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. 

Diversity Within Diversity: Guest Post by Margarita Engle

 

 

Margarita Engle is the Cuban-American author of numerous highly acclaimed verse novels, including The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor winner, and The Lightning Dreamer, a PEN USA Award winner.  Her verse memoir, Enchanted Air, received the Pura Belpré Award, Golden Kite Award, Walter Dean Myers Honor, and Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, among others.  Her other books have received multiple Pura Belpré, Américas, and Jane Addams Awards and Honors, as well as a Claudia Lewis Poetry Award, and International Reading Association Award.  Her most recent picture book, Drum Dream Girl, received the Charlotte Zolotow Award for best picture book text.

 

lion-islandI invited Margarita to write about her newest historical verse novel. Lion Island: Cuba’s Warrior of Words is the story of a little-known figure in Cuban history. It’s set against an astonishing intersection of cultures and resonates with notes of courage and resilience, yearning and hope. Here is what she wrote:

Many North Americans assume that all Latinos are similar, and that all Latin American countries share the same cultural background.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Even the Spanish language is not uniform, with indigenous and West African words varying from region to region, and in certain countries, a mixture of Chinese words as well.  Chinese?  Yes, specifically Cantonese.  As the result of a mid-nineteenth century treaty between the empires of Spain and China, hundreds of thousands of indentured laborers were shipped to Peru and Cuba.  On the island of my ancestors, they were treated like slaves, and housed with slaves, feeding the plantation owners’ insatiable craving for imported laborers to plant, harvest, and process sugarcane.  Within a few decades, so many Chinese men had married Congolese and Yoruba women that an entirely new culture took shape, creating a unique linguistic, spiritual, and musical blend.

antonio-chuffatfullsizerender-3Lion Island is not only an introduction to the Chinese-African blend within Cuban culture, but also a tribute to Antonio Chuffat, a messenger boy who became a translator and diplomat.  His extremely rare memoir documented the nonviolent freedom struggle of indentured Cantonese laborers.  Their petitions to the Emperor of China might be history’s largest mass use of written freedom pleas, and perhaps one of the most creative as well, because many of the petitions were written in verse.  Interwoven with the arrival in Cuba of five thousand Chinese Californians who fled anti-Asian riots in Los Angeles and San Francisco during the late 1860s and early 1870s, I hope my historical verse novel will inspire young readers to explore writing as an approach to seeking justice.

Taking the Time a Book Needs

LeonardThis is the story of one book. It wasn’t a book at first, just an idea that came from Karen Leonard’s ethnographic study and filmmaker Jayasri Majumdar Hart’s exploration of the history of a group of mixed-heritage families of Yuba City, California. The story–my fictional rendering, that is–went through many revisions. Maybe 40-odd rounds of reworking and chopping, rethinking and changing.

It will be published next year, my novel about a girl who longs to play softball in Yuba City, California in 1945. A girl from a family in which the mother is from Mexico and the father from Punjab. We have a title now. We are in the thick of edits. We will soon be talking about things like jacket design and flap copy.

How many years did all this take, exactly? I was shocked when I looked at the dates on some of those files I’d saved on my hard drive, files that migrated from one computer to the next as I kept on chewing away at this story I felt driven to tell. I started this novel in 2003, all of thirteen years ago. And I am so very glad it did not get published right away! It has needed all this time.

Louise de Salvo asks why so much writing advice is about not judging your work, when in fact we need to make so very many judgments about it as we go forward. It’s a fair question. I’ve been a writer for more than twenty years but this story needed me to step back and judge it, and judge myself, many, many times before I could understand how it needed to be written.

Orphanhood, Updated

Writers have long opened up the horizons for child characters by the simple expedient of killing off their parents. How could Mowgli have been taken in by the wolfpack if his mother and father hadn’t first been eaten by a tiger? From Frodo Baggins to the Baudelaire children, orphanhood is a plot device that has generated an inexhaustible list of characters. Parents simply get in the way. So much so that some characters, like Peter Pan, choose to abandon their parents and run away, choosing orphanhood as the path to adventure.

Mind you, Mowgli didn’t start this trend. Mike Mariani argues that without orphans the novel itself may not have been conceived.

detectivesassistantSince it’s such a common trope, it is even possible to write an orphan story today without making it seem hackneyed and trite? Try Kate Hannigan’s The Detective’s Assistant, (Little, Brown, 2015) a middle grade thriller based on the true-life story of Kate Warne, the first female Pinkerton’s agent. From the time the Right Reverend deposits young Nell on the doorstep of her Aunt Kitty, the “waif’s last relation in the world,” it’s clear that Nell had better do her best to hold fast to her severe, mysterious aunt. And she does. There is no better detective’s assistant than this determined orphan. She and her aunt solve a series of mysteries in this breathless and rollicking book, wending their way through American history in the process. It’s stroke of genius to combine the orphan role with the narrative voice of a kind of junior Dr. Watson–with spunk.