Thursday, August 7, 2008

Interview: Christine Fletcher, Part 2

(Read Part 1)
Christine Fletcher's "Ten Cents a Dance" takes place in Chicago, and begins with the U.S. on the verge of entering World War II. Ruby, 16, has left school to work in a meat-packing plant in the Chicago Yards. When she learns she can make much more money by dancing in the Starlight dance hall than by stuffing pickled pigs' feet into jars, it almost seems too good to be true. Chapter One is available online here.

Worducopia: You're far too young to have experienced 1940s conversations first hand, and yet the dialogue and voice seemed so natural--how'd you do that? By watching dozens of movies from the '40s, or what?

Christine: I adore movies from the 1930s and 1940s, and you’re right, I have watched dozens of them! I love the dialogue in those films; it’s snappy, witty and to the point, which is very much how I imagined Ruby thinking and speaking. Also, during much of the writing I played Ruby’s favorite kind of music, the real “hot” swing: “Sing Sing Sing,” “King Porter Stomp,” “In the Mood.” I wanted those hard, fast jazz rhythms to permeate the book, and they really helped bring her voice alive.

W: Not just her voice, but the setting, also. To me it almost felt like a soundtrack was running through the novel.

C: In an odd way, too, I actually did experience conversations from that era. My mom was a teenager during World War II, and I found myself using certain phrases, certain ways of putting things that I remembered from her and my grandmother. “Pocketbooks” instead of “purses,” that sort of thing. My mom always fell back into those rhythms when she talked with my grandmother. I didn’t consciously try to remember these things; they simply arose during the writing. It was like finding something from your childhood that you’ve completely forgotten; the memories were there, just waiting.

W: The social climate in the '40s was obviously very different from what we strive for today. Was it tough coming at certain issues through Ruby--that is, from a 1940s, totally non-PC, perspective? I'm thinking specifically of her attitudes toward Filipinos and African Americans, which sometimes made me cringe, especially at the beginning of the book.

C: One of the most difficult aspects of writing this novel was trying to accurately depict the social attitudes of the time. Since the book is told from a 1st person point of view, the reader sees the world through Ruby’s eyes, hears her story through her voice. So every word had to be true to her character and experience: that of a sixteen-year-old girl, poorly educated and not terribly introspective, raised in a society segregated by race, ethnicity and even, to a degree, religion. At the beginning of the book, Ruby has never had reason to question society’s attitudes or her own. To her, that’s just life as it is. Feminism and the civil rights movement are still twenty-odd years in the future, not even a gleam on her horizon.

It was tempting to smooth the rough, un-PC edges off the era and off my characters to make them more palatable to today’s readers. But then I’d have to pretend that prejudice, discrimination and sexual harassment didn’t exist…and I was writing a historical novel, not a fantasy. Plus, if I’d left out the ugliness, I would’ve had to leave out a lot of beauty, too. The black-and-tan clubs where, in an age of segregation, any race was welcome. The policy kings, who ruled a gambling empire. The rich, vital immigrant energy of Chicago’s Back of the Yards. These things existed, but they’re largely ignored by the history books. To leave them out of the novel would be disrespectful both to the era and to readers. That’s the challenge of historical fiction, after all--to portray the world as it was, warts and all, rather than how we’d like it to be.

W: Wow, you just gave me chills. Seriously.

C: I admit I was nervous that readers might think these were my attitudes, and not just my characters’. In fact, one reviewer was dismayed at the depiction of racism in a young adult book, saying I should have included an explanatory note that these attitudes are no longer acceptable. Maybe she’s right…but I’m pretty sure I can trust my younger readers to realize the difference between 1941 and 2008.

W: In fact, if you'd tried to cushion Ruby's attitudes to make them more palatable, you might have run a greater risk of the contrast being lost on some readers who are accustomed to the more subtle racism of our era.

C: So I kept both Ruby and the era true to their time, as well as I could. As far as conflict and character arc, it was fantastic--but it also created a lot of un-PC moments!

W: In my review of "Ten Cents a Dance," I said that I would have liked to get to know some of the male characters better, specifically Manny and Ozzie. They're both such intriguing characters, and yet in a sense you chose to downplay them--Manny's experiences, for example, are told in summary in Ruby's voice, rather than using dialogue to allow him to tell his own story. Were you tempted to give them a stronger presence? Did these guys have scenes (written, or in your head) that you had to omit in order to keep the focus on Ruby's story?

C: I really struggled with this, as well (you nailed all the toughest spots in the book!). In Manny’s case, telling his story in summary essentially came down to pacing and page count. Scenes have to move the story forward, and Manny’s experiences--as compelling as I found them--don’t advance Ruby’s story. Also, during the revision process I had to cut about forty pages to keep the book within acceptable length. So some things did get condensed, and this was one of them.

W: Ozzie gets more air time, and yet the emotional distance between him and Ruby keeps him distant from the reader as well.

C: Ozzie and Ruby's friendship had to be both true to their characters and plausible for the time. Since we can see Ozzie only through Ruby’s eyes, that emotional distance you feel is real. Their lives intersect only in the taxi-dance hall and black-and-tan clubs. Given the era, they can’t hang out on their days off, go to the movies or out for pizza or whatever. Their time together is limited. Plus, Ozzie is very ambitious and fairly guarded, so there’s a lot about him and his life that Ruby doesn’t know about or understand. But they’re both passionate people, and they’re attracted to that in each other.

At the beginning of the book, the idea of a relationship with an African-American man would never have entered Ruby’s head. By the end, she’s starting to glimpse the possibility…but not in time to act on it. Eventually, Ruby’s going to realize that Ozzie was the one she was talking about when she said that her true love could be standing right next to her, and she might not even know it.

Thanks so much for a great interview, Christine!

I highly recommend "Ten Cents a Dance" to anyone who remembers that era, as well as us youngsters and of course YA readers. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or better yet, shop your local independent bookstore!

1 comment:

  1. Nice interview! Much more insightful questions than 'Where do get your ideas?' ;-)