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Battle of the Linguist Mages, playwright Scotto Moore’s debut novel, more than lives up to the nerdy promise of its title. It follows die-hard gamer Isobel Bailie, who unlocks magical abilities due to her mastery of the virtual reality game Sparkle Dungeon, down a rabbit hole of conspiracies and capitalist enterprise. The reigning champion of the game, Isobel has mastered its vocal spellcasting mechanics. But then she’s let in on a paradigm-shifting secret: The same techniques can be used in the real world. By uttering phrases called power morphemes, Isobel can literally change reality. In this Q&A, Moore unpacks the myriad inspirations behind what he deems his “science fantasy,” from Burning Man and EDM to the very real reality-altering dangers of technology.

Battle of the Linguist Mages is reminiscent of some other speculative fiction I’ve read or seen, like Ready Player One, Snow Crash and Contact, if these were all reflected off a few dozen disco balls and seen through a haze of real-life events. What were your inspirations for this project?
Back in 2010, I had a conversation with a linguist friend of mine who described her work in the field of speech recognition and speech-to-text and scaling that technology out to new languages. And I remember thinking it sounded completely like science fiction to me, a theater artist with no training in linguistics or any other science. Every word you say narrows down the potential words that might happen next, and I sort of cheekily thought, “Well, wouldn’t it be evil if you were capable of surreptitiously planting that first word in the sequence without a subject knowing it?” This ultimately led to me writing a play called Duel of the Linguist Mages, which we produced in Seattle in early 2011.

Then in 2014, I wrote a play called Balconies, which evolved out of a desire to write a giant farce with a romantic comedy wedged into it. I needed two sets of contrasting characters to play on two neighboring balconies, so on one you had a political fundraiser, and next door you had a video game-themed costume party. I’m sure my many Burning Man experiences must’ve inspired Sparkle Dungeon, the video game in that play. By the time I started writing the book, I’d acquired a hobbyist-level interest in DJ culture, so that got added to the mix. Balconies is one of my favorite plays, and the humor in the book is directly inspired by the comedic style of the play. I entertained some wishful thinking about writing a sequel, [but] instead I became motivated to use those characters in a book. That general atmosphere of menace from Duel provided a contrast to the lighthearted nature of the Balconies source material as I started to plot out the book, cherry-picking characters and concepts to use.

“Isobel and Maddy somehow find a way to fight the powers that be without sacrificing conscience or compassion . . .”

Battle of the Linguist Mages (and Sparkle Dungeon itself) sits right between science fiction and fantasy. Do you see your creations as bridging that genre gap or simply filling a niche that neither genre really describes effectively?
I’ve called it science fantasy from the start, although my publisher called it contemporary fantasy at one point, and that seems fair too. There’s so much spellcasting in the book that fantasy probably outweighs the science fiction elements. When I was a playwright, I did often write actual science fiction, but since then, I’ve also come to a better appreciation of fantasy. It feels natural right now to explore the wilder and weirder aspects of my imagination within the context of fantasy or science fantasy.

If someone were to release a real version of Sparkle Dungeon, would you play it?
Well, I don’t actually play video games. So if a Sparkle Dungeon game came out and I wasn’t connected to it in any way, it would miss me altogether. I wouldn’t even notice its release unless it became a monster hit that affected culture at the top level.

I didn’t call this out in the book, but in my imagination, there’s a mode in Sparkle Dungeon that’s like Rock Band, except it’s the DJ equivalent. Whenever Isobel boasts about her DJ skills, she’s actually referring to her mastery of this mode in the game. I might find that mode entertaining, but not “acquire a VR headset” entertaining.

Battle of the Linguist Mages is the exact sort of story that I can see somebody wanting to adapt to the screen, but that might not translate particularly well, given how many things would be challenging to visualize (or auralize). Since you have experience writing for the stage as well, do you think this book is capable of being adapted to another medium?
Oh, you could definitely adapt this book into a film or a streaming series. I mean, I learned working in fringe theater, where the production budgets are ridiculously low, that you can almost always find a way to express a strong creative vision. Resource constraints and limitations become creative opportunities by necessity. Maybe your finished product is rough around the edges, but you can still tell a powerful story. Our version of power morphemes in Duel of the Linguist Mages was a series of intricate sound cues, which the actors lip synced. It was super weird and effective.

In the midst of all that spectacle and action, a very character-driven story engine drives the book. Isobel, Maddy and the Dauphine of the Shimmer Lands feel to me like a charismatic trio of leads you really want to follow through this adventure. They’re like a mini superhero team, but instead of secret identities, they really wear their hearts on their sleeves with each other.

Read our starred review of Battle of the Linguist Mages.

A lot of the characters and organizations in Battle of the Linguist Mages are very, shall we say, recognizable from our real world. How much were those references intended to situate the reader in a familiar world, and how much were they intended to make a point?
I always wanted to situate the reader in our world, in the present day, because I think part of the fun is how our world is a springboard for these elaborate flights of fancy, so to speak. You get mileage out of that contrast, and the real world looks different to them when they return home. And the cabal’s actions have a more visceral impact because the story takes place in California instead of an invented land. It could be you or your own family that gets swept up in their schemes.

Meanwhile, as I developed the characters, it was apparent that Isobel and Maddy (like many of us) were deeply skeptical of modern capitalism, and some of my own rage bled through as they interacted with rich and powerful people in the story or observed how the world was being shaped by such unscrupulous forces.

But Isobel and Maddy somehow find a way to fight the powers that be without sacrificing conscience or compassion, and that’s what makes them so compelling to me.

Battle of the Linguist Mages is also very meta with all its references to literary and video game tropes. Do you think the characters in your book use tropes to describe their lived experiences, or did those tropes causally shape those experiences?
Isobel spends a huge amount of time in Sparkle Dungeon, immersed in the narrative tropes of the game, and she uses her instinctive understanding of those tropes to succeed at the game. That way of thinking does bleed into her daily life. So for instance, when she needs to study new spells with Maddy for several weeks, she flat-out thinks of it as a “training montage.” But this is the era of TV tropes and the culture having a really deep knowledge now of the typical tactics that narratives deploy, so she’s probably not the only character who’s immersed on some level in those tropes. Still, I think Isobel revels a lot more in fulfilling a literal role in a narrative than anyone else in the book.

