Thursday, June 11, 2009

An Interview with Margaret McMullen about her book Cashay

Earlier this week I reviewed Cashay by Margaret McMullen. The book so intrigued me that I asked Margaret for an interview. Here it is:

Where did the idea for Cashay come from?
I had several ideas before I began researching and writing Cashay. Years ago, my sister tutored a girl who lived in Cabrini Green in Chicago. I spent several weekends with the two of them and was very intrigued by their relationship. My husband was also a part of the Big Brother program and tutored a young boy who was having a tough time at school. Both the girl my sister tutored and the boy my husband tutored were considered “problem kids” and their anger and defiance was memorable. I was interested in writing about them in some way. I also wanted to write about the closeness between two sisters. In addition, a long time ago, I cut out a newspaper article about a 7-year old boy getting shot accidentally on the way to school in Chicago. I wanted to write about that and how it is to live in a world that’s both dangerous and hopeful.

How did you so effectively capture what life in the projects is like? Did you interview people and/or visit a place similar to the one where Cashay lived?
I loved researching Cashay. I used all the memories of the times I spent with my sister and her assigned student. I hung out in a local high school, which happens to be mostly African-American. I visited the Cabrini Green area in Chicago. I interviewed willing college students who were African-American. One student in particular told me all about hair weaves and dreadlocks. Another student told me what music to listen to, even what food to eat. Mostly I just watched and listened.

Mentors can make such a huge difference in the lives of inner city children. Did you mean to draw attention to this when you wrote your book?
The time my sister and husband spent with their students – kids who really became a part of our family – was amazing and admirable. All volunteer work is amazing and admirable, and so much of it goes without notice or praise. I have to admit, I did want to bring attention to doing service. But it was interesting too how much my sister and my husband both gained and grew from their relationships with these children. Likewise, Cashay and Allison learn from each other. Cashay is angry and has to learn how to love and trust again. Allison is cut off from people. She is not very close to anyone when she first meets Cashay. They don’t know it, but both Cashay and Allison have to re-learn how to open themselves and their hearts to love.
Why did you decide to make Cashay’s mentor a white woman rather than an African American person?
I wanted to make Cashay and Allison as un-alike as I possibly could. They are unlikely friends even though they have so much in common. Because they are unlikely friends, they are more interesting to watch and listen to. I also wanted to keep putting Cashay into uneasy situations so that she is constantly tested. In this way we see and she sees what she’s really made of. Cashay struggles daily. Having white mentors is just one more thing for Cashay to deal with, to get a little angrier about. But again, she deals. She stops noticing the color of peoples’ skin.

What do you think we need to do as a society to help children like Cashay and her sister?
Children like Cashay and her sister need good, safe schools and role models. So of course, we need wonderful, safe schools everywhere in the United States and individuals need to continue to offer what we can, volunteering in after-school programs and more. We also need to continue to grow our library systems just as we have been doing. Branch libraries in big cities, like the ones I visited in Chicago, are fantastic beacons of life and hope in the middle of inner city neighborhoods. These are places where kids can gather, do their homework, read, even take a writing workshop. Libraries are key to building minds and communities.

You work as a professor of English in a university. Have your experiences as a professor helped you become a better writer?
If I stayed home alone all day and wrote, I would be very productive and very very…strange. I love teaching. I get to go to school and be among smart people and talk about the very things that I love: writing and literature. When I come home, I have even more ideas, more notes, and more love for writing and literature. I can think of no other profession that I would love as much.

Do you write every day?
When I am not teaching, I write at least four hours a day. When I am teaching, I usually write a lot of notes in little pads scattered all around our house.

How do your stories find you? Do the ideas just suddenly come into your head out of nowhere, or are they about subjects that you are particularly interested in?
I keep a growing list of ideas for stories, essays, and novels. As long as there are people, I don’t think I’ll ever run out of ideas. But some ideas come to me completely uninvited.
When my grandmother was dying in Newton, Mississippi, she asked me to come down and be with her, then she told me to read some papers in a shoebox in her closet. I told her I would, then forgot about them for a while, and after her funeral, when I couldn’t sleep, I realized she was probably keeping me up: I had not done what I promised her I would do. There was a 60-page manuscript in my grandmother’s shoebox. In 1940 my grandmother’s great-great uncle Frank Russell was 90 years old when he talked out his life to a secretary who typed it all out. Frank Russell had lived before, during, and after the Civil War years, but there was this one paragraph that really struck me: he said that when his father joined up with the confederates at the start of the Civil War, all the men folk left Smith County and all that was left were the women, the children, what slaves there were, and him. The next paragraph was about how hard it was AFTER the war.
Basically, he left out the war, and I kept thinking about the regret that I knew the young Frank Russell must have felt –he missed the big event of his lifetime. I decided to fill in that white space, and that’s how I came to write How I Found the Strong.
I had never intended to write about anything that took place during the Civil War!
Readers and school visits give me ideas too. Middle school students who read How I Found the Strong wanted to know what happened to Buck, Grandpa, Irene and others. Some readers wrote and emailed me questions. That’s how I came to write the sequel, When I Crossed No-Bob.
Thank you Margaret. I strongly recommend Cashay and plan on reading Margaret's other books very soon.

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