Tamara Ellis Smith Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Tamara Ellis Smith

Tamara Ellis Smith

An interview with Tamara Ellis Smith

Tamara Ellis Smith discusses her first novel, Another Kind of Hurricane, the story of two very different boys and the almost magical ways their lives intertwine. It is about the healing power of friendship. It's also an adventure story…and a little bit of a mystery too.

This interview was first published on http://www.novelenthusiasts.com in August 2015, and is reproduced with the kind agreement of Novelenthusiasts and the author.

Tamara Ellis Smith's debut novel, Another Kind of Hurricane, hit bookstores in July. It's a powerful novel and one that Novel Enthusiasts recommends, well, enthusiastically. Below is our conversation with Ms. Smith:

Novel Enthusiasts: Tamara, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with us here at Novel Enthusiasts. Another Kind of Hurricane is a really beautiful novel.

For new readers, how would you describe your novel?

Tamara Ellis Smith: Another Kind of Hurricane is the story of two very different boys—one from New Orleans who has lost his home in Hurricane Katrina, and one from Vermont who has lost his best friend in an accident on Mount Mansfield (the tallest mountain in Vermont)—and the almost magical ways their lives intertwine. It is about the healing power of friendship. It's also an adventure story…and a little bit of a mystery too.

NE: So, the release is upon us. How are you feeling at the moment?

TES: The short answer (and maybe the fullest and truest answer) is that I am feeling so grateful, Brad. This story took a long time to be born, and I am just so happy and amazed that it is out in the world.

You may have heard the longer version of the story, but I got the idea for Hurricane when my son—who was four at the time—asked me who would get his pair of pants. This was August 2005, and we were driving a few bags of clothing and food to the Hurricane Katrina Relief Effort. Of course I didn't know, but the question stayed with me. I began to imagine who would get his pants—and then I began to actually IMAGINE who would get his pants. And I was off and running...

I had just begun my first semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I had arrived at VCFA knowing I was a picture book writer (note the assuredness of that verb: knowing!), and so that semester I wrote a picture book about a boy in Vermont who gave a pair of pants with a lucky marble in the pocket to a boy in New Orleans.

It was terrible. The picture book, not the idea. My advisor thought the idea would make a great novel—but I wasn't a novelist, so that was the end of that story.

Except it wasn't the end of that story—because I couldn't get these two boys out of my head.

It took me a long time, but I wrote a novel. This novel. Ten years, 3 major rewriTES, and about 25 drafts later, Another Kind of Hurricane has finally been born.

NE: School Library Journal has some great things to say about Another Kind of Hurricane. Publisher's Weekly says it's "gracefully laced together" and that it's "vividly imagined." You have a starred review over at Kirkus. Really, that's some amazing accolades. Do the positive reviews make you feel a certain sense of accomplishment?

TES: They do. And again, I just feel so grateful for the positive reviews, and specifically I feel so appreciative of those reviewers who really got what I was trying to do with the story. That's a pretty deep and powerful feeling, when someone interprets you just the way you would hope.

I have to say, though, about reviews…early on, when Hurricane was just getting some public attention, I asked both my editor (Annie Kelley) and agent (Erin Murphy) for their philosophies on reviews. I wanted to center myself; to try to find a way to be grounded while on this public journey, because this story had been just mine for so long, you know? They are wise, Annie and Erin. And they both told me similar things…and two of them really stuck with me.

The first is that it is important to remember that the book is out of my hands now. I have to let it go. It "belongs" in a sense, to the people who read it. That rang so true to me. I can vividly remember the books that I felt were written just for me when I was a kid. (Anne of Green Gables is one. I clutched that book like it was a literally part of me. I think I even took it to bed!) It is very humbling to imagine my book—my ideas and words—becoming a part of someone else's life, part of a reader's thoughts and perspective.

The second is that so many readers who have a positive experience with my book are people I will never, ever hear from. (Of course Lucy Maud Montgomery was not alive by the time I read Anne of Green Gables, but even if she had been, I don't think I would have gotten in touch with her!) Those readers—librarians, parents, teachers, and mostly kids—I won't ever hear from them. There is something magical about that, about that connection. I love it.

NE: You live in Vermont, and part of your novel takes place in your home state. The other part of your story takes place in Louisiana. Can you tell us what brought you to have a connection to Louisiana?

TES: I visited New Orleans in 1989, and fell in love with it then. The warmth of the people I met, the vibrant music and culture, the amazing food, the rich history. More recently, I found out that a dear friend's sister in law is from New Orleans, and so I reconnected with that love through listening to her stories, (and her aunt's stories, too.)

