Welcome, Victoria! Thank you so much for stopping by our site to talk to us about your work. Let’s get right to it. Can you share a bit about the ZORA & ME trilogy as a whole? Where did the idea for the trilogy come from?
First, hello and thank you! I deeply appreciate the access to this community and its support! Middle grade novels meet readers, well, in the middle of so many things: growing up, trying out new ideas, figuring out who they are, and deciding what values they stand for. I feel a responsibility writing for an audience that consciously recognizes that they are in the midst of a huge, life-altering shift. That’s true of all of us all the time, of course. Especially now, in the middle of both the pandemic and the efforts to call out and end white supremacy and systemic racism, it’s hard not to confront some of the hard realities we’re surrounded by. In the Zora and Me books, we’ve wanted to discuss some of those hard realities, but in the context of community, hope, and true friendship.
The series was literally born in a universe far away called 2007. I had just finished writing a novel that was horrible. Tanya Simon, my friend and Zora and Me co-creator, read my first post-MFA book, and agreed that it didn’t work. But she mentioned that she liked the young people characters. I said I enjoyed writing them. Not too long after that, Tanya invited me over to her house for lasagna and told me her idea about a middle grade series starring Zora. In this NYT piece, Tanya discusses some of her motivations, which are personal and political. She wanted to create a spunky, mystery-solving Black heroine for her own daughter who she was pregnant with at the time. She also wanted to create that genius Black girl heroine for all kids. Because Tanya has a background in anthropology, in part, Zora was already in her mind as a specific kind of iconoclastic embodiment. Clearly, I jumped aboard! I was always deeply compelled by Zora’s writing and her hometown, Eatonville, Florida, the first all-Black incorporated town in the US. As much as these books are about Zora, they’re also about an early 20th century Black community. For me, in so many ways, that’s been an intellectual joy to explore and something I’m deeply grateful I’ve had the opportunity to do.
I’d love to hear more about your working relationship with T.R. (Tanya) Simon. You two co-wrote the first book, she wrote the second book, and you wrote the final one — THE SUMMONER, which publisher this October. What has the experience been like?
For years, Tanya and I tried to settle on a story for the second novel. There were elements of each other’s outlines that we liked, but whenever either of us would try to wrench those elements into a single novel, in at least two drafts, the work was just not coherent. We decided to divide those ideas out into the final two installments and I am so pleased with where we landed, and how connected and cohesive each volume remains to the first. More than that I’m relieved that Tanya and I remain friends and such proud co-creators of this series!
Do you remember when you first discovered the work of Zora Neale Hurston? What did it mean to you then, and has that changed over the course of working on these books?
I was a sophomore in high school when my godmother gave me the collection of Zora’s work, I Love Myself When I Am Laughing…and Then Again When I am Looking Mean and Impressive, edited by Alice Walker. I was bookish and a theater kid and people were always telling me that I spoke too loudly, or that they loved the way I dressed, or that I looked weird, that I was really smart one day, and a complete idiot the next. Like many of us, as a result, I internalized truck-loads of self-doubt. The Zora anthology though started to chip away at it. Those writings forced me to think about what I thought about myself and how I would choose to articulate my self-respect irrespective of what voices were coming at me daily. This was a huge leap for me personally, one I continue to take, and I have my godmother, Alice Walker, and of course Zora herself to thank. Zora modeled the Black woman as a fearless intellectual force committed to recording the life of her community. If Zora could do all that, I started to feel like “Who cares if people think I’m weird? I have to figure out what I want to do!”
What sort of research did you do before and while writing these books? Is the research process one you enjoy?
I’ve reread Hurston’s novels, stories, plays, essays, and autobiography. I’ve read Valerie Boyd’s wonderful biography of Hurston Wrapped in Rainbows a few times. I’ve also returned to the work of Hurston’s contemporaries such as Langston Hughes and Jessie Redmond Faucet who are two of my favorites. At the beginning of the series, I found that considering the preoccupations of some of Hurston’s contemporaries seeded in me things I ended up using. That became less true as time went on because my interests shifted.
