Episode 30

Marti Dumas and I first bonded over our shared love of coffee, books, and writing, and I am thrilled she joined me today. We talked about the vibrant literary scene in her hometown of New Orleans, Louisiana, her visceral connection to the land, writing positive stories featuring children of color as the main characters, and her deep love of the work of Octavia Butler, and why he deeply layered “Wild Seed” is her Best Book Ever.

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Host: Julie Strauss

Guest: Marti Dumas

Books discussed in this episode:
Wild Seed by Octavia Butler
Jaden Toussaint, the Greatest by Marti Dumas
The Dragon Keep by Marti Dumas
The Little Human by Marti Dumas
Women in the Old West by Marti Dumas
The Babysitter’s Club – this was super fun to research. I found this great Retro Set, containing the original books 1-6, and this delightful graphic novel set.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss
Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren
Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski
Blue Cypress Books, New Orleans, LA
Community Book Center, New Orleans, LA
Octavia Books, New Orleans, LA
Tubby & Coo’s Mid-City Book Shop, New Orleans, LA
Plum Street Press
The Complete Patternist Series Box Set by Octavia Butler
Contains; Wild Seed, Mind of My Mind, Clay’s Ark, Patternmaster 
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
Kindred by Octavia Butler
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Daemon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling by Phillip Pullman
His Dark Materials Series by Phillip Pullman: Box Set
Contains: The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass
Story by Robert McKee

Discussed in our Patreon Exclusive clip:
The Jerk, “Tonight You Belong to Me”

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Hello, Bookworms, welcome to the Best Book Ever, The podcast where we talk about your favorite books. I’m your host, Julie Strauss. Today I’m so pleased to talk to my friend, Marti Dumas. Marti is a mom, a teacher, and a creative entrepreneur from New Orleans. Her bestselling children’s book series, Jaden Toussaint, The Greatest combines literacy with STEM skills and humor and adds a much needed diversity to the children’s chapter book landscape. Her latest novels, The Dragon’s Keep, and The Little Human are middle grade fantasies being heralded for their skillful combination of science, family, and magic. And her recent foray into nonfiction with Women in the Old West earned her a starred review from the American Library Association’s book list. I always loved talking to Marti and I was thrilled that she chose a book by an author I’ve always wanted to read. I know you’re going to love hearing why Marti thinks Wild Seed by Octavia Butler is the Best Book Ever.

JS – Hi, Marti. Welcome to the Best Book Ever podcast.

MD – Hi Julie. Thanks so much for having me.

JS – I’m so delighted to have you. I love it when I finally get a chance to talk to you again.

MS – Hey, ditto here, even though we don’t have like, coffees that we can swap with each other. Our favorite thing is the caffeine.

JS – Marti, I have so much, I want to talk to you about, but I think what we ought to do is start with what your reading life was like growing up and how you became the reader you are. And the reason I’m so interested to ask you that is because you write books for young people. And I love that. I love that trail of who you were as a kid and, and who and what books were in your childhood to now being a person who provides that experience for young people. Can you tell me about that?

MD – Certainly. So, I, sadly am very similar person now to the person that I was when I was seven. So, you can decide like, if I was like a precocious seven-year-old, or if I’m a lacking 43-year-old, like those are your choices. Right. But when I was really little, I was, I must’ve been so annoying! I could read at a really young age, but it was, it always felt like such a gift, like an excitement like that. There was what could have been secret information for people, but for like the select few, the chosen, that you could decode that information. So, I would be in the back of the car, like in the bus, just like literally reading every sign that passed and no adult ever stops me, which I know it must have been so frustrating for them. But, you know, they were very understanding of it. I had a big sister too. And I strove to be like her in a lot of ways. We had tons of books around, and I don’t ever remember there being a time when I wasn’t reading or being a reader.
The story that I most often tell when this kind of question gets asked me is that there was a bookstore that is not there anymore called The Little Professor that was maybe four blocks from my house. It was the eighties and kids were allowed to go and do things by themselves. And people didn’t worry that we were going to be kidnapped even though, um, there was that whole milk carton thing with the kids on them, but still we were allowed to go and do things, all of us.
And I would walk to the bookstore and I would spend my little money on Babysitter’s Club books. And they were like right by the door and I would go in, I’d be like, which ones are new? I think that there were probably 50 or 60 of them when I was that age. And I was just determined to make my way through them.
And one day, one of the owners of The Little Professor was like, I’m not going to let you buy this book. And I was like, what? And he was like, you come in every day and you spend the money on this book. And the next day you come in for another book. You’re wasting your money on these books. You can just sit right there and read this book and you can use your money to buy a different book that I’ll suggest to you. So then he suggested The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe was one of the books that he gave me. And I adored it. So I really would just spend a good chunk of the morning reading on the floor in the bookstore.
And then I would buy the book that I was supposed to buy and take it home and read it at night. I read The Swiss Family Robinson, which I adored. I was hiding underneath my grandmother’s Bed. I live in new Orleans, and it’s hot most of the year in New Orleans. And at the time central air was not a thing that everybody had, or I don’t even think I knew what that was. But, there were people would have window units, like air conditioners in the windows in certain rooms. And my grandmother who obviously was like a matriarch and had a place of privilege, had an air conditioner in her room. And that was the only one that would run all day.
So I would hide under the bed in her room with a flashlight reading, you know, the Swiss Family Robinson, and Pippi Longstocking, and Strawberry Girl. And just like all kinds of, I dunno, just all, all kinds of books underneath there. And it’s such a pleasant memory for me. Like it, it feels comforting. And it’s probably the reason that I like to have a room a little bit chilly to this day.
It was really, it was wonderful being able to live so many lives quietly, like learn so many things without having to go places, and to find yourself in people that didn’t seem very much like you.

