascinating. But the beating heart of this story is a deeply felt friendship between a boy and a bear, under circumstances both breathtaking and improbable. I asked Susan to write about how she built that relationship, how she made it so alive and so compelling.

journey-of-the-pale-bear-9781534420779_lgHere’s what she wrote:

It started with the bear.  I had read Daniel Hahn’s The Tower Menagerie and was taken with the exotic animals that lived in the menagerie in the Tower of London, beginning in medieval times.  And the animal that kept coming back to me was the bear, apparently a polar bear, a gift from the king of Norway.  The thing about the bear was…they let her out of her cage!  They let her swim and catch fish in the Thames River.  Though I was fascinated by many of the menagerie animals—the elephant, the leopards, the porcupine—it was the bear who captured my imagination.

As part of my research I contacted the Oregon Zoo, where I met, up close, the resident brother-and-sister polar bears: Conrad and Tasul.  Conrad (the male) was enormous (1500 pounds!), and had a commensurately big and goofy personality.  I really fell for Conrad.  But the polar bear in my book was going to be young, and young male polar bears are some of the most dangerous animals on the planet, making friendship with a boy unlikely.

I decided that my polar bear would be a female, maybe separated from her cubs, and that there would be a bit of mother-cub vibe between her and my protagonist, Arthur.  In fact, without realizing it, I had already put some of that vibe in the early drafts.   Right from the get-go, Arthur hums to the bear.  I found out later that polar bear cubs do a sort of humming thing with their mothers.  There was also an early scene where the bear reaches out a paw to make contact with Arthur.  I found out later that mother polar bears do this with their cubs.

So, what about Arthur?

He is a runaway, missing his mother, of course.  He is out of place in some way; he doesn’t quite fit the world in which he finds himself.  He is cut off from his family, unprotected.  I kept discovering echoes between Arthur and the bear.  They are both strangers in the world in which they find themselves.  They are isolated and lonely.  They long for freedom, and home.  In a way, they need each other.

In the 13th century, people didn’t feel as we do about animal rights.  I wanted Arthur to bond with the bear, but he still had to be a boy of his times.  One of the challenges of the book was to believably take Arthur from a place where a wild animal in a small cage is not a moral issue…to a place where he believes that caging this bear for the rest of her life would be cruel and wrong.

And finally, I thought about all the animals I have lived with and loved since childhood: a parade of dogs and cats and birds.  Somehow, without words, we understood one another.  We had relationships—friendships, actually—each unique.  So I tried to think, concretely, about how these friendships worked, and to bring that to the page, as well.

Susan, you do that and more. Congratulations on this beautiful book.

Arushi Raina on When Morning Comes

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Photo © Nidhi Raina

Meet Arushi Raina, Canadian author of When Morning Comes, a YA historical novel set in South Africa at the time of the Soweto student uprising. I had a chance to trade emails with Arushi about writing in multiple voices, fiction vs. life, and the power of the children’s and YA writing community.
[Uma] What made you choose to tell this story the way you did–in multiple voices, and aimed at young readers?
[Arushi] More often than not, these artistic choices emerge when I realize the story I want to tell, in a pretty organic, or intuitive way. Some of this choice traces back to my growing up in South Africa, living with the narrative instability of a place that had just come out of apartheid and the diverse, often conflicting perspectives that different racial groups, genders, had in South Africa in the late 1990s. I grew up in a time when South Africa, and its people were trying to make sense of what, indeed Mandela’s “Rainbow Nation” would be, and what to make of this country’s traumatic past.
 
And so no story I could tell of South Africa, could have one “true” narrator. At every point Jack, Zanele, Thabo and Meena’s perspectives interact, conflict, and grow from eachother. The plot, if you look closely, is solely based on the characters interactions from eachother, and the tensions between their different perspectives.
whenmorningcomes[Uma] You have said about this book, “To make it real, emotionally, I needed to fictionalize it.” Tell me what that means to you—what power does fiction hold for you?
[Arushi] I learned about the Soweto Uprising in Grade 10 History class in Johannesburg. At that time, that was maybe what I needed, understanding the facts, the first hand accounts, trying to put the timeline together, connect it with our school visits into Soweto, the Apartheid Museum. At the same time, however, non-fiction can have the affect of distancing us from the story. We are concerned about facts and objectivity – but sometimes these aspects cannot be experienced or felt. We are not following the path of a living, breathing person, in the way we typically access non-fiction. There are some exceptions, of course. Fiction, though, is very freeing. I am not trying to stick to the facts, only, to be objective. Instead, I’m trying to hit on a far more difficult thing – the emotional truth of the story, of the different stories and points of view that are in this story. How can I come to this emotional truth, with the tools I have in my hands?
[Uma] Grade 10 history class. That’s quite a timeline. Thank you for sharing that.
[Arushi] Thank you so much, as a writer yourself, for showcasing and supporting other writers. Its a small but mighty world, and I so appreciate your time, thoughtfulness and perspective.
[Uma] It’s my delight! But your comment leads me to another question. Generally, in the marketplaces of the real world, we think in terms of competition. Businesses that produce similar good or services compete with one another. In some ways, of course, that is true of writing and publishing as well. But writing is also an art and it’s a solitary pursuit. We spend quite a lot of time, let’s face it, talking to imaginary people. We’re at the mercy of our own minds! In that context, what does that notion of community mean to you? How do we participate in our literary marketplaces while still viewing other writers as community rather than competition?
[Arushi] For me, one of the most magical things that happened when I got published, was getting to meet other writers, and experiencing the kindness and generosity of writers, particularly children’s writers. I cannot even count the number of authors who have shared so much of their time, and supported me through my debut year. Some shout outs would include: RJ Anderson, Robin Stevenson, Adwoa Badoe, Rachel Hartman.
What I realized, really early on, is that writers are the best support for writers. And there’s a business rationale for this too: we live in a world where the literary marketplace is shrinking and consolidating. There are now a smaller percentage of diehard readers who read a lot. There are fewer publishing houses. You realize very early (particularly if you’re with a small publishing house) that other writers are going to be your biggest supports, your encouragement, the ones that shout out your work. In this way, they draw their readers to your work.  As a collective of writers, we’re trying to get everyone to buy and read more books, not to compete for a reader’s specific attention. The advice I give to writers who haven’t published yet is to build that support system of writing friends early on.
[Uma] Very true. I’m grateful myself to my book collective. Good luck and good writing, Arushi Raina!

