Monday, November 21, 2011

Author Interview! Sarah Jamila Stevenson

I met Sarah a few years ago through our shared love of all things Welsh. I soon learned that her talents extend beyond that - she is a writer and visual artist as well! Sarah's first book, THE LATTE REBELLION, came out in January, and we are so excited to have her here on the blog today. Be sure to check out Sarah's website for more info on her many and varied creative endeavors. She also blogs at Finding Wonderland.

We love to see our writer friends get published! Y
ou may have noticed that we like to celebrate by giving books away, and this time is no different. Since it's cold outside and we're talking about a book that features a latte on its cover, leave a comment on this post telling us your favorite drink for staying warm and you'll be entered to win a copy of Sarah's book. I'll announce the winner next Monday.

And now, on to the interview! 

Tell us about your book, THE LATTE REBELLION

The Latte Rebellion is the story of a moneymaking scheme that spins hilariously—and disastrously—out of control, but it's also a story about growing into who you are as a person. The narrator, high school senior Asha Jamison, decides to form a fictitious "movement" for students of mixed race or mixed ethnicity, called the Latte Rebellion. Originally conceived as a fun way to sell t-shirts and raise money for a post-graduation trip, over time Asha realizes that the tongue-in-cheek ideals of the movement really mean something to her after all. But when she rushes headlong into the real rebellion, it takes a toll on her personal life and her academic future.

Where did the idea for this book come from? Why did you want to write it?

In some ways, of course, this book stems from personal experiences—my own, growing up as someone of mixed ethnicity, but also the experiences of various multicultural friends and family. But these were all simmering in the back of my mind: at first, I was focused on writing a sort of madcap "caper" novel, a funny book, and not long after that, the phrase "latte rebellion" popped into my head while I was on a long car trip.

With a couple hundred miles' drive to go, I started thinking about what a latte rebellion might be, and soon Asha's character popped into my head. She's named after a song by the band Cornershop, "Brimful of Asha," and I think of them as making sort of multi-ethnic, "hybrid" music, and that's one of the elements that started bringing the ideas together for me. And once I started thinking about the fact that there aren't very many books out there that talk about the experience of growing up with multiple cultural identities from a young person's viewpoint, I became very eager to write that book. I was just as eager to write the book in a way that was accessible and fun and funny, rather than taking the premise too seriously.

What made you want to become a writer? When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I've always enjoyed writing, ever since I was a kid and used my mom's old manual typewriter to make my own "magazines." But for most of my life I was focused on a different creative area—visual art. In fact, I was pretty sure I was going to end up illustrating the covers of books rather than writing their contents! But I had always written stories and poems, and I even had at least two ideas for novels that I had started and then abandoned (fortunately for everyone—trust me) about 30 or 40 pages in. So I guess the possibility was always lurking in the background.

But I didn't think about writing as a career until about 1999 or 2000, when I was working at the website IGN.com and doing a little freelance humor writing for them on the side. I realized how much I was enjoying it, and decided to take a fiction writing class online to see whether I might be interested in pursuing it further. As it turned out, I really wanted to keep at this writing gig, but I felt like I needed a lot more practice and guidance to know where I wanted to take it, so I applied to graduate school for creative writing. After finishing an MFA at Mills College in Oakland, I felt a lot more comfortable with my own skills and I started sending my work out into the world!

Could you tell us a little about your writing process?

It's a little different for every project, but this is what my process usually looks like: I get a bunch of random ideas over a period of time and write them on nearby scraps of paper, some of which get lost. I compile them into a Word document at some point when the random ideas are starting to take a coherent form in my brain. Usually at this stage, I have a list of ideas that are either uselessly vague ("I want to write a dystopian book") or tangentially detailed ("I should totally use the word 'luminaria' somewhere in this story"). When I look at them all together, though, connections start to form, and once the ideas start to flow, I usually don't have trouble coming up with a general storyline and main characters. I ask myself a lot of "what if" questions. Sometimes even before the bones of the piece are clear in my head, I can't stop myself from starting to write.

Once I've started writing, the details start to become clearer as I go. Often I don't know how exactly things will end when I start writing the story, but usually I've figured it out by the time I'm about a third of the way in. Then the problem is how to get from where I am to the ending! Once I've figured out the plot, though, I usually draw myself a little flow chart or diagram showing the different strands of the story and how they relate. This helps a lot with timing and figuring out the order of scenes. This all sounds very disorganized as I type it out...I guess it probably is.

The theme of this blog is challenging our "Gnomes" - those things that hold us back in writing and in life. Do you have any Gnomes of your own and would you mind telling us what you do to slap them upside the head?

Sometimes I suffer from a veritable plague of Gnomes! So I definitely relate to the theme of this blog. I'd say the most pernicious ones for me have to do with getting discouraged or disheartened, letting my self-confidence slip, and forgetting to enjoy what I'm doing. There's also a very annoying Gnome that I like to call "crippling what's-the-point-itis." Sometimes I just have to take a break from a project and think about something else for a while, letting my right brain rest and recuperate. When that doesn't help, one of my favorite ways to slap the Gnomes upside the head is to revisit books about the creative process that I've found inspiring and comforting: two of my all-time favorites are Art and Fear by David Bayles & Ted Orland and Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. I also really like What It Is by Lynda Barry. There's a great blog on the topic of staying inspired as a writer, called Wordswimmer (http://wordswimmer.blogspot.com/), which I also visit from time to time. And when I really need to just sit down and write, I'm not above bribing myself with treats.

I'm sure glad to hear I'm not the only one who suffers from crippling what's-the-point-itis when it comes to writing. Thanks for stopping by, Sarah!


Robin said...

Great interview! Thanks!

jjsundevil said...

motivates me
where is the book sold

aquafortis said...

Thanks so much for inviting me to stop by! :)

Cassidy Jo said...

Stephen's cocoa—a new flavor every year. This year...pumpkin spice :) Thanks, Maegan!

Russo said...

I am so excited to read this book. I told Jameses we are gonna have fight to see who gets to read it first. I am grateful you did the interview with Maegan because I learned a lot!

William Kendall said...

Great interview! Sarah, it sounds like fun!