Sunday, April 12, 2020

Devon Street Review Interviews Sarah Cannon, Author of "Twist" and "Oddity"

Sarah Cannon, Author of "Twist" and "Oddity"
I was sitting inside Indianapolis's Kids Ink Bookstore watching Indy-based author Sarah Cannon read from her latest middle-grade novel "Twist" when it occurred to me that an interview with Cannon would be the perfect way to kick off the interview section of Devon Street Review. I would love to tell you that I struggled to track down Cannon, but the truth is that we share a faith community, a deep love for writing, and a deep love for kids. So, in all honesty, all I had to do during this time of social distancing and a certain COVID-19 pandemic was e-mail her. The resulting interview is everything I'd hoped it would be - intelligent, passionate, revealing, and filled with more than a little bit of wonder. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

I'll start from the most obvious place. Your latest book "Twist" is a middle grade novel that takes place in 1983 Oklahoma. It was a very transitional time for culture and in my own life as it was the year I graduated from high school. Can you talk about why you set the story in 1983 and specifically in Oklahoma?

Most of us have specific years that are simply more vivid in our memories, and 1983 is definitely one of those for me. Interestingly, when I started researching to be sure I was correctly remembering when specific events took place, it hit me that 1983 was also when most Americans got cable. Not long before that, Ronald Reagan had deregulated children’s television, and as a result a lot of TV shows had popped up that were based on toys. Which might not seem like a big deal, when the top ten kids’ shows in the country are all basically thirty-minute commercials, it changes how kids pretend. So 1983 is a kind of liminal space, which is interesting territory for a kids’ fantasy author.

This is your second novel, the first being "Oddity." From what I've read in previous interviews, you've long had an interest in writing. What took you from "I want to be a writer" to "I'm a writer?" So many people say "I want to write," but it's pretty magnificent to actually sit down and write, finish a manuscript, find an agent, and snag a publisher. Can you share about your journey?

I definitely always enjoyed writing, and have rejection letters dating back to high school, but my creative work more or less came to a standstill in college— I worked a lot of crummy jobs to stay in school, often several concurrently. And then life got away from me for a while. I started teaching, moved several times for my husband’s job, had three kids…and it just hit home one day that this was something really important to me, and it was getting lost in the shuffle. I found out about National Novel Writing Month at about the same time, and it provided structure, community, and a specific goal. NaNoWriMo gave me the focus I needed to finish a manuscript...a terrible manuscript, but still. When I reread it, I didn’t love it enough to revise, so I trunked it, but I also kept writing, and my second manuscript was worth revising and querying. After that, I moved through a process that will be familiar to most authors: I queried multiple manuscripts over several years, progressing from form rejections, to rejections with feedback, to “definitely send me your next one” rejections, and finally to agent offers. I was lucky; submitting to editors went much faster, and I landed at Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan with a cosplaying editor who is here for all my weird worldbuilding.
Why did you decide, at least at this point, to target writing for middle grade readers?

Teachers read a TON of childrens and YA literature, and I’m no exception. Movers hate me because of all the books. But I find middle grade in particular to be a very optimistic space. There’s a sense of wholeness and community that’s often viewed by adults as naivete, not in a literal, developmental sense, but in a pejorative one. And yet we also hunger for connection and hope, for new leaders and activists and community partners who will bring us all these things. So I see middle grade literature as both meeting kids where they are, and inoculating them against future despair and cynicism. I will also say that fantasy is my happy place. Fantasy and science fiction step outside “the world as we know it.” They sneak past a reader’s lowered guard to ask big questions. I think a healthy diet of fantasy, like a healthy diet of poetry, can elevate everything we’re doing and learning by asking us why it all matters.

Were there any valuable lessons you learned after writing "Oddity" that you applied to "Twist?"
I would say more that the process of writing a book under contract is very different. You’re doing periodic rounds of revision on the first book while trying to stay in a creative headspace with the second one, and it’s a big change if you’re someone (like me) who usually works on one project at a time. I’m still figuring out how to not get derailed by having to stop one project to work on another.

