Monday, January 28, 2013

My Next Big Thing

Thanks to my friend, Kim Newton Fusco, award-winning author of Tending to Grace and The Wonder of Charlie Ann, for inviting me to participate in the online literary blog called MY NEXT BIG THING.

The blog is a series of questions about works-in-progress and not yet published titles. Many national and international writers have participated in this. It gives readers a glimpse into the working life of a writer. Part of the fun is tagging someone else. It is with great delight that I will be tagging two other writers at the end of this post.

is a book about the events that led up to the first Earth Day and the men who were instrumental in its development.

What is the working title of your book? When Rivers Burned: The Earth Day Story

Where did the idea come from for the book?
My publisher, Muriel Dubois of Apprentice Shop Books, was developing a series on pivotal moments in history. She invited authors to submit ideas.
I struggled all day to come up with something fresh, and at dinner asked my husband if he had any ideas. He’s a pharmacist, and at first he suggested things like the development of penicillin. That didn’t excite me. Then he mentioned a broadcast he had heard on NPR for the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. It talked about the impact Earth Day had on environmental legislation in our country.
This was a topic that combined two of my passions, history and nature. I was hooked. After dinner, I had a meeting to attend, but I turned around midway there, went home, wrote up the proposal for the Earth Day book, and fired it off. By seven the next morning, Muriel had accepted it.

What genre does your book fall under?
The book is nonfiction for ages ten and up. It touches on history, politics, and the environment.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
There are many “characters” in the book, but the main ones are Gaylord Nelson, the senator from Wisconsin who came up with the idea for Earth Day, and Denis Hayes, the college student who organized it. I’m dating myself, but I can see Jimmy Stewart as Gaylord Nelson; and maybe Jeff Bridges as Denis Hayes.

What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book?
A series of ecological disasters leads Gaylord Nelson to organize the largest demonstration in US history, forcing a dramatic change in environmental policy.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
It took me six months to write the first draft, because that’s how long my publisher allowed me. (Otherwise, I’d probably still be working on it.) We spent about three months more on revisions.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
The book that comes to mind is Tanya Lee Stone’s Almost Astronauts because both books combine many people's stories to give a glimpse of a particular time and place.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
In one sense, this book was publisher-generated. I came up with something to fit Apprentice Shop’s Once in America Series.
But in a deeper sense this book was inspired by many things: my experience living through the sixties and seventies—1970 was the date of the first Earth Day—and my concern for the natural world. I worry that our abuse of the environment will have enormous, even life-threatening, repercussions. Yet many have tuned out the folks who try to warn us of the danger.

What else about your book might pique a reader’s interest?
I had the opportunity to interview Denis Hayes, who was the grad student who organized the first Earth Day. (Unfortunately, Gaylord Nelson has passed away.) Denis was incredibly generous with his time, answering my countless questions.
He gave me an inkling of what was involved in planning a political event of this magnitude. Earth Day was the largest demonstration in US history. It was estimated that a tenth of the country’s entire population took part. Denis Hayes was also instrumental in keeping attention focused on the environment afterward, when other world events threatened to eclipse the issue. We can learn much from his methods.

When and how will it be published?
When Rivers Burned: The Earth Day Story will be published by Apprentice Shop Books this spring. We’ve planned a special launch on April 21, 2013 at the RI Audubon Society.

Now it is my honor to tag and introduce you to two other marvelous authors:Joyce Ray and Leslie Bulion
Joyce Ray’s forthcoming early YA novel, Feathers and Trumpets, A Story of Hildegard of Bingen (Apprentice Shop Books, fall 2013), is an intriguing look at a dynamic woman of the Middle Ages. Hildegard became the 12th century’s foremost female writer and composer and has recently been named a saint and a Doctor of the Church. Joyce is co-author, with Andrea Murphy and other contributors, of a forthcoming title in the America’s Notable Women SeriesWomen of the Pine Tree State, 25 Maine Women You Should Know. The following series’ titles also contain short biographies written by Joyce: Women of the Golden State, Women of the Empire State and Women of the Prairie State. Her work-in-progress is a middle-grade historical novel. Joyce is a poet, contributes to Poetry Friday and reviews books on her blog Musings at

Leslie Bulion’s first two poetry books, HEY THERE, STINK BUG! (Charlesbridge 2006) and AT THE SEA FLOOR CAFÉ: ODD OCEAN CRITTER POEMS (Peachtree 2011), combine humor, science, rhythm, and rhyme in themed collections that have garnered accolades in the science and kidlit communities including NSTA, AAAS, Bank Street College, Book Sense, and ABC Best Books. Her third collection sports the favorite of her book titles: RANDOM BODY PARTS: GROSS ANATOMY RIDDLES IN VERSE (Peachtree 2013). Leslie is also the author of a picture book, titles for the education market, and three middle-grade novels, most recently THE UNIVERSE OF FAIR (Peachtree 2012), in which she explores various facets of string theory and lemon meringue pie. For more fun, explore Leslie’s website and blog at

Friday, January 11, 2013

Interview with Terry Farish, author of THE GOOD BRAIDER

Welcome, Terry! Thanks so much for agreeing to be a guest on my blog.

Terry Farish is the author of a number of acclaimed books for children and teens. She’s here today to talk about her latest, THE GOOD BRAIDER. It’s a young adult novel in verse about a South Sudanese girl’s experience of war and immigration. In a starred review, School Library Journal wrote, ” Viola’s memorable, affecting voice will go far to help students step outside of their own experience and walk a mile in another’s shoes.”

You work with refugees from Sudan, Vietnam, Cambodia and other countries. I’m assuming that Viola’s story grew out of your experience. Was it inspired by a particular individual or event?

