April 12, 2016

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Poetry Friday: Holly Thompson's The Language Inside & A Giveaway

Poetry Friday Pop Quiz

Get your pencils ready, poets.
You are seated next to a stranger at a large dinner party.

Do you:

A) Keep your mouth full of bread so you don't have to talk to said stranger.
B) Check email on your phone until it's time to order.
C) Start a conversation with a lame friend-pick-up-line like "Where are you from?"
D) Opt to talk to an old friend who is seated across the table from you.

While you're considering your answer, stop by Jen at Teach Mentor Texts for the full Poetry Friday blog roll.

I have my introvert moments, but at an SCBWI conference several years ago, I got brave and chose C. Right answer! The stranger sitting next to me was poet Holly Thompson. Her first YA novel-in-verse, Orchards (see post here), was not yet published.

Holly's first YA novel is about the
aftermath of a middle school suicide.
Even though Holly lives in Japan, we have stayed in touch. I am so thrilled that Holly is stopping by Author Amok today. Her new novel-in-verse, The Language Inside, is a beautifully written contemporary YA. 

Here is the blurb: "Emma Karas was raised in Japan; it's the country she calls home. But when her mother is diagnosed with breast cancer, Emma's family moves to a town outside Lowell, Massachusetts while her mom  undergoes treatment."

I have a big, juicy *hardcover* copy of The Language Inside to give away today. Leave a comment and I will choose the lucky winner at random.

This could be yours! Leave a comment to enter.
Holly is a master of the novel-in-verse form, which differs from a novel in poems. Each chapter is a long poem covering the threads of Emma's life. She must cope with the stress of her mother's cancer, worries about friends dealing with the Fukushima disaster, and tries to figure out her relationship with a Cambodian teen named Sam.

Holly is also an educator.
5 Questions for Holly Thompson

1.      At the AWP Conference in March, you were on a panel of verse novelists and pointed out the difference between a novel in verse and a novel in poems. Why do you prefer to write the former? How do you handle the revision process when each chapter functions as one integrated poem, rather than telling the story in a series of “stand alone” poems?

I try not get too hung up on categories, and in the industry “verse novel” is a catch-all term often used to describe any sort of novel-length narrative verse, including what I refer to as novels in poems, and sometimes even nonfiction in verse. That said, as you note, my verse novels thus far are not what I would consider novels in poems; I consider them novels in verse.

I’m keenly aware that in a verse novel, the verse, the poetry form, has to serve the story, that the story is paramount. As a storyteller, I’ve found that the structure that suits my tales is with the chapter acting as a longer poem, and each page serving as a sort of sub-poem. My style is constantly evolving though, so this may change and I may try different techniques in the future and perhaps even novels in poems.

Revision of a verse novel is a painstaking process, requiring the usual plot arc and emotional arc revision, and the stitching together of subplots, as well as further distillation in some sections, expansion in others, and often tedious and meticulous unraveling and mending of chapters, page poems and individual stanzas. Since revision is so complex with a verse novel, I do try to know my plot and my characters very well early on in the writing process!

2.      In her volunteer work at the Newall Center, high schooler Emma carefully chooses poems (Billy Collins, Li-Young Lee, Lucille Clifton) to share with a patient named Zena. Emma hopes these poems will both inspire Zena’s own writing, and bring the older woman out of her shell. Why do you think the sharing and writing of poetry has a place in therapeutic settings like the Newall Center?

Writing and medicine have long been intertwined, and the fields of narrative medicine and therapeutic writing are certainly well established now. Poetry is a powerful mode of expression, an art form that may be completely unexplored by patients but it’s ideal for settings like the Newall Center since creating and sharing poetry gives patients voice, validation and affirmation. The poems created in such a setting will span a full range of emotions and topics and are often unforgettable and truly help in creating community. 

My experiences at Goldwater Hospital (see this blog post: through the NYU program begun by poet Sharon Olds enabled me to grasp the tremendous power of poetry in a medical setting.

3.       I love the way Emma talks about being of two cultures. When Zena proposes writing a poem about breasts, Emma says:

I hold my breath
try to keep from blurting

in Japanese I’m good at controlling my words
but in English it’s like I leave the gate open
and words dart out before I can catch them

so this time I close the gate on
the no, anything but breasts
that I want to say

Emma feels more in control of her emotions when she speaks in Japanese than she does in American English. You are American, but have lived in Japan for many years. Do you feel that the language a person uses can affect how he or she thinks?

