I’m thrilled to welcome Amanda West Lewis today. I’m fascinated by Amanda’s upcoming novel, These Are Not the Words, a brilliant reshaping of her early childhood into a novel for middle graders. Set in the jazz-infused world of 1960s New York, it tells the story of Missy, who is the darling of her parents, yet forced to grow up before her time, forced to see her parents as they really are.
Amanda, who writes in first-person verse, twines art, music, poetry, and theatre in an ever-closing spiral around Missy. I found myself shifting in my seat as Missy’s world tightened and one childhood illusion disappeared after another. The brilliance of Amanda’s writing is that when Missy’s world is so taut that despair risks to take over, Amanda untwines the tension, leading Missy into a world that resonates with light. Missy’s in a different world for sure. Not as glitzy or as dreamy. But it is a world filled with all the art, music, poetry and theatre that have always brought her hope and led her forward.
New York City in the 1960s is the humming backdrop for this poignant, gritty story about a girl who sees her parents as flawed human beings for the first time, and finds the courage to make a fresh start.
Missy’s mother has gone back to school to pursue her dream of becoming an artist. Missy’s father works in advertising and takes Missy on secret midnight excursions to Harlem and the Village so she can share his love of jazz. The two write poems for each other — poems that gradually become an exchange of apologies as Missy’s father’s alcohol and drug addiction begins to take over their lives.
When Missy’s mother finally decides that she and her daughter must make a fresh start, Missy has to leave her old apartment, her school, her best friend and her cats and become a latchkey kid while her mother gets a job. But she won’t give up on trying to save her family, even though this will involve a hard journey from innocence to action, and finally acceptance.
Based on the events and people of her own childhood, Amanda Lewis’s gorgeous novel is driven by Missy’s irresistible, optimistic voice, buoyed by the undercurrents of poetry and music.
These Are Not the Words is Amanda’s seventh book for young readers. Her first novel, September 17, was nominated for the Silver Birch Award, the Red Cedar Award, and the Violet Downey IODE Award. Amanda’s talents, however, stretch far beyond writing. She is the founder of the Ottawa Children’s Theatre, a calligrapher, and a drama teacher. She’s also a lover of poetry.
Art. Theatre. Poetry. Sounds like Missy’s world, doesn’t it? I’m hoping that I can find just the right What Was On questions to get to the heart of These Are Not the Words. How did Amanda’s many creative selves play into this beautiful story? And where did she find the courage to write the hard parts? The parts that came from her own childhood?
So, without further ado, let me pass the microphone to Amanda, who joins us from Brooke Valley, Ontario, where she lives with her husband and author Tim Wynne-Jones. Amanda, What Was on Your…
Initial Draft that Fell Away: As I started answering this question, it lead me right into the second question. So I’m going to put them both together as “The Initial Draft that Fell Away Started as the Most Vivid Memory of Childhood.”
The initial draft of These Are Not the Words was actually a picture book. I was in Mary Quattlebaum’s Picture Book Intensive at VCFA and she gave us a writing prompt to work from an early childhood memory. We were to go deep into the sounds, smells, tastes and textures of the memory.
What bubbled up for me was a recurring memory of my father in the living room of our apartment in Stuyvesant Town in Manhattan, late at night, looking at his contact sheets of photos. The T.V. was on, with no sound. There was a record on, playing Billie Holiday. The lights were off, except for the light over the table where he was working. Cigarette smoke curled in the flickering T.V. light.
I have very few memories of my father from my childhood, so this one really stuck out.
Of course what happens when you start working with a memory is that you pick away at it and it leads you to another. Memories breed memories. Mostly I was aware of the blank spaces, but there were some surprises tucked away, encouraged by family photographs. One photo that stood out was me at my fourth birthday. My mother is there with a wonderful cake. My friends are there, all in party hats. But my father isn’t there. He was probably taking the picture, but he is absent from my memory.
In order to do the picture book assignment, I strung his absence around the idea of a birthday party. I wrote it from the perspective of a five-year old who is excited about her birthday, and doesn’t understand her father’s absence from such an important event. She tries to talk to him when he is working, and it doesn’t go well.
It certainly wasn’t a great picture book! But it gave me a kernel of a character –– Missy –– and the beginning of an idea about trying to hold onto a father who is slipping away. I ended up writing a novel in verse, from the third person. Ten drafts later, I could embrace first person, write it as prose poetry, and get to the heart of the matter.
Most Joyous Writing Moment: In 2015, I was asked to be part of a writing retreat that was part of an art installation called Frameworks: Works on the Land (2015). Eight writers were invited to the country for a weekend workshop. We were given a choice of location in the woods, where large wooden picture frames had been set up. The “assignment” was to write. We could use the frame in any way we wished, or we could ignore it entirely.
There are so few times when I have been invited to write without “purpose,” without expectation. I could take whatever time I wanted –– I knew I would be fed lunch and dinner at some point. No one needed me, and most importantly, there was no cell service.
I sat for a long time looking through and around my frame. The frame focused my mind. My pen started moving across the paper. The light moved, breezes blew, bees came and went. The sun warmed the pine needles. A distant train horn sounded.
The absolutely most joyous moment of that day was when one of the organizers arrived with a steaming cup of coffee. He walked up silently behind me, an apparition not an intrusion, and the coffee was the best I had ever tasted. I stood on a rock, dry lichen crunching under foot, and looked back at where I had been sitting. The character I had conjured up was a part of this landscape.
The story that I wrote was one of the strongest things I think I’ve ever done. Somewhat apocalyptic and very much centered in the woods. I think I trusted myself as a writer more than I had ever done before. That trust became baked in and changed how I have approached my work since.
Poetry Reading Shelf: I work a lot with poetry and drama, using poetry as a jumping off point for creating theatre. So I’m lucky to have an excuse for reading widely. Right now, I’m deep into The Collected Poems of Bronwen Wallace. These are beautiful moments of story. Personal, female, detailed moments that startle you by their simple truth.
I adore Lorna Crozier and keep her books in a fairly constant rotation. And I’ve come to Patti Smith rather late in my life and love the anger, musicality, and anarchy in her poems. But to write this book I stayed firmly in the world of Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg and Kenneth Patchen. A male dominated poetic sensibility that helped me to find the rhythm of the book.
Drama Teacher’s Mind: I always come to my writing with my drama hat on. I think the thing I am working on most right now is hearing the silences that happen on stage and on the page. Theatre is not constant dialogue, no more than life is. It is built on characters reacting to stimuli. I’m trying to hear and see those reactions with more attention to pace. I’m trying to work on the nuances of how reactions on stage can be translated onto the written page.
Research Days: I love research. I could research a book forever. I research online, I research in the library, I research in situ if I can. My absolutely favorite research days have been spent in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Room at the Robarts Library in Toronto. I love the feeling of being in a secret society, and, like a witch or alchemist, gathering rare herbs to stock my shelves. I love how research leads you to surprises, to things you don’t know. It is the “not knowing” part of writing that launches me.
Mind Today: What’s on my mind today is how grateful I am for these questions! A good interviewer asks questions that make you think more deeply about what you are doing. It is a great opportunity to grow as a writer. Thank you!
Thank YOU, Amanda for sharing your time and creative process with us!
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If you would like to know more about me and my writing, please visit sandranickel.com.