For this week’s Author Umbrella series, I interviewed Kwame Mbalia, author of Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky. His novel, published by Rick Riordan Presents, a Disney-Hyperion imprint, debuted at No. 8 on The New York Times Bestseller List in the Middle Grade Hardcover category.
To understand the scope of Mbalia’s novel, review this synopsis:
Seventh grader Tristan Strong feels anything but strong ever since he failed to save his best friend when they were in a bus accident together. All he has left of Eddie is the journal his friend wrote stories in.
Tristan is dreading the month he’s going to spend on his grandparents’ farm in Alabama, where he’s being sent to heal from the tragedy. But on his first night there, a sticky creature shows up in his bedroom and steals Eddie’s notebook. Tristan chases after it–is that a doll?–and a tug-of-war ensues between them underneath a Bottle Tree. In a last attempt to wrestle the journal out of the creature’s hands, Tristan punches the tree, accidentally ripping open a chasm into the MidPass, a volatile place with a burning sea, haunted bone ships, and iron monsters that are hunting the inhabitants of this world.
Tristan finds himself in the middle of a battle that has left black American folk heroes John Henry and Brer Rabbit exhausted. In order to get back home, Tristan and these new allies will need to entice the god Anansi, the Weaver, to come out of hiding and seal the hole in the sky. But bartering with the trickster Anansi always comes at a price. Can Tristan save this world before he loses more of the things he loves?
1) Congratulations for debuting on the New York Times bestseller list. Clearly, readers love Tristan Strong, and Gum Baby, who is garnering her own fanart and fanfic as well. Of all the characters from Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, which was your favorite to write?
— Nia Davenport/ Kylo is bae & Ben is my soul mate (@Nia_Davenport) November 11, 2019
I would have to say Gum Baby. All of the characters were enjoyable to explore in some fashion, but Gum Baby’s personality and unique view on life kept things fresh for me while I was writing.
2) On Twitter, you created the popular hashtag #CoversAndKicks where you brilliantly match book covers with shoes. How do you manage to find the perfect color combinations when matching shoes with covers? And what are your favorite kicks to wear when promoting Tristan Strong?
— Kwame Mbalia (@KSekouM) June 18, 2019
Sometimes it’s as simple as typing “blue and pink sneakers” into Google, and other times I peruse my not-at-all-outlandish folder of sneaker pics I’ve saved over the years. For Tristan Strong, I have the low-top Air Force 1 Grape/Fuchsia.
3) I follow you on Twitter, and I have to admit my favorite content is stories about your three daughters. They are hilarious, and your anecdotes about them are always so sweet and funny and candid. In what ways have your children influenced you as a writer?
4yo: Daddy can we go to the bookstore?
Me: *grabs wallet* I don’t know sweetie.
Me: *starting the car* We have so much to do today
Me: *buckling her in* I’m not sure it’s in the budget
— Kwame Mbalia (@KSekouM) February 16, 2019
One of the first stories I created was “Captain Smoshington and First Mate Wiggles,” and it had a theme song and everything. I told it to my daughters in installments, and they would go off and retell it and laugh, and I realized I liked telling stories for kids.
And now that they’re entering the age range that I write for, I realized I want to give them stories and experiences that will help them navigate through life. So I think, without them, I couldn’t be a middle-grade writer.
4) In writing Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, what was your favorite aspect of the writing process: plot, world building, character design, theme?
Characters. Getting to work with folk heroes and gods from stories I grew up listening to, while putting my own spin on them and giving them these mannerisms and characterizations, was an incredible experience.
5) You work full-time as a pharmaceutical metrology tech. How do you strike a balance between writing, a full-time job, and family?
Hahahahahahahahahahahahaha, what is balance?
6) What can we expect to see in the sequel to Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky?
New folk heroes, a new antagonist, and the same old Gum Baby
7) What elements of Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky do you think would best appeal to Oklahoma readers?
Who doesn’t want to read about a boy with a 10-inch doll on his shoulders?