Mostly though, as I said earlier, it was when my son asked me that question about his pants during Katrina, that my interest was reignited and my focus was inspired. I read and watched and listened voraciously to stories about Katrina, of course, but about New Orleans in general too.

I'm now connected with an incredible organization called lowernine.org that has been, practically single-handedly, rebuilding homes in the Lower Ninth Ward. In November 2014, I went on a tour of their projects, and met their director, Laura Paul, some of their volunteers, and some of the local folks they have helped. A portion of the proceeds from Another Kind of Hurricane go to them and the work they do, and I couldn't be happier about that.

NE: Between Vermont and Louisiana, which did you find the most challenging to capture?

TES: Hmmmm…that's a good question, Brad. I would say Louisiana because, as you said, I don't live there; don't know it like the back of my hand, the way I know my part of Vermont. So I did a ton of research, watched so many documentaries, talked with people, read about New Orleans, poured over maps.

That said, Vermont eluded me at times, too. For instance, it wasn't until one my later drafts of the story that I got some of the key details of Mount Mansfield right. I had hiked it many times, but had never spent the night on the mountain. I convinced my friend, Kara, to do just that. We hiked most of the way up one afternoon, then spent the night in a cabin, and hiked the rest of the way early the next morning. As we made our way to the very top, I noticed that the rock changes way up there. It is no longer a pretty plain variation on grey but is, instead, striated with white streaks. It is, in essence, marbled. Marbled. I couldn't believe it. I had never noticed that before. Maybe it was the very early morning light? Who knows. But it was a perfect metaphor, of course. (For those who haven't read Another Kind of Hurricane, a marble plays a very prominent role in the story.)

The same kind of thing happened when I visited New Orleans last November, actually. I walked the path that Zavion takes when he comes back into the city. I found so many important details that I then incorporated into the story.

Nothing compares to the sensory experience of being inside your story.

NE: Henry and Zavion, your co-protagonists, are both very real characters. They struggle with serious issues that I think a lot of novels for young readers tends to shy away from. One thing that's constant throughout your novel is how they struggle with overcoming past traumas. Henry tells his mother, "I will never be okay." What do you think most helps young people cope with traumas? How can Henry, and others like him, be okay?

TES: First I have to say that I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist. I did consult with some medical folks, of course. But more than that, I thought about my own experiences with trauma and grief, and those of people—kids, especially—that I know. Here is what I think (and this is only my opinion): Letting kids experience emotions fully is what helps them begin to heal. There is a real arc of emotion around trauma; a series of feelings that most people pass through. Denial, anger, guilt, and sadness are a few of them in a typical order. Nurturing an environment that is safe for kids to fully feel (and hopefully express) their feelings is the way to work through all of those stages. It is when the feelings get repressed or denied or labeled as "wrong" that healing stops.

The other exceedingly critical part of healing from trauma is finding people who understand. Knowing you aren't alone and seeing that people can move on…those are so important. Henry and Zavion find a connection because of their grief. Even though they are such different people, they see themselves in each other. This recognition brings a lot of comfort to each of them and—even though they might not recognize it at first—it also brings them hope.

Henry does tell his mother that he will never be okay, but I think he will be. I really do. Zavion too.

NE: It's not really a spoiler to say that Henry's best friend, Wayne, dies in an accident in the opening chapters of your novel. As Henry is dealing with his feelings of guilt and devastation, he has a really interesting connection to a blue marble that the two boys would pass back and forth. It becomes a superstitious kind of object. Henry argues that if the right person would've had the marble then nothing bad would've happened. Of course, we know that's not true, but it's still very much what Henry believes. Do you think this kind of superstitious belief is a strictly childhood trait? Do adults react the same way to things for which they need an explanation?

TES: I emphatically do not think this kind of superstitious belief is a strict childhood trait. Can you guess why I chose to center the adventure/mystery part of the story on a good luck marble? Yup, I am a hopeless believer in these kinds of "magic" objects! J I think many people imbue objects with the kind of faith or hope that is, in reality, impossible to literally see. And so we place it on something tangible; something we can hold in our hands, or tuck into our pockets. Those feelings—of faith or hope (or longing, that's another one)—are real, and they are vital to nurture. And so having an object to focus them on can be a great tool for sustaining those hard-to-sustain feelings.

Of course you can go overboard too. You can place so much worth on the object that you can forget the people feeling the emotions behind it. That happens to Henry, right? He forgets the context of his time on the mountain with Wayne. He forgets Wayne and his agency. He forgets himself and his own agency too.

