Thursday, May 24, 2018

Author Interview: Eric Gansworth on Give Me Some Truth

Eric Gansworth signing Give Me Some Truth
at 2018 Texas Library Association conference.
By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Eric Gansworth is the YA author of Give Me Some Truth (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, May 29, 2018). From the promotional copy:

Carson Mastick is entering his senior year of high school and desperate to make his mark, on the reservation and off. 

A rock band — and winning the local Battle of the Bands, with its first prize of a trip to New York City — is his best shot. 

But things keep getting in the way. Small matters like the lack of an actual band, or the fact that his brother just got shot confronting the racist owner of a local restaurant. 

Maggi Bokoni has just moved back to the reservation from the city with her family. She's dying to stop making the same traditional artwork her family sells to tourists (conceptual stuff is cooler), stop feeling out of place in her new (old) home, and stop being treated like a child. 

She might like to fall in love for the first time too. 

Carson and Maggi — along with their friend Lewis — will navigate loud protests, even louder music, and first love in this stirring novel about coming together in a world defined by difference. 

This novel drew me immediately into the world and characters Eric crafted. So I had to know more about how his writing process.

Eric, I want to start with the title, taken from a Beatles song. It seems to dovetail perfectly with your characters’ experiences in the book. Explain how you landed on that. 

Thanks! I am obsessed with overarching structure and continuity within my fiction.

That said, writing novels is for me a strange and mysterious activity. The move from blank page to completed page is always unexpected, like entering someone else’s house invisibly and seeing their lives behind closed curtains.

I’m a strong believer in allowing new things to influence work in progress--serendipity, if you want to be fancy about it.

I have a superstition, though, and whatever file folder I create for a new book, I leave the original title on that.

If I Ever Get Out of Here (Arthur A. Levine, 2013) had a different, neutral title for most of its development before Paul McCartney became a central thematic force.

After that shift, it went through several possibilities. When the right title hit, I could never see another possibility.

I knew the second book would be Lennon themed, and initially it was called "We All Shine On."

It had very different themes, as you might guess with that title. Lewis and Marie were the protagonists, it had different plot developments, etc.

After three years of writing the wrong book, enough of the correct book had seeped into the narrative that I knew I had to start from scratch. Considering the more confrontational personalities of Carson and Maggi, "Give Me Some Truth" was a better fit.

In some ways, that command became the novel’s driving force.

I’d love to delve deeper into your process for creating such rich characters. There isn’t one in the book whose back story or motivations felt unknown to me. 

Did you begin the first novel envisioning these characters and their adolescence on the rez would carry beyond one book? Might we see Maggi or any of the other characters in a future work? 

Thank you. I may have answered part of this above. I decided early in my writing career that all of my characters would exist in the same fictional universe. I have an imaginary version of the reservation where I was raised, and I’ve given homes to characters that remain consistent.

I’m often surprised in the early stages of development, to see where the characters live. Their grounding on that imaginary map anchors part of their lives early on.

Eliot Schrefer and Eric Gansworth at YALLWEST,
photo by YALLWEST, used with permission.
Growing up, I did not have much access to a car, so I walked the Rez a lot, and you get to know a place really well when you experience it on such an intimate level.

When this novel was going to be about Lewis and Marie, I had a good sense of them, because I’d lived with them for several years.

I have a novel for adults done (but that needs revision) that has Carson as a major character, and its plot involves a long span, maybe twenty years, so I knew a lot about him. I was surprised when he wound up intruding into Lewis’s story, and then even more so here, where he eventually hijacked this novel, becoming a protagonist.

Maggi was a little harder to get to know. When I recognized the other protagonist couldn’t be Marie, I had to figure out what Maggi’s story was going to be. At the beginning, I knew she had to be 15 and feel very displaced everywhere she turned. She needed to be both jaded and naïve.

At 15, I felt strongly that I was already an adult and was eager to make adult decisions. The truth is, of course, that I wasn’t an adult at all, and made my own series of poor, or uninformed choices. I can not remember why I felt she needed a twin brother, and even asked myself in the first revision if Marvin needed to exist.

