Katia Raina

The Magic Mirror

Q & A with emily danforth: “Start with Story”

After I contacted emily (and yes, she prefers her name in lowercase letters,) and initiated this exchange with her, I could see a little bit better why someone like her would come up with an amazing, eye-opening, stereotype-shattering book like “Cameron Post.”

I hope that after reading her answers to my questions, you will see that’s just the way emily comes across: like a wise, humble and original person, just like her character Cameron.

I learned so much from reading emily’s book and from “talking” to her. I hope you will too.

KR: Can you tell us about your discovery that you’re a writer? Was it sudden or was it gradual? Can you walk us a bit along your road toward writing “Cameron Post?” How many drafts did it take? Was it your first manuscript? How long did it take you to write the book? (I told you I had many, many questions).

emily: Well, like a lot of writers I’ve been at this since I was very young—writing weird little short stories and hand-illustrated books and plays, you know, a little of this and a little of that—much avid reading thrown in, too. Then, in college, I took several creative writing classes and began to “own” the identity of writer a bit more. (Well, writer of short stories, anyway). Then I took a couple of years “off” between undergrad and enrolling in the MFA program at the University of Montana-Missoula. I wanted to see if I would take the time to write on my own, to make it a priority, while not in school and thereby “forced to write” for a workshop or a grade.

I did do some writing during those years (while working a full time job as an Aquatics Director at a YWCA, actually) and I eventually decided that I was serious enough about my writing to dedicate myself to properly learning technique and analysis (and just to being around other serious, dedicated writers—which is absolutely one of the benefits of an MFA program) for a couple of years. During my MFA I learned what it means to “read like a writer,” to read a piece of fiction and carefully consider its construction, the various elements of craft used to render it as a whole. I also wrote a whole lot more short fiction, which was essential in terms of allowing me to try out various modes of storytelling, to experiment with form and style, and then to move on to something new.

During the first year of that program I wrote some short pieces toward such a novel, things here and there, but didn’t really have a voice or a main character that I was satisfied with until I wrote (for the fiction workshop of the wonderful visiting writer Danzy Senna) what I thought was a completely unrelated short story about a girl from eastern Montana who ends up working at this nutty maternity mannequin factory in Pasadena, CA. The story was called “Lucky Human,” because that’s the name of a real (and somewhat well-known) mannequin factory in China that, in my story, had a business relationship with the California factory.

Anyway, the character from that story became, after lots more writing and rewriting, Cameron Post. In writing that story I’d stumbled upon her voice, just not her past, the things that drove her to eventually working at this weird job, cut off from her family. I remember Danzy actually saying, in her response to “Lucky Human,” that the piece didn’t really work yet as a short story (for all kinds of reasons), but that she wondered if it was from something longer, maybe from a novel I was working on.

So I continued to work on pages toward this novel without knowing much more, really, than that it would be a coming-of-age story and that the protagonist would be orphaned early on. (I was also reading a lot of sentimental women’s fiction—novels of instruction—from the 19th century at this time and I wanted to play with some of those themes/tropes).

In 2006 I finished my MFA and then continued on to get my PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Importantly, I was also able to carve out time during my PhD to complete (and even to workshop portions of) that novel I’d started during my MFA—the book that would become The Miseducation of Cameron Post (which was then called Lucky Human, actually). I didn’t really have a solid draft until the end of my third year in the PhD program, and even then I was still revising fairly significantly. (Though of course I wasn’t working on this novel exclusively, either—I was writing short fiction and completing coursework and teaching).

All told it took me about 4 years to get the book to a place to secure an agent and start the ball rolling toward publication. And yes: it was my first novel-length manuscript. I’d written and published short fiction in a variety of journals, and had also completed a fairly terrible collection of short stories as my MFA thesis, but this was the first manuscript that I’d really call a proper book.

KR: You pursued not only graduate degree in creative writing, but you went for a PhD in it as well! That’s quite a gutsy-crazy-wonderful decision in my opinion. Was the decision a hard one for you? Why did you go that route and what have you gained from it?

 emily: It wasn’t a “hard” decision at all to pursue graduate study in creative writing (getting in can be tricky—I had to apply twice to MFA programs—but not, for me, anyway, wanting to go.) But I want to be clear that I chose to enroll in an MFA program because I wanted to surround myself with a community of serious writers and do nothing but eat, sleep, and drink (a whole lot of drinking, actually) literary fiction writing/reading/craft-based analysis for two years, which is pretty much exactly what I did. I didn’t necessarily have dreams of getting an agent or selling a novel (or even writing a novel) or landing a teaching job (or even wanting one) as a result of completing a two-year MFA program. I was surprisingly realistic, I think, about the venture.

It was during the MFA that I discovered I really loved teaching creative writing (I had the opportunity to co-teach a creative writing workshop during the winter session) and so I decided to apply for PhD in Creative Writing programs (there aren’t nearly so many of those as there are MFAs). I did this not just to receive additional graduate level instruction in the craft of fiction writing, but also to gain experience teaching in the college classroom, to develop my pedagogy, and to commit myself to scholarly work in the analysis of contemporary fiction—specifically the recent American novel and LGBTQ fiction.

In other words: I discovered during my MFA that I didn’t just want to be a fiction writer, I wanted to be both an academic and a fiction writer (or an academic fiction writer) and specifically to teach creative writing and contemporary literature courses at the college level.

