I was so excited at the prospect of interviewing M. LaVora Perry — I’ve been admiring her enthusiastic spirit, sense of humour, and won’t-take-no-for-an-answer attitude for a long time. Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood, LaVora fell in love with writing in the 4th grade thanks to Mrs. T.–a teacher who was mean to her but who nonetheless provided LaVora and her classmates with many opportunities for creative expression.
LaVora is a former actor who has performed on stage and in film in New York City and Europe. Fans of her MG novel , TANEESHA NEVER DISPARAGING, include Teaching Tolerance magazine and the Teaching for Change organization. Reading Today reviewer David Richardson called Taneesha “a joy to read”. Her upcoming PEACEBUILDERS: Daisaku Ikeda & Josei Toda, Buddhist Leaders got a rave review over at Multiculturalism Rocks!. LaVora’s work is full of personality, wit, and charm — just like the author herself.
What were you like at Taneesha’s age? What was your reading life like?
As fifth-grader, I was very self-conscious and felt like an outsider. A few books I remember from fifth and sixth grades are James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk; the still popular Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume; Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations; Where the Lilies Bloom by Bill and Vera Cleaver; and the play, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark.
I was a Taneesha! Except, even though she might not think so, she has way more guts and a better sense of humor than I did at her age. Taneesha is the girl who, back then, I wished I was.
What were some of your inspirations for that character?
In third grade, my best friend had a slight physical disability. Once, we watched as older girls picked on one of our classmates. On the way home, I
told my friend that those girls were wrong for teasing our classmate. Unfortunately, the older girls, who were sisters, heard me. They taunted me forever after that. Plus, unbelievably, they moved into the house next door! This experience inspired some parts of Taneesha Never Disparaging.
What do you love most about Taneesha?
I love the way Taneesha stands up to her fears even when she doesn’t want to. I also love her honesty—the way she’s willing to self-reflect and learn and grow from her mistakes.
How did you decide to create Evella?
A few years ago, Linda Johnson, the women’s leader of the Soka Gakkai International-USA (SGI-USA) Buddhist association, who happens to be African American, talked about how it’s like we each have two minds–our enlightened mind and our unenlightened mind, which she called our personal “evil twin.” It’s the part of us that recites an endless list of reasons why we’re going to fail at everything we try to do. Evella grew out of Linda’s description of the “evil twin.”
Taneesha and Carli have such a dynamic relationship. What inspired that? And perceptions of illness and physical challenges are an important part of Taneesha’s story; how did that come about?
The third-grade friendship I mentioned inspired Taneesha and Carli’s relationship. I wanted Carli to be a fully fleshed out character, not just Taneesha’s sidekick. It was important to me that Carli not be a wimp.
Your dialogue and description jump off of the page. You write wonderfully descriptive phrases, like “crease in his pants could have sliced a hunk of cold cheddar cheese”, “multicolored laundry powder from a box turned upside down”. How do you suggest writers be descriptive without overwriting?
I can overwrite with the best of them! But my advice would be what anyone who’s studied writing has already heard: Use concrete language and imagery. Employ all five senses. Read your writing out loud; if it sounds boring to you, it’ll sound boring to everybody else, too.
What’s your favorite part of the writing process?
I love it when I make what I’m thinking jump of the page.
Are there any particular resources or exercises you recommend?
I list several writer’s resources on my website at http://www.mlavoraperry.com/writers.
It’s wonderful to see a Middle Grade novel in which the main character’s spiritual life plays an important role. Why did you include this aspect of Taneesha’s life?
I’ve practiced Buddhism for almost twenty-three years and my husband has done so even longer. We’ve raised our three children as Buddhists (our oldest is fourteen). However, there were no books that reflected this aspect of our lives that I could read to them and that their school and Buddhist friends could read. So I set out to create a literary world in which urban African American Buddhist kids do stuff.
Have your choices been challenged in any way? What was most challenging for you about making faith part of the story?
I struggled with how to write a non-preachy story in which faith plays a central role. When I shared my frustration about my challenge to write such a story, and get it published, some Buddhists suggested that I just write books that didn’t mention Buddhism. Ultimately, however, this advice fueled my determination to write what I really wanted to write—and to learn how to write it well.
Taneesha was the first children’s novel published by Wisdom Publications. How did that relationship come about?
