Process Notes: Cynthia Leitich Smith on Sisters of the Neversea

This is not the first time my gifted VCFA colleague and longtime friend, Cynthia Leitich Smith, has held conversations with the literary canon. Her Tantalize series is an ongoing bestselling heart-to-heart over several volumes with Dracula by Bram Stoker.

In Sisters of the Neversea, Cyn brings this confab habit to a middle grade audience, and in the process creates a joyful reinvention of an old, revered standby!

J.M. Barrie’s Tiger Lily and Wendy had better step aside for these sisters. It’s their saga, a telling of their truth. The characters have been brought smartly forward into contemporary time, to present-day Oklahoma. They’re part of a blended family in which Lily’s mother is a member of the Creek Nation and Wendy’s father is a British expat contemplating a return to England. I was captivated by the narrative voice, the big sweep of story, the tiny details of character and above all, the loving embrace of family. 

And I was bursting with questions for Cynthia, so I’m happy to say she was kind enough to answer a few of them.

[Uma] The narrative voice in this book feels like a kindly presence throughout, keeping an eye on everything, anticipating readerly questions, and conveying the magic of the setting or the quirks of characters through droll asides. Can you talk about how this voice developed for you? Was it there from the start or did it settle into place somewhere along the way? And how do you see its role in the book? 

[Cynthia] Why do fairy tales still beckon us? Why have they endured? Retellings like SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA may infuse the characters with three-dimensionality, but certainly, the tradition’s foundation is built on archetypical paper dolls.

Certainly, it’s not that they’ve always been pleasant forms of escapism. Even upbeat musical adaptations are rife with child kidnapping and captivity, murderously dysfunctional families, and hefty parental death tolls.

Yet, while SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA is a reinvention—not retelling—of PETER AND WENDY (AKA PETER PAN), I agreed with J.M. Barrie’s decision to use of a storyteller’s voice.

It’s been said that the most powerful magical words are once upon a time and the most satisfying are and they lived happily ever after. Without the journey in between, both phrases are meaningless. Yet they speak to the age-old tradition that has most unified humanity: Story.

My novel invites both Native and non-Native kids into the storyteller’s circle, much in the way that all of our ancestors, on every continent of Earth, gathered around fires to listen in community. The narrator makes a promise to young readers—perilous though it may be, you are not alone in this adventure. Take my hand, and let’s experience it together.

It’s a tremendous responsibility to retell any classic children’s book, especially one with well known, problematic aspects. I approached the task from a place of tremendous respect for young readers and young fictional heroes as well as with a heightened sensitivity to those kids whose identity elements had been stereotyped in Barrie’s original. I approached it with an understanding that healing was necessary. I approached it from a place of hope and love.

[Uma] That shows. I think that’s why this reinvention feels very natural, because of course it’s past time for it to step forward in time, to update its fairytale self.

Author Cynthia Leitich Smith at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. Smith, author-curator of the Heartdrum imprint, is standing in front of the flag of the Muscogee Nation. Photo by Christopher T. Assaf. Image courtesy of Cynthia Leitich Smith.

[Cynthia] One of my favorite films is Rob Reiner’s 1987 film adaptation of “The Princess Bride,” with a screenplay by the modern fairytale’s author William Goldman. While my approach skews more earnest and theirs more farcical, my narrator’s voice was probably influenced by how Peter Falk’s character, the grandfather, drew on an omniscient voice, a conversational voice, by how he engaged in direct address, offered empathy and reassurance, nudged toward growth, and concluded his reading with the story’s catchphrase—as you wish, meaning I love you.

All that said, the voice came naturally to me. I imagined myself, playing pretend, putting on fancy airs as a storyteller to entertain beloved children around an imaginary campfire. I leaned into the wonder, into the love, into the magic, and into the fun.

[Uma] Love leads me to how you treat Peter’s character. It’s a clear-eyed portrayal but it’s also compassionate—we learn why he’s the way he is, we see him in vulnerable moments. Some of that, as in Lily’s conversation with Daniel, almost feels like historical reference. I smiled at Peter’s reliance on yellowed storybooks for comfort! But then there’s the horrific impact he has on everything around him, the endless taking. Sometimes he seems a metaphor for us, human beings on our only Ever-earth. So I’m curious, what does Peter represent to you?

