Hi. Tanita and welcome. Can you tell us a little about Happy Families?
Happy Families is a love story to families, if that’s not too abstruse. It’s about unconditional love, and going the distance in the name of love, no matter how far that takes you from what you might think everyone else is doing. It’s about fear and doing things anyway. It’s …complicated, a bit.
The cover flap tells you it’s about a set of twins who have to come to terms with their father’s new life. That’s as good a description as any.
You give a quick glimpse of Ysabel and Justin’s life before their father's secret is revealed. Did you develop the twins’ back stories more in drafting? I only ask because while the before was concise, it was still an excellent set up for the after.
Thanks. No, I didn’t write a whole bunch more backstory for the twins – it’s my own imaginary Happy Family scenario – parents who are both happy in themselves and deeply invested in the kids, kids who both have challenging and fun hobbies and are invested in each other – loving but not too much in each other’s faces. It was easy to write because it was a familiar dream. I didn’t – don’t – have that family. My people are greatly beloved, but hardly idyllic.
A little bonus fact: I wrote Ysabel’s backstory twice because originally she was in orchestra, and my editor said that there were too many YA novels with female characters who played cellos. I had no idea! (I still have no idea!) I was slightly annoyed at the time, since the cello is my Secret Longed-For Instrument (along with the balalaika and the dulcimer), but I’m just as glad now that I changed her focus, and thus changed her entire personality. Also, I got into lamp working and beads and jewelry making just from the research. Pretty much anything that lets me have even a tiny torch to begin with, and ends with jewelry? Is A Good Thing.
While the family must come to terms with the father's second identity as Christine, one thing that is never in question is their faith. I really appreciated how well the family’s faith is blended into the storyline. Why do you think religion and faith can be difficult to balance in fiction?
Well, the question is taking for granted that I do think that. I don’t. Perhaps I should clarify – maybe religion can be difficult to balance in fiction, but faith? No.
When I say “faith,” I don’t mean a kind of outward thing that people do, the denomination to which they belong, the external trappings of organized institutions. The externals are religion – what others may use to define you, or how they may wish to label/categorize you. The internal is faith.
Faith touches every part of a person’s life, so writing about it – writing from that personal context – should be the simplest balancing act in the world. (Please note the word Should!) I agree that it’s not always easy, not for everyone.
There are reasons why it’s not – in this society we so fear to offend that we’ve all made sure to homogenize so that we cannot possibly be found to be wrong or different or worse, strange. In the political arena, we’ve created offense to be an art form – just look at how many teacup tempests boil over, and how many apologies on behalf of entire peoples and nations are demanded on a weekly basis. We are locked and loaded and sometimes seem to be spoiling for a fight. The result? People take no chances, and make no waves… which creates timid, boring writers, and an eternal sameness in the fictional landscape.
We shouldn’t want to shove our faith in anyone’s faces – shoving is rude. But, when the fear of being seen as trying to proselytize – or the fear of being labeled as earnest or fanatical or tragically unhip – actually causes us to attempt to hold back or only write from our center selectively, then we’re throttling our voices, which is going to create terrible writing.
While I was reading Happy Families, I couldn't help but think that this novel will be challenged it’s only a manner of when. Is there any part of you that is looking forward to that first challenge? And have you already thought of what your response will be?
Looking forward to…? Wow, really? No. I am actually hoping that this book is not challenged maybe that makes me sound a little naïve.
While I am not a person who flees confrontation, neither am I a person who invites it. For some people, Happy Families may be topically polarizing and unbearably upsetting, I did not write with the intention of creating controversy, challenge, or discomfort to a level where people felt they had to act to protect their children. I deliberately kept the focus of the novel on the most important characters: Ysabel and Justin. This is their story.
There were so many times, during the writing of this novel, when I turned to a note I had written myself, and reminded myself of why I was doing this. There were so many times when my own fears of my own inadequacies in dealing with the subject matter just rose up to overwhelm me. And then I remembered - love is stronger than fear… and if all I was afraid of was exploring and reinforcing the idea that it’s okay to truly love, then I needed a reality check.
