This is part of a series of interviews with New Mexico writers for the 2012 centennial.

In Caroline Starr Rose’s debut, May B., May Betterly is sent  to help reluctant prairie wife Mrs. Oblinger with the housework in a Kansas soddy and earn a little money for her family. She’s not happy about it, and she’s even less happy when she discovers she’s been abandoned and left to fend for herself in the cold Midwestern winter with a bit of sourdough, some apples, and herself for company. Here, Caroline talks about bearing the mantle of Poet, her love for Laura Ingalls Wilder, and writing about conflict.

May B

  1. To begin with the obvious: May B. is a historical novel in verse, specifically in 151 numbered poems. I remember hearing you talk about language in both rhyming picture books and verse novels, and your love of language comes through on every page. What draws you to write in verse, and in historical fiction, and why do you think they work well together?

 Thank you, Rebecca! I’ve always been nervous of the weightiness the words poetry and poet carry. A few years ago at one of Darcy Pattison’s revision retreats, we participants were asked to talk about what we’d published and/or written. When I shared I’d sold a few poems and was querying a historical verse novel I’d just finished, Darcy said, “Sounds like you’re a poet.” I can’t tell you how hearing that terrified me!Caroline Starr Rose

 Verse is something that found me. When I started working with May B., I was frustrated at the distance I felt between what I wanted to convey and what was actually on the page. I spent some time looking back over first-hand accounts of pioneer women and noticed in their writing the spare word choice and the matter-of-fact presentation of events (some mundane, some heartbreaking). With this in mind, I immediately wrote what is now poem 2 in May B., choosing to let the words and May’s bleak situation speak for themselves. The experience was magical; I’d felt like I’d found some hidden formula to finally tell the story in the most honest way possible.

 As for historical fiction, using verse can certainly speak to the setting and character’s circumstance. After my ah-ha moment, I understood why Karen Hesse chose to use verse for Out of the Dust: spare language suited the bare Dust Bowl landscape and paralleled Billie Jo’s whittled-down life.

 I’m guessing that many reviews will draw comparisons with a) Little House on the Prairie and b) Out of the Dust. Maybe even a little bit of c) Sarah, Plain and Tall for good measure. But every work needs the chance to stand on its own merits, and May B. does that beautifully. What is it about May’s story that made you want to tell it?

 I have to confess I asked my editor countless times if May B. was coming across as a Little House knock off. I lived in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books as a girl, and I worried her stories would seep too much into mine. It’s been wonderful to see reviewers point out the parallels — Kirkus called it Laura Ingalls inspired; Horn Book described it as Little House without the coziness (yes, I’ve memorized these words like a love-sick teen) — but still present the book on its own merits.

 There are a couple of reasons I wanted to write this book. Again, with a nod to Laura (we’re on a first-name basis, the two of us), I wanted to create my own strong pioneer girl. I was also fascinated by the challenge solitude would present in telling a story. Ultimately, though, I wanted to examine the concept of worth — how so often who we are becomes based on what others tell us about ourselves or on what we’re able to do. Like May, I think all of us in some way feel we don’t measure up. I hope many readers will be able to relate to — and find confidence and courage in — her story.

 The contrast between limits and open spaces strikes me as a potent theme here. Physically, you’ve got poor May stuck in a leaky soddy in the middle of the vast prairie, and psychologically, she’s got vast stretches of empty time, but her dyslexia keeps her from using that time to practice the one thing she seems to want to do most. Can you talk a little about setting up conflict, and especially how that plays out in verse?

 May’s name came to me before her story did. I liked the way May Betterly could become May B. and how “maybe” could speak to her perception of herself (maybe is such a wishy-washy word. It makes me think of mediocre or so-so). From this, I decided the most direct way to challenge her would be to have her long for something that would have been virtually impossible for a dyslexic child in her era: becoming a teacher.

 Then there’s the external struggle for May just to stay alive. In telling a story with essentially one character, it would be very easy to just live in her head (especially with the way verse allows such close observation of a character’s mind). But I couldn’t do that. I had to keep the internal and external wound together to keep the story moving, to help May grow, and to hold onto the interest of my readers.