[Cynthia] For over a century, Peter represented limitless potential, clinging to callousness. Arguably, he embodied the long history of children’s literature itself, one in which the marginalized were erased or maligned. And yet, he’s still a child, and Neverland was not without its diversity.

Barrie’s instinct to bring together white British and Indigenous characters wasn’t the problem, it’s that the latter were dehumanized in the process. And like the body of children’s literature, Peter Pan is now tasked with redeeming himself, with opening his mind, with recognizing that all the world isn’t his alone for the taking.

By welcoming characters like Lily and her little brother Michael into his heart, by welcoming blended and bicultural families like the Roberts-Darlings into his Home Under the Ground, Peter will finally—with effort—be able to grow into all he was meant to be.

[Uma] I think you’re right, he did embody the literature of our field. Our reverence, like his, for yellowed storybooks shows a kind of nostalgia for a time that may not really have existed. But you’re saying the solution lies in being generous, opening our minds. That’s wonderful. It feels like a way to be hopeful even in this hope-constricting age we seem to be in. Related to which, what made you happiest about writing this book?

[Cynthia] Worldbuilding! You might think that crafting a retelling meant that it was simply a matter of slipping into an already fully realized world. That was far from the case here.

Fantasy writing demands an internally consistent, coherent execution, one that hopefully further illuminates the themes and informs both the internal and external arcs of the story. That requires intellectual rigor, but it’s also an elaborate exercise of the imagination, of play on the page.

Because they’re the most striking, readers tend to pay heightened attention to my re-envisioning of the female and Native characters, and certainly, I centered both of those identity elements. But it was a delight to bring three-dimensionality to the fairies, Merfolk, and crew of The Jolly Roger—a sense of their histories, sensibilities, cultures and ways in which they’d evolved over time. What an honor to give Belle more agency and nurture her growth on the page! How magical to consider how the lives of the Native people on the island and Merfolk in the water might have intertwined! Meanwhile, gone is disability as a shorthand for high-seas villainy; these Neverseas welcome every child who longs to talk like a pirate and sail away!

[Uma] I rejoiced to see that–and I thank you too for lifting the stigma off stepmotherhood! I suspect there will be more to love in this book each time I read it. Mvto, Cyn!

Wordplay and Profiteering: Fran Wilde on The Ship of Stolen Words

The Ship of Stolen Words blends humor and wordplay with eccentric magic. How about this for starters? A group of goblins steals a boy’s ability to use a magic word: “sorry.” And we’re off on an adventure involving goblin technology, miniature pigs, a couple of friends temporarily at odds, a Little Free Library, and more.

I asked the author, Fran Wilde, if she’d tell me more about her charming book.

[Uma] I was struck by the comparison early on in your book between the loss of a word and the loss of a tooth—it was such a perfect evocation of a universal childhood experience. What are the sources you credit for the magical, eccentric child mind that you channel so well in this book? 

[Fran] Thank you! It is something I’ve thought about for a long time — how language acquisition develops in phases, and how usage and understanding drops out and emerges in different ways for different people, at different ages (even for adults!), but mostly I got caught up thinking how surprisingly different your mouth feels when that first (or second) tooth falls out and what a big, new, tangible sense of something missing that is!

I’ve been so lucky to have opportunities to both teach and work as a summer camp counselor for children at many different ages, and I have a very magical kiddo of my own as well, so I’m around that magic a lot. At the same time, I kept a diary when I was a kid, and some of the things that fascinate Sam, Bella, and Mason (magical doors and monster traps, to name a few) were absolutely on my list as well! Lastly, I love to read — and I think books like The Phantom Tollbooth, Greenglass House, and Sal and Gabi Break The Universe, When You Trap A Tiger, hold so much of that wonderful magic in them.

