|Margaret McMullan||Interview with Margaret McMullan, May 2009|
When I Crossed No-Bob
Life as an O'Donnell is all twelve-year-old Addy knows, and life as an O'Donnell means trouble. Tucked away in a gray patch of woods called No-Bob, the O'Donnell clan has nothing but a bad reputation. So when Addy's mama abandons her on the afternoon of Mr. Frank Russell's wedding celebration, nobody is very surprised. A reluctant Mr. Frank and his new wife take Addy in, and Addy does everything she can to prove that at least one O'Donnell has promise. But one day, Addy witnesses a terrible event that brings her old world crashing into the new. As she finds herself being pulled back into No-Bob and the grips of her O'Donnell kin, Addy is faced with the biggest decision of her life. Can she somehow find the courage to do what's right, even if it means betraying one of her own?
In her fourteen years living in a Chicago housing project, Cashay has never ridden in a taxi cab, seen the city lit up at night, or set foot in a museum. She’s not pretty, or graceful, or bubbly like her little sister, Sashay. She gets her family by on a couple of dollars and food stamps every week.
No, Cashay has never felt much like a treasure. “Your name doesn’t signify who you are,” Cashay tells her sister.
But that was before Sashay was killed. Before her mother started using again. Before her mentor, Allison, showed Cashay a bigger piece of the world, and encouraged her to finally, finally step into it.
A name may not signify who you are, but in this poignant coming of age story readers will find that indeed, Cashay is an exception to her own rule.
ETC: There are a lot of powerful messages in this book. What inspired you to write it?
McMullan: I always wanted to write about two sisters because I have a sister and we are very close. Also, both my sister and my husband were involved with tutoring so-called "difficult" kids, and I was interested in writing about their experiences. In addition, a long time ago, I cut out a newspaper article about a 7-year old boy getting shot accidentally on the way to school in Chicago. I wanted to write about that and how it is to live in a world that's both dangerous and hopeful.
ETC: Was it difficult to write in the first-person voice of an African-American teenage girl from an inner city neighborhood? Why or why not?
McMullan: An African-American girl came up to me once after a book talk and asked me, "Why don't you write a story about me?" I loved her confidence and I took on her request as a kind of challenge. And really, don't we all read to find some part of ourselves in a book? I researched my way into becoming Cashay, a girl very much like the girl who spoke to me and a girl I really love. I hung out in a local high school, which happens to be mostly African American. I visited the Cabrini Green area in Chicago. I interviewed willing college students who were African American. I took on this project like I took on other research projects for other books. I didn't know anything about the Civil War before I wrote How I Found the Strong, which is partly about the Civil War. The research is often the best, most challenging part of writing. It's also when I learn so much.
ETC: One of the central relationships in the novel is between Cashay, a black teen, and Allison, a white adult. How do these characters bridge the gaps of race, class, age, and life experience? When Cashay first goes to the afterschool center (pp. 43-44), she notices that all the mentors are white. Why did you make the choice to have all the mentors be white?
McMullan: Both Cashay and Allison learn from each other. They are diamonds in the rough - Cashay is angry and has to learn how to love and trust again. Allison is cut off from people. She is not very close to anyone when she first meets Cashay, and she essentially has no family. They don't know it, but both Cashay and Allison have to re- learn how to open themselves and their hearts to love - for each other, for other people, for the world. That is mostly what this book is about, not race. I wanted to keep putting Cashay into situations of conflict and struggle - I wanted her to be the odd person out so that hopefully we empathize with her more. She struggles daily. Having white mentors is just one more thing for Cashay to deal with, to get a little more angry about. But again, she deals. She starts not to notice color so much.
ETC: Talk about the implications of Cashay's statements: (p. 52-3), "At my school it seems like as soon as you get your first period, you get an abortion."
McMullan: When I visited a local high school, there was childcare - for students. There was also very active discussion among the students about sex and about abortions. I was stunned, but I also realized times have changed (since the time I went to high school). I wanted this to be a realistic, contemporary novel, and I wanted Cashay's thoughts to reflect the thoughts of someone her age.
ETC:Talk about (p. 72) "This woman, Allison, she thinks like a man and I want to know how I can start thinking like that too." (bottom of p. 72) "In the projects where I live, no one talks about what's in the paper or the Middle East or the stock market or the economy."
McMullan: Both Allison and Cashay essentially live in a "man's world" and for Cashay, the biggest man/enemy is T-Rex. Cashay sees that to survive or overcome your opponent (in her case, a man), you've got to really understand him. Cashay sees that Allison has it easy in many ways, but Allison's opponents are often men, and she (Allison) has figured out how to take charge. Essentially, Cashay is figuring out how to think outside the box , outside herself. This is the beginning of empathy which I think makes you more humane and loving towards other people. Once both Cashay and Allison are able to think beyond themselves and their own particular problems, they can consider other people. Cashay even takes it a step further. She is able to think and consider her aunt, her neighborhood, and by the end, the world.
ETC: What do you hope young readers will take away from this book?
McMullan: We all have inner strengths and talents, and sometimes it takes a crisis to see them and put them to use. Cashay is strong, bold, smart, and she's very skilled at math. She could spend the rest of her life angry at the world - for the death of her sister, for all the wrongs she and her mother have suffered, but she doesn't. Cashay uses her strengths and talents not only to survive and overcome a very bad situation. She triumphs.
ETC: What would you like to say that no one has ever asked?
McMullan: If you read, you are most likely alert to the world on the page. So, this is more advice then anything else. If you can, be just as alert to your world as you are to the worlds in your books - notice for instance everything out there as though you were reading, as though there might even be a quiz. Every day notice everything -- in lines at the grocery store, at the airport, at school. Read alert. Live alert. This is the bumper sticker I wish I had on my car.