The Verse Novel: Caroline Starr Rose

“Braiding the Verse Novel”  is a series of interviews I did with writers of novels –  and one biography  – in verse.  We had our conversations over the summer of 2012. I’ve written articles about verse novels for School Library Journal and NH Writer which draw on these conversations in different ways.  Here, I’m posting the generous responses from each of the writers who allowed me to ask them questions.

Caroline Starr Rose, author of the award-winning middle grade novel May B.,takes readers into a culture of poverty on the Kansas frontier of the 1800s. Here’s our conversation.

Terry:  Would you select a few lines from your novel and tell about a choice you made in the craft of those lines?

Caroline: I adore this question, partly because I write by ear, if that makes sense. I know other verse novelists who use specific forms. Hearing them speak often makes me feel like a dunce. The wise Carolee Dean (FORGET ME NOT, Simon Pulse/Oct 2012) recently shared with me all the devices she found in my own work — things like alliteration, internal rhyme, assonance, she intentionally plans that I don’t really think about — and it was eye opening. It was a reminder that there is no one way to write. In drafting, rhythm, sound, and the visual play a huge role in how my story unfolds. Here is an example:

My legs fold under me

as I try

to catch

my breath

between sobs.

This stanza shows May’s full understanding she’s been abandoned. My editor wanted to make sure the reader was visually and emotionally present in this moment. I added all sorts of words that in the end just weren’t right. My editor suggested we keep the stark, simple language and change the line breaks so that the reader, along with May, must slow down and catch their breath — literally experience the emotion with her.

That’s the power of poetry: it communicates beyond just the words on the page. It is most fully understood, I think, when it is spoken, seen, and heard — when the senses are fully engaged.

Terry: Can you draw a parallel between your use of poems to create the novel and cultural or literary traditions of the community represented in the novel?

Caroline:  May B. didn’t start as verse. What I first wrote very much frustrated me, as it felt so distant from what I’d imagined. I set my writing aside and returned to my research. In reading first-hand accounts of midwestern women in the late 1800s, I picked up on the similarities their journals and letters contained — terse language stripped of emotion and verbose description. I returned to my drafting, trying to mirror the style of these women. This was the key in discovering May’s voice and most honestly telling her story.

Terry: Do you thing that there is a kind of story that is best suited to the verse novel form?

Caroline: For me, verse works best when working with a very close first-person point of view. It allows access to a character’s thoughts without many extras. I also love the immediacy verse gives, not only to the character but the setting. Verse has become a great vehicle for me to write historical fiction because I want the character and her world to feel real, present, and accessible. Ideally, history comes alive when readers see how similar our feelings, fears, and motivations are when paralleled with people from a different era.

Terry, this is wonderful. Thank you for allowing me to participate. I love your angle on using poetry to convey culture and language. I think this is why books where children have limited language skills/new language acquisition work so well through verse. We experience the story through the characters’ eyes. —Caroline Starr Rose

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