Beyond The Bio: David Elliott


It’s been a busy week here at PickMyYA. But, even in the middle of all the craziness of #BookMadness, we wanted to take a breath and return with our regularly-scheduled #BeyondTheBio interviews. Today’s interview features two special guests and a signed giveaway! Let’s get to it!

Our first guest this week is David Elliott, a former English teacher who now writes YA books. His newest book, Voices, is a poetic glimpse into the final hours of the life of Joan Of Arc. David has traveled all around the world, where he has sung, washed cucumbers, and made Popsicle sticks.

And our teen interviewer today is Sophia. Sophia’s a high school freshman who loves cats and the color purple. Her favorite book is Erin Hunter’s Into The Wild from the Warriors series.

Alright, let's get to the interview! And don't forget to stick around to the end to find out how you can win a signed copy of Voices and be the host of a future #BeyondTheBio interview.

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Sophia: How did you come up with the idea to use poetry to tell the story of Joan Of Arc?

David: Okay. I know this is going to sound weird, but I'm not entirely sure that I did come up with the idea. In part, at least, it was the book itself that let me

know how it wanted to be written. Like I said, weird. More and more in my work, I try to think of myself not as a writer, but as a scribe. Just like a medieval monk who sat in the scriptorium (great word, right?) copying texts that were already there, I try to "copy" what the book tells me it wants to be. I do that by listening, listening with my ears, yes, but also with my heart and my brain and my hands and, well, every cell in my body. I know that sounds a little highfalutin, but I'm not sure how else to describe it. Maybe a simpler way would be to say that I try really hard to get my ego out of the way, which is not only a good approach to writing but a good approach to Life. It's not easy and I'm not always successful --just ask anybody who knows me.

Sophia: I loved how the book mentioned other saints like Michael. His poem, about his own thoughts about whether being a saint even mattered, was really interesting. What do you think? Does it matter whether or not someone is declared a saint?

David: Wow! I am so happy you asked this question, Sophia. The saints in the book presented a particular challenge because -- let's face it -- if your friend told you she was seeing saints, the first thing you would do is tell her to get help, right? Eventually, your friend would be diagnosed, medicated, and maybe even hospitalized. But Joan of Arc insisted that she did see saints. According to her, they told her that she would save France, lift the siege at Orleans, and have Charles VII coronated. And the thing is, she did it. Think about it! A teenage girl who could neither read nor write, a peasant who had never even been on a horse, ended up leading an army of 10,000 men and all because she listened to voices who told her what to do, voices that today would cause her to be diagnosed as schizophrenic. So this was my problem. What was I going to do about those darn saints? I'm not smart enough to know if there actually are saints, so I didn't feel comfortable confirming their existence in the book. But I also didn't want to be disrespectful to those who believe with 100% certainty that saints exist. So in Saint Michael's case, I tried to leave it ambiguous. With Saints Catherine and Margaret, I tried to hint at maybe a different idea of what we normally think of as " saints". So to answer your question, "Does it matter?" It seems to matter very much for those who believe in them, like Joan. For the rest of us, I don't know. I do think though that all of our lives would be far richer if we remained open to a little mystery. As the imagined Joan says in Voices, But I have learned that life is more complex,/ that the door between this world and /the next is sometimes left ajar,/and that each of us is more, far/more, than we are told we are.

Sophia: Joan of Arc liked to dress as a boy, challenging a lot of ideas about gender. Even today, there’s still a lot of sexism in the world. What is something that you think today’s teens can do to make this less of a problem in the future?

David: First let me say that most of the teens I come across are far more enlightened than most of the adults, more accepting of life's infinite and sometimes strange and beautiful possibilities. The young people I know are the least racist, the least judgmental, and the most accepting. I know that isn't always the case -- teens can also be incredibly cruel --but in general, to make the world safer for everyone, I trust young people far more than I trust those we often mistakenly refer to as "adults". What can teens do? Be kind. To each other and to yourselves. And be brave enough to speak up when someone isn't. Courage isn't a lack of fear. It's acting in spite of our fear. Not always, easy, I know.

Sophia: Joan of Arc cuts her hair in your book, which got me wondering… What’s the worst haircut you’ve ever had?

David: Uh . . .this is my all time favorite interview question! Thank you! Many, many years ago one of my best friends, a gay woman named Lisa, bought a Flowbee, the " . . .revolutionary home haircutting system [that] cuts your hair evenly into the recessed blades and trims it precisely. The results are a refreshing vacuum haircut." Yes, a refreshing vacuum haircut, Sophia, meaning that you attach the Flowbee's clippers to a vacuum cleaner. (I'm not kidding.) For a while, it seemed as if Lisa was cutting everyone's hair from Cape Cod, where she still lives, to Boston. In a weak moment, she convinced both me and my son, who was about twelve at the time, to let her have a go at us with this "revolutionary home haircutting system". All I can say is that by the time she was done, we had the same haircut as every lesbian in Massachusetts. Worst haircut ever! (But I still love her.)

Sophia: How did you first fall in love with poetry?

David: I don't know if there was a precise moment. I do know that I came to poetry later in my life. When my wife and I were first together, she gave me a copy of Tartuffe by the Renaissance French playwright Moliere. It was translated by the late American poet Richard Wilbur. I can still remember how completely dazzled I was reading this Moliere/Wilbur combination. It showed me possibilities within our language that were brand new to me. And even better, it was funny! (It still makes me laugh out loud. I hope you'll read it.) In many ways, though it's been well over thirty years ago, I think it was that prescient gift from my wife that planted the seed for both BULL and Voices. Richard Wilbur remains one of my favorite poets. I also love --get ready for this name --Wislawa Symborska. (She was Polish.) By the way, though I have written two novels in verse, and many picture books with rhyming text, I would never presume to call myself a poet.

Sophia: I grew up Catholic and love hearing stories about the saints. What other saints have stories that interest you?

David: I grew up Baptist, but lived in a working-class Catholic neighborhood, just down the street from St. Patrick's Church and its school. Most of my childhood friends went to that school, and I was always fascinated (and a little jealous) by their stories of what went on there. I couldn't wait to hear what Sister Mary Immaculata said when my friend Michael "forgot" his homework or what the fearsome Sister Wenceslas did when his brother Chris was ten minutes late. But my favorite were the stories they told about Saving Pagan Babies. I wanted to save pagan babies, too, but I was stuck in public school memorizing multiplication tables. It must have been those formative early years that has attracted me to all things Catholic. I love movies about nuns, for example. Unfortunately, I don't know too much about the saints, though I do have a hagiography -- another great word! -- that I sometimes thumb through. (By the way, I was shocked to learn that Joan of Arc did not become a saint until 1920, 600 years after her death.) I find it strangely comforting that in spite of all our supposed modernity, human beings can still be beatified and canonized. Saint Maximilian Kolbe, for example, who died at Auschwitz after volunteering to take the place of a man with a family who had been selected by the Nazis to starve to death.

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That wraps up today’s interview with Sophia and David, but don’t leave yet. We’re giving away a signed copy of Voices, and you can enter to win by clicking the picture below and taking a guess at who will be the winner of this year’s #BookMadness. And if one giveaway isn’t enough for you, you can also enter to win one of three signed copies of Kobe Bryant and Wesley King by clicking here and voting on the Sweet 16.

And if you’re a teen who’d like to interview an author for a future #BeyondTheBio, we’d love to make that happen. Just click here to learn how.

And if you'd like to stay up to date with our future interviews and all #BookMadness news, be sure to sign up for our newsletter.

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