Monday, August 22, 2011

Meet Simbarashe, Author of the Matador Series

While working with Patti Roberts on her eBook giveaway, I dropped an email to a fellow writer and Goodreads friend, Simbarashe. During our back and forth communication, I had the pleasure to read the first two books of his series, and I have to say that he really ‘knocked my socks off’. I am proud to be able to share more about this multi-talented, beautiful writer, musician and photographer. Today we'll talk a bit about Veronasongs.

Thank you so much for joining me this week, Simbarashe. I'd like to start with a little bit about you. Who is Simbarashe? 

This is a difficult question to answer, so I'll stick with the facts: I'm 32, I was born in California, and I'm tall. My father was an African diplomat for many years and my mother was a robotics tech. She remarried a teacher. I have spider legs for fingers. I only grow enough facial hair to shave but once a week. When I was 22 it was once every six months. I write a lot, but my writing is inspired through films and music and current events more so than other books.
When did you decide you wanted to write?

As a young person I kept refusing to write. I wanted to be a cinematographer. When I didn't get accepted into any of the film schools I applied to I decided to pursue music after a few years. I was a guitarist in a few bands and enjoyed that immensely. But writing is hard-coded into my DNA. I would never get tired of shooting pictures or playing guitar, but I can write subconsciously. Therein lies the difference.

I understand you write full-time now. Can you tell us a little about your other writings?

I write a column for a website called Starpulse. They allot me the freedom to write whatever I want but my main gig for them is covering New York's Tribeca Film Festival every year. Everything else I write for them is generally about music. I also am working on a project called The Musist ( which will contain 100 essays about music from the past 30 years in all kinds of contextual subject matters. Did that last part make sense?

Absolutely! It's a great thing to be able to do something that you love.

People should do what they love even if they get paid to do something
else entirely.

Tell me a little bit about your musical background.
I've been playing keyboard since I was about nine and guitar since I was fourteen. I have this uncanny ability to recall the most ridiculous bits of data pertaining to popular music in my lifetime. If it was a hit in the 80s I could tell you the year; if you want to know the record label that put out Madonna's old albums I could tell you the imprint and its parent company. Some people think that I have a photographic memory, but it's really just being able to preserve that information and associate it with everyday life events that have preserved many of my memories so well. If someone asked me what happened in the summer of 94, I would simply recall who had a hit that summer, and I'll know exactly where I was then and what was going on in the world. (Brazil defeated Italy on penalty kicks in Pasadena on my 15th birthday; it was hot outside.)

Where did you come up with the idea for the Matadors series? Were you inspired?

I'd written a short story in high school back in 1996 called Christian and Donica and then turned it into a screenplay entitled Everybody Hates Donica Pine the next year before I graduated. That story is essentially Warsongs (Book 2). I didn't have an inclination to do a series until I'd started writing Veronasongs in the spring of 2008, when I realised that I had a decent prequel to the original story. The original story was written as my way of coping with the death of a classmate. I dealt with my own depression during that time which was quite gnarly; what always astonished me though was how everyone who could help—teachers, administrators, my mother—were completely nonchalant about everything. Either that or they were thought we were bluffing. I’m convinced that kids who actually commit suicide are merely calling that bluff. It's rather infuriating and humiliating at the same time. So does a kid lean towards feeling hopeless or insulted? For me it was the latter, and I suppose that's why I'm still around.

I'm glad you are. The world would have lost a tremendous talent had you not stuck around!

That's very kind of you. The world loses talents on a daily basis rather carelessly. It's the careless part that bothers me.
Veronasongs introduces us for the first time to Donica. Tell me how you developed her. Was she based on anyone you know?
I was 16 when this happened. I originally created her out of thin air because I didn't want anybody to think that I was writing about myself. She's really a composite of two people: a girl that I went steady with one year in high school (she agitated a lot of people), and someone who was absolutely the most uniquely quirky individual I've ever cared about. I gave Donica her mode of dress and sun disease and dedicated the book to her.

Do you ever base your scenes on real-life?

All the time. Most of the scenes in Veronasongs really happened, just in different contexts and not always to the same people.

So it’s all the more personal then?

