Dance Party!

h1 October 8th, 2009 by jules

Jules: We’re here this morning with guest Adrienne Furness of What Adrienne Thinks About That to welcome authors Sara Lewis Holmes and Tanita S. Davis with some strong cyber-coffee before breakfast and Q&As about their new titles — Sara’s Operation Yes (Arthur A. Levine Books, September 2009) and Tanita’s Mare’s War (Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, June 2009). Sara’s novel is about a group of middle-school students on a North Carolina Air Force base and their inspiring teacher, Mrs. Loupe, who brings them together with improv theatre, only to find that Mrs. Loupe will need their support in turn after her brother is reported missing in Afghanistan. Tanita’s novel, told in alternating chapters, tells the present-day story of two girls on a road trip with their eccentric grandmother and the grandmother’s own tales of having joined the African American battalion of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) during World War II.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted about a novel—that didn’t have illustrations in it—but when two friends write really great books, you find yourself wanting to crow about them. Right, Adrienne?

Adrienne: Every once in a great while, when I am having a really bad day, I think about shutting down my blog and taking up something more practical, like plumbing. I sit down and I make a list of the pros (could save money) and cons (afraid of power tools) of this plan, but what always wins out and keeps me blogging is community—all these people I wouldn’t know, if not for blogging. Like you guys, Eisha and Jules, and also like our interviewees here today, Sara and Tanita, who both have relatively new books out that we just want to SHOUT about because that’s how excited we are for them. And it’s not just us.

Jules: Yup. Adrienne, when I read the Booklist review for Sara’s book, Operation Yes, and that reviewer’s statement that “the entire tale is purest stagecraft,” I think I did a quick “woo hoo!” And that’s because I thought the novel was so well put-together. I love the way, for instance, that Sara constructed Chapter 20, “I Don’t Know, But I’ve Been Told . . .” It almost left me breathless. Booklist also described the novel as a “buoyant example of ensemble work.” And to that I say word up, too.

Speaking of the ensemble, the way in which Sara was able to switch points-of-view so effortlessly impressed me, too. That could have been a disaster in the hands of a lesser author. It was expertly-crafted; I almost envision her working out this story and its dramatic action like a child setting out toy soldiers for play – setting up the scenes, getting the players ready for action, putting them in the correct spots. Plus, I love Mrs. Loupe; I loved finding all the instances of cracks in the tale (metaphorical and otherwise); and—Tuck Everlasting!—I love the way the librarian expresses her frustrations!

I’m still reading Tanita’s book, but I’m loving it so far. Since I’ve been talking about crafting a book here, I’ll add that I have been impressed with Tanita’s ability to shift back-and-forth in time (present-day and then Mare’s experiences and then back again), what Kirkus called the “masterfully managed” parallel travel narratives. Again, if Tanita were a clunky author, that could have been a big mess. But, well now…she isn’t at all. Lucky for us readers. (And I saw yesterday at her blog that she’s Snoopy-dancin’, because the book has been nominated and is under consideration for the ALA Best Books for Young Adults 2010 list. Congratulations, Tanita!)

Eisha: Tanita handles the two narratives with aplomb, and they’re both compelling: well-stocked with meticulous detail and engaging characters. I was particularly fascinated by Mare’s story of being a young African American woman in the armed forces during World War II. It’s a side of history I knew absolutely NOTHING about, and I really appreciated the obvious care Tanita took with her research. Plus, hel-LO, Mare is a heckuva great heroine. Flawed, sure; but also smart, strong, and resourceful, and softened by the care and affection she shows her sister.

Adrienne: Both these books brought me into worlds I knew nothing about. Like Eisha, I found a whole piece of history I knew nothing about in Mare’s War, and I found Sara’s depiction of daily life on a military base equally fascinating. They’re both kind of a kick in the pants, too. Even thinking about Mare makes me feel like I should probably get up and do SOMETHING. (Here’s Mare: “What I know is this: God will surely help you, but you also got to help your own self.” Amen to that.) In Operation Yes, the message at the beginning “To Those Who Just Arrived” is one of those things I like to read on a bad day (“This is a Work In Progress. Like me. Like you. We are all capital W… capital I…capital P.”).

Jules: Well, let’s get to their Q&As, shall we? Since we initially wanted to have them over for a dance party, we figured we’d start by asking them about that:

* * * * * * *

7-Imp & Adrienne: What is your favorite dance move (though we know you’re already Snoopy-dancing, Tanita)?

Tanita: Ah, the USO Dance Party! I love a man in uniform, woot!