Absolutely! Languages are full of culture, so language affects our identity and how we think and behave. Even when simple words are directly translated they carry different connotations, associations and implications. The Japanese language is so structurally different from English, often full of restraint and measure, hierarchy and protocol. Much is spoken indirectly and there is little emphasis on oneself. 

American English by contrast, especially spoken by teens, is direct, open and full of “I.” American English is also peppered with sarcasm, which can be jarring and difficult to read for speakers of other languages.

4.      Let’s talk about migraines, which Emma suffers from. She was already prone to these headaches before the story begins, but the stress of her mother’s upcoming breast cancer surgery is a migraine trigger. Until recently, I wasn’t aware that children and teens suffer from migraines. (My 13-year-old experiences them when she becomes dehydrated.) 

How did you go about capturing the feeling of a migraine for those who have never had one? Why did you make the migraines such an important element of Emma’s character?

I’ve suffered from migraines (with visual and sensory auras, blindness and aphasia) since I was thirteen, so naturally at some point I wanted to give one of my characters this misery! 

I’d been thinking of my character Emma for many years and knew that the story would start with the disorienting helplessness experienced during a migraine. Migraines are often triggered by stress, and periods of great change or turmoil can become marked by migraine episodes. I knew that the migraines could provide some of the background rhythm of the narrative, could mark the acts of the story in a way. There is also a surrendering that becomes essential with a migraine, and in The Language Inside Emma has to surrender not only to her migraines but also to forces over which she has no control in her life—her mother’s illness, the tsunami in Japan, the move to the U.S.

5.       Emma has a complicated relationship with her mother, who is a strong woman coping with her own health challenge. She’s not a warm, fuzzy mom nurturing her children through their transition to living in America, and she’s not the stereotypical “saintly” mother with cancer often seen in children’s literature. When Emma’s  mother says,

I love that I can always count on you, Em

Emma tells the reader:

and though it’s meant as praise
it feels like a weight
to my back

Theirs is a complicated relationship. Would you talk about developing this aspect of The Language Inside?

Emma finds herself having to act more mature than she feels due to her mother’s illness, but just because her mother has cancer does not mean they don’t have quibbles and arguments. Emma is sympathetic to her mother’s situation, but she does struggle to filter her words. 

Women recovering from a mastectomy usually experience many ups and downs, and sometimes the lows persist, surprising family and friends who expect that the physical healing will simply yield a positive attitude. It’s a complicated healing process that includes adjusting to the new realities of having cancer. 

Emma’s mother becomes unpredictable during this period, and this all adds to Emma’s feeling unmoored. She has to find her own way to moor herself, which she discovers through her interactions with Samnang and Zena at the Newall Center, and ultimately through circles of family and friends. 

Thank you so much for these insights into your novel, Holly. I'm sorry that we didn't have time to talk about Samnang. He is so much more complex than the typical YA love interest.

Visit Holly's blog:
For high school educators and librarians, Holly and her publishers  have put together extensive supporting materials for this book. You'll find a reader's guide, and idea for using The Language Inside as part of the Common Core Curriculum. The full PDF is here.

Have a wonderful Poetry Friday, everyone. If you leave a comment, you'll be included in the drawing for your very own copy of The Language Inside.

UPDATE: Diane Mayr of Random Noodling is our winner! Congratulations, Diane. I know that you'll enjoy The Language Inside.


Linda B said...

Hi Laura, I listened to you on FB & ran right over! What a beautifully complex story your friend Holly has written. This young woman Emma sounds as if she might be very helpful to reader who are facing challenges in their families. Using poetry as a guide (I'm surmising) is a lovely thing to think about for a teen finding her way. Congrats on this second book, Holly!

Margaret Simon said...

Lovely post and interview of Holly Thompson. I am intrigued these days by novels in verse. Being a poet first and a fiction writer second, this form is calling out to me. I'll be looking into Holly as a model to my own writing as well as for my students.

Matt Forrest Esenwine said...