JS – I have to tell you that story makes me cry a little bit, that, that book seller telling you to sit down and read it and then buy something else. It just feels like one of those incidences of angels on earth, honestly.

MD – Indeed. Indeed. I totally. Yeah. Yeah.

JS – Does New Orleans have a really good bookstore scene?

MD – New Orleans has a ridiculous number of small, independently owned things in the city. One of which is Blue Cypress books. It’s lovely. Elizabeth, who owns it, is amazing.
She’s whip smart, just like smart, and hilarious, and super thoughtful. And it’s like three and a half blocks from here. So that’s our close one, but, um, we also super love Community Books, which is not at all in our neighborhood. It’s on the other side of town, but it is a Black-owned bookstore that has been servicing families since the sixties. And it’s just an institution in the city. It was giving people voice who couldn’t get into other bookshops for decades, right? Like now it’s a little bit more on people’s radar, but they were doing it before. Other people were thinking about that at all. So then that’s, that’s really cool. It’s called Community Book Center because they act as a community center and a bookstore. There is also Octavia Books. It just has a lovely feel like you walk into it. It’s tucked deep into a neighborhood. So like, if you didn’t know to be looking for it, it’s not like an avenue pop up sign. It’s like on a corner of two little side streets, is this amazing little bookshop that’s tucked in there. And there’s Tubby and Coo’s, which is in another part of town, but it caters to like the geeky side of us, so they have books and board games. So you get those things that are in there. For the size city that we are, we have a pretty decent selection of independent bookstores. That’s like a regular part of life. And it’s one of the reasons why I love to live here. It’s so Southern, but like our kind of Southern.

JS – It’s hard not to draw a line from that bookseller who you saw every day into who you are now.

MD – For me, writing is so much about joy. Like there’s lots of jobs that I can have, that would be crappy. I try not to let this one be crappy.

JS – Is that what drew you to writing for young people was that you wanted to write joyful things?

MD – Yes. I have always written, and because I I’m largely still the same person that I was when I was seven, I have always written for young people. The story of deciding to become a writer, which is a different thing than writing, has a weird starting point. I got my college’s alumni magazine. And it was talking about all these people that were like, Oh, this person is like CEO of this. And this person made a million of this. And I was thinking, How good for them. Like, that’s awesome that they are like doing a thing that they’re excited about. And I would never want to do that thing that they’re doing. Like I never, never would want to do it. It made me think: what is the thing that I would be sad if I never did? The thing that I would feel like, dang it, I really missed out, you know, like I should have done that thing. And, and that was writing. At that point that I was like, well, I would be sad. So, then I either need to do it or I need to not do it. I decided to do it. I hate when people tell stories about grit because I don’t really believe in it. But in a way, along with all the privileges that I have had, there is a little bit of grit that goes into something like that. You just have to not quit. Not quitting doesn’t guarantee that you will get it. However, if you quit, you definitely won’t.
So not quitting is probably 85% of the formula of how to be able to make that kind of thing happen. And so it was at that point that I was like, well, I’m not gonna do it. And I guess I’m not going to be able to quit. So then that’ll be the thing. And every time there’s been a bump in the road, I’ve been like: Okay, but like what’s going to happen if you quit?
I just have to keep pulling it along, like trying to make it work, you know?

JS: That seems like something that should be embroidered on pillows and put in every author’s office. Will it be better if you quit?

