My guest for this Author Interview is writer and Welsh enthusiast, Sarah Jamila Stevenson. Her most recent book, The Truth Against the World is set in San Francisco and the southwest of Wales, one of the most beautiful, romantic and mysterious places I’ve ever visited. I’ve asked Sarah questions about her inspiration and her plans for her writing future. She has kindly and generously responded. So, meet my young colleague:
I would say there are two main sources of inspiration for this book: one, of course, is having traveled in Wales and having a longstanding love of the culture, the country, and the language. The rest of the inspiration comes from my own grandparents. My grandfather died in 1997 after battling colon cancer for a few years, and I found myself wanting to write in some way about that experience–not only of death and grieving, but everything that comes before: how families cope with the diagnosis and the treatment, whether they talk about it or don’t talk about it. My grandmother also inspired the aspect of the story dealing with family secrets. She passed away about 12 years ago, but before she died, she began to open up about a lot of details we hadn’t known about her life–even things she’d once lied about! I found the idea of longstanding family secrets a very intriguing basis for a story.
It’s much more serious in terms of its theme and overall feel. In certain respects, The Truth Against the World shares more similarities with my second book, Underneath; they both have themes of grief and loss. Of course, as young adult novels, all three books share that “coming of age” element that I find so compelling about YA–the ability to explore what really makes a character, what creates and shapes someone’s personality as well as their actions. The Latte Rebellion explores that idea of identity in a very different way, through humor and misadventure. All three books, though, do focus on the idea of identity–who we are at heart, how we become that person, how we learn who we are.
I wish I could say it was! It certainly qualifies as hiraeth for a long-overdue trip back to Wales and the rest of the UK. I have family and friends in various places in England, Wales, and Ireland, and frequently daydream about returning!
I’ve been interested in Welsh language and culture since my first visit to Wales at age 4! We took a family vacation to England and Wales and I remember being quite impressed with the castles in Wales, and the green countryside. I returned with my mother when I was 13, and that’s when I first remember encountering the Welsh language and being captivated by it. It almost felt as though I should already understand it–when I heard it spoken, it felt familiar somehow in its rhythms. That was when I bought my first book on basic Welsh, but I didn’t do much with it until I went to college and, my final year, I had the opportunity to take a couple of Welsh language classes, something I’d long dreamed of doing. It was a few years after that that the idea for this novel began to take shape, in about 2001. So it’s been a gradual process of the story idea coalescing over time, I think.
Unfortunately, I have no idea whether I have Welsh heritage or not, and I may never find out! It was something my grandmother (see above) always used to say (she’d say that side of the family was English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, German, and French) but we have no idea how much of that was accurate, and no real way to prove it. We only know for sure about the English, Irish, and French Canadian. Having her say that at all, though, did plant a seed in my mind, clearly! And repeated visits to England and Wales nurtured that seed. My parents met in London in the 1970s–my father was living there as a young man after emigrating from India/Pakistan, and my mother was on a trip when she met him. They lived there for a couple of years before I was born before moving to California. Then, when I was in college, I had the opportunity to work in London for a summer, and had a chance to take another visit to Wales at that point. My last visit was in 2000, not long before I started to get the idea for this book. So, I suppose it is accurate that my hiraeth inspired me to write it!As for its being a paranormal mystery, I always envisioned the story that way–even after multiple revisions, the first scene has always begun with Gareth meeting the ghost. And Wales is a place that seems to inspire magic and mystery.
On my last trip to Wales in 2000, we stayed in the Tywi Valley and had an opportunity to explore the area, which was one I hadn’t visited before. So it was the freshest in my mind, I suppose, and I felt more confident about inventing a small village and having it be (hopefully) convincing. It is also an area with a lot of interesting contrasts of scenery–industry and nature, cities and seashore–and enough of a Welsh-speaking population that the language could realistically be a plot element.
I’m working on a new YA project, which I recently decided was not one but two books. It’s speculative fiction, set in a world that relies on steam and water power–a catastrophe in the distant past meant that combustion power came under strict governmental control. In this rigidly controlled world with drastic differences in social class, we meet Chiara, a young woman from a noble family who wants to work with technology and change the system from within–but work is prohibited for noblewomen. Aden, a young man from the less prosperous town outside the palisades, is struggling to overcome various hardships, but his talent for alchemy might just be a lifeline–provided he can avoid getting mixed up with the wrong people. The first book about Chiara and Aden is calledTinder.
Whenever I can, I try to attend Cymdeithas Madog’s Cwrs Cymraeg (Welsh course), which takes place for one week each summer here in North America. I plan to go to next summer’s course in Portland, Oregon, to refresh my skills. I’ve also been doing a bit of translation and editing work for a company that does software localization (translating software into other languages for marketing in other countries)–I’ve been a QA tester, which means I look through and make sure buttons are working and everything is translated correctly and that sort of thing. It’s really been challenging my Welsh skills! But then again, I suppose I wouldn’t be in the arts if I didn’t enjoy a challenge.