[COLD OPEN] Detours are not necessarily something to avoid. But given that we're going to have these detours anyway, are there times when the detour can actually turn out to be the best part or the most important part or something valuable that we wouldn't have experienced otherwise?
[MUSIC, INTRO] This is The Book of Life, a show about Jewish kidlit, mostly. I'm Heidi Rabinowitz. Detour Ahead is a middle grade novel about Gila and Guillermo, and the way the H4 bus brings them together. Pamela Ehrenburg wrote the part of Gila, a neuro diverse white Jewish girl who loves breakdancing. And Tracy Lopez wrote Guillermo, a boy from a Salvadoran immigrant family who writes poetry. I was impressed by how well the two distinct voices wove together, and how real the characters felt to me. It's a quiet story, but it cuts right to the heart. And I'm sure you'll enjoy it as much as I did.
Tell us about Detour Ahead. What is it about?
Sure. So Gila is a neurodivergent, Jewish middle schooler getting ready for her bat mitzvah. And Guillermo is Salvadoran American who's new to DC, with his family having just recently moved from Maryland. One morning while she's riding the public H4 bus to her school in Washington, DC, he rides his bike regularly along a similar route, but when the bus that she's on swerves too closely to Guillermo on his bicycle, and she's the one who insists that the bus driver stop, make sure he's okay. Which fortunately, he is, his bike is not so therefore he ends up riding the bus. And they have this opportunity to develop a friendship.
How does it work to co author a novel? Did you plan it all out beforehand? Did you write in response to each other? How does how does this happen?
It's not necessarily the same for every co-authored novel. I know some folks who have co-authored where they have written together from one perspective. I truthfully look forward to learning more about how that kind of process works. For us, we were each writing in first person from a different character's point of view. I had this real life incident that I was starting from, and I had started to work through kind of, how could that play out in a novel, it became clear to me early on that there were two stories intertwined, and also became clear that I was not the right person to write from that other perspective. And so by the time Tracy came on board, there were kind of these pieces that were in place, I guess people can't see my hand motions, you know, kind of like pillars that were guideposts that were set along the way. You know, I think that started us off then of Tracy having some space to write in between this event and that event.
I like that analogy to guideposts. It was very much like that. When I started writing with Pamela, she gave me the space to develop Guillermo, his backstory, his character arc. And then it was just a matter of figuring out how his story was going to intersect with Gila's and where. On a technical note, we started an email then spent a lot of time in Google Docs before passing a Word doc back and forth.
How did you come to work together?
Once I realized there's this story here that I wasn't ready to let go of, but yet, I knew that it was only within my realm to write half of the story, that I went looking online. Even before the pandemic, the writing community, I think was making those kinds of connections online. And Tracy connected with the story right away, but also wasn't sure that she was the right person to write that either.
I was really pleased when I saw Pamela was searching for a Salvadoran writer to write this other point of view, because my husband's from El Salvador. We raised two boys together; they're grown now, both taller than me. But it was such a challenge to find books with contemporary Salvadoran American characters for them when they were little. And I don't think I ever did find one with a family like ours. There are wonderful picture books by Salvadoran author René Colato Laínez, and so many incredible poets like José B González, and really important fiction and nonfiction by Salvadoran and Salvadoran American writers with the perspective of being an immigrant or having lived through the Civil War. But for my boys, that was their father's story, and they couldn't relate to that. They wanted to read about a boy like Guillermo, who was born and raised here in a bicultural, bilingual family. And there are more and more books like that now, and I hope there'll be even more as my children's generation go off into the world and start writing their own stories. But at that time, Pamela was looking for a co-author and I really wanted to help her find someone. I reached out to writers that I knew in the community and asked them if they could reach out to others they thought might be a good fit. And Pamela was also following her own leads. But people were busy with other projects, or they didn't write poetry, or they didn't write for children in that age range, or they weren't familiar with DC. And during this time, Pamela and I were emailing and becoming friends. And we had gotten a lot of little signs from the universe that we should write it together. So when we ran out of leads, that's what we did.
There was some kind of synergy there, which was really kind of neat to see, I think, in a book about a friendship, see that playing out in the writing of the book, I don't think I even fully realized it until after it was all done. And it was out there that there was that kind of nice parallel there.
