May 19, 2009

The Summer Blog Blast Tour: Grrrl Power!

"No way do I see you doing this, Kayla."

Then the two of us stared at each other. See, here was the thing about my father. He hated the fact that I was such a loser. His favorite story to tell is about an incident that happened when I was like five or six. Some boy pushed me off the swing set, so I went to play on the slide. The same boy came over and pushed me again. He says I got up and slugged the boy. He says this with pride.

He says, to his knowledge, that was probably the last time I stood up for myself.

He says I need to stand up for myself more.

He says my friendship with "a dominant personality like Rosalie" is the worst thing ever to happen to me. No doubt he feels that my life would drastically improve if I let a dominant personality like him push me around!

- from The Kayla Chronicles, by Sherri Winston

Smart, self-conscious Kayla has a problem. Her father has bet her five hundred dollars that she won't have the courage to go through with an audition to the Lady Lions, the cheer group at her high school. She's already being pushed into auditioning by her best friend, Rosalie, who is positive a girl like Kayla will never make the cut, but she needs her to try and fail big, so they can take the Lady Lions down for discrimination. Kayla's best friend thinks she's going to fail. Kayla's father thinks she's too scared to try. And Kayla's too timid to step up, speak out, and claim what she wants.

Kayla's lost in a family with her military dad - whom she calls The Great Oppressor -- and her fake helpless grandmother, whom she privately nicknames Demolition Diva. She feels like she has NOTHING whatsoever in common with her mother, who is a passive female who gave up her career to cater to her father and have kids, and the self-satisfied little termite who is her sister, whose empty head is only filled with drama and divahood. Until she passed away, Kayla was raised by a Real Woman, her grandmother Jojo, whose strong example of fulfilled womanhood is something Kayla had always hoped to follow.

Problem is, though she shops thrift stores, Kayla loves shoes. And clothes. And cheerleading. And when she makes the Lady Lions, Kayla is both overjoyed, horrified, and thoroughly conflicted.

Is life wide enough to encompass more than one ideology? Or, to break it down: is it possible to be jonesing for shoes and still waving the banner for feminism, too?

Sherri Winston graduated from Michigan State University with a major in journalism and a minor in history. She works in the field of journalism, at present, a columnist for the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, and in her copious free time (as much as is left after being a mom to two girls), she's writing novels. Her first, Acting was published in 2004, and is the story of twins who could not be more different. Said Kirkus, "Full of yo-yoing emotions many teens will recognize, this is a forthright examination of sex that makes plain how hard it is to keep the hormones from raging."

Her most recent novel, The Kayla Chronicles garnered positive comment from Booklist, whose starred review asserted, "few recent novels for younger YAs mesh levity and substance this successfully," while blogger Jia at Dear Author agreed that it was "told with the right amount of attitude and sass."

We were curious about the author of two such vivid and insightful books about young adult women, and tracked her down. We're excited that Sherri's found time to talk with us.

Finding Wonderland: First of all, thank you for coming! We just wanted to say how much we love the cover and theme of The Kayla Chronicles, and want to pass on our kudos to designer Alison Impey (who also designed Ghost Girl and Every Soul A Star.) To get to our questions -- in The Kayla Chronicles, you depict feminist characters of a number of different types—the militant, the word-warrior, the old-school activist. Do you see yourself in any of the characters in your novel? Were any of their experiences informed by real-life events?

Sherri Winston: Kayla was a vehicle for me to examine some "what ifs" from my life. What if I'd let it be known how much I loved dancing? What if I'd had the courage to step out from my "brainiac" image? The strong personal influences, such as her grandmother and Dr. X were both influenced by my own grandmother... a woman who never learned to hold her tongue, God bless her and rest her soul.

FW: Hah. Pretty much every family has a relative or two like that!

Every novel also has that element of "what if," in a way. Your first novel, Acting, features a set of identical twins whose lives and attitudes are vastly different, much like Kayla's and her sister, Amira's. What made you decide to feature twins as a focus for a YA story? A more traditional problem novel would have featured the narrator as the one to become pregnant. Did you ever consider writing the novel in this way? Why or why not?

