Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Q&A with Caroline Brooks DuBois




Caroline Brooks DuBois is the author of the new middle grade novel in verse Ode to a Nobody. She also has written the novel The Places We Sleep, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Highlights High Five and Southern Poetry Review. Also a teacher, she lives in Tennessee.


Q: What inspired you to write Ode to a Nobody, and how did you create your character Quinn?


A: My family and community experienced an EF3 tornado in March 2020—and this story came to me when I witnessed my neighbors’ homes devastated and their possessions damaged or destroyed and on display in their yards. It was sad and surreal, yet we all came together in those moments, days, and weeks following the tornado. Children spent multiple days out of school—and I observed them finding their way through the aftermath, volunteering and doing as kids do, being resilient.


Quinn, like other characters I dream up, is partially based on teens I know or teach. I was drawn to the idea of a character having an athletic hobby, such as skating, and a stationary hobby, such as gaming. Quinn, however, is outgrowing her hobbies and, along with it, her friends, which is painful for her. The tornado inspires Quinn to try new things, like writing and volunteering, and through these, she discovers a lot about herself.  


Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, in part, “In three free-verse sections, attentive word choice from Brooks DuBois...exhibits the healing power of writing, charting Quinn’s evolution from passive and insecure observer to conscientious aspiring poet.” What do you think of that description?


A: I’ll take “attentive” and its positive connotation any day. Thanks, Publishers Weekly! Writers should be attentive; they should pay attention, as poet Mary Oliver tells us. Sometimes in a tragedy, like a tornado, our senses are attuned and every detail sings.  


It’s fascinating how writing can have a “healing power,” perhaps helping the writer process something difficult, as my first novel did with 9/11. The healing power hopefully ripples outward, to the character, and then further to readers. It’s cliché, but words can be inspiring, revolutionary, and even lifesaving.


I tend to write characters who are figuring out who they want and need to be, hence the “passive and insecure” description. It’s a momentous and sometimes ongoing time in one’s life. I think I’m still figuring this out myself. I teach at a high school of the arts, so I’m privileged to be with students daily on their journey to who they want to be.

Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: I love hearing how titles come to be, so I’m happy to share the journey of my title. The working title was Ode to a House; I was determined the houses smashed by the tornado should have a point of view. However, my astute editor, Sally Morgridge at Holiday House, talked sense into me, and now, the houses have a voice but through Quinn, as she experiments with poetry.


When I realized the story wasn’t about houses or possessions—all those things we own that are destroyed in a natural disaster—but that it was Quinn’s story, a human story, it made sense to change the title. I believe the true title is often hiding somewhere in a manuscript itself, as this one was.


In the story, Quinn is inspired by Emily Dickinson’s poem “Nobody.” The title of my novel perhaps signifies how it’s “the doing” of something that can make you happy, like helping others, like writing. It’s nice to be recognized as a “somebody,” but the act of making art or helping others might just be the real reward in life.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?


A: I hope they witness Quinn finding what makes her happy. In turn, I hope readers find what makes them happy—whether it’s writing, painting, dancing, kickboxing, rock collecting, or something else. I also hope they see Quinn learn to stop comparing herself to her “perfect” older brother. Everyone has their own magic—even if they can’t see it yet.   


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m cooking up another novel—I’ve tossed some characters and plot ideas into a pot, and now it’s time to stir. Lately, though, I’ve been obsessed with attempting to write a short story. My students are studying and writing stories, so it’s been fun to write along with them. Like poems, short stories are all about the challenge of brevity and precision. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Books are amazing collaborations—and for a writer, it’s a curious process to see an illustrator create a cover that represents your story. For my debut verse novel, The Places We Sleep, the mega-talented Kathrin Honesta (@kathrinhonestaa) created a stunning cover. Likewise, the artist Mikyung Lee (@mikyung_lee) created just as gorgeous a visual representation of Ode to a Nobody for the cover.  


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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