So you didn't know each other beforehand, you made friends through the process of writing a book about a friendship developing. That's very cool.
And what a wonderful gift at the end to realize, and now I have a new friend out of this. So whatever happens with the book, wherever it goes from there, to know that we're still friends, that's really nice.
That's great. And have you actually met in person or only online?
We've met in person twice. She lives maybe an hour and a half, two hours outside of DC in West Virginia. And we met up about halfway in between and had a pizza lunch after we'd been writing together for over a year. And then the pandemic came along. But we did finally, after the book was out she came to DC on a birthday visit with her husband, they were doing some sightseeing around town.
The pizza meetup was Wednesday, July 26 2017, at 1:30pm. That's not from memory, I'm just really good at searching my email archives. And yeah, then we met again, on my birthday last March.
What was the inspiration for this book?
it was inspired by a bus ride that I took with my son back in 2015. And so we would sometimes see our neighbor, who lived nearby; we would sometimes get on together at the same bus stop. My neighbor is autistic. And there was one morning, when our neighbor started to shout, "someone fell off a bike," and he's shouted this a number of times, and my son, and I couldn't see what he was seeing out his side window. But it wasn't really clear whether others on his side of the bus had seen and weren't feeling the level of concern that he was, but he was insistent. Finally the bus driver did get off, see what had happened. And sure enough, our bus had passed too close to somebody who was riding his bicycle. The person was okay. But there would have been no way to know that without somebody getting off and checking. And I found that really inspiring. And so from everything I studied in social psychology in college way back when, there is a lot of pressure for many of us to not respond to an emergency without being very sure that it's an emergency. They did all kinds of studies where they put people in waiting rooms, and the more people that were there with you, you know, similar to a crowded bus, the more hesitant many people became to actually declare something an emergency. And what I realized in that moment on that bus ride was, thank goodness that there was somebody who was apparently going through a different sort of process than what I had heard about, and was able to correctly identify something as an emergency and potentially be there to get somebody help. So, you know, I felt like there was a story there.
I want to ask each of you to tell us about your characters. Pam, you wrote the part of Gila. And Tracy, you wrote the part of Guillermo. And I also want to hear about how these two characters intersect.
I guess I would say that Gila is a person who is very much herself. You know, it's something I really admire about her -- I mean, I forget that she's fictional sometimes -- and has a sense of what is important. We all have so many competing priorities thrown at us and Gila is able to prioritize even when the priorities are not necessarily matched with what somebody tells her. She has an inner sense that I think is really important to listen to, you know, as kids and as adults. You know, in terms of how they intersect, they were able to develop this friendship, in part because they both respect how each other is themselves. They're both very genuine people, to have a friend who you can count on being true to themselves and supporting you as a friend, no matter the context. I guess that's a point of intersection that I see.
I agree with Pamela on how they intersect. Gila and Guillermo both kind of wear their hearts on their sleeves without meaning to, they're both inquisitive about the world and other people and I think there's mutual admiration between them. As for Guillermo, he's a lot like my boys at that age. He's a good kid, though he does find a little trouble here and there. His father's from El Salvador and his mother's from the United States, so he's growing up with a foot in each culture. There are times when he's with his father side of the family speaking Spanish and times when he's visiting his mother's side of the family speaking English. And in Guillermo's day to day life when he writes his poetry, it's in both Spanish and English. And that's when he's most comfortable and able to express himself.
In other interviews, you've said that you don't like to describe Gila and Guillermo's friendship as an "unlikely friendship," despite the fact that they're very different. Can you talk some more about that?
Yeah, this was something Pamela and I discussed, I think, when we were discussing back copy for the book, and I mentioned that I don't want to describe Gila and Guillermo's friendship as unlikely. Because it made me sad and uncomfortable. It was a visceral reaction, I didn't really know why until I really thought about it.
Sometimes, that can feel like shorthand, that the default expectation in friendship is that we look for people who are like ourselves, similar to ourselves. And so any friendship with someone where the differences might be more on the surface than the similarities can get that label. I'd like to think and I would hope that we're moving towards a place as a society where there isn't the expectation that friend groups would be identifiably similar right on the surface. And so I think that's where calling it unlikely without really delving into what was unlikely about it can sometimes miss some chance for just looking at our own assumptions about friendships.
