Sunday, October 31, 2010

ALYSSA CAPUCILLI: Writing inspiration from author of Katy Duck, Peekaboo Bunny, and Biscuit!

Woof woof!

Ever hear and author talk about writing in such a way that makes you cheer, shout, weep a little? And then throw all caution to the wind and begin scribbling away - on a post-it, the back of your hand, the wall?

If not, well, then you haven't heard from Alyssa Satin Capucilli.

But,. folks, just wait, it's your lucky day. Because Alyssa was generous enough to do an interview recently with Stories are Good Medicine.

In the interests of full disclosure, I took a children's writing seminar from Alyssa some time ago. And I don't know how she did it, but more than any technique, or specific note, what Alyssa was able to give me was sheer courage. Courage to take risks, courage to try, courage to keep writing no matter what.  I'm not 100% sure how she did it, but I used to think there was something magical in her gentle, lyrical tone - after all, she's the 'voice' behind the beloved Biscuit books.  

But after reading this written interview, I realize that whatever that inspirational quality may be - it's beyond the spoken word.  Because even in her written responses, I can feel that sheer joy, that excitement that Alyssa transmits about children's writing.

Read it, and tell me - do you feel it too?  But be forewarned and have something to write with nearby. You just might be pulling an all-nighter on your new novel...

Q: . Woof Woof! I know you began your "storytelling" life as a dancer - what are the connections between that sort of storytelling with one's body and your life as a children's book writer?  How did the career change happen?

Alyssa: There is a wonderful parallel between the two art forms: in dance, your body is the vessel that carries the story, and in writing, your characters fulfill a similar role. Dance is such a visual art and for me, writing for children is as well. Whether a picture book or a novel, there is a connective line that runs through page to page or scene to scene to form a story, which moves forward much the way a dance or ballet unfolds. In both, you have to find the flow between moments, make seamless transitions, and have the balance of timing and tension. You can also compare the musicality and rhythm that is integral to dance to the cadence and meter of a poem or a picture book text. 

Then of course there is the creative connection, which is the most fun of all. As both a dancer and a writer you slip into a character’s skin and into their world. You have to really engage your imagination to flesh out characters and give them emotional depth. In other words you have to access a creative zone, whether writing or dancing.  Tapping into this space has always been second nature to me.  

But what I think is also so striking is, as a dancer you are aware of all of the dancers on stage around you and how one action may set off another action. The presence of a dancer on stage that subsequently makes an exit is much like the way characters interact in a story. They may come or go, but their presence in whatever space or time they appear is integral to the overall story. 

My actual segue from dancer to writer was perpetuated when I started my family. I was immersed in literature that I loved reading to my children, dancing pulled me away for too long for my comfort level, and I always loved to write. So with some research and lots of time at the library, I slowly and somewhat naively began to write and submit stories, and most fortunately, to publish. Dance demands a great deal of discipline and I think that was tremendously helpful in terms of my writing as well.  The foot is either pointed or it is not; you sit down to tell the story…or you don’t!

Q: Tell us how many picture books you've written to date!  (ALOT I know!)  Can you tell us about your process - how many books do you write a year? Who sets these goals for you?

Alyssa: I’ve written about seventy-five books with nearly fifty of those within the Biscuit series. That’s not counting all of the stories that are patiently waiting in my files and notebooks! With a series like Biscuit, or Katy Duck, I am on more of a schedule than with an individual title, and in that case, it is determined by the editor/publisher.  I try not to think of my writing as how many in a time span or how much. Some books flow easily and take a shorter amount of time to write, but others I’ll work on for months or years until I get it just right…or not! I find that the process of writing in and of itself often spurs an idea for another story so it’s sometimes a matter of managing the time and space to devote to each project.

Q: Tell us about your writing process - every morning/evening, any rituals you have, etc.?  What do you do when you get 'stuck' - or is there just an endless well of creativity that you tap into? (and if so, can I visit?)

Alyssa: I like to write in the morning before the day has impacted me – I do a lot of thinking and preparing for my writing day even before I get out of bed in the morning.  There is usually a moment when a story or a seed of an idea clarifies itself to me and I know then that it is time to put pen to paper. I always work in a notebook before I go to the computer. I like my house to be quiet. I like specific pens, definite  places to sit and work. 

In terms of getting stuck, I have a wise friend and teacher who once told me there is a time to take in and a time to give out.  In other words, your creative well may not run all the time, but perhaps you are absorbing something that you will draw from your well at another time. The more you can allow yourself time to be creative, the more creative you can be. You have to allow yourself to tap into that level of consciousness where you write from – it’s its own time and space and when we are busy and juggling a lot of responsibilities, it is sometimes hard to allow ourselves that room. There’s a balance between letting everyday life distract us from our writing, and letting the every day events nurture us.

Q: Many of your characters are animals - from the beloved Biscuit to the adorable Katy Duck.  How do you make the decision to create an animal character who behaves primarily like a pet (say, Biscuit) vs. an animal character who has the emotions and behavior of a human child (ie. Katy Duck - who has friends, goes to dance class, etc.)?  What different considerations does an anthropomorphic animal demand of the picture book writer?

Alyssa: That is a great question and I wish I could take responsibility for those decisions. When a character presents himself or herself to me, they usually bring their voice or their persona along, even if I don’t realize where the inspiration came from at the get-go.  (I hope that doesn’t sound too weird!)  But then as you develop the character and their world, you must make decisions to stay true to that character. Biscuit behaves like a pet, yet he also behaves much like a child. It allows children relate to Biscuit both emotionally as well as behaviorally.  If you ask a child how Biscuit feels when a baby comes to live in his house, you will be amazed at the very personal and insightful answers you hear! Kids will reveal their own experiences through Biscuit. Still he is a “bone-a-fide” pup, which means he is not  piloting a spaceship or  deep sea diving anytime soon. Even on a trip to the big city, his responses and actions must be true to his canine self.

Katy was drawn from my many years of teaching dance to children. She imbues my philosophy of treasuring the imagination and creative process of a child. She bucks the stereotypical image of a “ballerina” yet, she is the very essence of the creative spirit an artist needs.  I can make broader and more direct commentary through Katy simply because as an anthropomorphic character, there is a degree of freedom, a license to make the character somewhat bigger than life, and I can disregard limitations of gender, physical size, and even appearance. While her feelings and actions are a very direct parallel to a human child, her physicality and “duck-ness” can provide a bit of comic relief in a  situation. There was some truly funny discussion on how to portray her webbed feet in ballet slippers. Henry Cole did a great job in figuring that one out.

Q: Speaking of picture books - can you tell us the story of writing your first one? Do you have any plans to write other types of children's fiction?

