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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | historical fiction

Karen Cushman, the Girl in Men’s Underwear

Karen Cushman

Karen Cushman

We welcome the opportunity to talk with Karen Cushman, Newbery Medal and Honor recipient for The Midwife’s Apprentice and Catherine, Called Birdy, as well as historical fiction set in the western United States. Her most recent novel is the fantasy Grayling’s Song. We look forward to talking with Karen because her sense of humor is always in play, something you’d expect from reading her books.

 Are you working on a new manuscript? (Care to offer a teaser)?

I’m struggling my way through a book set in San Diego in 1941, shortly before Pearl Harbor. Here’s the beginning, or the beginning at the moment:

Jorge lifted the slimy creature to his lips and bit it right between the eyes.

I shuddered as I watched. “Doesn’t that taste muddy and disgusting?”

“Nah,” he said, wiping mud from his mouth. “Is only salty. This way they don’t die but only sleep, stay fresh.” He threw the octopus into a bucket and slipped through the mud flats to another hole in the muck. He filled a baster from a mud-spattered Clorox bottle and squirted the bleach into a hole.

When the occupant slithered to the surface, Jorge pulled it out and bit it, too. “You want? Make good stew.”

I shook my head. I preferred fish that came in cans and was mixed with mayo and chopped celery.

 Elvis PresleyAre there particular memories of growing up that, looking back, you see as leading you toward a writing career?

My first 17 or so years seemed to be leading me to a writing career. I wrote all the time: poems, short stories, a 7-page novel, an epic poem cycle based on the life of Elvis (see the last question below). A lot of what I wrote was involved with creating a world I’d like to live in starring a person I’d like to be.

Are there three books you’d recommend for gift-giving in the upcoming holidays?

I asked my daughter, who works at Powell’s Bookstore in Portland and knows more about books than anyone. She recommended three illustrated nonfiction titles. I plan to buy them for myself.

  • Atlas Obscura (by Joshua Foer, Dylan Thuras, and Ella Morton). A fascinating tour guide to the strangest and most curious places in the world: glowworm caves in New Zealand, Turkmenistan’s 40-year hole of fire called the Gates of Hell, salt mines in Poland, a parasitology museum, bone museums in Italy.
  • David Macaulay’s The Way Things Work Now. Packed with information on the inner workings of everything from windmills to Wi-Fi, this extraordinary book guides readers through the fundamental principles of machines and shows how the developments of the past are building the world of tomorrow. 
  • In the Company of Women (by Grace Bonney). Photos and descriptions of inspiring, creative women across the world who forged their own paths and succeeded. 

Three book recommendations by Karen Cushman

What did you study in college?

I entered college as an English major but quickly became enamored of the Classics department because it was much smaller and more interesting and they had sherry parties every Friday afternoon. My final major was double—Greek and English.

Did you taking writing classes?

My university had a graduate creative writing major but there was only one course for undergraduates. I took it, hated it, and never went. People sat around and criticized each other’s work. Not for me. The night before the quarter was over, I stayed up all night and wrote twelve short stories. The professor commented that I seemed to have learned a lot during the class even though I never came to class. Go figure. That was my first and last writing class.

men's boxers What was your first job?

I worked in the men’s socks and shorts department of a Target-like store, where I was known as the girl in men’s underwear.

What’s your strongest memory of the 1950s?

Elvis. No question. I also remember looking at all the unhappy housewives on our suburban street, sipping martinis and making lunches, and feared I would end up like that.  

PS:  I didn’t.

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Does Research Count?

Lots of people ask me for advice on writing.
That’s a hard one to answer. Writing is personal, and it’s different for everyone.

But people are curious about my process, the daily practice of my craft.
They think that hearing about my process might help them in their own work.

Maybe it will. At any rate, it is a question I can answer.
This column, Page Break, is my answer to that question.  Welcome to my world.

Lynne Jonell's Page Break

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Time Travel

sun dialWhen you tour Rome, you’re not always sure if you’re traveling in taxis or time machines. Down one street, you’re transported back to around 2,000 years ago, watching the Christians take on the lions in the Forum. Head down another street, and you’re enraptured by one of Michelangelo’s Renaissance masterpieces. Turn your head, and you see—the Golden Arches?

It’s the kind of place where it’s hard to remember exactly “when” you are.

“When” can also be the perfect jumping-off point for a student writing road trip. Is your classroom studying a key time in history? Ancient Egypt? The American Revolution? World War II? Eliminate the distance between your history lesson and your writing lesson by asking students to write a story set in that historical time, using details accurate to the setting. Talk about how setting details such as the correct technology, period-appropriate clothing, food choices, even the smells of that place and time, will help shape not only the story’s setting, but the characters who live in the “then” and the “there” of that story.

