Interview: Paula Chase

Paula Chase’s latest book, So Done, was released yesterday. In the interview below,you can see it has been a while for her. I hope you enjoy getting to know her in this way. I’m certain as you get to know her, you’ll want to read So Done. The book, her middle grade debut, has starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus.

Yesterday was So Done’s book birthday. Tomorrow, I’ll post my review of the book. But today, here’s Paula!

Portrait-4-Head-shot-227x300.jpgIt’s been a while since I’ve seen a new Paula Chase book and here you are with starred reviews! How are you doing these days?
PC: I’m doing well. Busy as usual. I’m starting to think that being busy is a pre-requisite for being published. However, I’m loving where my writing is today vs. 11 years ago.

Why is dance featured in So Done? Particularly why ballet? Were you a bunhead?
PC: I am 100% a frustrated ballet dancer. I have always loved dance, especially Ballet. I have such respect for it. But in the 70’s, Ballet was for very petite White girls, not short Black girls with thick ‘em thighs. My parents enrolled me in a class and the Russian Ballet teacher commented that I’d never be able to dance because I was too thick. I wasn’t fat as a kid. But that stayed with me. Now my youngest daughter studies classical Ballet and has professional aspirations. Brown girls dancing is one of my greatest loves now. Wherever that Ballet teacher is – take that!

What do you remember most about your middle school days?
PC: How I went from having a predominately White circle of friends to a predominately Black. Where I grew up, I was usually the only Black girl in my elementary classes. About six elementary schools fed into my middle school and suddenly there were all these other Black girls there – each one of them coming from being the only in their class. It was eye opening because the friendship dynamics didn’t change because of race, but absolutely at that time, race began rearing its head in terms of who hung with who outside of class.

Neither Tia nor Mila have a mother present in their lives but these friends never discuss their moms in the book. Would it have changed the story if the mothers had been present? Or maybe I’ll just ask: why no moms in the story?
PC: I swear to you I didn’t pull a Disney. Absent mothers wasn’t a strategic thing. Because I’m dealing with pre-existing characters, Mila’s mother’s absence is just fact.

If you recall, Mila is the sister of Jacinta from my Del Rio Bay Clique series. Jacinta was


very frank and unashamed that her mother is a drug addict who has been banned from the home until she gets her stuff together. And now we get to see how Mila is impacted by this absence. By her being younger when their mom was finally banned from the home, she’s relieved because she sees, in Tai’s father, what it would be like to have someone addicted around.

And, Tai is being raised by her grandmother because that’s a situation many young kids are in, today. Whether it’s drug addiction, abandonment or something more positive, like a parent trying to gain their footing in the professional world, there are many grandparents raising grand kids. I wanted these kids reflected.

To some, it may seem strange that they don’t discuss their mothers. But honestly, neither of them really knows their mother. Tai has literally never known hers. And Mila’s memories of her mother are hazy because Jamal (her father) has shielded the kids from her by demanding that she either get help or stay away. I don’t think it’s out of the ordinary that the lack of a mother would become their norm, especially if they have others in the village supporting them. Mila has Jamal’s sister and her older sister and Tai has her grandmother. Neither is lacking for a female nurturer.

But, the fathers are there. With just those two characters, you defy the single story narrative of the black male. Which of the fathers was the most difficult for you to write?
PC: Most definitely Bryant. Remember, Jamal makes an appearance in the DRB series so I’m familiar with him and his heart. For Bryant, I had to do the math in my head so many times to ensure that I had the ages just right. Nona is only about 45 and Bryant is…I believe 28. Nona was a teen aged mother and is a young grandmother. Creating just the right amount of arrested development in him was important. But for those wondering why Nona still coddles him, it was essential to show that it’s not just arrested development, he has a problem and she knows it. I’d like to think that if he didn’t have a child she’d curb him until he got himself help. But, she’s balancing mothering him and his child. Making him oblivious to her sacrifice was emotionally challenging.

This doesn’t feel like a ‘girl book’ to me because you’ve developed the relationships between the secondary/male characters almost as much as main characters. What’s the key to developing relationships on paper?
Knowing who the characters are and where they’re coming from. These characters are bonded by their neighborhood. They know each other’s secrets even if those secrets are sometimes just rumors on the street. They have to be among one another without shame for what they may know about each other. They all know Mila’s mom is an addict. They know Mo’s brothers are jail birds. They know Tai is mother less. And yet, they don’t weaponize this information against each other. Sort of an unspoken respect because they’re all in it together. The bond is what I love about ensemble books. Sometimes adults forget there’s an entire world their kids live in outside of them. Their kids are navigating the same social norms as their parents. I like showing how that’s done.

And, what would you tell young readers is the key to developing and maintaining relationships in real life?
Communication. When my girls were younger and they’d run into some drama with a friend I’d always ask if they had talked to them about how they felt. They hated it! It’s like – mom kids don’t sit and talk stuff out. And my answer was – but they should.

One time I made my oldest daughter and her best friend talk something out and I played mediator because I could see how stupid the argument was and I wanted them to see it too. My youngest daughter now finds herself dreading telling me about friend drama because she knows I’m going to suggest it be talked out.

In books we get to string out the crisis by having the characters avoid talking it out, but at some point “it” always comes out because it has to. No different in real life. And here’s the thing, just because you talk it out doesn’t mean you’ll agree and things will be cool again. But at least it’s out and the friendship will go where it’s going to go from there. I dislike seeing kids end friendships because one person carries an inaccurate perception of what is really going on.

I didn’t see that ending coming, but I liked it! How safe are young black girls in America today?
PC: Oh boy…I don’t know stats or anything, but they aren’t as safe as they should be. Often, we fear the unknown bogeyman. Maybe we do that because we think we can save our kids by keeping them close. In fact, it’s the people nearest our kids that can be the hazard. That’s what’s so hard, protecting them from people who they’re familiar with. And as you know, in this case, there was likely no way to prepare her for that.

I have another story brewing in my head about familiar danger (which in my mind, is the opposite of stranger danger). I hope I get to tell it. It’s painful to write and to read about, but they’re also very real scenarios that our girls need to understand how to detect, process, and when possible avoid.

Paula, that sounds intriguing. I’m looking forward to it!

Before becoming a full-time writer, Paula Chase worked in nonprofit communications and in public relations for a tech company. She is the cofounder of The Brown Bookshelf, an organization that increases awareness of African American voices writing for young readers. So Done is her first middle grade novel. She lives with her family outside of Annapolis, Maryland. Follow Paula on Twitter @PaulaChase


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