Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Author Interview: J.L. Powers

by Cordelia Jensen

Your newest book is a picture book, though you’ve written three young adult novels (one of which I'll ask about later in the interview). Can you tell us a bit about how the writing process felt different for Colors of the Wind?

You know, every book is different. I’ve never had a “same” experience with any of them. I never would have written The Confessional, my first YA novel, if I hadn’t taught at an all-boys Catholic high school. This Thing Called the Future required the time I spent earning two master’s degrees in African history and taking 3 years of Zulu language lessons. But writing an expansive, sprawling novel (if 60,000 words can be called expansive or sprawling) requires many more layers and levels and plot twists than a picture book of a less than a thousand words. For this picture book, I had to distill the story of a person’s life down to its essence. What really matters? What doesn’t? And how to say it in compelling words that are also partly lyrical, easily readable?

Because this is also non-fiction, instead of fiction, I had less leeway. I had to figure out how to characterize “George” while, at the same time, sticking to the facts.

Colors of the Wind is an amazing (and true!) story. Was Colors of the Wind your own idea or did you meet George Mendoza in another context, which led to the idea?

I used to write articles about and do interviews with artists along the U.S-Mexico border for Revista Tradicion, a New Mexico based publication. The editor asked me to write an article about George, a blind artist who, ironically, paints what he sees. I met George and was astonished. He’s blind and what that means for him is that objects are multiplied and reflected back, like a kaleidoscope; and also, he sees things that aren’t really there—eyes floating in the air, suns, etc. So he really does paint what he sees—and the end results are jaw-dropping stunning.

George asked me to consider doing a glossy art book with him. We spent considerable time together talking about his paintings and his life as a result. Over time, I realized that his story would make a great picture book. This was actually a long time ago. I think I wrote it first in 2004 or 2005, maybe? In any case, it was a long long time ago.

George is convinced I never told him that I was doing this, that one day I just sent him an email saying, “Here’s the picture book.” Whether that’s how it happened or not, thankfully, he loved the idea and here we are.

Did you help George choose which of his paintings to use in the book?

Our editor at Purple House Press, Jill, designed the book and chose the paintings, although she did ask for my input. George didn’t choose any of the paintings. Because he’s blind, he actually can’t see his own paintings unless he gets up really really close—and then he can only see part of the painting, not the whole—so he just sent Jill a lot of photos of his artwork and she selected the ones she felt would best work for each page. She did an amazing job. And as you’ll see, she included small pictures of paintings at the end that she loved but couldn’t include.

Are you a visual artist yourself?

I do like to take photographs and, through sheer luck and intuition—certainly not because of training, I’ve shot some interesting pictures over the years, usually of people rather than things or landscapes. I feel like my visual intelligence is very low. Maybe that’s why I’m so interested in what artists do.

This Thing Called the Future is a captivating book. I read it in about two days. One of the most interesting parts about it is Khosi’s struggle between traditional South African medicine and healing practices and Western medicine. I love how her strong belief in both worlds is present from the beginning of the book and come to shape the crux of the novel. How much did you know personally about this struggle in South African belief systems before writing the book?

I knew quite a bit, actually. I have two master’s degrees in African history and have spent a lot of time traveling throughout South Africa. I became really interested in healing and ideas about healing, as well as the problem of the HIV-AIDS epidemic, and I wanted to see how “traditional” medicine had absorbed the biomedical understanding of the disease and its treatment, as well as how ordinary Africans dealt with the clash between the two cultural systems and what kind of hybrid cultures are emerging as a result, all over the continent.

In South Africa, generally speaking, many people choose to visit traditional healers first before they’ll go to a medical doctor. This is partly cultural—because people feel more comfortable with their own culture’s healing traditions—but it’s also more convenient. There are approximately 300,000 traditional healers and only 42,000 doctors—in a country with 4.5 million people. For people living in rural areas, hospitals and clinics may be many hours away but the healer lives just down the street. So naturally, traditional healers are more convenient. Although there has historically been real enmity between medical doctors and traditional healers, many people on both sides have overcome that distrust in order to combat the AIDS epidemic—together. I find that a very interesting trend.

By the way, I think it’s important to note that cultural systems along with traditional medical systems are constantly changing so it’s a bit of a misnomer to use the word “traditional” for traditional healers—as though the things they do now are the same they’ve always done. By contrast, traditional healers are always changing their methods as they learn what works and what doesn’t. Nevertheless, “traditional” is the best word we’ve got so for the time being, it’s the one we use.

Has This Thing Called the Future reached a South African teen audience?

South African publishing and book distribution are really separate from the U.S.’s system so it’s not available cheaply and widely in South Africa though people can find it if they really look. In 2013, I took my family to South Africa and I was able to visit two schools and read from the book as well as talk about my life as a writer. One of those schools is an old, established elite all-girls school in Johannesburg—formerly an all-white school, but now integrated. The other was a “container” school in Cosmo City—classes were held in “containers,” those box-structures frequently lacking windows—where many of the students live in nearby squatter communities. I was received with real interest in both schools but I was struck that the girls in the poorer school were most interested in whether I am a poet, not so much the novelist, and some of the girls got up to recite their own poetry—to standing ovations. In fact, and I have to appreciate this, they got a better reception for their poetry than I did for my book or talk. Next time, I’ll come armed with poetry.

The language in the novel is often breathtaking, like “my emotions are a nest of troubled snakes, slithering and sliding around in my stomach.” As a reader, I felt completely present and taken into Khosi’s world even though in many ways it is vastly different from my own. In your image construction for this novel, did you try and use images you felt were specific to this world or ones any reader could relate to?