In the 1930s, Zora photographed a woman named Felicia in a hospital courtyard who had been thought to be years dead before she showed up at her family’s farm, broken, bewildered, and for the most part without speech. The family had buried the woman and now here she was; there was no denying her identity. Zora was in Haiti at the time doing anthropological work, heard about Felicia’s case, and went to visit her. Zora took this photograph of Felicia, and Zora as a photographer fascinated me almost as much as the photo itself. These are points that I ended up working into The Summoner. Before I started working on the novel though I was familiar with the idea of the zombie being rooted in the history of enslavement. But as I kept digging, forgive the pun, for information on graveyards and grave robberies, the issue of medical racism started to loom large. In many places in the US, the use of white cadavers for medical research was banned, looked down upon, or made illegal. This means that historically a lot of medical research done in the US was conducted on Black bodies and our biological matter. The Henrietta Lacks case, for example, is one of the most high profile instances of racism and white supremacist erasure continuing after death, and for Henrietta into immortality. Yes, the reach of racism extends beyond the grave. By including in this novel the history of what scholars call “postmortem racism” I wanted to say to middle grade readers, You think racism is a crazy, evil, atrocity? Well, here’s more evidence to add to the case.
Was there anything you learned in your research that didn’t make it into the books, but that you wanted to include?
What a good question! This is not something that I learned researching necessarily, but it was a historical element that I kept trying to work into The Summoner that in the end was edited out for streamlining purposes. In every draft, except for the published one, there’s a passage about the Great Migration of African Americans from the south to the north and midwest. I kept thinking that Zora and Carrie would have known or at least heard of families that made this journey. I’m a little sad the passage didn’t make it to the final.
Why do you think it’s important for kids to explore history – and this history in particular? What sort of role does fiction have in that exploration?
Another good question! I think it’s so easy for kids and all of us really to think that history, especially difficult ones where violence and oppression feature prominently, as it did in the Jim Crow south, don’t have anything to do with us. We’re not those people in that strange, far away place who did those horrible things, or could endure living such-and-such way. What fiction does is undermine all the pomposity, safety, and security we feel in being who we are now. And it puts words and ideas in our bones that transport us to a then where we care about what happens to people who are not us because we’ve imagined and inhabited their lives, in their times, in their way. And that’s all to say that stories like the ones I’ve written should give us insight into how the history we think is so far away is actually uncomfortably close. While writing this book I would sometimes think about Michael Brown’s lifeless body left in the street in Ferguson for four hours. I would also think about Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old, left to bleed in the street alone as his sister wept and begged police officers to comfort her brother in his last moments. The grim spectacle of Black death has permeated our lives. In The Summoner I used the idea of the zombie and the history of medical research to get at that point another way.
What do you hope your readers – especially the young ones – take away from the ZORA & ME books?
I just hope readers enjoy the books and want to hug their friends a little harder after reading them, which many of us are desperate to do anyway because of the pandemic.
Many of our site’s readers are teachers and librarians of Middle Grade-aged kids. Is there anything you’d like to say to them – in particular those planning to add the ZORA & ME books to their classrooms and libraries?
Zora Neale Hurston is truly an extraordinary historical figure. What our series tries to do is build out the extraordinary and ordinary world that contributed to who Zora became with historical realities intact. Some of what these books are about includes gender, race, white hostility and racially motivated violence. But they’re also about family dynamics, friendship, and love. I wrote this last book thinking about the election of 2016. Irrespective of what happens in our democracy in 2020, The Summoner makes an interesting vehicle for thinking through civic communities and why exactly people cast their vote for one candidate over another. There’s a lot to explore in these books! The times are begging for teaching opportunities like the ones this series provides. Teachers, librarians: go for it!
When can readers get their hands on THE SUMMONER?
October 13, 2020! Order/pre-order the entire series NOW!!
Where can readers find you online, and how can they learn more about you and your work?
I’m in the middle of putting together a website! The address is victoriabondauthor.com. My fingers are crossed it will be up by the time this interview posts. Thanks again!!