Celebrated author and poet Marilyn Nelson’s numerous books for young people include Newbery Honor-winning Carver: A Life in Poems, Coretta Scott King Award winner A Wreath for Emmett Till, her memoir How I Discovered Poetry, and most recently, My Seneca Village. Nelson spoke with PW about her latest verse novel, American Ace, which chronicles one Italian-American man’s discovery, after his mother’s death, that his father was not really his father, and he was most likely the son of an African-American pilot in World War II. Inspired by her knowledge of the Tuskegee Airmen (her father was one of the last Airmen), Nelson relays information to young readers who may be unfamiliar with the group’s story through a teen’s thesis on the subject. Nelson shared her thoughts on empathy, writing about historical figures, and what she sees as the deeper issue beyond just publishing more diverse books for children.
In your author’s note to American Ace, you talk a lot about your reasons for writing this story the way you did. What was your biggest challenge?
Probably the biggest challenge for me was shoehorning all the info about the Tuskegee Airmen into one digestible piece so I could explain it clearly to someone who might not know anything about these men.
Were you worried at all about writing from the perspective of someone so different from yourself (i.e., a 16-year-old Italian-American boy)?
That was a trial because I didn’t want to put a lot of social media and contemporary music and things like that into it because I don’t live in the world of 16-year-old boys. I’m the age of Connor’s grandmother trying to imagine what his life might be like. Teenagers today, their lives are very different from the life of 16-year-old kids when I was a 16-year-old. That was a long time ago, and so I kind of shied away from talking about sexuality, for example. I don’t know what 16-year-old kids are about. I have them having a little romance, but I didn’t want to write about it in too much detail because I frankly don’t know how to imagine it.
I will say I just pulled out M.T. Anderson’s Octavian Nothing and I don’t know if anybody attacked him for writing an African character, but what I’ve been steeling myself for is the possibility that I may be attacked for allowing this Italian-American kid to have a share in African-American history.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to write about a group or person not of their same gender, race, or culture?
I don’t know that I have any particular advice except to read other examples of people who have made that kind of stretch.
I was working with a couple of middle school students about three years ago and they had done historical research and were going to write poems based on their research. One of the girls had done her research about slavery – this is a white girl in Providence, Rhode Island – and that is what she was going to write about, but she had left her research notes in another classroom and the classroom teacher wouldn’t let her go into the room to get her notes. And she was crying. And I said, “Well you’ve done the research. Why don’t you just try to imagine a girl your age and just put her in the context that you read about?” And she sat down and wrote a poem about a white girl her age who had just had a birthday – she was in eighth grade so she would have been 13 or so – and had received a gift of cash for her birthday. And in her poem the girl takes this to a slave auction and buys twin girls her age with the plan of freeing them. She read her poem to the rest of the students, and at the end everybody was clapping and crying because she had put herself into that context.
I think I once heard the novelist Jonathan Franzen interviewed on television and the interviewer asked him something about his genius. And he said he didn’t think he was a genius but he had a genius for empathy. He could empathize his way into characters who were different from him. And frankly that’s what I do: I write about history and what I have done for the last 15 or 20 years is to empathize my way into the imagined experiences of people whose experiences are not mine. But, informed by research and imagination, I have just taken a leap of faith and done that. I mean I’ve written about girls who were students in Prudence Crandall’s Connecticut school for African-American girls and that was a stretch, imagining myself into the 1830s, so at least writing this book [American Ace] was closer in history to my own time period.
What draws you to historical stories like My Seneca Village and the myriad others you’ve written?
I’m interested in history and I’m interested in the experiences of other people: what we have in common, what we share through the years and across lives which are thought to be dividing lines, and I’m more interested in writing about other people’s lives than I am in writing about my own life, which is in my opinion not all that interesting.
A young adult editor asked me to write My Seneca Village because she had seen an exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York and she wrote and asked me if I’d be interested in writing a book about the history of the village and I started doing research. I wrote a draft of the manuscript, which took me a year and a half. After that I sent her what I had, but she had left the publishing house and nobody there had ever heard about this story, I didn’t have a contract, and they said this was not a young adult book because a young adult book has to have a young adult protagonist. So this manuscript was looking for a home for a couple years before it finally went to Stephen Roxburgh at namelos. Everybody now knows the story. There’s even been a play about Seneca Village. But at the time this manuscript was first produced nobody knew what I was talking about. And that’s why in the author’s note of American Ace I say that there are some people who believe that a young adult book has to have a young adult protagonist. That is really based on my profound disappointment of having this publisher tell me that this was not a young adult book.