“Facebook has altered people’s perception of reality so definitively . . .”

I’m a composer and psychomusicologist (it’s a real thing, I promise) by training, so I’m fascinated by your choice of EDM and house music as the vehicle for magic, both in Sparkle Dungeon and outside the game. What attracted you to using that genre in particular?
I think it’s just familiarity more than anything. I’ve been listening to electronic music since the mid-1990s, which is actually late to the game. A friend handed me an Orb CD and an Orbital CD and insisted that I would enjoy them, and she was totally right. And to the extent that my Burning Man experiences influenced Sparkle Dungeon, I mean, electronic music is seemingly everywhere you turn at Burning Man, or it was back when I was regularly attending the festival. Electronic music has been the soundtrack for a big chunk of my life.

The singing scenes are also particularly interesting to me, because they point to power morphemes’ implicit therapeutic potential. Where do you think they lie on the spectrum from therapy to enhancement?
Well, it’s tricky. The way Bradford pacifies the participants in a large brawl by singing sequences of power morphemes is almost akin to a guided MDMA session, so therapeutic potential is certainly there. At the same time, Isobel notes more than once that some of the euphoric healing sequences she uses have addictive potential. Spellcasting in that fashion seems slippery, although if you scaled it up, maybe you’d cure diseases.

But I think it’s telling that instead of curing anything, everyone is a lot more focused on “combat linguistics” and other subversive techniques. It’s like these power morpheme sequences provide steroidal power boosts to the spellcaster, which are a lot more immediately compelling to these people than anything altruistic.

Although power morphemes are speculation, the core premise—the invention or discovery of something that alters people’s perception of reality regardless of their agency—hits a little close to home. Things like power morphemes can cause immense harm but also achieve incredible good. How worried are you about the possibility that real life may come to imitate your art?
It’s happened already. Facebook has altered people’s perception of reality so definitively that otherwise rational people now believe wholesale in bizarre and outright harmful conspiracies. When these users first created their Facebook accounts, hoping to connect with friends and share photo albums or whatever, they never suspected they’d be hammered with insidious lie after lie after lie, propagated by an algorithm that operates with no mercy. I mean, maybe when you agreed to the terms of service, you willingly gave up your agency, but I doubt most people think of it that way.

At one point in the book, Olivia describes her work in advertising as “planting meaning in the culture and guaranteeing its effects.” Facebook mastered this approach, and they used their technological wizardry to torpedo the stability of American democracy and prop up despots around the globe. I’m not seeing the incredible good anywhere in sight. Maybe that’s part of why I like writing fantasy.

Author photo by Ian Johnston.

Scotto Moore unpacks the myriad inspirations behind his “science fantasy,” Battle of the Linguist Mages, which more than lives up to the nerdy promise of its title.
Scotto Moore

The uber-talented Olga Acevedo, the titular heroine of Olga Dies Dreaming, grew up in a working-class Nuyorican family (New Yorkers of Puerto Rican descent) full of strivers and revolutionaries. But as an adult, she makes her living as a wedding planner, catering to New York City’s elite and fiercely chasing the American dream. Through Olga’s story, first-time novelist Xochitl Gonzalez brilliantly calls into question what that dream really means. 

Gonzalez is the Brooklynite daughter of militant activists from the 1970s Chicano Power movement: her mother Nuyorican, her father Mexican American. After many years as an event planner and entrepreneur, Gonzalez’s journey to transform her own story into Olga’s fictional tale led her to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was honored as an Iowa Arts Fellow and won the Michener-Copernicus Prize in Fiction. She was also the winner of the 2019 Disquiet Literary Prize in Nonfiction. We reached out to Gonzalez to unpack the ideas behind her striking debut.

This is a complex book with many intriguing layers. What are its origins? 
When I first started writing—writing creatively as art, versus commerce like marketing materials—I was intimidated by fiction. So I went to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference with an essay about being abandoned by my activist mother as a kid so she could go out and “save the world.” People really responded to the themes but basically told me it was a book. 

I had no interest in writing a memoir. But in time, I found the courage to write some fiction and had scratched out some stories about upwardly mobile Latinas—mainly Puerto Rican—living in a very different Brooklyn than the one they had grown up in. 

I had for years been extremely frustrated by the situation in Puerto Rico, that the U.S. has a colony in contemporary times. It was just a news story that never could break through, not even after Hurricane Maria. One day while commuting, I was reading the book The Battle for Paradise by Naomi Klein, which is about disaster capitalism, and listening to Alynda Segarra’s album Navigator. I realized that if I borrowed just enough biography from myself, I could weave a pretty entertaining, hopefully beautiful story that would personalize both one version of a contemporary Latinx experience as well as the real-world emotions and experiences of gentrification, colonialism and resilience. I ran out of the train to get a napkin to scratch the ideas out.

“It was like I had to get this story out before Brooklyn changed even more, somehow.”

You sold the manuscript for Olga Dies Dreaming to Flatiron in a 10-way auction and made a TV deal with Hulu before its release. First of all, congratulations! That can look like overnight success, but I understand that the real story is more complex. Can you tell us about your journey as a writer and path to publication?
I will try to be concise! The long story is that I went to college—Brown University, after having attended a big Brooklyn public school that I adored and thrived in—thinking that I would do creative writing. But when I got there, my freshman roommate was such a rock star in this arena. I was so intimidated that I thought it was a sign to find my own lane. (I was 18 and didn’t drive, what did I know of multilane highways?) But I always wanted to write, and so later as a wedding planner, I started a blog that became kind of popular and led to freelance writing opportunities around etiquette and weddings and the like. 

Eventually, though, someone thought I should try a memoir about my life and back then—this was probably 10 years ago or more—I was more open to that. So I put together a proposal and it—ironically—landed with the agent who is now my agent today (Mollie Glick). She loved the writing but ultimately passed because “it was a very dark book about a wedding planner.” 

