The inspiration for the Warriors and Watchers Saga hits close to home. After completing your double masters at Chapman University, you accepted the position of lead middle school instructor at a Montessori school. Do you enjoy teaching?
I love it! Every morning, I barely set one foot outside of the car and someone shouts ‘Good morning, Ms. Sandy!’ You can’t have a bad day with that kind of a start. Each child’s needs are unique, and I love helping to prepare them for high school, but it’s about more than academics. Middle school is two or three compact years fraught with physical, social, emotional and hormonal changes. It’s angst and joy, a time when boy sees girl and vice versa, and I try to help my students through it, fostering social skills and a strong sense of self. Each year ends with my feeling that they gave me as much or more than I gave to them. Many students come back to visit me, which gives me great joy.
You teach Math, English, and History. Which is your favorite?
All of them in some way, but I love history and mythology. I tell my students that history is so cool, because it’s real stories about real people. Since my Saudi experience (I moved to Riyadh in my early twenties), I’ve thirsted to travel and meet people around the world. I don’t intentionally interject history or mythology into my novels, but they always seems to creep in, so it’s clearly a part of me.
The Warriors and Watchers Saga is about seven teens, ranging in age from fourteen to eighteen, but some of them have physical challenges: blind, deaf, paraplegic. How did that come about?
I did not write these characters into the story; they magically appeared and I could not ignore them. I’ve thought a lot about where they came from, and I do have an answer. I help out at Special Olympics type of events, and the first time I did, I was amazed at the joy, talent and fortitude of the athletes. Later, in my creative writing class at Chapman, a young woman (I’ll call her Sally) came to school with the biggest smile I’ve ever seen. She entered the class in a motorized wheel chair. She had been born with Spina Bifida. Her wheelchair had a compressor which provided oxygen, yet here she was earning her college degree and writing a novel. She also volunteered to mentor parents whose children were born with Spina Bifida. Talk about the “right stuff”! Meeting Sally was the day I stopped complaining about petty problems. Whenever I start to whine, I remembered her positive spirit, and I’ve met lots of people like her since then, which is why I added a page to my website for stories of “real life” (RL) heroes. When writing Evil Speaks, Amir, Kami and Chaz leaped out of my head and onto the pages, and they continue to raise their voices and be heard. I was nervous, because I had to do this right or not at all. I’m so grateful for these characters!
As a teacher, I’ve also worked with children with diverse challenges: autistim, Asperger’s Syndrome, processing problems, behavior and discipline problems, ADHD, and on. Since writing the novel, I’ve become an advocate for people with physical and mental differences. Children with these challenges are bullied more than others, and we need to educate our youth and encourage business owners to hire people with physical and metal differences. NOD, the National Organization on Disability, helps train employers. I volunteer to help out at the Special Olympics and am doing what I can to spread the word. I did not write the series with all of this in mind, but I do hope it will shine a light on the concepts of inclusion and social interaction.
Do you use any of your students as characters?
I’m asked that a lot. No. I can’t write about people I actually know, but sometimes a real person is a jumping off point to creating a character or I meld several people together.
The seven-novel Warriors and Watchers Saga is an Epic Mythological Fantasy. What do you love most about this genre?
Anything goes! I can let the creative mind explode. Some of the characters and places in Evil Speaks have blown me away. I didn’t see them coming, which sounds odd, because I outline the plot points and scenes, but sometimes a scene changes course and the ideas flood so fast that my fingers have a hard time keeping up. And I type fast. Evil Hears is plotted and the writing has begun. It, too, is a wild ride!
What is it that makes a person a writer? How do you know?
I once read Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, and I felt like she described me rather than herself. If someone asked me to stop writing, it would be like they asked me to stop breathing. The daydreams come, characters speak, and I cannot ignore them. Getting it all out of my head and onto paper takes tremendous work—plotting, crafting character, researching—but it’s a work of passion. I never feel like it’s work (except that my hiney gets tired of long hours of sitting, and I have take us for a walk).
Have you ever had “writer’s block”?
No, I don’t believe in it. Just step outside and interact with people, and stories emerge from every corner. I used to “free write” to break loose in the past. I would pick a subject or open a magazine and stab my finger at a picture or watch a real person and create a story around it. In the classroom, I hand my students a picture (my collection of zany pictures is astounding), and they have to write a story about it. This is also a great exercise for Point-of-View. I’ll hand a child an image of an old farmer, a young pianist, ritual dancers, etc., and they have to take the character’s POV and tell his or her story. I once had a student who said it best (I’ll call him Sam). Sam was writing a Beowulf like saga (after we had read the book), and he came into the classroom all excited. He said he’d never had so much fun writing, and when his friend asked why, he said, “It’s like being God—I created people and an entire world!” With no religious disrespect intended, Sam was right. My characters become so real they take over at times, and I let them.