Throwback Thursday: Martin Mordecai

June 22, 2017

Martin Mordecai

The gorgeous novel BLUE MOUNTAIN TROUBLE from Martin Mordecai debuted to rave reviews last year. Kirkus gave it a starred review, Booklist called it “rich in characterization with a beautifully realized setting”. Publishers Weekly noted that “the author captures the rhythm of the children’s daily life and effectively conveys their hopes, fears and family love as they look toward the future and learn secrets about the past.” BLUE MOUNTAIN TROUBLE was just recently named an Ontario Library Association (OLA) Best Bet — one of their top 10 Canadian novels for children. Mr. Mordecai was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, far from Top Valley, where his novel is set. Martin’s professions have included television, radio, journalism, and the foreign service, but he has written all his life. Martin now lives in Toronto, Canada, with his wife, Pamela.

In BLUE MOUNTAIN TROUBLE, intrigue and a sense of romance are intertwined with the daily realities of the twins lives, and the life of their community. Do you consider your book a fantasy tale? How do you see the concept of ‘magic’ playing a part in your work? In readers’ lives? How have you seen the ‘magic’ of literature in your own reading life? In your readers’ today?

I think perhaps that the ‘romance’ is in the tone of the writing, which is deliberate — BMT started life as a bedtime story told to a child. And it’s a fantasy only insofar as there is the element of the ‘duppy Goat’. I think the ‘magic’ is really just the goat and the sense of wonder it brings to the lives of the twins. Much of the rest is very reality-based.

For me there is definitely magic to be found in literature, and it saddens me to see and hear people who do not read or “have no time” for books. The magic in books, even in non-fiction, is a shared magic between the author and the reader,— it’s interactive. You bring yourself to the author’s and character’s selves, and something quite alchemical can happen. When you watch television you’re merely observing someone else’s magic — and in many cases there’s no magic at all!

How and why did you choose twin characters? You’ve mentioned that Pollyread was ‘hogging the best lines” — how did you uncover Jackson’s voice and story? How much do the twins’ external and/or internal lives reflect your own at age 11?

As I said, this started as a bedtime story to a child. Unless I’m sitting in front of a keyboard I’m not very imaginative, so after I began the usual way, Once upon a time…I said, there were twins . . . figuring two characters gave me more options than one. Likewise the duppy goat. Pollyread got all the best lines because once I started actually writing the story I had a ready template for her: our daughter, who’s bright and lippy and has been known to be devious. Jackson took more thought and effort. I took some of him – his gift with mathematics and plants – from our eldest son, but otherwise he is, I think, himself, and I kinda like him.

I can’t remember what I was thinking and feeling when I was 11! But I know I wasn’t as smart or as confident as either of the twins.


You’re a very descriptive writer — how does your photography influence your work as an author? What were the stories that transformed your childhood? Are there any contemporary authors or works of children’s literature that are particularly powerful to you?

The photography: Probably a lot. I have to ‘see’ a scene, usually with a line or two of dialogue, before I can start writing. And it was a photograph I took one morning in the mountains that solidified Top Valley for me, the physical aspects of it.

Our house, when I was a child, was full of books and records, of all kinds, so reading was not a remarkable activity for any of us – or music for that matter, most of us learnt an instrument at some time or another. There were fewer books for children at that time, so you read whatever was to hand. I remember some of the stories of Mark Twain, which were fantastic in all meanings of that word, and those of Damon Runyon — my father had lived briefly in New York and loved Runyon, as do I. And from quite young I loved history, historical stories, and still do. It was perhaps fated that I would try to write a historical novel myself.

Among contemporary writers for children, I’ve really only started reading them (a bit) since BMT was accepted for publication. There are some fine ones I’ve found, but what’s enjoyable about them brings pleasure to me as an adult. Which confirms my wife’s conviction that BMT is not really ‘a children’s book’.


You were born in Jamaica, and now live in Canada, where you’ve said that you arrived and “did many different things, as immigrants have to”. What were some of those many things? Can you elaborate on your observations of immigrant lives in North America?

I can’t generalize, each immigrant has a unique experience. I will say, however, that immigrants, especially those from the so-called Third World, bring to their host countries, particularly the U.S. and Canada, a toughness of will and a breadth of vision and experience that those mainstream societies can only benefit from, and ignore at peril to their own future vitality.

