Avi Talks with Roger

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One of the first books I ever reviewed was Avi’s The Fighting Ground, published by Lippincott in 1984. It was a short, intense novel about one boy’s experience of the Revolutionary War; Loyalty, Avi’s latest novel, presents us with another boy at the beginnings of that tumultuous event.

Roger Sutton: As I was reading Loyalty, I felt surrounded, which is a tribute to your skill and my geography. I can picture the characters going back and forth right outside my window. [Ed note: back in the day, our Charlestown office was near Paul Revere’s Ride.]

Avi: Boston is very different today than it was then.

RS: It is. I was trying to work out where the Neck was.

A: I’m told that there’s a plaque on Washington Street that notes where Boston ended. It’s small, and nobody pays attention to it.

RS: It must be in the South End someplace, because the South End is all new, right?

A: Correct. What’s remarkable about Boston at that time is not only was it small, but the population wasn’t big. It was the biggest port in New England, but it wasn’t in itself big.

RS: And the characters walk everywhere!

A: One of the hard points of research — I was trying to figure out if Boston streets had sidewalks. They didn’t; they had posts along the roads, so that you wouldn’t stray out into the traffic.

RS: You could lean and rest every once in a while.

A: That’s it. You could just lean on a post and do nothing.

RS: One of the first books I ever reviewed, and certainly the first book I reviewed by you, was The Fighting Ground.

A: That’s a long time ago.

RS: It’s a really long time ago, like 1984. At the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books. You remember, we gave you the Scott O’Dell Award for that book. I was on your website when I was preparing for this interview, and you talk about the genesis of that book. You saw a sign mentioning that the Battle of Whatever It Was was a small skirmish. You wrote, “It wasn’t small for those who died, or the families from which they came.”

A: Correct.

RS: I see the same thing in Loyalty. We’re very low to the ground with Noah.

A: Right. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

RS: I think it’s a good thing. But it’s a thing. It’s a way to write a novel. It’s not panoramic.

A: He’s the one that interests me, how he deals with what is happening around him.

RS: Where did you start?

A: I’ve always been interested in the American Revolution. Then I fastened on the fact that, in many ways, it was a civil war. That’s not really written about. And it’s complicated by the fact that such standards as Johnny Tremain really make no serious reference to enslaved people, indentured people, or women or girls. I began to think about how to tell this story from an interior point of view. How would it feel to be a Loyalist at that time? I did more research and found a couple of books about the Loyalist world, but it’s not something people know about, generally. We have a mythic notion of the American Revolution. As do all countries about their own origins; there’s nothing unique about that. I thought it would be interesting to tell a different point of view.

RS: Sideways. But you’re absolutely right, in that we think of it as the colonists against the British, but it was way more complicated than that.

A: There’s a really interesting book called Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth, about the Loyalist world. The author found detailed accounts of humiliation, bullying, torture, and even lynching, by so-called Patriots, of Loyalists. We don’t talk about that. As it turns out, it’s so reminiscent of January 6, 2021.

RS: It was very uncomfortable to read this book now, post-January 6.

A: Well, I didn’t predict that.

RS: Did you know from the start what would happen to Noah’s loyalty, what direction it would go?

A: No. When I’m writing, I have a vague notion of where I’m going, but I try never to talk to anyone about it. I don’t even talk to my wife about it. I want to be free from intellectually hedging myself into a place, a direction. I try to be completely open and see where the story takes me. I didn’t write the ending of this book until the very last moment and tried many endings that weren’t satisfactory to me.

RS: I thought he could remain a Loyalist. Or, he could come over to what we now consider to be the “right” side. Which is it going to be? And in fact, it’s neither. You got me, Avi.

A: Do you think that was the right ending?

RS: It’s your book, but yes, I do. I like the ending.

A: Okay. I liked it, too. I was satisfied when I got it.

RS: What do you think of the changes that have come about in understanding American history in the last ten, twenty years?

A: I think it’s good. I love the fact that history itself changes, that our understanding of the world as it’s been changes, because it’s a reflection of our current world and its changes. It helps us understand the current moment even more, for better and for worse.

RS: One of the things I’m most proud of publishing at the Horn Book was an article by Anne Scott MacLeod. Brilliant woman. She talked about how historical fiction changed, depending upon the era it was written in.

