Author Interview: Lisa Rivero on her real-life title character, writing middle-grade historical fiction and indie publishing

From its opening scene, on a hot South Dakota day in July 1904, Lisa Rivero’s new middle-grade novel captures the imagination of its readers with a lively protagonist, authentic historical details and the stark realities of homesteading.

This is the paperback cover of Lisa Rivero’s new middle-grade novel, published in August 2011.

OSCAR’S GIFT: PLANTING WORDS WITH OSCAR MICHEAUX, historical fiction geared toward ages 8-12,  was published last month in paperback and ebook format. It’s a story about family. About America. About race. About dreams and hopes and gifts and how to make the most of a new situation.

Tomas, the 11-year-old protagonist, must learn to farm and to embrace his mother’s choices after the death of his father. Despite the historical context, Tomas’ coming-of-age journey is something that modern-day middle schoolers will relate to. Lisa doesn’t sugarcoat his impressions of his new life—or his fears—and the result is an honest, engaging narrative.

“I used to think that life was like that walnut shell game,” Tomas ruminates at the beginning of OSCAR’S GIFT. “It didn’t matter how hard I tried or how much I hoped. In the end, whether I chose the right shell was pure luck. Sometimes things worked out. Sometimes they didn’t. Mostly they didn’t.”

Oscar Micheaux, the African-American title character, was a real person, and Lisa grew up on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota where Oscar homesteaded. Although OSCAR’S GIFT is intended for “young historians,” it’s a lovely read for adults, illuminating a particular piece of American history that many of us haven’t studied since our school days. I was charmed by the voice and by how Lisa slipped historical details into a seamless flow of story—and I look forward to sharing this book with my daughter when she gets a little older.

Lisa, a college writing teacher at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, has written four other education-themed books, including THE SMART TEENS’ GUIDE TO LIVING WITH INTENSITY and A PARENT’S GUIDE TO GIFTED TEENS: LIVING WITH INTENSE AND CREATIVE ADOLESCENTS, both published in 2010 by Great Potential Press.

OSCAR’S GIFT is available in paperback through Amazon and as an e-book for Kindle. You can read more about OSCAR’S GIFT on Goodreads and on Lisa’s website.

Welcome to the Seven Questions series, Lisa!

1. Tell us about OSCAR’S GIFT: PLANTING WORDS WITH OSCAR MICHEAUX. What’s it about, and who is the target audience?

Lisa Rivero

OSCAR’S GIFT is a work of historical fiction for readers ages 8 to 12 (and up). I add the “and up” because I’ve found that adults are enjoying the story, as well. The book is about an 11-year-old son of Swedish immigrants, Tomas, at the beginning of the 20th century. His father has recently died, and he and his mother are trying their luck in a land lottery for homesteads in South Dakota. There he meets Oscar Micheaux, who also hopes for a homestead. The story follows Tomas and Oscar for the next year.

In real life, Oscar Micheaux did homestead in South Dakota, but he is better known as America’s first African-American feature film maker who made 44 films, including some based on novels he wrote about his homesteading experience. Micheaux has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and last year the United States Postal Service Micheaux on the 33rd stamp in the Black Heritage series.

2. How did you discover Oscar’s story? Did you know right away that you had found your next book subject?

I didn’t know I had found my next book subject, but I knew as soon as I discovered the historical figure of Oscar Micheaux that I had to learn more about him. He homesteaded in the same county where my grandparents lived, yet I knew nothing about him until I was an adult. His life and career are fascinating!

3. Lisa, what was the writing process like for OSCAR’S GIFT? How did it differ from your nonfiction projects?

The research aspect (which I love) was similar, so that was the bridge between nonfiction and fiction. Creating the character of Tomas was new for me, and about half way through the story, he sort of took off and showed me where he needed to go. That was definitely a new experience, and one I’m eager to repeat.

In many other ways, though, the writing process wasn’t all that different. When I write nonfiction, I usually don’t come up with a detailed outline until I’ve done quite a bit of writing, allowing the material to find its own shape, and then I reconsider and redirect the writing once I know what the shape is. The same thing happened with OSCAR’S GIFT.

4. I’m fascinated by the concept of using a historical figure in fiction. Please tell us about your research process and how you balanced facts with story development.

Oscar Micheaux

Creating a fictional story based on real events and characters is an amazing and satisfying challenge and one that I definitely want to do again. I learned as much as I could about Oscar Micheaux and the geographical area and time period. My first attempt at the story featured Oscar as the protagonist, and it was only later that I added the character of Tomas and allowed him to tell the story. His life, which is entirely fictional, would bump up against Oscar’s life, which I tried to make as true to what we know about him as I could, and the result was something new. The book is definitely a work of fiction, not a biography, but woven through it are the threads of history.

One example is a scene where Tomas’s family and Oscar attend a barn dance. Micheaux biographer Patrick McGilligan has written that Oscar would attend dances where he “mingled more with the children, amusing them by singing, according to colloquial accounts, the Scottish ‘Any Rags,’ popularized at the turn of the century. I learned from the director of the Oscar Micheaux Center, Jerry Wilske, that “Oscar was a good dancer and singer. Women wanted to dance with him and have their daughters dance with him, but he declined because of the unwritten law of mixing socially and romantically with white females.” That latter aspect is fascinating background knowledge but not really appropriate for a middle-grade story.