(Kickstarter Creators, photo by Bryan Derballa, used courtesy of Fran Wilde)

[Uma] I am a Little Free Library fan with connections to the book exchange theme in a book of my own, so of course I was captivated by the notion of a Little Free Library as a portal between worlds. Can you talk about that element of your setting and how it came to play such a crucial role in the story? 

[Fran] The idea that neighbors all over the country and the world are building and keeping up these beautiful, whimsical outdoor spaces as places of connection and exchange warms my heart every time I see one. They’re all so different! And yet the goal is the same: reading and community, accessibility and sharing. That’s kind of like a portal between strangers, isn’t it?

The Little Free Library in The Ship of Stolen Words is something of a larger-scale woodworking project by the owners of the largest house on Sam’s block. They’re intimidating people, and Sam somehow has gotten on their bad side (something about Sam’s baseball wrecking the daffodils below the Little Free Library, I suspect)  a few times. The fact that this Little Free Library is a bigger, ornate structure, and that it just happens to be very close to a tree where a previous generation used to leave messages for each other, is of course part of what attracts Tolver and his grandmother, the word-stealing boglins, to it!

[Uma] This is a cautionary tale in the best traditions of The Phantom Tollbooth and The Wonderful O, but it’s also much more lighthearted than Riverland, which was also, I want to say, beautifully imagined and written. What drew you to this wacky mix of kids and goblins, wordplay, and the unraveling of order through greed?

[Fran] I love that you mention The Phantom Tollbooth! It’s a favorite. And I’ll be checking out The Wonderful O! When I first came up with this story (which is related, and I mention this in the dedication, to the fact that I myself sometimes apologize too much, and a friend once took all my sorries for a whole month (!) which was really hard to manage without, but taught me a lot about the way I use that particular word!) I wanted it to be filled with joy and discovery — kind of the way summer is. 

[Uma] Ha! I should really spread the word about your book here in Victoria, BC, where “sorry” is practically a greeting and there’s a Little Free Library in just about every neighborhood! But I digress. Back to portals.

[Fran] Portal fantasies are among my favorite ways to tell a story — whether it’s going through a wardrobe, traveling in time, or driving a mysterious toy car into a world filled with puns, in each case, the characters are traveling to a different place to solve a problem that they can’t yet manage in the real world. For Peter Pan, it’s growing up; in Narnia, it’s World War II. In Tolbooth, it’s boredom. I think, for me, this is all about problem solving, and learning to solve problems — much as wordplay is. 

The unraveling of order through greed is a whole different problem, and that one let me build a reverse portal fantasy where Tolver must come to the human side of the world to figure out his problems too! I loved being able to tell both stories, and show each character growing and changing because of their interactions. 

[Uma] Yes, and we can see ourselves in the goblins as much as in the humans, which is of course the best kind of fantasy fiction magic. BONUS: Fran is happy to take questions, so consider this a call to fantasy fans and wordsmiths to join this conversation.

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

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

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

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

Here’s what she wrote:

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

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

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

Photo courtesy of Terry Nichols

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

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

Excerpt:

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

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

Fantasy Fiction and Inclusion

Back when Greek mythology ruled and Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson was turning middle graders into reading addicts, the notion of fantasy and cultural diversity was nonexistent. Tim Parks asked morosely whether an upward pathway existed from pulp to Proust. If anyone thought about diversity in connection with popularizing mythology in fiction in the years since, it was more kumbaya than prediction.

But times have changed, thank heavens and the end of the year feels as good a time as any to be gtateful. Now Riordan’s imprint at Disney-Hyperion is publishing exactly the diverse list that’s been missing for so many years. Riordan writes:

Over the years, I’ve gotten many questions from my fans about whether I might write about various world mythologies, but in most cases I knew I wasn’t the best person to write those books. Much better, I thought, to use my experience and my platform at Disney to put the spotlight on other great writers who are actually from those cultures and know the mythologies* better than I do. Let them tell their own stories, and I would do whatever I could to help those books find a wide audience!