My standard “advice” about graduate level creative writing programs (particularly full-time, residency programs) is that—unless you’re independently wealthy—don’t enroll if you’re not offered some source of funding (other than student loans). You might get a fellowship, or a partial fellowship, or a research assistantship, or a teaching assistantship (which is crucial—if you ever plan to go on the academic job market—because it helps you gain necessary classroom teaching experience), or any combination thereof. But without those sources of funding, I’m just not sure that racking up significant debt to earn an MFA is “worth it.” Though, ultimately, I guess it all depends on the program, your intentions, and how you make use of your time there. (There are also lots of great low-residency MFA/MA in CW options now, too.)

KR: As I said in my little book review of Cameron Post on this blog, the thing that struck me the most about your story was its freshness and authenticity. If you reflect on it for a moment, what would you say helped you achieve this? Did some of the unique detail come from people you had known and some of your own life experiences? Or was it something more?

emily: Thanks so much for saying so. Certainly I drew from parts of my own “coming-of-age” as a closeted lesbian teen in cowboy country Montana to inform the novel. I’ve mentioned in other interviews that I think of this book as an autobiographical novel, but what I mean by that, what I’ve really pulled from my own past, are the details of time and place.

In terms of setting, specifically, anyone who has any familiarity with Miles City will recognize some of the local attractions—the swimming hole, the Bucking Horse Sale, the Montana Theater, etc—but each of those locations has also been fictionalized. Also, I did an incredible amount of research into conversion/reparative therapy: from routinely visiting chat rooms and blogs and websites of organizations associated with Exodus International (the umbrella organization for many of these churches and groups) to reading books and other materials by proponents and practitioners of said therapies, to seeking out residence “rules” manuals and other materials specifically from live-in facilities, etc.

While lots of that research just didn’t actually “make it to the page” for various reasons, it absolutely informed my writing of the entire God’s Promise section of the novel and I think maybe/hopefully speaks to some of the “authenticity” you mentioned in your review.

KR: Even though, again, in my opinion, the book is compassionate to the players on all sides of the homosexuality issue, I would imagine this story pissed a lot of people off and had to have touched a nerve. Did you have issues with censorship, calls to ban your book, etc.?

 emily: Well, no, not really, not yet, anyway. Certainly no one from my publishing house ever made any moves to censor or “tone down” any aspects of the novel. I have received some strange, unfortunate, angry emails from various people who’ve read about the book (but, interestingly/unsurprisingly—have not actually read the book—just read/heard about it) but no, to my knowledge, larger calls to ban it.

However, it has only been out since February so it may just be that it’s not been around long enough to inspire this kind of reaction.  (Or maybe, hopefully, it’s just not going to get that reaction.)

Also, while it’s larger boycotts or book burnings or what-have-you that make the news, much more often it’s just one librarian or teacher or a small staff of individuals deciding not to order or include a particular title for their own reasons; and yes, sometimes those reasons might in fact be bigoted or homophobic or just overly-cautious/sensitive about what is and isn’t “appropriate” for a YA novel. It’s not always the big flashy school board decisions to ban certain titles that ultimately “count,” it’s when, quietly, this local library and that school library and this indie bookstore, etc, simply decide not to have a book on their shelves—not to make it accessible to teenage readers for “moral” reasons.

KR: What’s next? What are you working on now?

emily: I’m working on a couple of novels, actually. One of them follows one copy of the infamous and frequently banned novel, The Well of Loneliness, from the day it comes off the production line in London in 1928, to the day it—well, I can’t say what happens to it, but suffice it to say that we follow this copy of the book as it passes hands from one character to the next for 100 years. The characters are mix of fictionalized versions of “real people,” like actress/provocateur Tallulah Bankhead, and also those who are complete inventions.

The other is a contemporary YA (with interspersed historical sections) that follows the very exciting exploits of some adolescent actresses (and a college-age writer who’s too cool for school) on the set of a controversial film. I won’t tell you anything more (yet) other than that, in my dream world, it will be published under the title CELESBIAN! (All caps with the exclamation point).

 KR: What’s your writing day like? And do you write every single day, no exception? Do you ever get stuck? What comes easy for you, and what have you really had to work hard to master? (Yeah, many questions, and I am trying to restrain myself here, really really trying….)

 emily: I do not write every single day—during the academic year I simply cannot make that happen. (Well, at least not this year—my first as a full time assistant professor.) However, when I’m deep in a project I sometimes write for 14 hours a day. Really. And I’ll do this for weeks and weeks—maybe not 14 each day, but 7, 10, whatever—long, long days really getting material down on the page. I tend to revise sentences (I think of them as lines—though I’m not much of a poet) as I go—and then start out the next day again revising the material from the day before, so this all takes quite awhile. I sometimes think I’d like to be a writer who works each day, but it’s just not a method that serves me well at this point in my career. (But ah the joy of summers “off!”)

When I’m invested in a project I rarely get “stuck.” I mean, I might get confused about how best to write a scene, or just what scene I need, or where I need to “go with” a character or a situation, but I don’t see those moments as getting stuck so much as just part of the writing process. That’s what the “work” of it is—figuring that stuff out. If I feel myself losing motivation for a project for too long that typically tells me that I’m just not invested enough in that project to sustain it (at least for right now).

KR: Let’s conclude this interview with a word of advice for us writer types. What do you think you did right up to now?

 emily: Well, shoot, since you’re asking me to toot my own horn here. Um, how about this: I think I focused, first and foremost, on the craft of fiction writing (and before that—on the active, active reading of fiction) long before I worried, or even thought, about possible publication. I always tell my students to read everything they can get their hands on–especially the books that confuse, confound, and surprise or challenge them—those that push against their expectations for what a novel is or might be, or what a short story can or “should” do. And then I tell them to write and write and write.

