CS: Why did you write A Girl Called Problem? Where did the inspiration for it come from?
Katie: I lived and worked in Tanzania for two years from 1998-2000. My official job was teaching writing and English to university students studying journalism, but I would say I was more a student of local village life. The lessons I learned from Tanzania were many and varied: how to greet neighbors and especially elders in a place where community and age are highly revered, how to do basic jobs like cook without running water and electricity, and how to let go of my American sense of control over all sorts of things ranging from what time a bus should arrive to whether I’ll be healthy tomorrow.
When Americans think of Africa, our first associations are often quite negative–poverty, AIDS, famine–but my life there felt very complete and meaningful, as did the lives of my Tanzanian friends. These friends certainly faced very real challenges, but their lives were rich and complex, full of joy and laughter and arguably much less isolation and depression than your average American seems to experience. These friends were anything but pitiable–they were a real inspiration and that was something I wanted to share, in this case with young readers (A Girl Called Problem is designed for a middle-grade or 9-14-year-old audience).
CS: What about the topics in the book interested you? How did you know that you wanted to write a book about them?
Katie: A Girl Called Problem has several prominent themes. One in particular is the notion that educating and investing in a good quality of life for girls often results in a higher quality of life for the whole community. The main character in A Girl Called Problem is a thirteen-year-old girl named Shida. The word “shida” in Swahili actually means “problem.” Believe it or not, that is a name people are sometimes given in Tanzania.
The thing about my character Shida is, even though she comes from what is viewed as a cursed background–dead father, mom suspected of being a witch–she is spunky, resilient, hard working and very determined to improve her family’s circumstances.
The story of A Girl Called Problem starts out with the children in Shida’s village suddenly being offered the opportunity to attend school for the first time–Shida is excited and she has the critical support of her grandfather, but many other villages believe that educating girls is a bad idea. They make life for Shida at school very difficult. Ultimately, however, Shida’s education proves to be critical in the life of the village and in the story.
So, why this theme of empowering and educating girls? I met and admired a number of very determined and courageous young people, particularly girls, when I lived in Tanzania. Girls were expected to do the bulk of their homes’ chores, including hauling buckets of water on their heads and cooking large family meals over wood fires; they were often the first to lose out on education when their families ran short on money for school fees; if they did have time for homework, it was often after dark in houses with no electricity; and if they attended school, they frequently faced sexual threats from teachers. Talk about a tough row to hoe! And yet I met so many inspiring young women. They studied into the wee hours of the night by gas lamp and in the midst of buzzing mosquitoes; in one case, a courageous group of my university students stood up to a male lecturer who had threatened to fail them if they didn’t sleep with him.
My greatest inspiration was a young girl named Modesta, who sold fruit door to door when I first met her. Modesta was just about to age out of free education at 13 years old. She came from a polygamous family with a sometimes-absent father who didn’t have any plans to send Modesta to secondary school.
To make a long story short, through my association with Modesta and largely due to her tremendous courage, she ended up attending an international school for high school in India, she was the first in her family to get a university degree, and she now is helping to pay for the university education of her younger sister while working for a development organization that makes popular movies and television shows with imbedded public health messages. Modesta is most definitely improving the lives of others as a result of her experiences. She is my true inspiration for writing about the value that comes from honoring the gifts of young women.
CS: Did you have other experiences living in Tanzania that proved to be inspirational?
Katie: Yes. While I was living there, Tanzania’s first and long-time president passed away. He was a very principled man name Julius Nyerere. When he was first elected president, Nyerere had a dream for Tanzania. Essentially, he understood Tanzania as a country of peasants and rather than establishing a government with rich elites in the capital, as had happened during the colonial period, he wanted to create a government that reflected and honored the lives of its peasants.
