Interview with Morris Finalist-Anna-Marie McLemore


I love stories about California (my home state) and I love new takes on fairy tale tropes, and so I was super excited to interview Morris Award Finalist Anna-Marie McLemore whose book, The Weight of Feathers, uses California’s Central Valley as the backdrop for her magical tale of two feuding families of performers, the Palomas and the Corbeaus.  The Weight of Feathers is a story of love and transformation, of magic and the very real consequences of the exploitation of people and natural resources.

Isabel Quintero: The book has an old time feel, but in a really good way. It reminded me of Carnivale, that show that was on HBO a few years ago. I imagined the novel unraveling in sepia. Two families, traveling from town to town, performing carnivalesque routines, engaged in a generation long feud, it could have easily been set in the 1920s, or earlier, but it is not. There are camcorders, and cameras seem readily accessible, which let’s the reader know it is closer to present day. How did you develop the idea for The Weight of Feathers? What made you choose the time period it is set in? And, what made you decide on making the families tree dancers and mermaids?

Anna-Marie: Years ago, my father told me about a mermaid show he’d seen when he was in his twenties. Ever since, I’ve wanted to write a story about performing mermaids, but it wasn’t until a photographer friend had me out in the woods while wearing a set of wire and cloth wings that the idea for the book came to me. Women swimming in mermaid tails, and winged tree performers. The story grew from those two images coming together. In terms of time period, I didn’t think about a specific year, but I’ve been told that the story feels like it exists in decades ranging from the 1950s to present day. I like the idea of readers envisioning it in the time period that feels right to them.

IQ: You did such an excellent job creating a magical setting, in the woods and the lake; though of course it is the characters who bring the magic, not the place itself. Almendro, a fictional town which you situate in the Central Valley of California, becomes a real place, with real issues; few jobs, dangerous chemicals being manufactured without any regard to the community. Yet, the woods and the lake seem to exist at a great distance, in a land far away. How did setting inform the story as you were writing it? Did it change as you completed the story? Why the Central Valley?

AM: The Central Valley is a place of both heartbreaking beauty and brutal reality. It’s a world of manmade dangers, and the ethereal forests and waters they threaten. Families and communities and landscapes fight to simply live. Because of the drought, there are entire communities without running water, who haven’t had it for months or even years; many Californians, especially in major cities, don’t know that, or don’t believe it when they hear it. I was born in Los Angeles, and though I love LA, I grew up hearing a lot of disparaging things about the Central Valley, and hearing those things closely tied with racist remarks about those of Latinx heritage (for anyone not familiar with the word, Latinx is a way of saying Latin@ that includes all gender identities). There was so much similarity between their refusal to see beauty in the culture I grew up in, and their refusal to see beauty in the Central Valley’s communities and landscapes.

IQ: I think people often forget that California varies so much in landscape, culture, and class, that it is reduced to beaches, Disneyland, and liberal hippies, where in reality it is a much more complicated place. I think it was important to bring those issues up.
I really loved Cluck and Lace, and how they transformed, both physically and as individuals. In fact, I just realized, there are so many transformations happening–whether artificial, like the mermaid tails, or real like…well, I can’t say because I’ll ruin the ending, but, people are constantly changing and becoming something else. Was this something purposeful, something that you were aware of as you were writing? Or was it something that happened organically?

AM: Thank you so much, Isabel—I love that idea of transformations. I wasn’t aware of it while writing, but it’s definitely a current running through the story. Transformations threaten these characters, but they also save them. They carry with them where they come from while becoming who they will be.

IQ: I feel that magic can quickly get out of control; it can become too unbelievable too fast, if that makes sense. This of course, was not the case in The Weight of Feathers. Was it difficult to maintain that balance between reality and the unexplainable?

AM: Magical realism is a very natural landscape to me. Its heart is the intermixing of the ordinary and the ethereal, and I fell into that both because it felt right for the story and because it’s where I come from. The origins of magical realism hold close the intersection of culture and community. It’s a worldview that felt true to who I am and where this story lives.

IQ: I really like that idea of the origins of magical realism, I’d never thought of it that way, but I agree. It is something that has certainly played a role in how I interpret things.

