Las Musas wishes Kim Baker the happiest of book birthdays for her release of the middle-grade novel, The Water Bears.
Reina Luz Alegre: Newt is such an inspiring, resilient MC. What was the best part about writing his character?
Kim Baker: Thank you! I loved getting to know Newt (the main character) through the layers. He’s a complex kid with a lot going on. I think the best part was knowing even while he struggled that he was going to be able to shine in the end.
RLA: Without giving too much away, who was your favorite character and/or which was your favorite scene to write, and why?
KB: Oh, it’s so hard to pick. I really like the kids. I have an affinity for Newt, Ethan, and Izzy. They each have individual struggles that help them connect and empathize with each other. I liked building their friendship in little moments.
RLA: Did anything in your research about bears surprise you?
KB: Newt gets bitten by a startled bear about a year before the story starts. I thought it wasn’t realistic for a bear to be on a small island and originally had the attack set during a mainland camping trip. Murphy Island is fictitious but loosely based on the San Juan Islands near where I live in Washington state. Turns out, bears absolutely swim to the islands. Usually they’re returned to the mountains without incident, but it happens fairly regularly. I revised and set the attack on the island. While taking a research trip to Orcas Island, about an hour by ferry from Seattle, there was a resident black bear— the second to swim from the Olympic Mountains in a year. It felt like a sign.
RLA: Tell us about the role vaudeville plays in the story. Why vaudeville?
KB: I have always had a soft spot in my heart for entertainers with unique talents that take a lot of work with not much glory— jugglers, musicians, aerialists, magicians, etc. Odds are, they’re not going to get rich and famous, but they’ll bring happiness to small groups. There’s something really pure and wonderful about that. Originally vaudevillians traveled in eclectic troupes from town to town, but that lost popularity once movie theaters opened.
There’s been a modern revival with interest in circus arts. Seattle has the largest vaudeville festival in the world, The Moisture Festival, and I volunteer every spring. This year’s festival was canceled due to Covid-19, but next year will hopefully be better than ever. The town in my story has an annual vaudeville festival based on local history that’s a talent collective for the quirky residents. It’s a part of the Gomez family’s traditions and it gives Newt a sense of belonging. Creative communities are so important and I want to honor the people who build and sustain them.
RLA: Can you share some of the personal cultural and/or family details that inspired you as you wrote THE WATER BEARS?
KB: Newt’s abuela’s house is a homage to the loving houses of my great grandma and aunts. Those relationships help build me into the person I am. We lost two beloved aunts last year, so the book became sort of a love letter to them. Newt’s favorite foods are my favorite foods. I spent my early childhood years in Wyoming and a lot of summers in California with relatives so I felt the same dissonance that Newt does moving between cultures on the island and mainland. Kids in those situations can feel like they never truly fit anywhere and I wanted to show that in the story.
I didn’t realize how many regional differences there are for Spanglish until we got to the editing phase! An in-house Mexican American authenticity reader at Random House in New York insisted that fideo should be plural or changed to the longer version— sopa de fideo, because people would think the characters were just saying “noodle.” But that is absolutely what we call the best comfort food in the world and I needed to represent that. It got stetted. :)
RLA: Murphy is such a fascinating and unique setting. What inspired this quirky island town?
KB: A writer is their own first reader and it was fun to visit Murphy. When I was 11 we moved to be near family in New Mexico. Our community was made up of artistic hippies. We were pretty poor, so people could be very resourceful and creative. I like the creative environment that can happen when people with various talents and quirks share their energy. I’ve always liked the photos of abandoned resorts and thought it would make a neat setting. I appreciate when a city adapts old buildings to suit modern needs rather than tearing them down. The Murphy Island residents reclaimed an old resort island and made it their own. It’s a mishmash of some of my favorite places made into somewhere new.
RLA: What is your writing process like?
KB: Slow. I follow a few loose beats to get started but inevitably the story will be completely different than the idea I originally plot out. I was into heavy metal music as a teenager and I got this idea about a kid who finds a guitar and starts a band and the concerts bring good luck. I wanted to call it Power Chord but I’m not a musician and it wasn’t really working. I wanted to work tardigrades into a story someday, because they’re so cool and resilient. I realized eventually that it was the manuscript I’d been drafting and Power Chord became The Water Bears. Pickle, my first book about a secret prank club, started out as a story called Sunnytown about escaped zoo animals. I wish it was easier, but this seems to be how I work.
RLA: Can you share a bit about your next project(s)?
KB: I’m working on another middle grade manuscript with a realistic setting and some maybe-magic. The same, but different. And I’m challenging myself this year by learning to write for a younger audience as well. Who knows if anything will come from it, but it’s good to stretch.
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