Throughout her life Bo Flood has enjoyed reading, writing, and the sharing of stories. Her work has focused primarily on children and young adults, as counselor, teacher, or parent. She has conducted workshops of child abuse, learning disabilities, play therapy, as well as creative writing.
Through either work or research, Bo has lived in Malawi, Africa, Hawaii, Japan, the western Pacific, and, most recently, the Navajo Nation Reservation. Legends and folklore are of particular interest to Bo, for they hold the magic and mystery of other people’s—or generation’s—beliefs. When we read, we learn—about ourselves and about someone, somewhere—or sometime—else.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing her.
About Nancy’s passions
- When did you get the idea for Warriors in the Crossfire? While you were living in [wikipop]Saipan [/wikipop]or after you left it?
NBF: I began, at least in my head, while we lived there. The people and their stories were sometimes a puzzle (how does one leap and fly?) and like a haiku, filled with layers of meaning. I met Mr. Filipe Ruak who survived WWII by hiding for weeks in a cave. Most of his family did not survive. Mr. Ruak was the keeper of the dances. Part of my work with the local arts council was helping his group of dancers fund-raise to travel to performances. We didn’t sell cookies; we sold coconuts and plate lunches.
While we worked, we shared stories. Mr. Ruak told me about his adventures—falling out of coconut trees, swimming with the turtles, falling in love on a full-moon night while playing hide-and-seek.
On Saipan, the aftermath of WWII was everywhere—rusting tanks and planes in the lagoon, Japanese cement bunkers pitted with bullet holes on every beach, and almost every family still recovering, wanting to talk about those who didn’t survive. I taught students who shared with me their family stories. I listened. I asked questions. I worked with the senior citizen groups, waited as they rolled betel nut in pepper leaves, sat and chewed, began to “talk story.”
Saipan is a tropical island in the western Pacific, the kind one imagines with sweeping white sand beaches and clear turquoise-blue waters. I stood at Suicide Cliff where hundreds leaped to their deaths. When I wrote Joseph’s story, I wanted to write a story of hope, realistic and honest, but also one that expressed not only the horror and destruction of war but the amazing resiliency of the human heart to forgive and rebuild.
- [wikipop]Betel nut[/wikipop]! I haven’t thought about that since I was small. The old men in Taiwan used to chew betel nut. So you were writing what you knew. But you were also writing a historical novel. How much research went into the book?
NBF: Beginning in 1995 I began my first draft of Warriors in the Crossfire. I wrote what I observed, heard, read, and what was shared with me to share with others. I poked around the archives reading what the first explorers of the Pacific described when they landed on Saipan and Guam back in the 1500’s. Many of those old descriptions were interpretations of what sailors thought they saw. Apparently all the women were good-looking and bare-breasted! I read early accounts, scientific accounts.
Research is more than reading. I swam with the turtles—and the sharks. I paddled out across the reef, got scared to death as sharks circled our kayak. I tipped over my kayak in the deep sea beyond the reef and was terrified. That’s what Kento felt and it was no fun. having the shadow of a shark slide over you is terrifying. It was also part of my research, though not one I had planned.
I sat with people on the beach, watched the waves as we talked, watched people catch octopus and bite off their sharp beaks. We sat, shared food and shared our stories. They told me about surviving the war, about their brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers who did not survive. They told me about the terrible thirst, the confusion, the smells—the horrid stink of war.
I watched the young boys put down their cell phones and i-pods and change from contemporary to traditional as they picked up their warrior sticks, formed two lines and began to chant, faster and faster, hitting their sticks, twirling and leaping, with the skill, strength and dexterity of gymnasts. I climbed with kids up the rugged volcanic slopes, bloodied my knees, walked into sticky spider webs, and paused to watch a kingfisher snatch a gecko and swallow it whole. That was research too.
Read it, live it, ask it. Then listen, listen, listen. Keep collecting images, sounds, smells, ideas, information. Remember the joy; kindle the passion, and begin writing.
