By Kelli Plasket
Newberry Medal winner Christopher Paul Curtis’s new book, “The Mighty Miss Malone,” tells the story of Deza Malone, who first made an appearance in Curtis’s “Bud, Not Buddy.” Deza is a smart, confident 12-year-old at the top of her class. The Malones are an African-American family living in poverty in Gary, Ind., in the late 1930s.
We chatted with Curtis about his inspiration for the book, writing historical fiction and what the research process was like.
Question: What inspired you to bring Deza Malone, from “Bud, Not Buddy,” back for her own story? How did you decide what her story would be?
Answer: The main inspiration was that little girls constantly ask me when I visit their schools why I don’t write a book about girls. I finally got my courage up and decided to do it. I already had the character of Deza. I knew who she was, and it was just a matter of holding a conversation with her. I imagine I’m talking to her, and she’s telling me what is going on. Before long, I don’t even have to think about it. As soon as I sit down, Deza’s there, and she says, “Hello, Mr. Curtis.” I say, “Hey, Deza, how are you?” Then I write the story down as Deza tells me.
Q: What did you find rewarding about writing Deza’s story?
A: It felt really good to expand Deza’s story. From the little bit we get of her in “Bud, Not Buddy,” she seems like a really interesting character. I thought it (would be) fun to find out what happened to her. What I tell young people all the time about writing is that “one story leads to another.” That’s the fun part, just discovering what happens next.
Q: Deza loves to write. Did you have her passion for writing as a kid?
A: I did have a passion for writing when I was a kid. The only reason I remember that is because I remember telling my brothers and sisters — and I must have been 7 or 8 years old — I told them, “One day, I’m going to write a book.” I can remember because they laughed at me. I was so humiliated that they laughed like that. So I did have the desire, but I didn’t really act on it. I would write short stories, but I didn’t really find a love of writing, and I didn’t realize how writing could heal you until I was working at a factory (as an adult), in Flint, Mich.
Q: What was your research process like for the book?
A: The internet has made it so much easier to do research. You can type in anything and find it. When (Deza’s) father takes the fishing trip in Gary, Ind., I needed to know the temperature in Lake Erie in Gary, in 1936. You type it in and it comes right up, so any kind of research is made really easy on the internet.
Q: What do you want readers to take away from Deza’s story?
A: As I said in the afterword, I want them to enjoy the story, but I also want young people to say to themselves, “Wow, this kind of thing really happened? There are people (like Deza) who couldn’t get anything done with their teeth — they had to walk around with a mouthful of rotten teeth? There were people who lived in cardboard shacks?” I want those questions to be asked, and I want them to understand the answer is, “Yes, there were people like that,” and “Yes, even today there are people like that.” The only way we can change that is if young people and older people — but I don’t have a lot of faith in older people doing it — if young people say, “This is enough of this nonsense. We have to do something.”