For myself, and my wife, Pam, what we did had to do with books in one way or another. My wife’s a well-published author, and without her royalties my own trajectory would probably have been the more archetypal one of the PhD driving a cab — except that I don’t have a PhD; I do however know the streets of Toronto pretty well. But we imported and exported books, published books, edited books, and in the early years did a little consulting.


How did this story come to you? How did your plot evolve? Are you more of a character- or plot-focused writer? Or neither?

I’m not bad with plot ideas for other people’s stories, but hopeless with my own. I follow the words. I make discoveries about the people I’m writing about, and derive plot-points or whatever, from listening to the words in my head or that appear on the screen, and letting the ideas sparked by the words lead me into the light. That’s one reason why I’m a very slow writer. Because the words can lead you into blind alleys, and you have to go back and find the word(s) that point in a new direction.


A review of BMT mentions your use of patois, adding that “Mordecai pays us the compliment of respecting that readers have more than one way of understanding a word and a concept.” How did you make decisions about what to define or not define in the process of telling your story? Why was it important to you to tell your story in the way you did?

I think that review, in a Canadian journal, is the most gratifying of those from North America, and that comment typifies it. I didn’t make any decisions about ‘defining’ or ‘explaining’ words. I’m not a speaker of deep Jamaican Creole, so that language wasn’t available to me, so I just wrote what I heard in my head. Fortunately, Rachel Griffiths, my editor at Arthur A. Levine Books, took the decision against a glossary; I appreciated that.

Tell us a bit about your path to Arthur A. Levine Books, and the factors that made this pairing a success. What was your debut year like? Were there any surprises along the way? What was most gratifying for you? What do you wish you had been told? What would you tell new authors today? Do you have any best/worst moments to share?

I’m embarrassed to say that I’d never heard of Arthur A. Levine Books before my agent, Margaret Hart, told me about Arthur. And Margaret was absolutely convinced that AAL was the ‘right’ place for BMT. She was correct. (She sent it to other publishers, but wasn’t too upset when they turned it down.) What was most gratifying was the respect with which Rachel and Arthur treated the manuscript, and their conviction (far stronger than my own) that it was a worthwhile project to publish.

The best moment for me was when they called one day shortly after publication last year to tell me that BMT had received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews. They were so very pleased for me. That was nice.

Another great moment was a ‘review’ from my 9-year-old grandniece, whose mother reported that she had to wrestle the book away from her in the shower! All the words of praise in journals can’t match that.


There have been numerous discussions of the value of ‘multicultural literature’ — what does that term mean to you? How has the Caribbean literary tradition played a role in your reading and writing life?

I’m not sure what the term means at all; I’m not familiar with it in Canada, though we pride ourselves on being ‘the most multicultural country’ in the world. In Canada it’s pretty much all ‘Canadian literature’.

The Caribbean Literary tradition, such as it is, is only, for English-speakers anyway, about 100 years old. For me what it means is that we have stories to tell that people want to hear, and that we are the best people to tell them. People like CLR James, Sam Selvon, John Hearne, VS Naipaul, Sylvia Wynter, Vic Reid – these people gave scribblers of my generation and later ones the confidence to dream about writing books. For myself, the excitement has been more in the use of language, by writers like Reid, Louise Bennett, Derek Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite, Olive Senior, and my wife, Pam. Younger writers are building on this and taking the ‘tradition’ in new directions.

In the area which BMT occupies, literature for children, the ‘tradition’ is less old. There were stories from the forties by Eddie Burke, a social worker who became a clergyman and established the rural setting as the ‘heart place’ of childhood; Vic Reid, who gave our history the clarity and resonance of childhood; then books written and edited by Jean D’Costa and others, meant for schools but with much original writing. And always, giving delight to children and adults, the poetry and stories of Louise Bennett. BMT is a modest addition to that venerable library.

In a post on Geoffrey Philp’s Blog Spot, you talk about your online critique and support group. Why do you think it worked so well? What were its benefits in comparison to an in-person group? What advice do you have for other authors considering the same?

