Monday, February 28, 2011

Rukhsana Khan talks about Big Red Lollipop, writing, and culture

I occasionally buy a picture book, a reading treat for myself. One of the picture books I bought last year was the delightful Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan, so I was excited by the announcements this month that she won both the 2011 Charlotte Zolotow Award and the 2011 SCBWI Golden Kite Award for Best Picture Book text.

Rukhsana’s picture books, short stories, and young adult novels are filled with humor, honesty, and heart. Her stories share perspectives and insights into other cultures. Thank you, Rukhsana for answering some questions.

[Sarah] Big Red Lollipop is rooted in your own experience as a child. Could you give us some background on the story and describe your process of writing this book?

[Rukhsana] I think in everyone’s childhood there are seeds of stories. I didn’t recognize the seed for this story right away. It actually took me a long time.

The first time this episode appeared in any of my literature was as a paragraph in my young adult novel Dahling if You Luv Me Would You Please Please Smile.

Then shortly after that I was invited to a literary festival. At the time I only had two picture books published, and I needed to add more to my presentation so I took the anecdote in the novel I was working on and told it as a story, but I only had the first two thirds of it, up to the part where I ate the triangle piece too. And although it was a HUGE hit with the crowd, it wasn’t a complete story, just a beginning and middle. There was no end, no resolution. Then I had to think back to what really did happen, and I remembered a time years later, when I’d come running home with a birthday party invitation, and my younger sister had wanted to come along. My older sister Bushra, had intervened on my behalf and told my mom not to make me take our younger sister. At the time I hadn’t thought anything of it. But so many years later, I thought it was really poignant, so I added it to the story.

The Big Red Lollipop, now became a story where I was actually the anti-hero and my sister Bushra whom I call Rubina in the story, was the hero.

It became the most popular story in my primary repertoire! I’d always tell it at the end of a presentation when the kids had started getting restless. And it was a story that really translated well! When I was in Mexico it was called ‘La grande palette rocha’ and oh how the kids loved it!

I eventually started referring to this story as my ‘no-brainer-crowd-pleaser’ because I could pull it out when I was tired at the end of a presentation and it would appeal to audiences from three years of age to adult. In fact many times the adults were laughing even harder than the kids!

I knew I had something here!

I tried many times to get it published. I wrote it as an easy reader but an editor said it was too complex for the genre. I submitted it many many places but it was consistently rejected.

And because this story had originated as an oral tale, I’m not surprised.

I am both an author and a storyteller. Most of my written stories originate in the written form. When I began storytelling, I thought the skill would complement my writing skills. I actually found that it interfered somewhat, until I got a handle on both.

Because I wrote the story down as I would have told it, it looked odd on the page. It read well, but it had no literary merit.

It wasn’t until I submitted this story to my editor, Catherine Frank, at Viking and she suggested that I put it into the older sister’s viewpoint that I had success with it. Catherine said that the older sister was a more sympathetic character.

So this version of Big Red Lollipop was born.

I wrote this version in about fifteen minutes. She asked for the change in point of view, I complied, emailed it off, and thought nothing of it. Months went by and I assumed it would be another rejection, but it wasn’t. So this story took about ten years and fifteen minutes to write.

[Sarah] This story is full of emotions. The characters experience greed and anger, as well as of forgiveness and love. How does taking an incident from your own life help you create emotional resonance?

[Rukhsana] Honestly, I don’t think of issues of emotional resonance or even what emotions are in a story. I look at whether a story works. Does it ‘feel’ right? Does it make me laugh? Is it poignant?

Many times you pick up a picture book and it’s either poignant or funny.

Why not have both?

And this is where I think, my storytelling comes in handy.

I know of many folktales that contain both humour and poignancy. And within my presentations, even when I’m dealing with tragic circumstances like child refugees and issues of abandonment, I make sure there are humorous moments mixed in.

The main reason I do this is for emotional impact.

The humour accentuates the poignant and vice versa.

In film they used to have a term for it. Comic relief!

It’s like that moment in Die Hard when John McLean is shimmying through the air duct with a lighter in his hands and he pauses and says sarcastically, “Relax, come over to the coast. We’ll have a good time!”

