Fellow Class of 2K7 author G.Neri talked to Sundee Frazier, author of the upcoming middle grade novel Brendan Buckley’s Universe from Delacorte.
School Library Journal had this to say about Sundee’s book: "This is an absorbing look at a 10-year-old boy who has never had to deal with race and prejudice, who collides into years of anger and hurt in his family and must create a new identity for himself. . . . Frazier writes affectingly about what being biracial means in 21st-century America."
1) First of all, Sundee is an unusual name. Where did it come from and what does it mean?
I wish I knew! My dad gave me a mug one Christmas with my name on it and a corresponding definition (“the sunlike or cheerful”), but I think he just made it up and told the people at the mall kiosk what to input in their computer. My mom named me after her college roommate’s cousin – she thought if I ever got famous it would sound good on its own, like Cher. As a kid, I wished I had a name you could find on stuff at the Hallmark store, but now I like having an unusual name.
As to its origins, I’ve found towns in Scandinavian countries named “Sunde” and I’ve met Africans who’ve told me Sundee is a popular name where they’re from (probably not spelled the same, but close enough). Since I’m of Scandinavian and African extraction, I thought these were cool bits of information to discover.
2) I like that you describe yourself as an AmericanAfricanScottishDutchDanishSwedeI
My mission is to write the most heartfelt, truest stories that I can write (by “truest” I mean stories that ring true, in which readers see themselves, regardless of race, because they relate to the characters’ emotions). I’ve found that the truest stories I can write, at least so far, are ones with multiracial point-of-view characters, because yes, that’s just who I am and being mixed race has deeply shaped my identity and experience.
3) How much of Brendan Buckley’s Universe is based on your own experiences? What was it like having a black grandfather and a white grandfather?
Not much, actually! I wanted to be a geologist when I was ten, and I’m a question-asker, like Brendan, but that’s about it. My white grandparents were not accepting of my parents’ relationship at first, but when they realized they were going to lose their relationship with their daughter and granddaughter (me), they turned around and got to know my dad and his family, starting from when I was an infant. So Brendan’s story was sort of like me asking, “What if my grandparents had not relented, and I had grown up not knowing them?”
My life has been deeply enriched by having close family relationships with black and white people. When I hear or read black history, I know it is my history, too. And when all white or black people are painted with the same brush, I can say, “Wait a minute, that’s not a fair characterization.” I guess you could say I see the racial debates and tensions in our country from more than one side, and I’m not content with the divisions the way I perceive most “monoracial” people are because as long as the races are divided, there’s this part of me internally that feels – not divided, because I am a whole person, not two halves – but definitely torn.
4) Do you like being called a multiracial writer? Do you foresee writing books that may be “white books” or “black books” or are they all just stories to you?
I would prefer just to be known as a writer of good books – and that is what I strive for every day, because it does take effort, even though there is this perception that writing books for children is somehow easier or less complex. In fact, I believe it is at times harder than writing as an adult for adults, because not only do we have to put ourselves in the mindset of a person a fraction of our age, I believe to be successful we need to revisit our own childhoods and accept the child within ourselves, and not everyone wants to do that.
5) Brendan Buckley's Universe is all about asking questions and finding surprising answers. What are some of the questions you asked in writing this book and what surprises lay in wait?
How would a 10-year-old boy go about uncovering family secrets that he knew no one wanted to talk about? How would he relate to race and deal with racism? What would he think about why his grandfather has been absent his whole life? How would how he thought about himself change over the course of the story?
As for the surprises, I think I’ll leave those for the reader to discover!
6) How did you go from writing books for adults to writing books for young people? How was the experience different?
I’ve known (at least subconsciously) that I wanted to write for young people since I was 20 years old. I acknowledged this desire to my husband and myself when I was 27. The opportunity to write the adult non-fiction Check All That Apply more or less fell into my lap a couple years later when an editor approached me with the idea and I went for it. Writing the non-fiction took time away from developing my fiction, but I know I was meant to write that book.
Writing a novel is a completely different experience than writing non-fiction, at least for me. Much more right-brained. I could outline the non-fiction. Writing fiction is more like going on a treasure hunt without a map.
7) How did knowing that your daughter would one day read your book impact the writing of Brendan Buckley?
By the time I was aware of her existence, Brendan’s story was pretty much done. I think about her a lot more with the book I’m writing now, which has a white-looking biracial girl as the protagonist – what she will face growing up, how she will construct an integrated identity in a race-obsessed culture.
Tell us three surprising things about yourself.