Or why not create a story-writing time machine? List the various historical periods you’ve studied this year on different index cards. Count up the total number of cards. Assign each card a number. Then have students number off into that many groups, or choose some other way of randomly assigning time machine destinations to each student. You can even use the time machine over and over again, with students ending up in different “times” each day they journey down this writing road.

Writing can help take your students anywhere, and any-when, you want them to travel.

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Gennifer Choldenko

Bookology is proud to feature Gennifer Choldenko’s Chasing Secrets as its Bookstorm™ this month, sharing themes, ideas, and complementary book recommendations for your classroom, literature circle, or book group discussions.

Gennifer CholdenkoWere you a curious child? How did this manifest itself?

I was an eccentric child. I was curious to the extent that I could find out new facts to feed my imaginary world. I adored school and loved my teachers. I used to come home from school with an aching arm from raising my hand with such unbridled enthusiasm.

When you grew up, where did your curiosity lead you?

You know the classic I Love Lucy episode with the candy conveyor belt? I once had a job squishing individual servings of tomato ketchup and mustard with a big mallet. The goal, believe it or not, was quality control. You had to bang them hard. If they didn’t open, they were considered secure enough to send out. Boy was it a messy job.

Chasing SecretsLizzie Kennedy, the heroine of Chasing Secrets, is a curious child of thirteen. She’s interested in science and mathematics, in finding out the truth. What do you admire most about her?

I admire how certain she is about the rightness of the world. I’ve had people tell me that Lizzie reveals her naivete because she’s so sure she can make everything work out. That gave me pause. In Lizzie’s worldview, the truth prevails. I believe that to my very core. Maybe, that’s why I write for ten-, eleven- and twelve-year-olds.

Jing and Noah are Chinese immigrants. Only part of their family has traveled to San Francisco. Jing has aspirations for his son. What drew you to writing these characters into the book?

I’m interested in the Chinese, in part, because my daughter is Chinese. We adopted her from China when she was eight months old. She was a very small immigrant. And not surprisingly, I adore her. Because of her I’ve become more aware of the anti-Chinese sentiment in today’s world and that in turn made me more interested in the history of the Chinese in America.

You introduce the key players in the story in the early chapters. We even get a glimpse of Billy on the docks, long before he interacts with Lizzie. The rats have Chapter 3 named after them. Is this something that happens as you’re writing the first drafts, or do you go back to set up the story during revisions?

Every book seems to evolve in a different way. Chasing Secrets was built almost entirely in revision. The only part of the book that was there from the get-go involved the rats. Billy evolved with each draft. It took me a long time to persuade him to come onto the page.

The number “6” figures prominently in Chasing Secrets. There are Six Companies, Six Leaders, and Six Boys. What is the significance of the number 6 for you?

The Six Companies actually existed. They held considerable power within the Chinese community. The Six Companies reminded me of my brother’s group of friends who all lived in a house in Marblehead and called themselves “Six of Six.” That gave me the idea it would be fun to have Noah be a part of a group of six kids who were leaders in the kids Chinatown community.

There’s an exchange between Lizzie and Noah where we discover that each of them has prejudices. Lizzie has her notions about servants and the Chinese, but Noah has his ideas about girls not being as smart as boys. He believes girls lie because one girl did. This feels like an important passage in the book. Why did you include it?

If you are writing about San Francisco 1900 and every character has the sensibility and mindset of San Francisco 2016, then really what you’re doing is putting your twenty-first century characters into historic dress. A costume ball is fun but it isn’t historic fiction. On the other hand, there is no such thing as a generic 1900s sensibility anymore than there is a generic 2016 sensibility. (Does Pope Francis view our world in the same way as Lady Gaga? I don’t think so.) There always have been, and there always will be, people who are “ahead of their time,” people who are “behind the times,” and people who are wholly original thinkers. But everyone is formed to some degree from the time in which they exist.

Lizzie was more open-minded than most of her peers. But the prejudice against the Chinese was deeply embedded in San Francisco culture. Lizzie had to have absorbed some of it. And, of course, Noah’s world was sexist. Almost no one questioned either of these prejudices in 1900.

Did you have trouble deciding which of the main characters would get sick with the plague?

RatsHow did you know? I felt strongly that the person who got sick was not going to be Chinese only because many people believed that the plague only affected Asians, which was and is false. But whom should I choose? It was a ghoulish question.

