Thursday, July 1, 2010


The StorySleuths were fortunate to be able to ask a few questions of the amazing Rita Williams-Garcia. Busy with her work as a member of the faculty at the Vermont College of Fine Arts and dashing to and from the ALA conference, Ms. Williams-Garcia took time out of her busy schedule for us, and we thank her. And now, some words from Rita:

1. We always hear that when writing historical fiction it is challenging to keep from including each and every incredibly cool tidbit gathered during the research phase. Is there one particular piece of information that you really wanted to plug in but just couldn't find the place for?

For sure! Actually, there were many that went into my “Unused” folder. I made a deal with myself, that if I found a place for any one of them, in it would go. The other deal I made was to not fish around in the “unused” folder. I’d have to come upon a place in the writing that begged to have the material woven in. Now, 1968 was a huge year. I kept a diary of one line entries--truth told, too many TV Guide entries--and it was hard to pick, so I remained close to the “Free Huey” movement. I desperately wanted to include Angela Davis and couldn’t do it as naturally as I would have liked to. And there were so many historical events from my childhood. This meant my recollections of Dr. King’s assassination which lead to the Eric Starvo Galt aka James Earl Ray manhunt; hearing Bobby Kennedy’s speech at the Monterey Peninsula Airport and taking a picture with him; more specifics about the Vietnam conflict, and Eartha Kitt being removed as “Catwoman” from the TV show Batman because of her anti-war remarks at a luncheon with Lady Bird Johnson--could not be used in the novel. I could always feel myself reaching to make connections and I’ll tell myself to “stay on story.” It’s part of my work song.

2. Are there any characters that changed significantly since your original concept, and if so, how are they different? Are there characters that started out in the story but got cut?

This time around I didn’t have to cut any characters, but their roles did change. The most significant change was Fern. I always intended Fern to be Delphine’s baby. I had an image of her, and her role was to bring out Delphine’s maternal instincts while hampering Delphine’s carefree childhood. I had given her a sweet little soul and Miss Patty Cake. But then, Fern was also the reason or excuse for Cecile’s departure. Her sweetness doesn’t really work on Cecile who won’t leap up to get her a simple glass of ice water. And then I saw and understood why: Like Cecile, Fern insists on herself even at birth. That there is something in Fern that wants to fly off the handle in a rage (although this has to be understood in her fist banging), whereas in Cecile it is overt. I had to make a confrontation between Fern and Cecile. Fern is the undoing of everything.

Sister Mukumbu’s role had changed significantly from the plan. Originally, Sister Mukumbu was to take on more responsibility and nurturing, but that would have been too convenient. As a result there was an opportunity to let Mrs. Woods step out into the story. That worked out well because I intended to have Hirohito’s father, a Vietnam vet turned Black Panther, more visible. Brother Woods’ presence was more logical, historical and I could go to my “Unused” folder for an “in scene” appearance with Brother Woods fixing the Go-Kart. But I saw this Japanese woman sitting with Delphine, Vonetta, Fern and Hirohito. She was naturally maternal, a strong but nurturing mother to Hirohito. She was the antithesis of Cecile, so good-bye Brother Woods. But also, my editor, Rosemary Brosnan’s questions about Delphine and sisters being on their own gave another opportunity to activate Mrs. Woods.

3. What did you start out with? Character? Story idea? The era?

Years before I even proposed the story, I knew I would write from my childhood years and that it would be a story not yet written. A few years ago it was time to propose stories for my contract and I already had JUMPED fully formed in my head. As I wrote my email to my editor, I heard, “RUN!” and saw this woman taking off, leaving her small children to struggle to keep up with her. I wrote a basic story idea about this woman who reunited with her children and was involved with the Black Panthers, but was on the run from Maxie, whose printer she had “found.” The names of the characters spilled out onto the screen without even taking a moment. And I knew where there names had come from and why Cecile left them. I heard Delphine say, “When Cecile left, Fern wasn’t on the bottle. When Fern left, Vonetta could walk but wanted to be picked up. When Fern left Pa wasn’t sick, but he wasn‘t doing well, either” (from my notebook). Then I asked, why does she say it this way, in a cadence? The answer: because she grew up hearing cadence. From where? From Cecile. And the images rained! Writing on the wall. Homelessness. The girls’ father, a lonely but loving man. A teen curled up around Milton and Countee Cullen in the stacks of a library. A finger pointing down and a voice yelling, “What is wrong with this picture?” This story was telling itself to me faster than I could write it.

My mind and pre-research frame of references were full: My cousins were involved with the Black Panthers. That my mother smoked and played smoky music. I had free breakfasts in the summer and a Sickle Cell Anemia shot, courtesy of the Black Panthers. Nikki Giovanni printing her own poems on her own printing press. That a Black Panther woman, who was probably just a teen said, “Little Sister, have you had your smile today?” And that nowhere on the news would I see her smile. Or George Jackson’s smile. Or the loving family man in Malcolm X who wasn’t a Black Panther, but whose assassination inspired the movement. I believe it was us, the children, the ones who were served who know what the world doesn’t. I wrote a lot before I could actually get to the business of putting my scenes and dialogue into chapters. I’d dream deeply, ask and answer questions. How is this so, Rita? Explain this to me.

4. Is there a particular element of craft that was particularly challenging for you when writing One Crazy Summer? If so, how did you overcome it?

I had to stop “telling” the story as much as I loved Delphine’s voice and point of view. I had to remove a good deal of telling by asking myself, “Rita, what happens when this is extricated?” If I didn’t do it, my editor (Rosemary Brosnan at Harpercollins) would strongly suggest it. I also had to give Delphine “the hook” and let her be in the scene and not tell us about it. 

5. If there is one final edit you could make, what would it be?

It’s a small thing, but every time I come across it, I pause. At the end of “Everyone Knows the King of the Sea,” Delphine says, “I hadn’t cared if I never saw that grinning mammal again.“ This is correct because she is retelling from the past, but every time I read it I lose Delphine. I would revise to the incorrect, “I didn’t care if I never saw that grinning mammal again.” Told you it was small.

Ms. Williams-Garcia -- the StorySleuths thank you for sharing!

StorySleuths Tip #82: When writing historical fiction allow your reasearch to give the story flavor and texture, only including those actual facts that fit the story, rather than changing the story to fit the facts. From RWG's response above--wait for a place in the story that begs to have the material woven in.

Post #7: Guest Posting by Monica Edinger --Attending to Your Audience