Here is an excerpt of how that information played out in Oscar’s Gift:

Oscar did not dance with the adults. He entertained the children, who were in the corner of the barn opposite the fiddlers. He sang a song called “Any Rags?” and danced while he sang. “Did you ever hear the story of Ragged, Jagged Jack?” he sang. “Here he comes down the street with a pack on his back.” He hunched over and made a face of mock misery. “Any rags, any bones, any bottles today?” he sang. “It’s the same old story, in the same old way.” The children roared with laughter. He was a good dancer and singer.

5. What has your indie author experience been like so far? Any advice for writers who are considering launching their stories into the world?

I decided to publish OSCAR’S GIFT myself only after a lot of thought and when I was sure of why I was doing so: to learn something new, to get the story in the hands of readers most likely to enjoy it, and to have fun. The entire process has been much more rewarding than I’d expected. For as long as I can remember, I’ve enjoyed what I now see are forms of self-publishing, from hand-made collections of poems and stories when I was a little girl to a self-published newsletter (that was mentioned in the Detroit Free Press) when our son was small to blogging. I’m very much a do-it-yourselfer.

The ebook version of OSCAR’S GIFT includes historical photos.

As much as I’m a fan of the greater control and freedom offered by indie authorship and am excited by its possibilities, I would caution writers–newer writers in particular–not to let the lure of indie publishing become a shortcut for the time it takes for writing to simmer and mature. I wrote OSCAR’S GIFT over two years before I published it, got feedback from several readers of all ages, had the benefit of critiques from editors as it was submitted by an agent, and sent it to an Oscar Micheaux expert to double-check historical accuracy. Because a story or book can be available on Amazon literally within an hour or so of deciding to publish it, writers can be tempted to publish work before it is ready. If the choice of indie authorship is coming from a sense of immediate desperation, take a deep breath and wait awhile. You might still choose to self-publish, but you’ll have made sure it’s for the right reasons. When done right, it’s a long, deliberate process, especially for a self-publishing beginner like me.

6. You’re an incredibly prolific blogger. Where can people find you online, and what’s the focus of each of your blogs?

Thank so much! My son follows several blogs by political writers and economists, who tend to post several times a day, so I don’t always feel I’m prolific. I have found, though, that blogging has rekindled my love of writing and also taps into my early journalism experience.

My author/writing blog is Writing Life where I blog about writing topics and life in general.

At Everyday Intensity, I write about education, creativity, parenting, and giftedness topics, which are the focus of my non-fiction books.

At Psychology Today, my blog is Creative Synthesis.

7. What are you working on now, Lisa?

For a few years I’ve been transcribing diaries kept by a great-aunt during her life on the Great Plains. The diaries span from 1920 through much of 1957. She wrote every single day and often re-wrote entries to make them clearer or more legible. Her story is an inspiration for me, both as a woman and a writer, and I’m working toward using it in some work of fiction or creative non-fiction (that “shape” I’d mentioned before hasn’t revealed itself yet!).

I’m also writing a second book in the Fiction for Young Historians series that takes place in the Great Depression, and a Discussion/Teacher’s Guide for OSCAR’S GIFT.

Thank you so much for this opportunity to think about my writing in some new ways!

Thank you for participating in Seven Questions, Lisa! Go check out her blogs, mentioned above, or her author page, for more information on Lisa Rivero and her many exciting projects. Learn more about OSCAR’S GIFT here. Check out some related historical photos here. Along with her three blogs, Lisa joins two other Wisconsin writers to blog about food at Writing Up an Appetite

About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
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11 Responses to Author Interview: Lisa Rivero on her real-life title character, writing middle-grade historical fiction and indie publishing

  1. Guilie says:

    Laura, your work is fantastic. I love your voice, and your style. I’m so glad I found your blog. And, as a little compliment, I’m passing the Versatile Blogger Award to you, if you want it. You can find details here: Thanks for your wonderful posts!

  2. Lisa says:

    Laura, thank you very much your generous comments about the book and the opportunity to think more deeply about the process of creating Oscar’s and Tomas’s story! I’m so happy to have connected with you in this way.

    • Thank you, Lisa! I so enjoyed reading Oscar’s Gift and thinking about what you’ve accomplished. Your interview answers were wonderful. Since I’m writing historical fiction (for adults) at the moment, I especially loved the insight about how you used the real-life details of Oscar Micheaux’s participation at dances in your fiction. I think you nailed the perfect balance between storytelling and historical details–as the details are rich and lovely, but they never interrupt the story. They always feed it.

  3. Pingback: Answering Laura Stanfill’s Seven Questions « Writing Life

  4. Laura, the more I read your writing here, the thoughts that bring you to where you are, the more it delights me. I love how your brain works. I am so glad we have found one another in this vast universe or words.
    -xo lb

  5. Tracey says:

    Lisa, that story looks incredible. I’m going to download a copy of the book to my Nook for my next read.

  6. Pingback: The Origins of Historical Fiction | Lisa Rivero

  7. Pingback: Answering Laura Stanfill's Seven Questions - Lisa Rivero

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