MD – Almost a hundred percent of the time the answer to that is no. Like if you’re, if you’re not just answering the frustration of the moment, right? Like if you’re thinking in five years, am I going to be happy that I quit? Most of the time, the answer is no.

JS – So you get the tremendous joy of not only having it in your alumni magazine, but you also have what I think is a very singular validation of children. Which I think, particularly for your Jaden Toussaint series, I can’t imagine how wonderful that must feel.

MD – It is fun. It’s a lot of fun. I love getting emails from kids. I adore getting paper notes in the mail and I am the worst at in-person events because my line is long and slow. I love kids. I super actually want to know what they have to say. So when I ask a question, I want to know the answer and then maybe we end up having a little conversation. And then, my line is so long and the people next to me were like, come on. It’s funny because my Jaden Toussaint series is published by very small mission-driven press, but it took a really long time before I started being invited to those kinds of events.

JS – What does mission driven publisher mean? I’ve never heard that.

MD – All l of the books published by Plum Street Press are books that feature children of color as the protagonists where race is not a factor in the story. So they get to be the main characters, but not have it be about the Civil Rights movement or slavery or any of the, um, like very race driven – which are, hold on. Just to be clear, they are extremely important and necessary books for us to have in our canon and in people’s hands. And for readers, it’s just not the only books. I think people see more humanity in the books they read than in the people they come across every day.
Your circle is probably limited, whoever you are, wherever you live. Probably the circle of people that you are touching is limited and repetitive. And so then the way to be able to see other things is through media, including books. And so if you are seeing – if every time you see a brown person, they are in the midst of slavery or trying to fight against slavery or being mistreated or being like less than, even if they’re the protagonist of that story, I think it does something to our collective psyche. And I think that there has to be balanced for it.

JS – So tell me, how did you come across this book that we’re talking about today, this Octavia Octavia Butler book, Wild Seed?

MD – For black women of a certain age and who have a certain level of literary, Octavia Butler is canon. About three years ago. I set out to reread her whole canon. And I can’t stop thinking about Wild Seed. And the part that blew my mind was how long ago all of these things were written. They a don’t read like they were written that long ago, but the themes are just spot on.

JS – Can you give a, a rundown of the plot of this book for people who maybe haven’t read it?

MD – Sure. The story begins in Africa, mostly in unnamed areas. The idea is that it’s avery, very, very long ago, but not specifically named inside the story. There is a woman whose name is Anyanwu who can change herself and she can, she knows her body so well and has the ability to be able to essentially recode herself. She can make herself look younger, she can make herself look older, and because she can change herself so well, she’s essentially immortal because any little thing that’s wrong with her body, she’ll just repair the things. It’s like having a perfect car. Like when we’re they always have replacement parts. She meets a person in a man’s body whose name is Doro. Doro is, um, I’m going to, just for ease, say that Doro is a spirit. That’s a thing we can talk about if you would like. He can inhabit anybody’s body, but when he inhabits their body, he kills them. And it doesn’t last forever. The body’s not going to accept him in perpetuity. He is essentially a mortal. He kills frequently because if only because he will need or want a new body to be able to live in. So Doro is on a quest to be able to breed children that will be able to be immortal like him. And he promises Anyanwu that he can give her children that she won’t have to watch die. She’s watched generations and generations of her children die by that point, because none of them have whatever this thing is that she has, that lets her change.
So she goes with him willingly. But then he immediately attempts to subjugate her and turns her into a breeder and does all kinds of things, including killing some, or forcing her to sleep with other people, and killing some of them. His quest is essentially like a massive eugenics program.
He’s got little pods of people that he’s set up all over the world. And so he’s constantly traveling to be able to check on all of them and see how the breeding progress is growing. And then when he sees two promising specimens, he makes them come together to do again.
This story is the story, I think, of Anywanwu’s realization of the consequences of her own mortality. Or immortality. The idea of the feminine versus the masculine. And also the power that one has when faced with something that is ostensibly all-powerful.

JS – This was a book that actually bowled me over because I kept thinking, Oh, it’s about this. And then after I finished and I went and researched it, and there are scholarly papers all over about this book. And some of them say, this is a story of the eternal conflict between male and female. No, this is the story of the eternal conflict between black and white. This is a story of the eternal conflict between masters and slaves, between Africa and America, between human and eternal. Faith and reason. And it’s a mindblowing book. How the hell did she do this?