I put writing to the side completely for another five or six years while I was hustling to get my business back together after the Great Recession and pivot to more than weddings, and just managing life and family more generally. Then I turned 40 and the last of my grandparents who had raised me passed away, and I suddenly just felt like life was short. Writing was the one constant, nagging thing I felt I’d always needed to try and do. The thing is, owning a small business, especially one that focuses on customer service like my event-planning business, well, it’s a hustle. It doesn’t leave a lot of creative space. 

So the first thing I did was sell my part of the business and get a nine-to-five job. Then I applied and went to Bread Loaffor nonfiction—which really immersed me in community and craft, which was so important. It was so helpful to refine who I could be as a writer that I decided to pursue my MFA. I applied to only NYC programs except for—encouraged by my Bread Loaf friends—Iowa. I never thought I would get in, but I started Olga Dies Dreaming almost the same day that I found out that I did. 

I was terrified to leave my whole life and my rent-stabilized apartment and pretty great job, to be honest. But I believed in this book and understood the rarity of this opportunity and the blessing, in that moment, that being single was. It was emotionally hard, but not logistically hard. I was able to literally put every waking hour that I wasn’t at work into the novel. Eventually I gave up exercising because I was so obsessed, but before that happened, I ended up reconnecting with Mollie at an exercise class. We had a mutual friend there, and she told Mollie about me and Iowa and the Disquiet Prize, and I shared the first 100 pages of Olga with her. So I was fortunate in that by the time I arrived at Iowa, I had drafted about half the novel and had an amazing agent who saw the possibility of what this was going to become—but who also stayed out of it until it was done.

And honestly, at 42—which is the age I turned when I started the program—two academic years doesn’t feel long. I had the fortune of Sam Chang offering a novel workshop, so I just put my nose down and worked around the clock. I was barely eating or sleeping, to be honest. I don’t know what made it feel so urgent. It was more than just the time at grad school, it was like I had to get this story out before Brooklyn changed even more, somehow.

Read our review of ‘Olga Dies Dreaming.’

From the start, the reader gets to see, in a kind of humorous way, the fighting spirit and rage brewing in Olga. This makes her such a complex and original character, especially because she’s a woman. At one point she even calls herself a “terrible person.” Do you think of Olga that way, or is she judging herself too harshly?
First, thank you for saying that about her. I don’t think of Olga as a terrible person, but I think there are massive moments when she feels this way—when she feels that she isn’t succeeding with her family because her time is so devoted to her economic pursuits, but her ambitions in that arena leave her feeling emotionally empty. She has some peccadilloes, but really, she is not terrible; she is lonely. Her upward mobility has left her, as the saying goes in Spanish, “Ni de aquí, ni de allá.” [Neither from here nor from there.] I felt this was an experience I personally had, and one that I think is reflective of many Latinx women, women of color and any person who has tried to “excel.”

Olga Dies Dreaming by Gonzalez

Something else that sets Olga apart is that she seems to live by her own rules. When she cuts corners in her business, she sees it as equalizing: the little guy scoring one over the exploitative uber-wealthy. But she’s also loyal and can be generous. She has high expectations of her congressman brother, Prieto, and she struggles when he is not as compassionate as she’d like. How would you describe Olga’s moral compass?
I would say she is very Old Brooklyn. Loyalty, spreading love—that’s more than a Biggie lyric. (There’s a reason he’s our borough representative, even posthumously.) It’s really how people who are from here so often are. Do you need money to eat? Is there something that’s not that hard for me to do that will make a huge impact on your day? Tell me, and I’ll try and do it. She grew up with that value system. 

I also think, despite the place that it is now, the Brooklyn she was raised in was a place of underdogs. Taxis wouldn’t even come here. So it’s ingrained in her to always help the underdog. 

There’s some bits of her that maybe are spiteful. Tiny acts of revenge. But the Robin Hood gestures that we see, that’s her strange way of reconciling her parents’ values with her own perceived discarding of them. When she “levels the field” in these tiny ways, it’s her version of not being completely disconnected from her parents’ values about money and class. 

Growing up, rules were suggestions, to be honest. The most important thing was not that you live by any black-and-white code but that you were doing the “right thing,” and I think what we see is that “right” for Olga depends on evening out the balance of power.

“I haven’t seen this larger history in fiction in a minute and felt it important to my community that it was correct.”

Because of what Olga and Prieto do for a living and the circles in which they operate, there are lots of fun details about luxury weddings and the lifestyles and excesses of New York’s elite. As a former wedding planner yourself, did you approach these parts as an insider writing a comedy of manners, or did you step back to unpack it all, more in the tradition of true crime?
Ha. Probably more a comedy of manners, though it’s truly a bit of a mix. I know a lot of people in politics, and while I took a number of liberties, that area was a bit more tactical in my thinking. But the weddings were definitely in the spirit of a comedy of manners. Mainly, it was so important for me to show how these two characters have to have vast fields of knowledge and cultural fluency to move throughout the world, and also the toll and exhaustion of slipping in and out.

Olga’s mother, Blanca, is a fascinating, destabilizing character. Her absence from her children’s lives (in combination with her husband’s addiction) was devastating for Olga and Prieto. But Blanca’s mission is righteous, and some of the difficult, harsh things she tells her children are important and true. What did you want people to take away from Blanca and the choices she makes? 
Sort of, exactly that. None of us are purely bad or purely good, and that is the most starkly true with Blanca. She made choices, and they are the extreme choices of a woman who thinks in absolutes. In many ways this is how truly revolutionary thinkers need to be; we just don’t see them in intimate settings too much, such as in letters to their children. 

But the main point I wanted to make with Blanca is that even when she’s wrong, she’s always also a little bit right. Motherhood is so, so fascinating. That bond, that knowing. Her actions beyond her insights are what’s problematic, but her ability to know—that felt very real to me and also important to show. 

This is beyond your question, but this is a mirror of how Olga and Prieto feel about Puerto Rico itself: It’s a place they only sort of know, and yet it cuts through to something bigger than familiarity.

Listen to an audiobook excerpt from Macmillan Audiobooks. Read by Almarie Guerra, Armando Riesco & Inés del Castillo.

