Our final publication interview for 2013 titles is with Swati Avasthi, MFAC faculty and author of Chasing Shadows.
Please describe the book in under 50 words.
Corey, Holly, and Savitri are one unit—fast, strong, inseparable. Together they turn Chicago concrete and asphalt into a freerunner’s gym, ricocheting off walls, scaling buildings, leaping from rooftops to rooftop. But acting like a superhero doesn’t make you bulletproof…
As the story progressed from inception to copy-edited version, what were the major changes? How did those changes come about? When did you first begin work on it? When did you finish?
I called Chasing Shadows my boomerang book for 5 years because I kept sending it to my editor, who then kept sending it back to me. It took me 17 full drafts, not including the three times I wrote 100 pages and threw it out or the number of times I experimented with points of view or tense.
Just about everything. In my first attempt, Corey didn’t even exist, Holly had a bipolar aunt, and Savitri had a brother. It easier to say what didn’t change – Holly, Savitri, and grief that is so intense that it takes apart everything.
What research was involved, and how did it affect the story’s development?
So. Much. Research: medical, police procedure, psychological disorders, freerunning, and comics. The study of graphic novels affected the story the most. Before I started writing this novel, I’d read very few American comics. (Most of what I’d read was from India.) But Holly loved American comics; she wanted to be an American comic superhero. So I followed her love of comics and found that I loved them too.
Without naming names, tell us who your first readers are (e.g., live-action writing group; online writing group; editor; agent). When do you share a piece of writing?
Live action writing groups—two of them. I wouldn’t be the same writer without these insightful readers. I don’t share until I can no longer identify the problems in the piece, usually my third draft. I dislike sharing early because my first couple of drafts are unreadable. (In my first draft of Chasing Shadows, I had a character who was two in chapter one. Even though only three months passed in the novel, he was 25 by the end. See? Unreadable.) I try to share a novel twice with each group, no more than that. And then I move on to my agent and editor and occasionally, back to a writer or two, who isn’t in the group for fresh eyes.
What books do you love to teach or recommend to students?
Well, it really depends on what my students are studying. But I do love Scott McCloud’s books for writing comics and, to quote [Hamline colleague] MarshaQ, I too “love me some Burroway”. For YA, I often use The Astonishing Life Octavian Nothing by MT Anderson, Blank Confession by Pete Hautman, Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, and A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. I love using Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak and This is Not my Hat by Jon Klassen to illustrate concepts, no matter what I’m teaching.
What widely-loved or acclaimed book is one that didn’t work for you?
Sold by Patricia McCormick didn’t resonate for me. This wonderfully written novel in verse is written in first person and is about child prostitution. It’s amazingly powerful. But I was livid when this received a National Book Award Honor because of the presentation of the racial issues. It is set in Pakistan and India and a lot of cultural references feel okay. But then, our eleven-year-old narrator is rescued (we have a bit of a problem with agency here, right?) by a white man. (And we have a bit of problem with cultural alignment.) The implication via the situation of the story is that the white people rescue while people of color are brutal or are victims. For me, it was a cultural slap in the face that reinforces the false narrative of the white man’s burden and colonization. To make matters worse, in her endnote, she only writes about world wide child prostitution, never mentioning how many cases are here in the US.
During the January 2013 residency Emily Jenkins lectured on “How to Be Funny,” and one of her suggestions was to “use jolly words.” A good idea even if one isn’t trying to be funny. Do you have a favorite jolly word?
I have quite a few actually – words that just sort of make me laugh because of their sound. “Kumquat”—an oldie but goodie—is probably still my favorite.
I'd love to know more about how you work with your writer's group on the whole novel. What that looks like. Our group has so far only looked at chunks but we're getting close to the stage where we'll need to look at the whole novel. Would someone write a post about what that might look like.