There are many things that have made both of your books special, but a couple strong things I've noticed that I'd love you to comment on - 1) You've included diverse characters in both books and 2) You celebrate children with a variety of gifts AND you avoid caricatures of characters. I grew up in 70's, early 80's Indy and high schools were desegregated school system wasn't required because it was already diverse. So, I'm always drawn to writing that reflects diversity.

One of the things I ask myself when I’m writing is whether I can see the community I love reflected in my characters. Because I’ve moved so much, I sometimes complain that I just want everyone I love all in one place. So when I’m writing, I’m not thinking about any single community I’ve lived in, but all of them lumped together. I’m also thinking about my readers and how inadvertent omissions on my part will impact them. So I research demographics, both locally and nationally, and I keep them in mind when casting. For example, between 30-40% of Americans are people of color. In kids under 15, that number jumps to more like 50%. That needs to be an important consideration in my casting decisions, as do disability and LGBTQIA+ statistics. Of course, that’s only the beginning when it comes to character research, but I think every writer should look these things up early on in the process. I remember a conversation I had on social media when I was just beginning Twist. A writer said that she would cast diversely, but she only wrote about her hometown and there just wasn’t any diversity there. You and I both know there’s no way she lives in an entirely straight, disability-free town even if she’s on the moon, and also that what she really meant was “there are no people of color here.” So that’s a problematic statement in more than one way, and even her intended meaning was easily debunked with a quick Google search, which established that she had something like 1200 Bhutanese refugees in her town. She just had the privilege of overlooking them. I’m glad you’ve had a positive experience with my portrayals, but I welcome your feedback if you ever feel I’ve missed the mark. I say the same thing to young readers, and I think that level of accountability is also important.
One of the things I've appreciated about you in following you on social media is that you're someone who encourages other writers and you support the #OwnVoices movement. I may be wrong, but amidst the rather fantastic worlds you create there's a definite sense that you write also from your own reality and experiences. Why is #OwnVoices so important and how do you weave that into your own literary tapestry?

The #ownvoices movement is a complex topic, and in some cases the term has been co-opted in ways that are either a stretch or downright silly (think: “#ownvoices equestrian”). The hashtag was originally meant to address whether books with diverse main characters were being written by authors who shared that identity. And then there are conversations branching off from that topic— like the way the industry tends to expect marginalized authors to write identity-focused realistic fiction, when maybe they’d rather pen a space opera. Children’s fantasy is historically extremely white. If you wanted a book about non-European myths and magic, you needed to head over to folklore in non-fiction...I spent a lot of time there as a kid. So to turn around now and have fantasy like Christina Soontornvat’s Thai-inspired A Wish In the Dark, which I know we both love, or Rajani LaRocca’s Midsummer’s Mayhem, which repositions the kidnapped Indian child at the heart of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from the margins to the center of the’s just amazing. I feel like a kid in a candy store. So yes, I promote #ownvoices books all the time, because I’m reading and loving them.

As far as how this applies to me personally, I am #ownvoices LGBT, and I think that’s visible in Oddity in particular, but also I try to use that experience to put myself in other people’s shoes and to remember to listen as often as possible, both as a human being and as an author. The representation in my books encompasses a lot of identities I don’t personally share, so there’s a pile of research involved. I work with sensitivity readers, and I ask myself a lot of hard questions. For example, there are very real concerns about when and how a less-marginalized writer should be writing more marginalized characters, and these are tied to underrepresentation among staff at publishing houses. Authors of color cite examples in which a book by a white author is acquired and an author of color is told, “We already have a black main character on our list this year.” This reality can be difficult to navigate; I wasn’t comfortable casting three white children as the main characters in Twist when that didn’t reflect the community that inspired the book, and I worried about the message I’d be sending to readers about who I see, who I value, and what I think they’re capable of. At the same time, I worry about the roadblocks my peers are facing in the industry. Sorting out the right way to represent beloved community in my books is a complex and evolving challenge, and I don’t think it’s possible to compartmentalize that work from the work of supporting diverse authors. So I give away other authors’ #ownvoices titles at my book events, boost the books I love on social media, and support We Need Diverse Books financially as often as I can.
I mentioned this briefly, but your writing speaks up to children and your stories speak up to their characters. Does this type of writing come naturally for you? In "Oddity," for example, you have a character who could be defined as having a disability but the way you create her story arc she's got her physical reality but is far from disabled. You do this across your character spectrum.

