Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Author Interview: Skila Brown

by Cordelia Jensen

Today's interview is with Skila Brown, debut author. Her Middle Grade verse novel Caminar hit the shelves in March. It has received starred reviews from the Horn Book and School Library Journal. Here's a summary of the book:

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.

Thanks for joining us on the Big Blue Marble Bookstore blog, Skila! I just finished reading your beautiful book, Caminar. I had the privilege of reading an earlier version, which made the reading (and holding) of the final product that much more amazing. Your book has been receiving sensational reviews (no surprise), so, also, many congratulations on those.

Thank you for having me, Cordelia, and for those kind words. It’s an honor to be here!

What was your initial inspiration for this story? Tell us about how and where it began.

I’d spent ten years reading about the terrible violence in Guatemala, but I never had the intention of writing a story about it. I had several novels in draft form that I was writing, but nothing was really working. Shelley Tanaka, my writing mentor at the time, asked if there wasn’t something I cared more about. Wasn’t there some story I might have hidden away in my heart that I needed to put on the page instead? Turns out there was.

How did you make the decision for Carlos to be an only child? How did that seem integral to his journey?

I don’t remember ever considering a sibling for Carlos. In an earlier draft, he had a father who had been ‘disappeared’ by the Army, though I later whittled that away. I knew it was only Carlos and his mama in his family. I just had that feeling in my gut early on.

I really like the “animal spirit” theme in the book and how Carlos finds his own guide. It gives a sort of playful quality to the book which is, obviously, a serious book overall. Did you play around with a few animals before choosing one? Or was there always one?

It was always an owl. Long before I knew nahuales would make an appearance in the story, I had printed off a picture of an owl and taped it to my notebook. I thought of Carlos like the owl—always watching, perched in a tree, easy to pass over if you aren’t paying attention. It was only when he was literally in that tree and I knew he needed something to look at, something to focus on, that I realized it would be the owl.

Do you have an animal you feel spiritually connected to?

Jellyfish are my favorite animals on the planet. I could spend all day watching a jellyfish move through water. It’s mesmerizing and so calming.

My favorite part of your poetry style is the way you carve white space with your words. The shape of your poems so often reflect the imagery and/or content of the poem. Is this an energizing part of writing for you?

Yes! It’s so fun. I don’t think about shape when I’m drafting a poem; it’s only in revision that I start to play with space and stanza. And that’s always my favorite part.

What draws you to the verse novel form in general?

There’s no fluff in a verse novel. It’s potent, sparse language that cuts to the heart of the emotion without wasting words. I like that novels in verse are accessible to a wide range of readers. They can be a fast page-turner for the reluctant reader or a slow story to savor for someone else. They often leave things unsaid, making it digestible for a wide range of ages.

Anything else you would like us to know about this book?

I’ve had more than one person ask me if this story is really appropriate for a ten-year old child. The answer is a resounding yes. It’s about a tragedy, yes, but it’s also about growing up, facing fears, figuring out the right thing to do. The violence in the story happens off-screen and without graphic detail. I’d encourage teachers and parents to read this first, if they have doubts that a particular reader is ready for the story, but I think we need to give kids the credit they're due. They can handle more than we realize. And stories about survival can be a reassurance for a child reader.

Any other upcoming projects?

I have two books forthcoming with Candlewick—a second novel in verse out next year and a picture book collection of poetry about sharks out in 2016.

And now for our “3 for 3” book-related questions. What were 3 of your favorite books when you were a child/teen?

I was a huge fan of Shel Silverstein and read to my kids now from the dog-eared copy of A Light in the Attic that I had as a child. I read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret at least a dozen times as a kid. And I’m fairly certain I owned the entire Sweet Valley High collection. (I was Elizabeth – wishing I were Jessica.)

What are 3 books you have read recently that surprised you?

I am always surprised by books because I never read summaries or jacket flaps or even blurbs—I just open them up and dive right in, not knowing what to expect at all. Recently, I loved Amy Timberlake’s One Came Home. The tone of the story was such a surprise to me as it wasn’t what I expected from the cover. P.S. Be Eleven by Rita Williams-Garcia surprised me because it’s so rare to find a sequel even better than its predecessor. Finally, I’ll have to go with Two Boys Kissing. Just when I think David Levithan can’t get any more brilliant, he goes and writes another piece of spectacular.

What are 3 books that influence/d your writing?

Only three?! That seems incredibly unfair. The first three that pop into my head are: George Ella Lyon’s Where I’m From, Katherine Applegate’s Home of the Brave, and Encounter by Jane Yolen (illustrated by David Shannon.)

 Thanks, Skila!

Skila Brown holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She grew up in Kentucky and Tennessee, lived for a bit in Guatemala, and now resides with her family in Indiana. Caminar is her first novel. You can find her at www.skilabrown.com

Thanks for reading!!! If you're local to the area, please let the bookstore know if you would like to order a copy of Caminar. You can email orders to orders [at] bigbluemarblebooks [dot] com, call (215) 844-1870, or come see us at 551 Carpenter Lane, in the Mt. Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia.

Next up on 5/13: Jill Santopolo, author of the new Sparkle Spa series.


Jessica Lawson said...

Wonderful interview! It was very neat to hear the background on a book that I've read and adored and I love what Skila had to say about verse novels. She is so very talented!

Kristan said...

Hah, jellyfish ARE lovely -- right up until they sting you!

Great interview. Loved learning more about what led to such a lovely story. :)