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INTERVIEW WITH SUNDEE T. FRAZIER

          

         SINCE POSTING THIS INTERVIEW, THE TOLLBOOTH 
          HAS LEARNED THAT SUNDEE'S BOOK, 
          BRENDAN BUCKLEY'S 
UNIVERSE 
          AND EVERYTHING IN IT, 
HAS BEEN SELECTED AS 
          THE NEXT CHOICE FOR AL'S BOOK CLUB 
          ON 
NBC'S TODAY SHOW!

          CONGRATULATIONS, SUNDEE!! 
  
 

         Today,  I am really excited to post an interview with a wonderful writer . . . .
          SUNDEE T. FRAZIER
                                                                                                                                                

          In January of 2003, I attended my first residency at Vermont College in the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults program. One of the first people I met was a beautiful writer named Sundee T. Frazier. We were in a workshop led by faculty members, Kathi Appelt and Louise Hawes. During that brutally cold winter of 2003, all of us in the program endured five straight days of temperatures hovering around minus 29, but, we didn’t care because we were inside doing what we loved, talking about books and writing, and writing for young people in particular. Sundee went on to publish her first novel, Brendan Buckley’s Universe and Everything in It in 2007. In 2008, she won the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Author Award. Today I have the honor and pleasure of welcoming her to the Tollbooth. 
 
            Congratulations, Sundee. We are so proud of you! I can’t resist asking the question. Where were you when you got the news?
 
First, thank you for sharing in my excitement. Fittingly, I was at my writing desk. I opened my e-mail inbox that morning to several messages titled, “Congratulations!” (I’m on the West Coast and the announcement happened on the East Coast while I was still sleeping – so a lot of people knew before I did.) The first e-mail I read was from M.T. Anderson because I thought, “Why in the world is this children’s literature giant writing little ol’ me?” He said that Vermont College (he was the faculty chair there when I earned my MFA) was very proud but didn’t tell me for what. The second e-mail I opened was from my agent, Regina Brooks. She had heard through the grapevine I’d won the award, but needed to confirm. After my husband got on the Internet and found the ALA press release, I realized I should probably check my voicemail. Sure enough, there were messages from the Coretta Scott King committee chair and my editor, and I knew it had really happened. I was ecstatic.
 
            This week I’ve been talking about plot and revision. I think you probably have some thoughts on that subject. I wonder if you could talk about the process of writing Brendan Buckley’s Universe. What was the genesis of the story?
 
For the longest time, I thought this was going to be the story of an interracial family whose youngest son drowns, leaving the older boy (Brendan) to cope with the loss of his brother and the disintegration of his family as his mom slips into depression. Fun, huh?
 
All along, the story included Brendan’s quest for his white grandfather – the grandpa he’d never met and didn’t know why. He felt that if he could find his grandpa, his mom would be okay. A wise writing mentor, Carolyn Coman, suggested that perhaps the story didn’t end with Brendan finding his grandpa, but that it started there.
 
And so I wrote the book over (yes, I had already finished a whole draft when Carolyn suggested this), and as I did, I realized I was asking the question, what if my own white grandparents had never turned around from their initial resistance to my parents’ relationship? What if I had grown up not knowing them? As it was, I knew nothing of their rejection of my mom’s choice to marry a black man until I was 21. But from the stories I heard, it was touch and go for a while. They turned around before my birth (my pending arrival being one of the primary motivators) and I grew up knowing them as loving and accepting grandparents.
 
Brendan doesn’t know anything about the past or the source of the falling out between his mother and grandfather, either, so when he discovers his grandpa actually lives close by and is a scientist who studies rocks, just like Brendan, he decides he must secretly seek him out – and the answer to the question of where he’s been.
 
                  How much did you know about the character and the story when you started?
 