Each book in the series deals with an different aspect of my experience: Veronasongs is mostly a summary of things that I witnessed and was present for, but rearranged and compressed as fiction. Warsongs is much more of an emotional manifesto, while the third novel (Wintersongs) is completely psychological. They each deal with different timeframes (one semester, one week, one year), but collectively it is an allegory of South Kansas City in the late 90s. So yes.

When you were developing Veronasongs, did you have a favorite character?

My sole goal was to write a book that adequately described Donica's journey over the course of one school semester. She lived with me like an imaginary best friend and we ate breakfast together.

If Donica was sitting with us today after we had finished Veronasongs, what do you think she would say to us?

She would consider the question for 30 quiet seconds and then say that if she could do it all over again, she would've handled that lunch situation with Lauren and Jeanette differently. She still may not have gone to the table. She certainly would've regretted that day.

I was so proud of her at that moment - I can’t even begin to tell you. But, as you say, I’m sure she did regret it. We’ll have to talk more about that when we discuss Book 2.

People have expressed being upset at Jeanette over that scene. I think some people interpreted it as Donica refusing to sell out and Jeanette choosing to sell out, but in reality, it was Donica refusing
to sell out and Jeanette simply being enamored by an invitation; she really had no idea what was going on until it was too late.
Tell us a little about Christian. He is a large player in the story due to the fact that he is very similar to Donica - a male counterpart, so to speak. If he were to be with us at the end of Veronasongs, what would he say?

You will come to find that series is more literally about Christian and more symbolically about Donica. Christian is the sort of kid who doesn't talk because he knows that nobody listens to what he has to say, because everyone takes him for granted. Want to know his opinion? Get an answer from his more popular older brother. Want to know if he’s available Friday night? Ask his quasi-but-not girlfriend. Want to know how he’s feeling? He never gets mad, so it doesn’t matter.  . . . For him it's an even bigger outrage because he's popular. He doesn't even want to be popular; he just wants to be normal and mind his own business. So in that regard, he would have nothing to add to the end of Veronasongs if he were with us. He would simply acknowledge that everything you read was true.

I found Donica’s gift to Christian so tender and poignant, and Christian really appreciates it. Why does he find it so difficult to forgive her? 

That's tricky. I'd say that Christian's soul was violated in the sort of way that made recovery quite painful. It's less about his unwillingness to forgive Donica and more about Crew's need to fiercely protect him when they discover what has happened. Christian and Donica exist with strange and difficult circumstances, though. How do you look a person in the eye who knows everything about you when you didn’t even invite them in?

Very good point, but I wonder if he needed someone like her to force their way in? He’s so closed, but she seems like the perfect person for him to place his trust in. Am I way off here? J

In my original conceptualisation of these characters fifteen years ago, I had scenes where Christian would sneak over to Donica’s house and hide under her bed. They talked all the time, actually. I removed this aspect of their relationship from Warsongs when I decided the moment that Donica was going to fess up about Christian’s novel, and then when my editor recommended that I compress Warsongs from two weeks to just one. It’s one of those things that more makes sense if you’ve read both books.

Did you have a least favorite character?

I didn't have a least favourite character, but writing the relationship between Donica and her mother Margaret was a sombre two and a half days.

Was there any one character that was difficult to develop for you? If so, why?

Antonio, hands down. Real-life Antonio was drop-dead, but-seriously-your-grandmother-just-dropped-dead funny. He said the funniest things I've ever heard with a straight face and bored disposition. He would randomly blurt out Sade or Luther Vandross verses in moments of relative silence. But it was funny. Comedy is extremely difficult for me to write and so his character is the one place where I wish I couldn't done him better justice.

Your characters were very human, and I believe every reader can relate to at least one or two of them throughout the story. Did you base any of them on real people in your life?

For “legal purposes” I will simply say that some of the main characters were inspired by real-life friends and peers that I knew, and I obtained written permission to use their first names. Christian is completely fictitious. For the record, real-life Lauren is quite lovely to be around.

This story also discusses the hierarchy in high school, the different cliques. Did you encounter those when you were in high school?