Alyssa: My first book published book was Peekaboo Bunny, a lift-the-flap story, and in essence, a poem.  I read, I researched, I went to conferences, I joined a writer’s group, I submitted….I was very lucky! And yes, yes, yes, I have plans to write other fiction. I’ve written several books for older readers that I’d love to see published one day. There are so many variables that impact publication depending on the trends and the market.  Still, I think it is important to write what you believe in. My paws are  always optimistically crossed!

Q: What are your favorite picture books and why?

Alyssa: Oh, too many to name especially because so many of my friends are writers, too.  I like books that take you on an emotional journey and I look for books that are relevant and respectful of a child’s world and sensibilities. Beautiful language is really important to me. The Alfie and Annie Rose books by Shirley Hughes are wonderful. I can’t look at Blueberries for Sal without hearing  the resonating “kuplink, kuplank, kuplunk.”  I love Kevin Henkes work, and more recently, All the World, a Caldecott Honor Book this past year was truly beautiful.

Q: How about your favorite MG/YA books - either from childhood or now?

Alyssa: I was completely in love with ‘Henry and Ribsy’ by Beverly Cleary mainly because Henry was my soulmate. He wanted and schemed for a dog almost as much as I did.   I loved getting lost in the intricate relationships and world of Little Women. I am a huge fan of  Katherine Patterson, Madeline L’Engle and ‘Tuck Everlasting’ by Natalie Babbitt is one of those books I wish I’d written. Rebecca Stead’s ‘When You Reach Me’   is awesome and I really admire Deborah Wiles, too.

Q: As a teacher of children's writing, do you recommend aspiring children's book authors take courses specifically in children's book writing?  Did you before you were published?

Alyssa: Classes are valuable on many levels; support, structure, developing and honing your craft, discipline. Sometimes it’s easier to get started if you know someone is waiting to hear your work on the other end.  But a class can only give you what you are ready to give of yourself. I wrote my whole life and took every creative writing class I could in college but I didn’t take a specific class on writing for children until  I had really read a great deal and immersed myself in the world of children’s literature.  The interesting thing is that where you are in your life sometimes presents alternatives and opportunities you don’t expect. If you had told me when I was a dancer that I’d write for children someday, I wouldn’t have believed it. And yet, having my children, not a prerequisite in any way, was definitely the impetus and inspiration for me to write. If you want to write, and you feel you can carve out a space for writing, a well structured class can be invaluable.

Q. What are your 3 favorite pieces of advice for your writing students?

Alyssa: Read, and read broadly; immerse yourself in literature.  Write everyday even if it is only for a few minutes. You have to consciously access and awaken that part of yourself.  Give yourself time and space to find and develop your voice without pressuring yourself to publish. There is no formula or number of words that make a book a great book or a publishable book.  Take your reader on a journey and to do that, I think you have to give yourself the time to travel there as well.

Q: Are your stories good medicine? (I think so but I'd love to know the answer!)

Alyssa: I hope so; I believe stories really are. Stories are teachers, and mentors, and inspiration. They can celebrate the best that we are and they can offer the possibility of the world as we want it to be. The universality we find in a story transcends boundaries in every sense of the word; I think that is beautiful and so powerful. For many children, and even adults, a story can nurture and sustain the all important imagination or dream. It may provide the very best minutes of your day.  

Thursday, October 28, 2010

No Vampires Please, We're Hindu.

In honor of Halloween, which is, as it happens, the day after a rather (ahem) large birthday this year, I thought I would write about vampires.

Or maybe my blog topic is in honor of Edward Cullen, who I recently learned has sparkled his way into the hearts and minds and bookshelves of not just American YA readers, but, international ones.

Be frightened, folks. Be very frightened. Yup, it's true - those morose sparkly vegetarian vampires of Stephanie Meyers' invention have -- (gulp) -- globalized.

I was recently in India, a country where people who can read really like to read. Really, really, really like to read.  In my parents hometown of Kolkata (once Calcutta) the saying goes that even the cabbies can talk Marx and Dostoyevsky with you.  And seriously, I don't doubt it.

So it turns out that my 8year old voracious reader and his 17 year old cousin (who lives in Bengaluru, previously Bangalore) had a whole lot of MG and YA to talk about - opinions on Voldemort, Quiddich, Amy and Dan from the 39 Clues, Septimus Heap, Artemis Fowl, the latest Rick Riordan, the oldest Rick Riordan, when and if Rick Riordan will ever come to a. my son's school in the U.S. b. Bangalore... anyway, you get the drift. On a jaunt to the local (really well stocked) bookstore - I forget if it was an Oxford or a Crosswords - there were row upon row of American MG and YA authors with more than a few Brits thrown in - among them Anthony Horowitz and (a childhood fave of mine) Enid Blyton.  But, more than any other book, what striking black and sparkly cover assaulted my eyes?  Ya.  You guessed it. The Twilight books.

Ok, so Indian teens love Bella and Edward.  I get it, I do.  All that family togetherness (they live in a joint family after all).  All those issues of  personal honor. All that almost requited love (remember, Hindi movie heroes and heroines still don't kiss on the lips - although they do a whole lotta other suggestive things).  [Admittedly, there are a lot of folks saying that the series is a narrative about Mormonism: check out the argument here]

But I've got to admit, on seeing those books, my first reaction was to recall what my own mother once told me back when I was too scared to turn off the bedside light after reading Brahm Stoker's Dracula.  With a look of utter calm, she assured me, "Go to sleep.  We don't have to worry about vampires.  Haven't you seen the movies? They only eat Christians. Relax. We're Hindu."

I admit it, I'm paraphrasing. But my (PhD holding, not very religious) mother's comment has stayed with me these many years.  As a daughter of Indian immigrants, all the Western boogeymen I'd read about and watched in the movies were scary, yes, but also somehow removed from who I was.  What luck. I was (at least technically) Hindu, which apparently made my blood unappetizing to Count Dracky and his nosferatu chums.

Now obviously those of us living in the West, reading and watching vampire stuff aren't all Christians. (I freely admit, at the risk of embarassing myself in front of my academic colleagues - who I pray don't read this blog - that I am a Buffy, True Blood, and now - most shamefully of all - a Vampire Diaries addict) We are Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Jain, atheist, agnostic, and.. yes, Hindu.

Yet, clearly there's a cultural context to our sparkly (and not so sparkly) neighborhood bloodsuckers. All those crosses, for one. And the holy water.  And the coffins for goodness sake (clearly vampires, or zombies for that matter, don't come from cultures where they cremate the dead...imagine the complications therin!) Then there's the colonial/crusader read of vampire narratives.  I mean, if vampires are frightened off/rendered powerless by things like crosses and holy water, are they a representation of a non-Christian 'infidel'? In other words, is the vampire potentially Hindu himself?

