November 9, 2009

iScribe Interview Series - The Working Time Machine

Name: Marie Ventura
Major(s): History
Year of Graduation: 2004
Position: Featured writer (Fall 2009)

You graduated from URI before most members of the Scribe even finished high school; how was your undergraduate experience? Was there a creative outlet like The Independent Scribe in place at that time?
This will probably sound corny but, to tell the truth, my undergraduate experience was pretty fantastic. While I was at URI, I was lucky enough to get an amazing on-campus job that let me combine my passion for history and my fascination with video production. I worked as an undergraduate assistant with ITMS, where I learned non-linear editing and computer animation. I helped professors with their video projects and even had the opportunity to work on my own – in particular a short project on the women who fought in Vietnam and a half-hour documentary on Hadrian’s Wall.

Perhaps the brightest highlight of my undergraduate experience was when I studied abroad in England for a semester. I gained a whole new perspective on history and historiography and, in addition to my class work, I had the chance to travel all over England and Scotland, riding the trains and walking around historic cities and sites I’d only ever read about before, like the tunnels cut into the chalk cliffs under Dover Castle, the spot where Thomas Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral, the exhibits at the British Museum in London, and the Roman forts and leather and wooden artifacts at Hadrian’s Wall in Northern England. I even took the London Beatles tour and walked across the crosswalk at Abbey Road. I was so inspired by my experience abroad that as soon as I got back to URI, I started the process of applying for URI and RI Foundation grants that would allow me to go back to Hadrian’s Wall and create a documentary. I wanted to investigate how the presence of that ancient Roman wall affected the local people of the area, from the time it was built all the way to the present day. Being awarded those grants gave me the opportunity to meet and interview archaeologists, museum curators, tour guides, re-enactors, and other Hadrian’s Wall experts, then share what I’d learned from them with others in a direct, colorful, and interactive way thanks to the URI Film Festival. So, I really did have a fantastic experience while I was a URI student.

As for whether there was a creative outlet like The Independent Scribe in place at that time…overall, no, there wasn’t. There was a literary magazine and I did send a few submissions to it, but it was on its way out by then and my submissions never saw the light of day. Instead, I directed my writing energies toward my documentaries and other independent projects.

After graduation, what did you do, either for work or in terms of furthering your education? How have those experiences informed or otherwise impacted your writing?
After URI, I was offered a free ride to PC and a graduate assistantship at the PC Publications Office. I earned a double master’s degree in European and American History from Providence College and, while I was there, I began work on another documentary project, this one on Quonset Point Naval Air Station in North Kingstown. I have a 20 minute version completed, but I’m still searching for the funds and resources to expand that “rough draft” project into a full hour documentary film. My goal is to one day enter the completed work into the RI International Film Festival.

My experiences in the Publications Office taught me a lot about organization, deadlines, and keeping to the relevant facts. Seeing my work in print in PC’s faculty and alumni publications helped give me enough confidence in my writing to begin sending a few of my original stories out to contests. Eventually I began a correspondence course with the Institute of Children’s Literature, which encouraged me to send my stories out to magazines. Most were rejected, which is normal, but I was able to sell one little mystery story to Ranger Rick magazine, which led to several other writing assignments. I saved up the money I earned as a graduate editorial assistant and, later, from selling my stories, so I could attend writing conferences in New York and Los Angeles. These experiences have given me a lot of insight into how to improve my writing – both academic and fictional – and how the publishing world works.

After graduating from PC, I got a position as an adjunct history instructor at CCRI, where I currently teach Western Civ. (very much a learning experience, as well as writing intensive since I have to do a lot of research to prepare for classes and keep my information up to date). As for furthering my education, I’ve recently begun the process of researching and applying to British universities with the aim of earning my PhD in British history. My career goal is to be a university professor and a prolific author, kind of like Isaac Asimov, and eventually to create a series of historical documentaries aimed at middle school/high school age kids.

In your introductory e-mail to the Scribe, you mentioned your participation with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI); what is the mission of the organization, and how do you feel that you fit into that mission?
According to the SCBWI website: “Founded in 1971 by a group of Los Angeles-based children’s writers, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators is one of the largest existing organizations for writers and illustrators. It is the only professional organization specifically for those individuals working in the fields of children’s literature, magazines, film, television, and multimedia.” SCBWI supports children’s authors and illustrators and hosts national and regional conferences where authors and aspiring authors can meet each other, editors, and publishers and attend informative lectures given by experts and celebrities in the field of children’s literature. As for me, I like children’s literature. Its simplicity is deceptive, which makes it incredibly difficult to pull off well. Most of my favorite books – The Little Prince, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Neverending Story, The Lorax, Flatterland, Watership Down, To Kill a Mockingbird, to name a very few – usually show up in the children’s section, even though they tend to deal with very complicated matters. The challenge of children’s literature is that it must tackle those difficult matters from unique and quirky angles, presenting engaging, truthful characters and themes in creative, energetic, and thought provoking ways. I’m drawn to children’s literature because of the challenge and because of the freedom, and I think the responsibility inherent in being a children’s author compliments my career goals as an educator.

To refer back to your e-mail, you also mentioned your current role as an adjunct history instructor; how would you describe the relationship between history and writing?
Well, since history has been defined as the written record of past events, history and writing are inseparable. In a sense, they sort of created each other. The human drive to keep records, organize thoughts, and share stories led to the development of writing systems, and the records and stories that were written down have been preserved as history. Writing is the breakthrough innovation that separates the historic from the prehistoric.