That was actually perfect. Pamela said it beautifully.
Tracy, the character of Guillermo is a poet, and his sections are in verse. Talk about the process of bringing Guillermo's voice to life.
Writing Guillermo's story in verse was a new challenge for me. I've always loved writing poetry as far back as I can remember. Sometimes that's just how things come to me. And I love how powerful the words can become when they're distilled. But writing a series of connected poems that tell a complete story was something I had never done before. You have to find a balance between narrative and lyrical elements, though that's part of writing good prose too. As we're finding Guillermo's voice, it's difficult to get a sense of someone real or fictional, if they exist in a vacuum. So it helps me to imagine them in different scenarios, interacting with different people. And as we mentioned, Pamela already had these guideposts for me, so I knew he was going to have this incident with the bus and ultimately meet and befriend Gila. So really, it's just a lot of literal daydreaming and trying to imagine how he came to be in those situations. How did he get from point A to point B, and it helped to go back to memories of my boys growing up and imagining how they might have handled those situations as well. Once I started doing that, the voice is just there, the character just exists like any other real person to me. And like Pamela said, at some point, it's actually more difficult to remember that they're fictional.
Pam, the character of Gila, as you mentioned, is on the spectrum. Tell us how you created an authentic voice for her.
I find that my writing process is more about channeling the character's authentic voice as opposed to me creating something. There was a lot that felt very natural about actually being able to articulate, well, there are rules when you get on a bus, and everyone does sit on their own seat unless it gets crowded to a certain point. And you know, there's a lot that is unspoken. That felt very freeing to be able to articulate. And so whether Gila is actually on the autism spectrum, or fits somewhere in the broader picture of neurodiversity, we ended up editing out any reference to the spectrum autism, specifically, just letting Gila be Gila. It kind of felt like she breathed a sigh of relief when she could kind of just be on her own. And, you know, I'm hoping readers come to her that way as well. Particularly in doing research about how autism shows up in girls and women, there were a lot of pieces of my childhood that made me think, oh, you know, I never would have connected the fact that I have a really strong gag reflex to meat to the fact that I tend to lose my car in a parking garage. I did end up getting tested, learned definitively that I'm not autistic; there's a reasonable possibility that I may have a different type of brain wiring. It's called nonverbal learning disorder. It's one of these things that I'm not sure you can actually get a definitive diagnosis. I ran out of the insurance coverage to keep exploring this and it was also not seeming like it was going to be useful to delve further. But it did open my eyes to this idea of there's a lot of ways of being and seeing and interacting. I will give a lot of credit: we had two sensitivity readers that both had incredibly valuable perspectives to on a professional level, but there was a third teenager who's a close friend of our family, who was one of the very early readers helping to make sure that it both felt authentic, and also comfortable in terms of what's getting represented on the page. So I think his reassurance particularly was essential in making sure is this really a book that should get written. And so his reassurance and sent us a long way on that.
Tracy, this is your first book. And Pam, you've written a number of books. So how did this affect your experiences of the process? And also, how did that affect the relationship between you?
For me, it was such a positive experience, I didn't have an expectation either way going into it because I hadn't collaborated on anything creative since group projects at school. And I honestly was never a fan of group projects, because I usually have my own vision for things. On the surface, I was great at cooperating and working as a team, but... this isn't gonna make me look good, but honestly, under the surface, I'd be frustrated when things didn't look the way I wanted them to. I just remember, like, if we had to make a poster board and a classmate in my group did bubble lettering, which I didn't like, or they misjudged how much room they had, so they had to cram the last few letters on the poster board, I cringed inside like, this is awful. I'd want to do it over myself. But I wouldn't say anything. Nothing like that happened when working with Pamela. And it really added the continued feeling of this is meant to be, this book we're writing together, this is exactly what we're supposed to be doing. I love Gila's voice so much. And it just felt so authentic and relatable. And if anything, I felt like man, I really need to be giving this 100%, I want to match that energy and do my part to make sure it's the best it can be. And when Pamela would come to me with an idea, she was always so generous and so gracious about it. It was always Hey, I have an idea, and it's totally fine if you want to do it differently, but what do you think? and her ideas are always genius. There's one part in Detour Ahead where Guillermo says, "when we do talk, there's no telling what Gila might say. That's another thing I like about her." And that's how I feel about Pamela. She always surprises me with a perspective I hadn't considered or finds a layer to something I didn't realize was there. I learned so much from her as a writer and as a person. And I'm really thankful that we became friends in the process.