I chuckle at this, because I don’t think of myself as speaking “up” to anyone in particular. I’m curious to know more about what this means to you. But since you mentioned Aunt Bets specifically, let’s talk about her. I love Bets. She’s scary in the best way. Kids need adults they can count on, and there’s no question Ada can count on Bets. But as you know, in Oddity being an initiative-taker comes with a lot of additional risk even if you’re doing something mundane, and Bets had a life-changing incident involving a ladder and a carnivorous dumpster. And yet, she’s also the anchor that holds her extended family together throughout the story, not because her sister, brother-in-law, and nieces aren’t strong people in their own right, but because she’s emerged from the initial crisis of her accident, and now they’ve been plunged into one of their own. So she’s on point, and luckily for everyone she’s smart and stubborn and, as Churchill once said when twitted about his use of prepositions, there are some things “up with which she will not put.” When I was writing about her, I was thinking about how amputation shifted a power she’d previously been able to take for granted: mobility. That didn’t change the fact that she’s a powerful person, but it forced her to shift the ways she puts that power into practice. I knew she still had to do all the things, so I focused on how she would have to adapt in order to do them. And I sought out beta readers who had the life experience to critique my work— I can’t stress enough how important that is. Mistakes on the author’s part can do lasting harm to readers, especially young readers.

"Twist" was released not long ago and you had a book release celebration here in Indy at Kids Ink bookstore. Then, all of our lives got interrupted by the spread of COVID-19. I'm wondering as a writer how you're handling this time and how you've had to adapt book promotion?

Oh, I love Kids Ink. I fangirl when I get to do an event there. I was one of the lucky ones...I got to have my launch, do school visits, and so on. I know authors who’ve had dozens of events cancelled. Some have creatively moved their launches online, and I’ve been trying to attend those and boost them whenever possible. As you may have seen, many authors are offering online content for kids who are stuck at home right now. Susan Tan started the Authors Everywhere YouTube channel, and I’ve contributed a read-aloud of the first chapter of Twist, and a discussion of how setting fuels plot— with a bonus 80s trivia page! I’m still mailing swag to kids, and will definitely run some summer reading giveaways! So I’m doing alright, but I will also say that many writers, myself included, find it tough to write during a crisis like this, because our imaginations are so often with distant loved ones, or even people we don’t know who may be afraid or suffering.

Simple question to close out our time - What do you really love about being a writer?

I love when I feel a new idea start to “grow legs.” I love re-reading a scene I’ve written and being truly happy with it. I love getting good feedback from a tough critic. I love getting to read friends’ manuscripts long before they are books. And I love connecting with readers, authors, teachers, booksellers, and librarians!
Sarah Cannon currently calls Indiana home. It's a place she lives with her husband, three kids, and what she describes as a misguided dog. She holds a B.S. in Education and describes herself as a nerdy knitting gardener who drinks too much coffee and eats a lot of raspberries. Both "Twist" and "Oddity" were published by Feiwel and Friends, a MacMillan imprint.

You can pick up a copy of Cannon's most recent novel "Twist" at Amazon or your local indie bookstore; "Oddity" is also available on Amazon, at indie bookstores, and at many libraries including my hometown Indianapolis Public Library system. You can visit Sarah Cannon's website for even more information.

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