“The Letter Q: Queer Writers Notes To Their Younger Selves” edited by Sarah Moon and contributing editor, James Lecesne, is an anthology of letters by award-winning authors and illustrators such as Armistead Maupin, David Levithan, Amy Bloom, Jacqueline Woodson, Brian Selznick, Bill Clegg, David Ebershoff, Eileen Myles, Michael Cunningham, and Arthur Levine to name a few. It is an interesting anthology where the letters have a markedly controlled tenor that is probably nowhere close to the confusion and mixed feelings they experienced as youngsters. As adults the contributors are expected to exhibit some maturity and share experiences in a measured tone. Having said that it is hard to believe that while recalling their past and writing to a younger self, raw wounds were not opened once more with accompanying emotional upheavals. But the editors seem to have managed to cap it all and produce an anthology that is readable and is able to communicate calmly with its intended audience. In all likelihood it will work for teenagers as well as counsellors, educators and care givers too. This book has been edited by Sarah Moon in collaboration with James Lecesne, founder of The Trevor Project, an organization’s dedicated to preventing LGBTQ teen suicide. This is a book meant to be read. Share it. Discuss it. Use it as a conversation starter.
Susan Van Metre is the Executive Editorial Director of Walker Books US, a new division of Candlewick Press and the Walker Group. Previously she was at Abrams, where she founded the Amulet imprint and edited El Deafo by Cece Bell, the Origami Yoda series by Tom Angleberger, the Internet Girls series by Lauren Myracle, They Say Blue by Jillian Tamaki, and the Questioneers series by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Pete Fornatale, and their daughter and Lab mix.
Susan and I met when we were a part of the Visiting International
Publishers delegation organised by the Australia Council and Sydney Writers
Festival. It was an incredibly enriching time we spent with other publishing
professionals from around the world. Meeting Susan was fabulous as Walker Books
is synonymous with very high standards of production in children’s literature.
Over the decades the firm has established a formidable reputation. Susan very
kindly agreed to do an interview via email. Here are lightly edited excerpts.
1. How did you get into
publishing children’s literature? Why join children’s publishing at a time when
it was not very much in the public eye?
I never stopped reading children’s
books, even as a teen and young adult. I have always been in love with
story. I was a quiet, lonely young person and storytelling pulled me out
of my small world and set me down in wonderful places in the company of people
I admired. I couldn’t easily find the same richness of plot and character
in the adult books of the era so stuck with Joan Aiken and CS Lewis and E Nesbit
and Ellen Raskin. And I loved the books themselves, as objects, and, in
college, had the idea of helping to make them. I applied to the Radcliffe
Publishing Course, now at Columbia, met some editors from Dutton Children’s
Books/Penguin there, and was invited to interview. Though I couldn’t type
at all (a requirement at the time), I think I won the job with my passionate
conviction that the best children’s books are great
literature, and arguably more crucial to our culture in that they create
2. How do you commission
books? Is it always through literary agents?
Most of the books I publish come
from agents but occasionally I’ll reach out to a writer who has written an
article that impressed me and ask if they have thought of writing a book. Recently,
I bought a book based on hearing the makings of the plot in a podcast episode.
3. How have the books you
read as a child formed you as an editor/publisher? If you worry about the world
being shaped by men, does this imply you have a soft corner for fiction by
women? ( Your essay, “Rewriting the Stories that Shape Us”)
What a good question. I definitely
look for books with protagonists that don’t typically take centre stage,
whether it’s a girl or a character of colour or a character with a disability.
I have always been attracted to heroes who are underdogs or outsiders, ones
that prevail not because they have special powers or abilities but because they
have determination and heart. I am in love with a book on our Fall ’19 list, a
fantasy whose hero is a teen girl with Down syndrome. It’s The Good
Hawk by Joseph Elliott. I have never met a character like Agatha
before—she’s all momentum and loyalty. Readers will love her.