 It seemed logical that someone like Maggy would get sick because she spent a lot of time cleaning and there were an inordinate amount of dead rats around in 1900, many of whom died of the plague. But I really loved Maggy and I didn’t want her to suffer much less die. So initially I gave her a light dusting of the plague, from which she recovered pretty easily.

 Then I got a letter from my editor. She did not believe this was realistic. I happened to be on tour when I got the letter. I remember waking up one morning in Nashville with the realization that one character who I had making the “right” decision would not have made that decision at all. And from then on the book wrote itself.

There are many interesting real-life characters in your book (Dr. Kinyoun, Donaldina Cameron). Did you visit museums and libraries to do your research?

I spend half my life at the library. And of course I went to museums in San Francisco and in New York in addition to every historical tour I could find in San Francisco and Sacramento and in New York. Historical tours rarely give me a picture of the exact time, place, and social status I’m looking for, but they are a leaping-off place. I pepper the tour guides with questions and source materials and begin to develop a picture of what the homes of my characters might have looked like.

Chinatown

The Gateway Arch today, San Francisco’s Chinatown, chensiyuan, GFDL

Another thing I love to do is walk the neighborhoods I’m writing about. Of course, San Francisco now looks nothing like San Francisco in 1900 and yet some things are the same. Weather, proximity to the bay, seafood, wildlife, birds, natural geography are all largely the same. I spent a lot of time in Chinatown. Chinatown now is almost nothing like it was, except for one thing: it still feels like its own city in the middle of San Francisco. By walking the city now and studying old maps and old photos, I was able to conjure up Chinatown in 1900.

Chinatown today

The Street of Gamblers (Ross Alley), Arnold Genthe, 1898. The population was predominantly male because U.S. policies at the time made it difficult for Chinese women to enter the country. Photo by Arnold Genthe, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco. Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.

Research is an ongoing detective game. A synergy between what I can find out and what I can imagine. I research before I begin writing, while I’m writing, and while I’m revising. My husband says when I’m in the middle of a book I am possessed. I can’t get enough information. But I find the entire process thrilling. There is nothing like discovering a juicy source that tells me exactly what I need to know.

Gus Trotter and his sister, Gemma, are intriguing friends who embrace Lizzie and her escapades. Were they in the story from the very beginning?

Al Capone Does My ShirtsNo! Gemma and Gus Trotter came later. In the beginning, Aunt Hortense and Uncle Karl had a daughter who was very close to Lizzie. But somewhere around the third draft I realized she got in the way of the story. So I kicked her out of the book and as soon as I did Gemma and Gus appeared. The same thing happened with Al Capone Does My Shirts. Initially, I had a different group of kids on the island. I liked them, but they didn’t work very well with Moose, so I fired them. And when I did up popped Jimmy, Theresa, and Annie.

Writing a book is a bit like having a dinner party. I’ve had dinner parties where I invited guests I know and love but the dinner party didn’t quite work because the dynamic between the guests fell flat. And then there have been other parties where the guests bounced off each other and the cumulative effect was incredible. This is, of course, what I’m looking for when I audition characters for my novels.

Do you find it sad to say goodbye to your characters when you’ve finished writing the book?

Yes! I really loved the world of Chasing Secrets. I found it utterly fascinating. It takes a long time to develop a historical setting to the point that it becomes quite that believable to me. At first the details sit on the surface and then gradually, draft by draft, they sink into the core of the book. And when that happens I become so invested in that world that it is quite challenging to let go.

____________________________________________

Thank you, Gennifer, for sharing your thoughts and writing journey with us. 

For use with your students, Gennifer’s website includes A Writing Timeline, a series of videos and podcasts about Chasing Secrets.

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A Conversation Between Avi and Gary D. Schmidt

Avi and Gary D. SchmidtWhen Avi published his 1950s’ era novel, Catch You Later, Traitor, he dedicated the book to Gary D. Schmidt, fellow author, fellow reader, fellow connoisseur of noir detective novels and history. The Bookologist is privileged to listen in on this conversation between two authors who are so greatly admired for the depth and texture within their books. Enjoy!

Gary D. Schmidt:
Ray Bradbury once wrote a short article entitled “Memories Shape the Voice” in which he talked about the powerful ways that his childhood memories affected the making of his Greentown, Illinois. It wasn’t just the details that would come back to him as he created the world of his short stories—it was how he felt about those details: the beauty (to him) of the town’s factories, the terror (to him) of the gullies. It seems to me that this is true also of your evocation of 1951 Brooklyn. Is that fair to say?