The first of these I came across was Roshani Chokshi’s Aru Shah and the End of Time. Aru’s a charming protagonist whose casual relationship with truth gets her, predictably, into trouble. A dare ends up launching her on a quest in the course of which she finds out that she’s the daughter of Indra, king of the gods, and the reincarnation of Arjuna, one of the Pandava brothers of the Mahabharata.

Other series titles from the imprint weave Korean folklore and space opera, add Cuban flair to the space-time continuum, and reclaim and recast John Henry and Brer Rabbit along with Middle Passage villains.

Along similar lines, see Sayantani Dasgupta’s Kiranmala books. And look for Van Hoang’s Girl Giant and the Monkey King.

Process Talk: Sheela Chari on the Mysteries of Novelizing a Podcast

Manu Patel, Mars to everyone, is one of a motley crew of outsiders at H.G. Wells Middle School in the Seattle area. The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel is the first of a three-book series by Sheela Chari, based on an award-winning podcast from Gen-Z Media.

Sheela Chari’s opening title is charming, engaging, spot-on for middle grade voice and eccentricity. I asked Sheela if she’d tell me more.

[UK] You’ve ventured to the borders of the known world in this project. How does one go about novelizing a podcast? What parameters did you have to stick with and what was the extent of your creative freedom?

[SC] The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel is an original podcast that spans 3 seasons, created by Gen-Z Media. The Mars team did a fantastic job of bringing their story to life in podcast form, with kids around the world tuning in to find out what happens next as Mars and his pals search for their missing friends while encountering the mysterious billionaire inventor, Oliver Pruitt.

When I first came on board to novelize this popular series, I asked myself the same question — how do I take a high-action audio drama and turn it into a book? Some lucky things I had going for me: I had the entire plot laid out, season to season. The other lucky thing is that I had support from the Mars Patel team to take the story and make it my own. This meant I was free to explore these characters, their backstories, and even make adjustments to the storyline to make the novel work.

Still…I had some choices to make: where does the story start in time? How do we hear the voices of these characters who are so strong and distinct in the podcast? And how does Oliver Pruitt, who narrates the podcast, play a role in the novel? Eventually, I wrote the story in third person and I gave everyone a chance to tell some of the story, though we stay mainly with Mars. I also relied on texting messages, podcast transcripts, and comments to give us a flavor of how the characters speak with each other and over social media. This was hands down, the most fun I had in writing this book! I loved writing the group texts between Mars, Caddie, JP and Toothpick — with just a few lines I was able to show how they think and communicate. I also loved the sections where podcast fans could leave comments for their hero, Oliver Pruitt. As the novel progresses, their comments gradually change form adoration to suspicion as it dawns on them that Oliver Pruitt might not be the person he says he is.

In terms of the plot, I tried to stay as faithful as I could to the original story. Fans of the podcast who pick up this book will recognize all the key moments. This way the reader and the listener will arrive at the same place by the end of Book 1 and Season 1. But I also wanted to give readers something extra — the backstories of the core characters, to show us why Mars, JP, Caddie, and Toothpick do what they do, and why they remain so fiercely loyal to each other. Lastly, it was a joy to set the book in Washington State, where I’m from. People who live or have visited the area will recognize elements of the Puget Sound in Mars’ fictitious hometown of Port Elizabeth.

[UK] What came easily to you in writing this first series title? Any challenges you didn’t anticipate? 

[SC] Any mystery writer will tell you that the hardest part in writing a mystery novel is the plot. I didn’t have the problem! The whole plot was given to me from start to finish. Which really allowed me focus on the characters and the storytelling. The biggest challenge was figuring out how to create the character of Oliver Pruitt on paper.

In the podcast, Oliver Pruitt is the narrator. Listeners will realize early on that Oliver Pruitt is an unreliable narrator. He’s telling the story but he’s also part of it, and he’s constantly disrupting the lives of the main characters. Also, part of his charm is that you never know if he is a good guy or not. In the novel, Oliver Pruitt is not the narrator, but his podcasts are an integral part of the story. In the transcripts, not only do we get a flavor for Oliver’s personality, but I weave in clues that he’s signaling to the reader. Which is why it’s important to read the podcast sections carefully along with the rest of the book! 