4. Who are the writers/artists that have influenced your publishing
I am very influenced by brainy,
hardworking creators like Ellen Raskin and Cece Bell and Mac Barnett and Sophie
Blackall and Jillian Tamaki. I admire a great work ethic, outside-the-box
thinking, an instinct for how words and images can work together to create a
richly-realized story, and respect for kids as fully intelligent and emotional
beings with more at stake than many adults.
5. As an employee- and author-owned company, Candlewick is used
to working collaboratively in-house and with the other firms in the Walker
groups. How does this inform your publishing programme? Does it nudge the
boundaries of creativity?
There is so much pride at Walker and
Candlewick. Owning the company makes us feel that much more invested in
what we are making because it is truly a reflection of us and our values and
tastes. Plus, we only make children’s books and thus put our complete resources
behind them. There are no pesky, costly adult books and authors to distract us.
And I think the strong lines of communication amongst the offices in Boston,
New York, London, and Sydney mean that we have a good global perspective on
children’s literature and endeavour to make books with universal appeal. I
think all these factors contribute to innovation and quality.
6. You have spent many years in publishing, garnering
experience in three prominent firms —Penguin USA, Abrams and Candlewick
Press. In your opinion have the rules of the game for children’s publishing
changed from when you joined to present day?
Oh, definitely. When I started,
children’s publishing was a quiet corner of the business, mostly dependent on
library sales. There was no Harry Potter or Hunger Games or Wimpy Kid; no
great juggernauts driving millions of copies and dollars. And not really
much YA. YA might be one spinner rack at the library, not the vast
sections you see now, full of adult readers. Now children’s and YA is big business
and mostly bright spots in the market. The deals are bigger and the risk is
bigger and the speed of business is so much faster!
7. Do you discern a change in reading patterns? Do these
vary across formats like picture books, novels, graphic novels? Are there
noticeable differences in the consumption patterns between fiction and
nonfiction? Do gender preferences play a significant role in deciding the
I think we are in a great time for
illustrated books, whether they are picture books, nonfiction, chapter books,
or graphic novels. And now children can move from reading picture books
to chapter books to graphic novels without giving up full colour illustrations
as they age. And why should they? Visual literacy is so important to our
internet age—an important way to communicate online.
8. One of the iconic books of modern times that you have worked
upon are the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. Tell me more about
the back story, how it came to be etc. Also what is your opinion on the
increasing popularity of graphic novels and how has it impacted children’s
I am not the editor of the Wimpy Kid
books—that’s Charles Kochman—but I was lucky enough to help sign them up and
bring them to publication as the then head of the imprint they are published
under, Amulet Books. Charlie comes out of comics so when he saw the
proposal for Wimpy Kid, which had been turned down elsewhere, he understood the
skill and appeal of it. I have NEVER published anything that took off so
immediately. I think we printed 25,000 copies, initially, and we sold out
of them in two weeks. It showed how hungry readers were for that strong
play of words and images, and how they longed for a protagonist who was flawed
but who didn’t have to learn a lesson. Adult readers have many such
protagonists to enjoy but they are rarer in kids’ books.
9. Walker Books are inevitably heavily illustrated, where each
page has had to be carefully designed. Have any of your books been translated?
If so what are the pros and cons of such an exercise?
Our lead Fall title, Malamander, is illustrated and has been
sold in a dozen languages. I think illustration can be a big plus in
conveying story in a universally accessible way.
10. The Walker Group is known for its outstanding production quality
of printed books. Has the advancement of digital technology affected the world
of children’s publishing? If so, how?
I think they incredible efficiency
of modern four-colour printing has allowed us to spend money on other aspects
of the book, like cloth covers or deckled edges. That sort of
thing. Children’s books are incredible physical objects these days.
11. Walker Books’ reputation is built on its ability to be creatively
innovative and constantly adapt to a changing environment. How has the group
managed to retain its influence in this multimedia culture?
