Author Spotlight: Cindy Baldwin talks Where the Watermelons Grow
Cindy Baldwin is one of my favorites in the writing community and so I'm thrilled to be hosting her on the blog today! Her debut novel, WHERE THE WATERMELONS GROW, released this week. WHERE THE WATERMELONS GROW is a middle grade narrative that centers around empathy and acceptance where disability is concerned, and in addition to receiving multiple starred reviews, the book has also been chosen as an Indies Introduce/Indie Next title for summer/fall 2018!
And now, here's my chat with Cindy!
Hi, Cindy! Welcome and congrats on the release of Where the Watermelons Grow. Can you tell us a little about the story and what inspired you to write it?
Thanks so much for the congrats! It's very exciting!
A few years ago, when my daughter (now five) was about one, I was singing "Down By The Bay" to her when I started wondering what the backstory of that song might be. The idea of this child who's so distressed by their mother's mental illness that they run away from home really stuck with me, and spoke to some of my own deep insecurities and worries as a disabled parent. I knew very early on in the planning process that I wanted this to be a disability-positive book, where a kid comes to recognize that disability in her family doesn't prevent them from having a happy, loving, positive life, and that her mother's disability is a part of who her mother is and not something to be "fixed" or "cured." As a disabled reader and writer, it's really important to me that books capture the complexities and difficulties of disability honestly, but do it in a way that doesn't paint disability either as incompatible with happiness or as "inspiration porn." Because it's the reality of my own life as a disabled parent, I wanted to show that yes, disability can cause problems and stress, but it can also be a part of a full, happy life. So many books present disability as something that has to be moved past, or fixed, before happiness can be found. As a reader, those books can be really hurtful and difficult to read. I knew I wanted to tell my story differently.
I really appreciate how you were able to center Della’s journey around accepting her mother’s schizophrenia and not ‘fixing’ her. Were you ever worried that this bittersweet (but vital!) message would receive pushback in the world of MG publishing?
Somewhat. I felt fairly confident that there was a market for the book, because I could see it fitting in with existing middle grade stories with heavy emotional themes like That Thing About Jellyfish and Counting By 7s. I've definitely worried, though, that readers would be dissatisfied by the end, where you don't know if Suzanne's schizophrenia will ever be less intrusive—and I've also worried, in general, whether the book would be too sad. And I've certainly already had readers who felt the book was too depressing and not for them (my very favorite review is actually a negative one that said, "Read if you want your heart twisted out of your chest and danced upon!")
All of the publishing professionals I've worked with, though, have been enthusiastic and eager to champion this project. And while it is definitely not a book for everyone, I hope that it finds a home in the hearts of children like the child I was, who don't mind sad things and desperately need to hear that their lives are valuable and worthy, even if they are different from those around them.
Children see the world through a different lens than adults. What are your tips for writing an authentic middle grade POV?
When I'm writing middle grade, I spend a lot of time thinking about what I was like in those years from eleven to thirteen—what things I loved, what things I was frustrated by, what drew me to friends, what I felt insecure about. I think those middle grade years are so interesting, because you aren't quite a child, but you're not a teenager or an adult, either. There can be a huge range of maturity levels and interests, but I've found that many kids in that age group are in this interesting middle place, where they have some characteristics of a young child and some characteristics of a teenager—they might listen to boy bands and like going to the mall, but they also might play with ponies and secretly like doing things with their younger siblings or friends. There's also a huge hunger to have adults take you seriously at that age, and an overblown sense of responsibility for the situations in their lives and families. A lot of preteens feel like they are responsible for ALL KINDS of things that no adult would ever think to put on a preteen's shoulders.
In addition to trying to get in touch with twelve-year-old Cindy (reading old journals can be great for that!), I also try to listen to preteens when I can, and listen to the stories my friends tell about their children who are that age. And, of course, I read lots of other middle grade novels!
What has been your most rewarding experience as an author?
So far, it's probably a tie between connecting with other book lovers (authors, teachers, librarians, and booksellers!), and having people tell me that they read my book and either saw themselves in it, or cried—or both!
From a writing standpoint, which character in Where the Watermelons Grow was the hardest to crack? And how did you crack them?
I actually had a really hard time pinning down Della's best friend, Arden. For a long time, her voice sounded stilted to me and she just wasn't that interesting. The thing that helped the most was doing some writing from her point of view! That really helped me tap in to her own dreams, insecurities, and frustrations.
What are you reading, watching, or otherwise currently infatuated with?
Oh goodness, I am ALWAYS infatuated with something! I recently listened to the audiobook of Emily Bain Murphy's THE DISAPPEARANCES and I seriously cannot even express how much I loved it. You know when you hear about a book that sounds right up your alley, but you're afraid your expectations are too high… and then that book lives up to every single bit of hype you've built up in your brain? TOTALLY one of those books. It's exactly what I love in YA—lyrical writing, a moody, mysterious setting, and dreamlike magic. As for watching, I've never considered myself a scuff person until the last few years, but I have a total show hangover after finishing the Netflix LOST IN SPACE reboot this spring. I hope it gets renewed!
I'm also currently, and somewhat randomly, obsessed right now with hand embroidery! It's such a satisfying break from the angst of publishing, because not only does it have measurable and pleasing results, but the process of doing it is so meditative and soothing. I told my husband that by the end of 2018 our whole house might just be one embroidered mess because it's a GREAT way to cope with debut anxiety.
And finally, what’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned so far in your publishing career?
Honestly? This is a little depressing, but it's been really helpful for me to realize just how much achieving my publishing dream HASN'T changed my own insecurities, jealousies, and anxieties. I still struggle with all the same difficult emotions, and the same imposter syndrome, that I did before I had an agent and a book deal. While I often wish that wasn't the case (it would be a lot easier if external success could help me kick my own anxieties to the curb!), it's been helpful to me to come to understand that I need to take ownership for my own mental health with regards to publishing, rather than expecting that happiness lies around the next corner with some arbitrary marker of success. I've really been focusing this year on trying to savor the exciting things that happen on my journey, and trying NOT to compare my path, my book, or my level of success to anybody else. It's definitely easier said than done, but on days when I'm able to really dwell on the wonderful things that have happened to me instead of miring myself in anxiety about somebody else's marketing plan or NYT book review, I'm a LOT happier!
Many thanks go out to Cindy for taking the time to tell us more about WHERE THE WATERMELONS GROW, what inspired the story, and how she manages the anxieties that come with being a creator and publishing. Be sure to add Cindy's honest and heartfelt book about mental illness to your Goodreads list, or (better yet!) order your copy RIGHT NOW from retail sites such as Amazon, and Barnes & Noble. Or you can always request it at your library, or local independent bookstore!
And, as always,