I also ask them to remember that wanting to publish is not the same thing as wanting to write—and that neither of those things is the same as actually sitting down and writing. After that, it’s really about devoting yourself to your craft and to finishing particular projects.

I don’t believe in arbitrary, one-size-fits-all approaches to novel writing—any rules that I might give you about how to approach your material or how to sell your novel will undoubtedly have lots of good/important exceptions. What I’ll say is this: you can’t focus on publication from the outset; I just don’t think that’s any way to develop as a writer. Focus on story, focus on characterization and the nuances of language—focus on your fiction. And then revise. And then get some people to read it. Then revise some more. After that: start doing the necessary research into publication (and it does take some research.) But don’t start there: start with story.

Thank you emily, not only for the time and thought you have put into these answers, not only for the sage advice, and for sharing the details of your journey, thank you for the inspiration — and, as I said before, thank you for your book.

May 28, 2012 Posted by | Contemporary History, Interviews | 2 Comments

“The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” by Emily Danforth

Balzer & Bray, 2012

The reviewers have been raving, the readers have been buzzing, and someone in the industry whose opinion I respect very much fell in love with this book. So when I picked it up, I hoped to fall in love, too.

Well, I’ll be honest, the beginning — the first chapter or so — had me worried. Who was this Cameron Post, and why did I care? I wasn’t quite sure yet. The slow pace and the long chapters increased my doubts, but not enough to make me stop reading.

By second or third chapter, I was in love.

Set in the 1990s, this is a coming-of-age and a coming-out book about a lesbian teenager who gets sent to a sort of a fundamentalist Christian boarding school that promises to  cure homosexuality. It’s probably not for everyone. You’d have to be a pretty open-minded person just to pick up this book in the first place. But then, it also is for everyone, in my opinion.

It seems like most of the other YA books I read with gay protagonists are more geared toward gay readers, who need books like this while they are struggling to come in terms with their identity in a hostile world. Other gay books I’ve read have been mostly that, “gay books,” written in an emotional language specifically meant for those teens. This book — it is written for any teenager or grownup who feels they are still growing, always growing.

If you do pick it up, and I really, really, really hope so, this book will open your mind further. It will challenge every stereotype etched in your head (and I am not just talking about gay stereotypes, I am talking stereotypes about Christian fundamentalists, stereotypes about human beings, period). This book, if you let it, will make you see the world in a richer light.

I think the reason for this is because this book is written with such compassion. Even good guys are doing some messed-up things here (things like smoking lots and lots of pot, and stealing), but the more they mess up, the more the reader loves them. As for the bad guys, there aren’t any here, not really, just people, loving, scared and vulnerable, doing “the best they can.”

The other thing that got me about Cameron’s story is its’ freshness. Every person’s thought, their every action feels like a revelation, like something I haven’t seen before. And that’s not even talking about the main character, Cameron, who is in turns, noble and cruel, wise and sometimes a total fool (though even then, she knows it). Everything she does, feels, describes, seems at once unique and beautifully ordinary.

I could go on and on and on. I could write an essay. I’ve learned so much as a writer just from reading Cameron’s story. This recent historical title is going on my list of best contemporary historical fiction for young people, for sure. “Miseducation” is going to be a classic, I predict. And one of its copies, the one on my shelf, will get dearly dog-eared, as I plan to re-read it, again and again, paying even closer attention, learning even more.

May 5, 2012 Posted by | Book Impressions, Contemporary History | , | 4 Comments

“Inside Out and Back Again,” by Thanhha Lai

Harper, 2011       

The winner of this year’s National Book Award for the best YA title of the year just happens to be another great find for my Best Contemporary Historical Novels list, and I couldn’t be more excited!

This aching and spare novel in verse (which totally deserves the honor!), tells a story of a ten-year-old girl, Ha, whose family must escape from Vietnam in the last year of the war, and start over in Alabama.

I think it’s the details that really brought this story to life, and made it great — the taste and look of papaya, Ha’s favorite fruit; her apt descriptions of people in her home country and in the new land; her struggles with English and with being made to feel “dumb.”

That, and the characterization of the tough, spunky heroine who knows what she wants and what she doesn’t. And the voice, at once spare and lyrical.

———————————————————————————————————————————

My new teacher has brown curls

looped tight to her scalp

like circles in a beehive.

She points to her chest:

MiSSS SScott,

saying it three times,

each louder

with ever more spit.

I repeat, MiSSS SScott,

careful to hiss every s.

She doesn’t seem impressed.

I tap my own chest:

Ha.

She must have heard

ha,

as in funny ha-ha-ha.

She fakes a laugh.

I repeat, Ha,

and wish I knew

enough English

to tell her

to listen for

the diacritical mark,

this one directing

the tone

downward.

My new teacher tilts

her head back,

fakes

an even sadder laugh.

———————————————————————————————————————————————————————–

Isn’t this beautiful?

I think this is especially perfect for a middle-grade social studies classroom. Kids would learn a lot about that period of time by reading this book. And not just kids — I know I have.

Congratulations, Thanhha!