First, thank you for saying
so! I think the rest of media still looks to book publishing for great
stories and as a house that has always invested in talent, we are lucky enough
to have stories that work across many forms of media.
12. Have any of books you have worked upon in your career been
banned? If so, why? What has been the reaction?
Yes. In fact, I am working with Lauren Myracle on a young adult novel, publishing in Spring ’21, called This Boy. Lauren is the author of the ttyl series, which was on the ALA’s Banned Book list for many years. It was challenged for its depictions of teenage sexuality. I was raised to be modest and rule following so my personal reaction was horror—especially when parents started phoning me directly to complain—but I feel so strongly that kids and teens deserve to read about life as it really is—not just as we wish it would be. So I came to be proud of the designation. Nothing is scarier than the truth.
I am a woman, but I am also a Muslim and a person of colour, and these identities cannot be separated. I can’t set aside being a woman of colour when it comes to being a feminist and I can’t set aside being a Muslim woman when it comesto being a feminist.
It’s Not About the Burqa: Muslim Women on Faith, Feminism, Sexuality and Race is a superb collection of essays exploring what it means to be a Muslim woman today. The anthology has been edited by Mariam Khan. The idea was sparked off by British politician David Cameron’s comment in the Daily Telegraph which reported him to consider Muslim women to be traditionally submissive. It sparked off a Twitter storm where #TraditionallySubmissive quickly spread. While watching this annoyance unfold online, Mariam Khan realised she had to do something as she kept reading these perceptions “about” Muslim women. It resulted in this magnificent anthology. In her introduction Mariam Khan says:
It’s Not About the Burqa brings together Muslim women’s voices. It does not represent the experiences of every Muslim woman or claim to cover every single issue faced by Muslim women. It’s not possible to create that book. But this book is a start, a movement: we Muslim woman are reclaiming and rewriting our identity. Here are essays about the hijab* and wavering faith, about love and divorce, about queer identity, about sex, about the twin threats of a disapproving community and a racist country, and about how Islam and feminism go hand in hand. Every essay in this book is unfinished, because each one is the beginning of a very necessary conversation.
*It’s worth pointing out at this stage that though ‘hijab’ is now more commonly used to describe a scarf that covers the head, in the Quran, the word ‘hijab’ denotes ‘partition’ or ‘curtain’. ‘Hijab’ can also refer to a standard of modesty.
It’s Not About the Burqa is a magnificent book for the stories it shares are no different from any other feminist publication. The preoccupations of the contributors are like that of any other woman — challenges of being a single woman, voicing an honest opinion and facing the consequences of it, single parenting, childcare, sexuality, negotiating life while encountering patriarchal structures on a daily basis, cultural patriarchy and #MeToo. It even recognises the problematic challenges created by “Well-meaning feminists [who] are often the people who perpetuate an exclusionary feminism that centres their experience as universal.” Most importantly the contributors to this book do manage to address the ignorant remark made by David Cameron and one that is unfortunately echoed by many others too. The essayists do it magnificently by sharing their experiences and opinions. The essayists have strong voices that will resonate with many readers, not necessarily only Muslims. As Mona Eltahawy says in her essay upon discovering feminist books in her university library in Jeddah:
Those books were irresistible. And they terrified me. So much so that I would pick them up, read a few pages, put them down in fear and walk away, only to be drawn back again the next day. I was terrified because I knew on a visceral level that those books — that feminism — would unravel something that I needed, something that would change me forever.
It’s Not About the Burqa will do this for many more readers too.
The idea of masculinity which dominates across societies around the world is that of a heterosexual male oozing testosterone. The moment a male shows signs of being away from the “norm”, then the person is ridiculed. It is particularly difficult explaining to little boys that it is perfectly acceptable to be who they are, the choices they make whether in dress, speak or how they conduct themselves. People can be cruel. Children pick their cues from adults and are extremely vile. They are blunt in their actions and words towards children they do not recognise as “acceptable” or as has been dinned into their little minds.
