Five questions for Elizabeth Acevedo

In Clap When You Land (Quill Tree/HarperCollins, 14 years and up), two teens — Camino, who lives in the Dominican Republic, and Yahaira, who lives in New York City — discover they are half-sisters after their father perishes in a plane crash. Told in alternating verse, the story — winner of a 2020 Boston Globe–Horn Book Fiction and Poetry Honor — introduces readers to two complex and vividly portrayed Latinx protagonists, and a cast of well-realized secondary characters.

1. Which came first — the characters, the family story, the plane crash narrative, something else?

Elizabeth Acevedo: Clap When You Land is loosely based on a true tragedy, so the plane crash narrative arrived before anything else. But I didn’t know from which angle to best approach that historical moment, and so Yahaira was the first piece to unlocking the story. And in fact, I wrote the novel entirely from Yahaira’s point of view before realizing that Camino needed to be voiced in the story.

2. How is your process different in planning a verse novel from a prose novel?                        
Photo: Denzel Golatt

EA: I don’t truly plan either; however, I’ll speak to some distinctions I’ve found in the writing. Usually when I begin a project, I have a sense of some major things that might happen in the story and then I work on chasing down the singular voice needed to construct the world of the particular story I’m working on. I find with verse it’s more difficult to find that voice because I must rely less on dialogue or a large cast of characters to help — a verse novel is about sparseness. It’s about the white space doing as much work as the words. It’s about shaping voice and meaning through line breaks and caesuras. A prose novel allows me a bit more room to stretch in terms of the asides I’m able to make, and the ways I can lean on secondary characters to help clear the rubble around central themes.

3. How did you decide on the poetic forms for each narrator?

EA: Once I committed to the novel being a dual narrative, I wanted a very clear visual marker of which character was speaking: Yahaira in tercets, Camino in couplets. Yahaira’s passages tend to be more staccato, as if being punctuated by New York City itself; Camino tends to have longer sentences, a cadence that reminded me of the Dominican Republic. Each sister also has a different language of experience they draw from in terms of imagery: Yahaira’s seeing of the world approaches language from the locus of queerness, urbanness, and chess. Camino, on the other hand, channels language that is attempting to mimic the island, her understanding of being a healer, and her love for the ocean.

4. We get to know the girls separately before they come together. Did you plot each character’s arc linearly — one then the other — or did you craft them in parallel?

EA: As I mentioned, completely separately, and it was quite a project to reinvent Yahaira’s story line and find the places where Camino’s passages felt natural and less like a disruption of the novel, but honestly, Camino was a disruption. She hijacked the story. Her narrative was so compelling to me, and came so quickly once I started writing, that it forced me to level up Yahaira’s point-of-view immensely.

5. The story’s ending is somewhat bittersweet. Did you know this was the way it would turn out?

EA: I did. The funny thing about my being a pantser is that while I rarely know all the twists and turns, I almost always know the ending, and it rarely changes. Not language, that might change, but the vision of the ending doesn’t. Know what I mean? Part of my being able to let go of the guardrails an outline provides is having a sense of confidence in the destination. And I knew from jump this story would end with a sense of hope, but it would be hard won. It’s what the story required.

From the June 2020 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Elissa Gershowitz and Shoshana Flax

Elissa Gershowitz is executive editor of The Horn Book, Inc. Shoshana Flax is assistant editor of The Horn Book Magazine.

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