As to the rest – I don’t think I’m going to respond to challenges to the book. I don’t know what the etiquette is on that, but my normal conversational rules apply: if someone asks me a question that isn’t rude, I’ll answer if I choose. Otherwise, most challenges occur on a school/public librarian level, and those stalwarts will be the ones talking people through their biggest concerns. I trust that they know their patrons best, and can’t imagine me jumping in would do anything but stir the pot.
The bottom line is, concerned person has to be guided by their beliefs. If they’re of the belief that I am trying to hurt people with this novel, then I can only be sorry, but know in my heart that hurting anyone is never my intention.
I must confess to not liking the cover at first. It wasn't until after I started to read Happy Families that the cover design finally clicked for me. Giving the impression of a family existing as one unit. At least that's what I get from it, please don't burst my bubble if I am wrong. But can you tell us a little about the cover process?
I had a chance to kind of observe the entire design process. I was even asked to submit a conceptual idea, which was a first for me. Together with the design team we came up with the little male/female pictograms. Where we went from there was all over the board. We discussed had four basic pictogram styles, one photographic cover (which was all shoes/feet), and then from there we discussed background colors, spacing, fonts – seven mock-ups later, we eventually decided that none of the designs worked for enough of us. Enter Number Seventeen Productions. They did some fun stuff with the designs for Ned Vizzini’s books (It's Kind of a Funny Story ), and I was eager to see what they had for me.
For me, more than the obvious metaphor the figures represent, the cover hints about the self being comprised of more than we show on the surface; we identify in more ways than what we observe in others. We are both the sum of all of our parts, and more.
One thing I love about the characters you create, you never feel the need to prove their "Blackness", they simply are who they are. Do you think your desire to simply tell great stories and not create characters that fit into a pre-assumed box has made it difficult for your work to be categorized? Or for you to find an audience?
In grad school, an intense Latino woman cornered me one day and asked me why I wasn’t “representing” more, and really said some hard words about my community and my experience, and what I wasn’t doing right. I think of her from time to time, and hope that she understands that there’s no such thing as one experience and one community, for anyone of any gender, ethnicity, color or faith. If readers can remember that, they’ll find their choice of reading widens dramatically.
There's a real easiness to your writing that I like with the story always unfolding naturally from the dialogue to the situations. What do you think is the foundation of good writing?
Thank you. The foundation of good writing to me is intense, active listening, and close reading. The best writers have words swirling in their bloodstreams, and in their breath and bone. I encourage fledgling writers to read, read, read, and try their hand at expressing their world. Great stories flow from there.
The desire of the Nicholas family to find their happy again is something everyone can relate to. Do you think readers will be more accepting of differences after reading Happy Families?
I certainly hope so. Ashley Hope Pérez wrote a blog essay - Happy Families is the antidote to the "I'm Christian unless"... disease, which resonated with me. She speaks eloquently on the message of this book for her, and people who were raised in conservative communities like her. She talks about the glossary in the back as kind of being the first step to an action plan – I can change the way I speak about this today. It is her belief that these faith communities will be better able to embrace this book than might be expected. I support her belief, and anticipate thoughtful action and support from those who wish to choose love over exclusion, and acceptance over mere tolerance.
Do you plan on doing any author events either in person or via Skype?
I’m currently in Scotland, and I’ve been here just shy of five years. In that time, Tech Boy has gone from Mr. to Dr. (he came to do one degree, and is leaving with two), and it’s time for us to leave. Far from being ready to “get back to normal,” whatever that is, I’m voting we go somewhere else adventurous, so stay tuned for where we end up! Meanwhile, I do Skype visits with Seton Hill University and Oakwood School almost every year. I’m interviewed by individual students and correspond with quite a few. People can contact me through my website.
I plan to be in the United States this summer, and while I haven’t got book things quite lined up just yet, keep an eye on my website and my blog – I’ll be around!
Be sure to check out the other Day 2 interviews.
Timothy Decker @ Chasing Ray
Y.S. Lee @ The YA YA YAs
A comprehensive roundup of the tour