To varying degrees. I played soccer and basketball, but nobody thought of me an athlete, so there was that. The musicians weren't that popular. In Kansas City (where Verona essentially is), there were only one or two division lines: the athletes, non-athletes, outsiders. That last group was quite small, which was remarkable. In Texas it was FOOTBALL PLAYERS and then BASKETBALL PLAYERS and CHEERLEADERS, rich kids, general population, stoners, and then the outsiders. In New Mexico there were like 15 different circles. There's a scene in the second novel where Ethan walks through the concourse with a new transfer student and he's pointing out all of the different cliques; I was specifically describing my New Mexico high school in that scene.

Who is your target audience for the series? Is there a reason for that?

It was important for me to write a story about young people that older people would care about. Adults care about Romeo and Juliet, and Sixteen Candles, and The Breakfast Club. Somewhere along the way there came this perennial shift where niche YA reading became massive commercial YA reading. I hear older people say all the time that they don't care much about high school stories, and maybe they shouldn't, but these are characters that they should care about for a whole multitude of reasons. The Matadors might be individual books about teenagers, but the series in large has more to do with a social shift that happened in South Kansas City. This is dealt with more in depth by the final two books.

As an adult, I can honestly say that I enjoyed it very much and feel that you have a lot to offer your audience, regardless of age.

Thank you so much! Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude got me writing Veronasongs. I wrote Veronasongs and read that novel at the same time. I’d spend an hour and a half on my commute reading, then the next 4 to 5 hours writing, generally a half of a chapter at a time, and then continue reading for another hour and a half on my way back home. It was the perfect marriage.

Your book is full of hidden meanings in your flowing narrative. What would you want your readers to take away from the story?

Cruelty is a horrible monster.
Amen to that!

Are there any hidden symbols in there that we should keep in mind for the next installment, Warsongs?

Jon's story in particular may not seem relevant to the rest of the Veronasongs, but it's one of the most important chapters in the entire series. Also, there are several characters in Warsongs who become major players who are only briefly mentioned in Veronasongs (I always wonder if anybody notices this). Finally, all there are a few historical current events dropped in the middle of chapters. If you're one of those people who like to piece hidden puzzles together, you can use that information to discover the exact dates that the events in the book take place. Everything is all "the second Wednesday in September" etc, but the story follows the actually 1996 calendar. The football game on Thanksgiving and the first snow of the winter season for example are both historically accurate.

How long did Veronasongs take you to write?

I wrote Veronasongs in 30 days. I didn't have anything else to do.

What is your normal writing process?

I like to separate the thinking process from the writing process. I will spend days, weeks mulling over an idea, and only when I've stabbed at it enough times to have answers to all of the important questions will I sit down to write. This process allows me to write ridiculously fast and I encourage others to at least try it. I believe that writer's block only exists because people concern themselves with thinking too during the time when they want to be writing.
I understand the cover has a lot of meaningful symbolism in it. Would you like to describe that for us?

The cover for Veronasongs was an idea that sort of morphed from a weird place, so I'll tell you the story as it happened. After the book was finished in 2008 and it went into pre-production , I wanted to find a more cost-effective way to get the book to the market, since it would have a direct impact on my royalties. Since the story takes place in Kansas City (I never call it Kansas City, but it is) I went on Flickr and started searching for photos by photographers with Kansas City entered as a keyword along with a few other words. I had a very narrow, specific thing that I wanted, not from the photo so much as the photographer. I happened upon a series of portraits of people by Bliss Katherine. She was from Florida but I surmised traveled to Kansas City on a trip to shoot some of her friends. All of the portraits were set in these earth tones, outdoors with trees and water and tall grass around; it was exactly the mood of the book since it takes place in the autumn. So I contacted her and asked if she'd be interested in submitting a few ideas based on my loose sketches. At the time it wasn't like, "You're going to photograph this cover", but deep down I was hoping it'd work out. Bliss took photos of inanimate objects around her room, girly trinkets and things of the like. We then tried a series of diary portraits. At some point I saw a black and white portrait of a girl's face, and a man covering her mouth with his hand. (if you search for the Warsongs group in Facebook you might find this photo behind the profile pic). So I asked if she could find that girl to recreate something, and she told me that this was a self-portrait.