I think the online writer’s group worked for two reasons. First, all of us knew at least one, maybe two other members of the group. Only Nalo Hopkinson, a marvelous Caribbean-Canadian writer, knew everybody, all six of us (seven eventually). So there was a certain shyness, but also an element of discovery and anticipation about the exchanges. And, like all the best friendships – because we were not just mostly strangers but also writing totally different stuff – it started slowly.

The second reason was that it was non-judgmental. The only thing required of you, so to speak, was a word-count for that day. You didn’t have to ‘show’ anything if you didn’t want to, and when you did there was no obligation for anyone else to comment And if you didn’t write anything for that day you didn’t have to explain why, unless you wanted to. When you’re meeting relative strangers – which is what we were – in the flesh, at a coffee shop or someone’s home, there’s often an unspoken obligation/anticipation dynamic at work: ‘What have you got to show? Why don’t you?’ And you feel you have to make some comment, preferably enthusiastic, about your colleague’s work.

Writing is such a personal thing, so much of your personhood is invested in it, that you are instinctively careful about exposure. Online – ironically, because we hear so much about the nakedness of the online person – provides a filter, a firewall.

But that’s me. Pam is more relaxed about showing her work to other people for their assessment – people whose judgment she trusts, of course. But I don’t. She and my children are the only people who saw any of BMT, until the online writing group started. Different strokes for different folks. But BMT would not have been written without them. And without the grants provided by various arts funding agencies here in Canada. Give thanks for new friends and taxpayers.


What do you do for fun? What do you wish people knew about you? What do you wish an interviewer would just ask already?

Fun? Writers aren’t allowed to have fun – except when they’re writing. The blood, sweat and tears constitute fun, the delete button is our rubber ball!

But I listen to music, talk to my wife, my children and our grandchild, and read a lot, mostly, at the moment, history.

I don’t wish people to know anything about me except what’s in my books or in the author’s profile. That’s why I’m not on Facebook, I don’t Twitter, Buzz, or any of those things. I’m developing a website, but I don’t intend to go further than that. My life is pretty boring anyway — and nobody’s business.

Thank you so much, Mr. Mordecai — this interview has inspired me in many ways.


Leah Henderson and the Release of Her Debut Novel

June 12, 2017

 

On February 8, 2017, Brown Bookshelf member, Tracey Baptiste interviewed Leah Henderson about her upcoming novel, One Shadow on the Wall. Leah discussed the spark that led to the idea, her writing process that led to an agent, an editor and a book soon to be published. Her story was fascinating. Read it here Day 8, 2017 Leah Henderson.

 

Now our readers want to know, what is it like to hold your first book  and share it with readers? One Shadow on the Wall was released on June 8, 2017. Now that she has had time to reflect, Leah is ready to share her feelings.

“When people ask how I’m feeling now that my book is out in the world, they generally assume my first response will be excitement, but right now I am truly in awe. Not just because I have hoped, dreamed, prayed, and wished for this day, but because of the outpouring of love, support, and encouragement I’ve received from the moment I started this project. Today, I am beyond grateful for that.

I am grateful to my family for always striving to show me my possibilities. I am grateful to a young boy in Senegal that through just one glance showed me strength and the makings of a story. I am grateful to my grad school professor for seeing the possibilities in a few short pages when it took me a year to believe and see them myself. I am grateful to my next grad school professor for giving his time to read “more pages of Mor” above and beyond the other work he was already reading from me. 

I am grateful to the amazing writer who stepped on my path the day of my grad school graduation and after asking “What is next for Mor?” offered to help me figure out just that through pages and pages of dead ends and detours. I am grateful to an agent who believed in Mor (and me) when others said they weren’t sure where a story like his would fit in the market. I am grateful to my wonderful editors and for my publisher for bringing Mor’s story into their family. I am grateful to friends and strangers who have kept me going with phone calls, emails, texts, kind words, smiles, hugs and oh yes . . . plenty of chocolate. I am grateful for so much today and every day!
So that is exactly how I am feeling right now.”  

Leah is enjoying life with One Shadow on the Wall. Check out the pictures from her release party and book signings. If you don’t have your copy yet, get it soon! Don’t forget to recommend it to your local library.

Visit Leah’s website for more information. 

