Who gives a twelve year old girl the keys to her dad's "Faithful Ford" and sends the girl and her little sister on a road trip?
Tami Lewis Brown does in her latest book, The Map of Me, a delightful and realistic middle grade novel.
When reading, I really believed that Margie took the Faithful Ford (and her sister) and drove through the rainy night in search of her Momma.
This story takes Margie, her sister Peep, and readers on a marvelous journey. More than a road trip, this book is also about maps, following one's heart, family, sibling rivalry, courage, and chickens.
Tami joins me today to answer a few questions about writing The Map of Me.
Sarah: One of my favorite lines in the book comes while Margie is figuring out how to use the gas and brake pedals: “that almost near mistake proved something. I knew how to react in an emergency.” Many obstacles arise during her road trip, and Margie attempts to solve all the problems so they can make it to her destination. What solution did Margie came up with that was the most fun to write?
Tami: The starting to drive bits were really HARD to write but I always knew Margie would “put on a good face” and act like her failures were intentional. At the beginning of the book she lies to herself as well as to others and I enjoyed capturing that.
I liked writing the gas station scene a lot, especially when Margie pays for the gas. She picks the cheapest gas then worries whether the car will like it, almost as if the car is a cat and she’s picking the cat food flavor. I wanted Daddy’s Faithful Ford to be almost a living creature to Margie and that scene gave me a good opportunity to explore that. Plus choosing gas, paying for it, and pumping it seems obvious to an adult but it’s is a mystery to kids.
Sarah: In a flashback scene late in the book, Margie lies in the grass next to her Momma in the middle of the night, and they watch the stars. Often, when two characters interact, writers rely on dialogue to move the story forward, but this is a scene that is filled with very little dialogue and a type of silence. What writing craft techniques did you choose to use when you wrote this emotional scene? Why?
Tami: That’s my favorite scene in the book. In some ways it drove the entire story. The central question was what could make a mother leave her children behind. Writing this scene I realized that Helen Tempest is having a nervous breakdown. She’s not acting rationally and she’s cut herself off from her family. She doesn’t respond to Margie so there’s no opportunity for true dialog. Margie has to make the journey on the road to absorb what was really happening in the backyard. That’s why this flashback appears so late in the book. Margie remembers it when she’s ready to understand it.
This scene is all about things that are unsaid or cannot be said in the Tempest household. It felt natural to bring the night noises forward in the absence of the sound of dialog and I was inspired by Vermont College advisor Richard Jackson’s article “The Word Overflown by Stars: Saying the Unsayable.” It’s a poetry essay but much of what Jackson says can be applied to prose.
The scene was motivated by two sensory images- the velvety sky and the whispery night sounds. When I was a child I often thought about people I loved being somewhere else but under the same stars. I knew Margie would think about that once her momma was gone. That led me to a series of star and constellation images which become most visible in this scene. I suppose these stars are an objective correlative, the map of the stars embodying Margie’s quest and inner yearning.
Sarah: The craft book that you mention is one of my favorites, one that I suggest to other writers all the time. The secondary characters in your book such as her little sister, her father, and Jimmy, are as real as Margie. What did you do while writing and revising to bring these characters to life?
Tami: Mostly I wrote, and wrote, and wrote, then I wrote some more. For this book I didn’t look for pictures to “represent” these characters and they’re definitely not based on real people. It was hard to get a firm grip on Daddy. He kept sounding mean—very mean in some drafts. My editor reminded me that in the end I couldn’t send Peep and Margie home alone with a cruel man. I didn’t have to write a “happy ending” but I needed to let my middle grade reader understand that Margie would prevail in the end. She’d be safe. So I had to tone Daddy’s personality down a lot. The last scene, where he arrives at the International Poultry Hall of Fame, was hard to get my head around. But again I just wrote and wrote until it felt right.
Sarah: Equations and the symbols < and = show up as an important element in the story, even though Margie believes she is not good at math. Could you talk about how this reflects her view of herself compared to other members of her family and also how it correlates to her emotional arc?
Tami: Margie feels less than Peep and in sixth grade they’d be studying some algebra basics with simple less than and greater than equations so I thought that symbol might be on Margie’s mind. It also looks like a closed chicken beak. There used to be a long sequence of made up equations and imaginary chickens clucking but it was a bit too surreal, maybe, so it got cut. I have always been horrible at math and the less than and greater than signs seemed so weird to me in elementary school. I guess I carried that into Margie’s perspective.
I admire so many middle grade authors and Sara Pennypacker, the author of the Clementine books, is one of my favorites. I especially like how Pennypacker describes ordinary things in a completely fresh but childlike way. I think in one book she describes an angry person’s lips as a ruler line. It’s a complex description but it springs from an authentic child perspective.
That description was in the back of my mind when I thought about Margie looking at Daddy’s face when he arrives at the Hall Of Fame. What would she see? Lips that formed two straight lines? What does that look like? An equal sign. This is the precise moment when Margie comes into her own, recognizing that everyone, including her blustery daddy, is vulnerable, and in this way they are equal. That image, both child-like and emotionally loaded, embodies what I was trying to say in the novel. We’re all in this together. Even if a young reader doesn’t get all the layers they know what an equals sign means and they understand Margie’s journey from less than to equal to.
Thanks so much, Tami, for joining me today.
To read another interview with Tami head on over to Writing With a Broken Tusk where Uma Krishnaswami talks with Tami about the process of writing.
Also, check out Kathi Appelt's video blog where she reads a snippet from the book.