Sunday, January 15, 2012

Guadalupe Garcia McCall: Morris Award Interview

Lee and Low Books.  ISBN 978-1-60060-429-4.
Today's Morris nominee interview is with Guadalupe Garcia McCall; she's on Twitter @ggmccall  And how about some some cover love? The roots of the tree: the map of the region. That's genius. 

Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall

This novel in verse tells the story of Lupita, the oldest of eight children.  When Lupita’s mother is diagnosed with cancer, it is up to Lupita to step into a role she never considered taking in her drama class:  surrogate parent.  McCall’s chapters are exquisite poems with language that sings and stings.  Finding hope amidst despair, finding the chance to laugh, and finding the incredible power of family make this a memorable reading experience. (Description from the YALSA WIlliam C. Morris YA Debut shortlist announcement.)

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Under the Mesquite is your debut novel. Had you experimented with linking poems or poem cycles before you wrote this story? Did you begin with the narrative, Lupita's story, and write poems to fit a plot or did poems come before the plot? 

I have been writing narrative poems all my life. However, MESQUITE came about because of a set of very special poems. The poems were special because they were all coming out of teaching. I often model the use of poetic devices in my classroom to show students how easy writing poetry is, how effortless it can be if they open their minds and just let themselves "be." One year, my students challenged me to write a poetry book, just like they had to do, in the same time frame, so I did. It was fun and exciting and at the end I had this little collection of poems about my childhood on the border, in Eagle Pass, Texas that sort of resonated with magazine editors because they were getting picked up by literary magazines across the country. So I sent it out as a collection and Emily Hazel at Lee & Low liked them so much she asked if I would be willing to work with her on creating a novel in verse based on those poems. Of course, I accepted. It took us a year, but we created characters, a plot, a journey based on the strength of the original poems. It was a fantastic experience. I still can't believe those little poems took flight and traveled all this way.  Being from a small border town, like Eagle Pass, it's hard to keep up with the journey of these poems without feeling totally overwhelmed by it all.

Poetry is built on the power of individual words. As a reader of poetry, a phrase like "high-heeled hyenas" works for me on every level: the music of alliteration and assonance wed to a brain-jolting image. How did you come to be a poet? Are there poems or poets you think everyone should read?

I love words; they are little jewels that sparkle and shine. One thing about words that surprises me the most is how when you string them together, move them around, play with them, you can make them mean totally different things. Its mind boggling how the interplay of letters and sounds can be so pleasantly musical and yet scrape a raw nerve or squeeze someone's heart all at the same time. I love listening to words. My sons say I shouldn't talk to myself, I tell them I'm not talking—I'm listening to the sounds of poetry in the room inside my heart, speaking them out loud, so that I can hear their song.
A rose for Lupita's Mami.
I came to poetry through reading. As a young girl I was chubby and awkward and not built for sports, but I loved to read and write. I often sat outside to absorb nature and read my school literature book while everyone else ran around chasing each other. Poetry surprised me, though. In middle school, it grabbed me, pulled me in, and told me stories in ways I'd never heard before. I read every poem written by Edgar Allan Poe. I loved his dark imagery, his tragic voice, his foreboding rhyme. In high school, however, it was Khalil Gibran who enlightened me. I was dealing with my mother's illness when my drama teacher, Mr. Cruz, handed me his book, The Prophet. He thought I might like to channel my emotions into a performance of those poems for competition. I can honestly say that after reading that book, I've never been the same. Gibran's poetry touched me so deeply, so honestly, I felt like I'd died and was being resurrected. Gibran's words led me to a better understanding of the poetry I was already familiar with--the beauty of life and the power of nature. Because of his poems, I was able to find my place in the universe. I think everyone should read poetry that speaks to them, poetry that inspires them, poetry that feeds their hungry hearts.

Being bilingual is a part of Lupita's story so the inclusion of both languages was essential. As a poet, how did you decide which words needed to be in Spanish? As an author for young readers who might not know any Spanish, how did you make certain that the Spanish wouldn't be a barrier to understanding?

I don't ever really make conscious decisions about which words need to be in Spanish. Being bilingual (with Spanish being my first language) means that part comes naturally–organically. The words that are in Spanish are often words that have special connotations, special meanings, that I cannot fully express in English when I write poetry. They are words close to my childhood, words that live and breathe en mi corazón. To write them in any other language would feel unnatural. I think because of their special meanings, and their special place, it is easy for the reader to understand them. However, that being said, good words play well together, they find friends contextually, and that is always a blessing.

The Morris Award is for a "first time author writing for teens." Did you know that Under the Mesquite was a YA novel? How did you imagine your audience while you wrote?

Yes, I did know our target audience was teens. My editor informed me that Lee & Low only publishes children's books, so that was understood early on. MESQUITE is actually one of the few YA titles Lee & Low carries, but I think they are working on getting more. It was very easy to imagine my audience as I wrote the book because I've been teaching 20 years (23 altogether) in a middle school in San Antonio. 98% of my students come from the same socioeconomic/cultural background as I do. That experience helped me a lot. I imagined my students sitting at their desks listening to me telling them this story. I wrote the book in language that I hoped would speak to their minds, their dreams, their hopes.

What happens next? Do you have another YA novel in the works? 

Well, now that it has been officially announced, I can say it. I am thrilled to have my second book, Five Little Sisters, coming out from TU Books, an imprint of Lee & Low Books, in the fall of 2012. Sisters is a YA novel which is actually a retelling of The Odyssey set in Eagle Pass / Coahuila, Mexico. In the story, Odilia and her sisters, the Garza girls, find a drowned man and embark on a journey to return the man's body to his family in El Sacrificio, Coahuila, Mexico. However, they encounter and must defeat monsters/creatures from Mexican lore before they get back home. At the heart of Five Little Sisters is a story about family, sisterly bonds, and maternal love. Sisters is not written in poetry, it would have been much too long, so I wrote it in prose. I can't wait to see what Stacy Whitman, my editor, conjures up for a cover. I have actual dreams about its cover art. I just know it's going to be mystical and magical and beautiful to behold.

Speed round:

Writing advice in five words or less...

FIVE?!? Oh, the pressure, the pressure… Ok. Here it goes…
--- Write-eat, Write-sleep, Write-pray, Write-laugh, Write-live
That's five, write?

What are you reading?

I am reading all the other Morris Award Finalists in no specific order because I am just honored to be listed among them. Right now I am in the middle of The Girl of Fire and Thorns and Between Shades of Gray is sitting, patiently waiting on my nightstand.

Three movies you think are worth watching, maybe more than once...

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, the 2005 version, because it reminds me of my cinco hermanitas and Macfayden is so dreamy. MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING and JANE EYRE. They are both fantastic.
Last song you added to your music library...

Music Library? What's a music library? Seriously, I'm not a music person. It interferes with the rhythm of the poetry around me. I'm a nerd. I like quiet time. It lets me think.

Is there a poem you know by heart?

Oh! Oh! YES! YES! I can recite "The Highwayman" by Alfred Noyes. Every heart-wrenching word, every heart-pounding image, every breathless rhyme—all 17 stanzas live inside my heart. My students are surprised when I recite it without looking at a handout. It's a skill left over from my high school poetry interpretation days. I went to State with that poem. I didn't win, but I went, and that's what's important—the journey.

BONUS: Podcasty goodness... Hear the poet read her poem 
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