Tuesday, September 6, 2011

An Interview With Author Meg Medina

Launching Darcy Pattison's Random Acts of Publicity:

Meg, reading Tia Isa
I first met Meg Medina in the mid-'90s, when she was collaborating with dancer/choreographer Cherie Carson on a theatrical piece based on the life of her Cuban grandmother. Meg was a journalist for the now-defunct alt-weekly iCE in Palm Beach County; she also wrote grants for the Center for Creative Education. But for as long as I’ve known her, Meg has been passionately and creatively engaged with the Latino experience, and the joys and difficulties of navigating a bicultural heritage. I was bowled over when I found out she’d turned to writing fiction for children. And I was blown away by the beauty of her debut novel, Milagros: Girl From Away (Christy Ottaviano Books: An Imprint of Henry Holt Books for Young Readers).

Meg followed Milagros with a picture book, out this summer, Tia Isa Wants a Car (Candlewick Press, Spanish and paperback editions to follow in 2012). Her young adult novel, THE GIRL WHO COULD SILENCE THE WIND, is forthcoming from Candlewick in March of 2012. Although she still has family in South Florida, she now lives in Richmond, Virginia, with her husband and kids. She’s one of the smartest and most eloquent people I know.

I'm glad to launch Random Acts of Publicity with Meg, since September is also National Hispanic Heritage Month (see Meg's recipe for arroz con pollo, and her author's blog, here, and follow her on Twitter here. I've got a giveaway: a signed copy of Milagros goes to a randomly selected commenter on this post. I’ll contact the lucky winner at the end of the week about how to mail it to you.

Questions for Meg Medina
When I knew you, years ago, you were a journalist and poet. What attracted you to writing for kids?

It’s been so long since I’ve thought of myself that way, but you’re right. That’s how I started in writing. In fact, one of my first cover stories was about a man who claimed he could do breast augmentation through hypnosis.  He found his clients at bowling alleys and strip clubs. 

I was, and still am, attracted to writing in general, but in the end, all parts of my life converged around children.

I had been a teacher for many years – a job that I adored. I was also a young mother, and I was spending a lot of time reading aloud children’s books and stories, which is such a treat. So maybe it was a case of my circumstances, life experience and talents finally converging. When I started to write Milagros, the character who appeared was a child, and the story that unfolded was natural to her. I still write pieces for adults, but the place I am happiest is the world of children’s books.

It’s rare to find an author who writes in all three children’s lit categories—you’ve published a middle grade, a picture book, and now you have a YA forthcoming. Do you have a category you feel most at home with? Where do you see your next book going?

Several years ago, I attended an SCBWI conference and the advice was to write a few books in one category before branching out. I sat in the audience thinking, Uh-oh.

It’s probably great advice, but I haven’t done that. I’ve written each story in the format that is best suited to the tale. The challenge of being this spread out is that you don’t get to build a readership quickly. But I don’t see how I could have done things otherwise.  Sometimes, a story needs the poetic world of picture books; sometimes it needs the meandering time of a novel. When I feel unsure, I try to remember Sonya Hartnett, one of my heroines in children’s book writing. She refuses to even consider category when she’s writing. The story is the story.

Your imaginary settings, Tres Montes and Las Brisas, are so important in Milagros and The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind. Were they based on real places? How much research did you do about place, time, and culture while you were writing?

I make every place imaginary, although naturally, I pull from my own family roots, which are in Cuba. Basically, I try to suggest a region. Latino culture spans 20 countries, each with its distinct history and worldview.  The Latino experience, so to speak, is really many Latino experiences.

Milagros is closely modeled on the Cuba that my family missed and idealized after they left in the 1960s. I gave myself permission to take their descriptions and maximize the magic of the place even more. I am not interested in writing historical fiction – at least not yet. I am interested in creating a world for my characters that feels real within the novel.

For Tres Montes, I pulled more from Central America, drawing on broad strokes of the many cultures there and again juxtaposing magic. In the end, what was most important to me was creating a setting where the earth’s wealth and poverty were all strangely linked. I tried to write a magical story that touched on the current issues of why young people migrate and the needs that lead them to that dangerous choice.

The concept of the milagro (charm) appears in both your novels, as the name of your central character, and as the charms given to Sonia as a symbol of her destiny. Why are you occupied with this idea?

I am not a religious person, strictly speaking, but this has never stopped me from believing in the miraculous within each person. 

Milagros seemed the perfect name for a girl who would have to cross the world in the care of stingrays. But, as you know, milagros are also religious charms used in Central and South America. They’re left as offerings on altars, etc., when people pray for a specific need. You might have a little metal mouth milagro if you have a toothache, or a car charm if you are going on a long trip and hope for safety.