A: Johnny Tremain is an absolutely perfect example. It was published in the early part of World War II, so it’s very patriotic, in an almost sentimental way. And yet I know, because of the research I did, that the things Esther Forbes wrote about were accurate. She didn’t just make stuff up, but her perceptions, her way of looking at the world, were affected by when she was.

RS: And then you, some eighty years later.

A: Look at the drive to prevent the teaching of our racist past. It’s terrible. It strikes me as incredibly ironic and tragic, that even as these Republican-controlled legislatures are passing laws against teaching about American history, in Russia they’re doing exactly the same thing. They’re trying to eradicate the organization that was keeping the records of the Stalinist past. It’s just awful.

RS: Even when we agree upon the facts, the decision about what story to tell about those facts is going to change according to the author and according to the time the author is writing in. How would this book be different had you written it forty years ago, when you wrote The Fighting Ground?

A: I think it would be different. I like to think it would. I remember I once had a talk with Katherine Paterson. I forget exactly which book it was, but we both had written books about the early days of New England mills. She said, even if we wrote the same book, it’d be a different book. That’s absolutely true. That’s the way it is, and that’s the way it always will be.

RS: That’s the way it should be, don’t you think?

A: I agree, one hundred percent.

RS: Are you nervous, as an old white guy, trying to tell the story of Jolla, a Black character?

A: Yeah, and there’s been some slap backs about that in a couple of the reviews. The Kirkus review comes down very hard on that. I think it’s wrong-headed. If you look at the historical reality of the moment, I think the story I’ve told is accurate and can be totally defended in the context of the relationships.

RS: What bothers me the most about the current ideological climate in children’s books is that a person could say — and I didn’t read the Kirkus review, so I don’t know — you shouldn’t have written a book about Noah; you should have written a book about Jolla. (Not you. One.)

A: My response is, I urge you — one — to write it. There was an op-ed piece in the New York Times recently, a guy writing about the current state of children’s books. He walks into a bookstore, and there are only books about diversity. It’s both interesting and disappointing at the same time. This country is so incredibly diverse, so discordant.

RS: So deeply effed up.

A: Anything you say, somebody is going to object to it. So, what the hell, say it, right?

RS: How has your own point of view about the events of the American Revolution changed in the forty years between The Fighting Ground and Loyalty?

A: When I was a teenager, I was already very interested in history and the American Revolution, for reasons I don’t fully know. I read a lot of Kenneth Roberts. He was a historical novelist. He was also a racist and an anti-Semite. He was really a right-wing guy, not that I knew that at the time. He wrote a book called Rabble in Arms about how wonderful Benedict Arnold was. I was very impressed with it, and in a classic teenage rebellious mode, I told my friends that Benedict Arnold really was a great guy. I think in a certain sense I’ve always had a contrarian view of the world, and I’ve never let go of that.

RS: How do you feel about Benedict Arnold now?

A: He’s a very interesting figure. He becomes a traitor in the American Revolution, but he was very badly mistreated by the Americans. His chief defender was George Washington. And then he hatched a plot to have Washington captured by the British, and it only barely didn’t happen. My book Sophia’s War is all about Benedict Arnold.

RS: I have one tiny technical question. How did you decide where the divisions in the book came? Sometimes a section will end, and then the story will pick up during the same event, in the next section.

A: I don’t know. It seems to me when you construct a novel that you want to take breaks at high points, basically so you get the reader to continue on. That’s a kind of intuitive feeling.

RS: It sounds like you have pretty much the seat-of-your-pants kind of writing in your own work.

A: I try to. Talk about taking risks — a publisher asked me to write a sequel to The Secret School, a book I wrote years ago. I’ve just finished it. The story takes place in 1925, and it’s solely about fourteen-year-old girls in high school. This girl goes from a very rural environment to one that’s a little bit more modern in Colorado. It seems sort of preposterous that I should undertake such a task, but I’m pleased with it.

RS: How long has Colorado been your home now?

A: About twenty-five years.

RS: Do you feel the history there, the way you can feel it in a place like Providence or Boston?

A: Absolutely not.

RS: You told me once about where you lived, and it sounded like it was the back ass of beyond.

A: That’s correct. It’s very beautiful. It’s in the middle of a forest, in a log house. It is beautiful. But as my wife says, I keep looking for the subway.

 

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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc. from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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