I play the congas. I earned my motorcycle license for my fifth wedding anniversary. I had a monkey jump on my back (and I’m not being metaphorical) in Costa Rica. When I asked my husband what he would say, his first response was that I’m an introvert. A lot of people are surprised when I tell them that. I guess you could call me a “social introvert.”
9) Favorite children or teen book? Favorite author?
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Roald Dahl – because he showed me the power of imagination when I was a child.
10) Best response you ever got about your writing? The worst?
Best: “I’ve never underlined more in a book that I was reading or felt more understood. I felt like you were speaking right to me.” (Response to Check All That Apply)
Worst: The feedback I got from a reader of my nonfiction before it was published. She didn’t think it presented enough research and studies of the multiracial experience. But my aim was not to produce a primarily academic text. I wanted to write something accessible, more story-oriented and personal. I guess it was the worst because I’d spent a lot of time on this, my first book, and the critique felt pretty harsh. It was good preparation, though – everyone’s not going to like everything we write!
11) Most inspirational thing you ever heard from another author?
“Stories are written in the unconscious and revealed incrementally.” –James Burke
This encouraged me because I constantly battle the fear that I am a painfully slow writer, but when I heard this author say this it reminded me that art takes time. Incremental revelation is just part of the deal. So if you want to be a writer, you’d better be patient and persistent.
And I love everything I’ve ever heard from Maya Angelou, including this quote, which keeps me going when I’m afraid I’ll never come up with another interesting idea:
“You cannot use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” –Maya Angelou
12) All-time Best (meaning worst) rejection letter you ever got?
I haven’t gotten too many rejection letters, only because I haven’t sent out that much stuff. And that’s because of the first novel rejection letter I ever got. It was the worst, because the editor told me straight out that my novel was not publishable quality. But it was actually the best, too, because it lit a fire under my feet to work harder on developing my writing and storytelling abilities. I didn’t submit again until I had completed the Institute for Children’s Literature program and an MFA at Vermont College – and what I submitted was the manuscript that became Brendan Buckley’s Universe and Everything in It. I learned from that experience that hard work does pay off!
Ironically, Brendan Buckley sold to Delacorte Press, the same imprint at Random House that the editor who sent me my “worst” rejection letter worked for (and still does).
13) What impact did being in the MFA program at Vermont College have on your writing career?
HUGE! I learned so much through the faculty and other students at Vermont College. Developing the discipline to produce the amount of writing that was required each semester was invaluable and continues to serve me to this day. I felt welcomed into the world of children’s writing and like I was initiated into a community of children’s writers nationwide. I highly, highly recommend this program for those who are ready to take their writing to the next level.
14) What is your writing process? How does that fit in with your “real” life?
My process is a complete mess. I follow a trail until it dead ends and then try another and another and another. If this sounds less than efficient, it is. But I once heard it said you only arrive at the right answer after making all possible mistakes. And then I try to remember the Miles Davis quote, “There are no mistakes,” and just keep going. The most commonly repeated phrase in Lewis and Clark’s journal was “we proceeded on,” and that’s what writers must do through all the challenges of getting to the ends of their stories.
Now that I have a young child, I never feel like I have as much time to write as I need, especially with another novel under contract, but she will only have one childhood, whereas I will hopefully have many opportunities in coming years to write more books. I remind myself of this then I go spend some more time playing with her.
15) What hopes and fears do you have about your first novel coming out into the real world?
I hope kids will find the book and enjoy Brendan’s story. After getting a couple major reviews and having them be generally positive, I don’t really have any fears! I’m just going to enjoy achieving the goal I set for myself – to publish a children’s book before I turned 40 – and when I’m done celebrating that, I’ll turn my attention to what’s next.
16) What are you working on now?
A novel about ten-year-old biracial twin sisters – one white-appearing, the other black-appearing – whose coping mechanisms when their white father leaves the family set them at odds, threatening their previously close relationship.
17) Do you see yourself doing this for a long time? What would be your dream life in 10 years?
For the rest of my life! I feel absolutely called and committed to writing books for kids. My dream life in ten years . . . to have three published kids’ novels with number four in the works, and at least two children of my own with whom I can share the joy of life and the gifts of reading, imagining and sharing what we have to offer with the world.
For more about Sundee, visit her site at: http://www.sundeefrazier.com/
G. Neri is a CreoleFilipinoMexicanAmerican or Crefilican writer for teens. His upcoming books include Chess Rumble and Yummy from Lee and Low Books.