[UK] It’s so great to see this mystery/adventure for kids with a South Asian American protagonist. Your thoughts on representation? How did you feel bringing Mars Patel to the page?

[SC] When I sat down to write my first mystery novel, VANISHED, it was very important to me that the mystery involved an Indian-American in the chief detective role. Which is how Neela, the main character, operated throughout the book. Her Indian heritage was important but remained in the background of the mystery. In the Mars Patel novel, I had similar ideas in mind. I was very drawn to Mars because he shares my South Asian heritage: his mother is from India. On the other hand, it was important that his heritage did not overshadow the plot. As one of my daughters said to me recently, she wants to be able to see Indian-American characters in movies and books who get to do all the same amazing things that their white counterparts do without focusing so much on cultural and ethnic differences. That’s how I see this book — showing us all the ways Mars is like any other American child growing up. His mother, Saira Patel, occasionally speaks in Hindi, she lights a diya in prayer, and some of the foods she mentions are Indian. She plays a larger role in the subsequent books, and in her, I see important moments that reveal her cultural heritage and how it shapes her character. To me, that strikes the right balance between Indian and American.

[UK] Every book teaches the writer something. What did writing this book teach you?

This project involved inheriting characters I knew nothing about. They were given to me and I met them like you might meet a stranger at a party. Which means I had to really spend time getting to know them inside out. In a strange way, it forced me to become more empathetic, to walk in someone else’s shoes. I had to dig deep to imagine their backgrounds and memories, and even, to figure out how they speak. 

I think it’s important for all writers to find new ways to enliven our craft. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of writing the same stories or thinking about characters in the same way. In her ground-breaking book, THE ARTIST’S WAY, Julia Cameron speaks of filling the well, of finding activities and experiences that reinvigorate us as artists. Writing this series was  definitely an invigorating experience for me. I know I will carry the ideas I learned from this book— on dialogue, on making my characters more inclusive, and thinking outside the box when it comes to finding missing things.

[UK] Thank you, Sheela! Happy trails to you and Mars and his pals!

Process Talk: Tziporah Cohen on No Vacancy

The best and brightest middle grade novels hit the sweet spot between lightness and the big questions of life. Here’s one from VCFA grad Tziporah Cohen. I asked Tzippy if she’d tell me more about this whimsical, intelligent novel about 11-year-old Miriam who finds herself transplanted from New York City to the failing motel that her parents, most unreasonably, have chosen to run.

Photo courtesy of Tziporah Cohen

[UK] Your Miriam has a fine sense of the dramatic and tragic. She also has a kind of tenderness and vulnerability, a lively imagination, and a touch of that lovely magical thinking that’s so characteristic of middle grade. Can you talk about how this character grew and came to life for you?

[TC] In many ways, Miriam is like me. I grew up with a strong Jewish identity, but it didn’t always feel rooted. We went to synagogue on the major holidays and had wonderful Passover seders, but also ate sausage pizza once a week and went to the mall on Saturday mornings. I craved something more, but didn’t know what. When I became more religiously observant, I realized that something was community. I loved belonging to something bigger than myself.

I knew from the outset that Miriam would be Jewish, like me, and I also had been wanting to explore religion and faith from a middle grade-perspective. Miriam is at that age, just at the beginning of adolescence, where she is searching for something but can’t yet identify what it is, and I channeled some of my own experience into creating her. Other parts of her struggle come from issues I grapple with as an adult: how religion can bring out the worst in people when it leads to judgment or lack of tolerance, but how it can also be a source of kindness and great good, when channeled the right way.

[UK] I was enchanted by the details of your setting—grape pie, the Myrna-Mabel confusion, and of course the old drive-in theater. How did you go about creating a setting that also grows your character and is very much a part of the conflict in the story?

Photos courtesy of Tziporah Cohen

[TC] The motel setting has its own backstory. The summer after I started my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts, my family and I went to Hershey, Pennsylvania for a mini-vacation. We stayed in a somewhat run-down motel (though not nearly as run-down as The Jewel Motor Inn) owned by an East Indian family from Staten Island, NY who had moved in just three days before we got there. There was a young boy hanging around—their nephew, I think—and I started wondering what it would be like for a kid to move from the diverse big city to live in a motel in a very non-diverse small town. I started my first draft in that motel room!

