Wednesday, August 5, 2020

A Conversation with Amy Alznauer

My dear Amy,

I’m so thrilled you accepted my invitation for an interview. It was such a God-wink when I won a copy of The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity: a Tale of the Genius Ramanujan, beautifully illustrated by Daniel Miyares. When I looked at your background in mathematics and the story of your father coming upon Ramanujan’s box of papers, I just knew you were the perfect person to write his story. Was it difficult to write so simply about complex matters?

To me that is the joy of writing and talking about mathematics, to take some complex, abstract thing and find a way to make it not only clear but seductive, opening the reader or student to even deeper engagement. And I’ve found that mathematics, like so many other areas of human thought, thrives on metaphor. The hard part is choosing the right metaphor. When I was in high school I was reading Macbeth and the I Ching at the same time and was struck by certain superficial similarities, so I wrote a very silly paper titled The Yin and Yang of Macbeth. My English teacher made endless fun of me. If he’d been kinder he might have noticed that I was a budding, or at least aspiring, metaphor maker, but he did have a point. You can bring almost any two things into correspondence by way of metaphor but that doesn’t make the metaphor meaningful. So, the hard part for me in writing this story, or any story for that matter, was discovering the right metaphor. In this case, I needed a metaphor capable of speaking to both the life and the mathematics.

That's so interesting about having the right metaphor. I really loved how something small can have infinity inside. It's a paradox, like our Trinitarian God Himself. 

Your writing is so lyrical and perhaps it comes naturally to you being a mathematician (I know another mathematician, Marcia Hoehne, who writes literary MG and who noted in a book review of The 14 Fibs of Gregory K. that “Studies have shown that boys fall into one of four categories -- they're good at math, writing, both, or neither. Girls, however, fall into three categories -- they're good at writing, both, or neither. What this means is that if a girl is good at math, she's good at language, too.” I found this to be true in my observations. How about you?

To me mathematics is all about language. It is a language. An equation is a sentence, and I always point that out to students, that they are reading extremely precise, rigorous language that largely follows grammatical rules. Mathematics is also tremendously creative. Mathematicians tend to dream in numbers and symbols. Sometimes geometric objects come to life in dreams. Working mathematicians describe their work as an adventure, as walking in a garden, climbing a mountain, making their way through a jungle. So, it doesn’t surprise me that skill with writing and mathematics would go together. But I don’t have much to say on this fascinating gender split! I need to hear more!

This just makes me want to sing—yes, mathematics *is* a language, as is music or poetry. Since we are discussing mathly observations, do you sing too? Play an instrument?

I come from a musical family so I feel like the dud in that regard. My father has been playing boogie-woogie piano by ear since he was four years old, my sister is an opera singer, and my brother improvises classical music on the piano and on a custom-made clavichord. But I do love to sing and I play a smattering of instruments poorly. I even have a harmonium that I use mostly for chords and droned single notes. It reminds me of the sad, full tones of a bagpipe.

I’ve not heard the harmonium in decades! My mother used to play it sometimes while singing devotional songs. And my sister and I loved to sing along to the radio or to our records (we still do). But I fell in love with piano when we moved to this country and took lessons for a couple of years. I don’t play as much as I’d like to but what a joy it is for me, even with plenty of wrong notes. I doubt you're a dud, Amy. We simply can’t be brilliant at everything. But what a wonderful background—I can only imagine your family get togethers. But I digress. Let's talk about what you're wonderful at--writing.

What’s your process? I love reading about how writers write. I’ve collected quite a few biographies and it’s like having a cup of tea with a good friend. And picture books have the added dimension of the art, which is so lovely.

I work in fits and starts which is my least favorite thing about myself as a writer. I don’t have one of those reliable, write-every-morning-with-coffee schedules, but I am convinced I could!

I can relate—I didn’t start writing until I was pregnant with Dagny so fits and starts is all I knew. Nap times were sacred. But once they started school, a good routine emerged.

Usually it goes like this. Something intrigues me. Usually it is a context or moment, maybe several connected moments, that seem replete with meaning. I can feel the possibility of metaphor within this context. This may seem strange and not quite at the heart of story, but for me a metaphor is often the thing that gives rise to story. A metaphor seeks to bring disparate things together, and that progression, of things moving into connection or communion, is story. It offers both action or quest and resolution. So, I get this initial spark and then do the intense work of research. Scenes, snippets of dialogues, character traits begin to attach themselves to the central idea. I work out a timeline, and all of it begins to sort itself out. By the time I begin to write, I have a strong sense of the arc of the story and the central metaphor. I know the shining bits I want to include, but the rest, the actual execution, is still dark. Then I labor over an opening. Sometimes this is a long process, other times it comes quickly. And then usually, I am off and running. I can write fairly consistently, on that nice, mornings-with-coffee schedule.