Having had a couple of picture books really helped me a lot to appreciate the value of what another creator would bring to the process. I probably would have come at it in a somewhat different place if I hadn't seen firsthand the value of an illustrator to a picture book, of somebody who brings it to life in a different way with their own creative vision. So to get to experience that with another word creator was kind of another layer of and of course, we have the wonderful illustrations as well by Laila Ekboir throughout the book. But it was an unexpected joy for me to have someone else care about the book as much as I did from the very beginning, just to have another brain who is as deeply invested, I couldn't have predicted how much of a relief that would be to not have to shoulder that all on my own.
As a B'nai Mitzvah story, I felt this one was unique in that Gila is really interested in the question of what makes you an adult. This is not the superficial approach that you often see where kids are just worrying about what they're going to say when they're up on the bima or, you know, having performance anxiety. So I'd like to hear more about that.
Probably the easy surface answer: plot, I have to say has always been the hardest part for me of writing. And so the idea that if there's a character that's a certain age, that there's a plot point that I don't have to think up. The character feels like just trying to channel the character. But plot is very different. In my experience that after enough times of being told that things I've written were too quiet, just to recognize, okay, things need to happen. And, look, here's one that I don't have to think of. But I think on a deeper level, I have been privileged over the last couple of years to attend a number of B'nai mitzvahs, including the one of our close family friend that was mentioning earlier, but a number of others as well, where a generation ago, that child might not have been expected to come before the community and step into this new role in quite the same way. I really appreciate a chance to celebrate where we are now, or at least my local Jewish community and the ways that I interact with communal Jewish life. It really does feel like there's been a lot of progress toward inclusion, certainly with a ways to go. But it does feel like something that is worth noticing in a positive way. When the book first came out, somebody commented how interesting it was going to be for suburban kids to recognize for the first time that in the city, people at Gila's age or even her younger sister Miri's age will get on the city bus and go to school because we don't have school buses here. And so most kids if they live outside of walking distance, the city bus and the Metro is what everyone is expected to do. So I don't know that I gave that a lot of thought at the time, but I guess I can see where readers would then bring into a different views of well, what does it mean to be an adult? And what are the different markers that don't have to look the same, even from one neighborhood to another?
Tracy, I'd like to hear your thoughts on Guillermo's coming of age. Is his poetry reading a sort of bar mitzvah for him?
I really love that idea. But I almost don't feel qualified to answer that. My father's side of the family is Jewish, but I didn't myself have a bat mitzvah. And nothing in my childhood really compares to having that year leading up to it, learning your Torah portion and figuring out what you want to say. And in Gila's case, at least really pondering what it means to be an adult. I think in my mind, Guillermo's poetry reading and the build up to that was one small stepping stone among many to embracing who he is, and having the confidence to present it to the world. I guess some would say that's part of what a B'nai Mitzvah is, I don't know. I'd love to hear more thoughts from readers on that.
Gila and Guillermo both seem to discover a number of universal truths along the course of the story. Do you have a favorite from among those little pearls of wisdom?
Hold on, let me read it. I know exactly which one. This is in one of the last chapters. "The hardest thing about rules is that sometimes you can follow all the rules A+, 100%, and things still go wrong. Then other times, you can forget all the rules completely, and things still turn out fine. Maybe growing up is more about learning not to follow rules that weren't all that great to begin with." I think this one's especially important given the time we're living in, with the issues that our generation and the next generation are facing, which are tied together like climate justice and health equity. I think that what's required is a paradigm shift. And I think we have to recognize that there are old rules and ways of thought that aren't working anymore, or that never actually worked to begin with. And there are people who are already leading the way, people like Greta Thunberg, who went on a school strike outside Swedish parliament to demand action on climate change. And Patricia Okoumou, the woman who climbed the Statue of Liberty to protest children being detained at the border. Those are just two great examples of the kind of thinking and the kind of courage to break the rules that's required for us to move forward as a society.