How do you figure out what type of verse and structure to use in a particular book you’re writing?
Well I write mostly iambic pentameter lines and I guess the main decision is whether to use rhyme or not. I like rhyme but it takes a lot of time to rhyme well. For American Ace, I just arbitrarily decided on sort of a structure for each scene. I wanted to use the same form all the way through so every scene is two stanzas of 12 lines of iambic pentameter, but it’s completely arbitrary. I didn’t want it to be sonnets because I’ve written a whole lot of sonnets and I didn’t want to write any more. I didn’t want it to rhyme because it would have taken me five years to write it. And I wanted it to be individual scenes telling the story so that each scene kind of highlighted something in the storyline or in Connor’s life. You’re feeling your way and the first decisions I made in this case were how to structure the plot and then the second ones were how to structure the individual scenes.
Was it important to you that there is a visual aspect to this story? And where did the photos come from?
It was kind of a decision I made with my editor, Lauri Hornik. At some point when we were talking she said, “Well, we could use photos,” and that seemed like, “Oh well, duh! Yeah!” But it was something we just fell into accidentally; it wasn’t a plan from the beginning. But as soon as it was suggested, it seemed like a wonderful idea. Then Lauri and other people at Dial found the photos and we had a little bit of back and forth about which ones to use, but I was very, very glad that they agreed to include them.
Can you talk about your process with Hornik on this book?
I had asked Lauri if I could do a Tuskegee Airmen book using poems I had already written and published and then just adding to what already existed. I was looking for an easy way out. And she said no, she wanted me to write a new book from scratch for people who weren’t familiar with [the Airmen], and that was a real challenge. And I came up with this idea of doing a novel essentially, which was not her suggestion, and which I think surprised her.
Other than that, when I sent her the final manuscript there were some points at which she would ask “Would he really think that?” or “Would they really say that?” and I’d say “Well you know, I don’t know. I’ve never been in a white group without a black person in the group. I have no idea. I’m just imagining here.” We had a couple of little exchanges like that where I had to confess that I wasn’t sure and that I was just using my imagination, and she was very easy to work with and willing to accept on faith my imagining of the characters. She was very helpful and supportive, and I really appreciated working with her.
I also talked to a friend of mine who was from a large Italian-American family and he sat down with me and told me about his family: who they were and what they were like, and so a lot of the extended family is based sort of on my friend’s family.
You’ve written such a wide array of stories: is there one in particular that has really stayed with you?
I suppose Carver, because it occupied my life for a long time. And I loved learning about Carver – he was a very deep man – and researching his life and writing about him required me to go to some real depths, so that was very enriching. But I’ve really enjoyed writing all of them, especially the historical stories: each one of them is an homage to someone and it felt as if I was really connecting with them. It’s hard to describe but every one of them means a lot to me. I think it’s a privilege to write about historical figures.
Writing American Ace was kind of like Carver in a way because I had to stay with the same story for a long time and really learn something about the character. I decided early on that I wouldn’t have written about Connor and his family if I hadn’t liked them. And the more I wrote about them the better I liked them. I really enjoyed writing about the boy and his relationship with his younger sister, for example, and maybe it’s Pollyanna-ish to imagine a family with so few hang-ups and they’re so untwisted, but I liked them, and I don’t think I would have written about a family I couldn’t like.
Did you learn anything new about the Tuskegee Airmen or your own father while working on this book?
I did research to be able to tell individual stories, but for the most part I didn’t learn anything that I hadn’t already encountered at some point. Maybe there were little details, but for the most part I knew the stories.
There’s one poem about a much-decorated pilot and I describe the day when he shot down three German planes. And I had already written and published another poem about this guy, so I had to come at it from another angle because this story had to be told again; I wouldn’t have wanted to write about the Airmen without including that story.
One of the pieces that I learned that I mentioned in passing is that I came across somebody who had been shot down twice, and taken as a prisoner of war twice, and escaped from P.O.W. camp twice, and walked alone back to the base in Italy twice. I hadn’t read about that before and I think it’s just such an amazing story. Another one I hadn’t written about before was a story that was told to me personally by Connie Napier. When he was doing training in Alabama, something went wrong with his plane and he had to land in a cotton field. There was a chain gang out picking cotton and he saluted them. But other than that, most of the remaining living Tuskegee Airmen are very old now, and I wasn’t able to get any new stories, so I had to rely on things that were already in print somewhere.
Is there a particular way you often find the inspiration for your stories?