This is really beautiful. But how do you juggle so many responsibilities—teaching, writing, family life, and now homeschooling as well, I assume with the covid?

Life is always changing, one thing taking priority for a while out of necessity, everything shifting around, and then shifting back again or somewhere else. Lately I have been trying to embrace this chaos as part of the life my husband and I have chosen. I tell myself that my children are growing up in a house full of books and creation and philosophy and that what it lacks in order is hopefully made up for by spirit and love. 

In One Thing by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan they discuss how excellence happens at the extremes, and how one can learn to counterbalance. So go ahead and "choose what matters the most and give it all the time it demands." It sounds like you are juggling all your balls well.

You have not one but THREE picture book biographies coming out this year!!! Congratulations!!! How'd this happen? I notice that Candlewick is the publisher for both Ramanujan and the Flying Paintings: the Zhou Brothers story--and to have them illustrate their own story! Oh, please do tell how this came about? Did you visit their gallery to ask them yourself? I can't wait to read it.

To your first question. My three books went under contract over a five-year period, and by some strange, twist of fate ended up with pub dates all within the same four-month period. There is no explanation other than bad or good luck, depending on how you look at it.

Definitely good luck! And I see a fourth book as well to which you contributed an essay!

The Zhou story is another matter and quite interesting. I wrote the story first and then took it to the brothers, who immediately loved it. They were also thrilled with the idea of Candlewick publishing the book. After contracts were signed, sealed, and delivered (meaning we had ceded our rights to choose an illustrator), the brothers contacted me through their son, Michael, with concerns about who would illustrate their story. Michael and I poured over stacks of picture book biographies looking for a good style or feel for the book. But nothing seemed quite right. A week later, out of the blue, Michael sent me two gorgeous paintings the brothers had done for the book. I still remember sitting on my kitchen stool, staring at these paintings on my phone and realizing that the Zhou brothers themselves wanted to illustrate the book! Nothing could have been more wonderful or terrifying. Would Candlewick ever decide to bring on two world-class, modern artists as illustrators? But on the other hand, would the Zhou brothers agree to go forward with the book if they were not chosen? So, I made a grand pitch to Candlewick and held my breath. Well Candlewick went for it, and not only went for it but were overjoyed. And so here we are.

That’s so wonderful! Perfect, in fact. 

Of course, I loved The Strange Birds of Flannery. You did an amazing job capturing her childhood and worldview. She's not an easy person to read or write about. But you wrote beautifully. And what's this I hear about a movie? Please do tell.

Thank you so much, Vijaya! And yes, there is a film, which I have actually seen. It’s a gorgeous, intimate look at O’Connor’s entire life, full of great music and fascinating commentary from celebrities, friends, scholars, and writers like Alice Walker, who were O’Connor’s contemporaries. Often documentaries about writers focus only on the life and not on the work, but here the directors alternate between biographical segments, commentary, and beautifully animated sequences from her fiction. You come away from the film feeling like you’ve walked by Flannery’s side and seen the world a little like she might have, through her illness, her faith, her obsessions, through the minds of others who loved her, and most importantly through the world she created in her fiction.

But I’d like to add that the release of the film, and my book release, were somewhat dampened or at least altered by a piece recently published in the New Yorker by Paul Elie, sensationally titled, “How Racist Was Flannery O’Connor?” His central claim is that (until now!) no one has taken O’Connor and race seriously. This, however, this is egregiously false. I was actually so appalled by this claim that I wrote a response here, detailing many of the women and Black scholars Elie ignores. Jessica Hooten Wilson and James Foss have both written beautifully about Elie’s bizarre and problematic interpretations of O’Connor’s fiction."

Well said, Amy. I'm so sick of people wanting to rewrite history, painting everyone with a broad brush, labelling and dismissing. What I see in Flannery's letters is a woman who has grown. I'm sure she's a saint in heaven.