Some people may think I strategically picked this topic because of the rising numbers of biracial children or the increasing interest in the biracial experience or even the dialogue around a certain presidential candidate’s ethnic identity. In truth, I had no idea what this story would turn out to be when I started. I knew the main character was biracial, with a black dad and a white mom, but the character actually started as a girl. Yep, Brendan Buckley was originally Brenda Buckley! I changed the character to a boy, again, not out of some strategic marketing choice, but because I woke up one morning and realized the character was supposed to be a boy. The change in gender actually helped free up my imagination. I was able to let Brendan be who he was – his own unique, individual self – instead of continually superimposing myself as a child onto the character as I wrote.
 
            Did the plot change as you continued to work on the story?
 
Once I figured out that the story started with Brendan discovering his grandpa instead of ending there, I had a basic arc, but determining how to reach the point where Brendan discovers the truth about his grandpa in a compelling way took me a long time. I constantly struggled with how to keep the tension in the story, which I believe, as author Richard Condon has said, is the most important element in fiction because it simulates our human experience of never knowing what’s going to happen next in life.
 
For me, writing a novel is like going on a treasure hunt without a map, except that makes it sound much more fun than what I actually experience, particularly in the early stages. The first draft is excruciating. I’ve realized I need to think of initial drafts as like sketches to a visual artist – whether big, bold strokes or soft, fuzzy lines, it’s just a sketch to give me an idea of where I’m going, and that frees me from the grip of perfectionism. Or maybe it’s more like a sculptor gathering her clay or marble. Until there are words on the page, I don’t have a medium to mold. So just getting some words on the page is always my goal, because any words are better than none.
 
My process is a complete mess. I follow a trail until it dead ends and then try another and another and another. If this sounds less than efficient, it is. But I once heard it said you only arrive at the right answer after making all possible mistakes. And then I try to remember the Miles Davis quote, “There are no mistakes,” and just keep going. The most commonly repeated phrase in Lewis and Clark’s journal was “we proceeded on,” and that’s what writers must do through all the challenges of getting to the ends of their stories.
 
            Did you always know that Brendan studied Tae Kwon Do?
 
No! In fact, neither Tae Kwon Do nor Brendan’s friend Khalfani were mentioned anywhere in the manuscript when it sold to Delacorte Press. I must credit my wonderful editor, Michelle Poploff, with giving me the guts to go back in and make major changes that I believe give the story a broader appeal and make it much more fun for kids. Actually, Michelle waited to make an offer until after I proposed changes based on her feedback, so I was highly motivated to make them!
 
Michelle showed her brilliance as an editor in that she told me (via my agent) what needed to be fixed, but not how to fix it. So, for example, she said she thought Brendan’s interests were too singularly focused (on rocks) and that he needed another hobby to make him accessible to more kids. My nephew was doing Tae Kwon Do at the time and I thought that it fit Brendan’s character well. I could see his dad wanting him to do it to learn the values of self-control and respect for his authorities. I think I also knew intuitively that Brendan needed to be more active. As an introverted writer-type, I tend to write main characters who stand around passively observing rather than taking action, and if there’s anything Tae Kwon Do warriors don’t do, it’s stand around! Something I didn’t anticipate was how the five tenets of Tae Kwon Do would deepen the story. The tenets added layers to the conflict, as Brendan had to wrestle with what Tae Kwon Do taught versus the choices he was making, and they gave him extra motivation to overcome his obstacles.
 
As for Khalfani (which happens to be my nephew’s name), Michelle said I needed to show who Brendan’s friends were. In the original manuscript, I had conveniently sent his best friend on a family vacation. Writing one almost-eleven-year-old boy was difficult enough – how could I possibly write two? Instead, I had written a fourteen-year-old babysitter character who assists Brendan in getting to his grandpa’s the first time and popped up several other times, as well. But again, I was motivated to show this interested editor that I was a fearless reviser – responsive to input and not too in love with my own words – so I cut the babysitter and created Khalfani. I’m particularly glad about this change. I think Khal is a kick in the pants and the scenes with him are some of my favorites (and were the most fun to write).
 
            How much did you know about Ed DeBose, (Brendan’s white grandfather), when you started? Did you know he was interested in geology?
 
            Again, once I decided that Brendan would meet Ed in the beginning versus the end. Then I needed to figure out a way for them to encounter each other. So, when I was rewriting the book, I brainstormed ways they could meet and that’s when it came to me that Ed could be an expert mineral collector.
 
