Joy Interviews Rachel Toalson, Author of THE COLORS OF THE RAIN

It’s my great pleasure today to get to chat with debut author Rachel Toalson, one of our wonderful Texas authors of books for young adults. She’ll be in store on Sunday, 9/23, discussing and signing her novel THE COLORS OF RAIN, which is set here in Houston, in the tumultuous 1970s.

JOY: First of all, congratulations on this wonderful debut middle grade novel! As an author myself (which is how you and I met), I know what a crazy, amazing journey publication is. So bravo and although I know you’ve been writing many different pieces for awhile now, let me quote what Laurie Halse Anderson said to me early in my career: Welcome to the tribe!

That said, let’s talk about THE COLORS OF THE RAIN. Why this story? What spoke to you about Paulie and about its setting of 1970s Houston? Why was this book that became your debut?

RACHEL TOALSON: Thank you so much, Joy. It's a very humbling, exciting thing to be a part of this author tribe.

THE COLORS OF THE RAIN came to me in a very mystical way; at the time I had five very young sons--in fact, I had just welcomed identical twins as numbers four and five, and all of my sons were 5 years old and younger. I was overwhelmed, terrified, and exhausted. And here came one more child's voice, begging for my attention. THE COLORS OF THE RAIN started with a character: Paulie, the main character. He had such a compelling voice and such an interesting story--he was growing up in the '70s, and though I'm a child of the '80s, I'd always loved '70s fashion!--that I couldn't do anything but commit to writing his story.

This, of course, wasn't my first book. Years ago I wrote a terrible book that I'm not sure I'll ever take out and dust off and revise. And then I wrote another book that is still sitting on my hard drive. This one became my debut, I think, because in the years between those books and this one, I practiced diligently and worked meticulously on my craft. I had fun writing. I experimented with form and character. I wrote lots of stuff that would never see the light of day (or maybe will someday, when I revise it according to what I know now!). I think that made all the difference. Play is an important thing to writers. If we're not playing, taking joy in what we do, what's the point?

JP: True. As a writer myself, I do know the importance of play! But moving on, THE COLORS OF THE RAIN is a novel in verse. Why did you choose that format for this story?

RT: Verse novels have always held my deepest love, maybe because when I'm not reading and writing fiction, I gravitate toward reading and writing poetry. My earliest memories are reading poetry--Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky and Emily Dickinson.

I knew, early on, that Paulie's story was a difficult story; it examines abuse, abandonment, racism, shame, family secrets, living in poverty--and those are intense subjects for middle grade children. It felt like the only way this story could be written was in the verse format. Poetry gives the necessary space that is required to breathe and process through the rocky places of life. I didn't have to over-explain anything; poetry is a partnership between poet and reader, which means I could open up the text, leave some things up to interpretation, and carry my reader to hope--not happily-ever-after, but hope. The simplest way I can explain the purpose of the verse format for this book, I think, is that Paulie's world falls apart. He falls all the way to the bottom. And, in my own experience, the only thing left at the bottom of the world is poetry.

JP: Speaking of such matters, you’re quite honest and unflinching in your author blog about your own struggles with anxiety and depression. Even so, was it difficult to mine that experience and those feelings for your characters, especially for Paulie’s mother? Personally I find that sometimes the subject matter I’m closest to is the most difficult to get on the page.

RT: Absolutely; there's often a shame that gets tangled up in our life struggles--be it mental health, financial worries, or a past that is filled with mistakes. Opening up about all of that, mining it for stories or essays or poetry, as I do, is never an easy thing. But I have also found that, when I write through the uncertainty and the resistance that comes along with delving deep into the pain of the past, I am never disappointed with the result. Not only is it psychologically and emotionally freeing for me, but I have the privilege of connecting with readers who are living lives in that same space. There is a powerful freedom in knowing you're not alone, that someone else has been where you are and survived the storm, but we don't get to experience that freedom, in its fullness, until we make ourselves vulnerable and tell our truth.

JP: And speaking of writing personal truths, did you have any concerns about writing about race through a white lens?

RT: Oh, my goodness, yes. I had nightmares about how I imagined people would respond to a white woman writing about race and the intricacies of racism. I tried to represent the people of color in my story like the friends I have known in my life: hard-working, honorable, human people. I agonized over every word that contained even a hint of race. I had multiple sensitivity readers. I probably still didn't get everything right.

What I can say is that I grew up on the stories of Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, and others. I loved the poetry of Langston Hughes and Richard Wright--still do. (My mother was a single mother and a librarian; she kept me supplied with books so I would stop asking so many questions!). These are the most re-read writers on my shelf. And ever since I can remember, I have had an incurable desire to see justice (and not the kind of justice that comes from a court or is handed down as a punishment--the kind of justice that comes in equal treatment of all, simply because they're human) extended to all, in equal measure, regardless of what they do or have done, how they live, what they look like.

I have never lived the life, but I have always tried to listen.

JP: And in a related question, what kind of research did you do to fully immerse yourself in 1972 Houston? What struck you as very different from today? What do you feel hasn’t changed as much?

RT: My research process for books is pretty involved. I am a former journalist (worked for the Houston Chronicle for a time as well as the San Antonio Express-News), so I like to dig deep. Sometimes I can spend six months or more just on research, to make sure I fully understand attitudes and circumstances and time periods and anything I feel is necessary to the story.

For this book, I had to research the '70s time period, since I was not yet born in the '70s, as well as some of the racial tensions that were happening in and around Houston. Unfortunately, not much of the history surrounding Southern civil rights--at least not the violent and less-than-honorable parts of it (like the attempt of white parents to create the all-white Westheimer ISD in response to the Houston ISD school desegregation)--weren't preserved in history books; I got my information from court documents and pieced the history together. It was a fascinating process.

Houston has undergone a rapid evolution, one that seems to never stop. When I go back to visit some of the places I remember as a child in the late '80s and early '90s, much of it no longer exists. My great-great-grandmother lived in The Heights until she died in 1999, at the age of 100; her house no longer exists, nor does the neighborhood I remember. When a city undergoes such constant change topographically, it can't help but also change culturally and economically. Its beliefs and attitudes shift and transform. Racial tension is still around, but it is not as overt as it was in the 1970s (which means we have to look harder to see it).

What will likely never change about Houston is its sophistication and its resilience; the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey is proof of that.

JP: Advice for emerging writers?

RT: 1. Never, ever, ever give up. Ever. The difference between a published author and an unpublished writer is one more try.

2. Keep writing. Sometimes we have to practice (I like to call it "play") for a long time before we hit our stride.

3. Read everything you can get your hands on. Books, magazines, periodicals, journals, letters--all of it fuels better writing. And broadens the mind.

JP: What’s next for Rachel Toalson?

RT: We've just been able to announce a new middle grade book, called THE WOODS, to be published in fall 2019 by Yellow Jacket. It's a creepy magical realism book that begins with the Texas City Disaster--a 1937 explosion that happened in Texas City--and moves to the woods of Nacogdoches, as I imagine them in 1937. It's strange, sorrowful, and magical. And I continue to write on other projects that I hope to one day announce in a deal!

Thanks for including me in this, Joy! Your questions were very thought-provoking!

JP: Thank YOU, Rachel!

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