This is where picture books like Clayton Koh’sI’m a Real Boy are extremely useful. Every single episode in the story undermines the “norm” while slowly impressing upon the young reader that it is perfectly acceptable to be yourself. You could be scared of the dark, to be picked last for the school team and yet resolve to do my best, to make choices like wearing pink or baking or playing with girls in the playground or standing up against peer pressure. There is nothing wrong in these decisions. By doing so the story validates for the young reader the choices they make. The layout of the picture book is fascinating for it has all the prescriptive behaviour for little boys such as being a superhero, being rough and macho, playing with boys and their “boy toys” like trucks, being the team leader and sports captain, wanting to play war games etc.
Clayton Koh is an elementary school teacher who loves to swim, knit, paint with watercolours, kickbox and read. In an interview with The Star Online about I’m a REAL Boy he said:
[He] got the idea to write the book, which he also illustrated, during his final year at university.
“As part of my honours programme, I was required to do a research thesis before graduation. I chose the topic ‘Modern Masculinity’ and how masculinity developed in Western societies over the decades and also cross-culturally,” explained Koh, whose parents are nurses.
“Boys feel a lot of pressure to conform to what society expects of them. Girls as well, but the feminist movement helped change that and broadened their potential,” said Koh, 23.
He added that men have always dominated the political, economic and employment sectors, therefore they face less discrimination in terms of getting equal rights or job opportunities.
“But in terms of interests or certain careers that men can pursue, there are certain mindsets and perceptions.”
He also felt that men were “not allowed” to express their emotions freely, which can lead to suicide and depression, and that many do not seek help until it is too late.
“So I decided to research these issues, put it in a kids’ perspective and hope this will reshape the way society thinks about masculinity,” said Koh, who emigrated to the United States with his family when he was three.
Now here is a true story posted on Twitter by @BijlaniDiksha about her younger cousin who was being ridiculed by his “stereotypical alpha-male centric household” for being a “chakka” (transgender).
My cousin, 9, is the most “effeminate” in the house. Let’s call him Little Cuz. Loves to paint nails, wear lipcolour, learn home science! But in this stereotypical alpha male-centric household he’s often the pivot of jokes. Today he applied lipcolour & got called a “chakka” (1/n) pic.twitter.com/mZ2FplPNyP
So important to tell little kids gender is a spectrum, a repertoire of places they can visit w/o losing their identity. I hope all of us tell kids we know that they are valid, they are accepted, & they are beautiful today. I hope we don’t become the bullies we warn them of. (5/5)
Children (and adults) need to talk about sexuality and gender. This is exactly why there is a crying need for books* like I’m a REAL Boy to be read, shared and circulated, perhaps even translated in multiple languages.
Clayton Koh (text and illustrations) I’m a REAL Boy Scholastic India, Gurgaon, INDIA, 2008, rpt 2018. Pb. pp. 32. Rs 80
India has a tradition of fine women writers, and some of the earliest established names among them were also pioneers in fields beyond literature. Roekya Sakhawat Hossein (1880-1932) was a leading Bengali feminist in at the turn of the 20th century. Her sci-fi utopian novella, Sultana’s Dream (1905), was decades before her time and is a delight to read even now. Cornelia Sorabji (1866-1954) was both the first woman to read law at Oxford, and the first Indian national to study at a British university. During her career as the first female lawyer in India, she advocated for women in purdah and children. She wrote a dozen books including her memoirs, India Calling (1934). Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949) known as the “Nightingale of India,” was not only a poet, but also the first female governor of an Indian state, and the first woman president of the Indian National Congress. Her debut collection of poetry, The Golden Threshold, was published in 1905.