As a fan of fairy tales, I really enjoyed how you used those tropes to create a fairy tale that is very grounded in reality, and does not provide the traditional happily ever after–we are left wanting to know more and unsure of what happens. I loved that, by the way. Cluck and Lace both have their own “wicked stepmother” (though not stepmothers), making their lives impossible, and their “fairy godparents”, Tía Lora and Pépere, always there to help. What is it about fairy tales that you like? And how relevant do you think they are in contemporary literature, in this case YA literature?

AM: Oh, I love that idea of the fairy tale characters, especially the fairy godparents. Fairy tales, and their mix of heartbreak and hope, have always enchanted me, from the European ones most familiar to Americans, to the Mesoamerican stories that date back centuries. There are themes and ideas—the endless forest, the magic of how we love, the single moments that both startle and enrapture—that cross time periods and continents. They look different from one culture to the next, but they hold those same themes. It’s that simultaneous sense of difference and commonality that makes me keep close the fairy tales from my own heritage, while still wanting to learn ones from others.

IQ: Each chapter begins with a saying whether in Spanish or French. There is one saying that is repeated twice, in Spanish and then in French: “Meet roughness with roughness.” Can you talk a little about that saying in particular, but also how you chose which to include?

AM: Finding the Spanish dichos and the French proverbs was one of my favorite parts of the research process. Some of the dichos I knew from growing up, but some were new to me, and I knew pretty much none of the French ones. Over and over, I found French sayings that had similar meanings or imagery to dichos that were familiar to me. It mirrored the idea that there’s so much more commonality across cultures than we realize, which is something that both Lace and Cluck learn.

IQ: Language is so important in this book. You use both French and Spanish, not only with the sayings but as part of who the characters are. It didn’t feel thrown in, but natural, and made the characters more real for me. One thing I did wonder was, why italics?

AM: Two reasons for this, one particular to the book and one personal.

The one about the book: I think there’s definitely an extent to which Lace and Cluck distance themselves from their own otherness. It’s hard for them to forget that the cultures they love so often mark them as different, especially when they’ve seen what that difference costs them and those they love. Cluck sort of flinches when the little bit of Romani he knows slips into his speech, because not even his family fully embraces that aspect of their heritage. And Lace has been brought up to live in that space where she values her own heritage but also tries to become as Americanized as possible.

Now for the personal one: If I’m honest, I think there’s a part of me that thought I had to earn the right to do anything other than italicize, which is what I was always taught to do. I thought I had to be smarter, or more experienced, or, I don’t know, somehow both more Mexican and more American, in order to break those rules. In that way, I think I was in the same space as Cluck and Lace. In my second book, which comes out this fall, I didn’t use italics; a friend of mine who read the book for me talked me into not using them. She convinced me that I didn’t need to be anything other than what I am to decide what I want italicized and what I don’t. And it fits the story, because in my second book the two main characters are both of color like Lace and Cluck, but unlike Lace and Cluck they don’t feel that constant pull between holding onto their cultures and letting them go. Being of color is very much part of both their lives, but they carry it in their hearts in different ways.

I sort of imagine Lace and Cluck, sometime after the last page of the story, coming to realize they don’t need italics either, whether those italics are literal and written out, or are symbolic, a pause in their own hearts when they say words from their families’ languages. And I imagine them realizing it in the same way I did, each of them hearing from people they trust and respect that who and what they are is enough. That’s it’s something not to keep at a distance, but to hold close.

IQ: I completely agree with your friend. I think sometimes we have to ask ourselves why these rules were put in place, who placed them, and how they change our stories. I’m going to ask you a question that I get asked, and that sometimes makes me uncomfortable but I always find myself asking other writers: Why do you write? And do you feel that as writers, especially as writers for younger/young adult readers, we have any type of responsibility, and if so what would it be?