It really depends story to story. Several of them are about things that happened in Connecticut, and I did those because I was the Poet Laureate of Connecticut for five years and I was hunting for projects to do. And so I think three or four books were Poet Laureate state projects.
And then with the Carver book, I was about to start writing a book about Hildegard of Bingen and a family friend came to visit. It was literally the day I was sitting at my desk to start writing Hildegard. I had been to Germany to do research and I was at my desk and the phone rang and this man, one of my father’s old friends whom I hadn’t seen in probably 30 years, called and asked if he could stop by. And he stopped by and had a glass of lemonade, and as he was leaving he handed me a brochure from one of the George Washington Carver museums and said, “I think you should write a book about George Washington Carver.” And it felt like he was sent there to give me this message. So I stopped the Hildegard project immediately and started working on Carver. So that was a case where literally somebody asked me to do it.
And this last year the minister from the church I belong to in Connecticut asked me if I would be willing to write about the church history because it is about to celebrate its 350th anniversary. So I spent roughly a year learning and writing about the history of this church. Somehow things fire your imagination and in a way it never matters where the initial spark comes from; what matters is whether your imagination takes fire. So every one of my projects has come to me in a different way.
What’s your take on the current plea for more diverse books being written for children?
I just add my voice to those who are pleading for more diversity, but I think it goes beyond that. I think what happens is that there are books that are about minority or ethnic characters/children, but they tend to be read only by members of that group. And I don’t think the problem of diversity is addressed until we start learning each other’s history. I’ve been to festivals of African-American children’s literature at which the only people in the audience are African-Americans. And I’m thinking: “You know, if I were a white parent, I would go to these festivals and buy books for my children so that they would know something about their classmates.” But that does not seem to happen. So I plead for diversity not only in the writing and publishing of children’s books but also in the reading of children’s books. I have a friend who works at a bookstore in New Hampshire – a big chain bookstore in New Hampshire – and they will not carry my books because there are no African-Americans in their city. And they argue that nobody is going to read these books. Well, there’s something really wrong with that.
You’ve written about, among other topics, Emmett Till, George Washington Carver, your own childhood, and now the Tuskegee Airmen. Are there other African-American stories you still hope to tell?
Oh I don’t have any projects right now. The next thing is this church history, which is about a church in a very upscale community in Connecticut. And my son has been teasing me that what I’ve done in this book will surprise people because everyone expects me to keep finding African-American stories to tell and this is not an African-American story, it is essentially a white story.
I don’t know how it will be published. I have my hopes but I can’t speak yet because I haven’t gotten an official acceptance yet. But it’s a wonderful story. The church was founded in 1666. The first minister of this church kept slaves in the attic of the parsonage. And this was in New England. This is American history. And I carry it through to the present day when this church has partnerships all over the world. It’s a tremendously progressive church, but it started with slaves in the parsonage attic. I think it has something to say about the country, our history, our people, how much we’ve grown, how much we’ve learned.
At one point I wanted to write about a very great Paiute holy man named Wovoka, and one of my publishers I very much like encouraged me to write this book about Wovoka, who was the founder of the Ghost Dance religion, which was a really important movement all over North America. And it was the Ghost Dance movement that caused the massacre at Wounded Knee. The people massacred were unarmed dancers who believed the Ghost Dance was going to bring their ancestors and the buffalo back. And the American Army just went out with Gatling guns and mowed them down. And Wovoka, who had started the religion, my heart goes out to him because he saw a religion, a movement he started, fail. I haven’t written it – although nobody else has done it – because of the politically correct movement. I’m afraid if I tried to write the story I would be criticized for cultural appropriation. But it’s a story that needs to be told. It’s a beautiful, heart-rending story. I don’t know whether I will pick it up, but it’s still a story that I believe should be told.
And finally, what are you reading now?
I’ve been pulling books out of my bookcases that I’ve bought over the last 10 years and never opened. Today I was reading a science fiction book by Octavia Butler. And right now on my coffee table is Martín Espada, he’s a Puerto Rican-American poet, a very great poet, and my family is getting ready to go to Puerto Rico for vacation so I was rereading him. Then there’s Elizabeth Alexander’s memoir about the death of her husband – I have a pile of books everywhere. Gabriel García Márquez’s memoir Living to Tell the Tale is on my bedside table. I’m reading a wide variety and it’s completely a hodge-podge. You know you go to a bookstore and you say “Oh, this looks good,” or you read a review and you think, “Oh, I really should read that,” so I have bookcases full of books that I’ve purchased like that.
American Ace by Marilyn Nelson. Dial, $17.99 Jan. ISBN 978-0-8037-3305-3