December 2, 2011 Posted by | Book Impressions, Contemporary History | 9 Comments

“Soldier X” by Don Wulffson: A Book Impression and My Own Take on the 1940s History

Speak (Penguin) 2001

I usually try to stick to new books when reviewing, but I couldn’t keep silent about this one. My 12-year-old son recommended this book to me, and the concept totally intrigued me. A teenage German soldier gets sent to the front in 1944, at a time when German supplies ae dwindling and the losses are heavy. While engaged in a battle, the protagonist, who has some knowledge of the Russian language, faces a difficult choice: be killed or pass himself for a Russian. He chooses the latter and finds himself on the other side of the war, looking after the wounded in a Russian hospital, where he befriends, then falls for a Russian girl.

This is a “war is hell” kind of a book, and it portrays the horrors of the front in awful, vivid detail. I always appreciate this sort of honesty. However, there were things that bothered me about this book — things I feel a  strong need to share.

The way this book portrays the war is essentially as a squabble between two governments, with little people with no particular feeling for their respective countries’ cause, caught in the middle of it.

I have a a problem with this portrayal. Sometimes, in wars, there really is a bad guy. There is an aggressor.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a little while, you’ll know that I am one of the first people to bash the former Soviet Union. For Stalin and the repressions he started, for the leaders who followed him, who continued his repressions, who kept telling his lies. I support books such as Rita Sepetys’ “Between Shades of Gray” that talk about the horrors the USSR unleashed on the people of Lithuania and others. However, one thing you must give the Soviet Union is that war.

In one hospital scene in “Soldier X,”  a whole bunch of wounded solders are so disenchanted that they refuse their medals. My grandmother lived through that war, and I’ve seen many others who have. I have heard many political jokes, and I have learned to tell when history textbooks fed us lies that everyone scoffed at. But no one ever questioned why the Soviet people fought the war known to the world as World War II and to the Soviet Union as The Great Patriotic War. For that’s exactly what it was. Hitler started the war with an air raid on June 22, 1941. In the same way that Japan declared war on the US with an attack on Pearl Harbor. People today still remember what they did that day long ago, where they were when the first raid started. The way we Americans remember that awful morning of September 11th ten years ago.

Once the Great Patriotic War began, people united like never before, bonded by grief and disaster, against an attack that left the earth scorched, homes destroyed, food supplies depleted and families broken. Sure, Stalin’s political repressions continued, but much slower than before or after the war. In fact, many political prisoners got a reprieve — hey, fighters were needed. Sure, the Red Army had strict rules — terrible ones, you could say — rules that would not allow soldiers to retreat, and some other barbaric practices that Wulffson talks about in his book did take place. Some Russians did desert, and used the war as their chance to emigrate to the West, even to Germany. But there were hundreds, thousands of other stories. Stories of people proudly leaving their families to volunteer to defend them against the German aggression.

Of course, Germany suffered too. And Eastern Germany in particular went on to suffer for many more years following the war. But that’s a different story. Just like the story of what the United States’ terrible nuclear revenge on Japan at the end of World War II. A different story. But remember that sense of injustice, that rage that filled America after the Pearl Harbor attack? The Russians felt that very same rage and carried it through the war. So to me, putting the Soviets on the same footing as the dejected Germans at the end of the war is, if nothing else, simply inaccurate. The losses were heavy, and fatigue was terrible, but by 1944 the people felt it — victory was drawing close. Sure, the Soviet radio and papers exaggerated the good news, still the news were good and getting better.

Sure, the German troops felt dejected and disgusted with the war as it was drawing to a close, but in the beginning it must not be forgotten that they marched in enthusiastic parades and saluted, eager to wipe out Russia as a country and enslave the Slavs and others that populated it, while on the other side, the Soviets were singing solemn songs and taking war preparation classes in schools as part of getting ready for the attack that was imminent.

At that point in time, those two sides cannot be morally equal. And, contrary to Wulffson’s portrayal, the Russian troops did not perceive it that way. While by the end of the war many Germans might have started to feel doubts about what they were doing in Russia, the Russians knew exactly what they were fighting for — simply — their home.

My feeling is, with the shortage of books dealing with the Soviet role in bringing World War II to successful conclusion, it is important to present an accurate perspective. I thought after my current work-in-progress I’d be done with Russia as far as my books go. I thought I’d be pretty much finished with historical fiction, too. I’ve never been much of a war book person, either. But now, having read this book, I’m not so sure about that anymore. Perhaps one day — a whole bunch of years from now — you’ll see my book set in the 1940s Russia, in the middle of the war.

 

September 18, 2011 Posted by | Book Impressions, Contemporary History, The U.S.S.R. | , , , , | 4 Comments

Carolyn Yoder: “I am here to tell you that historical fiction is alive and well.”

This is coming in so late, but here it is nevertheless — yet another update from that fabulous New Jersey SCBWI conference. Yes, if I could, I would blog about it forever, but in fact, I only have one more post after this one to share with you.

This one was from a wonderful workshop by Carolyn Yoder, the editor of Calkins Creek Books, a U.S. history imprint of Boyds Mills Press. Even though Carolyn deals with American history, and my historical fiction is set in foreign lands, I was especially excited to meet her, as a beloved editor of my very good friend and dedicated reader of this blog, Joyce Moyer Hostetter.

Carolyn  greeted us with these encouraging news: “I would like to publish more historical fiction, and that’s why I’d like to speak to you,” she said. “We don’t get a lot of it, and we don’t get a lot of it that’s good.”

Here are some of the pointers Carolyn had to offer for aspiring historical fiction authors:

1. Fall in love with research. If you write historical fiction, take GREAT care with research. Live, breathe, sing, become your times and your subject! Get to a point where you are so comfortable with the era and the people and the places you write about, that the history will naturally shine upon the page.