MD – She wrote this story that is about everything. It is about every conflict ever. You could make a scholarly dissertation on every one of those themes. Absolutely. And I think that it’s about all of those things for me. I think that all of those things are related through power dynamic. And so then I think for me, ultimately, that is the larger theme, but then it like really deeply and specifically incorporates all of the things that you just said. Like, you don’t have to read into it to catch all of the themes that you just listed. Like all of those are explicit. Until you get to the very end you might think that their struggle would be ongoing. Because just because there’s not actually a clear winner until she decides that there is one. And so even that is a power. Like ultimately, I have power over myself. You can decide how you’re going to react, but ultimately I have power over myself is another thing that’s in there. But if there are more books in the series, the theme gets even more about the power dynamic.

JS – So the three books that come after this one, do Doro and Anyanwu play a part in those, or do they move on to their descendents?

MD – Clay’s Ark does not see Dora or Anyaynwu, although one can assume that the people who are in it are results of this breeding program. But they’re not directly mentioned. I am almost a hundred percent certain, definitely not Anyanwu. Doro wears many faces, so it’s possible that he was a different person, but. You know, whatever, but I I’m pretty sure he wasn’t mentioned in it. But Pattern Master. Definitely. Definitely. So if you were reading them, Clay’s Arc might feel like a diversion, but Mind of My Mind and Pattern Master are like direct lines and they’re in all three. JS – What is it about this book that appeals to you so much? What is it that draws you in and, and makes you call this one of your best books ever?

MD – Ot has so many of the things that I want to be as a writer. I can’t say that I’ve ever actually landed there, but like so many of the things that I want to be, so the moments of fantasy in this book are pure, immersive joy. When she joins a pod of dolphins as a dolphin, but it’s also thinking about the ethical and ecological impact of her having done so at the same time, I was like, I live right now! I absolutely live. Like, this is amazing. But at the same time, It’s heavy. Like it’s really heavy, but also you could just read it as fantasy.

JS – There’s a sneakiness to it that you like.

MD – Yes. I don’t think that we can not be thoughtful, but I also think that we should all be able to have those moments of like being carried away. I, at a certain point had to stop following politics as deeply as I once did because it was traumatizing for me in a way. I was feeling like there’s not very much that I can do. There’s not very much else that I can do. And so I feel like I’m experiencing this trauma over it.
There is this idea of needing sometimes the idea of the Sabbath, right? That you need to be able to rest. You need to be able to, to get away. Otherwise, you, as a person are not going to be able to continue forward. I think that the things that are for me the most immersive and fun are things that let you think about those heavy things that politics would have you do. But you don’t expect for the story to be able to give you a direct life result or to be able to impact it in any way. Do you know what I mean? So it’s like a way of being able to wrestle with those same ideas, but also have your Sabbath, your day of rest at the same time.

JS – I was very much thinking throughout this book that in 1980, she wrote this story of men destroying everything. And this woman coming in, who you said sometimes is she sometimes a man, and sometimes presents as white. But predominantly, I think we are to assume she’s a black woman. And she’s constantly coming in, cleaning up his mess, gathering in these people who he has essentially destroyed. Providing a home, providing a life, providing sustenance and getting no credit. And all I could think was, Octavia Butler, she might, she might be a wizard.

MD – I’m not entirely sure. She might’ve been. You have not read Parable of the Sower yet? Don’t. Okay? The story starts in 2024. We’re in 2020. And we’re on track. It’s like, we’re totally on track and it’s a nightmare. It’s the only book that is like a chronicle and not story shaped. If you read it by itself and didn’t know … , I was literally just reading all of her stuff, all at one time. If I had read that one first, I might’ve thought that she just didn’t understand story shape, except I knew good and darn well that she knew how to write a story shape. So then that made it even scarier because it really feels more like she’s written down through a character’s perspective, obviously, but like that should just written down and everything so far is again, we’re on track for the things. So like that book recently hit the New York times bestseller list for the first time. She was not a New York times bestseller in her lifetime, but it was one of her life goals was to be one. So now she is one, posthumously, but it’s because that book is so scary accurate. For right now. So, you know, I guess I don’t want to say don’t read it cause obviously, but like, you know, um, If you don’t have the stomach, like just let it go. Cause it doesn’t look pretty from here.

JS – I had my friend Marion Hill on a couple months ago and I’m going to have him back because he very much wants to talk about that one. And so I’m going to read it, but until then I’ve got Kindred actually next to my bed right now. She is definitely having a moment, which is unfortunate that it didn’t happen in our lifetime, but it is magnificent that it’s happening.

MD – Kindred is much more brutal. It’s really good and it really shows her, um, Her story arc chops.

JS – That’s interesting that you say it’s more brutal because lots of times I’ve seen that it’s a good place to start. If you’ve never read her, that’s often recommended is where you start with Octavia Butler.

