Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Guest Interview: Mina Witteman on Talking Books, Ghosts, Writing & Teaching

By Angela Cerrito
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Mina Witteman is a published author, writing in Dutch and English. She has four adventurous middle grade novels, over 40 short stories, and a Little Golden Book out in the Netherlands.

The first volume of a middle grade series, Boreas and the Seven Seas, came out in June 2015. The second book is scheduled for early spring 2016.

Mina is the Regional Advisor for SCBWI The Netherlands and Chairman of the Working Group Children’s Books of the Dutch Authors Guild.

In addition, Mina is an accredited teacher creative writing and teaches writing to children and adults. She is a university-trained freelance editor and a mentor to budding writers.

For her English works, she is represented by Kathleen Rushall of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency. Follow her on Twitter @MinaWitteman.

You have two books released recently, Mia’s Nest, a Little Golden Book, and Boreas and the Seven Seas (Boreas en de zeven zeeën), about the adventures of twelve-year-old Boreas as he sails around the world. Let’s start with Mia’s Nest. What was the inspiration for this book?

Actually, the inspiration came from the illustrator, Angela Pelaez Vargas who was inspired to create illustrations based on her young daughter’s constantly tangled hair.

When she showed me the illustrations and mentioned that she was trying to work them into a story, I fell in love with both the illustrations and the story, also because my son’s nickname through primary school, which was Bird’s Nest, because of his abundant curly hair. I wrote the story and Angela added and changed some of the illustrations.

We were thrilled when the Dutch publisher Rubinstein decided to publish it as a Little Golden Book.

The title character’s name is very similar to yours. Is this picture book semi-autobiographical? 

No, it was inspired by Angela’s daughter and my son’s nickname, although I still vividly remember my mother trying to untangle my hair when I was young.

Now onto Boreas and the Seven Seas: newly released this is the first book in a series. What inspired you to write about Boreas?

My dad was a sailing aficionado, and my entire childhood stood in the sign of sailing. He taught me to sail before I could ride a bike, which says something, for in the Netherlands, most children are born with a bike attached to them.

We had a small boat near our home and my father took me and my siblings out on the water nearly every day.

What I liked, and what I still like, most about sailing is the wind in my face, the way it can clear your mind and give you a feeling of ultimate freedom.

My mother used to call me "Wind Child," and when I wasn’t sailing, I would try to recreate the feeling. On windy days, she knew if she couldn’t find me, to look on the roof. I would crawl out of the window in my bedroom and onto the roof and stand with the wind in my face.

So you love to sail and Boreas goes on a sailing adventure. Is this book semi-autobiographical?

The book itself is not, however there are a few adventures at sea that I have experienced, like getting caught in a storm. Also the impressions and sights, like Sark, a small beautiful island where Boreas ends up. I’ve been to these places and seen the sights and that helps a great deal in writing about them.

It feels good that Boreas and the Seven Seas receives raving reviews – the Dutch Libraries even made it Summer Reading Tip – and reviewers are unanimously praising the fact that reading the book is like you are actually experiencing what Boreas is experiencing and that you can feel the wind in your hair.

Without giving away any spoilers, what is the most unexpected adventure for Boreas in the book?

Mina sailing with her sister
Early on in the novel, the family is sailing through the night passing the English Channel and they crash into a wooden raft occupied by a young boy from Sudan. The boy is a refugee stranded in France trying desperately to get to the U.K. He is thrown from the raft but can’t swim.

Without thinking, Boreas jumps in the water and saves him. This is a turning point for Boreas and his understanding about his privileged situation compared to other children.

You write in both Dutch and English. What are the advantages of being so versatile?

I’m able to work on two projects, a Dutch and an English project, at the same time because I use different parts of my brain. Actually, I think having a more limited vocabulary in English than a native speaker is an advantage because it forces me to focus on the core of the story and prevents me from fluffing up the text.

You’ve mentioned on your blog your love of music, math and architecture. Do you incorporate this into your writing?

As a science girl, coming from a technically-minded family, structuring and building is infused into my life and thinking. I’m hooked on rule-based systems like math and computers. Architecture is incorporated in the way I set up a novel, and even when I teach – I’m also a teacher creative writing – I often use the design of a building as a metaphor for stories and the way you can set them up.

I always start a new story making an outline like an architect, with a sturdy foundation, a skeleton of strong walls and then fill those structures in with more details. The math comes in when it comes to balancing word count, chapters. I love Scrivener for this.

My fondness for math and science is often reflected in my characters who tend to be logical and mathematical in their thinking. In a YA novel I’m working on now, one of my protagonists is a science geek.

The same goes for music. There is always music somewhere in my books to provoke a certain reaction or emotion.

Not yet reviewed by Cynsations.
Some of your earlier novels, middle grade adventures, were written in Dutch and featured North American locations in the U.S. and Canada. What inspired these settings?