2. Consider World War II. “I get no novels from World War II on, but the kids are very interested.”

3.Think about why you write historical. What draws you to the past? Do you want to tell a story that hasn’t been told before? Is it personal to you? “A lot of people like to write historical fiction because they like to go to the library,” Carolyn said. “Those are the kinds of people I tend to like a lot. . . . My point is, why tell your story when you’re not gonna have an allegiance to the past? I want kids to truly appreciate the past, and that’s what should be your motivation.”

4. Put together a bibliography. If you submit to Carolyn, include a thorough and diverse list of sources, which should be piece of cake after all that research you have done. “Don’t think of it as a chore — there’s your story!” Some of the great sources to include are newspapers articles, obituaries, local almanacs, maps, scrapbooks, local museums, academic and museum experts and interviews with people who have lived through the time period.

5. Explore relationships and reactions. Once the research is done, recreate the past through characters that feel like “living, breathing people.” Go for details over generalizations as you make the past come alive through “relationships and reactions” of your characters. “People basically have never changed,” Carolyn said.

With these and other tips, Carolyn had a hopeful message to share. “I am here to tell you that historical fiction is alive and well. It’s been interesting that people have this fear. There is nothing further from the truth.”

One only needs to take a look at this year’s Newbery winners to see the truth in Carolyn’s words. Sure, some editors seem afraid. Stories of a Lithuanian family sent to Siberia in the 1940s get rejected by nervous publishers. Then they get picked up by others and become New York Times bestsellers. I am talking about the heart-wrenching “Between Shades of Gray” by Ruta Sepetys, published just this year.

My own 12-year-old son loves fantasy. But sometimes, he  puts his beloved series away and reaches for a book like “Solider X” by Don Wulffson, about a young German soldier drafted into Hitler’s army in 1944 and forced to reconsider his loyalties — a book I plan to blog about soon.

A Harper Collins editor attending the New Jersey SCBWI graciously sent me a copy of “The Boxing Club” by Robert Sharenow, a story about a non-religious 14-year-old Jew in Nazi Germany — something I just finished and will be reviewing in the coming weeks.

So chin up, fellow historical fiction authors. No one is going to make it easy for us. Many editors, unlike Carolyn, are still cautious. But armed with passion for history — or a certain time period — and perhaps a conviction that the world needs to know more about it, write on — keep on researching! There are no guarantees, but it’s the only way for those important stories to find their way into kids’ hearts and minds, possibly creating a richer generation for it.

If you are friends with writers of historical fiction, pass this on… and oh, leave a comment here and I’ll enter your name to win a copy of “The Berlin Boxing Club!”

June 29, 2011 Posted by | Contemporary History | , , , , | 14 Comments

To Freedom!

So this is Passover week.

Tonight, we’re going over to my mom’s house to celebrate the freedom of the Jewish people from the Egyptian pharaoh’s slavery. In remembrance of the struggles of the Jews who had to leave their homes quickly — with no time to leave the dough for the bread to rise — we Jews must not eat bread for the next eight days. No muffins, no pasta, no rice, no cereal. Just matza — the dry unleavened bread that basically tastes like a watery cracker. (I am making it sound kind of awful when it actually tastes great in its own way — and it’s great fun to eat! Also one could make fantastic sandwiches out of those — anything on it from scrambled eggs to turkey  — to jam — to cheese –will be exotic, exciting, delicious!)

This fast always gets especially hard toward the end, as you can imagine. By sixth or seventh day, we start dreaming in dough. But the beginning — and that first feast will always be a joy. 

And on the third day of the holiday I am getting an even better treat. I will get to take my mama home for two days at the end of this week. She will babysit my precious kids — and I will get that rare chance to just plunge deep into my work-in-progress, and if not finish it, at least maybe — hopefully — make a great stride or  two toward the blessed END.

TREKKING TOWARD FREEDOM

Passover is the holiday of freedom. And for me, that’s what writing has become. It isn’t just about self-expression, or getting to spend my life on what I love the most — writing. In some ways, writing is a kind of torture for me, too — every story is a prison of sorts.

When I write, I try to break my way out of each story’s hefty obscurity. I am never truly free until I tell the tale that is whispering these strange-awful-delightful secrets in my ears. I am happy and proud and relieved to report that this writing business had stopped being about publishing, mostly. It has now become just a matter of getting these heavy stories out, into the open, so for a moment I can breathe free. The moment, mind you, is exactly that — a MOMENT. A day. An hour. Maybe even a second. Then, there is the anticipation, the worry — what will my friends — or my agent — think? Then there will be the next story whispering new secrets . . . Which leads me to a question: Are we ever truly free?

Even if we aren’t, we will do anything to come close, won’t we?

Happy spring, happy holidays, happy renewal — and happy freedom!