Avi:
It is fair. It’s been many years since I’ve lived in NYC, but I confess I still think of myself as a New Yorker. I’ve written more about the city than any other place, from City of Light, City of Darka dystopian graphic novel—to Sophia’s Wara tale of the American Revolution. It’s not just “home” in a physical sense, it’s my emotional home. And yet, I now live in the Rocky Mountains, nine thousand feet up, in a community of thirteen, the nearest neighbor a mile away.

When writing Catch You Later, Traitor, which is set, for the most part, in my boyhood neighborhood, it was easy for me to walk home from school, play stoopball, go to the local movie theater. I easily recall sitting on the front stoop reading comic books with my friends—even which comic books.

Gary D. Schmidt:
One part of that world is the physical setting: Pete’s apartment, the streets, the nursing home, the school. Though I suspect that being in these settings brought a great deal of nostalgic pleasure, how did these settings play a part in the plotting of the book?

Avi:
I think all writers depend on sensory memory. Consider Ritman’s Books where, in the book, Pete hangs out. There was such a bookstore in my neighborhood, which I loved to go to. The same for that movie theater where I would go for the Saturday morning kids’ shows. My Brooklyn was very much a small town. There was everything I needed, and all I needed to construct the book. Even when I had to go beyond, by subway—I love the city subways—it gave me great pleasure to write about them.

Brooklyn Heights SchoolGary D. Schmidt:
The school is particularly intriguing to me, since it seems to me to be acting in interesting thematic ways. School, for Pete, is a place of monolithic power: the teacher. There is one point of view, one way of responding to America, one way of sitting and responding and behaving. Toward the end of the book, Pete calls his teacher, Mr. Donavan, a bully—and it seems at that point that Mr. Donavan represents all of the school. But does it seem to you as well that the school, with its insistent power, also represents the way the country was acting toward dissent at this time?

Avi:
Mr. Donavan is based on a teacher I did have. I describe him as I remember him. But don’t forget Mr. Malakowski, who is also real, and a nice guy. He was, in fact, my favorite teacher. Parents think they know about their children’s schools, but I think in some way schools constitute a parallel universe to home life. They don’t always intersect. Pete’s parents don’t really know what’s going on there, and Pete doesn’t want them to get involved. That, I think, is typical. In today’s world, the older a kid gets the less he/she wants parents to be involved in school. Yes, the school does represent the country at that time, but it’s important to remember that it was not the whole country.

Gary D. Schmidt:
And of course, there are the characters that are so vivid—an Avi trademark. I think especially of Mr. Ordson, the blind man to whom Peter reads. He reads the newspaper, because Mr. Ordson wants to keep up with current events. And he is a wise and good friend to Pete. You’ve written that Mr. Ordson is based on a real person to whom you, as a young adolescent, read. Are there other characters based on folks from your past? Perhaps Pete’s father, a noble character? Have you, as William Faulkner once advised, cut up your relatives to use them in your plot?

Avi:
How can I say this? Pete’s father is based on what my father was not. My father was not a nice man. Very hard on me. Abusive. Don’t get me going. Anyway, I think Pete’s father is what I would have liked my father to be. I bet you’ve worked from that kind of opposite, too. Cathartic, perhaps. On the other hand, Pete’s older brother is somewhat based on my own older brother who, like many older brothers, can be patronizing to younger brothers. That said, a major part of the story is not about families that pull apart—there is some of that—but how families stay together. And Kat—a key fictional character in the book—is drawn to Pete’s family as much as she is to Pete.

Gary D. Schmidt:
One other element from the past: the noir voices, the sounds of the hard-boiled detective fiction that you read, that I read, that we both still read. At times, Pete leaves the first-person narrative to go into that hard-boiled voice. I think you probably had a lot of fun with that, right?

Avi:
I adored writing those sections. I think there is something uniquely American in that noir voice. The tough love. The sarcasm. The wit. The truth-telling. The very careful literary construction, all of which masks a deep-rooted sentimentality, an embarrassed, if you will, searching for love. Very complex. The thought that I can share that—introduce it—to my readers gives me great pleasure.

Gary D. Schmidt:
In this McCarthy–era novel, Pete is thrown into a world in which fear inspires hatred. As news spreads that his father does not accept an easy vision of a perfect America but believes that the stories of workers and African Americans also need full play in tales of the development of the country, Pete is ostracized, since it is assumed that his father must be a Commie! Since all historical fiction is written both about a time in the past and for readers in the present, it seems to me that your novel is a powerful warning against assuming that any narrative about our country is simple and uncomplicated.

bk_go-between_160Avi:
One of my favorite notions about historical fiction is expressed in the opening lines of L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between. “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” I find that a fascinating idea because I don’t entirely agree with it. What I mean is, yes, the past is a different country, but they do not always do things differently there. I know, from what I’ve read of what you’ve written, you understand this. Our goal is to make the past meaningful to the present, right? To give it life. America has such a complex and fascinating history. But how little people know of it! How many great stories there are yet to tell!