AM: The stories I wanted to tell are what made me start writing, but even then, I think I had some understanding that engaging with the world of books—as a reader, as a writer—was being part of a conversation across countries, cultures, and centuries. Every story leaves the world a little different, and I think that gives all writers a tremendous responsibility. But readers, all of us, also have a tremendous responsibility. The stories we talk about—how we talk about them, how we frame them in the context of our world. The books we pass on to our families and our friends. Words have incredible power. Books have incredible power, and that power begins, not ends, when the story leaves the author’s hands.

IQ: Now, for another dreaded question, who are some of your favorite authors? Who has influenced your work? It could have been worse; I could have asked, who is your favorite author.

AM: If I name them all, we’ll be here all day, so I’ll narrow it down to a few of the authors whose work helped make me a reader. Isabel Allende, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Federico Garcia Lorca, Nella Larsen, Laura Esquivel, C.S. Lewis, Jean Rhys, Gioconda Belli.

IQ: What new projects can we look forward to?

AM: My next book, When the Moon was Ours, is slated for fall 2016; I’m thrilled to keep working with the wonderful team at St. Martin’s Press. MOON follows new characters through a story that, like TWOF, has multicultural elements and magical realism, but also has central LGBT themes—a transgender boy, the girl who’s been his best friend for more than a decade, and both of them deciding how they want to define themselves.

IQ: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me. Good luck with the Morris Award and may the literary gods always smile upon you.

AM: Thank you so much for interviewing me, Isabel, and thank you so much to YALSA and the Morris Award Committee. Librarians led me to the books that made me a reader, and I am so grateful to them for doing the tremendous work of helping readers find the stories that will stay with them.

For more information about Anna-Marie McLemore and her work visit her website or send her a tweet @LaAnnaMarie.

Pan Dulce

I don’t know why it has taken me forever to put this up. I told myself I’d keep up with blogging, but it is quite a task. What with teaching and writing and lying around the house being lazy.  Here is a Pan Dulce conversation between Erika T. Wurth, author of Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend (if you haven’t read it, please do, it is really good). Pan Dulce is a series that Cinco Puntos Press puts on; it is basically, conversations between a Cinco Puntos author and another author from another independent publisher. This happened way way back in December (I don’t know how I forgot to put this up!) and somethings have changed, namely, I’ve gone blonde and chopped my hair.

To the Librarians

2014 was an incredible year for me as a writer. My book was published and…people liked it. My hopes were of course that readers would connect with Gabi, that they’d read about her meth addict father or her comfort eating and say, “Hey! I’m not the only one!” That readers would see themselves in the book. But I also realized that there are a lot of damn good books out there and that Gabi would be fighting for attention and that it would probably just be my family and friends who bought the book out of support. And I had been okay with that because at least I could take “Publish book” off my bucket list.

Then the librarians came.

I mean  it hasn’t just been the librarians who have been supportive, but they have been pretty damn loud.  In a world where people think that technology threatens print books, or that people don’t read, or (gasp and shiver) that libraries are obsolete, I find the opposite to be true. Libraries and librarians (real people) are necessary. In schools and in cities. And I don’t say this just because I am a former elementary school library tech.

Libraries are not just circulation desks. They are living, breathing things which promote literacy and democracy. Yeah, I went there. Libraries are for everyone. As a kid from the other side of the tracks (literally) in Riverside, California, who didn’t have a lot, whose parents collected cans to pay bills, who wore the same pants to school three days a week, who got the free basket at Christmas, I remember the library as a safe place for me. One place, like the classroom, that didn’t cost a dime and gave me so much.  My mom would walk us, my brother and me, down to the library, which was like a mile or so away from our house, and I’d come back with an armful of books. Obviously, I didn’t think it through because I had to walk back with all those books and my mom would have to help and then get upset because I had taken more books than I could carry but in the end it all worked out for the best because we got the home and I got to read and eventually wrote a book. But at the time, she was a bit annoyed. Anyway, the library. The children’s section was on the second floor (it is a lot bigger now than it was then) and there were a few librarians, whose name I never learned. There was an older, heavy set white woman, and a youngish/middle aged Asian man (I recently saw him, still at the library, we’ve both aged wonderfully. I teared up thinking about all the wonderful memories he didn’t know he had been a part of-sounds a little creepy now that I think about it.), who were always ready to help. “Do you have a book on Charlie Chaplin?” (I don’t know why there was a period in my childhood that I was obsessed with Charlie Chaplin.) “Do you have a book on Bonnie and Clyde?” “Not in the children’s section. Why are you interested in books about so much violence?” “Do you have Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself?” I must’ve read that book twenty times. Each incessant question was met by patience and a willingness to share their love of reading with me. To ask why I wanted to learn about things. To push me to think. Now, I am not saying there weren’t grumpy librarians. I mean, I would purposefully seek out those I knew weren’t grouchy on my visits, because the grouchy librarian (like the bad teacher) exists and is a little scary.  But overall, the library brought joy into my life, and a lot had to do with the librarians; people who have dedicated their life to the propagation of literacy, to the free distribution and access of information-for everyone.