After I attended a Highlights Foundation writers’ workshop and revised Taneesha Never Disparaging for the zillionth time, I telephoned Wisdom, whom I’d found online, to see if they’d read it. I didn’t want to send them the manuscript if they would never publish a book like mine. Ultimately, they offered me a contract to write the first and only novel they’ve ever published.
Tell us some of the experiences you’ve had as you’ve shared Taneesha with students, educators, parents.
Children ask questions about why the teenage girl who bullies Taneesha acts the way she does. When I read the scene in which an elderly Japanese woman who lived near Nagasaki when the atomic bomb was dropped describes what that was like, they ask lots of questions and share insights.
Teachers are often surprised to learn that a book about a black Buddhist girl exists. Frequently, they are eager to share a new type of “diversity” book with their students.
Parents are typically glad to find a fun book that their children will like.
Usually, African American parents are glad to find a book featuring a child of color.
Successful self-publishing is an amazing achievement. Why and how did you make that choice?
When I published my first book, I was simply afraid that my kids and their peers would be too old to want to read a story about a Buddhist kid by the time I found a publisher for it. So, I published it—Taneesha’s Treasures of the Heart—myself.
What were some of the surprises along the way?
My biggest shock was discovering that most writers keep their day jobs! Often, the big names we know about wrote for years and years in obscurity before they became “overnight” successes.
Tell us more about the birth and wonderful life of Forest Hill Publishing.
When I first published Taneesha’s Treasures of the Heart, I used a subsidy publisher, which is sometimes called a “vanity
press.” This was expensive.
But, because I was very energetic about marketing and promotion, I recouped my investment by having the book go into reprint several times at no additional cost to me. After two years, the publisher released me from my contract. They don’t normally do this, because most of their authors don’t sell as many books as I did and therefore most of their authors don’t keep ordering more books at the publisher’s expense.
Once I learned how the business worked, I realized I could publish books myself. However, if it weren’t for the advent of print-on-demand (POD) printing, I would not have been able to start my company when I did because it wouldn’t have been able to afford the cost of printing books or making the books widely available.
But with POD printing, and by using the company Lightning
Source, which is a division of Ingram, one of the world’s largest book wholesalers, I can affordably print, publish, and sell books to booksellers and individuals worldwide.
How did your work in the greeting card industry affect your book projects?
Working for a global greeting card company helped me learn the importance of writing in such a way that the broadest number of people will understand what I’m saying.
On March 16 of this year, Forest Hill launches, PeaceBuilders: Daisaaku Ikeda & Josei Toda, Buddhist Leaders, a chapter book biography. How did you decide to tell the story of Daisaku Ikeda and Josei Toda?
I’ve always known I would write this story. Daisaku Ikeda’s achievements on the world stage have been huge. He’s founded universities, cultural institutions, and received over 3,000 honors and awards—more than any person in human history.
Often, we look up to historical figures and their lives seem so large we don’t think of them as people like us. That’s why I began the opening scene of
PeaceBuilders with Daisaku Ikeda as an ordinary nine year-old. From there, the story depicts his growth, fears, and struggles from boyhood to young adulthood.
I hope PeaceBuilders inspires children to believe that, just like Daisaku Ikeda—a man from a simple background—they, too, can achieve great things in their own unique ways.
What were some of the challenges of writing narrative nonfiction? Did you learn anything new in the process?
I hate the thought of writing something that’s boring. So, I kept revising PeaceBuilders to breathe life into lifeless parts—or dump them all together. I hope I succeeded.
I was greatly helped with this book by critique partners and by a wonderful editor that I met at our last Northern Ohio Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference. I was told to focus on one or a few key aspects of my larger-than-life protagonist’s life, rather than tell his whole life story. Another great nugget of advice I received was to show him as a real person with human flaws. I was also advised to leave dates out of the narrative all together—otherwise, it would read like a dry encyclopedia entry. That’s how the book ended up in two parts—a story-like biography in part 1 and a reference section in part 2 that includes a timeline and achievements.
This project grew out of a publishing contract I had to write a book about a friend of mine who is African American and who, along with her twelve year-old son, discovered that they both had a rare hereditary heart condition
and needed new hearts. When my publisher went out of business, after talking it over with my friend, I decided to publish the book through Forest Hill and expand it to include stories about several people. (*Note: For details of this project, visit the Forest Hill Web Site.)
