Author Interview: Carmela A. Martino on Rosa Sola

Rosa Sola by Carmela A. Martino (Candlewick, 2005). From the catalog copy: “Living with her Italian immigrant parents in 1960s Chicago, nine-year-old Rosa, an only child, often feels SOLA and different. But as soon as she holds her friend AnnaMaria’s baby brother for the first time, Rosa is sure that if she prays hard enough, God will give her a sibling too. Amazingly, Ma does get pregnant, and Rosa is overjoyed — until the awful day comes when she learns that her brother was stillborn, and Ma, who is weak and grieving, must stay in the hospital for a while. With her papa bitter and rarely home, and her bossy aunt Ida in charge, Rosa has an “empty cave” feeling and now is more SOLA than ever. Why would God answer her prayers, only to take her baby brother away? Will her broken family ever be happy again?” Ages 9-up.

note: “Carmela A. Martino was born and raised in Chicago and still makes her home in the area with her husband and son.” See also Carmela Martino from SCBWI-Illinois.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

The novel began as a short story called “Rosa’s Prayer,” which I wrote while working on my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College. I had originally enrolled at Vermont to complete a YA novel, but after a few months in the program I realized that I didn’t yet have all the writing skills I needed to make that particular story work. Instead, I began a middle grade novel about a 12-year-old boy whose friends kept moving away. When my advisor, Marion Dane Bauer, critiqued the opening chapters of the novel, she said it lacked “emotional core.” I was devastated. I knew what my character was feeling, but apparently those feelings weren’t coming across on the page. Marion suggested a writing assignment: she asked me to write a short story about an event from my childhood that still aroused emotion in me. I chose to write about fear—the fear I’d felt at age ten, after my mother nearly died in childbirth.

“Rosa’s Prayer” went through several revisions. By the end of the semester, Marion approved the story for inclusion in my creative thesis. However, she said I could also submit it for my next residency workshop, which I did. My workshop group provided terrific feedback and encouraged me to turn “Rosa’s Prayer” into a novel. I spent most of my time in the Vermont Program working on the manuscript. The original short story spanned only a few weeks, ending on the day Rosa’s mother comes home from the hospital. The novel encompasses a year in Rosa’s life, and focuses not on Rosa’s fear as much as on her family’s struggle to heal from their loss. Interestingly, the most common feedback I’ve heard from readers is that the novel made them cry. For me, that’s a great compliment. I think Marion would be proud.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

I completed “Rosa’s Prayer” in Fall 1998. I spent the next 18 months turning it into a novel that became my creative thesis. When I graduated from Vermont in July, 2000 though, I knew the manuscript needed more work.

Without the structure and deadlines of the MFA program, I dawdled with the revisions for over a year. Then, after I was accepted as a graduate assistant for the Summer 2002 residency, I realized I couldn’t face my former instructors with the manuscript still “in a drawer.” I quickly finished the revisions and sent the manuscript out.

After two rejections, I submitted the manuscript to Cynthia Platt at Candlewick Press in October 2002. Four months later, in January 2003, Cynthia called to say Candlewick wanted to buy Rosa, Sola . I was thrilled, especially when she said the book could be out in Spring 2004. Cynthia asked for some revisions, which I completed happily. Then in June 2003, not long after I’d submitted my changes, I came home to a voice message from Cynthia. I assumed she’d called to discuss the revisions, but instead, she wanted to let me know that she was leaving publishing and that I would be assigned another editor.

Of course, a new editor meant more revisions. At the time, I thought the process would never end. Yet, looking back, I can see that each set of revisions made the story stronger. The official publication date for Rosa, Sola turned out to be September, 2005, almost seven years after I wrote the short story, “Rosa’s Prayer.”

What were the challenges (literary, research, logistical, psychological) in bringing it to life?

The first challenge was taking a short story that was closely tied to events in my life and expanding it into a novel. Even though many of the things that happen to Rosa happened to me, I had to remind myself that Rosa was not me. The way she reacted to situations and the choices she made weren’t necessarily the same things I would have done.

The second challenge was writing a novel based on events that still aroused emotion in me. While that helped make the story authentic, it forced me to relive a painful time in life. In the end, though, the process was very healing, and it gave me greater empathy for what the adults in my family must have experienced.

But the biggest challenge was actually a technical one. I originally wrote “Rosa’s Prayer” and the first draft of the novel using third-person limited viewpoint. Then, part-way through my final semester at Vermont, my last advisor suggested I rewrite the story into first person. I disagreed. Because Rosa is only 9 years old at the beginning of the novel, and she’s not very precocious, I felt she didn’t have the linguistic skills to tell the story adequately as a first-person narrator. I tried to convince my advisor that the story needed to be in third person, but I couldn’t dissuade her. I discussed the issue with another faculty member and personal friend, Sharon Darrow. Sharon reminded me that I was in the Vermont program to experiment and learn. If I didn’t like the end result, I could always change the point of view back to third person.

I followed Sharon’s advice and rewrote the novel into first person. My advisor was pleased with the result and she felt the first-person voice was just right. So that was the version that went into my creative thesis. But I still didn’t like it. Rosa sounded too mature to me, and she seemed too observant for a young girl struggling with grief and loss.

After graduation, I didn’t know what to do with the manuscript. If my advisor hadn’t liked it so much in first person, I wouldn’t have hesitated to rewrite the story back into third person. But what if she was right and I was wrong?

Fortunately for me, I met Stephen Roxburgh, publisher of Front Street Books, not long after I graduated from Vermont. Carolyn Coman, a Front Street author and one of my Vermont advisors, had already told Stephen about my novel. When I explained my dilemma to Stephen, he agreed to read both versions of Rosa, Sola. Even though he later turned down the manuscript, Stephen gave me some invaluable feedback: He thought the third person version was the stronger. His comments gave me the courage to go against my advisor and rewrite the story my way.

As I revised the novel back into third person, I realized that the process of putting the story into first-person had given me a deeper understanding of my character. So I’m grateful my advisor forced me to try first-person viewpoint. The experience also taught me that there is no intrinsically “right” or “wrong” point of view. What matters, instead, is that the storytelling feels right to me, as the author.