Author Interview: Charlene Willing McManis on Mentorships & Believing in Your Work

By Traci Sorell

I first met Charlene Willing McManis at Kweli’s 2016 The Color of Children’s Literature Conference in New York City. (She’s dressed in yellow below.)

Native writers at Kweli’s
Color of Children’s Literature Conference in April 2016
Front: L to R: Charlene Willing McManis (Grand Ronde); Andrea Rogers-Henry (Cherokee Nation); Marcie Rendon (White Earth (Anishinaabe) Nation)
Back: L to R: Natalie Dana (Passamaquoddy); Laura Kaye Jagles (Tesuque Pueblo); Traci Sorell (Cherokee Nation); Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki); and Kevin Maillard (Seminole)

Both of us attended the conference for writers and illustrators of color and Native Nations for the first time. Her bright smile and quick wit enveloped me right away.

A few months before the conference, Charlene became a member of the inaugural class of We Need Diverse Books’ mentees and was granted a year-long middle grade novel mentorship with Newbery Honor winner Margarita Engle. Her middle grade manuscript, “Indian No More,” was recently acquired by Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low.

Charlene’s book highlights her childhood experience during one of the most impactful periods for Native Nations in contemporary U.S. history. The federal policy of terminating its treaty responsibilities with some tribes like Charlene’s Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde in the 1950s caused major discord for tribal governments, programs and families. 

During this same era, the federal Indian relocation program, which moved Native people out of their traditional homelands and into cities, created a massive exodus of families. Charlene’s upcoming work will provide a window for Native and non-Native children to see what someone their age experienced in terms of identity, connection and family relations during this upheaval.

Charlene agreed to answer a few of my questions about her writing journey and offer advice for other writers.

How did being selected to participate the inaugural We Need Diverse Books year-long mentorship program in 2016 and working with award-winning author and poet Margarita Engle help writing this story?

Author Margarita Engle

That was so wonderful to be selected! I was so honored to work on “Indian No More” with Margarita Engle as my mentor. It was a wish come true!

She was so insightful in my work and helped me tremendously to improve my storytelling.

I definitely suggest writers to submit their work to the We Need Diverse Books’ Mentorship Program and Lee & Low Books’ New Visions Award.

I’d love to hear more details about your mentorship. Did you do one round of revision or multiple with Margarita?  What component of your writing do you think she helped you with the most?

Regarding the mentorship, after the initial shock and excitement of winning it, Margarita sent me a wonderful letter of what was in store. I kept all her letters, by the way.

We emailed regularly on my manuscript with regard to her great insight into what I was trying to say in my story. What helped me the most was her knowing my story and giving me suggestions to expand on my characters, especially the grandmother. Her suggestions brought more clarity on grandma.

She also was a big help with my Cuban friends in Los Angeles. Since we were all kids, no one really talked about politics or race. But I knew they were very proud of their heritage and that their mother was a doctor in Cuba but was a nurse in Los Angeles. She gave me insight as to why. So I feel my book was greatly improved and more colorful with her help.

You also mentioned unpublished writers submit their novels for the Lee & Low Books’ New Visions Award. Did you enter that contest? (At Margarita’s suggestion or on your own knowledge?)  Is that how Tu Books came to find your manuscript and give you an offer or did you submit it through the slush pile?

I sent my my manuscript to the New Visions Award competition later that year and was in the running but didn’t win.

However, a year later, Stacy asked the for entire manuscript because she remembered reading it during the judging.

So I discovered that, even though the story didn’t win the award, the editor felt the story was worthy enough to have a second look.

And a second look was all it took for her to offer a contract!

Margarita did suggest various agents to send my work to and I did. I received very nice feedback, but they did say it didn’t fit what they were looking for.

What did I learn from all this? Just because the story was “rejected,” it didn’t mean it was bad. And that if you believe in your work, you just keep on sending it out, taking the feedback and implementing the edits and moving forward. And that editors do remember you.

What was your initial inspiration for writing the story?

The lack of history books speaking about this subject. Many events had recently been put in the forefront regarding the truth of America. 

I felt the need to make children aware that Native people didn’t disappear after the 1800s, that we were alive during the era of Elvis Presley and the Beatles. (I really desire to see Native Americans win a Tony, an Oscar, an Emmy, album of the year, sport player of the year, things like that.)

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

It was by accident really. A friend needed support to attend the New England SCBWI conference and I tagged along. At a Highlights magazine workshop, everyone gave an idea for a subject matter to write in various genres. I gave powwows as an example. After the class, the instructor asked if I could write an article about powwows. I was so excited.

And that inspired me to write about termination and relocation. I discovered no [outside the experience] had heard about this historical event, which many had experienced. I wanted to bring this event to light for children and teachers.

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

When I was a senior in high school, I took a creative writing class and was told I could never be a writer. That my writing was terrible. 
It is amazing how a teacher’s opinion of you can affect your psyche. I kept writing though, and attended classes on how to write, how to create characters, plotting and such. SCBWI offered so many books on the subject, which helped me tremendously. 
When I decided to write “Indian No More,” it was more to have the audience understand what it is like to doubt your own heritage. I was so afraid to say I was Indian because I couldn’t prove it.

Writing the book taught me that I don’t need anyone to believe if I am Indian or not. I know who I am and now I am proud of it.

What delighted you the most about writing this book?

Editor Stacy Whitman

I loved my characters. And I do love editing and rewriting. I found joy in seeing my book come together.

I can’t wait to work with Stacy Whitman of Tu Books to help me create an even better story.

What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?

Never give up. It’s all right to take a break, even to say you’ll never make it as a writer. But as long as you have the passion to write and believe in your storytelling, keep going.

It took me 10 years to believe my story might possibly be worthy of publishing. But even if it wasn’t, I was proud that I finished the manuscript. That was half the battle. 

Every time I sent my story out, I felt “Well, at least one more person now knows about termination.”

And advice for Native American/First Nations writers for young people?

Put your stories down in words! We are a very oral culture, telling our stories. We all have stories about our lives, our ancestors and our culture. We are the First People and there are too many people who don’t know we still exist or what we are about.

Also, know that you are not alone. Many Native authors were nervous about writing. They wrote anyway. And there are many Native authors who will support you. They started the path to which we can follow. That is so inspiring to know.

Hiyu Mashe (many thanks) for offering me your time to speak. I am deeply honored to be featured on Cynsations.

Cynsations Notes

Charlene Willing McManis is a tribal member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde located near Salem, Oregon. As part of the federal Indian Relocation Program, her family moved from the reservation to Los Angeles, California. 
Charlene graduated from Inglewood High in Inglewood, CA, served eight years in the Navy and achieved a Bachelor’s Degree in Native American Education from Vermont College.

She writes about her personal knowledge of Native American culture and does school presentations for Native American Heritage Month in November. 

She currently lives in Vermont with her husband, grandchildren and pets of all kinds. She believes in the saying from Sitting Bull (Lakota): “Let us put our minds together and see what future we can make for our children.”

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga will be published by Charlesbridge on Sept. 18, 2018. The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.