As I wrote, I brought in details from that vacation and from living in upstate New York while in college. The details emerged over many drafts over many years (I started this story in 2013!), in an interactive, reciprocal way. For example, many motels have a restaurant or diner next door, so I created one, and then Myrna Whitley and her husband made their appearance to work in it. In that instance, the characters grew from the setting. But the setting also grew from the characters: Mrs. Whitley’s granddaughter Kate, who is Catholic, befriends Miriam and pushes her to confront some of her feelings about being Jewish and ask questions about the varieties of faith she notices around her. This led me to (spoiler alert!) the idea of the girls creating the Virgin Mary apparition, as well as the scenes at the drive-in and synagogue, all of which worked towards creating the setting of the small town of Greenvale.

[UK] At one level, this is a quirky, sweet book about friendship and family. But we quickly find ourselves entering more complicated terrain and encountering questions of prejudice and bias, truth and lies, means and ends and taking responsibility. Even so, there’s a lightness to the story that allows a reader to engage with its more difficult questions. How do we create that balance in writing for the middle grades? How did you do that here?

[TC] Such a hard question! Hard because so much of writing this book for me felt like it was happening on a subconscious level. In early drafts, the book had a much more comical approach, sometimes even verging on slapstick. My dad was very sick when I started writing it, and I was also working on another novel that was full of grief, and I needed to write something light. But as the book evolved, the questions Miriam struggled with grew more serious. The world around me also seemed to be changing over the years that I wrote the novel—with an increase in incidents of anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice—and I found myself responding to that as well.

The other thing I’ve learned, from my work as a psychiatrist in palliative care, is that life is a balance of bitter and sweet. We need the sweet to endure the bitter, and the bitter to appreciate the sweet. I hope I was able to convey some of that reality in Miriam’s story.

[UK] Ah yes, the shifting sands of drafts. Thank you, Tziporah Cohen, for this tender middle grade fiction that delivers reality while brushing it with the hope that is so needed by young people (and old ones, really).

Process Talk: N.H. Senzai on Secrecy, History, and Fiction for Young Readers

History is contentious in the Indian subcontinent, so often determined by religious and national identity, by borders. But “to breathe the air and touch the soil where your family originated…” That is the closing of a circle, a moment that feels practically sacred. That search to find self and family is the driving force in Ticket to India by N.H. Senzai. I asked Naheed Senzai to tell me more.

[UK] Secrets figure largely in Ticket to India—family secrets, hidden grief and looming over the whole journey, the huge, unspoken secrets of Partition. What did it mean to you to bring secrecy and secrets into the light of fiction?

[NHS] My family, like most families, have secrets. Most are incidents, actions or emotions that are secreted away because they emote grief and loss. Over the years, when I talked with my mother, aunts and uncles about our family history, I learned that one of the greatest turning points in their life was partition – a great deal of suffering and loss was generated by physical displacement, economic upheaval and the loss of community and country. 

I learned that secrets don’t stay hidden – they affect the very fabric of a family’s structure and manifest themselves in subtle and painful ways. My grandfather always said that he was ruined twice – one when migrating to East Pakistan, then moving to West Pakistan during the Bangladesh war of independence in 1971. These tragedies stayed with my grandfather and affected how he interacted with us, and the world. 

In writing Ticket to India, I wanted to honor our elders and highlight the memory of their sacrifices – they hid painful secrets to make sure that the next generation succeeded, as Maya’s grandmother does. 

[U] How does your Maya fit her name? 

[NHS] I have always loved the name Maya and I think if I’d had a daughter I would have chosen the name.

[UK] Me too! No daughter but I too had a character named Maya in my very first novel. Something about the name…

[NHS] For my main character in Ticket To India, I wanted a name that was global, crossed boundaries, religions and ethnicities.