As a non-vampire-ologist (yes, folks, there are entire academic fields dedicated to pop cultural and other narratives of vampires), I just did some highly unscientific research (Halleluiah for the google) into the notion of the Hindu vampire. What I found, I don't really buy. These websites (example here) seem to contend that cultural figures such as danav (demons), bhoot (ghosts), and rakshas (even worser demons) are, if not vampires, at least vampire-like in their status as un-dead beings, eaters of blood/flesh/bone marrow, and overall scary meanie-ness.

The contention that unsettles me even further is the notion that the tongue-waggling, skull-necklace wearing Ma Kali, the Hindu goddess in her most fearsome aspect, is also somehow vampire-like.  Ok, yes, there was a demon she was fighting who had the ability to reproduce himself thousandfold from every drop of his blood spilt on the ground. So she had to drink that blood, 'natch.  But that doesn't make Kali a cousin - even many times removed - of Dracula. Or, for that matter, of Edward Cullen. No, her identity is firmly culturally bound in South Asia, and to try and understand her outside of that context is absurd and incorrect.

In the end, I guess I'll have to just gracefully accept the fact that the symbol of the vampire is intriguing to folks of all nationalities - as culturally located as it is.  Yet, there's still a part of me that digs reminding myself (and eventually, my kids) that he's not necessarily a universal baddie.  He may have more marketing PR bucks behind his global appeal, but just like bhoot, danav or rakshas, the vampire is a fixedly cultural symbol informed by and constrained by certain narratives of Western Christianity.

 But wouldn't it be cool to see other cultural meanies elbowing Dracky (or zombies, or unicorns, or werewolves) for the spotlight? From Russian Baba Yaga to the Arabian Roc to the Indian petni, this Halloween, I think it's time for some global, egalitarian monstrosity...

(who are your favorite culturally specific monsters?)


Friday, October 22, 2010

SHEBA KARIM: Squee! ANOTHER cool author interivew... and book giveaway!

ÜBER cool literary agent Tina Wexler recently told Stories are Good Medicine that YA and middle grade novels are all about VOICE. 

Well, if you're looking for a unique and compelling YA voice, look no further than Sheba Karim's fabulous Skunk Girl.  For those of you reading this blog regularly, you'll know that I've been gorging (well, literarily) on some fabulous South Asian women authors' novels recently.  So let me place Karim's novel in context.  While Neesha Meminger's Shine, Coconut Moon (which came out the same year as Karim's novel) addresses issues of 9-11 politics explicity (Meminger's Sikh protagonist must struggle to find her identity in the context of a xenophobic America), Marina Budhos' triumverate of protagonists in Tell Us We're Home must struggle to find a space for themselves as daughters of immigrant maids and nannies in a wealthy suburban town. 

If Meminger's and Budhos' fabulous novels explicitly struggle with racism, xenophobia and classism, Karim's tale is an examination of (Pakistani Muslim) family politics, body image, and the age old push and pull of immigrant parents' expectations and the desire of teenage girls.  But most significantly,  Skunk Girl captures that snark-a-licious voice of a high schooler to a T.  Karim takes a genous helping of smarts, adds a fistful of sarcasm, and just a pinch of self-depracation to brew up one of the most wonderful teen voices I've read in a while.  

And that smart voice carries through in her interview (below)... check it out!

Q:  The title! That fabulous title of your novel: Skunk Girl. I know it refers to the line of hair your protagonists finds suddenly running down her back - how did you come up with such a powerful metaphor for the shame that so many girls feel about body hair/their bodies in general?

Sheba: The idea just popped into my head one day, and it seemed like such an apt metaphor I couldn’t resist.

Q:  "Hair politics" in the South Asian community is often about the waxing, threading, etc. of body hair.  In his Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides writes about "the great hair belt" stretching from Greece to South Asia.  But it's certainly not something that well-brought up South Asian daughters talk publicly about! :)  What inspired you to write about your protagonists' relationship to her body hair?

Sheba: Body hair was something that my South Asian friends and I had to deal with growing up, and it was so embarrassing we were only comfortable talking about it with each other.  If you’re going to write a realistic and honest book about how difficult it is to grow up South Asian in the US, than body hair has to be part of it. 

Q: The voice in this book is funny, startling, honest, and complex.  A wonderful YA voice.  But I've read that you didn't know you wanted to write for young people until a children's writing seminar in MFA grad school. How did you 'find' your YA voice?

Sheba: More like it found me!  The reason I felt compelled to write Skunk Girl is that I heard Nina’s funny, self deprecating voice so clearly in my head.  Since I mostly write fiction for adults, it was very refreshing to write Skunk Girl, and I hope to do more YA writing in the future.

Q: There are several South Asian women writers writing about post 9-11 social politics and young people.  How did post-9-11 social politics (the patriot act etc.) impact this book?

Sheba: The book is set before 9-11, so it had no impact on the narrative itself.  I think since 9-11 there’s been an increased interest in Pakistan, not all of it positive, and that writers of Pakistani heritage have been able to get more exposure.

Q: The dating politics in Skunk Girl  are complicated.  Your protagonist neither entirely abides by her parents' warnings against dating nor does she entirely rebel against them.  Why did you decide to walk this line rather than, say, painting the parents as entirely in the wrong, or mainstream American mores as entirely in the wrong?

Sheba: The point of this book wasn’t to portray one generation as morally superior to the other, it was to reflect that there inter-generational conflict is always complicit.  Nina’s parents have valid concerns, as does Nina.  Ultimately, it is up to us as individuals to create our own moral compass.

Q: What sorts of responses has the novel gotten from within the South Asian or Muslim American communities? Outside of those communities?

Sheba: A lot of non-South Asian have really appreciated the insight they felt the book gives into growing South Asian/Muslim American in the States, and a lot of them had friends from this background and felt as if the book gave them a deeper understanding of their friends’ upbringing.  The South Asian/Muslim readers have reacted positively, particularly the female readers, as they could relate to Nina’s challenges and moral quandaries.

Q: What are you working on now?

Sheba: I’m currently in India, working on a historical fiction novel set in 13th century Delhi.

Q: What are your childhood favorite books?  Current favorites?

Sheba: My favorite book when I was a young child was called “Are You My Mother?”  Of course I read all of the Judy Blume books.  In terms of South Asian literature, I love “The God of Small Things” and “Midnight’s Children.”  I just read “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” by Muriel Barbery and thought it was beautifully written, and the end was quite emotionally searing.

Q: Aasif Mandvi had this great monologue on The Daily Show where he suggested that all South Asian Americans - be they journalists or writers or painters or what have you - are also lawyers, doctors or engineers.  Now, I'm implicated in that - as a doctor/writer; what made you decide to turn from law to creative writing?  Are you still practicing law? (and if not, are your community 'aunties' tisk-tisking?)

Sheba: I always wanted to be a writer, and when I was accepted into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop it was too wonderful an opportunity to turn down.  I haven’t gone back to law and hopefully will never have to.  I think the South Asian community is slowly becoming more accepting of creative professions, though it remains an uphill battle for many of us.