When I began working in the elementary school library, I thought about what librarians had meant to me and what I wanted to mean to the children I would serve. I thought about my elementary school librarian, Mrs. Mary Osti, who believed so much in having a library in the schools that when the district cut budgets she, and the rest of the PTA moms, served the kids without pay; taking shifts in keeping the library open and checking books in and out. Believed so much that when there was no actually room for the library, she stacked books on cart and went classroom to classroom making sure students had access. I was, of course, a library helper. These were pre-computer days. The days of the card catalog.  And I loved it. How could I not? I had power. I remembered this when I began working; what it meant to have that kind of power, the kind that changes lives. I just hope that I did for some kid what those librarians did for me.

But I ramble. What I meant to do in this post was to say thank you to the librarians and library techs who’ve sent me emails and Tweets, and who’ve put Gabi in the hands of patrons, and who didn’t get tired of all my questions as a kid. Muchisimisimas gracias.

Check out some cool info about libraries:

LibroFest (super late post)

So I have been incredibly (happily) busy with promoting the book and with teaching and have not made time to update everyone on what’s going on. This is the first segement of my superlate update posts:

In September I went to Houston, Texas to the LibroFest (it was my first book festival) with my best friend, Lisha; neither of us had been to Texas before so we were excited. On our way there we sat next to a prison warden and had an interesting conversation about the state of things in the prison systems, and Lisha was surprised that I “challenged” (though I would argue, I simply asked a question, some simple clarification) what he was saying about solitary confinement. But that’s just like me, to say things that make people uncomfortable-it’s a gift I have. Upon landing in Houston and getting settled in our hotel, we began our search for real Texas barbecue. We were in cattle country and I wanted beed ribs. We asked around and people started naming places that the shuttle wouldn’t take us to, and so we settled for a chain barbecue place that was just a block away. This is what I wanted: beef ribs, mac and cheese, and cole slaw. This is what they were out of: beef ribs and mac and cheese. With a heavy heart we moved on. We decided to jump on a bus and just go…and ended up eating at The Original Ninfa’s. I’d seen it on Food Network and wanted to check it out. I ordered a local beer and cheesy chorizo. So good. But so bad for someone who is lactose intolerant. That night we went to a piano bar and rocked out. The day of the LibroFest. Let me just say this: I was nervous. So very nervous. What if they didn’t like me? What if they didn’t like the book? What if I rambled? These things just kept crossing my mind. Thankfully Lisha was there and helped me relax.  She can easily talk to anyone, and she was talking me and Gabi up like nothing. The reading and panel went well-I was on a panel with Diane Gonzalez Bertrand from Arte Publico Press. Oh, and Tish Hinojosa was there, so no big deal! Ah! Then, I met inagural poet Richard Blanco and nerded out. In the end, I still felt a little out of place because I am new to this whole being an author thing, but I felt good about it and proud of my accomplishments.

The Countdown

The last few months have been quite a whirlwind. It feels, to be honest, as though these things–publishing a book, getting book reviews, planning readings–are happening to someone else. As if this is not my life that I am talking about. It feels good (don’t get me wrong) but the feeling is fleeting. It’s as though I don’t want to hold on to it for too long for fear of it going away.

