I was fortunate enough to speak with Thalia Chaltas at length about her life, her characters, and her poetry, lost and found.
Your dedication in Because I Am Furniture hints that some elements of the book may be based on your own family experiences. How did you handle writing about something so close to home? Was it more fiction than non-fiction?
There are many incidents in the book that are based in my childhood, especially around the home life of Anke. This was definitely "write what you know!" I, too, had an abusive parent and felt like a piece of furniture. However, life is very convoluted and ragged, and I pasted a lot of fiction in between and over and under to make the story cohesive. I can easily say at this point that a good 90% of the book is fiction. It was not intended as an autobiography, by any means. When I was in high school, for instance, I lived just with my mom - my brother and sister are much older and were in college and grad school, and my father and mother got divorced before that. So Anke's world is created from pieces of my younger childhood with family and pieces of my teen life in school and volleyball. In the beginning, writing the poems was very raw, very truthful, and very difficult to read aloud. As I created a story it became more relaxing and I enjoyed the process.
How did Anke get her name? Do you find your characters' personalities and stories first, then their names, or do characters tend to come out of names you like?
Names of characters are fascinating to me. And they always come first for me, before I know exactly who the characters are and what's going on. When I am writing, a name just comes and it sticks. I very rarely change a name once I start it. Anke's name was simply there as I started writing. Yaicha (the sister) really did come from a song by the Pousette-Dart Band. Darren was the only name in the whole book that I changed part way through - I think his name was first Aaron, but that was too close to Anke for my liking.
You, like Anke, play volleyball. What do you love most about the sport?
Teammates! I love love love team sports. I ran track in high school and just felt alone the whole time, because even running a sprint relay you aren't exactly all skipping along together as a team, you run your tail off against other runners! In volleyball you can be the most amazing athlete all by yourself, but it means didley without the entire team communicating and working together. You congratulate each other, give a side-five when someone screws up, and celebrate and cry together. Invaluable lessons there.
Do you play any other sports?
Honestly, ever since 8th grade the only sport I crave is volleyball: indoor, beach, grass, anything. I have played it pretty darn consistently since 8th grade and I'm proud of that. I still play in tournaments.
Other sports...I love to ride my road bike, but again, that's kind of lonely for me. I hula hoop with my 5 year old - is that a sport? It should be.
Shouting "MY BALL!" on the court really helps Anke find her voice there and in other arenas. Can you recall a moment in your own life when you found and used your voice, loud and clear - or, looking back, wish you had?
For me the voice was never a problem - I'm an outgoing person and always have been. BUT, in my home life? Nope. And that is the 'normal' thing in a family of pain like that. You are raised into that atmosphere and it's hard to speak up. Too scared. I didn't really speak up about any of what my life was like till I was in college. I do wish I could have spoken up like Anke does, but I was much younger when my father was still in the house and didn't know my own power. Volleyball helped me find power in myself, but I didn't use it the way Anke does. Anke is a quieter character than I am, but she found it in herself to do what she had to.
Did you always intend to write young adult fiction?
I'm laughing! No! I never intended to write young adult fiction! I first wanted to write an adult novel. But... But yikes, those looked so long. So I realized writing a picture book would be wonderful and worked very hard on that for a number of years - and truly sucked at it. And one day while editing a picture book manuscript of torturous rhythms, I felt something burble up in me. I forced it down several times, but finally brought up a fresh page on my computer and started writing. Two hours later I had the beginning of BECAUSE I AM FURNITURE. And I realize that teens are my forte. I can go there very easily. So here I stay. For the moment.
Did you always plan for Because I Am Furniture to be a verse novel, or did it begin as a collection of poetry?
It is a novel in verse because I tend to think in free verse and that is how it came out; slurries of words, linking and winding together. I did not plan a novel at all. Actually, I didn't plan anything! I just wrote the poetry. But within ten poems, the first people I read them to thought it could be a novel. And off I went.
At your website, you say you've kept every poem you've ever written, except for one, because you can't find it...
The lost poem was written at a friend's house one summer (maybe I was eleven or so?) on a drippy night with a fire going. They had these fireplace andirons (you know, the things that hold up the logs) that were shaped like owls, and the owls had orange glass eyes that glowed and flickered with the fire. I wrote the poem about those andirons, and felt it was the best thing I had ever written. I left the poem at her house and when I went back the next day, someone had cleaned up and it was gone. Honestly, it is the only poem I have written that I lost entirely.
Have you attempted to (or would you ever attempt to) rewrite this poem?
I would not rewrite it because the mood of that evening was so great, that it's okay that it disappeared back into the smoke and rain.
What a great story! How old were you when you started writing poetry?
I don't honestly know. My earliest poetry collection starts when I was in middle school, but I did a lot of writing before that, before I put it into a book. Some time around ten years old I got obsessed with copying every poem into a book so I'd have them all. So I have all the poems (except the andiron poem) from that time on. I have some loose poems from a younger me in a box somewhere... not lost, but not in one of my books that are on my desk in front of me.
You have a lovely blog called Epiphany's Voice which features poems written by you in the voices of different characters. Anke appeared there recently to celebrate the book launch. Do you blog whenever inspiration strikes?
What I love about my blog is that I take photographs during the week, choose one, and then I start writing in whomever's voice pops up. Characters I sometimes don't know exist until I really look at the photo. Such fun! And very liberating. And sometimes not that great in terms of poetry - it's all an experiment and I love writing exercises. I tend to put an entry up each Sunday evening, so stay tuned!
I know some writers (myself included) are reluctant to talk about that which is unfinished, but would you like to discuss your work-in-progress? In our little pre-interview, you told me that you were "just in the California desert, chasing down your current main character," and I loved the sound of that.
I can tell you a bit about Vera (my main character at the moment) in that she arrived as all my characters seem to, first just in voice. I could tell she was sulking and pissed off and was not where she was supposed to be. Sound vague enough for ya? She was speaking a bit in a Western accent, and I remember telling my writer's group that I knew she was putting the accent on, it wasn't her. But she was so angry about something that she wouldn't talk to me. Frustrating! I tried sitting her down and saying, "Listen, lovey, you want me to tell your story, I have to hear from you." Nothin. I got the impression she had run away inland and was hiding, even from me, so I took a trip to the California desert. And there in the heat and sandblasting wind I found the desolate mining town she is in - I could feel her grinning as I got closer and her triumphant whoop when I found her. She talks to me now. She's actually very outspoken. But she'll stay pissed off about her circumstances till I can get her story out.
And that's all I can say for now. But you'll be hearing more eventually.
I look forward to reading/hearing her. What are your ten all-time favorite books?
Okay, I might change my mind in a day or so, but here goes, in no particular order because that would be impossibly hard for me:
1. Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey
2. Taash and the Jesters by Ellen McKenzie
3. My Side of the Mountain by Jean George
4. The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth Speare
5. House of Stairs by William Sleator
6. Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin
7. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
8. Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett
9. The New Policeman by Kate Thompson
10. Finally, any collection of great poets like e e cummings, Ogden Nash, and Issa
Visit Thalia's website.
For more stories like Anke's, consult the following booklists:
Tough Issues for Teens
Hey There, Sports Fan
Today's SBBT Schedule
Siobhan Vivian at Miss Erin
Alma Alexander at Finding Wonderland
Laurel Snyder at Shaken & Stirred
Cindy Pon at The YA YA YAs
Thalia Chaltas at Bildungsroman
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