How do you choose your subjects, Amy? Or do they choose you, won’t let you go? Do you ever worry that you won’t be able to do them justice? Obviously, I struggle with this myself…

I would say it is more that they choose me. An idea (usually the spark of metaphor, that rich context) arises through my own reading and then if these ideas are going to lead to a book they relentlessly percolate or fester away (depending on my mood) until I can no longer ignore the project. And of course, in the case of biography, I always worry that I won’t be able to do my subjects justice! It’s not that I think a picture book biography has to be comprehensive, but it does have to convey the core spirit of the life or lives, and that is challenge enough. It has to be true to the person who really lived and that is a great task and responsibility. So, I definitely approach my subjects with fear and trembling.

This is such good advice. I have tried to write about our Blessed Mother and St. John the Baptist and after two sentences or even ten, stricken with paralysis. But I must continue like you say, with “fear and trembling.” I think I know what’s missing in the lives of the saints I want to tackle—the central image, the metaphor.

We could discuss craft all day long but I want to move on to business, because publishing is a business. Did you know from the beginning that you needed to have an agent? And how did you go about it?

I’ve always known that pitching editors and agents would be my least favorite part of the business (but isn’t hocking one’s wares everyone’s nemesis?). So I thought paying someone to do this for me would be more than worth the expense. Two key things happened that helped me find an agent. First, I joined SCBWI. This organization opens doors for so many book creators. And second, at my very first conference, the SCBWI-IL Prairie Writers and Illustrators Day, I heard about a new local contest: the Laura Crawford Memorial Mentorship. I entered and amazingly I won. Working with my mentor, writing coach extraordinaire Esther Hershenhorn, I rewrote my story The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity and found my agent, Rosemary Stimola. I consider all of this to be largely a matter of luck. But again, SCBWI offers so many opportunities for awards and access to agents and editors, that lucky things seem to happen all the time. Every day I hear about another person finding their way to publication through the doors SCBWI has opened, the lucky breaks they make a little more likely to happen.

Yes, I love what SCBWI offers and I love reading the stories behind the story. I’ve been part of the Western WA chapter and now the Carolinas and must give a shoutout to Verla Kay’s Blueboard (children’s literature message board) which merged with SCBWI. I’ve been a moderator off and on for over a decade there.

 Your very first book, though—Love and Salt—is a memoir of your conversion. I loved the epistolary nature of the book because I’ve been a letter-writer my whole life and there’s a bit of a guilty pleasure in reading other people’s letters. Did you ever read Griffin and Sabine by Nick Bantock? Pure fiction, with a mystery at the center of it, but oh so delicious—you can say it’s a picture book for grown-ups!

It has been years since I’ve read Griffin and Sabine, but the story and even more the book itself is beautiful. Like you, I’ve always written letters. I even have boxes full of letters from my high school friends, correspondences that we kept even though we saw each other every day. And letters have always been precious to me and almost sacramental, these physical objects that seem to contain another person's spirit. That is why working in library archives has always been transformative. You hold in your hands the drawings, the letters, the stories that another person once touched and created with their minds and hands and hearts. It’s breathtakingly intimate.

Yes! I wish now that I were as good a keeper of letters as my sister. When I’ve visited her, she’s shared old letters our mother wrote. I believe my mother is a saint in heaven too, so I love being able to touch the things she touched when she was alive. Of course, I have some of her clothes and jewelry and I treasure them, wear them.

Love and Salt is such an intimate look between two friends making their journey towards the Lord. I loved it so much. It’s strange, but I think some of us cannot think straight without writing. I thought about the many letters I’ve written and received when I was going through my own conversion or walking alongside my sister when she made hers, and it’s through words that we gained more clarity.  I’m so grateful for this purely unselfish gift you and Jess made. Each book has a piece of us in it, but these letters! They allow me, a stranger, into your heart. How is it that you were able to do this? Did either one of you have any reservations of making public such private aspects?

Thank you for saying this. Yes, it was a very difficult decision to publish our letters. The project actually began in part because we were trying to get away from the competitive, publication-oriented culture of our MFA program. We wanted our writing to matter not because it was accepted by a publishing house, but because the act of writing itself was meaningful. And yet, writing in a journal, purely for oneself, can be terribly unsatisfying. The desire to create necessarily involves an audience. So, writing letters was a perfect solution. As Vivian Gornick puts it, to write a letter you must sit alone in silence “in the conjured presence of another person.” It’s very much like prayer. You pour your heart out in solitude, but always you’re aware that your correspondent awaits, invisible, on the other end.

I love this so much. It expresses the letter and the prayer perfectly.