I definitely tried to use images that were specific to Khosi’s world. Snakes are really important in Zulu cosmology. A snake that appears before you might be an ancestor trying to get your attention, for example, so the imagery has a great deal of symbolic meaning as well as being an image people can pick up on. But of course, I also wanted my book to be completely accessible to American audiences, so a) I don’t explain the symbolic meaning in the text and b) I tried to choose ways to saying things that would be meaningful to Americans as well.

When you set about to write this book was the devastating impact of AIDS on African people always going to be a major part of the book? Was that what first inspired you to write it? Or did that part come from wanting to write about a girl like Khosi?

When I first went to South Africa in 2006, I was struck by the AIDS statistics, which are worse in KwaZulu-Natal (where Khosi lives) than anywhere else in the country. But I didn’t know I was going to write this book when I went there—I went as part of my graduate program in African History at Stanford University. I lived with a Zulu family and the two teen girls in that family inspired this story. Indeed, one of the girls was named Khosi Zulu, just like my character, and her personality provided me with the beginnings of my own character. I was very worried about those girls growing up in a place where older men see young girls as fair game, and where the majority of girls report their first sexual experiences as violent ones. The two teenagers in the family I lived with were such sweet, innocent girls—and I wasn’t sure if it was possible for them to retain that innocence for very much longer. So I wrote this story.

Can you tell us about any upcoming projects?

I’m working on a fantasy trilogy, co-authored with my brother Matt, also YA. It deals with death but it’s also very humorous.

Although it’s only in the thinking stage, I also plan to write (very soon) a sequel for This Thing Called the Future.

Anything else you would like us to know about these two books or your other books?

I try to write books that matter but are also entertaining. I hope people fall in love with the characters and also enjoy the story, but I also want my books to make people think and to question the status quo.

And now for our “3 for 3” book-related questions:

1.     What were 3 of your favorite books as a child/teen? I loved Anne of Green Gables and related books by L.M. Montgomery; the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder; and the Austin family series by Madeleine L’Engle, in particular A Ring of Endless Light.

2.     What are 3 books you’ve read recently that surprised you? I really enjoyed Jandy Nelson’s second young adult novel I’ll Give You the Sun, which just came out. The language in it really surprised me—extremely poetic, full of wonderful images. I also recently read Little Liberia by Jonny Steinberg. I’m a big fan of Steinberg’s books, but what really surprised me was that my 3½-year-old son wanted me to read that book to him. He was taken by these two stories of two Liberian men who found themselves battling each other in the United States. I also recently fell in love with a picture book, Morris Mickelthwaite and the Tangerine Dress—a beautiful picture book about a little boy who loves a tangerine dress because it reminds him of tigers, sunsets, and his mother’s hair, and how he overcomes the prejudice of the other children in his class in order to keep wearing the dress he loves.

3.     What are 3 books that influence(d) your writing? That’s a hard question to answer because, as a writer, every book I ever read influences my writing in some way. Sometimes I see how a really great book could have been better, or sometimes I’m just jealous of how brilliant a book is, or sometimes I’ll find something in particular (e.g., Jandy Nelson’s colorful writing) that a writer did exceptionally well that I want to mimic or adopt into my own writing.

But in terms of overarching influence, I think the Little House books, as well as Anne of Green Gables books, caused me to see setting as an organic part of a book’s whole. Setting influences plot and characters because setting is not just a physical place where a character happens to live. No, that same character couldn’t exist just anywhere. People are created by their settings, in part, and settings are bound up with culture, history, religion, politics—and all of these specifics have to be accounted for (however minutely) within a character’s growth and development as a person. A book set in Salt Lake City must, by default, be different than a book set in Los Angeles. People tend to understand this when a book’s setting is a foreign locale but not so much when it’s an American city, but it’s just as true for American cities as anywhere else. I get annoyed when I read books and the writer has presented us with a sterile, bland setting, as if it doesn’t matter. That writer has just not stopped to think about how important location is.

Another book that has greatly influenced me is Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood by Benjamin Alire Saenz. I feel like a one-woman-choir preaching about that book because I bring it up everywhere—it’s my favorite young adult novel. I love the setting, of course (the U.S.-Mexico border, where I grew up), but I also love the novel’s ultimate message: that being someone who “matters” has absolutely nothing to do with becoming wealthy, powerful, or beautiful or being noticed by the powerful, wealthy, and beautiful. This message is incredibly important for American teens to hear because they’re not hearing that very many places. One of the most common messages they DO hear is that if you lack wealth, beauty, and/or power, you are a nothing and a nobody and you don’t matter. It fills me with so much rage to realize how that message is proliferated and propagated in all sorts of subtle and not-so-subtle ways in our society, and it’s a message that brings death. Sammy and Juliana is a powerful antidote.

Thanks so much for being with us!

J.L. Powers is the award-winning author of 3 books for young adults (The Confessional, This Thing Called the Future, and Amina) and editor of two collections of essays (Labor Pains and Birth Stories: Essays on Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Becoming a Parent and That Mad Game: Growing Up in a Warzone). Colors of the Wind: the story of blind artist and champion runner George Mendoza is her first picture book. She teaches English at Skyline College in San Bruno, California. You can find her online at www.jlpowers.netwww.thepiratetree.com, or www.motherwritermentor.com.

If you're local to the area, please let the bookstore know if you would like to order Colors of the Wind or The Thing Called the Future. 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.

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