Tahereh Mafi Made me Cry

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Autocorrect doesn’t even want to recognize her name, keeps telling me I’m trying to write ‘There’. But I’m not. I’m trying to write Tahereh because I’ve just come back from the Grand Hyatt in New York City, and her words are still ringing in my head.

Mafi stood up on the podium in front of more than a thousand writers and illustrators at the SCBWI Winter Conference and told us to lean into our pain, lean into the rejection we all experience as writers and artists over and over again. Rejection by agents, rejection by editors, rejection even by readers who don’t ‘get’ what we’re writing. She told us to ignore the advice writers so often receive that they need to develop a thick skin. She told us we shouldn’t try to anesthetize ourselves against the pain that necessarily comes with ‘commoditizing’ our inner lives, with making a product out of our thoughts and hopes and fears, and being told the product isn’t good enough.

She said that having a thin skin is good for a writer.

She told us about her mother, “The best person I’ve ever known”, whose skull was cracked when she was just fifteen, because she was caught walking around in the wrong place at the wrong time somewhere in her native Iran. When Mafi was struggling to be published, her mother read every word she wrote and was never afraid to tell her when the writing was terrible. Her mother also cried when Shatter Me was finally given a yes.

Mafi revealed that she still has the handwritten notebooks where she kept the details of her submissions when she first began sending out her manuscripts. She wrote five books before breaking through with Shatter Me. Five books. She wrote them quietly and secretly, learning everything she could about publishing from the Internet, never having the courage to attend a writers’ conference or even to call herself a writer.

Mafi’s writing was rejected by agents and editors hundreds of times. Yes, I’m pretty sure she said hundreds. But she persisted.

The last I saw of Tahereh, she was sitting behind a table in her sparkly silver top, smiling tenderly as she signed book after book, the line of her fans snaking the length of the ballroom.

Author Interview: Joelle Charbonneau

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1. Did you always want to be a writer?

Ha! No. Nope. Not at all. I have long felt guilty that being a writer was not part of my aspirations growing up. In fact, I feel a little silly at times admitting that I didn’t like any kind of creative writing assignments, but I have always loved stories. I have adored reading since I first sat down with a book and I loved telling stories on stage in plays and through music. When I was younger, what I wanted most was to become a professional musical theater actress, which I did do for a time.

2. What sparked the idea to write The Testing trilogy?

Not only did I perform professionally after college, I also taught singing and acting. (And still occasionally do) Many of the students I work with want to go on and major in music and theater and as their teacher I help guide them through the college admittance process…which can be VERY stressful. I had one student freak out during the process and I told her that the process was the most stressful that I’d ever seen it, but that it always turned out okay. She worried that if the process was this bad now, it would be worse when it was time for her brother to go to school and I told her it couldn’t possibly get worse.

Once she walked out the door I started wondering –what would be worse? How could I make it worse to get into college? I started thinking about all the essays and applications and tests required for college admittance and then thought about all the high stakes tests our society requires of kids just to get to high school and I realized I wanted to talk about those tests. That’s when I decided to write The Testing.

3. What is your writing process like— do you plot everything out ahead of time? Do you hand-write or use a laptop? Where do you like to write? Are you very disciplined or more sporadic?

Plotting sounds WONDERFUL. Like, I adore the idea of outlining because it is terrifying to sit down in front of a blank page and have no idea what comes next. However, I can’t do it. I get the opening idea, I know where the first chapter or two is sort of going and then I sit down and write. I write every day when I am drafting and I type on my computer…which is a way better idea than longhand. Trust me. My handwriting can get a little wonky when I’m not being careful. As for where I write – well, I have an office that I rarely use. I prefer the couch or when it is warm out I like to write on my deck. But I mostly can write anywhere. I’ve written in parks, in coffee shops, on planes, in hotels and poolside when my son is taking swim lessons. When I have something to write, I find a way!

4. If your characters could come to life, who would you like to hang out with –and why?

Oh-goodness. Well, that’s an interesting question and I’m going to have to answer it with a character people don’t know–yet. I would very much like to hang out with Carys from DIVIDING EDEN. She’s a little prickly, but smart and loyal and very laser-focused on her purpose in life and I find her fascinating. I think she’d make for a very interesting friend.

5. What are you reading right now? What are you going to read next?

I just finished reading CARAVAL, by Stephanie Garber. It’s a unique and fantastical story about two sisters and a thing called CARAVAL that sweeps them into it’s magic and might be threatening their very lives. It comes out soon and I totally recommend it. Next…I have a stack books that I need to pick from, but I think I’m probably going to grab SCYTHE by Neil Schusterman from the pile next.

6. What’s your favorite YA book of all time? Why do you love it?

Oh goodness, this is a difficult question. I will always love THE GIVER by Lois Lowry. I remember reading it as I was leaving High School (right after it came out) and as soon as I finished the final page going back to the beginning and reading it again. It’s a story I’ve gone back to a dozen times since, so it certainly ranks as one of my all-time favorites. I would also say that the Harry Potter books are favorites, perhaps because my son has now read the first two and I love that he is being swept into the magic of Harry’s story!

7. If you were stranded at a bus stop in the middle of nowhere with one of your characters, who would that character be – and why?

Nate, from NEED. He’s smart. Something tells me he’d be able to get us where we need to go without much trouble. And if not…The guy has a good sense of humor, so he’d make it an interesting adventure.

8. What do you do when you’re not writing?

Wait…there’s a time I’m not writing? Kidding, although I’ve had lots of deadlines lately so it does feel like I’ve had less time for other things. I love cooking! Like, sign me up for Chopped on Food Network and let me play. I read when I can and I have been binge watching a few old shows that I love on Netflix. I’m also a big fan of great movies (and cartoon movies, which I have a fantastic excuse to see since my son loves them, too) and I adore hanging out with my son. Oh – and if you ever want to race in MarioCart for Wii…I’m your girl!