Despite our strong tradition of women writers in the early 20th century, to my mind it was the 1974 publication of the “Towards Equality” Status of Women in India Report that marked a watershed moment for women’s movements, and in turn, women’s literature. Though Indira Gandhi, the first woman prime minister, had been in power for years, it was the Report that gave more women a voice and an opportunity to express themselves.
Another literary turning point came in 1984, when Indira Gandhi was assassinated and thousands of Sikhs were massacred in retaliation. For the older generations, this violence brought back memories of the 1947 Partition of India; young writers and social activists including Urvashi Butalia began recording their stories. Butalia eventually wrote a seminal book, Other Side of Silence (2000), based on these oral histories as well as her own family’s story of moving to India from Lahore, now in Pakistan. Around the same time Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin’s groundbreaking Borders and Boundaries (1998) was published, documenting women’s experiences of Partition, about which until then it seemed a collective amnesia had existed.
1984’s violence and revisiting of the past coincided with a maturation of the Indian publishing industry. In that year, Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon set up the first independent women’s publishing firm in India (and indeed, in all of Asia), Kali for Women. They looked at a range of literature from fiction to non-fiction, including reportage and oral histories. Kali for Women, and its founders’ subsequent projects, Zubaan Books and Women Unlimited, have published many women writers in original English and in translation, such as the brilliant short story and spec-fic writer Manjula Padmanabhan (Three Virgins, 2013) food and nature writer-cum-illustrator and delightful storyteller, Bulbul Sharma (Eating Women, Telling Tales, 2009), environmentalist Vandana Shiva (Staying Alive, 1998), and numerous other writers, historians and freedom fighters.
Along with independent publishers, little magazines were on the rise, while multinational publishers like HarperCollins and Penguin also began establishing offices in India. Meanwhile, a growing recognition that the work of women writers had sales potential meant more opportunities for them to be published. In 1992, Oxford University Press (OUP) India published an unprecedented memoir by a Tamil Dalit Catholic nun, Bama, who had left the order and returned home. Karukku proved to be a bestseller, and has remained in print. At this time OUP India also published the seminal volumes on Women Writing in India: Volume 1: 600 B.C. to the Early Twentieth Century(1991) and Volume 2: The Twentieth Century(1993), a collection of hundreds of texts representing the rich variety of regions and languages in India.
Indian women’s writing hit a new high when Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize for her 1997 debut novel, The God of Small Things, exploring forbidden love in Kerala.(Roy’s second novel, 2017’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, addresses some of the most devastating events in India’s modern history. It has enjoyed a global release with enviable media hype, further demonstrating the remarkable progress in how women’s writing is received by critics and the public).
Soon, an increasing body of women writers representative of groups that have been marginalised on the basis of sexuality, language, caste, and religion began to be published. These included Urmila Pawar(The Weave of My Life, 2009), and Tamil Muslim poet Salma whose memoir The Hour Past Midnight (2009) was made into a documentary (Salma) and screened at the Sundance festival. Once housemaid Baby Haldar’s memoir, published in English 2006 as A Life Less Ordinary, became an international bestseller, many more memoirs and biographies began to be published—including those of novelist and entrepreneur Prabha Khaitan, academic and activist Vina Mazumdar, actress and singer Kana Devi, trans activist A. Revathy, and activist and actress Shaukat Kaifi.
Such robust publishing by and for women has ensured that the contemporary generation of writers is far more confident of their voices, experimenting with form as they explore a range of issues.
A number of women writers are addressing family and domestic issues with humor, notably Manju Kapur with Home (2006), her Jane Austen-like novel about family dynamics; Andaleeb Wajid with My Brother’s Wedding (2013), a gorgeous novel about the shenanigans of organising a Muslim wedding; celebrity Twinkle Khanna with Mrs Funnybones (2015), based on her delightful newspaper column; and Veena Venugopal with a powerful collection about The Mother-in-Law: The Other Woman in your Marriage (2014).
