Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Book Giveaway and Guest Teaching Author Interview with Carolyn Marsden!

The Teaching Authors are thrilled to present an interview with our dear friend and Guest Teaching Author Carolyn Marsden.

Carolyn grew up in Mexico City and Southern California. Although she wrote for adults for many years, she began to write for children after the birth of her daughters. She attended Vermont College and earned an MFA in Writing for Children. Her first book, The Gold-Threaded Dress, published by Candlewick, was a Booklist Top Ten Youth Novel of 2002. Her second novel, Silk Umbrellas, was a Texas Bluebonnet nominee and Booklist Top Ten Art Novel of 2003. Since then, Carolyn has published several more award-winning middle grade chapter books with Candlewick and Viking, almost all with multicultural themes. The Buddha’s Diamonds was a Southern California Booksellers Association finalist and a Booklist Top Ten Religion Novel of 2008. Her latest book, Sahwira: An African Friendship, is set in what is now Zimbabwe. Carolyn lives in La Jolla with her Thai husband and two half-Thai daughters.

To celebrate Carolyn’s appearance on our blog, we're giving away an autographed copy of her newest book, Sahwira: An African Friendship. To enter the drawing, see the instructions at the end of this post.

Welcome, Carolyn! How did you become a Teaching Author?

In 1981, when I was living in Tucson, Arizona, mostly writing poetry for adults, I got a job as a Poet-in-Residence. For either a week or a month at a time, I visited urban and rural schools (K-12), including those on the Navajo and Pima reservations. Whenever I entered a classroom, I had about one minute to convince the kids that writing poetry could be fun. Following the lead of Kenneth Koch (Rose, Where Did You Get that Red?), I never used poetry written for children as my examples. I enjoyed seeing the children’s writing rise to new levels when I used poems by writers like Shakespeare or William Carlos Williams, or poems from other cultures. The students absorbed the rich language, rhythms, and subject matter. To my eternal delight, the kid at the back of the class, the one the teacher told me wouldn’t write anything, the one with the learning disability, invariably wrote the best poem.

What’s a common problem your students have, and how do you address it?

The most common problem is being too abstract or general in the writing. I address this by pressing for details. For example, if the student is writing about a flower, I ask what kind of flower? If it’s a daisy, I ask what color? If it’s a white daisy, I keep inquiring until the student arrives at the kind of particulars necessary for good writing. For example, this might be a white daisy picked for a dead pet hamster’s funeral under a damp May sky.

Can you describe your writing process, including collaborating with other authors?

I used to get story ideas based on experiences in the lives of my two daughters. However, as they’ve grown older, my ideas mostly come from people who’ve lived interesting lives in other cultures.

Normally, I work on at least three projects at a time. This somewhat scattered approach isn’t my preference—I just have too many ideas!

I usually start work by taking notes in a little book. Then I transfer whatever I know of the story into the computer, even if some parts are sketchy. My computer is in a 1959 Airstream trailer. I three-hole punch the pages and put them in a binder. I carry this binder everywhere, seizing every small opportunity to edit by hand. Every day I type and print out a new version. And so on, many, many times!

Because I write about cultures other than my own, I’ve always used gatekeepers to vet my work and to bounce ideas off of. Beginning with The Jade Dragon, I’ve written four books in actual collaboration, using and transforming people’s childhood stories. Although the material is gleaned from real life, all of my collaborative stories are extensively fictionalized.

In writing The Jade Dragon, Virginia Loh took care of the rough writing (the most terrifying part for me!) and I did the more relaxing work of revision. Virginia wrote at night, which worked nicely since I’m a day person. Mornings I’d wake to find new material already in my in-box. We spent endless hours brainstorming in cafes.

I wrote The Buddha’s Diamonds with a Vietnamese Buddhist monk. Typically, Phap Niem swung in a hammock, chatting about his childhood, while I scribbled furiously. He left for Vietnam as I was still shaping the first draft, and didn’t return until after the book was published.