 For me, as a reader, I love finding things that parallel and things that contrast. It was fun to examine these things in writing May B.: feeling trapped on the vast prairie, longing for the very thing most out of reach and how that shapes a person (one of Emily Dickinson’s recurring themes and has always fascinated me),  light and dark, freedom and limitation…I’m not really answering your question, am I? (C.L.- I like your answer anyway!) I found verse a clear way to juxtapose these sorts of things. It leaves the reader to mull over and draw conclusions outside of what’s presented in the text.

 Just one more question about verse novels: you posted on your own blog about people’s reactions to novels in verse, and I was thinking as I read May B. a second time that it has a lot to do with expectations, sort of like in visual art. People expect “verse” to rhyme, or at least to have a distinguishable meter, just as they expect a picture to represent something they can easily identify. Some of the very brief poems in May B. remind me of a piece of flash fiction by Lydia Davis–I’ve never read it, but I heard it, and it stuck in my head: “Samuel Johnson is indignant/that Scotland has so few trees.” I think that’s the whole thing. Where’s the line between verse and other forms like flash fiction?

 Wow. I’ve never thought along those lines. I completely understand why someone might not see some of May B.’s short poems as verse — My ankle’s purple / those stupid boots. comes to mind. Still, that poem captures an exact moment I felt needed to stand alone. As to the line between flash fiction and verse, I’m not sure where it is! I’m curious; what do you think?

Since you asked: I think they both rely heavily on the power of images to convey multiple meanings,  and to distill ideas to something very potent, almost something you can hold in your hand. I’d guess that the form is really the distinction, so maybe it’s a visual genre separation when you’re talking about that very, very brief flash fiction. But enough from me.

Okay, a little bit more from me. A lot of middle grade books center on family themes, but you’ve put May in a situation where she’s completely alone. Was that intentional, and can I therefore add it to my bibliography of books about survival?

 Utterly intentional. There were days I cursed myself for trying this solitude experiment in words, as it wasn’t easy. Remember that Tom Hanks movie, Castaway? (C.L.-Wiiilson!) It fascinated me that with very little dialogue (apart from conversations that took place with Wilson the volley ball — this was brilliant, I might add) we could still come to know and care about this character and his circumstance. I’m also a huge Gary Paulsen fan and love it when readers see parallels with May B. and Hatchet. So, yes, please add to your survival bibliography!

 You have a lot of resources on your blog for classroom teachers. What other books would you recommend for a teacher who wanted to do a unit on a) frontier living and b) children with dyslexia?

 Prairie Song – Pam Conrad

Pioneer Girl: A True Story of Growing up on the Prairie – Andrea Warren

Dear America: Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie – Kristiana Gregory

 The only books that deal with a dyslexic child that I can think of is the Percy Jackson series. Enlighten me if you know of more!

 The Hank Zipzer series; My Name is Brain Brian; Stravaganza: City of Secrets. I’m sure there are more.

What are some of your favorite recent books? Favorites of all time?

 Last year I ate up Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and her Family’s Feuds. A few books from this year that come to mind are Mockingbird, Stupid Fast, Between Shades of Gray, A Northern Light, and the forth-coming The Wicked and the Just. My favorite books of all time are The Count of Monte Cristo, Possession by AS Byatt, Katherine by Anya Seton, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, House of the Spirits, and The Phantom Tollbooth.

 Because this is part of a centennial series on New Mexico children’s writers, let’s have a couple of New Mexico questions. (No, not “red or green?”) Have you thought about writing a book set in New Mexico? What piece of NM history (I guess I’m just assuming it would be historical) might you write about?

 Wait! I must answer red or green! I’m not allowed to live here if I don’t. I vote for Christmas; if I go with only the red or green chile, I always feel like I’ve missed out.

 I’d love to write a New Mexico book someday, and it would be historical. Acoma Pueblo has always fascinated me, but Kimberley Griffiths Little beat me to it with Snakerunner. Hmm…maybe the Pueblo Revolt?

Do you have any favorite books set in NM, either children’s or adult?

 I’d have to say Death Comes for the Archbishop, Rio Grande Stories, and The King’s Fifth. I haven’t picked up Tortilla Sun yet (I really need to).

When will the annual SCBWI conference be held in Albuquerque? (You don’t have to answer that one, but wouldn’t it be nice?)

 Great question! Mountains, deserts, turquoise skies, the aforemetioned chile — who wouldn’t want to come here? Come on, SCBWI.

Thanks, Caroline!

Visit Caroline’s website here. And if you’re in New Mexico, Caroline will be doing an event at Alamosa Books in Albuquerque. See here for more information.