Meanwhile, other authors have been exploring the theme of the strong woman in harrowing—though by no means unusual—circumstances. Samhita Arni retells the Mahabharata war saga from a woman’s point of view in Sita’s Ramayana (2011). K R Meera’s multi-layered novel Hangwoman (published in English in 2014) is about a woman executioner who inherited the job from her father. Meena Kandaswamy’s autobiographical novel When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife (2017) reveals devastating and isolating violence in a marriage. In the same vein, Malika Amar Shaikh’s aforementioned I Want to Destroy Myself: A Memoir explores the horror of living with a man who in his public life spoke out for the rights of the oppressed, but showed none of this humanity at home.
Building on the tradition of more than a century, today there is a long list of women writers in the Indian sub-continent who are feisty, nuanced in their writing and yet universal in many of the issues they share. They are fully engaged with themes such as independence, domesticity, domestic violence, professional commitments, motherhood, parenting, sexual harassment, politics, and identity. This is undoubtedly a vibrant space of publishing, and this article has just about explored tip of the proverbial iceberg.
For more recommendations, please explore the Related Books carousel below. And as always, please join the conversation: use the comments section to add any further books to the list.
( My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 6 December 2014) and will be in print ( 7 December 2014). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/literati-a-look-at-the-world-of-books-publishing-and-writers/article6667631.ece . I am also c&p the text below. )
Watching Ameen Haque of The Storywallahs perform at the Kahani Tree, Bookaroo, was a treat. He wove stories, poetry and music together and had the audience singing and laughing along with him. In the short interaction, the children were introduced to the radical idea that crying is perfectly normal for boys and grown men.
Even when adults communicate, it is inevitably through stories. We call it conversation. Break up the conversation and analyse it. It is anecdotal, replete with stories and vignettes. The impact of a well-told story is immeasurable. Similarly a book allows a quiet engagement between the author and a reader. Books make you see the world afresh. It works for all age groups.
This relationship between books and young readers was apparent at an event organised by SCWBI India in partnership with Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan and the Bookaroo Childrens’ Literature Festival. The topic was “LSD: Love, Sex and Darkness in Books for Children” and the participants were educationist Dr. Shalini Advani, author Samina Mishra, illustrator Priya Kuriyan, and publisher Sayoni Basu.
“Should children’s books only deal with happy things? What about death, violence and sexuality? What about darkness and ugliness?” These were some of the questions raised.
Dr. Advani pointed out that adults tend to be more uncomfortable than children. “For adults, our role is to drag these issues out into the clear light of day. To normalise them as a part of the circle of life so that children — who think about them anyway — learn healthy ways of talking about them and thinking about them. It’s not happy worlds that young people seek. So it is not about whether a book has death or perfidious adults or parental divorce or pain. But more about how it is done — young people don’t like to be lectured to or even gently educated.”
Some recently YA books — Talking of Muskaan by Himanjali Sankar about a teen who may be a lesbian;Smitten by Ranjit Lal about a teen who is molested by a family member and Jobless Clueless Reckless by Revathi Suresh about a pregnant teen — have tackled these tricky topics.
Fiction relies upon storytelling to represent experiences, although its impact depends on the author’s magic with words. At times the storytelling has visible weaknesses but the reader persists, usually out of curiosity about a new topic. For instance, Sonora Jha’s Foreign (farmer suicides in Vidarbha); Pia Padukone’s Where Earth Meets Water (9/11 and the 2004 tsumani), Gaiutra Bahadur’s Coolie Woman(indentured labourers on sugar plantations in British Guiana), Mira Jacob’s The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing (Syrian Christian family in New Mexico), and Robert Allison’s The Letter Bearer (WWII, amnesia).
Exquisite storytelling and its impact is apparent by the recent online conversation between Amitav Ghosh and Raghu Karnad regarding Flanagan’s 2014 ManBooker Prize-winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. The two Indian writers discussed the inclusive capacity of historical fiction and the “duty” of a novelist but also gave insightful comments about a moment in history that had been made accessible through contemporary fiction.