It was somebody at PJ Our Way who happily came up with the title, ultimately, for the book. And I think that gets at a truth that detours are not necessarily something to avoid. But given that we're going to have these detours anyway, are there times when the detour can actually turn out to be the best part or the most important part or something valuable that we wouldn't have experienced otherwise?
All right. All sorts of diversity is seamlessly woven into this book. We've got Jewish, we've got neurodiverse, Salvadoran, immigrant, bilingual, non binary, even homeless. Why was it important to to offer so many kinds of representation?
I feel really lucky to live not only in the city that I do, but also particularly in the Jewish community here where I do. Some of the diversity, I'm thinking about the black B'nai Mitzvah tutor, some of these other characters as well. Some of it just is about authentically representing the world that Gila and Guillermo are living in, that it doesn't always make it onto the page, that I you know, maybe it gets back to that conversation about the default assumption of what would be the focus of somebody's friend group, or the focus of the important interactions in their life, when in actuality, the fabric of so many of our lives is so much richer. If given a chance, what people see on the page, I think it can help take a small step toward what is expected, what is a likely friendship or a likely cast of characters?
Yeah, for me, it's just a realistic depiction of the world they live in. Washington DC in particular is so diverse. I feel like if it were written in such a way that all these identities and backgrounds weren't reflected on the page, it would have to be an intentional omission, or at least a failure on the part of the writer to observe or research. I also wanted to celebrate some of the things that make DC unique like go go music and Mumbo sauce. And it's important to recognize that those things originated in the black community, who are disproportionately affected by a lack of affordable housing, gentrification and other obstacles rooted in structural racism.
Tracy, on your website, you have a playlist for Detour Ahead. You say you try to imagine what music you would use if it were a film, which is a very cool concept. Can you talk more about that? Also, you challenge readers to pick which song on this playlist they think fits the story best. Is there one song that you feel fits the best?
Oh, yeah, making a playlist is part of my writing process. I usually choose songs when I'm trying to put myself in a particular mood to write a scene. It just helps me get into the right headspace and tap into my own memories of when I was feeling a particular thing. I think if I had to choose one song as like the main theme song for the movie trailer, it would be Grace VanderWaal's City Song, the lyrics and the music are both pretty perfect.
Riding the H4 bus is a big part of the story. It's where Gila and Guillermo meet, but it also represents freedom and responsibility and a safe space and all sorts of things. What does riding the bus mean to you in your own life? And in fact, what does public transportation mean to society, in your opinion?
Where I live, there's a lack of public transportation. And it's almost impossible to live without access to a car. Even if you wanted to walk or bike, everything is too spread out, and it's dangerous in most areas. And I would love to see that change. Cost of living is already a challenge for most people. And then when you have to factor in the cost of a vehicle, gas, maintenance, insurance, it affects your access to everything. How do you even live if you can't go out to buy groceries or go to the doctor or commute to your job? And there are parents who can't allow their kids to participate in extracurricular activities because they depend on the school bus, which only takes them to and from school, there is no school bus that runs an hour or two later, if they were to participate in a club or sport or marching band. And that has a domino effect, not being able to participate in extracurricular activities makes those kids less competitive on college applications and limits opportunities for scholarships. So I think public transportation is of vital importance to creating a more equitable society and should be made a priority for climate change reasons as well.