THE GOOD BRAIDER came from a thousand places. I worked in Portland where half the novel is set. It was 2001 when many South Sudanese families had obtained refugee status. Catholic Charities in Maine worked to resettle many of the families between 1999 or so until 2005 when a Peace Accord was signed between southern Sudan and the Government of Sudan. I met many teenagers when they were first making their homes in the U.S., first attending U.S. schools, and first facing the challenges of living as Americans and, at the same time, honoring the African traditions of their elders. From the many stories I heard, research about the war in Juba, and travel to nearby Kenya, I wrote the novel.

How did you deal with the challenge of writing about another culture? How have readers and reviewers reacted to this?

I did not consider the fact that I was writing outside my culture until the book was about to be published. For the first time, then, I had space to imagine the impact on readers of writing in the voice of a young Sudanese girl. I first wrote in a more distanced 3rd person and had trouble entering the book. When I put all the research away, and began to write from inside the main character's experience and emotions, I was able to tell the story and that drove the whole process. I researched the book for so many years, was immersed in the culture, and listened to the voices of so many people from South Sudan that the voices were deep inside me as I wrote. The book has been well received as a window on experience unknown to many American young readers or adults.

You’ve said, “Writing is a way for me to try to make sense of what I care most deeply about.” Viola certainly tugs at the reader’s heart. How did you manage to instill such emotion into THE GOOD BRAIDER?

I have written about immigrants before. I wrote about a young woman from Cambodia in IF THE TIGER but viewed her from the point of view of an American character. I could not write from that distance in THE GOOD BRAIDER. It wasn’t a deliberate choice. But the first verse I wrote was the scene in which Viola and her mother are in conflict. I wrote it in first person, very intimate, and in spare lines that worked for me to attempt to capture the tension. I think it was the emotion of the situation I was trying to capture that forced the spare lines.

I love understatement. I am drawn to leave meaning between the lines for readers to explore. I tend to fault on the side of leaving too much between the lines and my challenge in THE GOOD BRAIDER was to heighten the emotion by extending a scene and speaking the impact of a situation on the main character.

In working with my editor, I considered the structure of the novel. I experimented with opening in the present and returning quickly to the past - the war in Sudan. In the second half of the book set in Portland, I reached back to the emotion of a Sudan scene to pull it forward to the Portland scene. Much of my rewriting was the process of remembering with Viola and pulling the memory forward to her present life so that the war became a more visceral part of her process of making sense of Portland.

What does hair braiding symbolize for you and for Viola?

As a child, Viola learned to braid hair by following the movements of her mother's fingers as she braided the hair of women in the compound. Along Viola's journey from Juba to Cairo to Portland, she ceases to care for or braid her hair. She has suffered great loss, the strands of her life, and the braiding to her is like the strands she can no longer bring together. In Cairo, her friend tells her, "You will braid when your are ready. Braiding is from our culture." I wanted braiding to be a metaphor for Viola's evolving skill in leaning to live in a new culture. Braiding also represents her deep bond with her mother.

Viola and her mother have a difficult relationship. Can you talk a little about that element of the book?

Viola and her mother enable each other to survive in Sudan. When they come to the U.S., American culture divides them. I found this intergenerational conflict to be one of the most heart breaking challenges that many South Sudanese and many people from other cultures face as immigrant and refugee families make their homes in the U.S.

THE GOOD BRAIDER is written in verse. You wrote a series of interviews with authors who wrote in verse. Was that in preparation for this project? Can you tell us a little of your process of writing in verse?

I interviewed a number of verse novelists after I finished THE GOOD BRAIDER. Talking to others who have worked in the form was fascinating. I was interested in cultural connections. Can culture be reflected in the form? I had not asked this of myself, but I heard a good response from a reader and reviewer. She suggested that the shape of the poems on the page resembled the shape of braids. My overt intention in writing in verse was to capture the intensity of the scene with spare language and breath. The short lines demand pauses. In writing the articles about other writers' use of verse, I also came to understand my own work better. I enjoyed the conversations I had with the writers I interviewed. So much of the marketing and public presentations I've done since THE GOOD BRAIDER came out has been in collaboration with other writers and I've loved that.

South Sudanese American rapper OD Bonny is writing a song about Viola for his new album. How marvelous! How did that come about?

I am delighted! O.D. Bonny, who is now a student at the University of Southern Maine, wrote a song called , "A Girl from Juba." He is going to produce a video for the song with footage from South Sudan and Portland that we will use as a trailer. I met O.D. through the wonderful Kirsten Cappy of Curious City in Portland. O.D. was a star of the Portland launch of the book and so was a student in the acting group, A Company of Girls, who did a reading from THE GOOD BRAIDER.

You worked with the American Red Cross in Vietnam. Your book, Flower Shadows, is set there. Many of your other books have dealt with war and displacement. Can you tell us about them and your experience in Vietnam?

Yes, I worked for the American Red Cross during the war and was stationed in Cu Chi and Qui Nhon. When I came back to the U.S. I began to meet Vietnamese families who were coming here as refugees. FLOWER SHADOWS was the first book I wrote that drew on research and experience with immigrant families. They helped me understand the culture that I had lived in and had taken me years after the war to begin to make sense of. I think we have experiences in our lives that we may tuck away. But each one shapes us and may form what will become integral to stories we are drawn to tell decades later.

What are you working on now?

I just finished a chapter book about a young boy who lives in Kakuma Refugee Camp and moves to the U.S. with his sister and grandmother. I am traveling to Kakuma in January, 2013.

Thank so much for sharing with us today. We wish you a good journey to Kakuma and look forward to reading your next book!