It’s a classic moment of comic relief.

And when the action starts up again, you get all the more of a bigger of an impact because of it!

[Sarah] You give a lot of school presentations. What are the children’s favorite parts of the story when you present Big Red Lollipop? What topics of discussion come up during these school visits?

[Rukhsana] They used to say in vaudeville to do your second best performance first and leave the best for last. When I’m doing my primary presentations I often start with my picture book Ruler of the Courtyard because it’s filled with suspense! And I always end with Big Red Lollipop. I get the kids involved in telling the story. I tell them that when I say the words ‘big red lollipop’ they should take their fingers and make a circular motion (it’s hard to describe), and I get them involved in other ways.

I tell my version of the story, because I actually think it’s a bit funnier. Then afterwards we discuss how the stories are different, and that involves point of view. I ask them why certain scenes are missing in my version of the story, compared to the book and vice versa.

[Sarah] When I read the story, it brought back memories from when I lived in Brazil where a birthday invitation to a child meant an invitation to the entire family. There are times when misunderstanding occurs between people from different cultures, even when everyone is trying to understand each other and show respect. Do you have any personal or humorous experience about cultural misunderstandings that you wish to share?

[Rukhsana] When I first started in this business I felt too shy or insecure about asserting my Islamic principles in some ways. Oh, I’d go off and pray in a corner, but handshaking was a stickier dilemma.

It’s a big no-no in Islam for there to be any physical contact between men and women who are not married or closely related. That includes shaking hands.

And because hand-shaking comes at the beginning of an acquaintance, not doing it immediately sets a tone that is bound to put people off.

So I just swallowed my principles and went ahead and shook hands, while inside, I was cringing and asking God to forgive me.

If it had stayed at just the handshaking I probably would have continued on that path, but the art community is very kissy-touchy and I am naturally very friendly and outgoing, so pretty soon I had men not only shaking my hand but actually hugging and kissing me.

I consulted some published friends and asked their advice on the matter and they said the best thing I could do is just come right out and tell men that I’m sorry, but I’m not allowed to shake their hands.

So I started doing that.

But one time I was up in Northern Alberta in a Mennonite community an elderly gentleman approached me and held out his hand.

I said, “I’m sorry but I’m not allowed to shake men’s hands.”

So instead he patted me on the arm and said, “Oh, that’s okay dearie!”

And I looked upwards and thought, “Oh Allah. I tried.”

And more recently, after a librarian read my novel, Wanting Mor, he was so enthusiastic about it that he was hugging me at an award ceremony, and going on about how amazing it was. It would have been horrible to extricate myself. And he was gay, so I wasn’t sure his hugging me even counted. But inwardly I reminded myself that God is forgiving and asked forgiveness.

[Sarah] The Zolotow Award is for the “best picture book text” published in the United States. What do you do during writing and revision to achieve this level of writing?

[Rukhsana] If writers were painters, words would be like brush strokes.

You never want the person observing the finished masterpiece thinking about the brush strokes. You want them to see and feel the entire work.

I don’t apply the precise stippling of Monet, but rather I’d like to think my technique is more the broad strokes of Van Gogh. I’m aiming for a mood, a feeling. Like that painting of his with the crows over the corn field, you can almost feel the sun on your back. With the words I use I try to make the reader forget that they’re doing something as static as reading a book, and instead feel as if the story is happening for the first time, as they read it.

Each word in a picture book must be consistent and reflect the overall tone of the story, and each word of dialogue must be in line with what the characters would say and that means I have to step back and let them say them.

Don’t ever put words in your characters’ mouths.

When I’m writing a story I go into a kind of other state. Not a trance or anything half so esoteric, but rather a zone where I can see the characters interacting and I’m furiously jotting down the story.

Examining elements of characters, story, plot , prose and dialogue doesn’t occur to me until after I’m finished writing the story, and only if there are problems with it.

I mean, why would you bother if the story works?


gaylene said...

that was a great interview, thanks for sharing it!

April Halprin Wayland said...

Wonderful interview. You ask the deeper questions. Thank you!

Sarah Blake Johnson said...

Glad you both enjoyed the interview. Thank you.