I happen to think that written sources are the closest things we have to a working time machine. Whether they’re personal diaries or financial records, works of fiction or historical narratives, written works have the unique ability to put us in almost direct contact with individuals from the past. These sources let their readers climb into their author’s mind and view the world through his or her culture, values, and experiences. The historian’s job is to read these sources and draw conclusions, to reconstruct past events like a detective investigating a crime. The historian’s goal is to write down and publish those conclusions, furthering and enhancing the historical record. Therefore, to love history is to love writing as well as reading the writings of others. You can’t have one without the other.

Your piece in this edition of The Independent Scribe is historical fiction, but are there other genres or styles you experiment with?
My studies encourage me to write historical non-fiction while inspiring me to write historical fiction. But, I’m pretty obsessed with science fiction, and that’s mostly what I write when I’m not writing history stuff. I also play with nonsense poetry and surrealist fiction, and I enjoy mysteries and fantasy/adventure as well. Aside from academic stuff, most of my writing would probably be considered middle-grade and young adult fiction.

When you’re writing historical fiction, do you begin a project with a specific time period in mind, or do you devise a basic plot and try to fit it into an historical period?
Well, I think the theme comes first, or even the characters. That determines the time period, and then the time period informs the plot. I don’t really think a plot can be squeezed into just any historical period. It has to belong there first, or it’ll sound anachronistic.

Theme definitely came first in the case of “Dandelions and Doodlebugs.” That story first started simmering in my head while I was reading a book on genocide for a class on the politics of mass murder. The book was called The Key to My Neighbor’s House, and it focused on Bosnia and Rwanda. I think “Doodlebugs” ultimately became my way of dealing with the raw, appalling reality exposed in that book and discussed in that class, kind of like an emotional outlet or a mental-health exercise or something. After that class, I couldn’t stop thinking about all the kids involved – not just the victims who died but the witnesses, the survivors who had to go on living with those horrific events as they grew up. I began thinking about Western European history and re-reading stories about children who were growing up during the World Wars – books like The Diary of Anne Frank, Number the Stars, All Quiet on the Western Front (although it’s about soldiers, the main character is essentially a kid when he starts out) and even the Narnia series where the main characters are children who are sent away from London to avoid the bombs. I re-read Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes and Farewell to Manzanar, books that had deeply affected me when I was little. I read Flight by Sherman Alexie about a kid who becomes detached in time and experiences first hand the violence between Native Americans and American soldiers as they expanded West. I read about kids during the American Civil War, and then I started reading about the experiences of kids in the Middle East, fiction and non-fiction books about Israel and Palestine, then about Pakistan and India and Afghanistan. As I read, all these thoughts and emotions kept swirling around in my head until one evening I heard an old British song about the London Blitz and everything just fell together. I knew my characters, I knew their story, and I knew what I wanted that story to say. I went to my computer and I don’t think it took me more than two hours to write the story, but I knew it was the result of several months of thinking and research – not specifically research for that particular story’s plot, but done in the spirit of its theme.

”Dandelions and Doodlebugs” is about the illusion of safety parents carefully craft for their children or, rather, the moment that illusion is cracked. The primary setting is WWII London because I figured the experiences of two British, Western European kids would kind of help to highlight the parallel experiences of kids around the world who have similarly lost their childhoods to war and adult violence. It would make the experience seem closer, less foreign, in culture at least if not in time. The secondary setting, a more nebulous present somewhere in suburban America, brings home the fact that a kid doesn’t need to have direct exposure to war and violence to experience that same loss of innocence and security. It’s an epiphany all children experience: the chilling understanding that their parents aren’t immortal, and neither are they. Death is real, and we’re all vulnerable.

To extend a metaphor, and without going into all the political philosophy of the thing, in wartime, the state can sort of be seen like the parent and the citizens sort of like the kids it shelters. When the state breaks down and the protection of rational civilization is lost, the emotional effects on its citizens are shattering. I mean, look at The Tin Drum—the main character there is so disillusioned with the adult world of Nazi Germany that he wills himself to maintain a child’s stature. That emotional effect, that fear and disillusionment and pessimism that accompanies the loss of childhood safety, is the same whether the bombs were dropped on London or Germany or Japan during the World Wars, or exploded in Kabul or Baghdad or in Gaza yesterday afternoon. How can a little kid deal with that kind of loss? If we’re very lucky, it’ll be with dandelion wishes and stories and hope that, one day, the words of peace and security will be more than a sweet-sounding lie. The alternative is…well, we don’t really have to look much farther than the nightly world news report to see the alternative played out. So, yeah, for me I guess I generally start with a certain theme which helps me get to know the characters, then the theme and characters lead me to the correct time period which then informs the story’s plot.

What’s next for your writing? Any new projects in the works?
Yes. The truth is, I have more ideas and projects than I have time. Lately, my life’s been filled to the brim with school stuff, writing conferences, and researching PhD programs, but whenever I get a moment I do have a special project in the works. It’s a YA sci-fi novel I’ve been seriously working on for the past two years. It started out as a short story, and I’ve been gradually expanding it and expanding it. I’ve nearly finished the rough draft, but it needs a lot of work before it’s ready to be sent out to editors. I really, truly, deeply hope to see it published, though. Then there’s my Quonset Point documentary – I’ve been turned down for a few grants, but I plan to keep trying. Then there’s all the short stories that need my attention. I keep sending them out to magazines in the hope of a bite, even though most of them get tossed back to me. Most magazines have a very specific sort of story criteria and unless I start out by tailoring a story specifically for that publication, my stuff doesn’t always quite fit. That’s why I started an actual novel. Even though all this is a lot of effort with little to no guarantee of success, I keep working on all this stuff and attending writing conferences and asking questions of universities in the hopes that this time next year, if someone asks if I have any new projects in the works, I’ll be able to say I’m getting my first novel published and I’ve started work on my PhD thesis. It’s still something of a distant goal, but I’ve got my fingers on the keyboard and my eyes on the prize, and with any luck I’ll be able to pull it off.

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