April 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Sizzling Seventies: Meg Medina on “Burn Baby Burn”

Spring Latino Books-MedinaThe latest from Pura Belpré Award–winning author and CNN Visionary Woman Meg Medina centers on 17-year-old Nora Lopez’s coming-of-age in tumultuous 1977 New York City. Not only does the high school senior have to contend with a suffocating heat wave and a citywide blackout, she must also fear for her safety at home (because of her abusive brother) and on the streets (because of the notorious serial killer the Son of Sam). Medina tackles burgeoning feminism, first love, disco music, and family violence in her stellar Burn Baby Burn (Candlewick, 2016; March 8).

How long did it take to write Burn Baby Burn?

It took about a year and a half to write and another year or so to edit and polish. I began drafting in early 2013, just before Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass (Candlewick) was published. I like to dive into writing a new project when something else is about to go out into the world. It helps calm my nerves as I wait for the book birth. My first editorial notes with [my editor] Kate Fletcher were from April 2014, and then there were many drafts until the novel went into final copyediting in March 2015. The whole process all the way to publication was about three years.

What inspired you to write this historical fiction novel set in the recent past?

As usual, I began with a personal connection. I’ve never forgotten the experience of living in New York City in the mid-1970s—easily considered one of the worst periods in its history. I was only 13 then, much younger than Nora Lopez. But I remember the city’s almost surreal decay. Bankruptcy loomed, so teachers and other city workers would cash their paychecks as fast as possible in case there were no funds. Arsonists torched buildings for insurance money or for kicks. And, if the high crime wasn’t already bad enough, a serial killer emerged, murdering young couples in their cars. He called himself Son of Sam. The murders cast a very particular chill over the city because we became collectively paranoid. We’d check the papers daily for his rambling letters to the New York Daily News about where he’d strike next. That summer, while he was still on the loose, we were plunged into a heat wave and a subsequent blackout that unleashed three days of full-scale looting. Really, if you were making this up, someone might tell you it was too over-the-top to believe. And yet, it’s all true.

What drew me to write about it now, though, is that I see so many similar issues bubbling today. Teens today go to school against a backdrop of senseless violence. What are they to think about shooter drills, televised beheadings, or police brutality? We continue to struggle violently around issues of economic disparities and institutional racism and how we define feminism, particularly within different economic classes. Heroin. Disco biscuits. I could go on. It’s not really different at all.

The details of that particular summer of 1977 New York are especially vivid—from the suffocating heat wave to the claustrophobic terror of the Son of Sam. What kind of research did you do to get the setting just right?

I am not a historian, so I began writing with a fear that I would not know how to conduct research or that I would handle it with clumsy sensibilities. We’ve all read books where the historical details feel stuck onto the story. In the end, though, research ended up being the unexpected joy of this novel. It was like time travel.

My first line of attack was memory—certainly unreliable, but valuable in reaching both emotional truths and realistic details. I used my own memories of products, street names, and fashions, but I also spoke to others who lived those days, too. My friend, John, for example, worked as a gas station attendant in Queens that summer. He remembers when the tow trucks brought a car from one of the Son of Sam crime scenes. Its windshield was shattered, and the body was covered in fingerprint dust. I spoke to a detective who had worked on the task force assigned to find the killer, which operated out of my neighborhood police precinct in Flushing. I also read blogs written by people who had danced at all the local discos and those who had lived through the blackout. I even trolled high school yearbooks for names, faces, the prices of things, and the places where the senior class took a trip.

Catalogues from stores at the time were essential—and, might I add, hilarious. (I still want to know who thought matching his-and-her jumpsuits should be a thing.) Gertz, Ohrbach’s, Alexander’s—those names may not mean anything today, but that’s where a kid in Queens was dragged [to go] shopping [with] her mother. I also combed archives on television listings, radio shows, and concert listings so I’d know what Nora could have been watching on any given night.

For research on specific events, I took advantage of the archives for the National Organization of Women, housed at New York University, so that I could see primary sources detailing the marches and events that went on in the mid-1970s—some of which the newspapers covered with only the briefest mention.

Finally, I spent hours in the microfilm library reading the New York Daily News and the New York Times, so that I could experience the unfolding of drama—especially the murders—in the same way I would have experienced it in 1977. (It was almost as scary.) Today, we have instant access to information via cell phone, Twitter, and other social media platforms. But in 1977, there was a lapse between an event and the time you could read about it in the paper or see it reported on TV. That lapse made an impact on the plot in terms of the time line and what Nora could have known at different times.

Meg_Medina3This work centers on the dreams and fears of Nora Lopez, whose impoverished family is dealing with juvenile abuse, among other things. Why did you think it was so important to bring this kind of story to light?