Whereas I grew up in Mexico with missionary parents, my first cousin, Philip Matzigkeit, lived on a mission in Rhodesia, now the troubled country of Zimbabwe. Philip always told fascinating tales of his childhood. Yet I was reluctant to write the story because of the complicated political and historical backdrop. Finally, with several books under my belt, I felt ready. While Philip didn’t do any of the actual writing, he did write many great informative emails. Because I couldn’t travel to Africa, I had to get a sense of the setting through Philip. He and I also spent time in cafes, drinking coffee, hashing out the plot. After a couple of intense years of work together, we produced Sahwira: An African Friendship.

Philip’s friend, Daniella Cinque, had lived in an institute for girls in Naples in the early 1950s. The institute was a place where mothers who had been raped by soldiers dropped off their unwanted children. One afternoon, Daniella recounted memories to me while I typed notes in my computer. After that, I did the writing mostly on my own. Because I didn’t want to let go of some of the rich, beautiful material, plotting the story was quite a long process. Take Me with You will be released by Candlewick in spring 2010.

One of my future projects will be with a Czech doctor who escaped the Czech Republic along with his family at age fourteen. Because Milan lives across the country in Pennsylvania, (and isn’t the best communicator!), working together will present new challenges.

How can teachers use your books in the classroom?

My books can be used as teaching tools for the many countries I’ve written about--Thailand, Vietnam, Italy, Rhodesia, Mexico (and soon, I hope Iraq and Czechoslovakia!). They also bring to life various historical periods, ranging from 600 AD (Starfields, upcoming from Candlewick in 2011), to 1950s Naples (Take Me With You), 1963 Rhodesia (Sahwira), to 1983 Fairfax, Virginia (The Jade Dragon). I’ve also written through the eyes of characters for whom religion is central. I’ve explored Thai and Vietnamese Buddhism, Protestantism (the Methodist Church), Catholicism, Mayan Shamanism, (and soon, I hope, Islam!). Several of my books address the issues of immigrants to the US.

When did you first know you were a writer?

When I was thirteen, I discovered that I could temporarily escape the angst of early puberty and live out my fantasies through writing. I first wrote a take-off on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, then turned to romantic stories featuring myself with the Beatles, especially Paul McCartney. Through writing, I discovered my life’s path.

Nowadays, my writing is no longer motivated by escape or fantasy, but is more about exploring the worlds, minds, and hearts of my characters.

Would you share a favorite writing exercise with our readers?

One of my favorite writing exercises is very simple. I make a random list of 15 words using a variety of nouns, verbs, adjectives. An example of a list might be: sheep, crisscross, damp, fling, clever, tide, shadow, amber, avoid, glassy, stone, etc. I ask my students to write quickly, using all the words at least once. Of course they can use other words as well, as well as variations on these words (e.g. avoided instead of avoid) I tell them not to try to make sense—to just let the sentences flow. This exercise invariably produces wonderful poems!

Thank you, Carolyn! The Teaching Authors appreciate your visit and your insights! 

Readers, before entering our contest, please read our Giveaway Guidelines here.

Now, for the contest requirements:
For a chance to win an autographed copy of Carolyn Marsden's Sahwira: An African Friendship, post a comment to today's blog post telling us why you would like a copy of the book. To qualify, your entry must be posted by 11 p.m. Saturday, November 14, 2009 (Central Standard Time). The winner will be announced by 11 p.m., Sunday, November 15, 2009.

We look forward to reading your comments. Good luck!


StoryForce said...

Thank you. Very interesting interview with a unique author. I have a question for Ms. Marsden. If she is taking questions, I would be delighted to know more about how she works out the details of her collaborations. I notice she her collaborators are named co-authors. Any advice she has for working out this arrangement would be valuable, as I am writing a book with a multi-cultural aspect and would love to have someone on board who has more experience and knowledge than I.
I'd like a copy of her latest book because it looks like a great story.
Mary Cronk Farrell

Rebekah said...

