Toni De Palma’s debut YA novel Under the Banyan Tree is a New Voices Pick by the Association of Booksellers for Children. She joins me today to talk about her journey to publication.
First, a little about Banyan:
Irena’s not sure where she’s headed when she runs away—she just wants to leave the trailer she used to share with her mama and daddy far behind. But when she stumbles upon the Banyan Tree motel, something tells her it’s exactly where she’s meant to be. The elderly owner generously welcomes Irena, and the Banyan soon begins to feel like home. But trouble follows Irena wherever she goes, and the Banyan is no different: a mysterious guest, money problems, and secrets from her past soon threaten the stability of her new life. This moving story distills life’s joys and pains, and uncovers just what it really means to be a family.
Toni, your website bio says that you have always dreamed of being a writer, and you’ve accomplished so much with your first book. Can you tell us where Irena’s amazing story began?
The book was a very organic process. I don’t usually work with an outline and even when I jot down notes, I always tend to stray. The idea for Under the Banyan Tree came to me in my first semester of my M.F.A. program at Vermont College. Though I didn’t know it consciously at the time, Irena’s story reflected where I was emotionally in my life. As a young mother, who had given up her job to stay home and be a full time mom, I was feeling a little lost. No job to me meant no identity, no place in the world. I had begun writing, taking classes and submitting, but I didn’t honestly believe I was good enough to be a writer. When my son was five, I read about the Vermont College M.F.A. program in Writing for Children and Young Adults and I knew it was something I just had to do even though it would mean a lot of sacrifice. It might sound weird, but looking back I feel as if the Universe was compelling me to take on the challenge. So like my character, Irena, I sort of ran away (not to Key West, but to Vermont) and I embarked on a personal journey that taught me so much about myself.
After the M.F.A. program, how did you continue on your path to becoming an author? How did you balance motherhood and writing?
Balance? (Laugh, laugh.) What’s that? I’ll be honest. Every day is a struggle. Or come to think of it, maybe it’s not. I’m starting to think that, at least for me, there is a certain amount of normalcy to this ebb and flow, of those periods when I write a lot and those periods when I don’t, times when I rather be cooking or doing laundry and times when all I want to do is sit and write.
First drafts are always killers for me. I circle my computer like a vulture waiting, waiting. I much rather be revising, especially when I’ve had a great meeting with my writer’s group and they’ve given me feedback that’s stirred up my juices. I also seem to have cycles (maybe it has to do with the amount of serotonin in my system). I seem to write more in the Spring and Summer and drift off when it gets cold and all I want to do is snuggle under a blanket (I read a lot more during those times). I recently heard John Grisham say that he writes from April to Thanksgiving — a book a year. When I heard him say that, I felt validated.
I think the really cool thing for writers is that they learn what works best for them and to not judge themselves too harshly.
How long did you work on Under the Banyan Tree? How did you go about submitting it?
I worked on Banyan for two years and revised it about eight times (including the revisions I did with my editor). I was really fortunate with how Banyan played out. I submitted it to a few publishers who declined it and then met Margery Cuyler at the Rutgers One-On-One conference. Margery is the editor at Marshall Cavendish Children’s and she read Banyan, liked it, but didn’t feel it was quite right for her list. Margery suggested I send it to Regina Griffin at Holiday House. Margery knew Holiday House because she had been editor-in-chief there. Regina ended up liking it and offered me a contract.
What was it like to get “the call” from Regina Griffin?
I actually got “the call” from an assistant in her office, a nice girl who seemed genuinely delighted for me. I was happy too, but nervous about what would be expected of me next.
And what was expected of you next?
Well, a lot more waiting for one thing. From the time I received that first phone call to the time my book was published, close to three years had passed. The revision process was worth the wait though. Regina sent me an extensive editorial letter commenting on broader issues and she marked up the manuscript identifying smaller things I might want to consider. Regina did not make specific suggestions, but rather posed wonderful questions that made me see even more possibilities for my characters’ development as well as some plot points that I had never considered. Working with her made the manuscript better, deeper and I hope more satisfying for the reader.
After such a long (and rewarding) revision process, I’m sure you were thrilled once the book hit the shelves. How satisfying was it to hold the finished copy in your hands? What has surprised you most about being a published author? Is it everything you imagined it to be?
While it was wonderful to hold my book in my hand, it didn’t measure up to the very intimate, very personal moment that occurred when I wrote the last line and knew in my heart that I had brought my character to the finish line of her journey. I’m pretty emotional, so I cried, a great cathartic, super satisfying kind of YES! cry.
As for the post-publishing experience, that has been quite interesting and unexpected. I am fortunate that one of the local seventh grade teachers is using my book as part of her curriculum. After the kids read my book, I go in and do a presentation, then give the kids a chance to ask me questions. I’m always amazed at how the kids interpret the book and make it their own. Some kids get pretty incensed and emotional about the story, sometimes taking a character’s side. To elicit that kind of emotion, even though quite unintended is really cool for me because it makes me feel I’ve done my job. That same teacher has also used my book as a springboard to discuss a whole host of other topics such as the ecology of the Everglades (part of the story takes place there), the dangers of hitchhiking, Ernest Hemingway, and of course, banyan trees.
Toni, I sense that you feel it’s important to savor and enjoy each part of the creative process—it’s more about the journey than the destination. Would you agree? What other words of wisdom do you have for aspiring writers? And what can we expect next from you?
When I first started writing I must admit it was all about my ego and wanting to be a “famous” writer (this makes sense because J.K. Rowling had just hit the scene and her rags to riches story really captivated me). But the more I write and the more I see how my writing has helped me to have certain experiences, I view it as a both an intellectual challenge and a tool that is here to grow me both personally and spiritually.
Advice? Of course writing a book involves a great deal of skill that a person becomes better and better at each day with practice. Being part of a writer’s group has also been wonderful and reading, reading, reading. But the practice of writing is not limited to sitting down and hammering away at a keyboard. It involves trying to understand your world, staying curious and asking lots of questions not only with your head, but with your heart. My best writing comes when I’m feeling charged up over something and I just want to understand it.
Since writing Under the Banyan Tree, I’ve written a variety of other things that are now seeking a home: another contemporary YA novel, a historical fiction Middle Grade, as well as a Fantasy Middle Grade. Obviously, I like experimenting and playing with different genres. I’m also looking for an agent.
Toni, this has been a wonderful interview. You’ve helped me realize that I need to have peace and patience with the creative process.
Tara, thanks so much for this opportunity and the great conversation. Writing is sort of like that, a great conversation you have with your reader.
One final question. I promised to slip chocolate into my interviews, so what’s your favorite kind of chocolate candy?
Funny you’re asking about candy. From the age of five to eleven, I lived over a candy store in Brooklyn and I loved each and every sweet piece. Still do!
WOW! You lived above a candy store? That’s every kid’s dream come true! Have you ever written a story based on that experience?
Not yet, but who knows where my mind will wander…
Toni is generously giving away an autographed hardcover copy of Under the Banyan Tree. Leave a comment and you’ll be entered into the drawing.
Blog or Twitter about Toni’s interview, link back here and you’ll get TWO additional entries. Just let me know about the mentions in the comments field.
Good luck! I’ll draw a winner one week from today.
Thank you, Toni!