Gary D. Schmidt:
Pete must deal with some hard truths: in the novel, he develops strong anger toward both his brother and his great-uncle, anger which does not get resolved in the narrative. At the same time, he comes to understand that his father lives a life that is larger and perhaps more noble and honorable than he had imagined. Is it fair to say that in one way, this novel is about the limits of knowledge—that we cannot truly know someone else completely?

Avi:
Pete’s father tells Pete: “Nothing is simple. Know that and you know half the world’s wisdom.” Oh, how I believe that! Bet you do, too. Somewhere I read, “Poor writing makes what you know simple. Good writing makes it complex.” Right?

Gary D. Schmidt:
Perhaps this is the hubris of the McCarthy era as well—the assumption that I have the right to know everything about someone else. I note this in the context of a world in which it seems to be the growing assumption that we do have the right to know what we want to know about another person—something that Pete’s father insists is not true at all.

Avi:
Hey! Privacy, the last frontier! It’s one of the most important things about book reading. It’s truly private. Far more so than even digital reading! The other day—in San Francisco—I passed a used book store. Out front was a box labeled “Free Books.” Think of it! No one would know if I picked up a book. Or read it. Or thought about it. Or what I thought. No one. And yet, and yet—and I know you believe this, too—nothing is more intimate than sharing thoughts. That said, one of the most powerful things a person can have—for good or ill—is a secret. As a kid I recall playing a game we called Secrets. The idea being that you and your friend each shared a real secret. A dangerous game, when you think about it.

You Never Heard of Willie Mays?Gary D. Schmidt:
Pete decides that he will be a Giants fan, going against Brooklyn’s fanatic loyalty to the Dodgers—who, we know, will one day betray that loyalty. I know this is, on one level, simply Pete’s desire to get back at the others around him for their hatred. But it also seems to me that Pete is asserting his right to be different—exactly what McCarthyists feared and prosecuted, and, perhaps, exactly what our own culture seems to fear: the person who does not buy into the current vision of the American dream: to acquire. This is not a message novel; it first does what E. M. Forster claims the writer must do: make the reader turn the page. But at the same time, you are making some powerful suggestions that warn against a too easy acceptance of the culture’s claims upon us.

Avi:
Being loyal to a false ideal can be very destructive. Being loyal to high ideal can be very dangerous. Pete’s shift from being a Brooklyn Dodger fan to a New York Giants fan is something that came right out of my life—and, yes, in 1951 when the Giants won the National Pennant just as I recount it in the book. It was my first step in becoming independent from my family. But when you become independent of your family—or your culture—you pay a price. More often than not you are rejected, told that you have abandoned them, whoever or whatever them might be. But being different, being independent, is liberating. In Catch You Later, Traitor, the word traitor becomes a code word for “being different.” In the story being different enriches Pete’s life. The story begins by his no longer being a kid. It ends by his becoming a kid again—but far deeper in experience. Hey, that’s why I dedicated the book to you. You’ve lived your life that way. Right?

Bookologist:
Thank you both for this interview. It opens many paths to explore and ideas to consider, but we expected no less from the two of you.

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Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl Dreaming

There is a silly debate taking place about whether adults who read children’s books, including young adult books, are infantile and should have their driver’s licenses revoked because they’re obviously not mature enough to play dodge ‘em cars on the freeway and text while their two thousand pound vehicle hurtles down the road. Grown up, […]

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Keystones of the Stone Arch Bridge

Keystones of the Stone Arch Bridge

In downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota, spanning the Mississippi River, there is a “Stone Arch Bridge” that resembles a roman viaduct with its 23 arches. Built at a time when Minneapolis was a primary grain-milling and wood-producing center for the United States, Empire Builder James J. Hill wanted the bridge built to help his railroad reach the […]

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bk_darlingdahlias.jpg

Behind the Books We’ve Loved: A Wilder Rose

Growing up, I loved to read mysteries, biographies, but especially series books. I didn’t read Nancy Drew or Anne of Green Gables (not until I was an adult), but I followed most every other series character. I read Cherry Ames, Sue Barton, Trixie Belden, Beany Malone, Janet Lennon, but especially Louisa May Alcott’s books, the […]

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