Puerto Rico’s plight, both past and neocolonial present, plays a big role in the story. Tell us about your approach to this element. Did you undertake additional research?
I did. My day job when I started this book was at Hunter College, so I would jet uptown from the main campus to CENTRO, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, and research Maria data, the Young Lords, eco-pollution in Latinx communities and waves of activism. Some stuff was ingrained in me; my parents were activists, and I don’t remember not knowing about sterilization on the island or the Nuyorican poets, to be honest. Fania and that era of salsa and the cultural history of freestyle are things I dork out on anyway.

But generally speaking, I spent lots of time on colonial history and the history of activism in the diaspora. I spent tons of time watching Maria footage, researching HIV and AIDS in the 1990s—another era I lived through but wanted to refresh. I talked to Puerto Ricans who had been on the island and were displaced because of Maria—that was important. But I tried not to get bogged down in it, writ large. I tried to absorb it, forget it and then go back and write, because it all needed to come from character and story, not messaging. I just wanted to be sure I got it all correct, because I haven’t seen this larger history in fiction in a minute and felt it important to my community that it was correct.

The title, Olga Dies Dreaming, is particularly striking. Can you tell us about how it came to you and its significance?
I sought a politically relevant name for the protagonist, and I settled on Olga Viscal Garriga, who was an activist for Puerto Rican independence who was born in Brooklyn. That felt right. Very, very right. In the earliest phase of the book, which would have been a million pages long, I wanted to write more of Blanca and Johnny’s story, and so I did lots of deep dives into the Young Lords and the Nuyorican poets. As I was writing, I was inspired by Alynda Segarra’s album and kept listening to it on repeat. In her song “Pa’lante,” she samples audio of the Pedro Pietri poem “Puerto Rican Obituary,” where he chronicles the dangers of assimilation and losing culture through the lives of four Puerto Ricans in New York: Juan, Miguel, Olga, Manuel. They lose their way by getting caught up in a mainland American notion of success. The characters repeatedly die, dreaming. Olga dies dreaming of a five-dollar raise, of real jewelry, of hitting the lottery. And that felt very right, too. But more than anything, it felt like the right title because it connected this moment—and Puerto Ricans and diasporic people—to our intensely long lineage of using art to speak truth to power.

Was it hard to find a balance between the personal and the political in telling this story? How did you approach that challenge?
Yes and no. I wanted to write a book for my people. I mean that in a few contexts, but to direct it back to the question, when I saw Donald Trump throw paper towels at people in Puerto Rico after Maria, that was not political. That was personal. When I see the city council vote on an 80-story high-rise of multimillion-dollar apartments that only creates 150 school seats and blocks out a community garden, that doesn’t feel like a political story to me. It hurts me in my soul. As an artist, one goal was to try and put that on a page: that for many populations, the political is personal. But technically, my approach was to make these characters feel so real so that their pains are your pains.

“My approach was to make these characters feel so real so that their pains are your pains.”

There are many complex characters in this book with different perspectives on progress, power and effective strategies for change. But Dick, the libertarian capitalist paramour, is more obviously flawed than most. What was the inspiration for him?
My strange life and professional experiences have given me the opportunity to have access to a wide variety of people—many of them people of power who are well-intentioned, in their own ways of thinking. Not stereotypical “bad people.” With Dick, I wanted to show how someone relatively self-centered, with theoretical justification for their self-interest, can cause great harm by simply existing, even if they never overtly seek to cause great harm. He can be seen, in many ways, as the U.S.’s stance and effect on Puerto Rico itself.

Olga’s family has an ancestral history of enslavement, and they and the people in their Brooklyn neighborhood are specifically referred to as Black and Brown. The text pays attention to color as well as culture, social class and ethnicity, and getting those details right is vital to the story. Olga is “pretty and fair,” her and Prieto’s father is “brown-skinned,” Reggie is Black, and Matteo is a biracial Black Jewish man with “lightly freckled café-con-leche skin.” Does the casting of the Hulu series adaptation reflect the vision you had when you were writing? Hollywood has a tendency to whitewash or flatten those layers in the movement to screen. How do you mitigate that?
This is such a thoughtful question. Everyone, from my co-executive producer Alfonso Gomez-Rejon to our partners at 20th Television and Hulu, understood the importance of reflecting our community and illustrating the dynamics of colorism—and the intersectional ripples—that exist in Caribbean Latinx families and communities. And I never felt pressure to flatten roles at all. Olga’s privilege as a white-passable Latina is part of her experience and what has shaped her character itself and in relation to, say, her cousin Mabel. Both characters are successful and beautiful, but the messaging that they get about it—in school, at home—is different. It was exciting to see Aubrey Plaza and Jessica Pimentel in those roles. 

There is a line of dialogue in the pilot where a DJ interviewing Reggie says, “I forget you’re Puerto Rican.” And that needed to feel plausible. That is a giant part of Reggie, too, that he gets boxed into one identity for so long, when in reality it’s much more complex, his Afro-Latinidad. On set, I spoke with Laz Alonso, who plays the role, about how moving and exciting it was for him to get to be his full self—a Puerto Rican version (he is Cubano)—but how rarely he gets roles where he can be who he is, an Afro-Latino. 

And with Matteo, yes, it was important that he be plausibly racially ambiguous. We were very fortunate in that Jesse Williams, who plays him, is biracial (though not Jewish) with a lot of lived experience around Puerto Ricans and being mistaken for one. So that was a fortunate coincidence that he got to bring that to the role. But mainly we were extremely pointed in this, using this chance to see our spectrum of bodies and complexions and hair types that make Puerto Rican people so beautiful and that reflect our full history and story. 

Can you talk about your creative influences? Were there specific authors or literary forebears you looked to as you developed the story?
Yes! I spent a lot of time rereading books before I started. I was very taken with Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem and The Sellout by Paul Beatty. These books have a love of community, and Lethem that heart, and Beatty that razor wit, and I took a lot from both of these novels. I reread The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao because of history and diaspora and language. I reread One Hundred Years of Solitude, because it’s a religion to me, but also for scale and scope and to not be afraid of being big, and The World According to Garp for how to talk about complicated, flawed people. The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and The Bonfire of the Vanities for inspiration on capturing New York and its multitudes. And finally, The House on Mango Street because I wanted to remember who the girl was that Olga would have been when she gets the letter from her mother that changes the trajectory of her life.

