GETTING LUCKY: An Interview with Tara Sullivan, author of GOLDEN BOY

Golden BoyLucky 13 debut author Tara Sullivan has a fascinating life story of her own. An American born in Calcutta, she spent her childhood moving around South America and the Caribbean with her parents who were international aid workers. Tara moved to the United States her freshman year in high school. Because Tara’s novel GOLDEN BOY has a foreign setting and an intriguing social issue, I felt privileged to read her ARC and interview her. 

Thirteen-year-old Habo has always been different—light eyes, yellow hair and white skin. Not the good brown skin that his family has, and not the white skin of the tourists who come to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, but the kind of skin that burns easily in the sun and keeps him hidden in the shadows. The kind of skin that makes the kids at school call him ghost boy and refuse to play with him.

But Asu, Habo’s beloved sister, calls him golden boy. She is the only member of Habo’s family who loves him well. His two older brothers scorn him, his mother can barely look at him, and his father, unable to accept Habo, left the family to fend for themselves years ago.

With their farm now failing, Habo and his family must flee their small Tanzanian village and take refuse in Mwanza, a fishing town. There, Habo learns, a new name for himself: albino. But they kill albinos in Mwanza. Their body parts are thought to be lucky, and soon Habo is hunted by a fearsome man wielding a machete. To save his own life, Habo must run, not knowing if he can ever stop.

Affectingly written, Golden Boy is a haunting and wrenching story of survival and hope.

Welcome, Tara, to the OneFour blog, and kudos on the publication of GOLDEN BOY! Can you tell us a bit about your path to publication? How did you get your agent, and then how long did it take before she placed your novel at Putnam?

I kind of snuck in a back door to getting my agent, truth be told.

A few years ago, my writer’s group received a development grant from our local New England chapter of SCBWI (the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators). We used it to do an informational interview with (the amazing) Caryn Wiseman at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, about the query and agent process. She offered, in addition, to critique each of our query letters… and she ended up extending an offer to two of us (one third of the group!) to formally query her when we finished our manuscripts.

Caryn and I signed a contract in May of 2011. One fact-checking trip to Tanzania and a few revisions later, she sold Golden Boy to (the also amazing) Stacey Barney at G.P. Putnam’s Sons (Penguin Books for Young Readers) in December of that year.

Thirteen-year-old Habo’s harrowing tale takes place in Africa. Please tell us why you decided to write about this particular social problem, and in Africa?

When I came across a small article in a non-profit journal in 2009 that told about the kidnapping, mutilation, and murder of African people with albinism for use as good-luck talismans, it really upset me. I was upset both at the horrific story and by the fact that I had never heard about the tragedy before. I started looking for books on the subject, trying to learn more, and found none. The most I could find were a few articles from international newspapers and a documentary produced by Al Jazeera English: Africa Uncovered: Murder & Myth. This haunting documentary touched a nerve and sent me down the path of writing Golden Boy.

The grown-up in me, the one that studied for a dual Masters in Non-Profit Management and International Studies and worked with village micro-finance and refugee resettlement programs, wanted to publicize the human rights tragedy. The kid in me, the one who always had to hide from the sun and could never blend into a crowd as she grew up overseas, wanted to tell the story of what it must feel like to experience these problems in the extreme.

What prompted you to travel to Africa and at what stage in writing your novel? What did you discover from primary research in Africa that you couldn’t have learned otherwise?

I wrote the first draft based off of the best research I could do from my home in Massachusetts: reading memoirs and travelogues of people who lived in and visited Tanzania; watching documentaries and scouring news sources for concrete reporting on the issue; making connections with non-profit organizations working in the field; zooming Google maps in and out to plan Habo’s journey; struggling with learn-Swahili books and CDs. The character development came from merging my own experiences as a kid with the facts I found through my research.

Once I had finished the first draft, however, I knew I wanted to trace the path of the novel on foot and make sure I had gotten things right. So, in the summer of 2011, I headed off to Tanzania. It was an amazing trip, and I learned so much that I couldn’t get from sitting at my desk: the smell of the air, the color of the dust, the things my internet research had gotten wrong.

I also was able to meet with people working in the field to rescue people with albinism, move them to safe houses, and educate society about their condition and their worth. These people were so inspirational—working in spite of death threats, some of them living under twenty-four hour guard, and when I asked them what I could do to help, they said: write a story where we’re human. Their dedication and self-sacrifice pulled me through the difficult process of seeing the book to publication.

How has researching and writing this novel impacted you personally?  

It’s living a dream. And, let’s be honest, we all have a lot of dreams, but one of the parts of growing up is realizing that most of your wild wishes won’t come true. I have, for example, given up on the idea of a pony, telepathic communication, having hair long enough to sit on, and mastering all languages known to man, to name just a few. But getting a book published, being a published author, that was one of those wild and wooly dreams that you hold lightly because you know they’re a long shot. To be living it… is just amazing.

What will you be doing for a launch?  

I’ll be having a launch part at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, MA at 7pm on my release date, June 27th. (If you’re in the area, please feel free to stop by and say hello!) The day after that, (at an ungodly hour of the morning) I’m hopping onto a plane to Chicago in order to present on a panel with the other members of The Class of 2k13 at the American Library Association annual conference. If you’re at ALA for the weekend, stop by and say hello: our panel is Friday 6/28 at 11:00 am, and I’ll be signing in the Penguin booth on the floor Saturday from 1-2pm.

As this community is All for One and OneFour KidLit, we’d like to know what two or three books inspired you as a child.

As a child I read voraciously but a couple of the books that really stood out for me were Lois Lowry’s THE GIVER, Orson Scott Card’s ENDERS GAME, and pretty much anything by Ellen Raskin, Nancy Farmer, and Susan Cooper. I was also a sucker for Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes… to the extent that I forced all my friends to learn the “dancing men” code and passed all our class notes using them. (This ended when I got tired of receiving one-word answers to my lengthy letters.)

Thanks so much for stopping by, Tara. Happy debut!

Tara Sullivan - high res copyAbout the author:

Tara Sullivan was born in India and spent her childhood living in Bangladesh, Ecuador, Bolivia and the Dominican Republic with her parents, who were international aid workers. She received a BA in Spanish literature and cognitive science from the University of Virginia, and a MA in Latin American Studies and a MPA in non-profit management from Indiana University. To research Golden Boy, Tara traveled to Tanzania, where she interviewed those working to rescue and educate Tanzanian people with albinism. She currently teachers high school Spanish and lives in MAssachusetts. Golden Boy is her first novel.

Here’s where you can buy GOLDEN BOY:

Amazon / Powell’s / Barnes & Noble / IndieBound

Christine Kohler worked as a political reporter covering the West Pacific. Her YA novel is set on Guam during the Vietnam war: 15-year-old Kiko finds out that his mother was raped during WWII. When Kiko discovers a WWII Japanese soldier is hiding in the jungle behind Kiko’s house for 28 years, will Kiko take revenge? NO SURRENDER SOLDIER, Merit Press, Jan. 18, 2014.
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