So, we never intended for our letters to become a book. We loved them precisely because they were ours and ours alone. They seemed to contain our friendship and even our prayer life. But, at some point, after the tragedy we lived through together, we wanted to see our letters together. We wanted to be able to read them in their entirety. But after we achieved this, photocopying all the hand-written ones (which were most of them) and collating them, we realized that they told a story. And stories have a way of wanting to be read. We started to see our letters as a book. But even then, even after spending a year transcribing and editing down our thousand pages to a book-length manuscript, we couldn’t bear to part with them. We shelved the project for over two years. But then one day, almost on a whim, my co-author Jessica Mesman wrote a letter to Loyola Press, and they very quickly responded with an offer. I still remember her calling me breathless with this news, and us just sitting there in shocked silence on the phone not sure what to do. But again, stories seem to reach out for readers, and eventually we were able to let go.

I will always be grateful that Jess took that step. One of the most interesting aspects in Love and Salt were the letters that were never sent. How in the world did you manage to keep so organized that you actually had those scraps of paper?   

It wasn’t about organization (I am not organized!) but about habit. For both of us, our letters had become a way to keep time from slipping beyond memory. They were our memory keepers. So, when I lost my child, Jess kept writing when she knew I couldn’t. When I was in the hospital she chronicled my time for me, writing down the little moments of pain and joy (and oddly there was joy) and revelation, the little details I told her over the phone. She kept vigil through letters. After I was home from the hospital, and my child forever gone from my arms, again I feared more than anything else having time or memory fall away. So I, too, kept writing. And since my daily habit was writing to her, my notes took that form. We never told each other about these letters, I guess fearing that they would only bring more sorrow, until we started thinking about our letters as a book. We were sitting at my kitchen table and the conversation went like this.

“Our story can’t be a book, because the turning point is empty. We wrote nothing then,” I said. “And I refuse to invent something about that time.”

“I never told you this,” she said. “But I kept writing to you.”

I stared at her, stunned. “I kept writing, too,” I said.

Later that day we sat together reading these unsent letters and crying. It was painful, but we were grateful beyond words. Our time, our hearts from that time, were held, preserved by those letters.

I have tears. The power of habit! I just want to sit in silence and reverence at how writing saves us.

This photo taken by Amy

What’s next for you on the horizon?

There are so many projects that have grown out of these books, articles, art exhibits, reading and activity guides, even possibly some small films (trailers, a short art film, etcetera), so I have my hands full. But I have a few new ideas percolating (sometimes festering!) away, so I hope by this fall I can begin a new picture book and possibly a novel!

That’s so exciting! God bless you, Amy, and all the works of your hands. Thank you so much for taking the time for this conversation. It’s been so very illuminating. May metaphors and good habits be sown in each and every reader. 

Ramanujan—may he forever contemplate the infinite beauty of God. I am so grateful to him, for many reasons, but chiefly because he brought us together.. This joy can only be surpassed by a visit. And when you do, we’ll make a pilgrimage down to Savannah and Flannery’s childhood home—perhaps we can arrange a book reading!

Vijaya, I have been so very happy to get to know you, too – to share math, faith, and children’s books is rare thing. And I know someday that trip, or another, will happen! It must


Mirka Breen said...

Beautiful interview, just as the books are also beautiful. I often wonder what novel-length biographies I have read would look like as picture books. The art of economy, while retaining the story of a full and great life, is dauntingly beyond me.

Jenni said...

This was such a fascinating interview. I love how Amy thinks in metaphors. Alas, I am not a mathematician, but I've come to love math much more, especially as I've seen my older son embrace it as a language like you describe. His free time is often spent figuring out difficult problems, and it's been wonderful having a front seat on what mathematics can be.
These books sound so lovely--and I must soon rectify the fact that I haven't read O'Connor yet.

Carol Soisson said...

Wonderful interview! I love that they kept writing letters to each other even though they were not sent. God moves in unexpected ways. He knows what we need and provides.

Vijaya said...

Thank you, ladies, for reading.

Mirka, the PB is a completely different animal, and so beautiful--the marriage of prose poetry and art. Every PB bio that I've started looks like the outline of a MG book, so I am learning much from Amy.

Jenni, those metaphors are the key! And how wonderful that you are getting a window into your son's brain. I have always loved numbers and patterns and there is such a beauty in mathematics because like a PB, an idea can be encapsulated succinctly. Just think of F=ma or E=mc'2 I think Mystery and Manners is the best starting point for writers, because she has so much good advice on the craft, and they will inform you of the stories you want to tackle first.

Carol, that section of unsent letters slayed me. But how wonderful is our God!