Sunday, April 25, 2010

Beach Talk with Carmela Martino

A writer of short stories, poetry, picture books, nonfiction, and novels for children and young adults, Carmela Martino read so much as a child that her mother scolded her for “keeping her nose in a book.”

But no amount of scolding could keep her away from books, especially the twenty-volume World Book Encyclopedia that her father bought when she was ten.

Since her teen years she’s kept a journal to help her explore different ideas for poems and stories, and eventually her love of writing led her to pursue her passion further in Vermont College’s MFA in writing program, which is where she began writing Rosa, Sola, her first novel for children.

Kirkus described Rosa, Sola as “a warm, tender tale,” and SLJ acclaimed it as a story that “unfolds layer by layer, revealing each character’s personality, secrets, and flaws....” And Booklist named it as one of the Top Ten First Novels for Youth, 2006.

Nowadays Carmela says she loves teaching almost as much as she loves writing. She has taught writing classes for adults at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois since April, 1998, and teaches children's writing classes at the Hinsdale Center for the Arts, as well as her own writing workshops for both adults and children.

Her article “What’s in a Name?” appears in the 2010 edition of Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market, and her most recent fiction, a short story called “Big Z, Cammi, and Me,” appears in an anthology, I Fooled You: Ten Stories of Tricks, Jokes, and Switcheroos, edited by Johanna Hurwitz. She blogs at ( with five other writers-- April Halprin Wayland, Esther Hershenhorn, Jeanne Marie Grunwell Ford, JoAnn Early Macken, and Mary Ann Rodman–who also teach writing.

Carmela and I sat together on the beach a few days ago as the waves of the Gulf of Mexico lapped at our feet and discussed writing for a while. We focused on her love of characters and how she discovers the names that ultimately help her understand her characters on the deepest of levels.

Why not pull up a beach chair and join us?

Wordswimmer: Do you need the name of a character before you begin developing a character, or does the name emerge as you write the character?

Martino: I usually have to have a character’s name before I can start. I have a difficult time visualizing a character without a name. However, I often end up changing a character’s name as I come to better understand him or her. This happened with my recently published short story, “Big Z, Cammi, and Me,” which appears in the anthology, I Fooled You: Ten Stories of Tricks, Jokes, and Switcheroos, edited by Johanna Hurwitz (Candlewick Press). The “Cammi” named in the title is my main character’s younger sister. I had originally called her “Amy” because I wanted something that ended in the same long E sound as “Z” and “Me.” But in revision the name “Amy” felt more appropriate for an adult than for a ten-year-old girl. Then I remembered a precocious fifth-grader I knew named Cammi, and decided her name worked even better for both the character’s personality and the sound and rhythm of the title.

Wordswimmer: What does the name tell you (and your reader) about the character?

Martino: For me, and I think many readers, names conjure up images of both a character’s physical appearance and his or her personality. Sometimes these images are based on stereotypes. For example, for most readers, a boy named Hubert evokes a very different image from one named Kyle. Other times, the image is based on associations with other people of the same name. This is why so many teachers have a difficult time naming their own children—teachers often have negative associations with students of the same name.

Wordswimmer: Is what the name tells you always true... or do you find it can be misleading (to you and to your reader)?

Martino: Yes, a name can be misleading. As I mentioned in my earlier example, when I thought of the name “Amy,” I couldn’t picture a ten-year-old girl. That’s not to say there aren’t lots of ten-year-olds named Amy. I just had a hard time visualizing my protagonist’s sister with that name. Interestingly, a member of my critique group had trouble with the character’s new name. My critiquer had never known anyone named “Cammi,” and she questioned my use of the name. However, since the rest of the group liked the name “Cammi” (and I liked it!), I decided to keep it. As writers, I think we need to be aware that not everyone will have the same image of our characters that we have. Sometimes, that’s okay. For example, in my short story, it didn’t matter if my readers pictured Cammi with long, curly brown hair, as I did, or with short blonde hair. Her physical traits weren’t important to the story. On the other hand, it was important for the reader to understand that Cammi is a bright, creative, and sensitive girl. If I didn’t make that clear, then I didn’t do my job very well.

Wordswimmer: Is a name always necessary? Shouldn't the identity of a speaker in dialogue, for instance, be clear to a reader with or without a name? So, then, what's the advantage of a name?

Martino: No, names aren’t always necessary, and sometimes using a name can actually be distracting. For example, if there’s a scene in a novel where the mailman delivers an important letter, but that’s the only time the mailman appears, there’s no need to give him a name. If the author does name him, readers are likely to assume that the mailman is an important character who will show up again. Readers may feel misled or annoyed when he doesn’t.

I also believe that we don’t want to overdo the use of a character’s name. If it’s clear from the dialogue who is speaking, we don’t need to identify the speaker every time. But if the dialogue involves more than two or three characters, it can sometimes be difficult for the reader to keep track of who’s speaking if names aren’t mentioned, at least occasionally. I think that’s one of the advantages of using character names—they’re quick and easy signposts. In my experience, my writing students tend to err on the side of under-using rather than over-using character names.

Wordswimmer: A rose is a rose is a rose... but is John is a John is a John? That is, you can line up five characters, each named John, and find each one is different. How does the name, then, help readers understand characters as distinct from each other?

Martino: This is an interesting question. I think it’s related to what I said earlier about how the same name can evoke very different images in different people. To address this issue, we, as authors, need to clarify for our reader what it is about our character “John” that sets him apart from any other character named John. Part of that may be in the physical attributes that distinguish him. Is he like “Little John” of Robin Hood fame, who, according to some, was seven feet tall? And if so, how does his physical stature affect the way he treats those around him and the way he sees himself? Is he a gentle giant, or a horrible brute? On the other hand, if John’s physical appearance isn’t important to the story, we needn’t mention it at all. Instead, we can paint a picture of John through the way he speaks and acts, and in the way other characters respond to him.

I’m especially drawn to stories where a character’s name influences the character’s personality and/or self-image. Perhaps this is because I personally hated my first name as a child, because it was so uncommon. People had trouble remembering it, and often had difficulty spelling and even pronouncing it. Now that I’m an adult, people still have the same problems remembering, pronouncing, and spelling my name, yet now I like my name precisely because it is unique. My name hasn’t changed, but my attitude toward it has.

So, for me, an important question during character development is “How does my character feel about her name?” There is a difference between a character named Anastasia who loves her name and one who insists on being called Stacy or Ana.

Such a question can be used to evoke specific themes within a story. For example, the main character in Karen Cushman’s The Midwife's Apprentice is nameless at the beginning of the novel. Early on, the character comes to be called “Brat,” but by the end of the book she names herself Alyce. Interestingly, according to name origin listings, Alyce (or Alice) means “truth” or “noble.” The Midwife's Apprentice is ultimately about how a girl living in medieval England goes from being a homeless, nameless “brat” to a young woman who has found a “noble” profession that allows her to support herself.

Wordswimmer: Any other advice?

Martino: In case you haven’t guessed, I find this subject fascinating and could go on to say much more about it. Instead, I’ll close with a link to a blog post where I provide additional resources (both online and in print) for writers interested in more tips on choosing and using character names. You can find the post at

For more information about Carmela, visit her website:

To check out her interview with Johanna Hurwitz about how the I Fooled You anthology came to be, visit:

For an interview with Carmela about how she wrote Rosa, Sola, visit:


Carmela Martino said...

Thanks for the lovely interview, Bruce. You asked some challanging questions. I hope your readers find my answers helpful.

Bruce Black said...

Your insights feel like a refreshing breeze off the gulf. Many thanks for joining me on the beach this morning.