Amy Quan Barry is an English professor at UW-Madison who has written four books of poetry and a novel about Vietnam. Her new book, due out March 3, is something completely different.
“We Ride Upon Sticks” is a funny, thought-provoking, historical, slightly mystical novel about a high school varsity field hockey team that isn’t afraid to employ a little witchcraft to help them make it to the state championship. She will be presenting her book as part of the Wisconsin Book Festival this spring.
Q: You were born in Saigon but grew up on Boston’s North Shore. The book takes place in Danvers, Mass., which used to be a part of Salem, widely known for the 1692 Salem Witch Trials. There’s an obvious parallel between field hockey sticks and broomsticks. I have to ask: Did you play on a dark magic-practicing field hockey team in high school?
A: Heh! My parents still live in Danvers and I did indeed play field hockey from seventh to 12th grade and yes, we did make it to the state championships. However, the only person in the book based on a real person is our coach, Barb Damon, who sadly passed away last spring — I think she was 82. In 1692, Salem was much bigger than it is now and included Danvers, which back then was called Salem Village. While the actual witch trials took place in Salem proper, most of the afflicted girls were from Danvers, where the whole ball got rolling, so to speak. Growing up, we always knew our history — it was always there, it was always around.
Q: What was your inspiration for the book?
A: Twenty years ago I wrote a short story about field hockey, but it had nothing to do with witchcraft. It just goes to show that field hockey has been on my brain for a long time. Basically, in this novel, I was interested in writing a book where girls aren’t “ladylike.” As a kid, there were definitely times when my mom or grandmother would tell me such-and-such wasn’t ladylike. In “Sticks,” I’m interested in telling a story that I typically think of as a men’s story. For example, stories about Vietnam are often about men, but my book (about Vietnam) was told from a woman’s perspective. Usually when you think of team sports you think of boys, stuff like “Friday Night Lights,” etc. I was interested in exploring a girls team and seeing what kind of issues would come up.
Q: This is not your first novel, but “We Ride Upon Sticks” is in many ways very different from your 2015 novel “She Weeps Each Time You Are Born,” which takes place in Vietnam and is about a girl who can hear the voices of the dead. However, this ability to communicate without words plays a central role in “We Ride Upon Sticks” as well, as all of the field hockey team players have a telepathic-type connection with each other. Is this type of nonverbal communication interesting to you?
A: I’m a fan of magical realism. One of my strengths as a fiction writer is my lyricism, because I’m a poet, (but) another is non-realism — for some reason, I’m really good at making up stuff that could never happen. Magical realism allows me to work a plot in ways that I find really interesting. It allows me to go even deeper into a character as their thoughts aren’t safely sealed off from the rest of the world. In a third book I’m working on there are characters — twin Buddhist monks — who can read each other’s mind.
Q: How was this book different to write than your earlier novel?
A: I’m trained primarily as a poet. My first novel about Vietnam was very sad and very lyrically written. I wasn’t necessarily intending that (this book) was going to be comedic, but ... very quickly I couldn’t envision it being like my other works. The process itself was pretty different, and yes, it did go fast. I know Danvers, I know its history, I know the subject. I didn’t have to do any research, and I really had a feel for the characters pretty early on. It was fun to write.
Q: Each of the girls on the field hockey team has a different personality, social background and personal struggle; yet they learn they can rely on each other and that, in turn, is what makes the team so strong. How did you develop the characters?
A: When you think of those John Hughes movies, the standard cast consists of a bunch of different stock characters. There’s the cheerleader type, the brainiac, the band nerd, etc. Yes, I was thinking in terms of those archetypes, but I wanted to go beyond them. I also wanted to show … the things that teen girls struggle against, like the girl who (physically) develops early. Growing up she’s often shamed, and it has real world implications for these women. I wanted to explore issues we maybe don’t hear that much about, so for each character I tried to chronicle a different struggle that teen girls often face.
Q: The power the girls on the team find within themselves is inspirational and certainly gives the novel a feminist feel. What do you hope people take away from the book?
A: There’s something about the label of “girl power” that makes me shudder a little bit. At times it can feel like a marketing thing. Ultimately, I think the book does display girl power, but I hope it’s a complicated girl power, a sophisticated girl power. I feel there’s a lot of social criticism that’s in the book; I like to joke that it’s being presented like the spinach in a green smoothie. It makes the whole thing more palatable. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying that there aren’t times to be angry and direct in one’s criticism. But here, I’m going for something lighter where the reader can learn a lot historically and also empathize with characters who may be very different from them but have a blast while doing so.
Q: The references throughout the book are deliciously ‘80s. Trapper Keepers, boomboxes, Sun-In … which are references girls in high school now likely will not relate to. What readership is this book geared toward?
A: True, I didn’t explicitly write the book for young adults. However, I think younger readers can appreciate it, especially because the ‘80s are back in a big way, what with “Stranger Things” and all. In addition to GenXers, I think “We Ride” could appeal to the original “Working Girl” (the 1988 Melanie Griffith movie) crowd — women who were actually working in the ‘80s and may even be Baby Boomers. In general, I think it’s a really broad range of who it could appeal to. In some ways it could also be for young men as a way for men to see the everyday issues that women deal with. For starters, it could be a way to have conversations about consent, conversations which obviously men should be a part of.
Q: One ‘80s mention in particular that I loved was how one of the girls on the field hockey team spends her study hall making her prom outfit, which turns out to be a wonderful surprise. Where did this idea come from?
A: Well, I wore exactly what halfback Julie Kaling ends up wearing as her senior prom outfit, only I was a freshman, and in my case, my mom made it!
Q: Your references to “big hair” play such a central role that one character’s “mall bangs” has its own persona — “the Claw.” In fact, a few players’ body parts have anthropomorphic features. Was that fun to write?
A: If you look at my high school yearbook, there was a lot of big hair, so yeah, it was all very easy to imagine. I myself, embarrassingly, did have a “claw” at one time. There’s a scene in “Annie Hall” the movie where the two main characters are talking, but then you see their actual true and honest thoughts written below them as subtitles. Jen Fiorenza’s “Claw” works like this. It’s 100 percent her true self. In some way, it’s her id.
Q: The end of the book takes an unexpected but widely satisfyingly twist. Did you always intend the conclusion to end up where it does?
A: I’m not a writer who plans things out that much in advance. There were 11 characters and I always knew that every chapter was going to focus on a different character and a different theme. I didn’t know how it was going to wrap up until I got pretty close to the end.
Q: What are your writing plans for the future?
A: Eventually I’d like to go back to poetry. Right now I’m working on a third novel. It’s very different as it’s not a comedy. It’s about Buddhist monks in Mongolia who go searching for a reincarnation. I’ve spent a lot of time in Buddhist spaces — in Mongolia, in Dharamshala, in Bhutan and Sikkim. I’ve talked to a lot of people, both monks and academics, so we’ll see what happens.