The legendary publisher Gordon Graham puts it prophetically in a 1980 essay reprinted in As I was Saying: Essays on the International Book Business, “Creative composition in the electronic age will not happen at the moment when the author and the publisher decide it is releasable.” It will happen with the active participation of the reader. A statement that holds true 35 years later.
Irrespective of age groups and formats, the importance of storytelling can never be negated since it is an important module of communication and transmission of information, requiring the active participation of all stakeholders.
Update ( 6 December 2014):
In the paragraph listing the debut writers I should have clarified that it is not only fiction, but also nonfiction by relies upon the art of storytelling. Hence I have included Gaiutra Bahadur. My original list was much longer than was finally published.
( My interview with Emma Donoghue was published in the Hindu Literary Review online edition yesterday. 7 June 2014. An edited version has been published in today’s print edition. 8 June 2014. Here is the original url: http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/the-spirit-of-fiction/article6092640.ece I am c&p the entire text below. )
Special ArrangementAuthor Emma Donoghue.
Born in Dublin in 1969, Emma Donoghue is an award-winning writer of fiction, drama and literary history. She did a PhD in eighteenth-century literature at Cambridge University. Her books include fiction both historical ( Frog Music, Astray, The Sealed Letter, Life Mask, Slammerkin, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits) and contemporary ( Stir-fry, Hood, Touchy Subjects, Landing, and the international bestseller Room). These days she lives in London, Ontario, Canada with her partner and two children. She is currently working on the screenplay of Room ( which will be filmed in this autumn) and her first children’s book. For more information, please go to www.emmadonoghue.com . Excerpts from an interview:
Why do you like writing historical fiction?
Let me reverse that question: why do so many writers limit themselves to the historical era they were born in, when they probably wouldn’t dream of restricting their fiction to the place in the world where they live?
How long do you spend on research before you begin writing?
Hard to quantify, because I get ideas for moments, scenes, or even entire subplots of the novel while I’m in the middle of doing the research, so by the time I start actually drafting, I have already done much of the imaginative work of writing. Then I go back and do more research during the writing process as questions arise. So I don’t know how much time I’ve spent on each, but I would say that my historical novels probably take a bit more time to write than my contemporary ones.
How did you discover the subject of Frog Music?
In somebody else’s book: I found a page on the 1876 murder of Jenny Bonnet in Autumn Stephens’Wild Women, a marvellous compendium of American female rule-breakers of the nineteenth century.
When do you stop the research and begin writing the story?
For me there’s no hard line between the research and the story-making, because I approach the research in a spirit of fiction, meaning that at every point I’m looking for the unusual, the eye-catching, the strange and the atmospheric, rather than as a historian might, trying to generalise about the times.
How long does it take you to write the first draft of a novel?
Hard to say, because my projects overlap, to keep my working life varied. I got the idea for Frog Music about 15 years ago, but I’d guess that I spent about three solid years on it. If its historical fiction, I do spend time on checking facts once the story is completed. I keep checking things even while I’m proofreading.
Do you have a fondness for nineteenth century events? All though Astray had short stories set earlier.
Yes, my range (if you include my first collection of fact-inspired fictions, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits) has been from the fourteenth century to the twenty-first. But it is true that the nineteenth century is an appealing one for me because it’s close enough to be highly relevant to our own society, but far enough back to be exotic.
Jenny Bonnet, the cross-dresser, is unusual in nineteenth century San Francisco, but she resonates with readers of the twenty-first century for the kind of debates about sexuality in society. The topic certainly will with Indian readers, especially after the recent Supreme Court judgement. Was it a conscious decision to set this story as a response to contemporary events?
No, I don’t write historical fiction as a commentary on today (because that would be a perversely indirect way to comment on modern events!) but I find that it always does shed an interesting light on the now, especially because so many things that matter to us today (women’s rights, say, or anti-racism, or democracy) have their origins in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries.
