Tanita S. Davis
Interview with Tanita S. Davis, author of Mare’s War
TANITA S. DAVIS’ summer job resume includes strawberry picker, laundress, clown, camp counselor, and, briefly, insurance office go-fer. Her favorite job is still writer. She’s the author of HAPPY FAMILIES, Coretta Scott King Honor Book MARE’S WAR, and A LA CARTE. Learn more about Tanita S. Davis at http://tanitasdavis.com
When I waited tables, it was not uncommon for customers to really just have no idea of what they wanted for dinner. I learned to ask a few broad questions about taste and appetite and then to just go on and recommend an entrée. With conviction. Last summer, I went into BBGB, our local indie children’s bookstore, looking for something to read. I was the customer who couldn’t decide and not much help to store manager Diane Black when she asked what I was feeling like reading that day.
Girls. A good grandma. History. Road trip, maybe. Southern. Great characters.
Before I could enunciate the ers in characters, Diane placed Mare’s War by Tanita S. Davis in my hands. Then, she pointed at me and nodded. The way she does when she knows she done good. “You’ll love it,” Diane promised. She was sooooo right. – Gigi
Gigi Amateau: Mare’s War has three qualities that I LOVE in a book: a road trip, a fantastic grandmother, and fascinating women’s history. Being on this adventure with Mare, Tali, and Octavia was a rich experience. How did the story evolve into this form? Did you envision the story moving between Then and Now from the beginning?
Tanita S. Davis: Thanks. I have to say I love writing older folk; their interactions with young adults are often much easier to bridge than parent-to-teen, at least in my own experience. Originally, MARE’S WAR was my MFA thesis project at Mills College in Oakland – and when a reader suggested that she really enjoyed the THEN portions, I worked to turn it into a full novel. Of course, all of our best ideas meet reality, and then change… My editor felt that some girls would have a really hard time linking to the THEN parts without a NOW to ground them, and so I worked on creating two people who had lives and dreams and feelings and stories of their own, yet could cohesively pull together with a story from the past. Having the familial link really helped those characters care about the old stories, and hopefully the readers cared as well.
I based the idea of swapping back/forth through time on a Richard Peck book called THE RIVER BETWEEN US, but he does it only at the beginning and at the end of three large sections. I did that, but my editor felt that Octavia and Tali had more to say.
GA: I so admire your characterization of Mare. We get to see Mare as a young woman making high-risk decisions that set her on a historic course. Then we see her through her granddaughters’ eyes. She is one of my favorite characters of all-time. Could you share about your creative process and discovery of Mare?
TSD: Thank you! Mare is based loosely on my paternal grandmother, Mary Lee Davis née Rodgers. She had a rough upbringing in central Alabama, ran away from home, and joined the Army. (She remained on U.S. soil, unlike her fictional counterpart.) My grandmother was one of the more closed-mouthed women I’ve known; acerbic and no-nonsense, and I was too leery of her to ask questions. She wasn’t one to speak of herself, and would have said, “Why? Are you writing a book?” She passed away when I was 19, and I think she would have been …amused, but not necessarily approving that I based a book on her life.
Mare’s voice is a compilation of the Southern voices of my childhood. Though I was born in San Francisco, every few years, our family would take a major road trip to Louisiana and Florida, where my parents grew up, and hearing the great-uncles, myriad aunts, grandparents and cousins with their molasses-slow drawls or clipped “N’Awlins” cadences was a kind of music to my mimicking ear. At my editor’s suggestion I moved Mare’s voice fairly quickly from ain’t to isn’t in a very visible way, as she polished up and became the woman she wanted to be. I enjoyed writing Mare’s voice, because it was familiar, but I also wanted to refrain from spending too much time writing in “dialect,” because that causes difficulties for some readers.
GA: I also enjoyed the relationship between Mare and the girls. I feel like being with Mare that summer gave Tali and Octavia courage not only because they were learning her story but also learning something new about what it means to be family. How did the idea of ancestral courage influence your depiction of Tali and Octavia?
