Friday, April 3, 2015

Interview with Sharman Apt Russell, author of Teresa of the New World

Tell us about your current book. Give a short summary.

Set in the dreamscape of the sixteenth-century American Southwest, Teresa of the New World is a historical fantasy for ages 12 and up. Seemingly, this is about the fictional daughter of the real-life Spanish conquistador Cabeza de Vaca and a Capoque mother from the coastal tribes of Texas, about a father’s love and a father’s betrayal, about the plagues of First Contact, about were-jaguars and magic and a deep connection with the trickster earth. But, really, I have worked on this book for so long and have put so much of my “heart and soul” into Teresa’s story that now I think of it as my autobiography!
Can you tell us about your publisher and how the process worked in getting published?

I am an author with some dozen books translated into a dozen languages and published by established groups like Perseus Books and the former Addison-Wesley. My last children’s book, however, was in 1994 with Knopf for Young Readers. When I wanted to re-enter this field, twenty years later, I found that the most interesting and receptive publishers were the smaller presses, like Yucca Publishing, which is an imprint of the larger Skyhorse Publishing. Teresa of the New World, for example, is a book for teens and preteens that doesn’t involve romance. The love affair here is with history and language and the natural world. The editors at Yucca Press really “got” the book and I’m very grateful for that.

How did you get the idea for this book?

I have long been fascinated by the true story of the explorer Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, who shipwrecked in Florida in 1528 and spent eight years with the tribes of Texas as a slave, trader, and shaman before walking west to outposts in New Spain. Cabeza de Vaca went on to write a report of his years in the New World, which I have read many times. This man was something of an American Odysseus, mystic and conqueror, saint and sinner, anthropologist and adventurer. Gradually I realized, though, that his story was less interesting to me than the story of the people he lived with, the story of First Contact. I would have had ancestors in the New World then, from a Native American great-grandmother, and I have long sunk my own roots in these Southwestern deserts—born in the Mojave Desert, raised in the Sonoran Desert, and living my adult life in the Chihuahuan Desert of New Mexico. Teresa herself is a girl with power, someone who can listen to plants and animals and sink into the earth to swim through stone. I wanted to enter her world.

What is a typical writing day like for you?

The morning hours are golden. That time when you first wake up and, for me, are still drinking that first cup of coffee. I try to write two or three hours then, from about 6 a.m. on. I would write all day if I could. But life intervenes. Usually I have to break and do the “business of writing” and I have teaching responsibilities, too, and I like to exercise and be with friends and family…I keep coming back to the writing all day long in snippets of thought and time at the computer. Mostly, though, I come back to it the next morning, weekend or weekday, rain or shine.

What do you enjoy most about writing?

I love that writing takes me out of my personal self and ego. I think it is a form of meditation in that sense—losing the idea or illusion of self. In this case, you become many other selves, many other people (or animals or things). You also lose yourself in the flow of the writing and in the focus required.

What is the most difficult part of writing?

I leap out of bed ready to write, and I enjoy revision as much as the energy and  oomph of writing that original draft. I don’t have writer’s block. I don’t bemoan the life of the writer! I really feel privileged. But there is doubt in writing; you doubt your project and your own abilities. There is usually an emotional roller-coaster in a project. Sometimes you love what you are doing and sometimes you feel that it is really quite a stupid idea. Then you just have to go to bed and wake up the next morning ready to write again, and in love again.

How has publishing a book changed your life?

Publishing this book has really brought together for me a number of themes, about my connection to the desert, about my father, about history. This is all a deepening of my life, as is true with most of my books. This is my first young adult book, and that has been a change in terms of my audience and who I am reaching out to on places like Goodreads. I’ve reconnected with the passion and idealism and enthusiasm that these young readers have. It’s made me want to be more passionate and idealistic and enthusiastic like them!

If your book is based on true events, how has that affected those around you or why made you choose to use historical events?

My fascination with the history of the Southwest is largely about the landscape of the Southwest—imagining a time when the land was more pristine and when our connections to the plants and animals here were deeply important. As an environmentalist in today’s world, I think those connections are still important. I think we still need to talk to animals, like Teresa does, and listen to plants.

What are your plans now?

I am revising another middle grade/young adult story set in the sixteenth-century American Southwest, this time from the perspective of a Tohono O’odham girl making the salt journey and encountering an Aztec merchant-priest—about five years before the Spanish actually land in the New World. I also have a science fiction coming out next winter called Knocking on Heaven’s Door, with Yucca Publishing, about a Paleoterrific future—some 250 years from now, in the American Southwest. I’m writing a sequel for that…and in creative nonfiction, I am going to build on a book I wrote about hunger and look again at solutions to childhood malnutrition in Africa. This is another theme I have been exploring for many years.

What is your best tip for aspiring authors?

Perseverance. Just keep writing. Every day. Because it’s something that feeds you and makes you stronger and happier. Because it’s who you are. The days add up, and the years, and you are a writer who has kept writing—and that will be meaningful.

Is there anything else you would like to share with our readership?

Teresa of the New World is also about the plagues of the sixteenth century, of course, and an epidemic of measles that sets Teresa off on her own journey. The research for that was always interesting and pertinent to today’s world—to new potential epidemics like Ebola, for example.

Do you have a website? If so, please give the URL. If not, where can readers go online to learn more about your book(s) and to order?

Thank you for the interview! Sharman

1 comment:


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