As I read it with an eye toward making the book shorter, I was surprised at the complex role he played as a harmony voice in their household. Even giving myself the permission to yank him and give the character his own novel at some point, I couldn’t see a way for him not to be there. To lose him would cause irreparable damage.

You are a visual artist. Your paintings are included in both of these novels. When you submitted the novel for consideration, did you include your artwork with the text or was that discussed later as a design element? Do you create the paintings while you’re writing or do those come to you at a different time in the creative process?

My book images come organically during development. I trust there is some other process operating that I’m not aware of.

While working on If I Ever Get Out of Here, I had a clear idea of what the paintings would look like. They’re satires of iconic Beatles/McCartney album covers, using the novel’s characters and situations for anchors.

I only realized after the novel was deep in production that a minor subplot involved Wacky Packages, (satirical trading card stickers popular when I was a kid). It turned out those paintings were more or less Wacky Package versions of those albums.

In this case, I knew the paintings would similarly be drawn from Beatles/Lennon album covers, but Wacky Packages were not a part of this story. I needed a different anchor.

Maggi is an inventive beadworker, in a traditional arts family. I’ve always loved this tension and know many beadwork artists who play with reinventing ideas and themes from popular culture. I thought it would be neat to re-cast those iconic images as if rendered in traditional materials: beadwork, soapstone, cornhusk dolls, and the like.

In a few cases, I retitled a section, because I wanted to use the image, so it’s very much an organic process.

What craft and career advice would you offer for beginning Native writers of young adult fiction?

Three things, really, feel important to me.
  • First: remember what your experiences feel like and give yourself permission to write about events that are complex.
I keep an open informal document for every book I work on, where I just talk to myself, asking questions, noting memories, speculating about ramifications of ideas. I do not edit this document, but I do date entries so I can keep track of how ideas evolve.

It’s not an exact process and there are gaps, for sure, but it’s been very helpful during development for the last four novels. Not every idea makes it to the book, and this document allows me to keep those decisions straight, as I finish revising and get ready for a new project.
  • Second: Don’t worry about what people will like.
I grew up in a very specific Indigenous culture, and the details of our lives are not necessarily resonant with others, even other Indigenous readers. I write about those meaningful cultural details, even if they don’t meet the expectations of others about Indigenous fiction.

Have faith that readers are coming to your work to see what you have to share, so don’t agonize about what you think someone might or might not want to publish. You can’t possibly know so worrying seems pointless, and I suspect some wonderful ideas get set aside because of this concern.
  • Third: writing involves talent but it also involves craft, and a lot of hard work.
Editorial feedback is real and is about making your story more accessible to an audience unfamiliar with your kinds of experiences. Often, beginning writers find this part of the process alienating and threatening, and express concerns about editorial feedback “contaminating the work.”

Editors are not supervillains rubbing their hands together, trying to make your life miserable. I’ve had occasion over the last couple of years to revisit some of my work that had been published with a very light editorial hand. I wish I could pull that work back and start over. It definitely would have benefited from a more rigorous editorial philosophy, and now I’m stuck with it out there in perpetuity.

What do you have coming out next that we can look forward to reading?

I’m working on the third book with these characters. You can read an early chapter published as a short story this summer in the lovely We Need Diverse Books anthology, Fresh Ink, edited by Lamar Giles (Crown, Aug. 14, 2018).

I have some poems and paintings coming out in POETRY this summer, some other poems in Heid Erdrich’s anthology New Poets of Native Nations (Graywolf, July 10, 2018), and a story in Kenyon Review this coming winter.

If you’re an audiobook sort, I recorded Carson’s half of the Give Me Some Truth audio, with Mohawk actress Brittany LeBorgne reading Maggi’s chapters, and I’ll be recording my story for the Fresh Ink audiobook too.

Well, Eric, I can say definitively that I’m eager to read the third book. And I’m happy to know that we’ll all get a preview this summer in the Fresh Ink anthology.

Cynsational Notes

Eric Gansworth Sˑha-weñ na-saeˀ (enrolled Onondaga, Eel Clan), a writer and visual artist from Tuscarora Nation, works at Canisius College.

His books also include:
Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children's-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac, will be published by Charlesbridge on Sept. 4, 2018. The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures.

In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.

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