KR

P.S. On the subject of freedom, I have written yet another guest post for my awesome author friend Joyce Moyer Hostetter. It’s a little essay in free verse about my mama — who, to me, has always been freedom personified. http://joycemoyerhostetter.blogspot.com/2011/04/last-month-katia-raina-wrote-for-us.html

April 18, 2011 Posted by | Contemporary History, Personal Mirror, Writing Mirror | , , | 3 Comments

Another Title for My Awesome Recent Historicals List

“Bitter Melon,” by Cara Chow,  Egmont USA 2011

 There is so much to love in this unique YA story, I can only be glad that it happens to be set in 1989-1991, falling very neatly into the category of Recent Historical Fiction, which, of course, makes it a perfect candidate to be included on this list: https://katiaraina.wordpress.com/2010/09/27/best-contemporary-historical-fiction-yamiddle-grade/

Okay, so first of all, there is the premise: a Chinese-American teen whose mother has already decided on her future. Young Frances (or Fei Ting — which I think sounds way cooler) must get into Berkeley, conveniently located near home and Mother, and become a doctor, to help her ailing mother get cured of her stomach issues. I mean, we’ve all heard about some very pushy parents, but this? Wow. The conflict that this promised hooked me immediately. And for the most part, the story did not disappoint. Fei Ting is an incredibly complex and well-developed character. Often she is neither particularly nice, nor wise — but she is trying — and I think that makes her all the more endearing. Her mother also seems to have many sides to her personality. She is a selfless parent, crazy about her daughter. “You are my life,” she tells her. That same woman is a cruel and calculating bully. As I read, the mother fascinated and terrified me. 

I think the pushy parents “mommy-knows-best” theme is very interesting. I have struggled with it myself, as a daughter and granddaughter, and continue to grapple with it now as a mother, and I imagine most other people do too.  Also, I really enjoyed getting to know the Chinese-American culture, from the food to the occasional Cantonese, to even the characters’ thoughts sometimes, I felt like I got a glimpse into that world, without feeling as though I was reading a primer.

Personally, I would have liked a bit more of the taste of the early 1990s — not just the place, San Francisco, which was beautifully rendered, but also the time. Why couldn’t the story have been set during any other period? I am sure there is a good answer and I would have loved to know it. Also, I wasn’t sure how I felt about Fei Ting’s crush. I couldn’t say I really understood him all that well. Even so, I rooted for Fei Ting, and hoped, for her sake, that her feelings for this guy would be answered in kind.

Most important of all, though, I totally raced through this emotionally charged story. When I finished it, many of its images and scenes stuck in my mind. My favorite ones: Fei Ting’s mother beating Fei Ting with a trophy, Fei Ting wearing her mother’s old dress to the prom (naturally, without her mother’s permission) and the ending scene with her mother . . . which I won’t give away here, of course! 🙂

April 10, 2011 Posted by | Book Impressions, Contemporary History | , | 3 Comments

How to celebrate the New Year, Russian-style

Since Soviet Russia wasn’t allowed to officially celebrate Christmas, we had to have some other major holiday. And it had to be big. Huge. BETTER than Christmas. Thus was born the Soviet New Year, honestly THE BEST holiday EVER.

Think Halloween with its costumes and candy. Add to it Christmas with its dressed-up evergreens and loads of presents. Then sprinkle freely with the regular New Year traditions as you know it — the festive partying all night long, the  champagne, the countdown, the fireworks. And most importantly, don’t forget the Chinese New Year — a new animal patron watching over every successive year, determining your luck. Finally, toss in Russia’s own deep superstitions.     

And you get a holidaygreat for everyone — from families with young kids, to love-stuck teens, to 20-something singles. You get a holiday that outlasted the Soviet empire itself!   

You get the holiday of my childhood — one that I too have trouble growing out of. 🙂                     

                  

I think the most addictive part of it isn’t even all the fun — it’s the superstition. The kind Russians have always been famous for — and which only intensified in the Soviet period when religion wasn’t sanctioned.

According to the New Year tradition which had taken such firm hold on me, what you do on New Year’s eve and on the first morning of the new year will determine how you spend the entire year. What you wear and eat, who you spend your time with, it all matters too. While American Christians are shopping around for better outdoor lights, and the Jews hunt for fancier electric Hanukkah menorahs to display in their windows, Russians buy up little animal figures at the stores, to surround themselves with the image of the lucky animal, and check the major newspapers for horoscopes and instructions on how to best celebrate on the New Year’s eve.

What are you doing this New Year’s?

And what are you hoping for?

THE YEAR 2011: WHITE METAL RABBIT

The rabbit will supposedly (and HOPEFULLY) bring us all a peaceful year and generally a much happier year for the entire world, after the combative exhaustive Tiger of 2010. (Not that it was bad or anything. To me, at least, this passing year had been filled with great highlights. it’s just been a bit DIFFICULT. Which may have been a good thing, for it toughened me up EVEN MORE, and made me work harder than ever.)

According to the Chinese and Russian horoscopes, 2011 just might be the year when patience, hard work and good deeds pay off (but bragging, showing off, intolerance and aggression generally do not). It is best to greet this year in the colors of the rabbit — white, gray or light brown. God save you if you decide to have rabbit for dinner though, or wear a rabbit fur hat. (Rabbit won’t like it!)

Whatever you do this New Year’s eve then — make sure you don’t fight — or, I don’t know, do something lame like watch soap operas! Make sure you hug your loved ones when the clock strikes twelve, and if you must be separated from someone you love, at least think of them, or call them.

 Stay happy, and meet this year with joy! Then, at the end, let me know what great fortunes the Rabbit brought you!

December 30, 2010 Posted by | Contemporary History, Politics and Religion, The U.S.S.R. | , , , , | 9 Comments

Marc Acito: “A Poster Child for Misfits and Oddballs”

 Yep, that’s Marc Acito and me, in his midtown apartment — an island of mirrors and glass —  complete with head-spinning cityscape views. Marc calls the place a  “sanctuary” from the craziness that New York City can be.

[“One of the most important lessons I’ve learned as an artist is to slow down,” he tells me right off the bat. “Something that’s very hard to do here in the tri-state area.”]

