Today at Inside the Writer’s Studio we have debut-author of Words in the Dust, Trent Reedy. The book has a forward by Katherine Paterson, the Ambassador of Children’s Literature. Katherine gave a speech at VCFA’s Celebration Weekend a number of years ago and with her permission it was used in the launching of the YA and Children’s Page of Hunger Mountain, which I co-edit. Katherine Paterson’s speech, Fellow Travelers, where she discusses her friendship with Corporal Trent Reedy of the US Army may be found here. (It truly is a must-read!)
Trent, a fellow VCFA grad, is not your typical guy. He is wholly original as is his work.
A bit more about Words in the Dust from the publisher, Arthur A, Levine Books:
In the tradition of SHABANU, DAUGHTER OF THE WIND and THE BREADWINNER, a beautiful debut about a daughter of Afghanistan discovering new friends and opportunities after the defeat of the Taliban.
Zulaikha hopes. She hopes for peace, now that the Taliban have been driven from Afghanistan; a good relationship with her hard stepmother; and one day even to go to school, or to have her cleft palate fixed. Zulaikha knows all will be provided for her--"Inshallah," God willing.
Then she meets Meena, who offers to teach her the Afghan poetry she taught her late mother. And the Americans come to the village, promising not just new opportunities and dangers, but surgery to fix her face. These changes could mean a whole new life for Zulaikha--but can she dare to hope they'll come true?
Trent, thanks so much for being here. I have long been touched by your friendship with Katherine Paterson and the development of Words in the Dust. I am so glad it’s release day, in early January has passed and that the book is finding its way to young readers everywhere.
Now on to the interview…
Is there a story behind Words in the Dust that you wish to share? (Ie: the ah-ha or lightning moment where the story inspiration struck)
In 2004 and 2005 I was serving with the army in support of the reconstruction mission in western Afghanistan. On one mission my unit encountered a young girl who suffered from a cleft lip. The disfigurement was jarring and we knew we had to help. My fellow soldiers and I pooled our money to fly her to our main airbase where an army doctor was able to provide the corrective surgery she needed.
Cleft lip and the similar but more serious cleft palate are birth defects that occur in America as well, but American children almost always have these troubles corrected very early. So for me, this Afghan girl, for whom the surgery had been unavailable or outright banned by the Taliban, came to symbolize so many other young Afghan girls. She and others like her had suffered when their choices and chances were destroyed by war.
I wondered how the surgery we helped to provide would change her life. At first I thought that it would seem like a miraculously wonderful change. But given the obstacles that so many Afghan women face and the challenges facing Afghanistan as a whole, I thought that perhaps improvements in her physical appearance and in the way she could eat and speak were really not enough.
In any case, the last time I saw the girl she was riding away from our base in the back of a truck. I promised I would tell her story. All that I knew about her was the story of her surgery. Everything else I would have to make up. Words in the Dust is my way of keeping my promise.
Is there a favorite quote you turn to when the rejection blues get to you?
Although my writing has been rejected many times, I don’t really get the “rejection blues.” I follow the example that Stephen King lays down in his book On Writing by hanging all of my rejection letters and printed out rejection e-mails from a nail in the wall above my computer. Rejection is never fun, but I try to remind myself that for each rejection letter I earn, there are a thousand people who wanted to write, but never finished their first drafts or never had the courage to revise and submit for publishing. I force myself to think of each rejection letter as a trophy of trying.
Theme can be seen as a dirty word but as writers I believe we all have something to say, something we want to share with the world. What is that something for you?
In recent months I have been shocked and disappointed as anti Muslim sentiment in America somehow seems worse than it was in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. There are more examples of this than I would care to go into here, and obviously, I would hope that we can somehow move past this misunderstanding. One thing I hope readers of Words in the Dust will take to heart is the idea that the people of Afghanistan, the Muslim characters in the novel, and indeed Muslim people around the world are just that…people. We are all just trying to find our way to happy, peaceful, and satisfying lives. I believe it really can be that simple if we’d allow it to be.
What were some of the challenges you encountered when working on this novel/picture book? How did you overcome those challenges?
In the early drafts of Words in the Dust I was keen to demonstrate “cultural authenticity.” I thought that this meant details about Afghanistan. The unfortunate result was that my thirteen year old protagonist Zulaikha would take a routine walk to the market while thinking over her country’s turbulent history from the 1979 Soviet invasion through the civil wars, the Taliban, to the arrival of U.S. led coalition forces in 2001. I would include every detail of the landscape whenever Zulaikha traveled anywhere. I had to learn to cut a lot of material and to include only that which would stand out and get her attention. For any writer and particularly for one writing outside of his gender and culture, the “authenticity” problem is a delicate balance of what to leave in and what to take out.
Character. Tell us about the relationship between your protagonist and antagonist. How does this relationship grow and change throughout the work? What does your main character want? And how long did it take you to clarify those wants?
Story happens when a character struggles to get what she wants. She must overcome some problem. She must face conflict. In a workshop session at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, Cynthia Leitich Smith explained that sometimes a story consists of a character working towards what she thinks she wants while she must find out what she actually needs. That’s the situation Zulaikha faces in Words in the Dust. She has suffered from a cleft lip from birth. This hurts her eventual marriage prospects. When the American soldiers offer to provide corrective surgery, Zulaikha thinks that all of her problems may soon be coming to an end. She really needs something far more lasting and important than a change in her physical appearance.
Writers love books; we love reading. What book do you turn to over and over again and why do you love it?
I read or listen to an unabridged reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby at least once a year, usually in summer. Every line in that book is magic, pure poetry. I’m also fascinated (or perhaps bewildered by) the passage of time. Something in me is “borne back ceaselessly into the past.” I think that’s part of the reason why I write for and about young people. The Great Gatsby is beautiful and sad and perfect.
Do you have a favorite craft book? If so, what is it? And what is your favorite take away?
I’m not big on craft books. It seems to me that if books could teach people how to write, then everybody who ever wanted to write would simply buy the craft book and that would be all they needed. However, I do like biographies of writers and poets. I do sometimes enjoy essays and speeches by authors about the writing life or about their other philosophies.
In particular I have enjoyed Katherine Paterson’s several books of essays and speech transcripts. In The Invisible Child (Dutton, 2001) Katherine quotes someone saying, “If we cannot defeat despair—sometimes we can interrupt it.” I think this is the mission of any children’s book, but particularly of books with heart like all of Katherine Paterson’s wonderful novels. It’s a creed I tried to keep in mind while working on Words in the Dust.
Inspired by the Actors Studio, what sound do you love? What sound do you hate?
I love the sound of the opening notes of Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac every morning with my first sip of coffee. The sound I hate is the screech of the alarm clock, but not as much when it goes off to wake me in the morning. Rather, I hate this sound when it is played on television or on radio ads.
In ode to Maebelle, the main character in my new book Truth with a Capital T, who keeps a book of little known facts about just about everything, please share a wacky piece of trivia that has stuck with you or please share a little known fact about YOU.
I am tremendous fan of science fiction. By happy coincidence, I used to live in Riverside, Iowa. Riverside is famous for having been approved by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry as the Official Future Birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk. There is a large stone monument in this small town dedicating the location where the famous Starfleet captain will be born on March 22, 2228. Every Foby dressing up in Star Trek themed costumes. I have won first place in the Trek Fest Star Trek costume contest twice.
For more on Trent and Words in the Dust, check out these two interviews with he and his Words in the Dust editor, Cheryl Klein.
And Part II.