Q | In your new book, Echo, four kids from different places and times find themselves connected by a mysterious harmonica. What was your inspiration for this story?
A | Sometimes the book I set out to write ultimately becomes a tiny part of a much larger story that demands to be written. That’s what happened with Echo. I thought I was going to write a novella about the nation’s first successful desegregation case in 1931. I was doing research when I came across a peculiar photograph of a group of children, sitting on the steps of a country school. Each child held a harmonica.
When I asked the docent about the photo, she told me it was the school’s harmonica band and added, “during the big harmonica-band movement in the United States.” Those intoxicating words were enough to send me on the long and winding journey toward Echo.
The book begins with a boy named Otto, who buys a book and a harmonica from a gypsy. While reading in a dark forest, he becomes so absorbed in the fairy tale about a prophecy and a witch’s spell that he loses track of time, and his way home, only to be helped by the very characters in the book he’s reading and the harmonica with its unique powers.
The harmonica travels beyond Otto to three talented musicians, each facing their own darkness: Friedrich, who lives in Germany the year that Hitler becomes chancellor; Mike, an orphan, who lives near Philadelphia at the Bishop’s Home for Friendless and Destitute Children; and Ivy, who lives in California and discovers a troubling secret in the house her father is overseeing.
It isn’t until the end of the novel that the reader will discover the stories’ resolutions, how they are all connected, and how a single mysterious harmonica made an improbable real-life miracle possible.
Q | You experiment with form and genre in Echo. What motivated you to take those risks?
A | If readers are familiar with some of my other titles, they won’t be surprised that I played with the format. In The Dreamer, I took big leaps with form. I like to stretch the standard and usual, because for me the adage “no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader” is often true. In Echo, the format evolved in part because of necessity and in part because I was curious if it would work. I had three main characters’ stories but I wanted the novel to be more than just three episodic tales in the life of this harmonica. I wanted it to have a rich thread that held it together so that the denouement provided the reader with resolution. When I started to imagine the harmonica’s back story, the idea for the fairy tale began to take shape.
Writing an original fairy tale to frame the three stories in Echo was an entirely different way of thinking for me. The genre is different. It is telling instead of showing, and the opposite of any editorial advice for narrative. As Phillip Pullman says in his Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, “A fairy tale is not a text. It is a tome licked clean.” I had to write with a different mind-set. A fairy tale has no backstory. Good is good, bad is bad, beautiful is beautiful, ugly is as ugly does. No explanation is needed beyond the writer’s declaration.
I had the three stories bookended by the fairy tale but I needed a bridge between the world of magic and the reality of the years surrounding World War II. I needed a character to live in both worlds. That character became Otto, the boy on the first page of the book.
Q | What do you hope readers take away from Echo?
A | I hope that readers of all ages will see that music is a universal language and it transcends differences. Music illuminated my characters’ lives and gave them a path during war, the Great Depression, and segregation. Music gave them a sliver of something beautiful during bleak times.
I often wondered how my characters put one foot in front of the other. I liked the idea that the harmonica had a magical history that gave each owner confidence and strength. I hope the reader will come to understand the prophecy and how it is woven into each story: Your fate is not yet sealed. Even in the darkest night, a star will shine, a bell will chime, a path will be revealed.
Q | Why do you write?
A | Oh, so many reasons: I write so that I can present a view uninterrupted by other people’s opinions. I write in a feeble attempt at immortality. I write because I want readers to know the one life of my character, a life that may be different from their own reality. I write for power—to make order out of chaos, and to make life fair. I write because for some reason I must. I write because I want to capture the reader so that he or she wants desperately to turn the page.
Q | Any favorite teachers growing up?
A | Mrs. Ralston at Washington Junior High School in Bakersfield, California. She was my seventh-grade English teacher. I adored her for her enthusiasm, and for teaching me how to diagram sentences. I loved diagramming!
Q | What does the We Need Diverse Books campaign mean to you?
A | To me, the campaign means awareness, and it highlights the need for representation—in the type of books published, promoted, stocked, book-talked, and hand-sold.
It does not mean gratuitous characters, or gratuitous publishing for the sake of diversity. Nor “only books about Latinos for Latino children,” or “only books about disabilities for children with disabilities.” It’s not about exclusion. The campaign doesn’t banish anyone to the sidelines. I think it means casting a wide net of inclusion in our thinking about what we produce, promote, sell, and read. I’ve always believed we can’t just look at a person and understand her or him. We have to first hear the person's story for the seeds of understanding to take root. Hearing more stories about characters different from ourselves can only enrich us.
My book Esperanza Rising is having its 15th anniversary in print this year. I have received thousands of letters from Latino children, and adults, about what the story has meant to them and their families, and how they connected to the story. But just as important are the thousands of letters I have received from children and adults of all ethnicities, who have written to tell me how much the book meant to them. One boy wrote, “I didn’t know about those things until you told them to my eyes.”
I think that’s what the campaign is about. Opening our eyes a little wider.
Image: Jeffrey Beall/CC BY 3.0/Creative Commons