I feel like public transportation really does tie a city together in ways that certainly weren't part of the suburban community where I grew up. I mean, my kids certainly became independent, both at younger ages, but also in more gradual ways than I was able to as a teenager. You know, having a kid ride two stops on the same subway line to get to the same activity, which is located directly above the escalator, that's something that a lot of kids I think can handle long before you would trust them with a 2000 pound motor vehicle. And so I think both that kind of scaffolded experience for that sort of independence, that does kind of build neural pathways in a sense of knowing where things are. I mean, I remember getting my driver's license and realizing even places that were very close to me, I had no idea, was that North is that South? I know it only takes five minutes, but in which direction and where do I turn? You know, and I think having the metro map overlay, whether it is the bus or the train, can help to kind of give some anchoring points that way. Riding the bus or the metro, most of us don't meet our new lifelong best friend because of somebody that we happen to sit next to. It hadn't occurred to me until you asked this, but my late husband, we actually did meet coming up an escalator from a metro stop. I had done AmeriCorps National Service, I had a tote bag with an AmeriCorps badge. And I'm walking up the escalator and somebody comes up behind me and says, Oh, are you an AmeriCorps member? Because I work for the Corporation for National Service, the federal agency that oversees... it turned out we lived in the same apartment building. My mom always had thought, well, you would have met anyway, because you lived in the same apartment building. But the truth was, our paths really didn't cross, we did laundry at different times, our schedules were very different. And so had I not been walking up the Metro escalator with that particular identifiable symbol at that particular day.... You asking that question makes me wonder if public transportation has played a bigger role in my life than I had acknowledged at any point during the years of working on this book.
All right. Tracy, tell us about the surprise that you left at a bus stop as you described on your website.
Well, for our launch party, which didn't end up coming together for a number of reasons, Pamela had suggested we could have it in a park because of the pandemic and she had also this idea for a scavenger hunt, where readers could visit different spots in DC before finding us. And like I said, that didn't end up happening. But that sparked an idea in my head for leaving books around DC for people to find. And inside I included a bookmark letting the finder know that the book was now theirs, that it hadn't been accidentally left behind or lost by anybody. So far, I've only left the one book at a bus stop. But I hope to go back and leave some more hopefully sometime this year.
It's Tikkun Olam time. This is your opportunity for a little bit of activism. So what action would you like to call listeners to take to help heal the world?
I'd like to call on listeners to look at the books you've read in the past year and see how many of them were written by black, indigenous and people of color. How many were written by people from marginalized communities? If you see an imbalance in the authors you support, make a conscious effort to correct it, do more to support the authors and send a message to the publishing industry, that there's a demand for these stories, buy their books, request them at the library, leave positive reviews for the ones that you love and tell others you recommend a book by sharing it on social media.
I would really like to call on listeners to speak out and to call people's attention to when things are unfair or unjust or unsafe, whether it's the health of our planet, or gun violence or racial injustice... I shouldn't be saying "or" but really "and," and, you know, any any of these kinds of things that I think tikkun olam really relies on people not being afraid to speak up and collectively to bring voices together. So that just to recognize that we all do have more power than it might feel to any one of us individually.
So Gila is an excellent role model for that. Actually, both of them are, you know, Gila speaks up when she stops the bus to make sure Guillermo is okay. And then he speaks up when he shares his poetry. So they're both doing exactly what you said. Is there anything else that you'd like to talk about that I haven't thought to ask you?
Well, I don't know if this is kind of like pulling the curtain back on the Wizard of Oz. But I do want to thank you for accommodating for my anxiety and sending me the questions ahead of time. Just like Guillermo went outside his comfort zone and did his first poetry reading, I just went outside my comfort zone and did my first podcast. But I couldn't have done this without having the time to really think about my answers. So I thank you for that.
I just want to express appreciation, both for you and the community that you've created, as well as the community that is out there. People sometimes might imagine writing to be such a solitary process. There are parts of it that happened in a solitary way. But it's hard to imagine how any of us would make it through to the point of having words on actual pages that make it to actual readers without so many minds and hearts and hands really all coming together. So it's just an honor to get to be here and talk to you, and to imagine all the folks who are out there listening and reading and who are part of that community then too.
Thank you. Pamela Ehrenburg Tracy Lopez, thank you so much for speaking with me.
Thank you so much for having us.
Thank you so much.
[MUSIC, DEDICATION] Hi, this is Sarah Darer Littman, author of Some Kind of Hate. I'll be joining you soon on The Book of Life podcast. Some Kind of Hate was the most difficult book I've ever written both in terms of subject matter and writing process. So I'd like to dedicate my episode to my long suffering husband Hank, who is such a loving and understanding source of support while I was working on it.
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[MUSIC, PROMO] Have you ever wondered if there's a soulmate out there for everyone? I had the pleasure of speaking about this with Linda Loigman and her new book The Matchmaker's Gift. I'm Sheryl Stahl. Join me at www.JewishLibraries.org/NiceJewishBooks.