Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Tanita Davis Interview ( 2012 Summer Blog Blast Tour)

Tanita Davis has been one half of the YA author blog Finding Wonderland since 2005. Her third novel, Happy Families was just released last month. Like the author's previous works, the family dynamic is well executed. I am very happy to have the opportunity to interview Tanita Davis about her latest novel for day two of 2012 SBBT

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.

This is not to say that every novel by a person of faith must contain theological treatise. It’s just that, as Sara Zarr says, a writer writes from her or his worldview. If their worldview is centered in faith, whether culturally or spiritually, even in small ways, it will show. And, if a writer remains true to their craft, and doesn’t use their work to “send a message,” bludgeon, or berate, then the faith and the fiction will balance.

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.

I was excited when I saw the cover – a pink pictogram with the stereotypical skirted girl figure, a blue pictogram for a stereotypical boy, overlapped… to create a purple one. And okay, your bubble can stay intact: for you, this cover is about family being a single unit.

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?

Coe Booth was recently quoted in The Atlantic Wire’s piece, “The Ongoing Problem of Race in YA fiction” She talked about how authors of color are at times perceived to have some greater responsibility with their work, and that sometimes a book is … just a book. DEFINITELY, some people are automatically turned off by the covers of my books depicting people of color, definitely turned off by knowing that I am a person of color – there’s a lot of assumption about the types of stories a writer of color tells. However, I’m not sure it’s specifically down to not fitting into a pre-assumed box within writers of color -- it could always just be the way I write!

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


Colleen said...

I am really struggling to think of other YA titles with cellos. Is there really a glut of those? Anyone????

Ashley Hope Pérez said...

Colleen, the only one that comes to mind is AGES old (and one of my favorites)... THE FACTS AND FICTIONS OF MINNA PRATT by Patricia MacLachlan. But maybe the cello thing is a very recent trend? No idea!

Doret, thanks for these fabulous questions for one of my favorite human beings! Fabulous interview!

Tanita, if challenges come, I hope you'll consider responding. Or holler my way and let ME weigh in! :) As you said, I believe that readers who come to the book with an open mind and an open heart will see that the family scenario it presents is very in-line with the gospel. I still get chills when I think of Y and J's mother's note to their dad.

tanita✿davis said...

Yeah... I think The Mozart Season... and... that's all I can think of for cellos. Maybe she just meant stringed instruments?

Ashley, I just might let you weigh in.

Thanks, Doret. ☺

Melissa Wiley said...

There's the wonderful MIDNIGHT HOUR ENCORES--one of my favorite YA novels ever--but it too is many years old. We should ask Kelly Jensen at Stacked. She has an encyclopedic mind for YA motifs and trends. I'm glad the revision worked out for you, T--that must have been jarring. The beadwork sounds fresh and fascinating! (I grok your cello love. I played for one short year in 4th grade and have pined for it ever since.)

Loved this interview--such thoughtful questions and answers. Thanks, both of you.

Sara said...

Tanita is one of the most centered and thoughtful people I know. It's no surprise her books are too.

I loved her Mare's War, and recommend it often. Looking forward to reading Happy Families---and to perhaps, writing a note to myself, as Tanita did, to stay on course.

Thank you for the wonderful interview!

E Wein said...

Natalie in Ursula LeGuin's "Very Far Away from Anyplace Else" plays the viola. That's all *I* can think of, and it must have been published 30 years ago. sheesh.

I am really looking forward to reading this - my daughter Sara has just finished it and unfortunately for me it is now doing the rounds with her friends!

And yes, if they come, don't respond to the challenges, unless, as you rightly point out, they are direct questions that you can answer politely. There is more grace in silence than even in polite disclaimers, which can invite flaming even unintentially. Keep reminding yourself that "Love is stronger than fear"!

Ms. Edith Campbell said...

What does Patti play in "Good Enough"?

What a wonderful interview!


Anonymous said...

Mia in Gayle Forman's If I Stay plays the cello.

Sarah Stevenson said...

Wonderful interview, both of you! It's kind of amazing and hilarious to me, Tanita, that your experience with that person in grad school has directly or indirectly informed BOTH of our writings. :)

Doret said...

Female characters who play the violin should be a bonus question, if there was ever a YA trivia pursuit edition.

Edi, I remember Patti played a string instrument but not which one. Checked it was Violin, though since it sized for the cover it looks like a cello

I loved Ysabel's artistic self and I couldn't imagine nor (would I want)her not being so committed to her jewelry making.

tanita✿davis said...

I believe Patti played a viola!! But seriously - stringed instruments for 5000, Alex?

Thanks again for the interview, Doret.

Marjorie said...

I'm really excited to read this. Just ordered my copy.

Another YA girl cellist: Mia in If I Stay and Where She Went by Gayle Forman.

Unknown said...

Not all are true. Everyone has their own way of thinking but I think they have to reconsider. I like to argue for the most accurate results.