SDW: I have had a life-long fascination with twindom. And, too, a life-long fascination with examining how life looks through the eyes of the sibling who is not the focus of the crisis.

FW: Those two points certainly came through successfully in Acting. It's really unusual to have the "bad girl" be the one a.) not pregnant, and b.) telling the tale.

Certain topics in young adult fiction are described as “edgy;” Acting has what can be considered an “edgy” topic, as it pertains to the drama surrounding a teen pregnancy, yet librarians report that your books are often stolen from the library, so definitely, teens want to read about “edgy.” What’s your take on the trends in young adult fiction for teens of color? What was your experience interacting with publishing professionals on these touchy topics? Did you have to change any details you would have preferred to leave in? What would you do the same in dealing with these topics, and what would you do differently now?

SDW: Acting was my baby; I felt very connected to the two "Eves" in the story. Edgy storylines are only edgy because they deal with what teens know to be true and adults wish was untrue!

I was lucky with Acting. The publisher (Marshall Cavendish) embraced the topic and very little was reworked. If anything, I was allowed to flesh out some challenging aspects of the story. I can't think of much I'd do differently with Acting. I loved the characters, the imagery and the immediacy of the story. This wasn't a story about girls of color. This was a story about girls of any color who struggle with the power of their sexuality and the power to shape their own identities. That's good stuff.

FW: Now, The Kayla Chronicles uses a fast pace and humor (love those Kayla-isms!) to get across the important ideas of being true to oneself as well as being open to others. What is your background in humor writing? What were some of the challenges of writing a novel that was both serious and hilarious?

SDW: Believe it or not, Kayla came about as a sort of antidote to Acting. Acting was so serious and encouraged me to reach into dark, hidden feelings. As a way to lift my spirits, Kayla became the funny, self-effacing character in my head. The biggest challenge with writing her was trying to make sure she wasn't too snarky. Oh, we of the acerbic wit set are oft misunderstood! :-)

FW: Oh, we feel you on that one!
It can be argued that the reading public as well as the publishing world is slow to change when it comes to new ideas and new ways of looking at race and ethnicity. Yet your main characters all, in one way or another, flout convention and challenge the mainstream depictions of young women of color. What's the reception of your characters been like? Have you encountered any challenges from readers or anyone else about your very individual, very non-stereotypical protagonists?

SDW: Not at all. While living in Fort Lauderdale, I routinely visited schools with large populations of color and found that the girls who read never batted an eye. They know, like I know, that the public perception is often influenced by media. The truth is, black girls tend not to be nearly as hip, street, gangsta, ghetto, recalcitrant or cynical as media would have us believe. We read, we laugh, we fear, we love, we seek joy and so on...we just do it with our own flair.

FW: Too true.
Along the same lines, do you see it as one of the duties of the writer to help change minds? To educate, inform, or enlighten as well as entertain? Do you consider yourself to be, as a non-stereotype embracing writer, an activist writer as well?

SDW: I think the opportunity to educate, inform, enlighten and entertain are the province of every author. If I did not feel a project would allow me to do all those things, I would find it a project not worth doing.

FW: So, how did you get started writing fiction? What was your path to publication? Was it always your goal to write fiction for young adults? Would you consider writing fiction for adults?

SDW: I started writing fiction when I was seven. I love the genre totally and completely. As a kid, my goal was to grow up and create the first African American Nancy Drew character. That dream still drives me. I have some ideas for an adult series, but right now YA and middle readers have my heart. The only non-fiction I've ever considered is history. And as of yet, I'm not quite smart enough to make that work.

FW: We're not buying the "not smart" bit, but we are cheering the African American Nancy Drew! YA lit needs more smart mysteries, and we're looking forward to seeing what you do in that vein!

Now, do you find that your journalistic writing informs your fiction writing, or vice-versa? If so, how? Is it a positive influence or a challenge?

