Marina Budhos is the author of the YA novel Ask Me No Questions (an ALA Notable Book and winner of the first James Cook Teen Book Award); the novels The Professor of Light and House of Waiting; the nonfiction book Remix: Conversations with Immigrant Teenagers; and the co-author of the book Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and Science. She has published short fiction, essays, and book reviews widely, and is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Award for women writers, among other awards. Her most recent YA novel, Tell Us We're Home, is shortlisted in the Nerds Heart YA Tournament (for which we are Very Honored to be a judge! We will be telling you more about that shortly). Tell Us We're Home is the story of Jaya, Maria, and Lola, three eighth-graders in the affluent New Jersey suburb of Meadowbrook. Like their classmates, they're figuring out what to wear to the spring dance, sharing fancy coffee drinks after school, and dealing with the vagaries of their moms--with one big difference: their moms are the nannies and housekeepers for the families of the kids they go to school with. Funny, smart, and genuinely poignant, Tell Us We're Home is one of the best YA books we've read in a good long while. Marina was nice enough to answer a few questions.
Can you talk a little about what drew you to tell this story? Why did you choose the lens of adolescence to talk about larger issues of class and immigration?
Wonderful questions because in fact, I came to this story through the back door. Or rather, originally I thought I would tell this story via adults. When I became a mother, I hired a nanny, who was also the same background as me, on one side (Indo-Guyanese). At times, she was mistaken for my son's mother, or I was mistaken for being a nanny, and melted into the side of the playground benches, where the nannies sat, and I could listen. We were something like sisters, but I was also aware of the stark differences in our lives. So I thought I would write an adult nonfiction book about this fascinating and sometimes opaque relationship. I interviewed quite a few nannies about their lives. One of them was a family friend who had been separated from her children for many years while she worked as a live-in, and got her visa. Somewhere along the way I became fascinated by the thought of their children--how they felt. One day I was visiting a nanny in her home--which was, literally, a basement where my head touched the pipes--and her son came in and went to his bedroom behind a little curtain. I just could not stop thinking about this kid, and all the others, who are hidden behind the women who help us get on with our lives. This coincided with my moving to the suburbs, and noticing how much our lives here--in what feels like typical American suburbs--are dependent on immigrants.
I'd also begun to write young adult and just loved it. I realized, in a way, that this is the kind of story I can bring to the young adult world. I am interested in contemporary stories that meld in larger issues, often of teenagers who might be invisible, or outsiders, or of another cultural milieu.
Do you think of your work as political? Do you approach writing YA differently from writing for adults?
I'm not sure I think of it as political, but I think that the larger world, the political forces that shape us, and shape young people, are vital to me. It's simply how I see things. I don't start out with an 'issue' but simply I go where my gut, my interests send me. Some of the instincts I once used as a journalist, I think, are now making their way into young adult.
I do have to approach the writing a little differently. In my early drafts of Tell Us We're Home I still had the vestiges of some adult writing that did not quite work--too much authorial, from above material, for instance. I had to find a very concrete way to get at these things, about class, about immigrants, how the kids would feel it--not their parents. So that took some digging, some refocusing. In general, I do feel that writing for ya requires one to be a bit more direct, more driven by voice. On the other hand, I'm not a big fan of ya that is too 'raw'. I am interested in the craft, just as much as I would be in adult.
You teach, write YA, write nonfiction, write for adults, and you're a mom. How do you balance all of that? (!!) Do you tend to work on multiple projects at a time?
It's hard. I tend to have a few projects going at once and usually I'm intent on one, take it as far as I can, and then turn to the other project. Right now I am finishing an adult novel and starting a new nonfiction project.Because I am revising I can actually turn, in the same day, to the other project, because the energy is so different.
The other thing I often do is I take a lot of notes. For instance, I have an idea for a new ya, but I'm not 'inside' it yet. What I am doing is just taking notes in a leather book I always carry, thinking, writing down passages that come to me.
As to the being a mom, it's a lot! This year I had a sabbatical and I had this fantasy that I'd be in another deep creative zone, something like being at an artist's colony. It wasn't like that at all. Every day at 3:30, my kids come home, it's a lot noisier, a squabble about some cache of candy, or there are e-mails about piano lessons, baseball games to get to, etc.
When I teach I hew to a very strict schedule with myself, otherwise nothing would get done. Especially since I don't have much weekend time to write. Usually I write first thing in the morning, no matter what. I don't even take a shower first, which annoys my older son to no end. On days that I teach, I turn to that later and prepare for class. I almost always teach in the afternoons, so that means I can get in at a minimum an hour or two, even on a teaching day. And sometimes, late at night, when everyone is finally finally quiet, I pour myself a tiny bit of brandy or cognac and relax with a book, and some bursts of writing. That bit of loose inspiration can often carry me to the next morning. (How does that sound, admitting the cognac?)
Will Tash (Maria's wealthy, oblivious love interest) ever get it, do you think?
Good question! I wonder. He is so entitled and he is only going to grow more entitled as he moves through the world. All I can think is that there will be people along the way that will pierce him; that he will be affected by. Maybe one day he will meet another Maria, or Maria herself, a bit more grown up, with power, and it will come back to him, the carelessness with which he treated her.
I think it is very hard for people to recognize how little they do see of the other side, of another person's reality. Even the most well-intentioned of people.
Any books you've read lately and loved?
I happened to have just finished Middlemarch. Very ambitious, I know, but I am in a reading group with other writers, and we aim to tackle big, classic works. Anyway, I am feeling at a terrible, terrible loss now that I am done with the novel, for it surrounded me for many weeks. I'm also right now reading Geoffrey Wolff's Duke of Deception , a memoir, which I like--I've been reading quite a few of those. On children's/ya, I read Tuck, Everlasting because my son was reading it for school. I loved it, and really admired its control, how it exactly hit that age just right, with this shimmering sense of mystery.
Here's the trailer for Tell Us We're Home: