SOFI Magazine: 33 emerging creative minds

I'm honored to be included in SOFI magazine's list of "33 Emerging Creative Minds." Last night, we attended a reception in conjunction with Art Basel Miami-- from painters, sculptors, poets and me, the girl who writes about teenagers.

Please describe your art form. What sets your work apart?

I write about teenagers growing up in Miami. They're the ones riding the Metrorail, scratching tags into the windows...smoking in the parking lot at Pollo Tropical...throwing secret parties in the Everglades...or skinny-dipping in your neighbor's pool. They're a lot like you and me.

When people ask you what type of artist you are, and what your work is like, what do you say?

I want readers to know the "real Miami" ...which doesn't always look like the city you see on TV. I grew up with peacocks, not pink flamingos. Oak trees, not palms. Sawgrass, not sandy beaches. It's more magical than Hollywood's imitation of reality.

In what ways does your work reflect your art?

My characters are like mirrors (or alter-egos) that represent my point of view. For a while, I was writing their diaries online as a supplement to the book--much like a director's cut version of a DVD.

Who are some of the creative minds that have inspired you throughout the years?

My parents inspired me. Every afternoon, my dad would drive home from the Air Force Base in Homestead. He loaded the trunk of his MG Spitfire with library books and we read them together. My mom often found me hiding in the hall closet (which I called a "time machine") and we left notes there, written in character, for my "invisible" friends (which included dragons, ghosts, and a boy named Robin).

What does creativity mean to you?

When kids act out stories on the playground, they're doing what comes naturally to them. Later in life, their school assignments might focus less on individual thinking and creativity (instead, rewarding a type of "team player" mentality that prepares students for a corporate environment). They are told to put away "childish" things and embrace the mainstream. When someone dares to break away, they get labeled as a misfit. Sometimes the smartest kids aren't the ones in the so-called gifted programs. They're the boys in the back row--the ones who fall asleep in class because they're bored. Or the girl who gets in trouble for doodling on her desk. As a professor who works in an art college, I'm surrounded by the teenaged version of these kids...and I love every minute of it.

What is your favorite part of being creative?

Writing is like dreaming with your eyes open...and having the permission to dream all day long. I listen to my characters as if eavesdropping on their conversations. I never know what's going to happen next. That's my favorite part.

What is the hardest part about being an artist?

It's a little scary when you realize: This book doesn't belong to me anymore. It becomes part of everyone who reads it. That's a big responsibility. It's hard to let go and send my baby out into the world.

Please list your 3 greatest accomplishments as they relate to your craft.

It took a while for me to find a literary agent to represent my work. I was floored when she sold Total Constant Order at auction to HarperCollins. The literary world is a tough business and it takes a thick skin to navigate it. The road to publication is often paved with rejection. You have to keep pushing until you find someone who finally gives you the green light. But it only takes one yes. After the book was published, I was fortunate to receive many positive reviews (School Library Journal, Booklist, VOYA "perfect ten") ...but the most meaningful reviews are the emails and letters that I’ve received from readers (especially teens who say, "Thank you for telling this story.") I once received a letter from a boy whose girlfriend suffers from OCD, just like the main character in my book. He stayed up all night to finish it. That's the best review I could ever hope to read.

Where did you study?

I have a Master's in screenwriting and a PhD in interdepartmental studies (between literature, philosophy, and film theory) from the University of Miami.

Where are you from originally?

I was born and raised in Miami.

What about the city complemented your craft/outlook?

My family is originally from New England. I grew up in an old, wooden house with a fireplace. There's a well in the backyard that was hand-dug by Tequestas (the same people who built the Miami Circle). At night, I often fell asleep, listening to Santeria drums pounding by Biscayne Bay. The next morning, I'd find bloody chicken feathers scattered by the water. When I told the kids at school, they thought I was making it up. That’s my city—a place too surreal to be real.

What is one creative thing you remember doing as a child?

When I was little, I lived in two worlds--the one everybody could see and the one I saw inside my head. The pigeons on a telephone pole were actually spies. The spraypainted numbers in the road weren't left by surveyors, but by an evil city of underground trolls (the same who lived beneath the drain in my swimming pool). UFOs zigzagged over the neighbor's house and ghosts turned off the lights. I still believe in that world. It's where I go when I write.

When did you realize you were born to do what you do? What was that "aha" moment for you?

If teachers gave me a coloring book, I drew my own stories in the pages. In first grade, I tried making my own books out of notepaper (stapled backwards and illustrated with doodles of talking lobsters). I recorded scenes with my tape recorder and acted out the voices. In high school, I drew graphic novels during math class. I was one of those weird kids who always knew, "I want to write."

What inspires you?

My rockstar students. And the jukebox at Fox's Sherron Inn.

Tell us about your hopes for the future as it relates to your creative work. What are some dreams/goals you hope to accomplish in the near future? In your lifetime?

I'm very curious about how the internet and new media will shape the art of storytelling. I would like to tell stories that involve a type of collaboration or interactivity with readers. When I wrote Fin's diary online, I loved talking to people directly through her character. Writing is lonely. Now with the popularity of social networking sties, blogging, YouTube, Facebook, etc. it’s not so lonely anymore.

What is your opinion of the current state of ART in Miami?

Miami is a teenager. It's a little rebellious, obsessed with pop culture, and just beginning to shape its own identity. The art scene is a reflection of that attitude. It has grown so much in the past ten years. I can't wait to see where it goes.

Please add anything else you feel is relevant to you as an artist.

Ditto the advice that your BFF wrote in your yearbook: Stay sweet. Don't change. In other words, be true to yourself.

photo by Harlan Erskine