Author Interview: Carmen Oliver Shares Insights on Nonfiction, Balance & Building an Orchestra of Hope

By Gayleen Rabakukk

I recently chatted with Austin author Carmen Oliver about her latest release—Building an Orchestra of Hope: How Favio Chavez Taught Children to Make Music from Trash, illustrated by Luisa Uribe (Eerdmans, 2022)—and finding balance, given the many hats she wears. In the photo above, she’s pictured with Favio Chavez at the The Stapleton Branch of The New York Public Library.

What inspired you to write Building an Orchestra of Hope?

I have a passion for stories where ordinary people do extraordinary things to make the world a better place or where they invest in an active way to make the lives of others better. When a friend shared a video clip with me about the making of the documentary movie “Landfill Harmonic” and how Favio Chavez was utilizing his musical talents to teach children how to read music and learn to play on instruments constructed of trash, I knew I had to tell his story. I wanted children around the world to be inspired and impacted by his kindness, community activism, and inventiveness.

Interior spread from Building an Orchestra of Hope, illustrated by Luisa Uribe. Used with permission.

Your bibliography includes email correspondence with Favio Chavez. At what point did you reach out to him?

I reached out to Favio during the pandemic after I sold the book to Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. I knew I was going to need his first-hand knowledge about where the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura was today.

I also wanted to make sure I had all of my facts straight in the main text and give Favio an opportunity to weigh in. No changes were needed to the main text, but his interviews helped me shape the back matter tremendously.

Back matter from Building an Orchestra of Hope. Used with permission.

He was eager to support the book. In the fall of 2022, he and I met in New York City and presented at several schools and at one of the New York Public Library branches. It was a life-changing experience to see the impact we had on kids and to hear them play a recycled violin alongside Favio playing his recycled guitar. I’d like to think we empowered students to never stop dreaming just like the kids in the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura are doing.

Author Carmen Oliver & Orchestra Director Favio Chavez at the Stapleton Public Library in Long Island, New York

What’s one piece of advice you have for writers working on nonfiction projects?

Find the emotional core of the story. Continue digging to uncover the emotional truth that you want to leave your readers with.

In biographies, I think it’s important to know the motivation behind what drives the main character to do what they do and why. It makes for a richer, deeper, and authentic biography. There are many layers woven into Building an Orchestra of Hope, but the takeaways Favio and I both believe are that you can “Never Stop Dreaming,” and that music and stories are the bridges that connect us.

You wear a lot of hats: author, owner of the Booking Biz, plus workshop teacher at The Writing Barn and Highlights Foundation, along with being a mom. How do you find balance and keep things running smoothly?

Like most women these days, I ride the proverbial roller coaster and it’s not always smooth. But I think it’s important to set boundaries and embrace self-care. It’s a constant juggling act, but I love all the roles I play.

Time management is key. And I prioritize things and don’t put off tomorrow what I can accomplish today.

My parents brought me up with a strong work ethic, and at the age of fifteen, I had three jobs while attending high school. That early foundation has served me well. I’m not afraid of hard work. But I do make time to get out in nature—hiking and spending time with my family—that always re-centers me.

Author Carmen Oliver & Doug Oliver hiking in Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Texas

How do your many roles inform and influence your writing?

I think being able to switch gears and step away from my writing to concentrate on other things gives me the space to come back to my writing and see it with fresh eyes. While I’m working on other business, my subconscious is at work on my stories.

Time away can be a wondrous thing to the creative process.

What do you have coming up next?

It was just announced by my publisher Eerdmans Books for Young Readers that Editorial Juventud (Barcelona, Spain) will be publishing the Spanish and Catalan editions of Building an Orchestra of Hope: How Favio Chavez Taught Children to Make Music from Trash. This is a dream come true for Favio and me.

And I’m receiving good ju-ju vibes on a new fiction picture book manuscript that’s out on submission.

May The Literary Powers That Be be forever in my favor!

Cynsations Notes

Carmen Oliver is the author of many award-winning picture books for children, including A Voice for the Spirit Bears: How One Boy Inspired Millions to Save a Rare Animal, illustrated by Katy Dockrill (Kids Can Press, 2019), a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard; Building an Orchestra of Hope: How Favio Chavez Taught Children to Make Music From Trash, a Junior Library Gold Standard; and The Twilight Library, illustrated by Miren Asiain Lora (NorthSouth Books, 2022). She’s also the author of the Bears Make the Best Buddies series (Reading, Writing, Math, Science), illustrated by Jean Claude (Capstone Young Readers).

In 2014, Carmen founded the Booking Biz, a boutique style agency that brings award-winning children’s authors and illustrators to schools, libraries, and special events. She also teaches writing at the Writing Barn and The Highlights Foundation and loves speaking at schools, conferences and festivals. She lives with her family outside of Austin, Texas. To connect or learn more about Carmen and her books visit her website or Twitter or Facebook.

Gayleen Rabakukk holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and an undergraduate degree in Journalism from the University of Central Oklahoma. She has published numerous newspaper and magazine articles, and two regional interest books for adults. Now she focuses her energy on inspiring curiosity in young readers through stories of hope and adventure.