[Tell me about it Marc. I am the quintessential speed junkie from New Jersey]

ABOUT MARC

He greets me with water and  peanut butter-chocolate candy and mint tea with milk — all very elegant, very relaxed and very English. But I barely have time to swallow the tea — and I never even get to finish that single candy. Most of the time I am there, my pen is running across my notebook with dizzying speed, as I transcribe a stream of wisdom from this multi-talented artist, an enthusiastic writing teacher, a brilliant author — and, most inspiring for me, perhaps — a fellow misfit.

Just in case you haven’t heard of his cult classic “How I Paid for College: A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship and Musical Theater,” and a sequel “The Attack of the Theater People” (which is on my “to-read” list), here is my little book impression:

https://katiaraina.wordpress.com/2010/11/12/how-i-paid-for-college-by-marc-acito/

CHILDHOOD

 He grew up  in the crazy 1980s (the decade he calls “corny” and “douche-bag-y” in Reagan America). He spent most of his childhood in a small sleepy town of Westfield New Jersey, pretty much like the fictional Wallenford where “How I Paid For College” is set. As a kid, Marc says he was “a misfit and a sissy and a brain.” Always the top student in the class and “completely unathletic,” Marc, who now measures an ordinary 5’8 was “freakishly tall.” He was also “the most effeminate boy” in his class.

Now he laughs: “There was no going under the radar.”

Being called a “fag” every single day of school isn’t something that can ever become background noise, Marc says. Rather, it was something he braced himself for — every day.

Edward from “How I Paid for College” is bi-sexual (or, according to Marc, what people call “bi now, gay later –” the same route Marc took in his teens). But the comic novel focuses on neither the pain, nor the bullying.

Still, “Art so frequently comes out of personal pain,” Marc says, “because pain makes you pay attention.”

When Marc became a teen, he started attending drama camps and other such events, and found others like him. “Everything changed when I found my tribe,” he says. “I became that kid in legs warmers and capezio dance shoes, and the thrift store vest with all the buttons, the flock of seagulls haircut, the fedora and the high top.”

If you know Ducky from the 1986 movie Pretty In Pink — well, then you can picture Marc as a teenager.

A LIFE IN THE ARTS

He didn’t know he was going to be a writer. But, being a child of a jazz musician father and a visual artist mother, the fact that he wanted a life in the arts was always a matter of genetics to Marc.  “It was just a question of what,” he says.

First Marc thought his fate lay in acting. Then, after getting kicked out of acting school, Marc built himself what he now describes as a “mediocre” opera singing career, “scratching my way to the middle,”  playing secondary roles of “hunchbacks and drunk best friends.” By the time he hit early 30s, Marc realized, however, that what he really wanted to do was “build his own worlds.” So he dropped his opera career, started a “signs and graphics” selling business to make a living (which he hated), and in spare time (leftover from 60 hour-working weeks), he started to write. [Read more about his epiphanies here: http://www.powells.com/taae/acito.html]

So he wrote short stories. Columns for his local gay newspaper (which happened to be in Portland, Oregon, and which eventually got him noticed by Chuck Palahniuk, the bestselling author of “Fight Club” who recommended Marc’s first manuscript to his agent and editor: see Marc’s website for the complete story: http://www.marcacito.com/aboutmarc.htm

[Both on his website and in the interview with me Marc offers tons of great advice for writers on getting ahead. He teaches story structure classes in NYC — and he seems like such a TEACHER: he doesn’t need prompting to  share his hard-earned knowledge. He stresses this advice for writers: get your name out there. Write for anything and anyone you can. You never know where it can lead.

“It isn’t who you know,” Marc says. “It’s who knows you.”]

Now, fifteen years after his first conscious decision to write, Marc stops telling the story for a moment (allowing me to take a sip of that tea). He is so overcome with emotion, he freezes, then leans forward on his seat. It seems, he needs a breath or two before continuing. When he is able to, he explains how it just hit home, while he was talking to me. The realization that he has always wanted to do this — to make a life in the arts. And that finally, he had. He is — making it.

TODAY

He is “shopping around” the third book that continues the adventures of Eward Zanni, the hero of “How I Paid for College” and “Attack of the Theater People”  — and a memoir he has just finished “about the strange and mystical death of my mother.”  Reinventing his career, slowly transitioning from West Coast/ East Coats living (half the time he still resides in Portland, Oregon,) Marc is planning to eventually settle here in NYC — still the theater capital of the world — full-time. He is working on THREE musicals at once (see more info here: http://bastardjones.com/ ), writing columns and performing “singing commentaries” on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” As for “College,” it is in development by Columbia Pictures with Laura Ziskin, the producer of the Spiderman movies). But underneath all the busy-ness and the near-fame and the acclaim, Marc is still in some ways that geek kid from Westfield New Jersey. Even as an artist, Marc admits — not without a certain pride — that he is — “a poster child for misfits and oddballs.”

“I am an offbeat writer,” he says. “I am always surprised to hear when people tell me that my writing is unconventional.” But that’s okay, Marc says — more than okay — “it’s part of the adventure.”

Originally having written his first books for the audience of “male gays and the women who love them,” Marc had been surprised to discover all kinds of people loving his work. “What sorts of people?” I ask him.

But even before he starts speaking, I pause my pen, because , having fallen in love with his book, I already know.

“The artsy people,” he says.

“The freaks,” I say, smiling. “The oddballs.”

“The fun people,” he says. “The most interesting people in the room.”