Thank you for having a guest author! I am amazed at her writing process because I have been wanting to do similar interviews with my grandmother (Mema) to write the incredible stories of her fascinating childhood. Now I am truly inspired! I would love a copy of the book! I have recently taken a new position as Instructional Coach at my school. As a writer, working with teachers and students at all grade levels on improving writer's workshop is always a top priority for me. Using this book in my model lessons would be amazing. Not to mention the exposure would be far reaching since I usually try to use the same book with modified applications from kinder up through fifth grade. Thank you again- I look forward to reading your next inspiring post!

Heather and Jordan said...

I learned a lot in this interview! I think getting on author's perspective on how to teach writing and the processing of writng itself is always inspirational. I am entering to win this book because I have always loved the idea of signed books having been "touched" by the actual author. For me, it takes away some of the inpersonal aspects of mass market book production.

Nina Johnson said...

Having a copy of the book would be great but her other books sound wonderful as well. I learned that my way of writing more than one thing at a time is okay. I too have too many ideas. Thanks for admitting to that. lol

I love the idea of working with others on the parts that you don't know and that it is okay to admit that.

Thanks for having such a wonderful interview with such a wonderful lady.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I am amazingly blown away by Carolyn. No need to enter me, ladies; you've certainly bestowed enough kindness on me as it is.

Thanks for the e-mail. My turn to return the kindness, at least in small part; I've got this posted at Win a Book.

Sheila Deeth said...

What a fascinating interview. I used to help out in elementary schools in England, and the way you help a child describe a daisy reminds me of that. There's something so fulfilling about bringing words and pictures out with a child.

I'm intrigued by how you collaborate with others to write, and I'd love to have the chance to read one of your books.

sdeeth at msn dot com

Angie said...

I would love to have a copy of this book for several reasons. I, too, had cousins who grew up in Africa as MKs and I would like to read something that relates to that experience and let them know about this book. Another reason is I am a sixth grade teacher at a Christian school where the black/white ratio is nearly 50-50. I think my students would love this story and it would also enhance our World Studies curriculum.

Angie Bell

Pam said...

What a fascinating interview! I would love to win a copy of this book. As someone who has lived and traveled in Asia and who married a Filipino man with whom we have 2 children, I am very interested in other cultures. As an adult, I find myself saddened by the fact that I hated history in school so took the minimum required courses and no more. After travelling and learning so much about the world and its' people, I've realized that I love the history - it's the way it's traditionally taught that I have a problem with. The very word "history" contains the word "story" yet it is the stories that get neglected. Reading those stories truly opens my eyes to the world, the people, the cultures. I want to bring this to my children as they grow up.

melacan at hotmail dot com

Lori Calabrese said...

I loved learning more about Carolyn and her writing process. She's an amazing woman and such an inspiration. Thanks so much for sharing!

All the best,

Margo Dill said...

Thanks for a great interview. Your historical fiction books sound so wonderful--I am a big fan of historical fiction and using it to teach kids about different places and times!

Margo Dill
Read These Books and Use Them

learn_decide said...

Historical fiction brings life to subjects many students find boring and thus refuse to spend the time to learn. It is exciting to read well-written historical fiction and I look forward to reading more books by Carolyn Marsden. Thank you for featuring her.

With the funding cuts our school libraries in California are now dealing with, these contests offer a chance for them to add current literature to their shelves. Thank you.

Mary Bowman-Kruhm said...

I am working on a book about a young Maasai warrior in Kenya. The more opportunities our young people have to learn about cultures other their own, the richer their lives will be. I applaud you, Carolyn! I love reading about your writing process and your Airstream makes my little office seem like a very ordinary spot to write.

MoziEsmé said...

My 2.5yo daughter has spent most of her life in Mozambique. This would be a lovely book for her library now that we're in Oregon...

janemaritz at yahoo dot com