Today I am thrilled to welcome Laura Shovan to Cynsations in anticipation of National Poetry Month in April. Laura is a novelist, educator, and Pushcart Prize-nominated poet. She’s talking to us today about her writing and how with every project she tries to teach herself something new.
What do you love most about the creative life/being an author? Why?
Last year, I was doing a virtual visit with a mixed-ages Montessori class. It was the first time anyone had asked me, “Do you like being a poet?” I’ve been writing poetry since I was in elementary school, so I’d never thought to ask myself this question.
I realized that what I love most about the creative life, and being a poet in particular, is that it informs the way I interact with the world. Go for a walk outside with a poet, and they’ll draw your attention to that toad taking a shower under a dripping hose, or the way a broken limb is hanging safely—caught in a tangle of branches—above your head. They’ll point out the shape of a cloud and the eye-shaped knots staring at you from a tree trunk. While these observations won’t all show up on the page, writers’ senses are tuned for attentiveness. Because who knows when we might need a tree sprite for a story?
It’s the practice of noticing, of engagement, that I love the most about this life. Right now, I’m reading former U. S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera’s book Jabberwalking (Candlewick, 2018). In this craft book, he combines advice for staying attentive (carry a small notebook on walks) with a call to engage in creative play. It’s such a joyful book, filled with doodles, which also resonates with me. I love doodling as a way to keep the creative, non-perfectionist brain awake.
Could you tell us about your new release?
I was so excited when Jonathan Rosen and Henry Herz asked me to contribute to their new anthology. I challenged myself to write something funny for Coming of Age: 13 B’nai Mitzvah Stories (Albert Whitman, 2022). My middle grade books have funny elements or scenes, but I’d never tried farce. My own bat mitzvah was not exactly a comedy, so this was a task that called for invention—and for an interview with a wonderful rabbi.
The original pitch for the story was: “A girl is writing a speech for her Bat Mitzvah. Each person she consults offers over-the-top, conflicting advice. It will be a ‘too many cooks’ story with a happy – and hopefully hilarious – ending.”
In “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Bimah,” Dani Karet is the long-suffering middle child in a musical-theater family. She’s not comfortable being in the spotlight, let alone leading services at her synagogue. When the advice from her type-A friends and siblings gets bigger and wilder (K-pop choreo, anyone?), Dani has to find her own voice.
The stories and essays from Coming of Age’s 13 authors present a kaleidoscope of the b’nai mitzvah experience, but also of what it’s like to be thirteen. I’m proud to be part of it.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
This is going to seem like such a small thing. But for me, it was huge. My father had—still has—a larger-than-life personality. He was an affectionate but competitive father, a great storyteller, and loved being the smartest person in the room. We were arguing about something, and I called him “persnickety.”
“That’s not even a word,” he chuckled.
I was maybe twelve and deeply offended. I got out the dictionary and there it was, “placing too much emphasis on trivial details.” My father conceded good-naturedly.
Something shifted for me in that moment. Language had the power to give me, a kid, a voice that the adults couldn’t laugh off.
Tell us about the individuals who encouraged your writing early on.
They were teachers. In third grade, we did a project, a twist on the usual book report. Mrs. Khoury had us create a book cover, complete with illustrations, a flap with the author’s biography, and an enticing description for the back. She said that my project, especially the cover copy, was professional enough to be in a bookstore! (I remember the book as being Cherry Ames, Student Nurse by Helen Wells – but is there any way I was reading that at age 8?) That was encouragement I never forgot.
As an adult, one of my most important teachers was poet and educator Maria Mazziotti Gillan. She led a poetry workshop for high school teachers. Somehow, she knew that I wanted to be a serious writer and gave me the combination of direction and encouragement that I needed. One of the most important things I learned from Maria is to stay engaged with the writing community. Not only for oneself, but to create spaces where we can welcome other authors in. It’s one of the reasons why I founded and co-host a literary reading series in my home county. Maria is the founder and executive director of the Paterson Poetry Center in New Jersey. She has mentored many poets, me included. She is a hero.
How has your writing evolved over time?
My writing has been through many iterations. Poetry is my home base, the form I keep coming back to, ever since I was poetry editor of my high school literary magazine. But I pick up lessons from each genre of writing I try.
When my children were young, I juggled my poet-in-the-schools work with freelancing for the Baltimore Sun. I wrote feature stories for my local edition, covering education and the arts. I learned a ton from that job. How to get people talking during personal interviews. How to whittle 1600 words of research and interview notes down to a 650-word article. How to work on a deadline, with an editor, with a copy editor.
My biggest take-away was the interview. I still conduct personal interviews for every novel I work on, even if it’s just for background information. When I was working on my sports novel Takedown (Yearling, 2020), I talked to an internationally ranked jujitsuka, Mary Holmes. She helped my understanding of what it means to be a woman in a traditionally male contact sport. There are match scenes in that book that came directly from my conversation with Mary.
With every project, I try to teach myself something new. The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary (Yearling, 2018) was all about learning to construct a narrative. Writing action scenes was my lesson in Takedown. For A Place at the Table (Clarion, 2020), my collaborator Saadia Faruqi taught me how to work from an outline (necessary when two authors are writing alternating chapters together), and I shared with her the way I approach early drafts as exploration, following my instincts to see where they might lead me.
I researched the tools of farce for my story in Coming of Age. During the pandemic, it was a joy to focus on humor. I fell in love with Dani Karet from “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Bimah.” Enough so that I’m now working on a full middle grade novel in Dani’s voice.
Laura Shovan is a novelist, educator, and Pushcart Prize-nominated poet. Her chapbook, Mountain, Log, Salt and Stone (Citylit, 2010), won the inaugural Harriss Poetry Prize. She has edited literary journals and anthologies. Laura’s debut was the award-winning novel-in-verse, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary. Her novel Takedown was selected for Junior Library Guild, PJ Our Way, and the ALA’s RISE Project. Her most recent book is Sydney Taylor Notable A Place at the Table, written with Saadia Faruqi. Laura is a longtime poet-in-the-schools and recently joined the faculty of VCFA’s MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.
Stephani Martinell Eaton holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts where she won the Candlewick Picture Book Award and the Marion Dane Bauer Award for middle grade fiction. She is represented by Lori Steel at Raven Quill Literary Agency. Connect with her at stephanimartinelleaton.com.