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.