He created the idea of ujamaa, also know as familyhood or African socialism. In an ujamaa system, Nyerere envisioned Tanzanians living in self-sustaining villages where they would run their own schools, medical clinics and farms. As I mention in the author’s note at the end of A Girl Called Problem, Nyerere’s ujamaa dream was never fully realized, at least not uniformly across the country, but there were many lasting positive effects of his leadership: literacy rates soared, life expectancy went up, and Tanzanians developed a strong sense of national identity which has allowed their country to remain peaceful, unlike many of its neighbors.
When Nyerere passed away, almost fifteen years after he had left the presidency, the country completely shut down for an entire month. Weddings, sporting events, graduations–everything–was postponed. Local buses, which normally blasted Swahili pop music, only played songs of mourning. People clearly revered Nyerere and the impact he had had on his nation. So, I started reading about him and I became fascinating. Ultimately, I decided to set A Girl Called Problem at the beginning of the ujamaa period when Nyerere and the Tanzanian people were full of optimism about establishing their new country.
CS: What made you decide to write a novel as opposed to a memoir based on your experience?
Katie: For several years after returning from Tanzania, I wrote about my experience there. I think this was my way of processing what I had experienced. I eventually got an MFA in Creative Writing at Mills College, where my thesis would eventually be the first few chapters of a memoir about living in Tanzania. I learned so much from my time at Mills, including the fact that though my experience in Tanzania was rich and full of meaning for me, it didn’t really merit a memoir.
I’m currently revising a memoir about raising my infant son in India, so I’m doing a lot of thinking about memoir. Most of us agree that memoir contains two critical components–a universal experience, and an exotic context–but I’ve come to realize that’s not it. The writer needs to be able to teach her readers something new about both the universal experience and the exotic context.
I knew I would teach my readers something new in sharing the exotic context of Tanzania with them, but after only two years there I didn’t have a clear universal experience (quasi-mothering Modesta? teaching? living simply?) that contained epiphanies worthy of sharing with my readers in the form of a memoir. I hope that makes sense.
Having said all of that, Mills did not leave me discouraged about writing a book about Tanzania. I also took a couple of classes in the craft of writing middle-grade and young-adult fiction while I was doing my MFA. I had a wonderful professor, Kathryn Reiss, who also happens to be a very prolific and talented author. Kathryn pushed me to outline a whole book and to write and revise the first few chapters over the course of a semester–that was the beginning of A Girl Called Problem.
CS: What sort of other research did your novel writing process involve?
Katie: I read every bit of ethnography I could get my hands on about the local tribe, the Sukuma. I also read a lot about Nyerere and the ujamaa movement. My research sometimes even veered into botany as I wanted to make sure I used the correct names for plants and trees commonly found in Tanzania.
Finally, I bothered Modesta for years with question after question about small details like, for example, the lyrics for a song Sukuma people sing at a funeral, or the name of the traditional medicine used to treat people suffering from malaria. When Modesta didn’t know the answers, her mom often did.
CS: The book addresses some real events and figures, such as President Nyerere. Did using these factual aspects in the narrative affect your fiction writing in any way?
Katie: It was very important to me that I paint cultural, historical, and even setting details accurately. I also realized that a lot of these details would be new to readers, but I wanted to avoid being didactic. So I was constantly dancing between giving readers the information they needed to follow the story, but also trying to weave that exposition seamlessly into the narrative in a way that allowed the plot to continuously advance. My editor at Eerdmans, Kathleen Merz, was a great partner in figuring out this balance.
CS: How did you decide what to traditionally publish and how did you go about getting an agent and publisher? What were some of the advantages and disadvantages of your publishing experience?
Katie: I lucked out in finding a wonderful agent, Sara Crowe, almost right away. I was actually referred to her by a friend and talented author, Nina LaCour, whom I had studied with in graduate school. Though I had some sense at the time, I really had no idea exactly how fortunate I was in largely getting to skip over the agent query process. Sara felt strongly about the book and her ability to sell it, though I think it’s fair to say that we were both surprised when that process took well over a year.