Author photo © Mayra Castillo
With her roots in Puerto Rico and heart in Brooklyn, the heroine of Xochitl Gonzalez’s vibrant and raw debut novel finds that politics and family are hopelessly intertwined.
Xochitl Gonzalez author photo

Poets Irene Latham and Charles Waters have collaborated on two books for young readers. Their third book together, African Town, is a novel in verse for teen readers about historical events known by far too few Americans. In 1860, decades after the federal government had banned the importation of slaves, a group of 110 Africans were forcibly brought to the United States and enslaved. After the Civil War, the group’s survivors created a community that still exists today, now called Africatown. In many voices and poetic forms, Latham and Waters powerfully chronicle their story. The poets discuss the origins of the project and the responsibility they felt to do justice to the survivors—and to their living descendants.

African Town is your third literary collaboration. How did these collaborations begin?

This all started with an email from one poet (Irene) to another (Charles) in February 2015, with an invitation to work on poems for a potential book from Lerner Publishing Group. The aim was to write about universal subjects with the topic of race as a through line, which turned into Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes and Friendship. The book was the brainchild of Lerner Editorial Director Carol Hinz. If it wasn’t for Carol, we never would have worked together in the first place. We’re eternally grateful to her.

How did African Town start?

It feels like our previous two books together—and the degree of difficulty involved in creating them—prepared us for undertaking this project, which was quite challenging and rewarding. We were surprised by our lack of knowledge about this vital story, and we hope our book helps remedy that for others.

We learned of this history when we were presenting together at the Alabama Book Festival in Montgomery, Alabama, in the spring of 2019. We were so inspired by these courageous humans—how they endured so much, and how bound they were to one another. They were ripped from their lives, and yet they continued to dream and to do. Every step of the research brought us to another “wow” moment, and we wanted to help bring the story to young readers.

“We imagine intergenerational families sharing this book and having rich discussions about our past, our future and how resilience and hope are cultivated at home.”

Your previous books together were written for younger readers than African Town, which is for teens. How did you settle on telling this story for teen readers?

The age of the characters and the brutality of parts of this history demanded that this book be marketed as young adult, but we approached it as a “family” story. We imagine intergenerational families sharing this book and having rich discussions about our past, our future and how resilience and hope are cultivated at home—however (and wherever) one defines that word.

What research did you do to ensure you could immerse yourselves in the characters’ experiences?

Thank the universe we were able to visit Mobile, Alabama, in late February 2020, about two weeks before the country shut down due to the pandemic. We visited Africantown, spent time outside the Union Missionary Baptist Church, which was founded by the Clotilda survivors, stood next to the bust of Kossola outside the church, visited the Old Plateau Cemetery also founded by the Clotilda survivors, went on the Dora Franklin Finley African-American Heritage Trail, visited the History Museum of Mobile, pored over documents at the Mobile Public Library’s local history and genealogy library, and spent time at Kazoola Eatery & Entertainment, meeting the kind people of Mobile and soaking up the atmosphere.

As you researched, what did you learn that was the biggest revelation for you?

One of the biggest revelations was how little we actually know about the women who were onboard the Clotilda. The main sources of information were male-focused, like Kossola’s many interviews and William Foster’s journal. Holes in research are gifts to historical fiction writers, and it became important to us to recognize these incredible humans and to create rich, full female characters.

African Town speaks to readers in so many different characters’ voices, including the Clotilda herself. How did you decide who would write whom?

Our decisions about who would write which character were dictated by where each of us was in the research. We each ended up writing both Black and white characters, and then we spent a lot of time revising together. The Clotilda was perhaps one of the most delicate to write, because we cast her in an all-knowing, voice-of-the-world kind of tone. The Africans in the hold don’t necessarily know what’s happening to them, but the Clotilda does.

“It wasn’t always easy to join these courageous humans on their journey, but it was life-changing.”

At the end of the book, you share details about the various poetic forms you paired with each character and why you chose them. Are there certain forms you each tend to favor? Did you learn any new ones?

We worked hard to match form with personality. With so many voices, we were looking for ways to distinguish each one. Varying the form and shape of the poems on the page helped a great deal. This is where writing our previous book Dictionary for a Better World proved helpful because that book had 47 different poetry forms. We both tend to favor free verse when writing, but we have come to enjoy nonets and tricubes among others.

Even though it was challenging to craft, we’ve come to respect and be proud of using tankas, a short Japanese form of five lines and 31 syllables, for the character of James. It’s such an elegant and difficult form to pull off. We were partially inspired by the verse novel Garvey’s Choice by Nikki Grimes, which is written only in tankas. We felt the form matched James’ personality and mien. Another one we’re proud of is the form used for Cudjo Jr. It was a combination of the poetic styles of E.E. Cummings and Arnold Adoff—with our own twist on it.

How did you feel about doing justice to the real people, events and places in the book?

Both of us knew that since we were writing about many instances that happened to real people, it was vital to be as thorough as possible in research so that we might “get it right.” The mantle of responsibility felt a lot heavier than our previous two books, which dealt with our own lives. We spent hours and hours discussing personality, relationships and motivation—which, due to gaps in information available, was often left for us to imagine.

It’s been important to us to involve the descendants as much as possible, and we’re so grateful for the warm welcome we have received from the community. Our hope is to honor their ancestors, to work with them to make this history more accessible, and to share with young readers a story that impacted us on a very personal level. It wasn’t always easy to join these courageous humans on their journey, but it was life-changing. We feel so lucky to know these characters so intimately. Their resilience continues to inspire us.

Read our starred review of ‘African Town.’

Author photo of Irene Latham and Charles Waters courtesy of Eric Latham.

Acclaimed poets Irene Latham and Charles Waters give the past a voice in African Town, their new novel in verse about the last group of Africans brought to America and enslaved.
Author photo of Irene Latham and Charles Waters

Matthew Cordell is best known for his Caldecott Medal-winning Wolf in the Snow, a book that contains almost no words. His new book, Cornbread & Poppy, contains a lot of words—80 pages of them, in fact! It’s Cordell’s first foray into early readers, those books nestled snugly between picture books and chapter books and designed for children who are just beginning to read independently.

Featuring oodles of Cordell’s signature sketchlike illustrations, Cornbread & Poppy is an endearing tale of two mice who embark on an expedition up Holler Mountain in search of enough food to see them through the winter.