Q: Is your writing good medicine?  (I think so but I'd like to hear your answer?) 

Sheba: Let’s just say if I don’t do it for a while, I start becoming very cranky!



Well, just leave a comment below (with an email address) by next Friday October 29th to qualify to win your very own copy of Sheba Karim's Skunk Girl!!!

Wohoo!  Another book giveaway! 

Tweet or post the link of this blog to your FB account (and tell me about it) to increase your chances of winning (I'll put your name twice into the magic hat!)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

TINA WEXLER: An Über-Cool Literary Agent Interview

What are literary agents looking for anyway? Should I send flowers with my novel query? Is stalking always a 'no' when approaching a literary agent?

The answers to these questions and more are below - in our first literary agent interview on Stories are Good Medicine with ultra cool Tina Wexler of ICM!

Q: I know you have an MFA in poetry, Tina. How does a poet end up as a literary agent at ICM, one of the biggest houses in the country?

Tina: Beats me! I suspect it had something to do with needing an answer when my parents asked (for the umpteenth time), “What do you do with an MFA?” Of course, now they ask, “What exactly is a literary agent?”

Q: Do you think it's important that agents are writers themselves - or have experience as editors? How does your poetry background impact your work as an agent? Do you still write poetry?

Tina: I can’t say I think it’s all that important that an agent also be a writer or have experience as an editor. Being good at one is no guarantee you’ll be good at the other. I do think my background makes me more eager to work with an author on revisions; I miss the workshop environment and so enjoy digging into a work, breaking it open and seeing how it can be put back together. As for writing poetry…that comes and goes. If I were seeking publication, I’d be the posterchild for how not to go about it.

Q:  Can you tell us a favorite story about finding a new client? How do you normally find a new client?

Tina: My clients come to me through referrals, conferences, contests, and good, old fashioned query letters. As for favorites stories…hmm. Every time I sign a new client, it’s exciting. I can’t say I have a favorite (though I’ve clearly no shortage of boring answers! I’m tempted to make something up.)

Q:  Can you tell us a juicy agent horror story? Is stalking always a 'don't' in approaching an agent for representation? (How about offers of hair braiding? Mani's or Pedi's?)

Tina: For good or ill, stalking IS always a “don’t.” And gifts too, though I have to give props to this one gentleman who sent me flowers with a card that simply read: “Check your email.” Moments later, an email popped up with the subject line: “Mystery behind the flowers” with a query in the body of the email. I was impressed with the effort put into timing the delivery of both flowers and email. I still passed on the project, but the flowers brightened my office all week.

Q:  What excites you about a story? What are you looking for now?

Tina: Are you going to refuse to braid my hair if I say voice? I know, everyone says it. But it’s so true. I want a story that’s engagingly told. We all have friends who can make a trip to the dentist sound exciting; I want their manuscripts. Beyond a strong and unique voice, I’m open to most all categories within middle grade and YA fiction (with some narrative and prescriptive adult non-fiction too).

Q:  Can you tell us about some recent sales or acquisitions?

Tina: Julie Tibbott just bought the first two books in Gina Damico’s YA Grim Reaper series, opening with CROAK. I met Gina at a conference, and being a big “Dead Like Me” fan (long-since cancelled, alas), I was hooked as soon as I heard her pitch. I made another two-book deal, this one with Margaret Miller at Bloomsbury, for the first two books in Toby Forward’s middle grade fantasy series, which opens with DRAGONBORN. Toby came to me by way of Curtis Brown UK. And Donna Gephart will be making her picture book debut with GO BE WONDERFUL, which I sold to Grace Maccarone at Holiday House.

Q:  How would you characterize your style as an agent? Do you think certain types of authors need certain types of agents? (hair braiding not withstanding...)

Tina: I consider myself an editorial agent, as I really want to make sure I’m sending editors the best possible version of a client’s manuscript. I also like to think I’m a lifetime agent—in it for both the book’s lifetime and the author’s.

Q:  Boutique vs. Big House. Agent Representation vs. Author-as-Lone-Cowboy. Go.

Tina: I worked at two boutique agencies before coming to ICM. In truth, I hadn’t thought a big agency would suit me, but I’ve been with ICM since 2003, so clearly I was wrong. There are advantages to both, but I really think it comes down to the agent. You can be at a big agency, but never reap the benefits of the other departments operating under that masthead if you don’t have an agent who can leverage those departments; you can also be at a small agency and get lost in the shuffle despite the promise of more one-on-one attention if your agent is too preoccupied with other projects. That’s why it’s so important to consider who, not just where.

Q:  Who are you reading today? What do you wish you'd see more of on the market? (Angst filled teen love stories about sexy, brooding vampires? No?)

Tina: I’m thrilled to pieces that dystopia is so popular; next year, I’m happy to be contributing to this category next year with Angie Smibert’s MEMENTO NORA (Marshall Cavendish). It’s one of the smartest stories from this genre that I’ve read in years. I finished MOCKINGJAY over Labor Day; you already know what I thought there. I also read Aimee Bender’s THE PARTICULAR SADNESS OF LEMON CAKE; I love magical realism and want to see more of that, bridging the gap between contemporary fiction and fantasy/paranormal. Another love, and perhaps not surprising given the MFA: novels in verse. I recently devoured Carol Lynch Willliams’ GLIMPSE.

Q:  Is children's and YA fiction good medicine? (I think so, but I'd love to hear your answer!)

Tina: The best medicine. I’ve really enjoyed turning friends onto MG and YA; for many, it’s made them excited about fiction again. (But, damn, does that sound dorky! True, I hang with a pretty dorky crowd—I mean, sorry, love you guys!—but still…)

Friday, October 8, 2010

NEESHA MEMINGER: An author interview... and book giveaway!

In the wake of the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Centers and Pentagon, life in the U.S. changed for millions of immigrants - Muslim, non-Muslim, brown, black, Middle Eastern, South Asian, the list goes on. Anti-immigrant sentiment became confused and obfuscated by anti-terrorism measures.

To this day, many legal residents of the U.S. get imprisoned in immigration detention centers - cases of maltreatment abound and many people are deported to countries they hardly remember. (Click here for a recent story from Colorlines, and here for the work on immigration detention being done by the organization Breakthrough - Building Human Rights culture)

These social changes didn't just impact adults, but teens and children as well. Neesha Meminger's Shine Coconut Moon looks at the life of one teenage girl in the wake of 9-11. Samar's journey to find her Indian Sikh roots is both a typical teen struggle to find personal identity, and a broader struggle to locate herself in a changing cultural and political landscape.

Intrigued? Well, read on to hear Neesha's ultra-cool interview!

Q. I've read that "Shine, Coconut Moon" was in progress for many years. How much of this novel was written pre-9-11, and how much of it post 9-11? How important was it for you to locate this novel in a post-9-11 landscape?

