Miami native Crissa-Jean Chappell teaches creative writing and cinema studies at Miami International University of Art and Design. Her first YA ('Young Adult") novel, Total Constant Order, was published by Harper Collins in 2007 to universal acclaim, garnering a Florida Book Award medal, A VOYA "Perfect Ten", and inclusion on the New York Public Library's reading list for teens.
Tonight (Friday), she'll be the inaugural reader at the USpeak: Open Verse and Story Performance Series at her alma mater the University of Miami. A former film reviewer for the Sun Post (and freelancer for the Miami New Times), Chappell's a dynamic talent, and as part of the Culture Blog's on-going effort to profile Miami's burgeoning intellectual scene, we threw a few questions at her to help you get to know her better.
The reading begins at 6:30 p.m. in the Oasis Deli at the Whitten University Center. The interview-in which Chappell reveals the only good used bookstore in Miami-Dade County-begins after the jump.
Tell me a little bit about the event - how did it come about?
Writing is a lonely business. You sit alone in a room for hours, talking to imaginary people (who may or may not talk back).
The creative writing professors at the University of Miami got together and planned USpeak as an open mic event--not just for students, but for the city, as well. It's held on Friday nights at the Oasis in the Whitten University Center and broadcast live on their radio station, 90.5 WVUM. Each event will feature a poet/novelist from the community. (I'm honored to be the first).
What book are you reading from?
I'll be reading from my debut novel, Total Constant Order--including deleted scenes (like a director's cut DVD) and short excerpts from the blog, Sunshine State, which I wrote in the voice of my teenaged protagonist, Fin, for two years. She is my alter ego in cyberspace.
What's the book about?
The story is semi-autobiographical, It revolves around a girl who struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder. (Both of us share a thing for numbers). She's on the outside, looking in. Nobody understands the chaos erupting inside her head. Instead of trying to "fix" what makes her different, she learns to channel her nervous energy into something positive (in this case, art).
Tell me a little bit about your connection to the city.
I was born and raised in Miami. When I drive to work downtown, I zoom past miles of strip malls and fast food joints, McMansions and condos-in-progress. I pass canals where manatees float in secret, banyan trees that fold over Old Cutler road like praying hands, and cafes full of hula-shirted tourists who will never eat star fruit or lychee nuts, never play paintball at an abandoned Missile Base, never shoot skeet in the Everglades, stuff cotton balls in their ears, crouch on an airboat, and scoot across the sawgrass, away from so-called civilization. This is the city you won't see in drugstore postcards.
Any difficulties involved in pursuing a creative writing career in Miami?
The Florida chapter of SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) has taught me a lot about the business side of writing. They hold conferences twice a year, giving writers a chance to meet agents and editors, attend workshops, lectures, critiques, and have a lot of fun.
What's the age range for your book?
I wrote a story about a fifteen-year-old girl. Although my book marketed as "young adult," I don't equate teen fiction with a reading level. In my stories, it's more about the characters, their thoughts and feelings, what's important to their world.
What are you working on?
Right now, I'm working on a couple of different projects, a bit older and darker than my debut. I'm interested in the way that teens have embraced technology (cell phones, texting, blogs, instant messaging, social networking sites like Facebook) to shape their identities.
What's your favorite place to eat out in Miami?
I'm a big fan of Fox's in South Miami. When you sneak in through the back door, it resembles a neon-soaked brothel (according to rumor, that's what it used to be). I love the 1950s jukebox, which always churns out the same Patsy Cline ballads, icebox pies and bottomless coffee, the oil painting of an airplane (so blackened by cigarette smoke, it might be taking off in the fog) and my red vinyl booth in the corner.
Do you know of a single good used bookstore in Miami?
Try the West Kendall Bookshelf. The staff is super organized and helpful. You can swap your old books for store credit and browse through mountains of titles in many different genres.
You stayed here for college, right?
Yes, I majored in film and literature at the University of Miami. My MFA is in screenwriting. My doctoral dissertation explored the way we "read" a movie like a book. I like the idea that readers are co-partners in crime with storytellers. Certain techniques (such as nonlinear narratives, characters who break the fourth wall, etc.) encourage readers to become a more active participant. Every story is about the person who reads it. That's why I'm excited about the narrative possibilities offered by the internet.
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Who's favorite author right now?
Too many to mention. I'm reading a lot of books that blur the line between adult/teen categories. For example, Kevin Brooks writes spare, gritty, ultra-realistic stories that fit the archetypes of film noir or spaghetti westerns.
Any Miami-based mentors?
The YA novelist, Joyce Sweeney, runs a popular workshop that has helped launch the careers of many Florida-based writers. She is my literary fairy godmother. When I signed my contract with HarperCollins, she gave me a magic bean, which I keep in my jewelry box. (By now, I think she has run out of beans, but not magic).