"I love the idea of a physical representation of our hopes to remind us not to keep them secret, but to put them out there, literally, for the world to see. Most of getting what you want in life is, after all, saying it aloud, letting your desire be known."

Are you writing “magic realism?” What does that mean for you?

I do write in magical realism. It’s the style of so many of Latin America’s iconic writers, and I love the idea of taking that style and bringing it to bicultural kids, especially those Latinos who are English dominant.

To me, magical realism means writing in a style where we find the magical in the absolutely ordinary moments of our lives. That’s very different from the world-building of fantasies, such as Harry Potter.  

Are you a careful plotter (in advance of writing) or a seat of the pantser?

I am most definitely a seat of the pantser – in almost every aspect of life. In terms of writing, I can honestly tell you that the quickest way to kill one of my manuscripts is to ask me to outline what will happen. It starts to feel like a checklist and all of my characters get sucked dry.

For me, the joy of writing comes in meeting the characters and events unexpectedly, the way we face things in real life. You just never know who is going to be important. For example, one of the main characters in The Girl who Could Silence the Wind, is Pancho, a taxi boy. In one of my early drafts, he was just one line….a boy waiting to pick up Sonia and her Tía Neli at the plaza. Interestingly, he kept speaking up, showing up in scenes. He kept charming me with his shyness and humility, until I said, “Bueno, Pancho, come on then. You’re in.” He is one of my favorite characters in the novel today.

Why did you choose to write your two novels in third person rather than first? Do you feel you're bucking a trend in YA? 

Point of view – what a hassle! I am currently working on a first person YA called FINDING YAQUI DELGADO. I can tell you, I find first person very challenging. It forces me to stay with one character, to see everything through her eyes. Some days, I find that extremely limiting. I can see why YA tends to be first person, though. It’s sensible. Adolescence itself is sort of a first person experience, very focused on the individual.  Still, the beauty of third person is that you can take a break from one character’s mindset and expand. I also think that when you’re dealing in the more morally complex world of YA, third person has a lot to offer the reader. Part of maturing is being able to hold another person’s view in mind. Third person is exactly that.

As for choosing audience, you know, Milagros fit the middle grade format pretty perfectly – but that was by accident. I had absolutely no clue about any of the parameters before I wrote the novel. Luckily, it was under 200 pages. The character was 12. The problems and solution were cast in a way that a 12-year-old child would understand them.

When it came to writing The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind, I struggled more. My agent would sometimes say, “Make the characters feel younger.” An editor who saw an early draft rejected it as being too adult.  But in time, I’ve learned that these considerations are often very individual to the editor and to the publishing house. Kate Fletcher, my wonderful editor at Candlewick, believed in the bones of the story and hung with me through many, many revisions. To their credit, Candlewick has a long history of publishing books that don’t necessarily fit our strict notions of audience. (I’m thinking here of the work of Silas House and again of Sonya Hartnett, two of my favorites at Candlewick.)

There are guidelines, of course, for those who like more comfort. Nancy Lamb does a great job of describing the differences of each category in her book The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children (Writers Digest Books, 2001).  

Who are your favorite fictional characters? What do you read for inspiration?

I don’t have a specific favorite fictional character.  Instead, I have a type that I’m drawn to. I like the outcast or the pure-hearted person who does something big. It’s not terribly original as far as the world of children’s books go, but it appeals to me.

Almost everything I read is inspirational. I will read Latino authors, of course, but I read everything. My favorite of the past few months is actually an adult novel. It’s Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones, which was largely based on her own experiences of being 10 years old during the time that a serial killer was murdering African American children in Atlanta. She is lyrical and deep – and the portraits of each child are really astounding and lovely. Tayari also has Silver Sparrow out, which has been getting good press, too.

One piece of advice you’d offer aspiring kidlit writers?

Work on your craft. Nothing will substitute.

When are you coming to Florida? Soon, we hope?

My mother still lives in Florida, so I do come to the Ft. Lauderdale area pretty often. I’m open to book talk invitations!


  1. This was such a wonderful interview. Meg Medina is one of my favorite authors, and I reviewed her book Milagros Girl from Away last year after meeting the author at the SCBWI Conference in LA, 2010. She was a delight to meet: Warm, friendly, completely down to earth and unpretentious. I love her writing advice in this interview, and will go searching for her latest books.

  2. Thanks for your kind words, Elizabeth. Meg is darling, isn't she?

  3. Thanks, Gail, for introducing me to an author I hadn't met. And thank you, Meg, for being so honest and open. I'm always drawn to stories with a strong sense of place and culture, so I'll definitely be checking out your books!

    Becca @ The Bookshelf Muse