- Who was your favorite character to write and why?
My favorite character to write was the library aide who’s really a double agent, a kid from a bigoted family who’s subversively countering their efforts. She appears only in one scene, but she’s a dramatic and passionate personality. Memorable.
She surprised me, and her voice just rolled out, immediately wholly realized.
It’s too easy, especially in the teen years, for people to quickly categorize each other based on superficial coding or familial history. Family is powerful, and it can be a curse or blessing. But family is not destiny.
That character is a reminder that who we become isn’t all nature or nurture. It’s self-determination, choice and conviction, too.
- What was the most difficult element to cut/change during the revision process and why?
As the story went on, I held back on some of the anger that Lou, my protagonist, might let herself feel when confronted with minimizing and marginalizing stereotypes about Native people. She’s principled, and at times absolutely does stand up for what’s right. But at other times she swallows a bit of the poison before spitting any back out.
That’s true to life. We’re all taught to pick our battles to maintain credibility, and none of us have the emotional capacity to be routinely engaging full force.
Beyond that, I was mindful of the overarching narrative.
Hearts Unbroken is largely a love story. Lou has a genuinely comedic voice and the reader takeaway is intended to be healing and hopeful. I wanted to provide a vicarious catharsis for Native teen readers but also to lift them up.
- When you are writing, do you write in silence? If not, what’s your soundtrack?
Historically, I’ve written to music thematically tied to the themes of the project.
But lately, I find myself playing aquarium videos to spa music on my television. They calm and center me, and they make my writing space feel like a spa.
- How does teaching at VCFA affect your writing life?
Teaching at VCFA offers many blessings but one of them is continuing craft education. I’ve learned so much from my colleagues and students, and that, in turn, has broadened and heightened my body of work.
For example, I’ve long cautioned MFA students researching potential advisors that, while I love reading poetry for young people, I’m not someone who’d ever write or teach it.
In retrospect, I was a child poet, so that shouldn’t be so surprising. But formal education distanced me from that part of myself. I’m grateful to VCFA for nurturing it back again.
- Do you have a favorite VCFA memory?
I have, two!
My earliest favorite VCFA memory is springs from my earliest days of teaching. I recall sitting with fellow faculty member and legendary author Marion Dane Bauer (now retired) as she reminisced about the early days of young adult book writing and publishing.
I remember her kindness and gentle humor and how that conversation made me feel more grounded at the school and in the field, like I belonged in our literary world.
Years later, I had the opportunity to teach a workshop with Rita Williams-Garcia. We’d been hired together back in 2005, and Rita is one of the best humans on the planet.
I learned and laughed, and we worked so well together. You could feel the magic in the room. She retired a few years ago, and I miss her being on campus. But I’ll always adore and respect her so, so much.
- What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?
Embrace fluidity and opportunity! If you really want a long-term, fulfilling writing life, you’ll need to be open to self-evolution.
Take advantage of graduate study to read and write across formats, genres, and age categories. You’ll build confidence and transferable skills, all while bolstered by the support of an enthusiastic community and the guidance of the profoundly committed faculty.
- Thank you so much, Cynthia, for taking the time to talk to us about Hearts Unbroken and your writing life!