It was almost like fate. (I don't know if I believe in fate but that's what this was). She looked . . . exactly like Donica Pine, it's quite obvious by the physical description alone. So of course I was excited by this discovery and asked to look at any other self-portraits she may have, all the while I was going through her online portfolio, and I just happened upon it -- this crazy photo of a girl with wild, sprawling hair. It was split top and bottom, her eyes were closed in one of the splits, and she had negative film covering her mouth. Here it is:

I saw this and just thought THAT IS IT. So at that point I sent Bliss some of those excerpts, pertaining to Donica's appearance and attitude. Bliss flat out said that we could use that [original] shot, but it didn't quite feel the mood the book conveyed. I explained to her simply that I wanted it to feel more seasonal. Something autumn-like should cover her mouth, or really, anything that pertained to Donica (the film wouldn't work because Donica wasn't a photographer). So Bliss went away for two or three weeks and then came back with the self-portrait of herself with the autumn leaf over her mouth. That her mouth is covered, this is supposed to symbolize how she never gets to really express herself. People just assume way too much about her. So she remains quiet mainly, and she watches a lot. The expression of her eyes are equally melancholy and defiant. I love everything about that Veronasongs portrait. That's Donica's face.

I do believe in fate at times, so I will just add in here that 'oh boy, that’s amazing'!

I ran across Bliss when she was 19. At 21 she travels all over the country doing professional photo shoots. That’s top shelf.

That's great!

Where can we find you?
It's called Simbarashesongs and it is my journal, told through pictures. I would be remiss to call it a photoblog since the photos are what I've seen and the captions are what I was thinking when I captured the images because I want them to be memories.

Facebook: I do have an author page called Simbarashe
Twitter: @simbarashey

Where is Veronasongs available for purchase?

Amazon and Barnes and Noble. According to the internet, all over.

What format is Veronasongs available in?

Paperback and Kindle. I don't know if it will move to Nook but I imagine that would be soon.

Next we’ll discuss Warsongs, part two of the three part series. Make sure you read Veronasongs carefully, for the saga continues to a dramatic climax!


PS you can find Bliss Katherine’s work here:
and here

In closing of this first interview, I would like to share my opinion of Veronasongs:

I was not too sure what to expect when I picked up this book. I mean, who really was Donica? What was she going to offer to the story? Well, as soon as I started reading, I loved her. She is brave, honorable, honest, and every parent's dream. Not only that but she's tough for being small, smart, and oh so clever.  Really, what is there not to like?
Simbarashe’s heroine is a fourteen-year-old girl who is bumped up two years and sent to public school as a junior. Of course there is the initial curiosity in the school, where everyone wants to know who she is and what she does that makes her so special. Even the teachers greedily lap her up, hoping that she will be the next great mind that they have shaped. But human nature soon raises its head, and little Donica, so wise and yet so young, refuses to succumb to that ever-present peer pressure and pays the price for her defection.

No matter what your age, this book is a poetically written and honest portrayal of the social hierarchy of high school and the various ways it impacts student’s lives. It is timeless, in that there will always be popular kids - the jocks, the socialites, and there will always be the less popular kids - the geeks, outcasts, etc. Simbarashe does a lovely job in getting into the psyche of these students, one by one, explaining the reasons for their behavior and why they act as they do. Every sentence has meaning. Every line propels the story forward in a magical and artistic way. He also includes the teachers in his story, a second hierarchy so to speak, where the social ladder is fraught with rumor and innuendo as well as professional jealousy.  We also must not forget the jaded and burnt out teachers, those who have been doing the job so long they have nearly given up all hope in humanity. He captures it all with flowing writing and perfect word choice.

This book is a dense read, full of hidden meaning and symbolism that drives each reader into the character’s life. Whether or not you can sympathize, at least you know why they do the things that they do. I also think that it imparts a valuable lesson to one and all. Stay true to your beliefs and always remain honest in what you do. Simbarashe’s story tells you that there is hope and things will equal out because, no matter what happens, if you remain true to yourself happiness will always find you. I highly recommend this book.


Lenmeo said...

Terrific Interview! I thoroughly enjoyed it!

Collette said...

Thanks Lenmeo! Maybe you can do a review soon. It was magical, a beautiful story.

Simbarashe said...

Thanks so much Lenmeo! I'm glad to hear it.