Oscar’s Gift: Planting Words With Oscar Micheaux. An Interview with Author Lisa Rivero.

Last February my cousin sent me a link to a blog called “Everyday Intensity,” because she knew that the author was addressing several things that would interest me. The link turned out to be significant, because a) it introduced me the world of blogging, and b) it introduced me to Lisa Rivero, author and teacher of writing at Milwaukee School of Engineering.

She may not know it, but Lisa has become an online mentor to me. I read her posts, of course, but also make comments, ask questions and receive valuable responses. Although I’ve never actually met her, I feel as though I am getting to know her.

Lisa has four books in publication on education and learning. This week she will be releasing a new book for middle school aged readers. (I think that some upper elementary students would enjoy it as well.) She sent me a copy of the e-book version to read, and has now given me an interview opportunity.

Following are my questions and her responses, but first, allow me to say that I thoroughly enjoyed this piece of historical fiction. For the teachers among us I might add that there are discussion questions at the back of the book. Lisa will also be issuing a free study guide next month.

Summary: Tomas and his widowed mother have been chosen in the land lottery to select a piece of land for a homestead. There are many difficulties and drastic life changes for him over the course of the book. But meeting and getting to know Mr. Oscar Micheaux, who was a real person and the first black film maker in America, proves to be most valuable.

You said in the acknowledgements that “Oscar’s Gift” was made possible by a birthday gift of encouraging words from your son. Would you mind sharing those words?

I don’t have the exact words handy, but they were handwritten on a birthday card, saying that his present to me was that year was that I should write at least 250 words a day for a month. He was 17 at the time, and he knows how important my writing is and how many ideas and projects I wanted to start and complete, as well as how easily I procrastinate. We agreed that, to stay honest, I would email him my writing output each day (those “sent” messages later served as a valuable record and back-up system). About two weeks into this routine, I began the story of Tomas and Oscar, one that had been rattling around in my head for a while, wanting to find a shape. So what was in all probability my son’s creative attempt to make up for forgetting to buy a present ended up being better than anything he could have purchased.

The book is dedicated “To Young Oddballs Everywhere.” The meaning of that became clear as I read the book, but I’m just wondering if you could elaborate on the characteristics of an “oddball”, and if you considered yourself one as a student?

The word “oddball” comes straight from Oscar Micheaux’s biographical information about his children (Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only, by Patrick McGilligan). I think that oddballs can come in many shapes and sizes, but what they all have in common is that they are outliers in some way, far removed from whatever is the norm of their particular circle. Oddballs are often more intense, more curious, more concerned with ideas and hobbies than other people. I was such an oddball as a child! For example, I remember dressing up as my favorite book characters and being the only student in the school who was obsessed with the original Star Trek series and every book and fan fiction about it I could find. I longed for a kind of companionship that seemed available only in stories and between the pages of books.

Oscar Micheaux was a real person, but this is a work of fiction that uses him as one of the characters.

A. Did you already have a research connection that inspired the story, or did you discover him because you were looking for someone to write about?

For a few years now, I’ve been reading, transcribing, and writing about diaries kept by one of my great aunt. As I was researching the first couple of decades of the 20th century to learn more about her life and past, I used some search term combination of the town of Winner, South Dakota and trains and farming that led me to learn that Oscar Micheaux was a homesteader who filmed part of a movie in Winner, South Dakota. I was surprised that I had never heard of him before. Eventually I learned that his first homestead was in the same county where my grandparents lived. Soon I became hooked on learning more about Oscar, perhaps even obsessed in an oddball kind of way, and I knew I needed to write about him.

B. Has the story been lurking in your mind for sometime, or did you need to work at discovering where it would lead? How do you go about deciding what turns a story will take?

I first began writing a short story for adults that began with Oscar getting off a train and noticing the people around him looking at him. I kept tinkering with that scene, and soon I realized that what I was most interested in was Oscar’s childhood and his writing career, not his later career as a film maker. Then I realized that his story of persistence and being himself no matter what would be an excellent one for children to know. Once I decided to write the story for children rather than adults, I needed a child protagonist (since I didn’t want to presume enough knowledge of Oscar’s childhood to fill an entire book with his own childhood), and that’s when Tomas entered the picture.

C. Are there any legalities involved in using a real person in a fictional story? Did you have to get permission?

Public figures who are no longer living are generally okay to write about without fear of libel and without the author’s needing to get anyone’s permission. A good resource on this is “The Ethics of Writing Fiction,” by Ron Hansen (available online at http://www.scu.edu/ethics/publications/submitted/fiction.html).
I was careful to write about the details of Oscar’s life with attention to historical accuracy when I could–even down to the names of his mules–using biographies of his life and his own semi-autobiographical novels. Jerry Wilske, Director of the Oscar Micheaux Center, was generous enough to review the manuscript and offer feedback. In the end, however, the book is a work of fiction and not a biography.

D. Other than Oscar Micheaux being a real person, is this book entirely fiction? Are the characters based on someone real, or did all of this come from your imagination?

Oscar is the only named character who was a real person (some of the minor characters, such as the banker, are based loosely on historical figures). Tomas and his extended family, however, are all entirely fictional.

What are the life lessons you are hoping kids will pick up on as they read?

Rather than life lessons, I hope that readers of Oscar’s Gift will ask themselves some questions: What does it mean to be an oddball (as you asked me, above)? What is the best way to deal with change, especially the kinds of changes in life that we can’t control? How might other people see a situation differently from the way we see it? Does having a gift for words (or any other kind of talent) make someone different, an “oddball”?

Where did you learn Native American vocabulary?

Although I grew up on a Native American reservation, I don’t know any Lakota, so I had to do research to learn. Lakota is originally an oral language and not a written language, and it seemed important to emphasize the sounds of the words that Chumani and Winona would say.

Could you describe your own history as a writer, including how you became one, and what you do as a teacher of writers?

I seem to have wanted to be a writer (or even known I would be a writer) for as long as I can remember. In high school, I was very involved in our student newspaper, and that led me to enroll as a journalism major in college. Eventually I changed my major to English with a math minor, which led, later, to the job I have now of teaching basic composition, technical writing, and creative thinking to engineering students. I also have written food and recipe articles and columns and books about education and learning.

What advice can you offer to students who enjoy writing and might like to pursue it?

A few things come to mind, in no particular order: Write what you like to read. Study the writing of authors you enjoy in order to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Develop a very tough skin in terms of criticism. At the same time, be open to feedback and be willing to revise. Perhaps most important, treat learning the craft of writing as you would learning to play a sport or musical instrument–regular practice is much more important than relying on inspiration alone.

“Oscar’s Gift” is available at
http://www.amazon.com/Oscars-Gift-Planting-Historians-ebook/dp/B005GS6YVA/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1313523639&sr=8-1

Lisa Rivero blogs at “Writing Life” http://lisarivero.com/

and at “Everyday Intensity” http://everydayintensity.com/

You can find more information on Lisa Rivero and her other books at
http://www.amazon.com/Lisa-Rivero/e/B001KMLTO8/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_1

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3 comments on “Oscar’s Gift: Planting Words With Oscar Micheaux. An Interview with Author Lisa Rivero.”

  1. […] please head on over to Jane Rivera’s blog to read an interview about Oscar’s Gift, and later today please visit Kelsey Ketch’s blog for her review of the book and my guest […]

  2. Jane, thank you for the opportunity to do this interview! I’m touched by your words about my blog and the book, and I’d love to hear from teachers about how Oscar’s Gift could be used in the classroom.

    Warmest wishes,
    Lisa

  3. […] Oscar’s Gift: Planting Words With Oscar Micheaux. An Interview with … […]


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