Generally speaking, I write stories that name the experience of growing up. There are beautiful experiences we have with our families growing up, and there are brutal ones. In this novel, I focused on a brutal one.

In the case of juvenile domestic violence—e.g., children being violent against parents—I felt it was important because it is an issue that is so chronically underreported. When we think of violent homes, we typically think of violent parents, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Anyone in the family can be violent. Unfortunately, juvenile domestic violence is doubly shrouded in secrecy. Parents are ashamed to come forward. And in the case of families where there are language, cultural, or economic barriers, like Nora’s, the likelihood of seeking help is very low. Even if the family were willing to speak out, you’d still have to find providers who could communicate and understand the nuances of culture and how it impacts the problem.

You juggled several themes in this novel—burgeoning feminism, mental health, racism, even romance. How did you keep a balance among all of these topics?

It was unwieldy at times. I kept in mind that the city in all its decay was working as a mirror to the many ways in which Nora’s life was unraveling, too. It wasn’t one single thing that was wrong. It was the mounting sense of everything going wrong at once.

I didn’t try to balance anything consciously. Instead, I put my efforts in keeping the tension in Nora’s life in sync with the historical time line that I couldn’t change: for example, the dates of the blackout or when the murders and shootings occurred. As Nora moved through those historical events, her choices and perspectives were guided by the reality around her. Feminism, her daily dose of violence, falling in love, her role within her family—all of those things impacted her actions.

I especially enjoyed the variety of relationships and support systems that Nora has in this novel—from her best friend to her teachers and boss and even her community’s local activist. How did you set out to create all of these secondary characters and make them as organic to the narrative as the primary protagonists?

I try not to think about them as being secondary. When a character is on the page, they get their time to shine—or to reveal their flaws. It might just be for a sentence or two, but it’s their spotlight.

I did give a lot of thought to Nora’s search for a healthy family as I found people to add to her world, though. That’s because I believe that sometimes kids have to cobble together a family from people who are not related to them biologically. Sadly, sometimes our families cannot give us what we need physically or emotionally. But if kids can find a way to find support from at least one person who loves them and believes in them, they have a chance of developing a strong sense of self. The important thing, I think, is the idea that it’s possible to draw what you need from others around you, if you pick wisely.

Is there a character with whom you most identify? Which character was the most difficult to write? Who is your favorite character?

I can easily identify with different aspects of all of them. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to write them. I do love Nora, though. Her internal monologue felt familiar to me. Her sense of wanting life to hurry up so she could get started on her own is certainly how I felt at 17.

My favorite character is Stiller because she is so honest and because she is fearless. She is a realist with steel nerves. She calls things out without shame or limit—and that is something that can be hard for me in real life. Interestingly, I also found her the hardest to write because, while I knew her living situation, her neighbors, and her personality, I was writing outside my cultural and racial experience. That’s a huge responsibility. I had to ask myself harder and more nuanced questions about Stiller. What was feminism from her perspective, as opposed to Nora’s and the MacInerneys’? How would Stiller interpret the landlord’s bullying tactics and housing laws in 1977? And, most interesting to me, what would be the strains between Stiller and neighbors like the MacInerneys—particularly after the blackout when finger pointing and racially charged accusations exploded? Her experience deserved to be fully drawn. When I was done researching and drafting, I sought the advice of several colleagues who are seasoned writers and women of color. I also asked bookish friends who would have been about Stiller’s age in 1977. They all gave me invaluable feedback, which I included. I hope I did Stiller justice; I tried my best.

You write books across formats and age groups. Do you often work on multiple types of books at the same time?

I am terrible at writing more than one book at a time. I try and try, but I just can’t immerse myself in more than one universe for long without getting confused. It feels like trying to watch two movies at once. Forget it!

What are some of your favorite YA authors writing today?

I think we’re in a golden age of literature for teens, so I find that question almost impossible to answer. There is just so much quality writing being published for teens, works that speak to far more than love interests and parties. I literally have dozens and dozens of authors whose work I adore—especially newer authors who are coming to the table with the stories of diverse people. But if pressed, here are a few whose work has considerable shelf space in my library: Sonya Hartnett, Benjamin Alire Saenz, David Almond, Elizabeth Wein, Jackie Woodson, Kwame Alexander, and Margarita Engle.

What are you working on next?
I’m working on a middle grade novel under contract with Candlewick. I’m looking at that sliver of time when we start shedding kickball and have to stare into the scary face of defining what’s next. That’s all I know for now.

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Shelley Diaz About Shelley Diaz

Shelley M. Diaz (sdiaz@mediasourceinc.com) is School Library Journal's Reviews Team Manager and SLJTeen newsletter editor. She has her MLIS in Public Librarianship with a Certificate in Children’s & YA Services from Queens College, and can be found on Twitter @sdiaz101.

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