My oldest daughter would love this book - she reads constantly, and is hoping to become a Japanese interpreter, so she's become every familiar with Japanese culture. Holly does a great job of helping the reader get inside the mind of the main character and making her relatable to anyone.

Diane Mayr said...

What an interesting book! I'm curious about the novel in verse aspect of it, and how every poem is a chapter. And, I'm also curious as to why it is set in a town outside Lowell, Massachusetts? I live not far from there and it's a place full of manufacturing history, and, after a recent influx of immigrants, it is full of cultural diversity!

Renee LaTulippe said...

Thank you for this wonderful interview, Laura. As you know, I've been recently seduced by novels in verse, so it was fascinating to read the thought process behind some of Holly's choices. The idea of writing a verse novel is overwhelming to me...and this post did not allay those feelings! I am in awe.

Veronica Bartles said...

I never thought of a distinction between "novels in verse" and "novels in poems" before. Very interesting way to think about it.

I'm looking forward to reading THE LANGUAGE INSIDE, and I can't wait to meet Emma, who sounds like a very interesting and complex character.

Michelle Heidenrich Barnes said...

I am SO going to read this book whether or not I win your drawing! I love novels in verse anyway, but this one has so many intriguing layers to it. I was also fascinated by the interview (great questions!). Had no idea poetry was used in a medical setting. That is so cool.

HealingHarmonyA said...

Hi Laura ~ I love what this book is about. It is resonant with me on SO many levels, and would be so very grateful and excited if I were to win a copy. It's resonant as a young woman long term survivor of a high stage breast cancer, diagnosed at 40. It's resonant as a woman with a mother, and all that goes into that relationship. It's resonant as a poet/writer/artist, who has used her artwork to help evolve and heal through this journey, and also tapping into deeper levels of trauma in abuse, beating and bullying in the past. It's resonant as a being, a heart, a soul. And a passionate person who hopes to take her art out to the world more and more, to help light the way for others in their own evolutions. And I also help other survivors navigate life, as well as those with children. Thanks for such a great blog post reviewing what looks to be an amazingly wonderful book.

Liz Steinglass said...

Thank you for this fabulous interview. The book sounds beautifully complex. I think I know some older kids who be interested in reading it.

Tara @ A Teaching Life said...

Thank you for this fascinating interview, Laura, and thank you Holly for what seems to be a complex and wonderful read for teens. This would make a great addition to our classroom library.

Sherry said...

I actually have a prejudice or mental block about "novels in verse", but I enjoyed Ms. Thompson's Orchards. So I think I'll also give this one a try. Thanks for the interview.

Linda said...

Wow! What a great interview! I loved Orchards so I know The Language Inside will be wonderful too. It's always so much fun to read the inside story! Thanks for sharing this with us.

Ruth said...

This sounds like a wonderful book! I went to put it on my wish list and realized it's already there!

GatheringBooks said...

I didn't realize that there was a subtle distinction between verse novels and novels in poems. I'd love to learn more about that. :) Holly always manages to tackle important themes such as this in her novels (read and reviewed Orchards when we had our novels-in-verse theme late 2011). I'm looking forward to reading The Language Inside. :)
Lovely interview! :)

Holly Thompson said...

Such great comments, everyone! I'm awed! Thanks! Hope you enjoy The Language Inside and the characters Emma, Samnang and Zena.

Heidi Mordhorst said...

Hi, Laura--

I reckon that C. is always the right answer! Good on you for keeping in touch with the sort of people you meet that way. I think there's nothing more world-widening than living abroad, so much so that I wish it was a requirement for all teachers, especially those who work in culturally homogeneous areas. I can imagine that Daisy and I would both enjoy Holly's book, and I'll look out for *Orchards* too.

Mary Lee said...

I recently received a copy of this for the NCTE Excellence in Poetry committee, and now I'm moving it to the top of my TBR pile! Thanks for an insightful interview!!

Diane Mayr said...

I'm the winner! What a nice Saturday surprise--many thanks!

Keri said...

A wonderful interview with an author who is new to me. Thanks for the recommendation!

Bridget Magee said...

I am excited to read Holly Thompson's books! I love the novel in verse form. Thanks for the intro to this author, Laura. =)

BJ Lee said...

Hi Laura! This sounds like a wonderful book. I'm always amazed by these verse novels. Great interview!