November 29, 2010 Posted by | Contemporary History, Interviews, Writing Mirror | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Best Contemporary Historical Fiction YA/Middle-Grade

1. “The Disappeared” by Gloria Whelan

Dial Books, 2008

(set in 1977, Buenos Aires, Argentina, YA)

Here is what I thought about it:

https://katiaraina.wordpress.com/2010/02/25/the-disappeared-by-gloria-whelan/

And here is my interview with the author: https://katiaraina.wordpress.com/2010/09/03/no-country-is-safe-from-totalitarianism-an-interview-with-author-gloria-whelan/

2. “When You Reach Me,” by Rebecca Stead, this year’s Newberry!

Wendy Lamb Books, Random House, 2009

(set in the 1970s New York City, Middle-Grade)

A magical, elegant read!

3. “The Countdown,” by Deborah Wiles

Scholastic, 2010

(1962, the height of the cold war, Cuban Missile Crisis, etc. Middle-Grade)

https://katiaraina.wordpress.com/2010/06/27/countdown-by-deborah-wiles/

Interview with the author:

https://katiaraina.wordpress.com/2010/08/15/deborah-wiles-documenting-the-decade-of-%e2%80%9cwhat%e2%80%9d-and-%e2%80%9cwow%e2%80%9d/

4. “The Secret Life of Bees” by Sue Monk Kidd

Viking, 2001

(1960s south)

A dramatic account of a fourteen-year-old white teen and a black servant on the run in the racially and politically charged 1960s south. In this novel you will find much hate and fear, but also friendship, love and yes, even a budding romance. A great – and important read! One of my all-time favorites.

5. “Neil Armstrong is My Uncle, and Other Lies Muscle Man McGinty Told Me,” by Nan Marino (don’t you just lo-ove the name – Muscle Man McGinty? You’ll love it even more when you meet the character!)

Roaring Book Press, 2009

(summer of 1969, a small town in New York State)

Somehow, we are transformed into a very specific time, and a very specific place, without feeling like we are being hit over the head with a HISTORY LESSON. This spare novel is all in the voice, and in the gritty sport of kickball, and in the bitter mix of feelings that keep torturing the mean protagonist, Tammy, who we mostly hate, but also can’t help love by the end of the story.

Interview with Nan Marino: https://katiaraina.wordpress.com/2010/06/04/dreaming-big-in-1969-interview-with-author-nan-marino/

6. “The Wednesday Wars,” by Gary D. Schmidt

Clarion Books, 2007

A fun and insightful read for boys and girls, a well-deserved Newberry honor 1960s-set suburban novel, that dwells less on the Vietnam War and more on what it was like being a Presbyterian 13-year-old kid stuck between two big religions.

7. “All The Broken Pieces,” by Ann E. Burg

Scholastic, 2010

https://katiaraina.wordpress.com/2010/07/22/all-the-broken-pieces-by-ann-e-burg/

https://katiaraina.wordpress.com/2010/07/30/rhythm-in-my-head-an-interview-with-ann-e-burg/

8. “A Corner of the Universe,” by Ann M. Martin

Scholastic Press, 2002

In the afterword to this amazing book, Ann Martin says the character of Adam is based on her own uncle whom she had never had the chance to meet. But, Ann Martin says, since she had never gotten to know him, this fictional character is probably totally different – an invention. Well, I am sorry, Ms. Martin, but I say he was real, because when I read your book, he was alive to me. This is one of those magical middle-grade stories that hold you by the heart, and remind you of what’s real and what’s important. I can’t resist quoting the book’s beautiful words that sum it all up better than anything I could possibly say here.

It’s all about changing what’s handed to you, about poking around a little, lifting the corners, seeing what’s underneath, poking that. Sometimes things work out and sometimes they don’t, but at least you’re exploring. And life is always more interesting that way.

9. “The Red Umbrella,” by Christina Diaz Gonzalez

Alfred A. Knopf, 2010

10. “One Crazy Summer,” by Rita Williams-Garcia

Amistad (HarperCollins, 2010)

https://katiaraina.wordpress.com/2010/08/12/the-red-umbrella-by-christina-diaz-gonzalez-and-one-crazy-summer-by-rita-williams-garcia/

11. “Bitter Melon,” by Cara Chow

Egmont USA, 2011

Set in 1989-1991, the story follows a Chinese-American daughter of a cruel, overbearing mother. Teenage Fei Ting is trying to find the courage to seek happiness on her own terms. A total page-turner!

https://katiaraina.wordpress.com/2011/04/10/another-title-for-my-awesome-recent-historicals-list/

12. “Inside Out and Back Again,” by Thanhha Lai

Harper, 2011

The last year of the Vietnam War turns out to be a turbulent one for ten-year-old Ha — a spunky girl from South Vietnam with a weakness of fresh papaya. In telling the story of Ha, the debut author mines her own memories of escaping from Vietnam to America and of her new life in Alabama. The lyrical and haunting novel in verse is a perfect find for middle-grade social studies teachers and their students!

12. “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” by Emily Danforth

Balzer & Bray, 2012

This one, I think, is the best of them all, so far. A coming-of-age novel set in the 1990s, it explores faith and identity, and really, human nature, through the eyes of a gay teenage girl, Cameron Post. Here is where I gush all about it: https://katiaraina.wordpress.com/2012/05/05/the-miseducation-of-cameron-post-by-emily-danforth/

September 27, 2010 Posted by | Book Impressions, Contemporary History, Lists | , | 3 Comments