MD – Yeah. Interesting. Yeah. You know, I’m saying more brutal. It is. No, no, no. I, I stand by that thing that I said. I’m not adjusting it, but I’m going to put it in some context. So you’ve read, um, Beloved? Okay. It’s like that. Beautiful. Literary. Lovely. Right. But just, you know, it’s, it’s heavy.

JS – So, Marti, what are you reading these days? What’s on your shelf?

MD – Right now I’m reading, um, a collection of essays and speeches by Philip Pullman. He is really, he is really great. If you’re not familiar with Philip Pullman, he has written a lot of things, but I think his, like most commercially known ones are called His Dark Materials series. The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and the Amber Spyglass. They have compiled a bunch of his essays and speeches about creating story. And particularly he talks a lot about the His Dark Materials series in these essays and speeches. I find it totally fascinating to hear other writers talk about their process because I don’t ever use the exact same strategy for writing a book. Every time I try to try something new, because I think that I will learn something different. So I really love to hear behind the scenes for other writers and how they do their process. So as many times as I can, I do I read things like that, or if they have them an audio book, then I’ll get them an audio book, sometimes both. So like, um, Robert McKee’s Story is one that I have on audio because I can just leave it running. You’ll catch something every time, every time your brain keys back in from mopping, or whatever, you’re going to catch something that’s like super useful. So it’s worth a multiple listen to.

JS – Marti. I cannot tell you how much I’ve enjoyed this. Will you tell our listeners all the places where they can find you and your books and all of that great information? Absolutely. So the easiest place to find me probably is at my website, which is MartiDumasbooks.com. I am sporadically on Instagram, like a few times a week on Instagram and my handle, there is @MomTeacherWriter. Same on Twitter. I’m on Twitter for exactly five minutes a day. Same thing for Facebook. Facebook, I actually do a good bit more because I do tend to keep in touch with friends and family. So when people, um, write to me on Facebook or send me messages or adorable little messages where their kid wrote the top part of the message, and they wrote the bottom part saying, Hey, this was totally cool. Those, I tend to get to a little bit faster cause I do check Facebook every day. But my website is probably your best btt. There’s email on there. There’s little free things that you can download that go with each of the stories that I’ve written, which are mostly for young people.
I have a series of illustrated chapter books called Jayden Toussaint, the Greatest, which is about a kindergarten genius who solves all of his problems using the scientific method. And they are very funny, much funnier than solving your problems using the scientific method sounds, I think.

JS – Beautifully illustrated. I’m sorry to interrupt you, but the illustrations are just gorgeous.

MD – Amazing, absolutely amazing. So, um, the first one’s of those were done by Marie Muravski. She and her husband moved into there from Siberia. So. Like, I’m going to say in Siberia and it’s going to sound like extra wackadoodle, but they are in fact from Siberia, they moved into the woods in Siberia with just a hatchet so that they could build a house from scratch by hand.
This is the kind of, this is the level of artist that I’m talking about. She’s amazing. And then, um, Stephanie Parcus is so cool and super, super talented. She is from Brazil has grown up most of her life in Italy. She is obsessed with anime. We got to go to her wedding, which was amazing, in Italy, which was, which was really lovely. And she continues to produce art that absolutely blows me away. So I’m super excited to be able to know her and to have gotten to work with her on those. And she also did the cover for The Little Human, which is a middle grade fantasy, about a little girl who wants to be able to swim in the sea and is in for a huge surprise when she finally does.
And, uh, the cover for that book, it’s just jaw-dropping. you just like, look at it and you’re like, wha-aa-at? Yeah. I’m not in charge of any of that. And then I have a series called the Seeds of Magic, which is about a little girl who finds a chrysalis in her backyard that instead of incubating a butterfly, it incubates a dragon. It’s the last one in that series that I am working on right now. And I keep saying that I’m one week away from finishing writing. I think I’m one week away from “done” on that one.

JS – Marti, thank you so much. This has been so fun. Thank you for joining me today.

MD – Thanks for having me.
JS – I’m glad we got to talk. I hope you’ll come back another time and talk to me more about whoever your next binge read is.

MD – Any time. Absolutely.

Thanks for listening, Bookworms. For more information on this episode and links to everything we discussed, please go to our website, Bestbookeverpodcast.com or follow us on Instagram at @bestbookeverpodcast. I’m your host, Julie Strauss. And you can find me everywhere as @Juliewroteabook. If you enjoyed this podcast, please leave us a review on whatever podcatcher you use. Reviews really help our visibility to new listeners, and we are so grateful for everyone.
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