the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Author Blog

Tamara Ellis Smith and ANOTHER KIND OF HURRICANE

Posted by Sarah Johnson on Sat, Aug 22, 2015 @ 00:08 AM

Today we celebrate the release of Another Kind of Hurricane by Tamara Ellis Smith. 

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 A hurricane, a tragic death, two boys, one marble. How they intertwine is at the heart of this beautiful, poignant book. When ten-year-old Zavion loses his home in Hurricane Katrina, he and his father are forced to flee to Baton Rouge. And when Henry, a ten-year-old boy in northern Vermont, tragically loses his best friend, Wayne, he flees to ravaged New Orleans to help with hurricane relief efforts—and to search for a marble that was in the pocket of a pair of jeans donated to the Red Cross.

In this stunning debut novel, two very different characters—a black boy who loses his home in Hurricane Katrina and a white boy in Vermont who loses his best friend in a tragic accident—come together to find healing.

Rich with imagery and crackling with hope, this is the unforgettable story of how lives connect in unexpected, even magical, ways.

Tamara, thanks for visiting the Launchpad today.

What was the most difficult element to cut/change during the revision process and why? 

So Another Kind of Hurricane took a long time to get right. Nine years from the idea (which came to me my first semester at VCFA) to finally telling the story as it was supposed to be told. The core of it never ever changed—two boys from vastly different places meet, begin to help one another heal, and become friends—but the details around it changed tremendously. At first I had Zavion and Henry meeting in Vermont, way at the end of the story. That didn't work. Then huge revision #1: I had them meeting in New Orleans way at the beginning of the story. THAT didn't work either. So huge revision #2: I had them meeting 1/2 to 2/3rds of the way through.  I was getting closer. But they met too easily. So I added an almost-meeting that prolongs the wait. Bingo.

Writing plot is definitely a challenge for me. And in the early stages of Hurricane, it was especially so. I had to really break it down into each small, logistical moment and even then I had to (clearly!) figure it out by trial and error. It was daunting each time. I remember feeling this underwater-feeling at the start of each revision, like I couldn't see clearly and couldn't catch my breath.  EVERYTHING had to change when the timing and location of Zavion and Henry 's meeting changed. But with each revision, the story made more and more sense.

It's incredibly interesting to me. Finding a story's shape is kind of like what I imagine sculpting to be. The shape is in the piece of rock already and the sculptor's job is to find it.

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Do you write in silence? If not, what’s your soundtrack?

I wrote most of Another Kind of Hurricane in a bakery at the end of my block. So my soundtrack was a background kind of chorus of voices, other fingers tapping other keyboards, the whooshing of coffee drinks being made, and whatever music the bakers were into on any given day. Along with the soundtrack was the scenttrack. When I smell coffee brewing and bread baking I am instantly ready to write!

I love writing in the midst of other people doing whatever they're doing; being busy while other people are busy. I love feeling that collective buzz-y kind of energy. I always have. I always loved doing any kind of work as a kid if other people were working too. There was some odd comfort I drew from it.  Some visceral recognition that I was both an individual with a mission and a part of the whole.

Anyway, it's still the way I work best. That, and with a mocha latte and a cinnamon raisin bagel with peanut butter!

Tell us about something special you keep on your desk/wall as you work.

I'll tell you about something special I keep on my finger as I work. This is especially relevant with regards to Another Kind of Hurricane because special—or lucky—objects play a very important role in the story. I have so many of these objects. They're mostly in the form of jewelry, for whatever reason.

So I was terrified to go off to grad school. The day before I set out for my first residency, my friend, Maryanne MacKenzie, took a ring off of her finger and gave it to me. She said I could borrow it for the two weeks I would be at school. She said every time I felt nervous I should look at it and remember that she believed in me. I did exactly what she told me to do—and it was like magic! It worked. It calmed and centered me. After the residency was over, I gave the ring back. Then 6 months later, when it was time to go for my second residency, she gave it to me again.  We did this for the 2 years I was in school.

After I graduated, I gave the ring back to her for good. But at my graduation party she handed me a present – a little box. Guess what was in it?

I wear it every single day. It still calms and centers me.

How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?

Oh my gosh. How did attending VCFA not affect my writing life?

It changed everything for me. I felt like I had found home the minute I stepped foot onto the VCFA campus—home inside of me and home outside of me. Every aligned. And crackled. And burst forth. In terms of real-deal specifics, there are two things that stand out the most for me.

The first is that I learned how to be productive no matter what. While I was at VCFA I had two (of my now four) kids at home. And they were young. So I was a full-time mom on top of being a student. I had to get words on the page when I sat down at my computer because I didn't have a lot of screen time. So I'd sit down, immediately start writing, and not stop until a kid woke up from a nap or my husband had to go to work. Doing this over and over again—the rhythm got engrained. I think a lot of us VCFAers find this lesson while we are students.

The second thing is that I found my community. (I think a lot of VCFAers find this too.) The writers who I met at school are some of my dearest, closest, life-line-est friends today. The secret about being a writer is that you appear to be this loner, typing madly away, tucked up in some corner somewhere, but in reality you so desperately need people—for advice, support, company, reassurance, love. At least that is true for me.

VCFA nurtured in me the very best way to support and be supported. And that has meant everything.

What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?

My advice to a prospective VCFA student is to be open. As wide open as possible. Let the wisdom of the faculty come in, let the experiences of your fellow students come in, be present for each moment on campus as it unfolds.  My guess is that each student comes in with a specific idea of writing goals and desires. I know I did. Be willing for those to change.

Here's a story: I arrived at VCFA knowing I was a picture book writer (note the assuredness of that verb: knowing!), and so that first semester I wrote a picture book about a boy in Vermont who gave a pair of pants with a lucky marble in the pocket to a boy in New Orleans.

It was terrible. The picture book, not the idea. My advisor thought the idea would make a great novel—but I wasn't a novelist, so that was the end of that story.

Except it wasn't the end of that story—because I couldn't get these two boys out of my head.

You know what happened with that.

Yeah. My advice to students is to be open. Take risks. Tap into your heart. Reach out. Hold hands. Be curious. Work hard. It's the stuff I remind myself to do every single day.

Thanks for stopping by, Tamara

Tamara graduated from VCFA in Class of Summer 2007, The Unreliable Narrators. 

Sales from her book supports several non profit organizations which help New Orleans.

lowernine.org is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the long-term recovery of the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Louisiana in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and the levee breaches of 2005. lowernine.org is working to bring home more Lower Ninth Ward families than any other single organization. A portion of the profits from the sale of Another Kind of Hurricane goes directly to lowernine.org.

Big Class is a nonprofit organization dedicated to cultivating and supporting the voices of New Orleans’ writers ages 6-18 through creative collaborations with schools and communities. Big Class offers a variety of free, innovative programs that provide under-resourced students with opportunities to explore their creativity and improve their writing skills. Readers all over the country are donating copies of Another Kind of Hurricane—as well as other vital books—to Big Class, getting meaningful stories directly into the hands of the community they represent.

Information about both of these organizations—and how you can help—can be found at www.tamaraellissmith.com.

You can visit Tamara at her website, www.tamaraellissmith.com, on twitter at @tsesmith and on facebook at https://www.facebook.com/tamara.smith.7355

 

Topics: 2015 release, middle grade, Random House, Tamara Ellis Smith

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