When I picked up Skila Brown‘s novel, Caminar, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I certainly didn’t expect to find a novel written in poetry that reads like prose. Caminar is a lovely and heart-wrenching portrayal of a country torn apart by civil war, and a boy who is trying to find himself amidst the turmoil. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in this fascinating period of Guatemala’s history, and it was with that in mind that I sat down with Skila to discuss Caminar, her writing style, and what diverse books mean to her.
é: We loved Caminar. What inspired it? Can you tell us the story behind the story?
Skila: I’d spent ten years reading about the terrible violence in Guatemala and being heartbroken about the genocide that happened there not that long ago, especially when I did a little digging and found out the U.S. had supplied weaponry and training to the soldiers in charge. Sometimes it feels like we don’t have a lot of power to do anything about the things that disappoint us, but seeing an injustice and telling others about it is a start. And what better way to do that than through a story?
Do you have a favorite moment or passage from the book?
I’ve always really loved the final poem—the epilogue of sorts. It barely changed throughout many revisions. I’m someone who can’t write the first word of a story until I know how it ends. So endings usually come to me first.
You lived in Guatemala for a few months while revising Caminar (In fact, she was there in our featured photo!). Did being there change the shape of the story? What were your biggest take aways from that experience?
I love being in Guatemala. When we lived there in 2012, I was working on another novel, but revising Caminar. Although the shape of the story didn’t change much, I spent a lot of time nitpicking over word choice and other small details. It’s always been very important to me to tell this story as accurately and authentically as I could. I tried very hard to do that.
But Caminar aside, my biggest take-away from our months there was finally learning to talk in the past tense in Spanish. Ha! Before that I would improvise with a lot of, “Yesterday, I am hungry” sentences. (Yep. Really terrible.)
One thing I loved about Carlos’ story is that it’s written in such lyrical prose. Did you always know that’s how you wanted to write it? It’s such a beautiful style for such stark subject matter, which strikes this really bittersweet note of discordance. What was your thought process behind that?
The story came to me in poems. Initially I thought it was just free-writing—that I’d be taking those poems and using them to write a story in prose later on. But when I tried to do that, it just felt off. I think it’s because verse can be a powerful tool for telling a difficult story. It is potent, sparse language that cuts to the heart of the emotion without wasting words. In a verse novel, things are often left unsaid, making it digestible for a wide range of ages. I like that adults can read this book and get something from it—and that kids can too.
Can you give us any insights into upcoming projects? Any sneak peaks?
I have two new books coming out in the spring of 2016 with Candlewick: Slickety Quick – a picture book collection of poems about sharks and With the End in Sight – a novel in verse about the ill-fated 1846 Donner Party expedition. Sharks and cannibals! Lots of fun!
Sounds like it! What does diversity in literature mean to you? Why do we need diverse books?
It’s important for all readers to be able to see themselves and their cultures represented in the stories they read, but this is an issue that is bigger than that. It’s about building empathy for other people and cultures. When we read a story about a person who is different than we are in many ways, we’re drawn to what we have in common with this character. When that happens, we become better citizens of the world—better humans. It’s just a win/win for everyone. Diversity in books and movies is important because diversity in life is important.
Amen to that. Now, I love your “Ten Fun Facts” section on your website. Coincidentally, I also never learned to ride a bike. Can you share a fun fact with us that didn’t make your original list?
Small world! We could walk together while everyone else is pedaling.
Let’s see…how about the fact that I share a birthday with Jane Yolen and Mo Willems. (There’s a children’s author theme here, methinks.) Also Burt Reynolds. But that feels less thrilling.
Two very great authors!What’s on your reading list right now?
Thanhha Lai’s Listen, Slowly and Cindy Rodriguez’s When Reason Breaks are on my nightstand at the moment. I just today finished re-reading Rachel Hartmen’s Seraphina, because I’m eagerly awaiting the sequel, Shadow Scale, due out this March. She is a master of complicated characters! I can’t wait to see what she does in the next installment.
I’m also eagerly awaiting Shadow Scale. It’s going to be awesome. These sound like some great book recommendations. And on that note, just for fun – what’s the last great book you finished? Something you couldn’t stop raving about…
Kekla Magoon’s How It Went Down. Everyone is talking about how timely it is—and it is. But it’s more than that. It’s incredibly well-written. Many, many different points of view—and she pulls it off perfectly. Such a great statement about Truth and how it collides with Perspective. I can’t recommend it enough.
Thank you so much!
Thank you for having me! It was an honor and a lot of fun.
Skila Brown has certainly established herself as a powerhouse to watch, and we can’t wait to see what she turns out next. Show your support with a #Caminar on Twitter.