New Voice: Trent Reedy on Words in the Dust

Trent Reedy is the first-time author of Words in the Dust (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, 2011). From the promotional copy:

A beautiful debut about a daughter of Afghanistan discovering new friends and opportunities after the defeat of the Taliban.

Zulaikha hopes. She hopes for peace, now that the Taliban have been driven from Afghanistan; a good relationship with her hard stepmother; and one day even to go to school, or to have her cleft palate fixed. Zulaikha knows all will be provided for her–“Inshallah,” God willing.

Then she meets Meena, who offers to teach her the Afghan poetry she taught her late mother. And the Americans come to the village, promising not just new opportunities and dangers, but surgery to fix her face. These changes could mean a whole new life for Zulaikha–but can she dare to hope they’ll come true. 

How did you come to write for young readers?

I have always been fascinated by stories. When I was very young, I used to try to entertain my classmates at lunch by telling tales about elaborate escapes from school. Except for reading assignments, I never finished my schoolwork in first grade because I would be busy making up stories in my head. On rare occasions, our teachers let us write stories for schoolwork. By the fourth grade, I was convinced I wanted to be a writer.

I held on to that writing dream all through my degree in English at the University of Iowa. Since I had joined the Iowa Army National Guard to help pay for college, I eventually found myself in the war in Afghanistan, serving in support of the reconstruction mission.

Even then, I couldn’t stop writing. Very early in my tour I was stationed at a small outpost in the northwestern Afghan city of Herat. I managed to find a quiet room with a table and thought I would write. The only problem was that the room had a big window, and I could see the tops of the buildings across the street from our walled-in compound.

I feared snipers, but I also really wanted to write, so I pulled the curtains closed and kept my M-16 on the table next to my notebook while I wrote.

At some point during my time in the war, I began to realize that all the stories that interested me the most were stories about young people. Maybe seeing all those Afghan children who seemed to have had so much stolen from them by decades of war reminded me of my own comparatively wonderful childhood. I think also that growing up is the greatest human adventure, the ultimate time of wonder and discovery.

Forget spy thrillers, courtroom dramas, or the introspective existential. Give me kidlit! I think young people, with their full faith and trust in fun and friendship, may be closer than many (who would claim to be older and wiser) to understanding what life is really all about.

I was also led to writing children’s literature because of a promise I made during my time in the war.

My squad encountered an Afghan girl named Zulaikha, who had suffered from birth from a defect called cleft lip, wherein the two halves of her upper lip had never joined. This problem happens in the United States, too, but it is almost always surgically corrected very early in the child’s life.

Trent and Zulaikha after her surgery.

Because the Taliban would have not allowed a girl to see a doctor, and because medical care would have been expensive for her family, this girl was ten or eleven and still suffered from this problem. My fellow soldiers and I pooled our money together to pay for her transportation to one of our bases in Afghanistan where an army doctor performed the needed surgery.

I was astounded by how much better she looked after the surgery, and as she had become to me a symbol of the struggle all Afghans face in making better lives for themselves, I knew this story was important.

The last time I saw the girl, she was riding off of our base in the back of a truck. She could not hear me or understand my words, but I promised I would tell her story. No matter what happened after that, I knew I had to keep that promise.

My promise to that girl was what led me to write Words in the Dust

Who has been your most influential writing/art teacher or mentor and why?

This is a difficult question to answer because people in the children’s literature community are really quite generous and so I have benefited from the help of many great people. Not the least of these are my Vermont College of Fine Arts advisors Rita Williams-Garcia, Jane Kurtz, David Gifaldi, and Margaret Bechard. And although I never had the honor of working directly with you at Vermont, Cynthia, I remain grateful for the advice you have offered me in response to my questions.

However, my most significant influence remains Katherine Paterson. My time in the war in Afghanistan was very difficult for me. My first few months there were some of the most difficult of my life.

Because our permanent base was still under construction, my fellow soldiers and I lived in a rented Afghan house that had been designed for a family, not for fifty men and their weapons and equipment. We were hungry, filthy, exhausted, and receiving almost daily death threats from the Taliban. Life was reduced to nothing more than weapons and body armor, and duty. I had serious doubts about ever making it home again.

Then one day the mail finally arrived, and with it, a paperback copy of Katherine Paterson’s novel Bridge to Terabithia (HarperCollins, 1987). It was one of those rare days when I found enough time between missions and guard duty to read the whole book. Bridge to Terabithia saved my life. Or at least my sanity.

I absolutely needed that reminder of friendship and beauty. I needed to know that somewhere in the world, things were still okay. Katherine Paterson’s novel reminded me that there is still hope, even in midst of the most difficult circumstances.

I didn’t know anything about Katherine Paterson at the time, but I thought she should know how important her writing had been to me. I wanted to remind her that her books mattered in very real and important ways.

I sent her a thank you letter through her publisher with the hope that such a letter might cheer her up if she ever had a bad day.

Trent and Katherine.

I never expected a response. However, that letter began a correspondence that developed into a friendship that I cherish very much.

It was a long time before I admitted to Katherine that I wanted to be a writer. It was still longer until I told her about my wartime promise and my desire to write a book about an Afghan girl.

Realizing the controversy that sometimes surrounds the issue of white people writing outside their culture, I asked Katherine if she thought I could possibly write such a book.

She said that she thought I should try. That was all the permission I ever needed.

Katherine Paterson has told me that she could never be a writing teacher, but nobody could offer a better example of how to be a writer. I remain forever in her debt.