Here’s a sad fact: I was raised amongst the non-dancing branches of Christianity, so I can’t really dance and have only been to a dance venue twice in my life (and one of those times is walking across the dance grotto thingy at Disneyland). However! I have taken numerous ballroom and swing classes, in a vain attempt to learn, and can fake-dance with the best of them. I shall demonstrate The Swim for you now.

…stop laughing. No, I mean it. Stop it. I am TOO doing it right…


Sara: I’m one of those embarrassing free-form dancers. I just shake it how I feel it. As a teenager, I also did interpretive leaps and twirls in my family’s rec room to the plaintive sounds of Carole King albums. If that tidbit doesn’t endear my geeky teen self to you, I don’t know what will.

7-Imp & Adrienne: This was the second novel for both of you. Tell us a bit about what it was like to write that sophomore title. Did the high praise and positive reviews you received for your first efforts make it easier or harder the second time around?

Sara: Every book has its own path, and the sooner I realize that for each project, the better it goes for me. For one thing, Letters From Rapunzel has a very intimate first-person point of view. For Operation Yes, I wanted to write about a whole community and how they came together to do something amazing. So, I had to learn how to juggle multiple characters and a more omniscient viewpoint. The only thing easier was knowing that somehow, some way, by magic or miracle, I had managed to write a novel before, and I could therefore do it again.

Tanita: This was, technically, the easier title to write, because it was a revised version of my MFA thesis. That being said, I had to cut about sixty pages and add about a hundred and twenty to the manuscript, so it only appeared to be less work! Structurally, the second novel is a much better work, but no, it wasn’t any easier. Every time you pull the allegorical rabbit from the chapeau, you wonder if you can do it again. Or, at least *I* do.

7-Imp & Adrienne: Tanita, will you tell us a little bit about the family history that inspired you to write Mare’s War?

Tanita: In writing my original dissertation, I was concerned with the family-ties aspect of things. I was writing backwards from myself, trying to understand the reasons I did things, the reasons for the somewhat surreal interactions I had with certain family members, and so I started researching my grandparents to see why they were who they were. (The short version of that? My grandmother was Not A Nice Person. And I wanted to know why she was so evil. So, like anyone who has done a single quarter of freshman psychology, I did some delving into her past. It’s a darned good thing I’m a better researcher than an amateur psychologist.) An innocent question disclosed the information that my grandmother had run away from home and joined the military, and I wondered what branch would have taken her in the ’40s. Just that one little question opened up a whole world.

7-Imp & Adrienne: Sara, your husband is an air force pilot and your children, “military children.” Did you use some of your own personal family experiences in this novel?

Sara: Of course! I stole everything I could. My son actually did play “cross-country golf” on base, like Bo does with Trey; my daughter taught me how to make paper stars like Gari does; I’ve watched planes drop into landing patterns above runways all across the country. I’ve sold drinks at an airshow, my husband adores the antics of the real Flying Farmer, and there’s a “Remove Before Flight” bright red tag on several sets of keys in our house.

On the other hand, even though I dedicated the book to both my children, the characters in Operation Yes are wholly the product of my imagination, created to live in this particular story. (Although I did throw in some last names of military families I knew as a little shout-out.)

7-Imp & Adrienne: Tanita, Mare’s War is a fascinating glimpse into a group whose story has rarely been told: African American women who joined the armed services during World War II. Please tell us about the research process behind this book. Was it hard to track down the information you needed to recreate their day-to-day lives on the base?

Tanita: One of the things that was emphasized in the books I read for research was the eternal sameness of things in the military. Same outfit, same schedule. Same time for revelry. Same commands for marching, same routine for mail call. Same everything. The military is all about rhythm and routine – aka discipline. The Army wanted to treat the women the same as the men—which didn’t always work—and the African American women the same as the Caucasian women. For my research, I read both accounts of Caucasian WACs as well as accounts of what life was like for the men. Together with the few recorded stories I found from African American women, I think I was able to piece together a fairly realistic look at general Army grunt life. The magic of fiction is improvisation.

7-Imp & Adrienne: Sara, tell us about your research for Operation Yes. I (Jules, that is) remember reading at your blog that you did lots of improv-theatre research. And did you ever have your own Ms. Loupe (as a teacher or otherwise), someone whose thinking-outside-of-the-box and whose joy inspired you?

Sara: I’m not sure I would say I did lots of improv research—more that I read some books from The Second City Improv group, quizzed my yoga teacher who also happens to coach theater at a local school, went to a middle school Theater Games night, and drew heavily upon the memories of the fun I had in acting class in high school. Oh, and I fell down over and over to see what it felt like.