Those of use who write know that writing is not a luxury; it requires sacrifice from all aspects of our life. Words do not magically appear on a page, and suddenly, POOF! a book. It has taken me 7 years to get Gabi, A Girl in Pieces  published. That came with a lot of rejections, revisions, and more revisions. At times I felt like it would never happen. And then I remembered that it took Dr. Seuss 27 rejections before he published And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street. Rejection, perseverance and patience are part of a writer’s daily vocabulary.

So these last few months I have been editing. I received my ARC (advanced readers copy) in the mail and began reading through it. Changing things, checking spelling, making sure that I spelled characters’ names correctly, and tightening up what needed to be tightened up. Doing everything possible to make sure that when you get your copy of Gabi, A Girl in Pieces  you will not be disappointed. Though I know that is inevitable; no soy monedita de oro. Pero en fin, I’ve done my best and Lee Byrd from Cinco Puntos Press is an amazing editor so I am confident in the final draft.

When the ARC arrived in the mail my mom waited and watched as I anxiously tore at the envelope. She blurted out, “I knew that’s what it was and I wanted to open it but knew that I shouldn’t!” Only she said it in Spanish. She was and is very excited about all of this, and it feels good to make your parents proud, even at 32 when we are supposed to have all our shit together (that is not always the case).  I held it in my hands, looked it over and took in the moment. What does it mean to have a book you’ve written in your own hands? Well, to me it means that all the hard work, query letter, rejections, late nights, talking to myself, making my husband listen to the same chapters countless different ways, fitting writing in whenever I could, asking friends to please look this copy over (again), and emotional upheaval (yes, this book was an emotional journey for me) was worth it.

Like I said, writing is not a luxury. It is a necessity for my being, for my happiness. It makes me whole.

The book comes out in about a month. In a month people will read what  I have written. Will get to know the characters I’ve created, and hopefully connect with them or identify with them in some way. I hope. Or they will hate the book. They may hate it. But that’s okay. You can’t please everyone.

So far I’ve gotten a few reviews and they have been positive (you can read those in the reviews section of my page). And also California Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera gave me the thumbs up, and said he enjoyed the book. So did the amazing Chicana poet Michele Serros. That felt pretty good. Who am I kidding? That felt freaking amazing! Especially since both have been an inspiration in my writing.

One month. One more freaking month until I get to share my baby with you. I can’t wait.


Why I Write: Part One

In the fifth grade, Ms. Laing (the best fifth grade teacher at Garretson elementary and perhaps the world) had us write a scary story. It was around Halloween time and I remember I wanted it to be extra scary. The story ended up being about two girls who go out one night, get lost, and ultimately are kidnapped by someone (a monster? a maniac? I don’t recall) and are kept in a coffin-like apparatus. They were not able to move at all, because inside the coffin were nails that restricted their movement. Finally, the girls were released. When they went to report their tragic story to the police, they found out they had been kept in the coffin not for days, as they first believed, but for decades. And now all their family was dead.

It was not a cheerful story, but it was Halloween after all, and apparently Ms. Lain was on board.  When she handed the stories back to us, mine had words of encouragement. I don’t remember what her exact words were, but I do remember feeling like my teacher had liked my story and was somehow saying, “Keep writing.” I wish I could say, “I’ve kept the story since then and have it in a journal, where I look at it for inspiration, every time I feel I’ve chosen the wrong path.” I didn’t. Somewhere along the way it ended up in a landfill alongside my algebra II notebook and the glittered up trifold poster of Antigone. What has stayed with me, and what Ms. Laing didn’t know, was that was the first time I had felt good about writing. It was the first time I realized that writing gave me a voice.  On paper I could control a world that felt out of control.  Or in the case of the Halloween story, create a new, albeit twisted, world. Writing gave me a power that no one could take from me. That was a BIG revelation.

I may be remembering that wrong.  Ms. Laing may have just written positive and encouraging comments on all her students’ stories, not just mine, because isn’t that what all great teachers do, encourage their students?  In any case,  I took it as a sign that I needed to keep writing. And I did. I wrote other stories. Many that I never finished but felt needed to exist at least partly in the real world, only to be lost again.  But I keep writing.

Thank you Ms. Linda Laing, wherever you are.