The details about the baby farms/orphanages are horrifying. Did it require a lot of research?
Yes; I had to work for a long time to find out what it cost to farm out your baby, how bad these places were compared with the other available childcare options, etc. The key detail was when I found one farm that had a separate room for the babies who were ‘paid up’, meaning handed over with a lump sum, and a silent expectation that they would not survive. For the details of how it might stunt a child to live in such an institution, I looked at modern evidence about, say, children in Romanian orphanages. The great historical fiction writer Mary Renault once said that history is horizontal rather than vertical, meaning that almost everything that happened in the past can be found happening somewhere in the world today.
Blanche Beunon’s character, being a whore and on the margins of society, has greater social mobility than most people. Yet it is her aspect as a mother that comes out very well. Frog Music is a comment on how a mother balances parenting and being a working woman — a conundrum that exists even in the twenty-first century. Did this development in the story occur to you consciously?
I was conscious of it, yes, but surprised when I first found the book moving that way. I had thought I was more or less done with the subject of motherhood after Room (both the novel, and the screenplay which I’ve been working on since the novel was published), but Blanche’s reference at Jenny’s inquest to her missing baby really haunted me. And once I’d decided to let Blanche narrate the whole story, it seemed irresistible to make the plot a sort of double hunt, for Jenny’s killer and Blanche’s child (and for her own moribund motherhood).
Why did you choose to make the protagonist ex-circus performers? Were circuses popular in nineteenth century America?
They were, but here I was drawing on fact: when I finally found Blanche (under her real name, Adele Beunon) and Arthur on a ship’s passenger list, they gave their jobs as bareback rider and acrobat respectively. I thought circus was a great background for them anyway: so cosmopolitan, bohemian, and literally risky.
Why did you include a glossary of French words and expressions used in the novel? It is an aspect that is fast disappearing from literature published in the Indian sub-continent.
As recent immigrants, Blanche and Arthur — I felt — would be very likely to use at least some French between themselves, and I liked the additional flavour — the almost untranslatable cultural concepts — that the French gave. But I don’t want to make the reader who knows no French feel left out. Of course I tried to make each sentence so that you could more or less guess what the French meant — an insult, say, or an endearment — but for the reader who likes to be sure, I wanted to offer the glossary. All the extras at the end (glossary, author’s note, song notes) can be skipped, but many readers do like to have those resources.
Would you consider Frog Music also as a kind of immigrant literature? It gives details of the French, Chinese and Irish lifestyles, the challenges including the rioting they faced upon moving to America.
Definitely. It goes with my recent collection Astray (which is all about immigrants to or migrants within North America) and my contemporary novel Landing which is about a half-Indian, all-Irish flight attendant who moves to Canada.
Do you prefer to write in longhand or directly at the computer?
I’m so dependent on software that I really doubt I could write great epics on dried leaves, come the apocalypse! I use a great program that allows me to write each scene in its own little file and them move the pieces around freely.
Where did you find much of the musical references in the novel as well as compiled in your playlist (http://8tracks.com/emmadonoghue/frog-music)? Does it continue to be available today?
I did things like looking up lists of 1870s, 1860s, 1850s songs on Wikipedia, reading books of folk songs, searching listings of spirituals, ballads, and bawdy songs. What was really tricky was finding versions of the lyrics (and the tunes, for using in the audiobook) that were definitely published before 1923, to ensure that they were out-of-copyright. Folk songs are usually passed on in a hazy spirit of ‘this is an old song’, without references, so it was a really hard slog to find their earliest published versions. But that gave me such interesting data about each song’s history (for instance, the fact that the famous Negro Spiritual ‘City Called Heaven’ turned out to be adapted from a white gospel song, or the poignant Irish ballad ‘Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye’ is actually an English music-hall satire) that I ended up including detailed notes on them too. I never end up resenting the time I’ve spent on research!