Why did you want to create an early reader?

I love the picture book format for its challenge and need to distill and consolidate lots of thoughts and ideas into a short amount of text and space. But I’ve often wondered what it would be like to open things up and put more words on the page for readers to chew on. Not quite ready to jump into a full-length novel, I thought an early reader would give me a chance to play with a longer text and still hold on to lots of illustrations.

What are some early readers you admire, and what did you want to accomplish in your own?

There’s quite a range of offerings, past and present, in early readers! I wanted to write a longer text, broken up into chapters. I really wanted the character development, world building and rich plot that one can create with a fuller text.

‘After years and years of keeping only essential words and working with the picture book mindset of ‘showing not telling,’ it was liberating to just write and write and write.’

Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad is the gold standard for its charm, humor and exquisite, pitch-perfect writing. In terms of contemporaries, I love Cece Bell’s Rabbit and Robot books for all of the same reasons.

What were the pleasures and challenges of telling and illustrating a story in more than 32 pages?

After years and years of keeping only essential words and working with the picture book mindset of “showing not telling,” it was liberating to just write and write and write and not worry too much about how much pruning would need to be done in the end.

But it was challenging too, not to go in and start slicing and dicing. I’m so used to working that way that I had to remind myself that I wanted to keep the storytelling language nice and beefy for those new little reading eyes that would be reading it.

Early readers are designed for children who are still gaining literary fluency. How conscious of these developmental needs were you as you wrote the text, and how did you balance them with the creative demands of the story?

I’m a dad of two kids who are on either side of the world of early readers. My daughter is 13 and devours books, but it wasn’t all that long ago that she was just learning to read. My son, who’s 8, is just now picking up early readers. So, having seen it firsthand, I was very conscious of wanting to not write over the heads of these littlest readers. I did, however, want to make the book a little challenging. Something longer and a little complicated, so that they might take a little more time with it—maybe even not finish it in one sitting.

“Going on adventures in life is a great way to find new things to write about and draw.”

How did Cornbread’s and Poppy’s names come to you?

They are such great names! I can say that with actual modesty, because I didn’t come up with them. My cleverer-than-me wife, author Julie Halpern, gifted me these character names one day, and I used them as a springboard for everything that followed. To me, Cornbread and Poppy conjured a world of fun and adventure with animals in a rural setting. And Poppy is a great name, but Cornbread . . . I was in love with that character name from the get-go!

Were Cornbread and Poppy always mice?

More or less, yes, they were always mice. In the very beginning, before I even had any stories, I jotted down a list of animal possibilities. Those notes are forever lost, but I remember thinking, maybe pigs or dogs could work. But my very first sketch was of these two mice, and I looked no further!

Cornbread and Poppy sketch © Matthew Cordell

What was their character development like? Did you land on their personalities right away or did they evolve as you wrote?

I think it was a gradual development, overall. I knew I wanted one to be uptight and the other to be a free spirit, but it wasn’t until I started writing more from that basic premise that I felt like each personality should have positives and negatives. When you put the two characters together, they fill each other out nicely. One’s positive traits fill in for the other’s flaws and vice versa. They don’t always see eye to eye, but they really like each other, they’re willing to listen and learn from each other, and in the end, they make a great team.

What’s your favorite illustration in the book? Do you have a favorite line?

My favorite spread is where Cornbread and Poppy first encounter an owl on Holler Mountain. It’s their worst fear to be descended upon by a mouse-eating owl, and when they find themselves under the giant shadow of a flying owl, the look on their gaping faces is horrific and priceless. There’s lots of drama in that picture, and I just like how it looks.

Illustration from Cornbread & Poppy © 2022 Matthew Cordell. Reproduced by permission of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

My favorite line (or lines) in the book are probably the very first two. “It was winter. The first snowflake had fallen.” Very simple idea, but I love the idea and visual of the first single snowflake falling signifying the beginning of winter itself.

The book’s dedication hints that you may be more of a Cornbread than a Poppy. What Cornbread-ish qualities are handy for a writer and illustrator to have?

Cornbread is very on top of things and has things planned out perfectly. He’s ready for anything! This mindset would be very helpful to someone writing or illustrating a book. Or to any person doing any job, really. Be prepared! I should follow my own advice.

Are there Poppy-ish qualities that are also helpful for a creative person?

Poppy loves to try new things, explore and seek thrills. Going on adventures in life is a great way to find new things to write about and draw. We’re never too old to learn and experience new things. As long as we keep looking, we’ll always have something to be inspired by and something new to create.

Read our starred review of ‘Cornbread & Poppy.’

In his first early reader, Matthew Cordell offers a mouse’s tale that’s perfect for the youngest of readers.
Author photo of Matthew Cordell

Preston Norton’s third YA novel is a profound and often profane exploration of family and forgiveness. Hopepunk is the story of Hope Cassidy, whose beloved sister, Faith, runs away after their mom tries to send her to a camp that practices so-called conversion therapy. While trying to track Faith down, Hope also discovers a love for forbidden rock music, forms a band, Hope Cassidy and the Sundance Kids, and enters her school’s Battle of the Bands. We chatted with Norton about his book’s nuanced depiction of religion and how they balance heavy themes with humor.

When did you begin to write Hopepunk?

In order to answer that, I feel like I need to address the elephant in the room, which is that the word hopepunk existed long before it became the title of my novel. I first heard it on Twitter, where a reader had compiled a list of their favorite “hopepunk” stories, and one of my previous novels, Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe, made the list.

The entire hopepunk genre is a reaction to the dystopia we were all living in—and in many ways, continue to live in to this day—and our desperate need to find hope and happiness in our speculative fiction. Hopepunk isn’t speculative fiction per se, but it is 100% a love letter to speculative fiction and the lifeline it provides us in super dark times.

Hope wears her heart on her sleeve. Where did her character originate?

Whenever I write in first person (which is pretty much all the time), I have a very difficult time not injecting a bit of myself into the main character. When you take a step back and look at my past three protagonists, you will find that they all wear their hearts on their sleeves, they cry a lot, and they have a bit of unchecked anger that could easily be resolved with counseling. All of these characters have someone they care about so much that it hurts—it almost becomes their entire identity—and when the people they love are hurt, the main characters sort of lose their minds. It’s by learning to care in the right way that they eventually find themselves. This is how you write a protagonist for a Preston Norton novel. Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.