TSD: In writing about ancestral courage, I was responding to Walter Cronkite’s idea of WWII survivors as being “the greatest generation.” Not so much because they survived a war – America seems always embroiled in conflict – but because they recognized the battle before them – against a foreign aggressor – was not the only one that they had to fight, but within themselves, to keep things normal and confident, even as most of the country was scattered. That is what made Americans of the 40’s so great. Likewise, the girls see in Mare that the only wars they have to fight aren’t the small, petty things like who’s the prettiest and what boy is speaking to them, but to battle the internal things, about making the choices that only you know about, choosing to respect others, and respect yourself enough to put away your fears. All of those things – staying positive, choosing to respect ourselves – may seem like tiny things, but they underpin everything.
GA: Will you share with me a highlight of your research? Were there any moments in the archives that you felt palpably connected to history?
TSD: As I’d mentioned, I was researching the Army on behalf of my grandmother, trying to find records about when the Women’s Army Corps came to be, and details about that. I had zero idea that women of African-American heritage were in the European Theater, and no idea at all that there was a mail corps, so the 6888th was an entirely stumbled upon bit of magic. I looked through pages of pictures, uniforms, and more, and just shook my head, astounded. The women looked… like… “me.” Not so much features and all, but it was just such a feeling of “Hey, wow, we were there, too!” to see all of those girls with their forties hair and smart gloves and purses looking earnest and serious and doing their bit. I mean, everyone saw the WAVES and the recruitment posters had lots of Caucasian women in 40’s gear being Rosie the Riveter and all, but the history of people of color in WWII was limited to the men, in my experience. I had read so much and heard familial stories about what it was like to grow up female in a segregated, crazy-scary South, and to look at women of color from all fifty states who went anyway – that was really, really huge. I spent time in the library sitting there saying out loud, “Oh, wow. Oh, wow.”
GA: How do your readers react to learning about the Women’s Army Corps?
TSD: Oh, my youngest readers were thrilled to bit. As for the older readers, there was, in many cases, utter shock.
My friend Charlie is a retired PG&E linesman whose little hobby is collecting models of battleships from WWII, and planes and all of the kit from back then. He has belt buckles worn by uncles, he has uniforms and all from his father, etc. Well, I had just met him when my book came out, and when I said it was about African-American women in the European Theater he said, “Uh-uh. There weren’t any.” I felt my whole face flush. Mind you, he was nice about it, but I was like, “Um, yes, there were.” Charlie is an expert – he really is – on World War II. And he’d never heard of this. At all. Ever. He was gobsmacked to find out that I was right, and the 6888th were real.
Others were just surprised that women at all were in the Army, which made me a little sad. Women don’t know our strong and proud history in this country! And Women of Color most of all need to remember: before anyone else defined us, we women stood up and defined ourselves as not just sisters on the home front, waiting for the gents to come home, but as fellow humans in the cause, shouldering a burden the whole nation put their shoulders to… and that’s why we got back on track: we did it together.
GA: Where will you take your readers next?
TSD: It’s my hope to continue writing strong characters. My biggest goal, though I love historical fiction, is to not limit myself to one genre. Fluidly moving through genres was a common thing, before marketing! Though I know I worry my editor just a bit, I want to write everything. At present, I’m working on developing the chops to write a good mystery. I’m revising a novel about a girl who finds out her family – an old name, and good standing in the community – isn’t exactly what she thinks it is, because her father’s just been accused of murder…
GA: Ooo, I look forward to mystery and intrigue from you! In Mare’s War, you’ve written three strong, amazing girl characters. Finish this sentence: Strong girls_________.
Girls of Summer don’t just survive, glad to get through alive. We have vision and drive, and have heart on our side. Into life’s depths we dive, to live fully we strive. Not content to just follow, we lead, and we thrive!
Thank you so much for being interested in MARE’S WAR and for advocating for books for strong young women. I love the idea of their being Girls of Summer who aren’t necessarily just bikini-bodies and massive sunglasses – although those are good too. It’s fun to be all of that, with a brain humming along in there, too. Happy reading!