Books | Anna-Marie McLemore
We sat down with Anna-Marie McLemore to discuss her debut novel, The Weight of Feathers, and found out a lot of cool things along the way...
It’s not every day that a great piece of fiction crosses your path, but when it does it’s a cause for celebration. That’s exactly how we felt the day The Weight of Feathers arrived at our office. This is a love story for the ages – full of twists and turns, magic and intrigue, and plenty of rich imagery to boot. If you love YA and/or magical realism, we think you’ll love this beautifully-imagined story about two rival families – the Palomas, a family with an affinity for water and a miraculous traveling mermaid show, and the Corbeaus, a Romani family who perform tightrope walking feats high up in the trees with their signature fairy wings. When a tragedy strikes the small town both families are currently performing in, Lace Paloma and Cluck Corbeau cross paths, and the resulting relationship sets them on a path towards a future neither of them ever thought possible.
The Weight of Feathers is your debut novel. What has it been like to see it all come together for publication?
Mostly, I’m just incredibly grateful. Going through this process really gives you an idea of how many people and how much work it takes to get a book out into the world. There’s your editor, there’s your agent, there’s publicity, marketing, the production process, the whole team at your publisher. I have so much gratitude for the people who help get books onto shelves. They do such amazing work.
Can you tell us a little about the inspiration behind The Weight of Feathers?
Years ago, my father told me about a show he’d seen in Florida that was mermaids swimming, a performing mermaids show.
That is so cool.
Yeah, it’s amazing. I haven’t gotten to see it, but it’s still going. I knew that one day I wanted to write about that. But the second part of the story didn’t really come until a couple of years ago. I was doing this photo shoot with a photographer friend of mine, and I was out in the woods in a fairy costume, and the way people looked at me – mostly kids, but some adults – they looked at me like I was a real fairy. There was so much joy there, and I thought, Okay, I have to do something with this too. So those two things sort of came together into the idea for the book – these two traveling shows, these two rival families. Fins and fairy wings.
Do you consider yourself to be a Paloma or a Corbeau?
I would love to learn to tree-walk and tightrope-walk and wear wings like the Corbeaus, but I’m definitely a Paloma. I love water; I was comfortable swimming before I was comfortable walking.
I think if I was going to be one or the other I’d rather be a Corbeau, because I think the feathers are probably the coolest thing ever, but I’d probably fall to my death from a tree.[laughing] Yeah, they’re both a little dangerous. They both involve a certain element of risk, but part of what I loved playing with was what sorts of risks feel more comfortable for which people. Obviously, for the Corbeaus, the heights just don’t bother them, and for the Palomas, they’re very comfortable in water; it’s their second home.
Over here, at Latin é, we love Magical Realism, as it’s really the only true genre to have originated from within Latin America. What drew you to the genre?
Magical Realism feels like a natural landscape for me, storytelling-wise, and I think that’s because of my heritage. The heart of it – the intermixing of the ordinary and the ephemeral – feels very true to where I come from. I love how it keeps close the idea of culture and the idea of community. So I think that felt very true to me both because of where I come from and where this story lives, and where I live as a writer.
In that same vein, what does diverse literature mean to you? Why is it important?
I think that in the ideal, diverse literature means that readers of all backgrounds—all cultures, all religions, all sexual orientations, all gender identities—can find themselves on shelves. But the other side of that is that readers can find not only their own communities, but other communities on shelves as well. Diverse literature should be able to reflect readers’ worlds, but it should also be able to show them the world at large.
I couldn’t agree more. I think this year we saw a huge push from The Diverse Books movement, but we’re still not even 50% of the way to where we need to be. Still, paso a paso, as they say.
Yeah, definitely. It’s going to be more and more important to have diverse authors telling stories from their own communities. Whether they’re telling stories from their own lives, or fiction that draws on the backgrounds they come from. Both are going to be very important as we move forward.
Agreed. Who are some of your favorite authors? What are some books that inspire you?
The first one who comes to mind is Isabel Allende. I love her work, particularly Portrait in Sepia. Nella Larsen, her novel Passing is one of the books that really made me a reader. Passing was both a window and a mirror book for me. A window book because you’re looking into the lives of these two black women in the 1920s, but also a mirror book because I’ve passed as white for most of my life. Until recently, I even made effort to pass for white, so that book really drew me in. I also have to mention The Little Prince, which I love, and which is the first whole book I ever read in another language. And Gioconda Belli, a Nicaraguan poet. I love her work. It’s so beautiful.
There are some incredible Latino poets out there. You should check out Skila Brown’s Caminar. It’s a novel, but it’s written entirely in poetry. It’s a Candlewick Press title, about the civil war in Guatemala. It’s breathtaking.
I’ll have to look for that one. I love reading poetry by Latino authors. I also love reading plays. I come back to Lorca’s work a lot. Blood Wedding is such a beautiful example of magical realism. I also love Márquez, his short stories as much as his novels. The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World is one of my favorites.
What’s your writing process like? Can you walk us through a typical writing day?
In terms of process, I’m an outliner. I like to know where I’m going, particularly on the day that I write, but I like to know where I’m going in general too. Even though the outline usually gets thrown out halfway through the story, I still like having that map to go back to. In terms of typical writing days, I’m not sure that I have a typical day, but one thing is that I don’t really sit at my computer and wait for something to come to me. That’s usually a sign that I need to try something else. But I also know that for some writers, sitting there until it comes to them is exactly what works best. That’s part of what I love about talking with other authors. Everyone is different, and I love hearing about different writing processes.
Now, what can you tell us about future projects? Do you plan to revisit the world of the Palomas and Corbeaus in future stories? What’s coming up for you?
My second book, When the Moon Was Ours, comes out this October. I’m thrilled to get to work again with the team at Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press. When the Moon Was Ours is set in a different world than The Weight of Feathers, but has a lot of the same elements – magical realism, multicultural themes, but I’m also excited that this one has central LGBT elements; the main characters are a transgender boy and his best friend.
In terms of revisiting the world of the Palomas and the Corbeaus, I might one day. I’m sort of waiting to see which corner of their world calls me back.
Ooh… We’ll have to keep our eye out for more information! When the Moon Was Ours sounds like another don’t-wanna-miss-this read. What are some books you’re currently reading or have just finished?
I recently got to read a new manuscript by Robin Talley—she’s the author of Lies We Tell Ourselves and What We Left Behind—and I’m so excited for everyone to get to read it in book form. She always does character-driven queer YA, so I always look forward to when she sends me something new. I also was lucky enough to get an early read of Emery Lord’s When We Collided, which comes out this spring, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what she does next. And the last one I’ll mention is Laura Resau’s The Lightning Queen. She’s an incredible author, and I’ve heard such great things about her latest.
We’re actually featuring her next month! That’s a great book. What would you like to tell future readers of yours? Any messages for those who pick up The Weight of Feathers?
I think I just want to tell them thank you. Thanks for picking it up, for reading it, and for supporting a debut author. Readers are the ones who make stories count.