“It is really interesting to me to see the shape a person leaves when they are no longer there.”

The sisterhood between Faith and Hope is one of the relationships at the core of Hopepunk. What were the challenges of conveying their bond when one of them is literally missing for most of the novel?

To me, the trick was less about writing the relationship than writing the hole that forms when a relationship is broken. It doesn’t just break Hope’s heart. It breaks her entire family, and it breaks each of them in different ways.

It is really interesting to me to see the shape a person leaves when they are no longer there. Faith didn’t believe her presence made a difference, so it is very interesting and also very heartbreaking that when she runs away, all that seems to be left is her absence.

Initially it may seem like you’re pretty harsh on the subject of religion, but so much of Hopepunk is actually about forgiveness and faith. Why was exploring this duality important to you?

I have a very complex relationship with religion. On the one hand, I grew up in a religious community that I feel like represented the very worst when it came to homophobia and gaslighting and shame culture in Christianity. I am not religious anymore and have not been for a very long time.

I do see immense value in spirituality. I think we all need something to believe in that is bigger than ourselves sometimes. Not for any moral reason. I think we need it for our own happiness. To help us find equilibrium.

In that same sense, I feel like forgiveness—a concept that we often think of as “Christian” in nature—might be the most important ingredient to any one human being’s personal happiness. Even if it’s just yourself you need to forgive.

“I realize that not everyone in the world is an ally, but I like to believe it’s possible that everyone in the world could become one.”

Many characters in the book undergo transformations, but Hope’s mom’s journey is one of the most meaningful. How did you avoid extremes when creating her character?

If Hope was the easiest character to write (because she is very similar to me), Hope’s mom was maybe the most difficult, perhaps because I have never personally met a person who has undergone a transformation quite like hers. But I am very proud of where she ended up because, at the end of the day, she is 100% someone I would want to have on my team.

Christianity 101 is all about powerful transformations, villains becoming heroes (case in point, Saul becoming Paul), so it seems oddly appropriate that she undergoes such a metamorphosis. I realize that not everyone in the world is an ally, but I like to believe it’s possible that everyone in the world could become one.

Hopepunk is set in Wyoming. Why did you choose to tell this story in a conservative setting? Can you talk a little bit about the broader significance of telling queer stories in spaces like that?

I’ll be 100% honest. This story was almost set in Alabama, but then a conversation with my agent and editor drop-kicked it out of Appalachia and into the Rockies. We landed in Wyoming purely because of Sundance. (Yes, the band was called Hope Cassidy and the Sundance Kids before the setting had anything to do with Sundance.) When we finally pushed that puzzle piece into place, it just clicked.

Regardless of where the story could have been set, queer stories are needed everywhere because queer people are everywhere. I’m drawn to conservative settings because those are the places I’ve always lived. My hope is always to connect with just one reader in such a way that they feel seen, heard and understood. Maybe, if I’m lucky, I will have given them something that wasn’t there before.

Within Hopepunk is a second story, a lesbian sci-fi adventure called “Andromeda and Tanks Through Space and Time.” Was it challenging to incorporate this into the larger narrative?

I had so much fucking fun with this story! Maybe too much fun. There were many times when I was afraid that it wouldn’t make it into the final version of Hopepunk, and it is much more sliced and diced than it was in my original draft.

The greatest challenge was always selling my editors on this very weird little story within the story. When I try to explain it to people, I always bring up the “Carry On” story with Simon and Baz in Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl. It is very different, obviously, but on a spiritual level, I feel like it is very much the same thing.

“I think we all need something to believe in that is bigger than ourselves sometimes.”

How did you balance the weighty themes and emotions in Hopepunk with the fact that it’s also often extremely funny?

This is very easy for me, because life is simultaneously so very funny but also so very sad. I think humor is my way of dealing and coping with sad and difficult topics. Humor allows me a safe distance to be vulnerable, but not so vulnerable that it makes me depressed and anxious.

Hopepunk is also about rock ’n’ roll and how powerful it can be to make music. In your acknowledgments, you mention that the songs in the book were going to be covers, but one of your editors pushed you to write original songs, which you found a daunting prospect. How did you pull it off?

I honestly have no idea. I don’t necessarily believe in miracles, but I also cannot deny that it must be some sort of miracle because I am NOT a songwriter.

With that said, I will readily admit that the third and final song in the book, “Love Can See,” was the most difficult one for me to write—so much so that I feel like I kind of cheated and borrowed the tune, time signature and lyrical beats of a preexisting song as a model for it. (But there is no actual tune in my book, so good luck suing me, mwahaha!)

I will have to award some sort of prize to the first reader who calls me out on Twitter for which song I used as a crutch. Would you like to be a minor character in my next book? I feel like that’s the only thing of value I have to offer. The contest begins NOW!

Hope quite literally finds her voice while singing karaoke at a local haunt. Are you a karaoke person? If so, what’s your go-to song?

I will sing anything and everything. I am a karaoke monster. I am not good by any means, but what I lack in talent, I make up for in loudness and staggering enthusiasm. There is nothing I won’t sing.

Read our starred review of ‘Hopepunk.’

Author photo of Preston Norton courtesy of Erin Willmore.

Preston Norton offers a no-holds-barred tale of religion, rock 'n' roll and good ol' teen rebellion.
Author photo of Preston Norton

When life handed the world lemons in the form of a global pandemic, Catherine Price found a way to make lemonade. She began researching and writing a book that would help readers define, prioritize and add more fun to their lives. For anyone hoping to make 2022 a banner year, The Power of Fun: How to Feel Alive Again provides the perfect jump-start. Instead of trying to corral the willpower and restraint that’s key to so many self-improvement plans, Price prioritizes fun, a strategy she compares to “going on a diet that requires you to eat more foods that you love.”

“We go into this self-restriction phase after the indulgence of the holidays,” Price says, speaking by phone from her Philadelphia home. “But you can make positive change in your life and have fun. In January, we feel like we have to make up for anything we did in December, instead of realizing that this is a wonderful opportunity to set a good tone for the new year by doing things that make us happier.”