The name Maya proved to have those characteristics;  Maya is an old Arabic word, means princess, it translates into eternal spring in Hebrew, and love in Nepali. There have been extraordinary Maya’s throughout history; Maya was the mother of the Greek god Hermes, and the founder of Buddhism. Maya is also another name for the Hindu goddess Durga, who is believed to be invincible as the power behind the creation, protection, and destruction of the world.

[UK] It also means illusion: the power by which the universe becomes manifest; the shifting appearance of the material world, a sense that things are not as they appear. Understanding that sense of shifting reality is a huge motivation for your Maya, as she longs to make sense of her family’s fractured past. Talk about why the past matters—to you, as well as to the lives of young people. 

[NHS] I love history and have always been struck by the saying by writer and philosopher George Santayana ‘Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.’ Only by knowing your history can you make knowledgable decisions on how to move forward. Also, current events do not happen in a vacuum, they are influenced by years of history. 

[UK] Very true. Your earlier novel, Shooting Kabul, explores a more recent history, of an Afghan family trying to make the United States home, and a boy desperate to make that family whole again.

[NHS] Most of my books  incorporate history and the importance of knowing where you come from and how it impacts your life today. Ticket to India delves into the impacts of colonialism and the coming partition. 

[UK] You and I both have connections with the subcontinent. What would you wish for that region of the world?

[NHS] Benazir Bhutto, Prime Minister of Pakistan, once said “There is a little bit of Indian in every Pakistani and a little bit of Pakistani an every Indian.” 

My maternal grandparents are buried in Pakistan and my paternal grandparents in India. Before partition the people of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh were one. And although the people of those regions are highly diverse, they were one and coexisted for the most part. That is the beauty of the region and I wish they would remember it today when there is so much intolerance and far right activity in the subcontinent.

I wish that too. Thanks, Naheed!

Process Notes: Garret Weyr on Choosing Magic

I’ll admit, a good storytelling voice is my ticket to happiness. Garret Weyr’s middle grade novel, The Language of Spells, had me firmly in the grip of its dragon paws from the start. Read this little passage:

From The Language of Spells by Garret Weyr

By the time Grisha’s shape had been rudely shifted, I was a willing collaborator in the business of creating mental images that we call reading. No wonder the Kirkus reviewer called this book “extraordinary–not to be missed.”

So I asked Garret if she’d “explain the Where, the When, the How Come, and the How Long” behind the narrative voice that drives, modulates, lifts, whispers, sings, and quickens this elegantly crafted, yet completely child-aware story. Here is her reply:

Well, you have asked the question that sings my song.  As a writer, point of view is everything to me.  Who is telling the story, why are they telling it, when are they telling it, and where are they as they tell it?

Normally the process of answering those questions can take me half a draft and/or many many months. 

But this novel was always a story being told by a voice that knew about magic, dragons, and the cost of knowing both.  There are two reasons for this. 

The easiest comes from the rainy afternoon when I ducked into a junk shop and encountered a small china teapot in the shape of a dragon.  The dragon and I looked at each other.  I wondered how the dragon had gotten in there and the dragon, I suspect, wondered if I could figure it out.  So, I bought the little teapot and took it home.

Garret Weyr’s teapot

I should confess that my history with dragons goes all the way back to my childhood. Perhaps even to my father’s childhood. He grew up in Austria, specifically the city of Vienna and had to flee the city when he was eleven and the Nazis were about to march in.

He spent the second world war in England and the US and although he eventually became a US citizen, Vienna still beckoned.  As children, we went with him to visit every year and he kept an apartment there that seemed like our second home. 

My sisters and I liked a bedtime story and he liked to tell them.  Our favorite was about a dragon who lived in a castle on the Danube.  Now my father likes a sword fight, and so his dragon was forever running into battle with mayhem in his wake. 

Inside scoop: Garret’s late beloved dog Henry inspired Grisha the dragon in The Language of Spells.

To this day, my sisters and I are uneasy sleepers.   But we know dragons.  And Vienna.  More importantly, we know how refugees cling to stories of the world they once lived in but no longer do. 