I had several inspiring teachers growing up. My high school acting teacher for one—Ms. Linda Lyle, who allowed me to act, direct and stage manage—and take Shakespeare to the state theater competition. {Ed. Note: See this post from Tuesday of this week over at Sara’s blog.} Also, my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Scarborough, who loved math and challenged us to excel every day. Also, both of my kids had exceptional fifth grade teachers, Mrs. Bauer and Mr. Davis. The former was an ex-Air Force officer who ran an exuberant classroom that I visited as often as I could. (I once read them the opening chapter of Holes with a shovel in my hand.) The latter allowed his students to run their own businesses in classes and earn dollars for them; he also made a magnificent costumed server at the medieval feast late in the school year, and my son delighted in wiping his greasy chicken hands on his teacher’s proffered apron.

7-Imp & Adrienne: Tanita, what was the most surprising thing you learned while writing Mare’s War?

Tanita: The surprise was really twofold: One, I was surprised that there had BEEN African American women in the European Theater at all, since that’s just not a part of history you learn even in college (at least not at my school, and the WWII geeks I talked to—all grown men—doubted that I was telling the truth when I mentioned it to them). And, two, that they had been so ashamed that the country and everyone else was willing to forget them.

I mean, come ON. There were movies made which include the Caucasian WACs, and sure, they were silly fluff films, and made them look ridiculous and girly in order to defuse the tensions of an America who wasn’t sure they wanted to see their dames as something other than defenseless and dizzy, but Life magazine followed the African American WACs around and took pictures of them. People knew they existed, but they were perfectly happy to forget and to preserve the peaches-and-cream Rosie the Riveter image — and never mind the Asian women who served or the Native or Alaskan women who were out there. The story of the Womens’s Army Corps was prettied up and whitewashed and everyone colluded in it, to forget all the work and sacrifices those women made, all the times they were afraid and got bombed and faced people believing they had tails and/or were nymphomaniacal whores. I found that freaking unbelievable.

7-Imp & Adrienne: Sara, tell us about the creation of your Operation Yes web site. Didn’t you create it yourself, by hand?

Sara: Well, if “by hand” you mean “with the magic of Apple’s iWeb software,” then yes. Geeking out by solving technical/creative puzzles is one of my favorite ways to procrastinate. . . er . . . . relax and promote my work. I wanted to make a fun site where teachers and kids who’ve read the book could come to find out more and perhaps participate by sharing their own amazing projects. I’ve invited readers to bring me or send me pictures of themselves with a little green army man or holding Operation Yes. For each one that joins in, I’m going to donate a dollar to MusiCorps, a program that helps wounded warriors learn or continue to play music.

7-Imp & Adrienne: Tanita, have you ever taken a road trip like the one Mare, Octavia, and Tali take in the book? I {Adrienne, that is} am especially interested to know if you’ve visited Houston — that chapter was particularly vivid and memorable.

Tanita: Oh, my GOSH, have I taken road trips. EVERY. SINGLE. FREAKIN’. YEAR. My parents would drag us into the car – one year a VW van, another year our Chevy Caprice Classic station wagon – and the years following that were minivan years – and we would drive cross country. Now, it never took us more than three days, coast-to-coast. My father did not believe in peeing. My father did not believe in sleep. My father did not believe in stopping to smell the roses, look at the monuments or send post cards. We drove. And limited our fluid intake. Tali and Tavi’s trip is part imagination, part reality. I wished we could have taken all of those exits to World’s Largest Rosebush, and I dearly wished we could have stayed in hotels. I’m definitely a Journey Is Part of the Destination type of person; I love the trip, too.

Incidentally: I’ve never been to Houston for more than enough time to get hopelessly stuck in their @)#!*$*%&* airport, trying to get a kid in a wheelchair across what must have been six miles of terminals (and being told that wheelchairs and strollers—as if they’re the same thing !!!—aren’t allowed in their stupid passenger trains). Because of their brickheadedness, I and my sister missed our flight and had to layover for an additional four hours in the Airport from Hell. So, I kind of hate Houston. But my T-San (Southerism for “Auntie”) lives there, so I kind of forgive them. Mostly.

7-Imp & Adrienne: Sara, when the librarian in Operation Yes is frustrated, she “curses,” so to speak, with book titles: “Rhyme and Reason!” “Tuck Everlasting!” How fun was it to come up with those creative book-exclamations?