            By the way, originally, back when the story was about a family in crisis, Brendan was a collector of several natural resources, including shells, seedpods, animal bones – even water (which was actually a coping method for dealing with the death of his little brother by drowning). He was a nature lover like me, I suppose. Carolyn Coman suggested (are you getting the idea that revision is a collective effort?) that perhaps I should pick one object for Brendan to collect – that this would give that collection more symbolic power, a chance to gain significance as the story evolved. This absolutely proved true. I tend to be interested in a lot of things, but only learn about them superficially. Focusing exclusively on rocks allowed me to see more connections between rocks and minerals and people, and to use those connections to create metaphors.
 
            What about Gladys, Brendan’s paternal grandmother. She’s such a strong presence in Brendan’s life. Did you have a clear picture of her from the beginning?
 
            Crystal clear. To the point where she threatened to be more interesting than my original girl character, Brenda. Gladys embodies the spirit of my own paternal grandmother, Willa Tucker, who wore cat-eye glasses (in the seventies), had a neighbor with a wiener dog named Dixie, and always took a picture with the guy in the pig costume at the state fair. She also didn’t have a problem telling it like it was.
 
            If you were asked to name one of the most important things you learned from writing your first novel, what would it be?
 
            Brendan Buckley’s not actually my first novel. I’ve got a couple practice ones in a drawer. But it is my first published novel, and I’d have to say the lesson Brendan taught me was not to be afraid to make the most drastic changes imaginable. Characters may need to change genders, to come on stage in chapter two instead of chapter twenty, or to leave the book completely. (Re)writing Brendan also reminded me to keep my audience – kids – forefront in my artistic decisions. Young people are the ones I seek to please, not primarily adults (although I hope adults will enjoy my stories, as well).
 
            You’ve experienced more than one big event in your life recently. How has life changed since you became a mother and how has motherhood affected your writing?
 
Now that I have a young child (she’s currently twenty-two months), I never feel like I have as much time to write as I need, especially with another novel under contract, but my daughter will only have one childhood, whereas I will hopefully have many opportunities in coming years to write more books. I remind myself of this then I go spend some more time playing with her.
 
Also, to be fair to my daughter, I’ve never been much of a routine-oriented person and I’m an avid procrastinator. Having her has actually forced me to be more focused and structured, and to use my writing time more efficiently.
 
            Are you working on something new now?
 
I’m working on another middle grade novel – this one about twin biracial girls, one black-appearing, the other more white-appearing, who visit the South to compete in a pageant and encounter prejudice from an unexpected source – their black grandmother. I’ve thankfully completed a solid first draft, but as I learned from Brendan, anything could happen!
 
            Thank you, Sundee for taking time to answer our questions. I look forward to your next book. And congratulations again!
       
          And, by the way, check out Sundee's website at http://www.sundeefrazier.com/

          You can also find out more about her at the Class of 2k7 website -   http://classof2k7.com/authors/sundee_t_frazier.php

Comments

( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
(Anonymous)
Jun. 13th, 2008 02:17 pm (UTC)
Great interview with good ideas, Sarah. Thanks.
sarahsullivan
Jun. 13th, 2008 03:04 pm (UTC)
Jun 13th, 2008
Glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading.
bravebethany
Jun. 13th, 2008 03:20 pm (UTC)
Wonderful interview!
Thanks for the indepth look into Sundee T. Frazier's process! What a clear, concise, and moving interview.

"Proceed on." I like this phrase, it reminds me of Tim Gunn's "Carry on" on Project Runway!

sarahsullivan
Jun. 13th, 2008 03:22 pm (UTC)
Re: Wonderful interview!
Sundee is just terrific, isn't she?
tamilewisbrown
Jun. 13th, 2008 11:16 pm (UTC)
Great interview, Sarah and Sundee! The twists your story took to come into the world are so inspiring, Sundee. Congratulations not only on the award but your beautiful novel too! Vermont College is proud of you, especially the contingent here at the Tollbooth!
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )