Friday, August 29, 2014

Poet to Poet: Julie Larios and Skila Brown

It's time for another installment of my "Poet to Poet" series-- in which one poet interviews another poet about her/his new book. Today, Julie Larios (author of the marvelous Yellow Elephant and Imaginary Menagerieasks Skila Brown three questions-- about her new book, Caminar, a novel in verse set in Guatemala, about her childhood memories, and about writing that inspires her.
JL: This question won't surprise you, Skila, because you know I struggle with it. You're drawn to both poetry and fiction, and your story Caminar (which is so well-written - and haunting) took the form of a verse novel. What do you think poetry can do to a reader, and what can fiction do, and what can the verse novel do that is distinct from either of these? 

SB: Fiction gets in your head. A good story feels real while you’re reading it. The people, the setting, the relationships—it can all suck you in, alter your mood, give you a new perspective, and build a bridge between you and somewhere you’ve never been. Not just a place, but also a kind of character you can suddenly empathize with. Fiction—good fiction—is difficult to read slowly. It’s like a delicious meal when you’re hungry, and you’re consciously trying to eat slower than you’d like.
Poetry, I think, feels like a beautiful mountain. You can enjoy it from so many different levels. But the more you climb, the more you work, the more you can see. It requires work on the reader’s part, work to shake off preconceptions, carefully consider new meanings and uses for words, and think about other possibilities. It’s often a jolt to your senses. It can be populated with images and descriptions that are real and vibrant and unique. It encourages lingering. 
A verse novel can do both. It’s a versatile form that allows the reader to get sucked in to the story, rapidly turning the pages to find out what happens next. Or it provides the space and the weight for a pause, maybe an image or a metaphor that is so sharp the reader stays with that poem for a bit and savors it. Novels in verse allow the reader to choose how to digest the story, and, because of that, it can appeal to a wider audience.
JL: If given a wish now, as adults, we might wish for world peace or for our children to be healthy and happy - grand, important, sweeping wishes, full of fear and hope.  But I'm interested in whether we can really capture what we were like as children. So I'd like you to do this: Close your eyes and pretend that it's your tenth birthday (plus or minus a year is fine) - you have a cake in front of you with candles on it, and if you blow those candles out with one breath, your wish will come true. Here comes a multi-part question: What do you wish for and why and how much do you want it and how much do you believe it will come true? 
SB: So, Julie. I remember my tenth birthday very well. It happened to be the birthday in which I closed my eyes, made a wish, leaned over my cake to blow out my candles…and then promptly lit the edges of my hair on fire. 
I smelled it before I felt it. In that tiny third of a second before the corner of my eyes filled with the flame and my ears filled with everyone shouting and telling me what to do, there was the smell. This terrible burning chemical odor that filled up my nostrils because I’d just spent hours the day before sitting in a chair, with little plastic curlers on my head, and enough chemicals to burn my eyes for a week. I’d gotten a perm. 
I’d gotten a perm because I’d just moved into a new house and a new school and the kids in this school all did everything differently than the kids in the school I’d attended before. Suddenly the things about me that made third graders like me were the very things that made fourth graders hate me. I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. And maybe I thought my curl-less hair was part of the problem. 
I don’t remember what my specific wish was that day, that second before my hair caught on fire. I’m sure it wasn’t a sweeping wish, like “Let people like me.” Or “Let me make friends.” But I think it was a ten-year old’s version of that. “I wish I’d get a Walkman just like Jenny’s.” or “I wish I’d get picked first tomorrow at recess.” Or “I wish we’d never play dodge ball again because it’s humiliating the way everyone aims for me, always me, only me.”
However I might have vocalized the wish, whatever specific thing I might have fixated on, the root of it was really that I wished I fit in. I wished people liked me. I probably spent a decade of my life wishing that wish, in some form. And yes, it came true, over and over again. I think that wish, like a lot of sweeping big wishes, falls in and out of True over the course of a life. I’ve had lots of friends, lots of good circles of support, lots of people who have loved me and love me still. But there have been many times I’ve felt lonely and unseen and without a shoulder to lean on. 
I think it’s a rare kid who doesn’t wish for this very thing at some point in her life. But the luckiest of us will outgrow it. And instead of wishing for “people to like me”, we’ll wish instead to find the village that is our own. 
JL: Do you remember a book you read (as an adult or as a child) where you finished it and said, "That's what I'd like to do - I'd like to be able to write like that"? What book was it, and what made you feel that? (Give me details!)
SB: Oh, I love it when that happens. It happens to me a lot, actually. Jandy Nelson’s The Sky is Everywhere is the first book I remember reading, closing the book, and then immediately opening it back up to page one and starting again. The book made me ache. I remember thinking I wanted to write a story that makes people ache. 
Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens gave me instant writer-envy. I’m a huge fan of satire. And I’m a very opinionated person when it comes to social, moral, and political issues. I hope to one day be able to tell a story that’s both entertaining but also squirm-inducing, just like that one. 
David Levithan’s The Lover’s Dictionary is another book that made me green. I really love stories that are told in an unusual form. Many times I think unusual forms get in the way of the story, but sometimes they are the perfect complement. And the story is all the richer. 

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Thank you, Julie and Skila (pronounced Sky- luh) for sharing so personally and generously!

Be sure to check out their sites and blogs at Julie Larios (A Drift Record) and Skila Brown (full of photos and quotes) and don't miss Caminar, a very compelling story of war and childhood, family and honor.
Meanwhile, head on over to Jone's place for more Poetry Friday fun. Check it out!

Photo credits:,;


Douglas Florian said...

Enjoyed this!

LInda Baie said...

This is a lucky post for me, Julie, because I just read Skila's wonderful book last week. I'm glad to know more about you, Skila, enjoyed Caminar, thought your poems sad, hopeful, and beautifully presented on the pages, too. It's good to tell something of the personal plight of so many in Guatemala, and for children to know about it too! Thanks to both of you for a good post!

Michelle Heidenrich Barnes said...

What an outstanding interview! Julie's questions were terrific; Skila's responses, thoughtful and insightful. I've learned much here today, for sure, and look forward to reading CAMINAR.

jama said...

Wonderful questions and answers. Will have to look for Skila's book!

Julie Larios said...

i went back and counted, and I actually asked nine questions in those "three questions," Skila (and I could have asked a hundred more.) Well-answered! And thanks, Sylvia, for pairing us up for this wonderful project.

Linda said...

Such a great interview. I just finished reading Caminar and absolutely loved it!

Irene Latham said...

CAMINAR is one of my favorites this year. Great character, and I learned about a time and place I didn't know about before. I can relate to the wanting people to like me wish... what an experience, having your hair catch fire! Surely there's a metaphor for a poem in there somewhere?? Also happy to know the pronunciation of Skila's name. Julie, your enthusiasm is infectious. Thank you, all!

Myra Garces Bacsal said...

What a beautiful conversation. Haven't had a chance to read Caminar yet, but this lovely post makes me want to find it in the library STAT! Loved Levithan's Lover's Dictionary as well. :)

Mary Lee said...

Oh, my -- that hair on fire story needs to be inside a book about being the outsider and how to survive such childhood miseries!

Sylvia Vardell said...

Thank you all for reading and commenting. I loved CAMINAR and was so glad to learn more about Skila too. Thanks, Skila and Julie, for your lively and engaging Q&A. It's so fun to get to know you both a bit better!

Bridget Magee said...

Such an interesting exchange. CAMINAR is on my to-read list! Thanks for this insightful conversation. = )

laurasalas said...

Fun interview--and I apologize for laughing about the hair burning :>(