Interview with Robin Farmer, author of Malcolm and Me

Malcolm and Me is Robin Farmer’s YA debut, an #OwnVoices historical fiction narrative rooted in the author’s personal experiences with racism as a young girl. Winner of the She Writes Press and SparkPress Toward Equality in Publishing (STEP) contest, Farmer notes:

It just so happens that what’s unfolding in the Oval Office at this time reminds many citizens of the Watergate scandal. The burgeoning Black Lives Matter protest reminds me of the Black Power Movement of my youth and the fierce pride it evoked. I can recall crossing the schoolyard thinking, “There’s no better time to be a Black girl.”  I dug my Blackness. That attitude mirrors the current “Black Girl Magic” mindset. Roberta’s ability to lead a successful protest at school also reflects the increasing social justice activism on the part of students nationwide.

DD: Roberta, your protagonist, encounters the same exact racist behavior you did as a child. Some people choose to bury a childhood trauma and you decided to revisit this painful experience. What was that process like for you, going back to that moment in time, as you were writing the story?

Yes, the incident was traumatic, but it also shaped me. Upon reflection, I realized one day it is not a coincidence that I grew up to become a journalist with a desire to ferret out the truth, scrutinize powerful people and institutions for accountability, and amplify the voices of marginalized people. The roots of my career were planted in that class. Reflecting on that experience often left me angry until I realized I had to forgive Sister. Forgiveness is one of the themes of Malcolm and Me.

Roberta’s voice is clear, strong, and confident from the first time it appears. Did her voice come to you right away or was it a longer process, getting to her essence?

I knew she was strong from the start. I had to work on her vulnerability and shortcomings. I also knew she had a snarky tone, but I dialed that back, too. It was a balancing act because girls at that age act like kids one minute and fake adults the next. Young teens can be a mess. I’m here for it.

It was refreshing to read a character who was committed to exploring her own strengths and limitations and dreams instead of hyper-focusing on a love interest.

Thank you! Please say it louder for those in the back! Girls have other things on their minds besides boys.

You are a master at creating effective, memorable scenes. Did you plot each scene out ahead of time or did you figure it out as you went along?

This story started off as a screenplay. Seeing it in my mind made the writing easier, especially since in movies one’s actions reveal his or her character and not so much what one thinks. I’m also a big fan of “emotional truth” in storytelling. These moments need to be heartfelt and well earned. It’s hard to define, but a reader’s heart knows. Most of my writing initially unfolds without a plot. I’m a “pantser” who makes it up as I go along. So I have to work harder on the structure. A famous writer said art is fire plus algebra. For me, fire is passion and algebra is the structure. Let’s just say math was not my best subject. One of the last scenes I wrote was the trolley accident, which was partially a plot device because I felt things had slowed. It took me fours years off and on to write a publishable draft. During that time I never rewrote the entire story, I revised chapters and earlier this year I added three new ones. The magic is in revision.

While this was Roberta’s story, the reader becomes intimately connected to her family and all of their love and complications. Was this a choice you made right away, to have Roberta’s family front and center with her throughout the story?

Yes, what happens at home impinges on what happens at school and elsewhere. Roberta is who she is because of the influence of her family. Readers also need to understand the family dynamics since Roberta isn’t the only one growing. After I finished the novel it hit me how she inspires personal growth for both her brother and mother.

Forgiveness is a major theme in the book. Was your own process with forgiveness similar to Roberta’s? Are you still working on it?

Roberta figured out the whole forgiveness process long before I did. What a smart girl! Yes, forgiveness is a major takeaway I hope readers, especially young readers, embrace. I regret the years I refused to forgive people, including some I loved dearly. It’s easier for me to forgive now. Thank goodness for personal growth.

If you created a teacher’s guide to accompany the book, what questions would you include and why?

I am working on one that will be downloadable from my website! Some questions I will include: How does forgiving someone make you feel? How do you think divorce affects people? How did you handle a time when it was difficult to speak up?

Who did you write Malcolm and Me for?

Toni Morrison said if a book you want to read doesn’t exist yet write it. This is the book I wish I could have read as a child. Having said that, it’s a book for every girl criticized for being too smart, too loud and too strong. For older women, I say it’s for you too as we all were 13 once and recall what it felt like to be powerless, angry and confused. Wait, did those feelings go away? Or did we get better at masking them? Maybe that’s an intergenerational discussion.

What are your hopes for the book?

I hope young readers are inspired by Roberta to defend the truth and speak up in this age of alternative facts. Think critically. Embrace forgiveness. And with all of my soul, I hope Malcolm and Me becomes either a film or a limited series. It’s time to see a resilient Black catholic girl with something to say on the screen. Heck, I’ll even write the script!

Robin Farmer is a national award-winning journalist and transplanted Philadelphian who currently calls the Richmond, VA, area home. At eight, she told her mother she would write for a living, and she is grateful that her younger self knew what she was talking about (many young folks do). Her other interests include screenwriting, poetry, movies, and traveling. She’s still hoping to write stories about young people for television and film. Robin earned her degree in journalism from Marquette University. 

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