I’ve always been very interested in myths, legends, and stories, especially Native American stories. When I visited the U.S. and Canada, I learned so much more about the Native cultures. But when I returned to the Netherlands and looked in the Dutch libraries, I could only find stereotypical cowboy-and-Indian stories.

We needed to do better, I thought, otherwise, our children would grow up with a misrepresentation of entire cultures.

In addition to writing, you are also a writing instructor. Tell me about your experiences teaching writing to both to young writers and adults.

I enjoy giving children insight into how a story is built. It makes reading so much more fun. The biggest reward is encountering the student who says, “I don’t like reading. I don’t like writing. I don’t want to do this.” When this student “gets it” and starts writing, I couldn’t be happier.

When teaching adults, I like to give people the opportunity to hone their storytelling craft. I love helping people get their dreams realized and a few of my students are really close to being published now. I’m also mentoring someone who just signed his first contract, which is very exciting.

You are a fan of Writing Maps. How have you used these tools in your writing and teaching?

There are so many writing maps, there is really one for everyone. I randomly pick one each morning to get started writing. I typically use it as an exercise.

In a few instances, the result of the exercises end up in my novels, like little snippets I wrote with prompts from the Writing by the Sea map that ended up in Boreas and the Seven Seas.

As someone who loves to travel, what has been your favorite places to visit?

Mina at Tsé Bit’Aí
I love the empty vastness of Navajo Nation (located in the four corners of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah in the U.S.), especially Canyon de Chelly. To me, it is more impressive than the Grand Canyon. I love that you can walk or even drive for hours without anyone around, you can feel how the stories came to be, how they were inspired by the landscape and life.

There is this vast dessert with a cathedral like –or ship like- rock coming out of the earth. It’s often called "Shiprock," but the Navajo named it "Tsé Bit’Aí" or "the Rock with Wings," and it’s said to be the petrified remains of the bird that brought the Navajo people to safety.

Where is somewhere that you haven’t traveled to but would like to go?

New Zealand is at the top of my list. Also, I think it would be great to be on the international time line. It would be magical to be able to jump over the line and move through time.

Your first book, Dee Dee’s Revenge was set in a city much like your hometown of Vught. Do you plan to set more novels there?

No. This was my debut and that was me coming to terms with growing up in the southern part of the Netherlands, where life is easy going compared to Amsterdam, but also very small-town-ish and judgmental. Deedee’s Revenge was also a way for me to get even with my older brother.

My brother once locked me in a concrete sewage pipe on an assault course in a military restricted area. I couldn’t tell my parents what he’d done, because by doing so I would have to admit that I went into the restricted area, too. The book was my revenge.

So, it’s your first book that was semi-autobiographical! Tell us about your writing routine. Is it the same every day?

I meditate early in the morning. Then I make time for all of the business things related to my volunteer work for the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI) and the Dutch Authors Guild. Next I do a writing prompt and then I write or revise.

Since I’m also a freelance editor I understand the importance of and the process of revision and I commit a lot of time to revising my stories.

I heard that you’re working on a YA novel that is a ghost story. Did that involve a lot of research?

I didn’t have to do research because I see ghosts. They come to me.

For example, I was part of the SCBWI Nevada mentor program. Our group of mentors and mentees spent four days at a cultural center in an old mining town that was claimed to be haunted. I’ve learned that when people think a place is haunted, it usually isn’t.

However, in this case I was in the kitchen and I felt the strong presence of a refined young man just over my shoulder. I was assigned to sleep in room number 16, which was reported to be haunted with a very nasty ghost. But all the while I was there, I felt the presence of this other ghost instead. I believe his presence with me for those four days kept the other ghost away.

That is fascinating. Tell us more about the SCBWI mentorship program.

I was already published in the Netherlands and teaching writing when I entered, but many mentees are not. Mentor programs are amazing perks for SCBWI members, who want to move forward.

The program teaches mentees to take the profession of writing seriously. It pushes them from having a hobby to having a career. I think writing, especially writing for children, should be done well.

Children’s book stories are so important and they absolutely must be crafted well. A mentor program can help aspiring writers to take their craft to the next level. We are in the process of starting a program for SCBWI members in Europe.

Cynsational Notes

Angela Cerrito writes by night and is a pediatric therapist by day. Her debut novel,  The End of the Line (Holiday House, 2011), was named to VOYA’s top of the top shelf, a YALSA quick pick and a Winchester Fiction Honor Book.

More on Angela Cerrito
Her forthcoming novel The Safest Lie (Holiday House, Fall 2015) is based on her research in Warsaw Poland including interviewing Irena Sendler, a mastermind spy and member of the Polish resistance, who helped over 2,500 children escape the Warsaw ghetto.

Angela volunteers as SCBWI’s Assistant International Advisor and is the co-organizer of SCBWI events at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair.

Angela contributes news and interviews from the children's-YA creative, literature and publishing community in Europe and beyond.


Donna Weidner said...

Wonderful interview ladies! Educational and insightful!

lionel david said...

Great article liked the part of mentoring thats awrsome

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