 

 


Nicola Yoon on #BlackGirlMagic, How Love Changes Everything, and Showing the Possibilities

June 6, 2017

credit: Sonya Sones

Nicola Yoon is the #1 NYT bestselling author of Everything, Everything, which is now a major motion picture, and The Sun Is Also a Star, a National Book Award finalist, Michael L. Printz Honor Book and a Coretta Scott King New Talent Award winner. She grew up in Jamaica and Brooklyn, and lives in Los Angeles with her family.

We featured Nicola back in 2016; a LOT has happened since. We caught up with her for an update. Welcome back, Nicola!

You’ve mentioned that you wrote Everything, Everything because you wanted your daughter to see herself reflected in media. Can you share some of the responses you’ve gotten from readers, and now from those who’ve seen the film?

The response from readers has just been incredible and, not gonna lie, some of them have made me cry. Every day — every single day — I get at least one email from a reader or a viewer telling me how much it means to them at Maddy is a person of color. When my little girl first met Amandla Stenberg on the set of the movie, the first thing she said to me is “she looks just like me.” She said it again when she saw the movie at the Los Angeles premiere. I’ll never be able to put into words how much those moments have meant to me.

In an interview about Everything, Everything, you said that “I didn’t want her to be in a prison as much as yearning for something more, something different.” Why was that important to you? What was the process of getting that concept on paper?

One of the themes I was exploring with the book was the ways in which love changes you. Love is a force. Sometimes it changes you for the better. Sometimes for the worse. In the book, Maddy is very happy with her life before she meets Olly. After she meets and falls in love Olly, she begins to look at the world anew. I think one of the things that love does is open you up to the world and make you more vulnerable. The ways in which we respond to that vulnerability is something I was interested in exploring.

What were some of the challenges for you in the process of seeing the story move from the page to the screen? What surprised you? And what was your cameo experience like?

In the beginning it’s a little hard to let go of your characters, but that went away quickly for me. One of the best moments I had was when I was reading a revision of the script that had a scene that wasn’t in the book. I loved the scene so much that I wished I’d written it. That moment made me happy because both the script and the movie are new pieces of art. Now there are more stories about Maddy and Olly out in the world.

The cameo experience was so great! We are “family on the beach” in one of the Hawaii scenes. It’s about three seconds of me, my husband, and my daughter splashing in the waves in the background. Funnily, the scene took 45 minutes to film because my daughter kept pointing at the drone camera that filmed it so we had to do take after take :)

Congratulations on the success of The Sun is Also A Star! Where did that story start? How was the writing process similar to or different from working on Everything, Everything? What did you feel that you learned and incorporated into Sun? Now that you’re a page-to-screen vet, what are you most looking forward to in the filmmaking process?

Thank you so much! It really started for me from the Carl Sagan quote -— “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” I wanted to tell a love story about two people, but I wanted to include the universe of things that made it possible for the two people to fall in love. I’m really looking forward to the adaptation process. Tracy Oliver is writing the script as we speak!

What does the phrase #BlackGirlMagic mean to you? Where do you see or use that idea in your own work?

It means that black girls are allowed the full range of the human experience. In our current media we see so many stereotyped notions what it means to be black. One of the things I want to do in my work is to push back against those ideas. Black girls can be anyone and love anyone. We are allowed to be the main character.

We are allowed to be smart and beautiful and funny and soft and strong and vulnerable and geeky. We are allowed to be.

In The Sun Is Also A Star, you incorporate issues surrounding immigration, and mentioned in an interview that you’d love to see the immigration conversation “start from a place of empathy.” How do you think your readers can make that happen? How do you think that reading can promote empathy?

I think that books promote empathy. It’s hard to spend 400 pages in the lives of characters without seeing their humanity and coming to a place of understanding.

Like those who’ve come before us, our children, our readers, we’re living in challenging times. Do you think that’s reflected in the work that you do? In the stories that you tell? In the way that you work? How?

I think the times have always been challenging. One of the most powerful things that books can do is give us hope show us what is possible not only for ourselves, but for other people.

What do you think are the keys to writing successful YA romance? What are some of your favorites?

I love when characters fall in love with each other’s ideas of the world. I love when you can see that they are making each other grow and think and explore the world in new ways. Also, a good kissing scene is not to be underestimated. :) One of my all time favorites is I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson.

Thanks so much, Nicola! We can’t wait to see what’s next. Visit Nicola Yoon online for news and updates.