Wednesday, April 11, 2012

5Q Poet Interview Series: Stephanie Hemphill

Our 5Q Poet Interview series for National Poetry Month continues with my interview with Stephanie Hemphill about her new novel in verse, Sisters of Glass. In a nutshell, it's a fascinating story of two sisters and their intersecting paths of love set in 15th century Italy.

Here's Stephanie's official bio
Stephanie Hemphill's first novel in poems, Things Left Unsaid, was published by Hyperion and was awarded the 2006 Myra Cohn Livingston Award for Excellence in Poetry by the Children's Literature Council of Southern California. Her second novel, a verse portrait of Sylvia Plath, Your Own, Sylvia, was published by Knopf in 2007 and received a 2008 Printz Honor and the 2008 Myra Cohn Livingston Award. Stephanie's latest book, Wicked Girls: A Novel of the Salem Witch Trials, was published by HarperCollins and has received 5 starred reviews. 

Stephanie Hemphill chaired the 2005 PEN Award's Children's Literature Committee. She has been writing, studying and presenting poetry for adults and children at UCLA, the University of Illinois (where she received an award from The Academy of American Poets), with Writer's at Work, in classrooms, and at conferences across the country. Stephanie presently lives in Chicago.

Awards & Honors
Things Left Unsaid
Southern California Council on Literature for Children and Young People
Award, 2006
Texas Library Association Tayshas High School Reading List, 2006
New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age, 2005

Your Own, Sylvia

ALA Top 10 Best Book for Young Adults, 2008
Cybil's Finalist, 2008
Michael L. Printz Honor Book, 2008
Southern California Council on Literature for Children and Young People Award, 2008
Kirkus Editor’s Choice, 2007
New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age, 2007

Sisters of Glass
Starred Review, Booklist, April 15, 2012:
“In a landscape, time, and plot rich with descriptive opportunity, Hemphill’s verse selects and illuminates the best bits, intensifying them like light through glass.”

The Interview
1. Why Murano? And Venice? And the fifteenth century? Where did that interest come from for the setting for this novel in verse? I hope there was some travel to Italy involved here!

The idea to write a book about Muranese glassblowing was suggested to me by the original editor of Sisters of Glass, my editor for Your Own, Sylvia. I then did some research to see if anything sparked my interest and discovered that a rather important breakthrough in glassblowing occured around 1450 when Angelo Barovier invented cristallo or clear glass. (There is some debate about who to credit as the first inventor of cristallo but generally Barovier is given the honor.) Further Barovier had a daughter, Maria, who was one of the first women to open her own furnace for enameling. That was extremely interesting to me, but there was not a lot of information about her. So I decided I wanted to tell Maria's story and thus began the book. I did travel to Venice and Murano as soon as I knew that I was going to write a book set on Murano. Venice is to date my favorite city.

2. And the glass blowing that is so crucial to the story? Are you a fan of blown glass? What kind of research was involved in getting the depiction of that process just right?

I think the metaphor that glassblowers were birds in gilded cages attracted me to telling a story of a glassblowing family. Glassblowing was confined to the island of Murano in 1291 so the Venetian government could control the industry. Passing trade secrets beyond Venetian shores was punishable by death. But on the flipside, glassblowers were craftsman who were revered as masters and artists and the government allowed daughters of glassblowers to marry into the nobility and raise their social status. No other trade was given this privilege. I do find glass art to be beautiful and amazing. I saw glass being blown when I visited Murano. The same techniques and tools are practiced today that were used in the fifteenth century.

3. Sisters and female relationships seem to be a really big deal in your works-- and you get them just right. The deep connections, the primal conflicts, the silly playfulness, etc. How did you plan the arc of the sisterly relationship in this book, particularly that twist at the end as the sisters negotiate their futures and interpret their father’s will?

I hope not to disappoint any writing teachers, but I don't generally plan arcs for my characters. I write poem to poem or page to page letting the characters lead me and then upon revision fill in the story gaps. I dedicated this book to my little sister and knew that I wanted to write it from the younger sister's point of view, without making the older sister a villian, of course. Perhaps the lucky fact that I come from a very close-knit family directed the story a bit for me. I wanted the sisters to eventually work as a team, not against each other. And that included the new sister to be, Leona. As far as the will is concerned, actually reading and dissecting the will in the end proved beneficial. In other words, reading saved the day.

4. I particularly enjoy the titles you give the individual poems in this (and your other) book(s). If you piled those up, they could almost be a Twitter novel in verse! How do you see those functioning in your work—either during the writing process or in the finished product?

I think titles are a unique feature of novels in poems and verse, because even though you can title chapters, in general you have many more titles when working with verse. I often play with double entendres in my titles, use them as a short cut to establish setting and character or implement them to reinforce a central metaphor in the poem. What a lovely compliment to say they could read as a twitter novel in verse--I never thought of it that way, but I do pay careful attention to how I title or begin a poem and how I end it so as to create flow throughout the book.

5. Since you live and write in Los Angeles, I have to ask—who would you cast in the major roles for a film version of this book? For Maria, the protagonist? Her “perfect” sister, Giovanna? Andrea Bembo, the older suitor? Luca, the upstart glassblower?

I lived in Los Angeles for many years, but now I live in the Chicago area. Still the idea of who to cast in the movie version of Sisters of Glass is quite interesting. There is such a wealth of talented actresses, but perhaps two who I think might make very good Marias are Elle Fanning (from Super Eight) or Hailee Steinfeld (from True Grit). They are both fantastic actresses who I think could capture the spunk and intelligence that are required to be Maria. In my mind Taylor Kitsch the star of John Carter (he also played Tim Riggins on Friday Night Lights) would be a perfect Luca. He is handsome, skilled and has attitude. Jude Law would play an exceptional Andrea Bembo because he exudes an air of charm. The most difficult part for me to cast is Giovanna because she must not only be beautiful and noble, but also sing well. I polled my friends and our best casting ideas are Amanda Seyfried (who would be perfect were she not a little old), Selena Gomez or perhaps a great yet undiscovered talent.

Follow up
*Wouldn't that be a fun activity for young readers? Discuss their dream cast for the movie version of this novel in verse.
*Perform select portions of the book with different volunteers reading different character parts-- readers theater style.
*Research Murano glass and the history of glass blowing.

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Posting by Sylvia M. Vardell © 2012. All rights reserved.

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