Editors at big houses were complimentary of the book, but they guessed it was one that would do well mostly with schools and libraries and they saw that ultimately as a risky financial proposition. Ultimately, we sold the book to a small and very talented publishing house, Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.
Eerdmans produces wonderful children’s literature, often with diverse characters and principled themes, and they are well respected in the children’s literature world. Just as an example, in 2013 two of Eerdmans books appeared in the American Library Association’s youth media awards.
Signing with Eerdmans was my second stroke of luck. They were wonderful and included me as the author in ways that it sounds like larger publishing houses often do not. For instance, I was fully involved in discussions about the title of the book and about cover art work. This whole publishing experience has exposed me to the behind-the-scenes work that goes into a book, much of which I cannot imagine having accomplished myself had I self published: talented editing, contracting out the wonderful cover art done by Richard Tuschman, and carrying clout with reviewers like Kirkus, School Library Journal, and The New York Times Book Review, all of whom chose to review the book. All of this is to say, I feel so very fortunate to have worked with Eerdmans.
CS: What advice do you have for writers on choosing a publisher or method of publication?
Katie: To be honest, I feel like I lucked into my publishing situation with A Girl Called Problem. Now that I’m working on a memoir for adults, one which will require a different agent who is familiar with that genre, I am guessing I will face more of the hard realities of trying to traditionally publish in this era.
Having said that, I think a subscription, even just for a month, to Publisher’s Marketplace to get a sense of what agents are selling in your genre is almost a must. I realize that, like in many lines of work, personal connections (and possibly also living in New York) certainly help.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I would suggest that writers really pay attention to small, independent publishing houses. Some of these houses will consider unrepresented manuscripts, and my experience has been that they will give you all of the important services you’d get from a big house, and then some! They can also be more courageous and principled in the work they take on, which I really admire.
CS: Did you come into any problems during the book writing or publishing processes? If so, how did you overcome these?
Katie: Patience proved to be key. I started writing this book when I was pregnant with my first child–it was released just before his sixth birthday. With the help of the outline and the first few chapters I wrote as part of an MFA class, I had a first draft of the whole book in less than a year. I spent at least another year on revisions–many of them major–and was certainly helped by getting feedback from peers.
The waiting game that came after the writing was the hardest part for me. Waiting for the book to sell after signing with my agent took longer than I had expected and then once we sold it to the publisher it took at least a couple of years to come out. Moving on to other projects to keep my brain occupied while my agent shopped the book or while the editor worked with the manuscript was also really helpful.
CS: What advice do you have for writers who come into similar roadblocks during their writing or who just want to know how to write a book, a novel?
Katie: Tools that served me well:
- Outlining in detail and pre-writing in general (research, note taking, character sketches)
- Having a writing group for external accountability and also critical feedback
- Honoring revision–my experience is that the first draft is only a fraction of the process. It is necessary, though often rubbish (at least in my experience) and should not be clung to.
- Finding a reputable agent whom you can trust–knowing the person has a track record of doing their job well (as is the case with Sara) makes the waiting game SO much easier.
- Considering small, independent publishing houses–I can’t say enough about them.
- Having a second writing project to work on when you are waiting for the first to advance to the next stage.
- Remembering that perseverance and patience are critical to the whole process.
CS: What helpful tips can you offer our readers about how to write a book or publishing (or where they can read more about the issues you address in your book)?
Katie: Here are a few suggestions for further reading/information:
- A video my Tanzanian friend Modesta and I put together as a supplement to the book.
- An essay I wrote about the cover art for my book and how that process unfolded.
- A description (with pictures) of the story behind my book, written for my agent’s blog.
- An essay I wrote for a children’s lit blog about multiculturalism in children’s literature and the importance of crafting complex characters.
- And, finally, my website, where you can learn lots more about the book under the A Girl Called Problem menu.
CS: How can our readers get in contact with you?
Katie: Through my website. Thanks so much!