Neesha: The bulk of SHINE was written pre-9/11. It was, initially, the story of three generations of Punjabi, Sikh women, and how they negotiated the bonds and fissures that come with migration, uprooting, generational and cultural divides. The 9/11 piece came, obviously, after September 11th, 2001. After the events of that date, and the year that followed, I felt that I simply could not *not* write about being Sikh in a post-9/11 world. The story wouldn't feel true to the experience of young people today. And since then, a teacher in Queens emailed me to tell me that a seventeen-year-old Punjabi, Sikh boy in her class pressed my book into her hands and said, "Read this. It's my life." I had never expected my book might be a "boy book," but that young man's experience was reflected nowhere else, in a sympathetic, inside-out way, and he really connected with the characters of Uncle Sandeep and Sammy.

The attacks on 9/11/01 have had a resounding impact on South Asians, and our youth are struggling to navigate these often choppy waters. I wanted to add that layer to SHINE because I understood it so well. I grew up in Canada during the 1970s when there was a major backlash against South Asians, and much of the same hostility, fear, and mistrust was directed at us then, as it is now against anyone perceived to be Muslim or Arab or Middle Eastern.

Q. The novel deftly balances very serious issues such as identity politics, social politics, national politics alongside everyday teenage issues including parent relationships, sex, drinking, friendship, homework. How did you strike that balance? Was there ever a time you considered writing this story for a grown up, rather than YA audience?

Neesha: The strongest voice among the generations of women was always Samar's in this story. Even when it was a multi-generational epic (the likes of which I thought I was "supposed" to write as a South Asian woman writing in English - think: Arundhati Roy, Jhumpa Lahiri, etc.), Sam had the most energy when I wrote her parts. There was something about her that wanted to be expressed, that wouldn't allow me to turn away, and so I just went with it. And I'm so glad I did! I quite like her as a character and she's touching a lot of young South Asians' lives because they can relate to her. This is what young South Asians are dealing with - racism, sexism, homophobia, parental conflicts, raging hormones, school stress . . . the things of teenagers all over the world, but then some very specific and unique things, as well. But to answer your question, I get a lot of adults telling me they loved the book, too. It's written not just for a teen audience, but also for folks who want to know more, are looking for insight, and who want to understand how they connect with another's experience, even if it is nothing like their own.

Q. At one point in the novel, the protagonist Sammy writes "After September eleventh, I never felt more un-American in my whole life, yet at the same time, I felt the most American I've ever felt too." Can you tell us about your own reactions to 9-11, and the backlash against South Asians and Middle Easterners?

Neesha: Mostly it was a huge shock. I had a six-week-old in my arms as we watched the towers burn on TV. We couldn't get in touch with loved ones because the phone lines were all out. l knew the backlash was coming, and I was immediately thrown back into my own childhood and teen years. I remember well, the feeling of being targeted for taunts and threats, the feeling that you must always apologize for something, or defend something, or hide something. And I knew, too, that feeling of wanting to shout, "I'm just like you!", but knowing that I would always be considered, by some, a foreigner in my own home.

Q. A fellow student calls Sammy a coconut - brown on the outside white on the inside. How do you think that identity politics among South Asian or Sikh youth is different to day than when you were growing up? The same?

Neesha: I think there are some changes, definitely. As more and more generations are raised in western culture, there is more of an assimilation on the one hand, and sometimes, a desire to cling to tradition on the other. That's what my second novel is about - the push/pull of old ways and current ways; of love versus duty; of family unity versus individual expression. The young South Asians I meet now are way more hip than we ever were. They're deeply enmeshed in current trends, have active social lives with other South Asian teens as well as non-South-Asians, and their parents, who might be second or even third generation arrivals to the US, are more tolerant of their kids' desires to be part of the larger culture. But South Asian traditions and culture are often deeply embedded among us Desis, and even with tolerant parents, there is always an epic battle in homes where there are teenagers >grin<. It's the aforementioned push/pull.

Q. Tell us about the journey to publish this novel? Was the publishing community enthusiastic right away? Did you meet any resistance?

Neesha: It took me forever to find an editor who connected with SHINE. Actually, that's not true. There was one South Asian editor at a large publishing house who LOVED the book. She was completely behind it and busted her behind to acquire it. But, ultimately, the acquisitions committee at that house didn't feel as strongly as she did, and we had to move on. It was such a devastating experience for all of us. That editor was just amazing and was truly heartbroken. But we did move on and found an editor who was able to acquire the novel. It took me *ten* years from the first stages of beginning the novel, to final acquisition. Now that doesn't mean I wasn't writing other stories and novels in the meantime - I was. I had a full book of short stories for middle-graders, I had another novel I'd written, and I was constantly submitting to editors directly, as well as agents. But I kept hearing that my work was not marketable and that it wouldn't sell. Even with SHINE, I had feedback from some agents that it was too "racially." It's a real struggle to put something out there that is unique, offers a new perspective, and is outside the margins of what is typically accepted as mainstream. But it's SO, SO important to get those stories out there!

Q. Mitali Perkins wrote on her blog recently about the lack of humorous 'multicultural' books out there. Ie. that 'multicultural' authors are pigeonholed as only writing serious, heavy books. Have you felt that? Are 'multicultural' YA authors pigeonholed or limited in any ways?

Neesha: I absolutely agree. My second novel, JAZZ IN LOVE, is a contemporary realistic with elements of humor and romance. I could not sell it to save my life. I did a guest post on The Rejectionist about this recently, but basically, every editor we sent it to gave similar feedback to what I was getting when I was shopping SHINE: that it wouldn't sell, that it was unmarketable. Some said it was "too quiet," others said it was "too commercial."

It's a tough time in publishing right now, and even white, previously-published authors writing more mainstream fiction are having a tough time getting second books published. In 2009, there were TWO contemporary YA books published with South Asian protagonists. One was mine, and the other was Sheba Karim's SKUNK GIRL. And both of us wrote books about identity, racism, fitting in, and navigating "other-ness." These types of books are *always* important. But when that's ALL you get to see, there's a problem. It means some large chunks of the youth population are not given the opportunity to see themselves reflected in the full spectrum of their experiences. They are not allowed to be anything other than "other."

The CCBC (Cooperative Children's Book Center) puts out statistics of books published each year. And the number of authors of colour published is dismal, with African-Americans being the highest at 0.05 percent. There's a zero before that five. And in this economy, if the white kids are having a tough time getting into the party, brown folks better be prepared for a long wait. So I've decided to publish my next novel on my own. What's important to me is getting these stories to the readers who need them - young South Asians and East Asians, and other marginalized readers who rarely get glimpses of themselves in their vast spectrum of experiences. I don't have to prove I can write - SHINE garnered rave reviews from top industy resources and is taught in classrooms all over North America. My readers know me - and I see it as my responsibilty as a voice for those who don't have a platform, to speak the truth, and to craft as accurate a representation as I'm able - to help shape and reflect the lives of our young people.

