Tuesday, April 08, 2014

New Voice: Skila Brown on Caminar

Teacher's Guide
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Skila Brown is the first-time author of Caminar (Candlewick, 2014). From the promotional copy:


Set in 1981 Guatemala, a lyrical debut novel tells the powerful tale of a boy who must decide what it means to be a man during a time of war.

Carlos knows that when the soldiers arrive with warnings about the Communist rebels, it is time to be a man and defend the village, keep everyone safe. But Mama tells him not yet — he’s still her quiet moonfaced boy. 

The soldiers laugh at the villagers, and before they move on, a neighbor is found dangling from a tree, a sign on his neck: Communist. 

Mama tells Carlos to run and hide, then try to find her. . . . 

Numb and alone, he must join a band of guerillas as they trek to the top of the mountain where Carlos’s abuela lives. Will he be in time, and brave enough, to warn them about the soldiers? What will he do then? 

A novel in verse inspired by actual events during Guatemala’s civil war, Caminar is the moving story of a boy who loses nearly everything before discovering who he really is.

When and where do you write? Why does that time and space work for you?

a mountain in Guatemala, much like the one Carlos must climb
I think I’m like a lot of people in that I write best without interruptions, with a beautiful view, a clear head, a well-rested and well-fed brain, in a comfortable chair, and whenever the muse visits me.

But if I waited for all that to happen, I’d never finish a book. I’d frankly never even start one.

Most writers wear a lot of different hats, juggling a lot of different lives, especially when we’re new writers.

The biggest hat I wear is Mom. I have three kids who are home with me all day, every day, as we’re a homeschooling family. So the answer to this question is: I write whenever I can. And sometimes when I really can’t.

I take advantage of the waiting moments, like music lessons and swim practice, and I hide over in the corner with my notebook or laptop, writing, instead of socializing with other parents or playing games on my phone. I write early in the morning and sometimes late at night. I write after lunch, when I force the kids into an hour of quiet. I stay home and write instead of attending all kinds of events like parties and concerts and whatever else goes on around me.

First draft, written out of order & by hand
I believe firmly that no one is going to give me time and space to write. I have to take it. I also believe I have to keep that in check and constantly remind myself that I’m more than just a writer. That I need to step away from the notepad or computer and turn that part of me off for periods of time.

What works best for me is a few hours a week that are carved out for writing, and anything else is a bonus.

But there are a lot more bonus opportunities out there than we realize. I think about my novels while I’m driving, in the shower, cooking, and falling asleep. I work out a lot of issues during this time that frees me up in my official writing hours.

I also write best by hand. My first drafts are better when I jot them out by hand. It takes longer and that’s a good thing. I’m more careful with my words.

I like to write with pencil, in a variety of notebooks, journals, even scrap pieces of paper. I write out of order, which is frustrating at times, but seems to work best for so I’m trying to embrace it.

Figuring out our writing process is so important, isn’t it? And it takes a few years to really see how and what brings out our best writing.

As a historical fiction writer, what drew you first--character, concept, or historical period? In whichever case, how did you go about building your world and integrating it into the story? What were the special challenges? Where did you turn for inspiration or support?

I was first drawn into the period of time and the events that were happening in Guatemala around this time. I’d been reading and learning about Guatemala’s history, and specifically the way the United States impacted that, and it was all troubling to say the least.

I read about villages that were massacred and how a few people, some children, would escape such an event and what their escape would be like. I started to imagine the story of a child who survives. What he must do, how he might feel, where he might go.

During the time that I was writing I continued doing research, reading a lot of journals and interview excerpts from people who lived in the middle of this violence. I watched documentaries. I sought out the help of friends who are a part of this culture. I felt challenged to make sure what I was saying was as authentic and accurate as it could be. I was very much aware of the fact that I was an outsider to this time and place, and that I had an important task to tell the story and to tell it right.

Tim Wynne-Jones, Katherine & Shelley at VCFA
Shelley Tanaka, an editor, author and writing teacher, was inspirational to me in overcoming my angst about writing outside my culture.

She said to me that my worries about this would help me to be as diligent as I could to tell the story with respect and care.

I had the good fortune to be in a writing workshop in which Katherine Paterson was a guest speaker. Someone asked her, “You’ve written outside of your culture a lot. How do you come to terms with the fact that you’re an outsider, and that maybe you shouldn’t be writing about a culture that isn’t yours?”

Her answer was both humbling and reassuring because she made it clear that this is something she struggles with, too. I listened to her talk about this and realized the only hope for tackling this myself was to do it with humility. And that’s just what I’ve tried to do.

I recognize that it won’t be a perfect portrayal of what happened then and why. I see my own limitations as an outsider. But I also feel the story—the sadness and the hope—is an important one, and one that needs to be told.

At the end of the day, I hope I’ve done it in the most respectful manner I can.

1 comment:

LinWash said...

Love this: “I listened to [Katherine] talk about this and realized the only hope for tackling this myself was to do it with humility. And that’s just what I’ve tried to do. I recognize that it won’t be a perfect portrayal of what happened then. and why. I see my own limitations as an outsider. But I also feel the story—the sadness and the hope—is an important one, and one that needs to be told.” That’s awesome, Skila!

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