History From Within: Outrun the Moon

In my fifteen years, I have stuck my arm in a vat of slithering eels, climbed all the major hills of San Francisco, and tiptoed over the graves of a hundred souls. Today, I will walk on air.

outrunthemoon.jpgI asked Stacey Lee to tell me how she went about developing the character of the determined, gutsy hero of her YA historical novel, Outrun the Moon. Here is what she wrote:

I wanted to do a little stereotype busting with Mercy, who is the opposite of many of the Asian girls we’ve seen portrayed in media as shy, quiet, introverted, obedient, geeky or worse, exotic. She’s extroverted, charismatic, and willing to be a leader because of a cause she believes in, but not because she seeks power. She reminds me a lot of my mother who is all those things, and who grew up in Chinatown forty years after Mercy. Mom would tell me stories about herself marching up and down the hills of San Francisco wearing heels because that’s what teenage girls in the fifties did, and I imagine Mercy having the same sort of fearlessness.

And that intention comes through in the novel. The San Francisco earthquake rocks not juts the city but Mercy’s world. Her life’s longing shifts. So far, she has driven herself so she can find release from “pernicious drudgery.” Now she has to reach within and beyond herself to find out who is really capable of becoming.

A 2017 Amelia Bloomer pick.

 

 

History from Within in Under a Painted Sky

paintedskyA different kind of western here, with two girls pretending to be boys, heading out to the great beyond, following the trail of hopeful Argonauts. Each is after her own escape. “Chinaman’s daughter” Sammy is fleeing from the law after she has fought off and accidentally killed a would-be-rapist. Andy, her black friend and companion and sister in outlawhood, is fleeing enslavement.

Stacey Lee handles all kinds of subtleties with great grace in this novel. Stereotypes get turned on their heads. Andy tells a story and everyone listens with rapt attention. Sammy can hardly wait to ask her, “Was that a story from your ancestors?” Sure, yes, the ready assumption. And then Andy shakes her head and laughs it off, saying, “Nah. I made it up.”

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Photo courtesy of Stacey Lee

In all, what blew me away is how this book mixes darkness with humor, despair with hope. It takes a gritty part of history and gives us a fresh look at it. Humor, clever characterization, lively writing, and the clearly drawn female perspectives lift this book above the usual western staples of plot and adventure. Under a Painted Sky switches up perspective and tells an untold narrative of the west in the same way as do books like Vaunda Nelson’s Bad News For Outlaws or Susan Krawitz’s Viva, Rose!  In doing so it fills out and enriches the history, and gives young readers more complete look at the past than previous generations of books have done. And it works because the narrative stays clear and true to the main character’s vision of the world.

About the author: Stacey Lee is an award-winning author of historical and contemporary young adult fiction. A native of southern California and fourth-generation Chinese American, she graduated from UCLA then got her law degree at UC Davis King Hall.  After practicing law in Silicon Valley for several years, she finally took up the pen because, she says, “I wanted the perks of being able to nap during the day, and it was easier than moving to Spain.”

An Untold History, A Working Title

There are many stories that never get included in history textbooks and many others that should be part of the contemporary discourse but get overlooked. Political mayhem regardless, books for children have begun to take such stories on in fiction, nonfiction, and innovative combinations. Here are just a few:

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Ticktock Banneker’s Clock by Shana Keller, illus. by David C. Gardner

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No Crystal Stair by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, illus. by R. Gregory Christie

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Viva, Rose! by Susan Krawitz

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Calling the Water Drum by LaTisha Redding, illus. by Aaron Bond

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Cover art by Nidhi Chanani

Now, with the release of Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh, I’m honored to have been able to bring one of these untold narratives to the page. More on the book on Kitaab World, The Book Smugglers, Teen Vogue Ms. Yingling Reads, and Cynsations. Thank you all!

Lee and Low, the diversity source for anyone who reads, is absolutely the perfect publisher for this book. They have staked out that very space in the children’s publishing market, after all, over so many years–the space of stories that don’t usually get told. Thanks as well to writer and educator Tami Charles who offers ways that teachers can use my book in the classroom.

At one time this book had a different title. It was only a working title, the sort you know won’t last, but it holds the story ahead of you in some mirage you keep on following. In that way, the working title keeps you working. At the outset, Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh was called “Summer’s Promise.”

At this moment, with this book out, summer promises to be a season of gratitude.

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.

[Uma]

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!

 

 

 

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!

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.