Q. There seems to be a surge of South Asian YA authors out there. Why do South Asian women write such fabulous books? Any advice for upcoming South Asian women YA authors? (not that I know any...)

Neesha: Yes, there certainly has been a surge, hasn't there?! I think anyone who has access to different languages and different perspectives can write beautifully. It's certainly true for African and African diasporic authors (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nnedi Okorafor, Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich to name a few), Asian authors (Grace Lin, An Na, Cynthia Kadohata, etc.), Latina authors, and the list goes on. It's part of a rich and far-reaching tradition. But mostly, writers are a sensitive, inquisitive, watchful bunch. We pay attention to emotions and details and what's unseen, then we give it solid form in words. How could that not be fabulous?

As for advice . . . hmm. I would say that right now, given the climate in publishing, I would explore what options are available to dedicated, committed writers who have something unique to share. If you've really paid your dues, written a fantastic manuscript, had it critiqued until it hurts, had agents show interest (even if they ultimately passed), then you are very, VERY close. Don't give up! We need your voices. Write what the young adult inside you would have wanted to read. Because, really, young adults today need the same things. There were zero YAs featuring South Asian protagonists when I was growing up, and there is maybe a handful now. Nowhere near what's necessary.

Q. Favorite current day YA reads - go. Childhood faves - go.

Neesha: I haven't read much YA lately as I've had my head stuck in documents of my own, but let's see . . . I'm going to say, in no particular order, BINDI BABES by Narinder Dhami; BORN CONFUSED by Tanuja Desai Hidier; TELL US WE'RE HOME by Marina Budhos; SKUNK GIRL by Sheba Karim; BAMBOO PEOPLE by Mitali Perkins; A WISH AFTER MIDNIGHT by Zetta Elliott; and though it's not YA (it still reads like it could be), 8th GRADE SUPERZERO by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich.

Childhood faves are tough because there was no YA category then. We just read what we wanted. But from the "juvenile" shelves, these were the titles I cherished ;). Again, in no particular order: TUCK, EVERLASTING, Judy Blume's ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT'S ME, MARGARET, Paula Danziger's THE CAT ATE MY GYMSUIT series, S.E. Hinton's THE OUTSIDERS (and every other book she wrote), and many of Lois Duncan's books.

Q. What you'd like to see more of in the YA market - sexy brooding South Asian vampires perhaps? What are you working on now?

I'd like to see more genre fiction by authors of colour - more sci-fi/fantasy and romance by South Asian authors, mystery books by authors of colour, and in general, just expanding the box of authors of colour, so that we're writing more than race and identity and the angst of being "other."

Right now, I'm working on getting JAZZ IN LOVE out in the world and into the hands of my readers - I'm aiming for a release date of late November.

Q. Do you think your story is good medicine? (I think so - but I'd love to hear your answer!)

I think all stories can be good medicine! Stories heal, they mend, they expand, they offer insight, they teach. How absolutely critical is that? :)

And that's not all! Here's a short synopsis of Neesha's forthcoming book, JAZZ IN LOVE. It's a light, fun, humourous contemporary -

Jasbir--a.k.a. Jazz--has always been a stellar student and an obedient, albeit wise-cracking, daughter. Everything has gone along just fine. She has good friends in the "genius" FSL (Future Stars & Leaders) Program that she's been in since kindergarten, her teachers and principal adore her, and her parents dote on her. But now, in her senior year of high school, her mother hears that Jazz was seen hugging a boy on the street, and goes ballistic. Mom immediately implements the "Guided Dating Plan," which consists of laying out photos for Jazz to pick through, and setting up blind dates with "suitable," pre-screened Indian candidates. The boy her mother sets her up with, however, is not at all what anyone expects; and the new boy at school, the very unsuitable hottie, Tyler R, is the one who gets Jazz's blood boiling. Suddenly, everything in her otherwise stable, ordinary life explodes. Her best friend turns her back on her, the plan Jazz had hatched to get her Auntie Kinder, a family friend, back together with her long lost, now-famous first love - and to prove to her parents that finding love on your own could be a perfectly viable path to marriage - backfires, and Jazz must decide between the traditional, acceptable path laid out for her by her parents, or the rocky, unpredictable one she seems to be stumbling headlong into. Jazz will need a lot more than her genius, FSL education to figure out how she'll manage to follow her own heart and stay in the good graces of her parents.

Intrigued? (Who wouldn't be - check out the photos of the Gossip Girls holding up copies of Neesha's book on her website!)

Want to hear more about Samar, Coconuts and post-9-11 America? Well, simply leave a comment and

***You could win a copy of Shine, Coconut Moon! ***

Winner announced next Friday October 15. Please leave your email address with your comment so I can reach you!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Story Rx: Flying Stinks. What about YA book vending machines in airports?

The French are snooty. It's true. But if a culture's vending machines are the windows to the culture's soul (Natch, I just made that up) - the soul of France is also pretty darn cool. I mean, in what other country can you buy a middle of the night fix of Homer or Baudelaire from a curbside book vending machine?

Now, if the same idea of vending machines revealing deep cultural truths holds true for America, we're in trouble. Vending machines here sell -- what? Twizzlers? Condoms? Single dose packets of Midol?

What does that tell about us as a culture? That we like sweets, sex, and have a lot of PMS? If our vending machines were to reflect some cultural truth about us - well, why not America's legendary love affair with youth?

Which got me thinking. (stay with me, here) There's nothing I dread more than airplane travel. Unfortunately, as a daughter of Indian immigrants, and the daughter-in-law of European immigrants, long airplane trips are just part and parcel of my family life. Ugh. That stale air, all that shoe taking off and lack of liquids, the squishy hard seats, and most of all the sheer BOREDOM of it all.

For a recent plane trip, I made a deal with my voracious reader. Although Harry Potter #4 almost undid him - Cedric Diggory dying and all that - I made him a deal that IF he felt up to it, he could read HP#5 on the plane. He just about did back flips and it was all I could do not to have him start that very night but save the story for the trip - like that last, luscious piece of dessert you save to eat when all your peas are done. Of course, it was for a very selfish reason too. Have you SEEN the size of HP#5? It's LONG. And HEAVY, yes, but that was a price I was willing to pay for hours of a happy and entertained son. As back up, I decided to take along Rick Riordan's Red Pyramid - which I hadn't read either. Also heavy, yes. But also LONG. Hooray! The plan was for me to finish the Riordan and then hand it off to the son if he was done with Harry.

