Community and Collaboration: Speaks with the Authors of Zora and ME

Feb 24, 2011

Victoria Bond and T.R. Simon recently won the Coretta Scott King New Talent (Author) award for 'Zora and Me,' a novel that reimagines Zora Neale Hurston as a young girl. caught up with them to find out how the idea for the book was born and what it's like to write with your best friend.

By Megan Driscoll

victoria bond and t.r. simon What are your educational backgrounds, and how did each of you become a writer?

Victoria Bond: I graduated from Vassar College in 2001 with a B.A. in English. My senior thesis project was a collection of poems called 'Passing for Gary Cooper.' As a kid, I always idolized poets and came to writing as a poet, though I also loved reading novels. I have an MFA in poetry from Brooklyn College.

T.R. Simon: I graduated from Tufts University in 1989 with a B.A. in English and later received an M.A. in cultural anthropology from the Graduate Faculty at the New School for Social Research. I've always been a reader, and in my forties I finally tried my hand at writing. What attracted each of you to children's literature?

VB: I'm not sure I'm attracted to children's literature as much as I am writing stories with children as protagonists in contexts where justice ultimately dictates the narrative's outcome.

T.R.S: I'm a lifelong fan of children's literature. From The Secret Garden to Gossip Girl, I love reading about young people discovering themselves and the world around them. I love the entitlement to emotions in younger protagonists and in younger readers. Children's books show kids how to be in the world and help us, grownups, remember how we were. Is there a better combo? How did you two meet, and how did you end up writing a book together?

VB: We met ten years ago while working in publishing. I only stayed in that job a year, but during that time Tanya and I became close friends. When she came up with the idea of writing a mystery inspired by the early life of Zora, I was intrigued and interested for many reasons. One of them was I loved talking to Tanya, and writing a book seemed a way we could have a really dynamic, challenging, ongoing conversation.

T.R.S: I love Vicky's voice and I've always thought we complement each others' interests well in our relationship, so asking her to write with me was a no-brainer. How did you come up with the idea for 'Zora and Me'?

VB: This one is all Tanya.

T.R.S: When I was pregnant with my daughter I began to imagine the kinds of books I'd read to her and that she'd eventually read for herself, and the idea of creating a book for her came to me. I imagined a wild, willful, beautiful, daring and brilliant protagonist and there was young Zora, beckoning me down a trail of heartbreak and redemption. Is there a particular message you wanted to convey with this story? Were you hoping to introduce Zora Neale Hurston to a young audience?

VB: Yes, we were hoping to introduce Zora to a younger audience because she is such a unique role model, one I wish I'd had as an adolescent, who - like so many of us - was into books and dressing weird and grew up to do something creative. Zora stood out in her life like a bright star. She was also abused and ignored. She lived a life in the service of her mind and the world that had produced it, and so she preserved for the future a historical slice of America's sociocultural soul. Zora's life, however selfish or strange it must have at times appeared, was consumed by a drive for the greater good, and I think our kids need more examples of how to act in service of others and posterity, whether it's collecting folklore or becoming a doctor.

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I think the notion of a greater good has less status than the ethos of individual success in our society. One thing Zora believed in firmly was the power of individuals. She also devoted her life's work to exploring the lives of individuals as members of groups, larger communities.

Speaking of communities, one message the novel aims squarely to convey is how proud all of us should be of our hometowns, whether those are places on a map or (figuratively and very cornball of me) the people we carry in our hearts. I think a vital piece of finding your place in the world is not being ashamed of where you come from.

T.R.S: We want young readers to think about personal identity, to consider the meaning of home, to claim the importance of friendship and, most importantly, to dare to imagine a world in which their desires and needs can find fulfillment in the complexity of life as we live it. Is this your first collaboration, or a first novel for either of you?

VB: Yes, this is our first collaboration, but we talked about doing a project together for years. This is just the first one that went the most beyond talking into doing.

This is my second try at a novel. Tanya pitched the Zora idea to me when I had just finished working on my first as a solo, and the timing was perfect. I had spent a year composing a shipwreck, but one treasure I managed to pull from the ruins was that I liked writing kid characters and inhabiting their emotional worlds. The idea of Zora as a child spoke to what I newly recognized in myself as a possible strength.

T.R.S: Zora is our first, but not our last! Are there any projects in the works that you can discuss?

VB: In fact, the longer we know each other, the more stuff we come up with to work on together. In terms of Zora, it's a trilogy, and we are immersed in the second book. What advice would you give to a young person who's thinking about pursuing a career in writing?

VB: To read, read, read. And observe people. And limit all contact with social media.

T.R.S: To read, write, observe and, above all, feel. Only feeling people will save this world, and we need as many of them as we can get! Finally, I'd like to offer you both the chance to share anything you'd like about your writing careers and the 'Zora and Me' project.

VB: I feel so lucky to have made something 1) in celebration of a great life, 2) with a sweet message for the world and 3) with my best friend!

T.R.S: I couldn't have put it better!

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