Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Meet Donna Marie Seim!

Donna Marie Seim

In the past when I've interviewed authors, the posts have tended to be a bit long (I ask a lot of questions!) so this time around, I'm changing it up. We're going to spend not one, but two days getting to know Donna Marie Seim and her work. She is the author of two children’s books: a picture book, Where is Simon, Sandy? and a chapter book, Hurricane Mia! : A Caribbean Adventure, both set in the Caribbean and both illustrated by Susan Spellman. She has also written a memoir, short stories, and Charley!, a soon-to-be-released chapter book. Where is Simon, Sandy? was a recipient of the 2009 Mom's Gold Choice Award (USA) and was also a finalist in the Children's Picture Book category of the 2010 National Indie Excellence Awards (USA.) Seim is a graduate of Ohio State University, and holds a Master's degree in Special Education from Lesley University. When she is not in the Caribbean, she lives in Newbury, Massachusetts, USA with her husband, Martin, and her dog, Rags.

So tell us a little bit about yourself. What makes Donna Seim interesting?

Hi, Summer, I guess it is easier to talk about my writing than to talk about myself. My work with children, from being a childcare worker at a residential treatment home, to a teacher of children with special needs, have allowed me a special insight into the hearts of young readers. My years as an owner of a retail toy and book store have also given me the opportunity to see what children like to read and what is out there for them. And my daughter, Kristin, gets the credit for getting me to write down my family stories in my first book, Fifty Cents An Hour: My Life According To Me, which consists of humorous tales from my childhood having grown up in a large Irish Catholic Family on West 158th St. in Cleveland, Ohio. Once I started to write down my stories I was smitten, I had to write! P.S. I have a great sense of humor and I listen really well.

Please tell us about your children’s books. What are they about? Many authors speak of a personal relationship with their characters. Is there any behind-the-scenes gossip - or insights - about Mia or any of the other characters that you'd like to share?

Neisha, character in Hurricane Mia!
I have written another picture book, which is currently looking for a publisher. This is again an island-based story of a little girl who tries to catch and tame a wild horse. The main character is Satchi, who learns a hard lesson about what true friendship really is. My second novel, Charley, a biographical fiction, middle grade reader, is set in the early 1900’s. It is a story of a city boy from Boston who finds himself orphaned and placed in a dairy farming family in rural Maine. It is a tender story of a young boy’s quest to find a family.

Mia, illustrated by Susan Spellman
Yes, Summer, you are right on target about an author’s personal relationship with their characters. When you write about a character in a story you carry them around with you, in your head and in your heart. You give them obstacles to overcome and trials to endure, but in the end you want them to win as if they were your own children. The funny thing about Mia is that she is a composite of different complex feelings and emotions. Some of my readers, who know me well, think of Mia as me. But, Mia is very much her own person. It is I, the author, that made up her characteristics and gave her  foibles, but she is not me. Well, maybe a little bit…but not completely. I like to give my characters their own life, personal traits and feelings. The creation of your character to me, is one of the most delicate and yet creative parts of writing. If you have strong characters they help you tell the story!

Your children’s books are set in the Caribbean and everything about the books (the illustrations, language, characters etc.) strike me as being particularly “Caribbean.”  Yet you yourself are not from the Caribbean. Why write children’s books set in the Caribbean? What’s your connection to the region?

Yes Summer, you are correct! Both, Where is Simon, Sandy? and Hurricane Mia, are absolutely set in the Caribbean. I have been traveling to Grand Turk, and the Turks and Caicos Islands for over 35 years! My husband’s parents had a home there for many years. I fell in love with the Island of Grand Turk from my earliest visits. I have met and made treasured friendships with locals, ‘belongers’, as well as people from all over the world. It is a special place, and I have yearned to write about it. My husband and I now own a home on Grand Turk and travel back and forth to our island home. They say that travel inspires a writer and my islands speak to me.

Detail from Hurricane Mia
Illustration by Susan Spellman

It has often been debated whether or not authors can and should write books depicting cultures other than their own. Did you consider this when writing Where is Simon, Sandy? and Hurricane Mia? and what kind of research (if any) did you and your illustrator Susan Spellman do to be able to write and illustrate these books?

This is a very good question! But if I were to follow that rule, I could only write about Irish Catholics living in Cleveland Ohio! Hurricane Mia, is actually a multiplicity of cultures. Mia and her brother are from suburban Boston, they bring along with them their background and cultural traits. The Grandparents are from another generation, with their own values and unbending ways. When writing the story I was especially interested in the two girls interacting, learning and sharing their outlooks and “cultures”. It is Neisha who shares her knowledge of Bush Medicine that turns the tide and gives Mia a focus, to find the tea that cures everything. Mia and Neisha’s cultural differences intertwine throughout the story. They both are strong characters and yet in the end they both rely on each other. They aren’t blended but rather, learn from each other as they each grow to become true friends.

Donna during a sing-along at the Museum
In preparation for Hurricane Mia I did extensive research, some of which is listed under references at the back of the book, and interestingly enough from part of that research came the kernel for Where is Simon, Sandy?. Bryan Naqqi Manco, at that time an environmental officer of the Turks and Caicos Islands, took my husband and I on an eco tour of North and Middle Caicos. My hopes were to meet a true bush doctor and a granny, (midwife), for my research for Hurricane Mia, and we accomplished that, much to my delight. It was during that trip that Bryan told me the story of a little donkey who wouldn’t quit, and that was the beginning of Where is Simon, Sandy? I wrote it as a short story and sent it to the Turks and Caicos National Museum to put in their newsletter, or to simply read to the children in their Children’s Programme. Interested in preserving any of the oral culture passed down for generations the museum asked me if we could make it into a book. They were thrilled to have an actual folktale from their own island and the project of making the story into Where is Simon, Sandy? began!

The Turks and Caicos National Museum
Susan and I worked closely together on the artwork. She did some research, but mostly we used my photos taken on these islands. All the gates are actual gates found on Grand Turk and the antique building, which houses the Turks and Caicos National Museum, is depicted with a red tin roof in the last scene. The donkey cart is a true representation of the carts used for generations. The children in their school uniforms are actual children from my photos and some historic photos from the museum. The architecture, Bermudian in design from the days of the salt trade, is accurate down to the tin roofs and limestone walls giving the true timeless character of the island of Grand Turk.

Your first picture book, Where is Simon, Sandy? is about a donkey that wouldn’t quit and is a retelling of a well-known folktale from the Turks and Caicos Islands. Reviewers have claimed that before your book, the folk tale had never been written down before. Is this true? How did you come to learn about the folk tale and what inspired you to put it down on paper?

Oops, I guess I put the cart before the donkey on this question, since I have already told you how it came to be a book! And yes, to my knowledge, it has never been written down in a printed version or book of any kind. Some of the older folks remember it, but with the younger generation it was really beginning to slip away. I was told the donkey’s name was Buster, and someone else told me it was Joe, but there was a donkey who did deliver the water from the well with his master to the townspeople of Cockburn Town. When his master was no longer able to make the route, the donkey did it every day on his own, faithfully stopping at each and every gate at the same time every day. He became a pet or mascot for the town and the children loved to follow after him. I wrote this story because I felt that it was a true island treasure and should be saved and shared with the generations to come. The children on Grand Turk identify with the story and claim it as their own, which it truly is. They are proud of it!

Illustration from Where is Simon, Sandy?

Click here to read part 2 of my interview with Donna Marie Seim.