How did you approach the research process for your story? What resources did you turn to? What roadblocks did you run into? How did you overcome them? What was your greatest coup, and how did it inform your manuscript?

Despite spending a year in Afghanistan, living for a time in an Afghan house, and frequent opportunities to interact with Afghan people, I knew I would need to learn more about their daily lives.

One of the books Trent read.

I spent a lot of time in libraries reading novels and nonfiction books about Afghanistan. I interviewed Afghans and Afghan-Americans. I discovered that a lot of my assumptions about things like housework were proven true. Having washed my uniforms by hand in our rented Afghan house, I knew something of what it would be like for my novel’s protagonist Zulaikha to do the laundry.

In my research, I was delighted to discover an incredibly rich literary tradition in Afghanistan. There are volumes of wonderfully fascinating ancient poems. There are enormous shrines in Afghanistan and Iran dedicated to their ancient poets.

I thought that this was an aspect of Afghanistan that Americans didn’t get to see enough, and so I knew I had to include this in the novel somehow.

My greatest research challenge came much later when I was working on revisions with my editor Cheryl Klein. One of my Afghan friends told me that I had written the Afghan wedding scene all wrong. He attempted to explain how an Afghan wedding in his region would likely happen, but I still had trouble understanding.

Cheryl and I began interviewing others and searching for books and articles on the subject. We learned that Afghan weddings are wonderfully complex, involving many different celebrations that can take place over a course of days or weeks. We found many great sources of information, but not one of them completely agreed with another! Perhaps this shouldn’t have been so surprising, as after all, American weddings can vary greatly.

It was exhausting work, but finally Cheryl and I settled on an Afghan wedding that is entirely possible in rural western Afghanistan. Cheryl and I now joke that whatever difficulties we face in revision, they cannot be as challenging as figuring out that Afghan wedding.

What inspired you to choose the particular point of view featured in your novel? What considerations came into play? Did you try the story from a different point of view at some point? If so, what made you change your mind?

Words in the Dust is told in the first person from the perspective of a thirteen-year-old Afghan girl. People sometimes assume that my novel would be told from the perspective of a white American soldier, but I knew I wanted Words in the Dust to be completely Zulaikha’s story.

“Zooming out” into third person might have given me more freedom to tell the story in different ways, but I think that then the focus might have been drawn too far away from Zulaikha’s struggle. For example, in third person, I might have included the experiences and reactions of the American soldiers to Zulaikha’s surgery while she was still unconscious, but that inclusion would shift the focus and sympathy toward the soldiers. We would know that Captain Mindy loves Zulaikha. We would know that Corporal Andrews will spend the rest of his life wondering if Zulaikha is going to be okay and weeping for the memory of bad things he saw. It would make Words in the Dust more of a story about American soldiers, and I wanted the novel to reflect my belief that the Afghan people are at the heart of the struggle for peace, hope, and freedom in Afghanistan.

By writing Words in the Dust in first person, I could limit information and understanding, building distrust between the Afghans and Americans. I imagine that my fellow soldiers and I might have scared that Afghan girl when we came to her little village with all our weapons, looking for her. How could she have possibly imagined that we were on a mission to help her?

I wanted to include that sense of confusion and fear in Words in the Dust, and that might have been diminished with a broader perspective.

As a teacher-author, how do your two identities inform one another? What about being a teacher has been a blessing to your writing?

I taught high school English and composition at English Valleys High School in North English, Iowa for four years, signing the contract for Words in the Dust in the middle of my fourth year.

I also worked closely with students as I directed the school plays and coached the contest speech and cross-country teams. The job demanded much of my time and thought but I wanted to work to help provide these young people with the best experience I could. I really do believe that growing up is the greatest adventure, and I felt a tremendous responsibility in trying to help the kids have the best adventure they could, all while they learned the reading and writing skills they’d need later in life.

While I worked hard for them, I also gained the benefit of a unique insight that benefits my stories about young people better than any research could. Working with them every day allowed me to get to know them as multifaceted people, not “merely” as children, not as the “other.”

I think adults sometimes have the unfortunate tendency to downplay the concerns of young people, to dismiss their problems as a “phase they go through at that age.” Such attitudes are easy for those of us who made it through those times.

How did you go about identifying your editor?

When my agent began sending the Words in the Dust manuscript around to different editors, I knew nothing about these editors who were sending back rejections. I had spent the previous several years working to learn how to write, not learning about editors.

Cheryl and Trent.

When I received an offer from Cheryl Klein at Arthur A. Levine Books of Scholastic, there were a few other editors still looking over the manuscript. My agent arranged a phone call with Cheryl, and we discussed the project.

Of course at the time I was a little overwhelmed, as I had never really talked to an editor before, certainly not one who was interested in publishing my book. I knew there were probably intelligent questions I should have been asking, but I couldn’t think of any.

Then Cheryl said something that sealed the deal. At the time, President Obama was considering his stance on Afghanistan. She said that after reading Words in the Dust, she couldn’t read the news about the president’s war policy without thinking about what such a policy would mean for girls like Zulaikha. That was it!

Little girls like Zulaikha are what this mission in Afghanistan is supposed to be about, and Cheryl proved she is someone who understands that.

I knew then that she was the perfect editor for this Afghan story.

I have since been amazed by how impossibly hard she works and by the unique and insightful way she looks at each scene, at each line, throughout my manuscripts. It has been great working with her.

5 thoughts on “New Voice: Trent Reedy on Words in the Dust

  1. I so enjoyed reading this interview. The author sounds about as fascinating as his new book. Looking forward to connecting with the characters of Words in the Dust.

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