Friday, September 23, 2011

Welcome, Tami Lewis Brown!

The Map of Me by Tami Lewis Brown
I'm so pleased to welcome Tami Lewis Brown to the Drift Record today! Tami's latest book is The Map of Me, a breath-of-fresh-air middle grade novel in which the heroine, Margie, heads out in her father's Faithful Ford (no, she can't drive, but that doesn't stop her!) on a quest to find her errant chicken-decor-obsessed mother.
If that sounds a little like the beginning of a Eudora Welty short story, you're right - The Map of Me has a slight Southern drawl drifting through it. Margie's small hometown of Ithaca, Kentucky (hmmmm....seems to me there was a guy named Odysseus who had his own little hometown of the same name...and didn't he set out on a journey, too?....) is populated with businesses like Jip's Drugs, the Whatnot Shop, Tasty Yum, the Good Grace Church of Redemption, and the World of Tires, where Margie's daddy, a man who "has a talent for tires," plies his trade. Speeding along the backroads of Flood County, past towns called Grassy Creek, Pine Ridge, Decoy and Hazel Green, with her little sister Peep (aka Ms. Perfect) in tow, Margie sets out on her quest with determinaton and charm. But Brown offers more than charm to readers of this "slim gem of a novel" (Ingram Reviews.) She also provides a poignant life lesson about how confusing it can be to map our way along the backroads of our own hearts.
So, Tami  - I have a few questions for you today. Let's start with how you managed to capture Margie's world so vividly. In my teaching, I find many students who really struggle to add "setting" into their stories - it's just not something they think much about. But the opposite seems to be true of you! It sounds to me, from reading The Map of Me, that you grew up somewhere that deeply imprinted a sense of place on you. Am I right?

Tami Lewis Brown: Your assumptions thrill me, Julie, because almost the opposite is true. I’m a product of generic suburbia and I really struggled with place in this novel. I didn’t grow up in a small town in Eastern Kentucky, the setting for The Map Of Me, although “my people” are from there. I’m drawn to novels with a strong sense of place so I worked hard to imbue my work with an honest portrait of place, using geography, culture, speech patterns, and everything else I could think of. But in the beginning I had a clear idea of the living room of the Tempest’s house and that was it. I was very inspired by Sarah Sullivan’s Vermont College graduate lecture (which also inspired Tim Wynne-Jones to write the Rex Zero books) and I read Missing May by Cynthia Rylant a dozen or so times. Mostly the sense of setting came from writing with awareness and intention, exploring lots of dark alleys and dead ends in my imagination, and very hard revision work.

That's amazing. I never would have guessed that, because you make it look so effortless! So let's see if I can put my finger on who you were as a little girl. Your picture-book biography Soar, Elinor  chronicles the adventures of aviatrix Elinor Smith in the cockpit of her Waco-10 airplane, and your new book, The Map of Me, has another feisty young protagonist slipping behind a wheel, this time of her father's beloved (and immaculate) Faithful Ford. Were you a rule-breaker when you were young? If not, what pulls you to these stories of rule-breaking girls?
TLB: I wasn’t a rule breaker. I was a good girl who did her homework most of the time and loved to read, but I went to an all-girls high school and to Smith College which is a powerful all women’s college. My mother and both my grandmothers worked outside the home. So, all in all, it never occurred to me (or to my sister, who’s now a very successful architect) that girls shouldn’t be feisty and strong. It breaks my heart when, as an adult, I see women giving great deference to men just because they are men or depreciating their efforts. I’ve seen this more often in the children’s book industry than I ever did in my previous career as a lawyer. Stand up for yourself, ladies! That goes for girls, too!! That said I’m not on a mission to write “strong girl” books. It’s just in me so that’s what came out on the page. My next book’s protagonist is a boy.

JL: Did you have a favorite book when you were a kid? And how about now? Is there any book you press into people's hands and say "You've got to read this"? What's in your own "Must Read This Next" stack of books?

TLB: I did love to read as a kid. My favorites were From The Mixed-Up Files Of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But loads of other books, too. I didn’t read YA. I guess there wasn’t much YA back then other than things like Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones—not my kind of book, so I moved on to adult novels by the time I was in ninth grade. I guess The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers changed my life. The emotion in that book shook me in a really profound way. Now I’m kind of careful about what I read, to tell the truth. As a writer I don’t like to read poorly or hastily written junk. I’m an evangelist for Kathi Appelt’s The Underneath. I’ve almost been in a fistfight over whether it’s “child appropriate,” a concept I completely disagree with. I think The Underneath is one of the most beautifully written and honestly felt books I’ve ever read—as an adult or a child.

JL: Tell us if you can what it's like to work with a legendary editor like Melanie Kroupa.

TLB: I adore Melanie. She’s been so much more than an editor. She was a mentor, a cheerleader, a taskmaster, and now a really dear friend. One of the best things about my journey as a writer was getting to meet, work with, and spend lots of time with her. At one point when we were getting close to the deadline on the novel we spoke on the phone every day. You can’t find an editor who’s more dedicated than that.

JL: People sometimes claim, "Creative writing can't be taught."  But I see that on the Acknowledgements page for The Map of Me, you thank several people, including your advisors at The Vermont College of Fine Arts. What did you learn by studying creative writing?

TLB: Talent can’t be taught but it must be trained. By this I mean I could never sit at a piano and play like Mozart, no matter how many lessons I took (believe me I’ve tried!) because I don’t have genuine musical talent. But Mozart was coached by great masters and he practiced- a lot. The teachers at Vermont College are among the best in the world. They know how to guide talented people to produce good work. But the thing I think makes VCFA magic is the convergence of so many talented people, both teachers and students, at the residencies, over the internet during the semester, and then as a continuing community for the rest of an artist’s life. There is powerful synergy brewing in Montpelier every winter and summer, almost atomic!

I’d read many books and I’d written many legal briefs when I came to Vermont, but I didn’t have much experience with creative writing. I wasn’t even completely clear about punctuation in a novel. So I had many rudimentary lessons to learn. The big lesson, though, was how to plumb my emotions and put them on the page. I recently saw a letter from one of my advisors who said “You aren’t crazy. You’re a writer.” Vermont College is the place I learned to allow myself to be a writer. Both the teachers and my fellow students taught me that. Once you take that emotional leap the word craft is almost icing on the cake.  Although word craft (and icing!) are really essential.

Big thanks to Tami for letting The Drift Record be part of the blog tour for The Map of Me. The book came out August 30th, 2011, from Farrar, Strauss and Giroux and is available at Powell's Books (Go, independent bookstores!)

Quick reminder: Check out Poetry Advocates for Children and Young Adults'  

The Poetry Friday round-up is over at Anastasia Suen's Picture Book of the Day. Head over there to see what other people have posted.


  1. Now that was a truly beautiful and enriching interview. I also loved how you reviewed "The Map of Me" with these lovely words:
    "She also provides a poignant life lesson about how confusing it can be to map our way along the backroads of our own hearts."

    Now THAT is poetry. :)

    I was also amused at your repartee concerning the issue: "creative writing can't be taught" - there's an entire literature devoted to just the talent-versus-training/ nature-nurture conundrum in gifted and talented education and the study of creativity. Nice to find that here as well. :)

  2. Great interview, Julie. I have a middle schooler who will love this book. Thanks for letting us know about it.