Now, not everyone can be such a pre-planner as I am. What if (*gasp*) you show up in the airport with nothing to read??? Wouldn't it be cool if, instead of the latest people mag or other nonsensical beach read, there were YA vending machines in airports -- or better yet, in airplanes? (yes, I know there are bookstores in airports which sell YA books, but I'm talking BIG IDEA here people, don't squelch my enthusiasm)

So here's my manifesto. Why there should be YA vending machines in airports. Ahem:

1. YA books are (usually) full of hope - or at least, full of plot. Both key to overcoming travel boredom and misery.

2. You can trade them off with your kids for hours of all family fun.

3. It's less embarrassing to read YA than, say, the latest bodice ripper about a Duke and bodacious scullery wench -- yet, many YA romances often tap into that self-same spot of readerly enjoyment.

4. YA books are often LONG. And that's more than can be said of, say, People Magazine or US Weekly. I mean, who would you rather read about - Katie Holmes or Hermione Granger? What would you rather read about? Some celebrity 1,000 dollar celebrity baby shower or a televised reality show where kids fight to their deaths? Come on, people, it's no contest!

YA vending machines - an idea whose time has come!

Errr. Probably. Well. Maybe.

I mean, hey, it's right in line with flight attendants who dance to Lady Gaga. A better idea, even.

(What do you like to read when travelling???)

Monday, October 4, 2010

MARINA BUDHOS: An (only teensy bit snarky) author interview... and book giveaway!!

I first got to know of Marina Budhos when I read her adult novel The Professor of Light (Putnam, 1999). I admired her voice tremendously: its intimacy, its authority, its humor and critical eye.

But Marina isn't a one-genre author. She's crossed over from adult fiction to YA fiction and from fiction altogether to nonfiction with books on everything from the post-911 life of a Bangladeshi Muslim teenager to a co-written book (with her husband) on the global politics of sugar cultivation.

Her latest YA novel, Tell Us We're Home (Atheneum, 2010) is the tale of three immigrant daughters - one South Asian, one Latina, and one Eastern European - in a wealthy New Jersey town. But while their classmates wear expensive clothing, and dabble in fair trade and social politics in between ultimate frisbee matches, Jaya, Lola and Maria's mothers are housekeepers and babysitters. Together, they negotiate the social minefields of immigrant identity, class politics, fashion, dating, and school dances. But when one of their mothers is accused of stealing, everything in their tautly held together worlds begins to unravel - including their precious friendship itself.

And now for Marina's faboo author interview:

Q: Tell us about the inspiration for "Tell us we're home." What sort of research went into writing it?

Marina: This book was a long time 'cooking.' A while ago, when I had my first son, I was thinking actually of writing a nonfiction book about the relationship between mothers and nannies, and the changing face of motherhood in the U.S. as American mothers increasingly rely on immigrant women. I had my own experience in which our nanny was Indo-Caribbean, from Guyana, and so we often were mistaken for sisters, and yet underneath that surface similarity were profound differences in our lives. Or, I was mistaken for being the nanny sometimes or she was mistaken for being the mother. I became fascinated with moving fluidly between 'both sides' of the playground. In the course of my research, though, I became more interested in the children of nannies--I would overhear nannies talking on the phone to their own while minding their charges, or I went home with one babysitter whose son was painfully shy; or I had a family friend who worked as a nanny for six years before she could bring her own children over, who had become strangers to her. Eventually I published an essay, "Sisters" in the anthology, Searching for Mary Poppins: Women Write About the Intense Relationship between Mothers and Nannies. By the time I began the book, the whole idea had morphed, and I had begun writing for the young adult market. By this time, too, I had moved to the suburbs, which was a kind of 'immigration' for me, and I realized how this story--of immigrant nannies and their children--was taking place right here, in cozy American towns, and that these were children who had not really been portrayed.

Q: At one point in the novel, the three protagonists - each a daughter of a maid or nanny from a different immigrant community - marvel at having met each other. How did you decide to write "Tell us we're home" from three different points of view? What issues did that pose for you as a writer?

Marina: At the very beginning of working on the book I had tried it from Jaya's pov, but that felt much too constricting for this story is really a novel told 'in the round' and each of these girls gives you something different as a daughter of a maid or nanny. Later on, I also tried first person, but the novel lost a certain narrative cohesion, the language became a little less interesting, and the setting--which is so important to this novel--fell away. So I realized my challenge was to take you inside each girl's world as evocatively as possible, but allow you to move between them with a slightly wider angle. In terms of the three perspectives, they all came pretty easily to me, as they were so distinct. Yet even though I alternate pretty equally between the three, I continued to consider Jaya to be the main character since her struggle is much more internal and it is her mother who is accused of the theft. Finally another challenge was the rhythm of the book since the characters spend so much time apart as they each try to deal with the fall-out of their friendship. I actually read Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants because I admired how Anne Brashares moved in and out of the three girls in short bursts. In my process, this became like a kind of film cutting where I would move scenes around and see how the contrast worked, and what kind of tension could be built with these parallel, developing stories. For me, the structure then became the arc of each girl and how they cope with a difficult situation, how it exposes the frailities in their lives, and the little, important insights they gain along the way. The other thing I really enjoyed about writing the novel was the fact that I had three very different immigrant worlds to capture. It was great fun--sinking into each distinct setting with its own set of secondary characters, textures, memories.

Q. This novel, and your previous "Ask me no questions," balance immigrant politics with the usual YA issues of teenage angst, parental conflict, issues with friends and school. How do you achieve that balance in your YA writing?

Marina: That's a great question. In one of my earlier drafts, which I had shown to my editor she kept laughing at me and saying, "You're so ambitious for this book!" I realize that perhaps this is my place in the YA world--I just see all these things, these experiences as interconnected, especially for the kinds of characters I write about. The challenge for me, though, and which my editor kept pushing me to do, is to see those larger social issues through the very concrete details and perceptions of a teenager. As someone who did come over to YA from adult, this was a learning process for me, where I couldn't quite rely on an omniscient or more distant analytic narrator. But once I hooked into those details--such as Maria's responses to Tash's home; the way she perceives something as small as the professional-like photographs his family have of him on the walls--all that came flooding through the writing. Then the writing became a kind of pleasure because I kept amplifying and adding these little moments, some of them heartbreaking, where the girls navigate their social status and they come to understand their own place in this town. But one thing I will add: even as I wanted to give all the material around the social externals of their situation, their predicaments as daughters of maids and nannies, I knew each girl had a journey to go on that was quite personal. For all the girls that especially had to do with grasping their relationship to their mothers and the weight and responsibility they felt, even as they were trying to separate and become their own person.

Q. What was the impact of post 9-11 social politics - the patriot act, anti-immigrant sentiments, and the like - on your writing? On the writing of other authors of color?

