Tanita S. Davis is an oddity in the world of children’s and young adult authors – she’s one of the few authors that actually set out to write YA fiction. School Library Journal calls her first novel for young adults, A La Carte (Knopf, 2008) a book “with a lot of heart,” and Kirkus says it’s “delightful and fulfilling.” Her second novel, Mare’s War (Knopf, 2009) – part road trip novel / part historical fiction – is scheduled for a June release.
Tanita is a graduate of the Mills College MFA program. A Californian by birth, she now lives in Scotland with her husband, whom she calls the “world’s best baker.” According to her website, she prefers to “sit in the corner of a coffee shop, her hot chocolate getting cold, listening to the world around her.” Given the level writing success she’s already achieved, I bet she’s doing a lot more than just “listening.”
For Day 11 of 28 Days Later, please welcome Tanita S. Davis.
Congratulations on all of your success with your first novel, A La Carte (Knopf, 2008). What was the best thing about being a debut author in 2008?
Thank you! The best thing about being a debut author in 2008 was the inability to get nervous about the whole thing – I just didn’t have the time. David found out he’d been accepted into his PhD program in Scotland right about the time my book was scheduled to come out, and I’d been frantically in revision up to a week before on MARE’S WAR. Celebration, packing – it all happened – just, boom. No time for panic.
You hold an MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College with an emphasis in Prose. How did you grow as a writer during you time at Mills College?
One of the things I always tell people about having an MFA vs. not having an MFA is that an MFA doesn’t teach you to write – but boy does it give you experiences in reading things you might otherwise have never picked up, and it gives you the courage to experiment with styles and be influenced by people you might never have met. The novelist and artist-in-residence, Victor LaValle, taught me to throw things away, and to believe that genius resided in myself. The South Asian novelist, Ginu Kamani, taught me to explore the ugly – in myself, in my fiction, and to exploit that. The Lebanese novelist, Micheline Aharonian Marcom, taught me to be an incisive reader, and to strive to read things that challenged me, in order to think with more clarity and depth. None of these lessons were easy, none of these brilliant people pulled any punches when it came to trying to impart what they could to us. But boy – what a growing experience, as school always is – and what a deep and vibrant well from which to draw later in my writing.
Your degree wasn’t specifically focused on writing for young people, yet you’ve stated in other interviews that you actually set out to write YA. What inspired you to write for young adults?
…quite possibly the sad fact of never growing up? I was very bad at being a kid, and I was a horrible teen. All I wanted was to be an adult. I left home at sixteen and worked and went to boarding school, and rarely went home. I threw myself into the adult world, only to find that it’s not that great either. So, I don’t know that I have a noble inspiration to write for young adults – or just the inspiration to write stories to myself… the other self who still lurks and can’t quite make sense of the adult world without a lot of snark and sarcasm, and subvocalized criticism. There’s a part of me that easily identifies what’s not fair, what’s plain stupid, sophomoric behavior, and the same stuff we put up with in high school, and I still see the world in a lot of the same ways as I did back then. Any writing I do – whether marketing categorized for young adults or otherwise – will be something that snarky other self might read.
Let’s talk a little about your upcoming release, Mare’s War (Knopf, June 2009). It’s told in alternating points of view – partially told from Mare’s point of view while she’s serving in the Woman’s Army Corps during World War II, and also told from Mare’s granddaughter’s point of view. What inspired you to write this novel?
I was actually seeking information on my own grandmother, whom I knew had run away from home and been in the military. She, like my grandparents on my mother’s side, was in her teens during that time, and I was interested in how she had served. She was a very, very, very, very, VERY close-mouthed woman, and not the type of woman you asked questions, unless she was in the mood to answer them. I was too shy to ask much, and she died when I was a freshman in college, so I went the research route. As it turns out, she did serve, as many other African Americans did during that time, however, she did not leave the United States.
In the acknowledgments, you note a number of sources that you referenced while writing the novel. How difficult was it to research the novel? Did you stumble upon any surprising discoveries while researching the book?
Just about all of it was a surprising discovery. I was shocked to learn that an African American woman, Charity Adams Earley, had risen to the rank of major prior to the desegregation of the U.S. military by President Truman. I was surprised to learn of the bizarre lack of support from the United States, and the truly crazed fears which the British had about African Americans – the whole “they have tails” thing was, for the mid-40’s, a little much, to think that people would believe that in the age of technology. (But fear makes people sort of insane.) Just digging and finding that there was so little American acknowledgment, celebration – of the women’s effort – was really surprising to me. Shocking, actually. No monuments, no celebratory days. There is one memorial, in Dayton, Ohio – the Charity Adams Earley Academy for Girls. And that’s all, which is a shame.
An earlier draft of Mare’s War served as your thesis for your MFA program. Did you find it easy to revise this novel after working on A La Carte?
Yes and no… I had to add about a hundred and thirty pages, and cut about sixty entirely. The addition of Mare and her granddaughters was entirely new and rewritten, and I had to think about the whole project from a different direction. In some ways, it felt more polished because I’d had many readers on the previous project, but in the end, it was down to me, writing frantically and hoping my editor would see where I was coming from, and where I was going. We weren’t always all on the same page, but we got there.
Can you tell us a little about your next project?
As usual, I’m working on a few things at once – and I can’t tell you in which order they’ll be completed. I’m beginning the research for an unusual historical fiction novel – which takes place in Northern Italy and Tunisia. I’m also working on finishing a family story, and I’m flirting with the idea of doing something really out there, like writing a fairytale not based on the European model.
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