- Wow! No wonder the story captured you. And no wonder it is so well written. You’ve been working on it, mulling it over and massaging it, for a good while. The time and love you gave the story, paid off. Can you pin down one thing that compelled you to tell Joseph’s story?
NBF: At [wikipop]Suicide Cliff on Saipan[/wikipop] there is a monument to those who died: “Better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.” This book is my attempt to light one candle.
- Well, you certainly brought to light an important piece of history, and forced us to look at, and to think about, the victims of war and the strength of human will. I’ve read some of your blog posts and some of your other books and you seem to be passionate about bringing native voices and stories to print. What spurs that passion?
NBF: Sally, you ask a hard question and an important question. Part of me wants to share the wonder, the wisdom of voices we may not hear. Like a kid walking the beach, when we find a treasure we want to share it.
There are many layers to answering your question. Part of me becomes angry when voices are silenced. Or have few listeners. Before sending a manuscript to an editor I ask a variety of people to review and critique it. When I have asked people from Saipan or Micronesia, the response I hear is, “Yes.” They ask me to put this in print for their children. Television is destroying how people share story, talk story. Children don’t want to listen to the old people; they want to text message or stare at a TV screen. This book is my very best attempt to honor their requests, to share their story.
- You’ve lived several interesting places. (All tropical or hot places, I believe. You need to get up to Alaska.) And you’ve set books in Saipan and the Desert Southwest. Are you planning to set books in any of the other places you’ve lived?
NBF: No Name Baby is a historical novel soon to be published by Namelos. This story is set in a place many of us are familiar with, the US mid-west, central Illinois, a coal-mining and farming area. The little town of Braidwood, settled by immigrant Italians and Bohemians (Czech), is the place of my childhood and the setting for this novel.
I will definitely be looking forward to that one. The title is hugely intriguing!
- Joseph’s mother prays to Mary and she named her children after saints. Was she Catholic or Eastern Orthodox?
NBF: Beginning in the 1500’s Spanish explorers “discovered” the chain of islands that include Saipan and Guam, claimed and named them the Northern Marianas Islands. The Spanish government sent Catholic missionaries—and soldiers—to convert the people on the islands. So many of the people living on Saipan are Catholic. Joseph’s family was Catholic in the book.
Oh, yeah, the soldiers and the forced conversions are pretty sad. Maybe you’ll write a book about that one day, eh?
- The poetry in the book is beautiful. But I’m a little confused about what the writing was that Joseph was learning on the beach. If he went to school and he could read, what was Kento teaching him?
NBF: Kento was teaching him additional Kanji characters. In order to read Japanese fluently, one needs to learn several thousand characters. Joseph had a long way to go.
- I see. Thanks. Do the people of Saipan today still hunt turtles as they did in your book? Or do they use more modern methods, or do they not hunt them at all anymore?
NBF: Both the [wikipop]green and hawksbill turtles [/wikipop]are on the endangered species list, so hunting is not allowed. Turtles are still hunted, in the traditional manner, on more remote islands throughout Micronesia.
I learned a lot about turtles and turtle hunting from Joseph Ruak, the son of Filipe Ruak. After graduating from the University of Northern Colorado, Joe now works for the US Division of Wildlife to create educational programs to increase awareness of the environment, protection of wild life, fisheries, etc.
- How long did the book take, from conception to final edit?
NBF: Years and years. I began in 1995 and was finishing the final (who knows what number) edit just a few months before publication this year. Each edit felt like the “final” edit, but a few months later I would pick up the pages and revise it all over again. It took a long time, and the final story is much different, and I believe much better, than where it started.
- Can you tell us how long the editing process took after the book was contracted? How many times do you go back and forth with your editor?
NBF: Book publishing is a rough field these days, and I had to switch editors midway through the process. I thank Kent Brown, the publisher at Boyds-Mills Press, for believing in the book and allowing Joy Neaves to complete the editing process. I think Joy is one of the outstanding children’s book editors working today. I cannot count the number of revisions the book went through. It was a lot.
- What advice do you have for new writers who want to learn to write authentic dialogue?
NBF: If you believe in a story, don’t give up until you have it right.
For more on this book, visit these sites: