Kim Newton Fusco's first novel, Tending to Grace, won the American Library Association’s Schneider Family Book Award. According to Booklist's review, “Like Katherine Paterson’s classic The Great Gilly Hopkins…this quiet, beautiful first novel makes the search for home a searing drama.” The Wonder of Charlie Anne is Kim's latest title, and according to Kirkus, “Fusco’s mellifluous style often sounds like singing: “Go do this, the new mama tells me, and I do it, just because.”
When the story opens, 11-year-old Charlie Anne is furious that her papa and older brother are leaving to find work. It’s the Great Depression and times are tough and Charlie Anne, who has a supernatural way of interacting with the world (her recently buried mother, the river, the molasses-eyed cows and even the clothesline) is stuck at home with her siblings and the overbearing, much-older cousin Mirabel, who insists on ladylike behavior and “The Charm of Fine Manners.” But things begin to brighten for Charlie Anne when new neighbors move in — a white woman (who wears red pepper red pants) and her African-American adopted daughter, Phoebe. Two conflicts loom largest: dyslexic Charlie Anne’s battle with “jumbled letters” and her controversial friendship with Phoebe, which stirs up the town’s “backwater” hatred. “We’ll just see about that!” becomes Charlie Anne’s battle cry.
Welcome, Kim! It's a pleasure to have you here. Could you tell our readers what drove you to write The Wonder of Charlie Anne?
I wanted to write something hopeful because I was very discouraged. I had published Tending to Grace and it had done very well, but the years were passing. I had one novel sitting on my editor’s desk in NYC, but, despite two revisions, it wasn’t going anywhere. I started getting up at 5 a.m. and working on another novel as a way to get a positive start on my day before getting my children off to school. That draft was a study in sheer determination. Then spring came and the snow melted and I started hiking along the brook that ran behind my house and I got to thinking about a little girl who lived across the road from my grandparents' farm in Maine. She had a pony, which I wanted to ride very badly, but she had to watch her little brother and do chores from morning until night (or so it seemed to me). I thought a lot about all those chores and I knew how I would have acted: I would have REBELLED.
That’s when I heard Charlie Anne's voice for the first time, and I scrapped that other draft because Charlie Anne's voice was so powerful and strong. She was a spirited, tough little nut. There was no looking back.
Charlie Anne’s voice is so memorable. I loved listening to her speak. Her voice was lyrical, yet she always sounded like a child. How did you work such a miracle?
Thank you. When I heard her voice in my head I was so excited I ran to my computer and let her talk and start telling her story in a stream-of-consciousness sort of way. Each day when I sat down to write I would reread one of the early chapters, like the first chapter or the one about her cow, Belle, getting stuck in the brier patch. Sometimes I would retype whole sections of her feisty voice so I could absorb it and keep going.
You are also a poet. Does your poetry feed your prose?
I read a lot of poetry for inspiration and I write poetry to improve my prose. I find that writing a poem is a wonderful way to delve deeply into my character’s emotions. The first page of The Wonder of Charlie Anne began as a poem.
Most of the chapters in Tending to Grace began as poems and then I rewrote them into prose. That’s one of the reasons the chapters are so short.
One example comes from the first page. I could have written that my main character, Cornelia, had a really rotten life. But when I wrote a poem about what it feels like to have a hard life, this is what came out:
“I want to jump out of the car as it rushes along and wrap myself in a row of sheets hanging so low their feet tap the grass. I want to hide because my life, if it were a clothesline, would be the one with a sweater dangling by one sleeve, a blanket dragging in the mud, and a sock, unpaired and alone, tumbling to the road with the wind at its heel.”
The river, Charlie Anne’s dead mother, the cow Anna May, and even the fence talk to Charlie Anne. This feels totally reasonable from Charlie Anne’s POV as the anthropomorphizing of a child. Yet it is more than that. It is real. Charlie Anne’s dead mother alerts her when Phoebe is hurt and leads Charlie Anne to her friend. Can you talk a little about this aspect of the book?
When I was writing I was Charlie Anne and in order to make the supernatural parts of the book believable I absolutely knew they were happening. Charlie Anne is talking to her mama and her mama is talking to her. I know no other way to approach a book.
Phoebe is African-American and one of the strands of your book is how Phoebe is treated when she arrives in this all-white northern town. As a white writer, how did you approach this issue?
I approached this as Charlie Anne would. She has an interesting and very smart girl her own age move in across the road. They have a great deal in common. They see their differences, and misstep many times, but ultimately learn to concentrate on their similarities. One of the themes of the book is when Charlie Anne tells the townspeople, “You can’t love somebody if you don’t know somebody.” She’s talking about empathy, about walking a mile in someone else’s moccasins, about how once we really get to know somebody, walls that separate us start crashing down.
The book is set during the depression. Could yet tell us a little about your research for the book?
I read a lot of history. I scrolled through Library of Congress archives and listened to audio stories of the Great Depression. I love reading old cookbooks and sifting through old recipes. I think they are a window to another time. I found Dorothea Lange photos of girls from the 1930s who looked like my idea of Charlie Anne and Phoebe. I pasted these to the top of my manuscript so I could look at them every day. Here they are:
As a former journalist, I know that the difference between a great story and a lousy one is research, and that the very best research usually comes from a great interview. I was thrilled when two women who attended a one-room schoolhouse in Rehoboth, MA, sat down with me and talked about life during the Great Depression. Where else could I have found the “standing in the trash bucket” punishment?
Your first book, Tending to Grace, won the American Library Association's Schneider Family Book Award. Could you tell us a bit about this book? How did the experience of writing it compare to writing The Wonder of Charlie Anne?
I wrote Tending to Grace after I met my editor, Michelle Frey of Knopf/Random House, at an SCBWI conference. I had submitted ten pages of a different novel and she told me that I had written a plot-driven novel, and that Knopf only publishes character-driven novels. “But I think you could write the kind of literary novel we publish. So if you go home and try again, I’ll take another look.”
I don’t think my feet touched the ground for the next month. Then I started wondering, how exactly am I going to do this? I knew a character-driven novel features a protagonist who changes internally, and I was rather surprised I hadn’t accomplished this on my first try, but when I reread it, I knew Michelle was right. After a while I realized that if I had any hope of writing a character-driven novel, I needed a character that faced adversity and changed because of it. And then it hit me: I knew something about that! And that’s when I decided to write about stuttering, which is something I battled as a child.
I remember the moment I walked over to my computer and closed my file that held that old novel, opened a new file, and started over. It took a lot of courage to write each day because I was writing about something I had tried to keep hidden. A lot of the things that happened to Cornelia in school happened to me. And then one day I wrote a scene where her Aunt Agatha says: “You know what I say? I say that when you got a voice, you damn well better tell the world who you are. Or somebody else will.” I realized that was exactly what I was doing by writing, and I better keep going. It paid off, because three months after I mailed the completed manuscript off to NYC, Michelle Frey called and offered me a contract and she’s been my editor since.
Are you working on any other books? Could you tell us a bit about them?
Yes, my next novel is scheduled for publication in 2013. The idea came from a little girl I met while I was writing about a carnival back in my reporter days.
Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?
Many people have asked for the recipe for vinegar pie. I found this one during my research. If you close your eyes, a “hard times vinegar pie” really does taste a lot like lemon.
1/2 c. butter, softened
1 1/4 c. sugar
2 tbsp. cider vinegar
1 tsp. vanilla
1 (8-inch) unbaked pie shell
Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs, vinegar, and vanilla. Pour into unbaked pie shell. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until inserted knife comes out clean.
To find out more about Kim and her books, visit her website at http://www.kimberlynewtonfusco.com/