Marina: Obviously it had a big impact. My prior book, Ask Me No Questions, really tore out of me in the period as I contemplated the impact on young Muslim teenagers who were undocumented. But in the next period, as I was writing this book, I was thinking more about not so much characters who were on the frontlines of the post 9/11 period, or affected by the Patriot Act, but those who had 'settled' in the U.S. and were trying to come to terms with 'becoming American' when frictions around immigrants were on the rise, especially in the suburbs. I kept clipping articles on those stories to keep it in mind. As well I became aware that much of what the country was going through with respect to immigration wasn't taking place necessarily in the traditional places, such as cities, but in suburbs all over the country, for this is where immigrants moved, and it was often the immigrant economy of maids, nannies, landscapers, construction workers, who were making our lives plausible. This does bring me to what I'd mentioned earlier--I think part of what I like about YA, or at least the YA I've been working on for the past few years, is fusing some of my interests as a journalist to YA stories.

Q. In fact, there seems to be a rush of fabulous South Asian YA writing lately. Why is it that South Asian women write such amazing books? Any theories? (:)

Marina: Oh, I wish I had something brilliant to say! My biggest thought, I suppose, is it was just a matter of time. That is, we've of course witnessed the marvelous rise of South Asian literature (I think it is no longer a boom but is here to stay) And yet so many of us also grew up on ya and children's literature and so knew it was time to try our hand at that literature as well. I was a voracious YA reader as a teenager, and I felt it was just a matter of time before I tried my hand at that world, but with characters that I hadn't seen written about.

Q. You have written adult novels, nonfiction books, and now YA books. Tell us how you make the decision to write in one genre or another. What are the challenges and joys of each? What has been the reaction of the publishing industry to the variety in your work?

Marina: Part of the challenge is simply figuring out what ideas work best in what genre. I think that's become clearer to me over time. The hardest part is balancing the different ideas and projects I have--I also have a teaching job and so split my time between teaching at my university and usually working on an adult and a young adult manuscript (not simultaneously, but sequentially). For me the joy is I think I'm simply not a person who ever wanted to be defined by one genre or approach and so I just love that. I've always wanted to be a 'working writer'--someone who produces in many realms, who has something to say through different forms and audiences. I think that's become a bit harder in the American market, but you see this in other countries all the time. I have loved coming over to ya--there's a built in community of readers, librarians, teachers, and others, including blogging teenagers, who care about this literature and thus nurture along the life of the book over a long time span. This is very different from the adult world, where books either soar or vanish within a rather short window of time. In terms of response, I sometimes think the publishing industry has a memory that goes back one day. I'm aware of the range and the interconnectedness of these different genres I've worked in, but each project is almost a separate one, that you must sell to an editor or a house. But I'm always so pleased when I discover a reader who has really followed these different books and also doesn't mind following me from ya to adult, or fiction to nonfiction.

Q. What projects are you currently working on?

Marina: I have just finished a very big manuscript, an adult historical novel, that I have given to my agent, so I'm a bit drained from that. This has been a six year project that I have been working on and off on, while doing the ya, and it entailed a deep amount of research and travel to India and the Caribbean. During this time as well, my husband and I were working on a new nonfiction book, Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and Science, which actually dovetailed with the setting for my novel, a large portion of which takes place on a Caribbean plantation. This year I am on sabbatical and so my plan is 1) to recover a bit and 2) to start researching and begin the writing on a few projects (I always think in 'bundles') One is a memoir that is also a social memoir, and will involve interviewing others (don't want to say too much more, because I fear it won't work out). The other is a ya idea I have that is set in Newark, NJ, and is very urban and will be from the pov of a young man. And finally I have a novel or novella that I never got right that I think I may fiddle around with during this time. While it may seem like these are disparate projects, they're all connected in a certain way--they are urban in their setting and about coming to terms with a city. But at the same time, I want to be open to the process taking me wherever it takes me. Frankly, I've been going at a pretty intense and scheduled rate the past few years, and I'm mostly looking forward to letting the 'barrel' fill up a bit and not lashing myself to a writing deadline.

Q. Tell us about your creative process - do you have rituals or other creative practices that keep you going? What's your go-to solution for when you get creatively "stuck"? (or do you never get stuck, in which case I'm jealous!)

Marina: I can't say I get stuck but sometimes I'm a bit 'dry' or I can't quite find the solution to things. Or I only manage to write a paragraph or two. One of the challenges for revision is you have this structure, this story line already laid down and it's a bit difficult to get back inside and generate new material, which is needed. So sometimes I find myself making very minor tweaks or finely tuned additions, when what I really need to do is break it open a bit, riff, and not worry about whether it fits into the existing structure. So what I do is I actually go into a kind of brainstorming, thinking aloud mode. I turn on the all caps and just 'go' with various ideas or associations and soon enough that can be molded into a paragraph, a scene that can be slipped into the story. Another challenge for me is the stage I'm at right now--beginning. That is the hardest. Somehow I'm always a little creaky at the start of something and everything sort of sputters and I am sure I have no imagination. Once I get momentum and the wind is at my back, frankly I'm pretty obsessed because that world has become so real and compelling to me.

As to rituals--I like to get right to the computer before anything else, which sometimes is hard with the jumble of family life. And then, as I'm working on a book, I carry around a moleskin book in which I write down various ideas that might come to me in the course of the day, or where I put down my research notes.

Q. I know you teach at university - what sorts of courses do you teach? What are your favorite pieces of writing advice for your students?

Marina: I teach a variety of creative writing courses in different genres, and literature, with a focus on adolescent literature and Asian and Asian American literature. When I arrived they had just designed the new Asian Studies minor, so I created two new courses--Modern Indian Literature and Asian-American literature--which I love to teach. I feel fortunate in that I'm in a department that doesn't segregate writers from literature and so we all have an opportunity to teach a range. I also really enjoy teaching graduate students (we have an MA program and now a new MFA program) taking their work to the next level where they start to see it as a cohesive manuscript. I usually advise a few theses a year. I guess my advice to students if 1) to respect the notion of drafting. That is, to recognize when something is an early draft and not mistake it for something polished and finished. And 2) to engage in the excitement of language. I think writers are engaged in a battle, restoring our excitement around language itself, which is so often hollowed out and hackneyed through daily usage. I want them to see the power of language to change and reorder the way we see, perceive the world.

Q. Are your stories good medicine? (I think so but I'd love to hear what you think)

Marina: Interesting question and not something I've thought of before ... I know that my stories are good medicine for me as I 'm writing. That is, I am never happier or more 'whole' than when I'm writing or getting these stories out. I think for me, I have such a back up of emotions, perceptions, ideas, upsets, and it is only through writing that some order comes; that I feel, honestly, okay in the world. Thus, I can only hope that what I am getting out; the strains I believe I am tapping, also has some similar resonance to my readers. I know that for me it is profoundly important to get at the perceptions, the experiences of characters that are often invisible and I do hope this touches others as they recognize some of these hidden recesses brought to light.


Intrigued? You should be! Want to win a free copy of Marina's novel? Well, simply leave a comment here by 6am Friday Oct. 8th and


Blog, FB, or tweet about this giveaway (and tell me about it) for more chances to win! Winner announced on Friday October 8th.