And her imperious cat Dorcas inspired the magical cats

And that is my second reason for this novel being a story told.  My dragons had lost their home. Like large numbers of people who survived WWII, the dragons were refugees.  They had stories to tell. 

Uma: Maybe this is why I found this story so compelling. Because the dragons. struggling to live outside their lost homes, echo the feelings of so many millions of people who are forcibly displaced in our all-too-real world. The UNHCR puts the number at 70.8 million this year, one person forcibly displaced every 2 seconds. Garret continues:

I should add that I thought this would be a picture book.  It turns out, I am not a picture book writer.   I should have known that a book largely set in a hotel bar was not going to loan itself to that format. 

Live and learn.  

Indeed. Thank you, Garret Weyr. I wish you a richness of warm courtesies and the best dragon magic.

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!

“I’m not really who you think I am.”

On the plane to Newfoundland I watched Captain Marvel. I’d missed it on the big screen and I must say it was quite wonderful seeing a woman taking charge of saving the world. “Buckle up, folks…”

And Brie Larson came through for me, whether she was kick-boxing or coping with memory flashes. I even found myself being faintly nostalgic for the 1990s! It was nice to check out of reality for a while and sink into a world in which female power prevailed, where you could sort of hand over the problems to a really competent superhero and rest assured that all would be well.

Of course, life isn’t that simple, and more to the point, the real heroes aren’t from some other galaxy. They’re right here among us. This is the point of the recent We Need Diverse Books story collection edited by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, The Hero Next Door. VCFA graduate Suma Subramaniam’s story, “Rescue” won the WNDB short story contest and is included in the book, which is a wonderful collection of stories about all kinds of heroes in worlds real and fantastic. Interestingly, in each of the stories, something is revealed about the character of the hero, and sometimes heroism can be seen in more than one person, so the quote from Captain Marvel seems apt: “I’m not really who you think I am.”

I asked Suma a few questions about her story:

HEROcover.jpg[Uma] What resonated for you in the anthology theme of everyday heroes?

[Suma] This theme resonated for me as conflicts and universal challenges unfold across all families regardless of culture. In tough times, ordinary people step in to help and we see great acts of humanity. Some of these people are not necessarily famous, but they do great things when no one’s noticing them – sometimes at a significant personal cost. I have been helped by many such people and pets in my childhood and adult life. My story in The Hero Next Door is written in honor of those people (and pets).

[Uma] Talk about the intersection of family conflict and the role of the dog in your story. Where did that combination come from for you?

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Photo courtesy of Suma Subramaniam

[Suma] The inspiration for “Rescue” came from a couple of stories and news articles I had read about domestic abuse. When I researched the subject, I found very little information on how children navigated family separation and domestic abuse in South Asian families. I knew instantly that I had to write a story about it as seen through the eyes of a child. The idea of having a dog in the story came naturally as I could not imagine Sangeetha’s life without a four-legged friend. Children often feel their whole world has turned upside down when they’re facing separation and domestic abuse.

 

Having lived with several dogs over the years, I have found that dogs bring joy in families and offer a healing path in the gentlest ways. When I immigrated to the United States more than a decade ago, my dog helped me feel less lonely. Dogs have a way of being patient, compassionate, trustworthy, and kind. They teach us valuable life lessons in the short course of their lifetimes that can help children in more ways than one. Sangeetha, therefore, had to have a dog who would be that special friend.

[Uma] Every piece of writing teaches the writer something. What did writing this story teach you?

[Suma] Writing this story taught me to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. I wrote Rescue to practice writing short fiction without the ultimate goal of publication in mind. Putting out the finished product into the ether led Rescue to the right hands – to people who got the heart of Sangeetha’s story and were excited about championing it.

And I am so glad that happened, Suma. Good luck!

The Hero Next Door includes stories by William Alexander, Joseph Bruchac, Lamar Giles, Mike Jung, Hena Khan, Juana Medina, Ellen Oh, R.J. Palacio, Linda Sue Park and Anna Dobbin, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Ronald L. Smith, Suma Subramaniam, and Rita Williams-Garcia.