Sara: It was liking popping pure sugar pills. A clean literary high. I’m kind of hoping people will send me their own favorite book “curses.”

{Ed. Note: Jules proposes “Nutshell Library!”}

7-Imp & Adrienne: Sara & Tanita, what’s next for both of you?

Tanita: It was actually scarier to get started again AFTER Mare’s War than before… it took me a bit of wittering on nervously, but I finally finished a novel about a girl whose mother has moved them from the city to the ‘burbs so she can marry a geeky contractor she met on vacation. Joi wants to just be a normal high school student and land a boyfriend and be someone other than The Crip Girl at her school. (She has spina bifida, like my little sister.) We don’t always get what we want, but sometimes what we get is better. So, there’s that.

I’m working on finishing my current WIP, a contemporary novel, this summer, and will then move into researching my next historical fiction novel, which spans Italy and Africa and will have a sprinkle of magical realism. I’m enjoying it.

Sara: I’m working with Cheryl Klein at Arthur A. Levine Books on my second manuscript for her. This one will be for older readers, something very different, a time slip/slightly fantastical/poetical/love story called Hollow that seeks to answer the question, “what is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?” (Stephen Hawking)

* * * * * * *

Many thanks to Sara and Tanita for dance-partying with us.

If you want more information, Sara visited 7-Imp in January 2008 for an interview, and Tanita visited in ’07.

16 comments to “Dance Party!”

  1. “Oh, and I fell down over and over to see what it felt like.”

    It’s probably wrong to be as amused as I am by that line.

    When I did this interview, I hadn’t yet read Sara’s book – and now it makes me laugh that I said that the magic of fiction is improvisation. But really — IT IS! And I’m deeply excited about Sara’s next book already. Wow – Timeslip, poetry, magic and Stephen Hawking!?? –I am so there.

    It’s been fun doing this pas de deux… quartre? — with y’all. Thanks for inviting me to the dance.

  2. Go ahead and be amused, Tanita, be verrrry amused.

    Because I’m betting you MARCHED for miles in your hallway, had pretend mail call, did push-ups, ate chow hall food—whatever it took to make Mare seem as to-the-bone real as she was. I was riveted to your book—in awe of Mare’s kick-butt determination—and so mad that no one had ever told this crazy-brave story of the African American WACs before.

    Thank you, Jules and Adrienne for the dance party! Both of you (and Tanita) are most definitely on the Pro side of my “why keep blogging/writing/living/laughing/hoping” list.

  3. What a wonderful way to start the day. I’m in awe of both Sara and Tanita and their storytelling powers. I hope they keep at this for a long, long time.

    Thanks for shining on spotlight on two of my favorite blogging writers and friends.

  4. I agree with Tricia; this is such a great way to start the day. Thanks, all of you.

  5. Yeah, I like all the parralels here, Tanita, especially “the magic of theatre is improvisation.” Somehow I knew you weren’t even trying to make that sound so fitting, but it is. You both were just meant to be in a post together.

  6. what a dynamic duel interview (almost said dynamic duo!). and fun that it’s thematic as well. you guys, all four of you, rawk.

  7. I wish we could all have a *real* dance party. Someday, maybe.

  8. Oh.My.Goodness.
    This whole inteview is like popping pure sugar pills. I am on my knees at your feet, Sara and Tanita, because you are both so smart and thoughtful and big-hearted and funny and MAN we are lucky that you guys write…
    (And Jules and Adrienne? You guys asked The Perfect Questions.)

  9. Thank you, everybody! What a thought provoking interview. Except maybe Sara’s last sentence re her work in process inspired by Stephen Hawking turned thought-provoking into thought-spinning. How cool. Can’t wait for that one!

  10. Thanks, all. Nice to hear the story behind the fabulous story, Sara (and btw, we may have been jumping around to Carol King at the same moment)! And now I have to get my hands on Tanita’s book -sounds fascinating.

  11. WOW! What amazing women all four of you are — I’m proud to be in your company. I will be ordering both books, and bragging to everyone about how I kinda sorta “know” these two amazing authors from kicking together on 7-imp. Thanks for the inspiring post, and much continued success to Tanita and Sara!

  12. Talk about fantastic! You guys are all awesome (and I’d love to be at that dance party with you!). Great interview.

  13. Hollow is a great title and what a fabulous interview!

  14. Ooohhh, a dance party at 7-Imp. *does some breakdancing moves*

    I can’t wait to read these two books!!

  15. I’m late to the party, but it’s still LOTS of fun! You go, girls!!!

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