Price notes that millions of people devote time and therapy to reducing stress and anxiety, but most of us contemplate fun only as an afterthought. “I’ve drunk my own Kool-Aid,” Price admits, her voice brimming with enthusiasm. “Really, fun is one of the most important things in life, and the more fun we have and the more we prioritize fun, the happier and healthier we will be.” As she writes in The Power of Fun, “It should be our guiding star.”

Read our starred review of ‘The Power of Fun.’

Price’s latest book is a natural sequel to her 2018 book, How to Break Up With Your Phone, which she wrote after realizing that she was spending hours mindlessly scrolling on her smartphone while ignoring her infant daughter. By limiting her screen time, Price created more free time—but then she didn’t know what she actually wanted to do with that time.   

For Price, her most vivid experiences of fun occurred while learning to play the guitar. Once she realized that, one thing led to another: She formed a small band, began performing at open mic nights, started drum lessons and made new friends—activities she particularly relished because her work as a freelance writer is so solitary. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Price and her musical friends had numerous outside jam sessions, sometimes in bone-chilling weather. “We did this for the entire winter,” she says, reminiscing about a keyboard that is probably still covered in campfire ashes. “The fact that all of us committed to this source of fun was so meaningful. We went beyond playmates and became friends. And it all came from having a couple other people in my life who also prioritized fun.”

For The Power of Fun, Price surveyed numerous people in detail about their own fun experiences and how they felt during those moments. She calls her writing “science-backed self-help,” explaining, “I don’t like the sort of self-help that’s just platitudes. I really want there to be some evidence. I want to know exactly why I’m doing something.” However, as she dug into the material, she was shocked to discover that there wasn’t even an agreed-upon definition of fun, nor was there much research on the subject.

“This is a wonderful opportunity to set a good tone for the new year by doing things that make us happier.”

Price eventually decided to label passive entertainment, like watching TV for hours at a time, as Fake Fun and to create her own definition for True Fun—moments of what she calls “playful, connected flow” in which someone connects with other people in a meaningful way and becomes so fully engrossed in the moment that they lose track of time. There’s a lot of middle ground between these two poles, Price notes, full of enjoyable, worthwhile pastimes that simply don’t reach peak fun. Luckily, The Power of Fun includes a Fun Audit, which Price developed to help readers identify the activities most likely to spark inner joy.

Price stresses that it’s equally important for each person to recognize activities that aren’t personally fun. For instance, Price knows that she doesn’t like charades or performing improv comedy, and that while she enjoys being part of musical groups, she’s not a solo performer. “If you’ve tried something a number of times and it never generates fun for you, then maybe it’s OK to move on to the next thing,” she says. “By saying no to that, you might open up a new opportunity that’s actually fun.”

Speaking of things that aren’t personally fun—Price faced multiple challenges as she wrote about this joyful magic ingredient “during an objectively not-fun period of history.” One moment was especially memorable, when she found herself alone for several days in the midst of the pandemic. “Imagine, if you will,” she writes in the book, “me slouched in front of my laptop with about fifteen browser windows open, each containing a different research paper about the horrible health effects of loneliness and isolation, as I sat on the couch, isolated and alone.”

If you’ve resolved to get in touch with your feelings this year, these books will help you increase your EQ.

“At the same time,” Price says, “the project had a powerfully positive effect on my own life. It allowed me to weather a difficult time with my sanity intact—and in fact, with my cheerfulness intact. It gave me something positive to focus on.”

At the start of the 2020 lockdown, Price, her husband and their young daughter headed to Price’s childhood home in New Jersey, where her parents could help with child care. “It was interesting to see my daughter playing in some of the very same places that I had played as a kid. But it was also interesting to reflect on what play means as an adult,” Price says. “Having a 5-year-old is very useful for reminding yourself that there are opportunities for playfulness and connection and flow around us all the time. We just need to learn to tune into them.”

This change of focus even improved Price’s marriage. “[My husband and I] were very playful people to begin with,” she says, “but it’s been really useful for us to reframe our own experience through the lens of fun and treat it as a priority, both as a couple and individually.”

“If you’re having fun with people . . . you’re embracing your shared humanity.”

In addition to improving interpersonal relationships, Price believes this process could even heal some of the nation’s divides. “Fun brings people together,” she says. “If you’re having fun with people, you’re not yelling at them, you’re not emphasizing your political differences. You’re embracing your shared humanity.”

Price became a science writer somewhat by accident. In high school, she believed science classes were boring, hard and irrelevant. That feeling changed at age 22, when she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. “That moment of having to take control of my own blood sugar for the rest of my life, lest I suffer devastating consequences, like blindness or amputation or stroke or kidney failure, was a big turning point,” she recalls.

An added influence was Michael Pollan, Price’s mentor at the University of California, Berkeley, journalism program, who helped her discover that she likes “writing about health and science in a quirky, personal, fun way.” For one assignment, Price wrote about being diagnosed with diabetes, which led to the New York Times publishing her essay “Thinking About Diabetes With Every Bite” in 2009. Eventually, she even wrote a book about nutrition called Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food.

“Writing this book made me tune into what made me want to become a writer to begin with.”

For years Price has contemplated writing a book about hormones, a subject that fascinates her, but now she thinks she’ll choose a different topic for her next project. “I want to really lean into this fun thing,” she says. “I personally feel that my books come most alive whenever I’m telling a personal anecdote, and I love writing that way. Writing this book made me tune into what made me want to become a writer to begin with.”

Price hopes The Power of Fun will likewise help readers gather with friends and “spend January or February staging their own kind of ‘funterventions.’” Once you start noticing tiny, everyday moments, she says, “it brightens up your life, and, in turn, that buoyancy can help energize you so that you can start to seek out even bigger moments of playful, connected flow. I see it as a very self-perpetuating, self-reinforcing cycle with innumerable positive effects.”

These lessons have led to a very different life, Price explains. “Realizing what I really want to prioritize as fun has been truly life-changing. And I’m so excited to share that message with the world.”

Author photo by Colin Lenton

Popular science writer Catherine Price says to stop scrolling, put down your phone and play.
Headshot of Catherine Price

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