Welcome to my book blog, Blissfully Bookish. For this Q & A, please welcome an author I met in the flesh at an SCBWI conference in Montreal a few years back, Amanda West Lewis. I was immediately drawn to her and her eloquence with words, and since knowing her, have been blown away by her expertise with so many different genres. Here she is, discussing her new YA novel These Are Not the Words, published by Groundwood books.
BUT first- YAY! Amanda is generously giving away a FREE signed copy of These Are Not the Words (US and Canada). To be eligible to win, please enter the Rafflecopter contest by clicking HERE. Contest ends April 22, 2022.
Please describe the journey to publication for These Are Not the Words.
These Are Not the Words began as a prompt in a writing class at Vermont College of Fine Arts. An initial exploration of a memory led to my mapping out a story about a girl’s relationship to her increasingly absent and erratic father. It started as a series of poems, which gradually became prose poetry and vignettes.
The manuscript had great responses from my beta readers, so I sent it out to editors and agents and got great rejection letters! Over the course of a year, I gathered comments until I could see a pattern to the responses. I needed to go into the story more deeply. I shifted from writing in third person to writing in first. It took another couple of years of writing (and a lot of tears) before I was ready to send it out again.
The story is set in New York City, and I had assumed that I needed to find an American publisher. However, when I discussed it with Shelley Tanaka at Groundwood Books, she questioned that assumption. “We publish books that take place all over the world.” I sent it to Groundwood and was thrilled when it was accepted.
Where did you draw the book’s inspiration?
As I mentioned, the initial writing had come from a prompt to write something based on an early memory from childhood. The idea was to get us to go deeply into a sense memory and explore that as a jumping point. It was not about the story so much as it was about the vividness of textures, tastes, sounds and smells in childhood. The prompt took me to a memory that I had of a moment with my father. I have very few memories of my father, so this one stuck out. As I started working with it more memories started to surface. That’s what memories do. They breed other memories.
So the book was “inspired” by moments, feelings and sensations in my childhood. But in order to build it into a story, I used family lore and photographs. Also, my mother wrote a creative memoir called “Love and All that Jazz.” It provided me with several jumping off points.
What is your writing process, and does it vary depending on the project?
I love research, so I do a lot of research before I start any project. In fact, I usually get to a place where it is hard to move from research to writing. But at some point, I kick myself out of the nest. If I am writing fiction, that means writing a first scene or chapter. I don’t outline a first draft. I let it go where it is going to go. After I know what the story is going to be, I go back and write an outline. Not very efficient, I grant you, but it allows me to tell the story to myself and to be surprised at where it goes.
Of course, that doesn’t apply to non-fiction. Non-fiction requires careful outlines and structure. Non-fiction requires a different writing brain.
Please paste a short and compelling excerpt from your book.
Double Life World
Most mornings, Pops wears a gray suit, carries a briefcase and his Hasselblad camera to go to work in the office of Pepsi-Cola Corp. He’s editor-in-chief of the magazine, Pepsi-Cola World.
Some mornings, Pops works at home, spreads contact sheets of photographs on the table. He marks them in red with a sticky grease pencil, chooses the image and writes up the stories for Pepsi-Cola World.
Most nights, Pops wears a black sweater and carries his drumsticks out the door to clubs in basements where jazz lives in Harlem. In Harlem, no one knows Pepsi-Cola World.
Some nights, Pops doesn’t come home. He swallows some pills to keep him awake and stays at the clubs till the dark turns to dawn, stays at the clubs till Ira brings him home, stays in the music.
Mom calls it Double Life World.
Many consider writing YA to be challenging, in terms of high word count, but also, in terms of story arc. Do you have any tips on how authors can keep their thoughts organized without getting overwhelmed by the process?
Well, I’d have to say that if “high word count” intimidates you, then perhaps you shouldn’t be trying to write YA. Your writing might be best suited for MG or high-low. To embrace the scale of YA, you do need ways of seeing the whole world you are creating. You will need maps and charts for the unexplored territory. You need to allow yourself to head down wrong alleys and take wrong turns. You need to give yourself time. But it does help to put some things in place to ground you on the journey.
I keep a sketchbook where I make charts, draw pictures, paste collages, write timelines, notes and dialogues. Personally, I like to do this by hand because it slows me down. I keep going back to the sketchbook to help me to stay connected to the original impulse for the story.
As things develop, along about the third or fourth draft, I chart the story arc in the sketchbook. I look at where and when things happen. I do that for the book as a whole and for each chapter. I ask myself “What happens in this chapter, on this page, in this sentence? Does it need to be here? Why?”
So perhaps my answer on how not to get overwhelmed is to use broad strokes to paint the woods, and then to start looking at individual trees. But I also believe in a bit of chaos and happenstance. I want to be surprised. For me, process is something to be celebrated. In the initial stages, I don’t want to stop myself from going down rabbit holes. You never know what you’ll find.
Do you have other WIPs or projects in the pipeline you would like to mention?
Yes! I have a number of things that I am working on. I have finished a YA that features my protagonist from These Are Not the Words. Missy is five years older and rapidly becoming an activist, fighting against the Vietnam War. It is a book about draft dodgers, deserters, political refugees and commitment to societal change. It is scheduled for the fall of 2023 (Groundwood Books).
I have a picture book of poems about the planets (Kids Can Press 2024), where each planet is explored through a different poetic form. You learn about the planets and about poetry!
I’m really excited about my first graphic novel (Kids Can Press 2025) about the Polish pediatrician and children’s book author Janus Korczak.
So I have a several years of editing ahead of me!
Please share your favorite books from 2021 that have inspired you.
Fix, by J. Albert Mann is a YA written prose and poetry that is a raw, unsentimental, and incredibly sensitive view into “internalized ableism.” It both moved me and helped me to see the world in a different way.
Aperigon, by Colum McCann was a very important novel for me to read. The ability to present two diametrically opposed viewpoints –– Israeli and Palestinian –– with compassion and sensitivity is an incredible feat.
My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologizes, by Fredric Backman is a delight of language and character. Playful, heartbreaking and exquisitely written. It broke my heart.
What is the best piece of advice you would give to other writers?
Embrace discipline. Ensure that your writing time is time free of distractions. If you write on a computer turn off your email programs! Disconnect from the internet! Get off social media! The only way to write is to do it, with all of your brain cells, in a space where you won’t be distracted by other people or ideas. Do whatever you can to build that space, and then claim it for your own.
And a bonus question just for kicks! If you could be any animal, what would you be and why?
I’d be a horse, living wild and free on Sable Island. I want to feel the freedom of running with my whole body. I want to jump and roll on the sand. I want to feel the wind streaming through my mane. At the end of the day, I want to flare my nostrils and smell the surf.
AMANDA WEST LEWIS is a writer, theatre creator, calligrapher and teaching artist who grew up in New York City and Toronto. She has published eight books for young readers and holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is the founder and Artistic Director of the Ottawa Children’s Theatre, where she teaches and runs drama programs for children and youth. Her new novel These Are Not the Words has just been published by Groundwood Books.
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