Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Author Interview: Uma Krishnaswami on the Creative Life, Teaching Writing & Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Today we welcome author Uma Krishnaswami to discuss her new MG historical novel, Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh (Lee & Low, May 2017). From the promotional copy:

Nine-year-old Maria Singh longs to play softball in the first-ever girls’ team forming in Yuba City, California. It’s the spring of 1945, and World War II is dragging on. Miss Newman, Maria’s teacher, is inspired by Babe Ruth and the All-American Girls’ League to start a girls’ softball team at their school.

Meanwhile, Maria’s parents—Papi from India and Mamá from Mexico—can no longer protect their children from prejudice and from the discriminatory laws of the land. When the family is on the brink of losing their farm, Maria must decide if she has what it takes to step up and find her voice in an unfair world.

What inspired you to write Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh?

The history itself. I can’t help myself—little-known historical nuggets of information are irresistible to me.

About 15 years ago, I came across a documentary called Roots in the Sand by filmmaker Jayasri Majumdar Hart about this community of families in California in the 20s and beyond, in which the men were from India and the women from Mexico.

They were brought together by a perfect intersection of discriminatory laws that forbade Asians to own land, forbade people of different races to marry, and denied citizenship to people from India. And from all these incredible challenges they made a world of hope and optimism and survival. It’s a peculiarly American story. 

Once immigration from India opened up, the descendants mostly blended back into the Mexican American communities of California, but many retained a nostalgic memory of those fathers and grandfathers from India. I was totally hooked but it took me many, many tries before I could figure out how I should write this history in a way that made sense to kids.

What do you love most about the creative life/being an author? Why?

I don’t think of myself as an author. That title, after all, depends on whether someone else thinks what I write has potential or marketability or whatever. 

But writing. That’s different. I am a writer. I love having an idea zing into my mind. I love the energy of a first draft, even when I know that at some point I’m going to be beating my head against it, trying to shape it into something that a reader could care about. 

I love how I can become enthralled by a story enough to keep returning to it, sometimes for years. And the thing I love best is when a work falls into place, especially after several revisions when it has felt opaque and I have felt dense and inept. Then suddenly, often overnight—as if dreaming has helped this happen—it’s all there and I can’t wait to do the work that has been revealed to me.

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

I have an office room looking out into my back yard, with a forest beyond the fence, so when I need a visual break I can see green trees. 

I can step out and walk there if I want to. But just so I don’t do that too often, I have a treadmill desk. I set it on slow when I’m writing and it keeps me on track. 

I used to write early in the morning but now I break it up—a couple of hours in the morning, a couple more in the afternoon. About four hours a day when I’m working on a project. During teaching weeks, I don’t do any of my own writing.

How does teaching inform your own writing?

It keeps me honest. I often find myself pointing out things in students’ work, then returning to my own and seeing those very problems staring me in the face. 

Why is it I couldn’t see them before? I think the way it works is this. Story (for me anyway) can often begin as something static—a snapshot, a little description, a place, a lone character, or a single idea. But the words I use to try and get at that story become prisms. They can reveal unexpected flashes of light and color. They can sparkle and create rainbows. But I can’t see that when I first use them. 

In a draft, I’m still chasing a mirage. Before I began teaching I’d often get stuck at that stage, and I left a lot of half-finished projects scattered behind me. 

Teaching forces me to put my own work away. Then when I return to that draft and hold it up at different angles, the light begins to burst through.

What are you working on next?

I’m currently juggling two nonfiction picture books with science themes and a middle grade historical nonfiction book. 

I think every book teaches you how to write that book and no other, so I feel like I’m learning all over again. 

Cynsational Notes

Kirkus Reviews called Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh, "A loving look at a slice of American life new to children’s books" and "filled with heart, this tale brings to life outspoken and determined Maria, her love for baseball, and her multicultural community and their challenges and triumphs."  

Uma Krishnaswami is the author of more than twenty books for young readers, including Book Uncle and Me, illustrated by Julianna Swaney (Groundwood Books, 2016) selected as one of the best children's books of 2016 by Kirkus Reviews, NPR Book Concierge's Guide and USBBY Outstanding International Books List.

She teaches in the low-residency MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Born in New Delhi, India, Uma now lives and writes in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. 

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