But yes, I have to admit, I have a lot of those kinds of talismans in my life. I wear a ring that my friend gave me when I was in graduate school, for instance, that totally embodies courage for me. I never take it off, and I would probably lose my mind if I ever lost it…

NE: Henry's mom says, "I don't know why Wayne died that day on the mountain. I don't. But I do know—with every bone in my body, Henry—that you didn't cause him to die. It didn't happen because you ran ahead. It didn't happen because of you at all. It isn't your fault." No matter what anyone might ever tell him, do you think Henry can ever feel completely—and I mean totally—innocent?

TES: Oh boy, Brad, this is a tough one. After thinking about it for a while, I have to say no. I wish I could say yes—I wish with every bone in my body I could say yes—but I think Henry will always wonder if he could have done anything different that morning on Mount Mansfield. And I think that's very…well, human…of him, you know? There are so many ways events can go, so many paths we could take, so many choices we make—it's natural to wonder what might have happened if.

I also think, though, that Henry finally comes to a place where he accepts that he isn't to blame for the accident. That's different than being innocent, I think. He comes to understand that it was an accident. That while he will never forget Wayne, or ever feel the same again, he can move on. He will always carry this experience with him, and it will certainly affect other events and paths and choices in this life, but he will find a way to deeply learn from this; to use it in a positive way.

NE: As Henry and Zavion's stories come together, Henry says to Zavion, "I felt more at home in New Orleans that I have felt anywhere else since Wayne died." Zavion replies, "I feel that way about this mountain." Can you talk about what they see in each other that creaTES a sense of home?

TES: As I said earlier, Henry and Zavion are mirrors for one another. They see their own trauma and grief in each other in a way that they can't, at least initially, see in themselves. This is startling and scary, but it is also extremely comforting. They are not alone. That is the beginning of finding home—finding that sense of safety and familiarity.

In terms of the landscapes of New Orleans and Mount Mansfield, they each create a sense of home for the boys in different ways. For Henry, New Orleans is the first place since the accident on the mountain where he feels like what is inside of him matches what is outside of him. The streets he walks on, and the houses and buildings he sees—they are upside-down, they are hollow, they are damaged. This is just how he feels too. At this stage of his healing, this is very comforting, in an odd sort of way. He is making a connection. In New Orleans he is able to literally see what he feels. That is a powerful thing. But then it is different for Zavion. When the boys finally get to Vermont, and when they finally climb Mount Mansfield, they are both finding hints of healing. And so for Zavion, the mountain—with its plentiful trees and plants and growth—comes to symbolize the hope for that inside of himself; the possibility of his own growth and change and healing.

As both boys get to know each other a little more deeply, and as they begin to share more, they feel more like themselves and thus, more like they are home.

NE: I'm sure you've been swamped with your own novel, but have you had time to read any other 2015 releases? What might you recommend in the MG or YA genres?

TES: I have! Oh there are so many great ones out—and coming out—right now! Let's see. A YA that absolutely blew me away is Martha Brockenbrough's The Game of Love and Death. And then some MG—oh middle grade, that's my love and my home!—there are a few that I have adored. Luke Reynold's The Looney Experiment, Jennifer Chambliss Bertmann's Book Scavenger, and Cassie Beasley's Circus Mirandus. I'm also desperate to get a copy of (and hunker down with) Rebecca Stead's new one, Goodbye Stranger.

NE: Have you started your next project yet?

TES: I have! (But that's all I am going to say… J)

NE: Thank you, Tamara, for talking with us. I think Another Kind of Hurricane is a novel we will be hearing a lot about!

TES: Oh, thank you so much, Brad. I am honored that you invited me here.


Helping New Orleans

lowernine.org (www.lowernine.org) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the long-term recovery of the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Louisiana in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and the levee breaches of 2005. lowernine.org is working to bring home more Lower Ninth Ward families than any other single organization. A portion of the profits from the sale of Another Kind of Hurricane goes directly to lowernine.org.

Big Class (www.bigclass.org) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to cultivating and supporting the voices of New Orleans' writers ages 6-18 through creative collaborations with schools and communities. Big Class offers a variety of free, innovative programs that provide under-resourced students with opportunities to explore their creativity and improve their writing skills. Readers all over the country are donating copies of Another Kind of Hurricane—as well as other vital books—to Big Class, getting meaningful stories directly into the hands of the community they represent.

Information about both of these organizations—and how you can help—can be found at www.tamaraellissmith.com.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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