My goal with this book is to raise awareness among people of color of the need for us to be organ donors. We represent the group of people least likely to sign up to be donors and most likely to need an organ or tissue transplant—and to die while waiting for one.
You’re a mother; what would you like to share with other parents about their role in their children’s literacy development? How does your parenting affect your work as a writer?
My advice to parents is to read to babies before they even pop out into the world and keep reading to your children and talking about books with them.
My kids keep me in touch with children—how they think, what’s important to them. They help me stay connected to my own childhood dreams, aspirations, and fears. And they keep me from getting the big head.
What challenges have you faced as a Black author and publisher, and how did you move past them? What advice do you have for other authors?
The challenges of being black in this world are so ginormous and ingrained in the way things are done everywhere, that, for the most part, while I’ll stand up to them, I don’t dwell on them.
My advice to authors is to READ; WRITE; join a critique group; take advantage of every opportunity to learn about the craft and business through online information and social networks, books, classes, workshops, conferences, et cetera; and, most important, never ever give up on your dream. As long as you keep moving toward it, you’ll reach it. BELIEVE that.
What do you wish someone had told you?
That most writers keep their day jobs and the best selling books are non-fiction.
What do you see happening in the marketplace now that encourages/discourages you?
We are at the same place in the world in terms of changes in how communication is shared as the difference between the world before the printing press and after. I intend to ride the new wave of communication into the future, and to play a major role in creating the waves of the future.
I am not discouraged.
What role do you see self-publishing playing in the future? How do you see self-publishing changing?
I think we’ll see more and more independently published titles gain traction as more people use the endless stream of new technologies to reach readers. However, in order for new publishers to last, they must produce excellent publications.
You have a blog and web site; how do you use social media in your work?
I have two blogs—one’s my personal musings about whatever; the other focuses on kid-lit. I use the Internet to let people know where and when I’m doing workshops or book events and when my books are coming out. I use Twitter and I created a short and slightly longer book trailer for PeaceBuilder and posted them on YouTube. I created a PeaceBuilders Facebook fan page. Activities like these help build book buzz.
I use social media to promote other writers as a way of informing folks and giving back to the writing community that supports me in countless ways. In addition, I use social media to say whatever’s important to me at a particular time.
What makes you smile these days?
My kids make me smile—when I’m not fussing at them and we’re just having fun. Yesterday, I literally jumped up and down and shouted with joy after a friend phoned to tell me that Michelle Obama had publicly clarified that her new child health initiative was about being fit, not all about body size. (In a
post on my blog, and in an email to Mrs. Obama, I’d asked her to please not make size the focus of her initiative.) When I shared the news about her clarification with my husband and asked him to “Give me some skin!” instead of high-fiving me, he kissed me. And I smiled.
What’s your favorite word?
What’s next for M. LaVora Perry?
March 19 – 21, I’ll join, hopefully, several other writers and aspiring writers of color at the first Multicultural Literature Advocacy Group
(MLAG) conference in Mobile Alabama. Attendees will learn from writers and publishing industry and other media professionals and leaders. I’ll be presenting a workshop on affordable and successful self-publishing based on my book, Successful Self-Publishing–From Children’s Book Author to Independent Publisher, A Simple Guide for New and Not So New
In 2011, Forest Hill Publishing will release a health book I’ve coauthored with internationally-acclaimed Cleveland Clinic super doc and teaching surgeon, Dr. Linda Bradley (http://www.drlindabradley.org).
At some point, I’d like to complete a novel that’s been simmering. I like to
write fiction and non-fiction. But being a writer is only part of who I am. So, all of “what’s next,” I can’t say because I don’t even know. However, I do know that I will make sure that whatever it is, by the time I’m done with it, it’s magnificent.
Can you tell us about the M.?
The M is for my mother’s and my first name—Mattie. She’s Mattie Mae Perry and I’m Mattie LaVora.
No one in my family calls me Mattie, though—except for Ma when she’s playfully calling me “Miss Mattie.” I keep my “M” in honor of her—the self-named “Big Mama” of our family.
Thank you so much, LaVora! You are an industry trailblazer indeed, and it’s been a true pleasure.
LaVora is sponsoring an essay contest! Students in grades K-12 can win a copy of PEACEBUILDERS in the PEACEBUILDERS Essay Contest. Entry deadline is March 16, 2010. For details go to: her blog. To learn more about LaVora, click on the image below.