SDW: The two forms feed of one another. My journalism became stronger and more accessible because of use of fiction-stylization. My fiction is stronger because of how journalism brings structure and immediacy to my writing. Both demonstrate that good writing is good writing and the laws of good writing can only make you stronger.

FW: Ah. But sometimes, you've got to pick the career that pays, right? In this economy, as all writers know, publishing houses are folding, and writers are feeling the pinch as much as anyone. What, if anything, do you want to say to writers about the value of writing or the creative life in this era? What can you say to young people who want to write, but can’t see their parents looking at that as a way to pay their bills?

SDW: Writing is a tough business. But whether you go to law school or become an accountant to pay the bills, if you are a writer, then eventually you will -- you must -- write. Writers find a way no matter the economy.

FW: What are you currently working on? What can you tell us about it?

SDW: I am working on an adorable middle-grade book about 10-year-old entrepreneur who wants to become president of her school. It's funny and heartwarming and I've really come to love the character and can't wait for the book to come out.

FW: Sounds great! Now, you're a somewhat elusive character, so we want to give our readers a little insight into the essential YOU. What’s a question you’ve not been asked, but would like your readers to know about you?

SDW: I'm a very audio-driven person. So if you'd asked me how, if at all, do audio books affect my writing, I'd probably say, immensely. When you listen to audio books, you become aware of how your characters sound. I often cannot write a character until I can hear them in my head. Once they have a voice, a cadence, a tonal quality, then they come alive. But I have to be able to hear them before they can become real.

FW: Voices bring characters alive. That's cool. We really "heard" Kayla in her various funny asides, her running commentary on her whacked out family, and her various Kayla-isms, which kept us smiling. We've so enjoyed having you visit us, and we look forward to -- no, expect, my dear, to see that Nancy Drew character coming at us soon!

Thank you for being here!!

SDW:You're so very welcome! Thanks so much for including me!

Aside from our exceptional contribution, there's a lot of good stuff going on with the Summer Blog Blast Tour today. Here's the skinny on what's going on with the rest of the blogosphere:

And JUST SO YOU KNOW: the Guys Lit Wire Book Fair for Boys continues through Friday. We're supporting the guys incarcerated in L.A. County whose lives are going to be better with books to read. In partnership with InsideOut, this Book Fair is full of awesome: an opportunity to read, an opportunity to write, an opportunity to think. Do, get involved, and thanks.


Summer said...

Wonderful post! I was just thinking about Sherri Winston the other day and here she is. So weird

Anonymous said...

I came by and read this much earlier, but forgot to comment. D'oh!

I'd love to see an African American Nancy Drew character. That would rock!

And amen to this:

Writing is a tough business. But whether you go to law school or become an accountant to pay the bills, if you are a writer, then eventually you will -- you must -- write. Writers find a way no matter the economy.

Vivian Mahoney said...

I love your interviews. I've never read any of Sherri's books and am looking forward to some good reading!

Saints and Spinners said...

Thanks for this interview. I must admit to having a life-long fascination with twins as well. I'm hoping to have both books in the queue for the upcoming 48 Hour Book Challenge.

Ethel Rohan said...

Another great post and interview, thank you. I especially related to Kayla's dilemma regarding the contradictions within herself: can she be a cheerleader and a strong, empowered, and liberated girl/woman?

We are all a collection of contradictions, and some of those are easier to reconcile than others. Like my writing, I feel that I am forever a work-in-progress.

As always, lots to ponder on here. Thanks again.

Erin said...

Really fun interview. I especially liked what she said about "a life-long fascination with examining how life looks through the eyes of the sibling who is not the focus of the crisis."--that stuff always intrigues, me too. I'll be watching a movie and the hero is jumping out of a car which then blows up, and I'm wondering about the girl on the sidewalk who's just an "extra" walking by. What's her POV of the story?

oh--and thanks muchly for the kind words. :)

Tarie Sabido said...

Wow, Tanita! I love how you asked questions about really important issues.

I want an African American Nancy Drew, too!

tanita✿davis said...

Tarie, thanks! This was a two-person job, though, as all our interviews are. We really loved reading this book, and hope you check it out!