As we roll into 2017, we’re continuing our interview series with speculative fiction authors where we find out about their process and inspirations. We are joined by the talented Heather Bouwman who is releasing her second children’s novel A Crack in the Sea this week.
Your latest novel A Crack in the Sea weaves together stories that include an 18th century slave ship, war-torn Vietnam, and a magical portal between worlds. What drew you to write at this intersection of fantasy and history?
On the one hand, I could point to my doctoral studies and scholarly research on texts about emigration, colonization, and race in colonial America. I could also point to the fact that I grew up in a tight-knit Dutch immigrant community in the Midwest, a community that still talked about the “old country” nostalgically and that maintained festivals and traditions meant to keep ties with that country. And of course I can point to all the fantasy I’ve read and loved over the years. So it makes sense that these elements—historical, thematic, and fantastic—might come together.
It is also true to say that I have no idea where ideas come from, and it’s not until someone asks me a question like this one that I think about what paths might have led me to write what I wrote, and then I create a paragraph like the one above.
I do remember this: I was researching one day for a class I was teaching on the slave narrative of Olaudah Equiano, and I ran across the story of the Zong and became intrigued. And horrified. Around the same time, I started imagining a giant raft, as large as a nation, and I wondered who might live there. And as I kept reading and writing notes and ideas, these two things merged, and the story slowly took shape. I love taking moments from real life and thinking about them in “what if” kinds of ways—the answers to which, given my personality, often tend toward fantasy—so I thought from the start that the book would combine the real and the fantastic; but I didn’t know what the book was going to be about until it was drafted.
A Crack in the Sea and your other novel The Remarkable & Very True Story of Lucy & Snowcap are both for young readers. What interests you about writing novels for kids and how does that shape the stories you write?
I’ve never written fiction that wasn’t for young readers—which is weird, really, since in my day job I’m a college literature professor, and I have mostly taught grownup literature (so to speak) and have researched and written about it. But as soon as I started writing my first piece of fiction, it was for kids.
I do think consciously about audience now, and I study children’s literature more systematically (and I’ve always read and loved kidlit), but when I started writing, it was really more of a gut level choice. I think sometimes we gravitate toward genres and topics for reasons that might be beyond our full understanding. I love writing for kids.
A Crack in the Sea features characters from different times and different cultural experiences. What is your process for developing the characters in your books?
In the case of this book, some of the characters’ experiences were far removed from my own, so that meant research: reading scholarly sources as well as fiction, searching for videos and online information, and interviewing experts—for example, people who had lived through the chaos of the Vietnam War and who had escaped after the US pulled out of Vietnam. After all that research, any mistakes are still my own, and I’m sure there are some in the book. The goal is to reduce those errors as much as possible—both the errors of wrong details as well as the even more crucial errors in perspective.
For me, the characters really come alive when I start thinking about them as real people—when I start thinking, “Why would Kinchen do that?” Or “What would Thanh really say at this moment?” and when I set aside any plot ideas long enough to follow what they would really do. It takes me a long time to get to this point—where the characters feel real.
What makes up a good writing session for you and how do you know it’s going well? What are your indispensable tools?
A good writing session is any session where I make headway. When I’m drafting, that might be a 20-minute session where I type out a rough scene. I don’t have high standards when I’m drafting, so pretty much any session feels good if I’m writing. The only thing that is really frustrating is if I sit down without a sense of what I’m going to write that day. So I have a tendency to make a note at the end of each session about what I’ll write the next day. I don’t have to follow those directions if I think of something else in the meantime—but if I don’t, I have a prompt that can get me started.
Indispensable tools? My tiny little laptop. I love it. It fits in my purse or my backpack, and it goes just about everywhere I go. I draft onscreen, and I can work at coffee shops, airports, dentist offices—really, anywhere. When I’m revising, however, I like to work on paper for at least part of the process, so I need a little more space to spread out; and I sometimes read aloud, so I like to do that work at home. Preferably with cats as company. Yep, I’m a writer-with-cats stereotype.
What do you love to geek out about?
As far as pop culture goes, I’m pretty old school. Buffy. Veronica Mars. Firefly. Anything Jane Austen. (Have you played the card game “Marrying Mr. Darcy”?) I love popular American writing from the 19th century—Frederick Douglass’s autobiographies, Louisa May Alcott’s thrillers, popular sentimental novels like The Hidden Hand.
As far as hobbies go, I’ve been studying the same martial art for over 20 years and am in the process of testing for my fifth degree black belt. What this means in the rest of my life: when I watch action movies, I criticize the fight scenes (I try to keep the criticism in my head so as not to bother the people around me). I gasped with pleasure when I saw that Donnie Yen was in the new Star Wars, and I recommend that everyone go back and watch him 20+ years ago in Wing Chun (with Michelle Yeoh, who is AMAZING) and Iron Monkey. You will adore him. And I’m excited that Michelle Yeoh will be in the new Star Trek series. Did I mention that she is amazing?
//Images courtesy of Heather Bouwman.