With a pitch that compares its protagonist to beloved TV sleuth Veronica Mars, it might not be surprising that Scarlett Undercover is one of the most anticipated YA titles debuting this year. But there is more to Scarlett besides her detecting skills and a mystery to set them to: she is also joining a small but determined canon of Muslim characters available on shelves.
For author Jennifer Latham, Scarlett’s story started out with Scarlett herself.
“It happened about six years ago at the Tulsa State Fair, in a giant sandbox they’d built for kids. I was people-watching, and saw this beautiful, brown-skinned little girl with crazy curly hair. She was leading a silver-haired biker dude around, and even though she was a handful, he was so sweet to her. I’m guessing he was her grandfather. But in my mind, the two of them became Scarlett and Manny.”
If aspiring authors have ever wondered about the validity of people-watching – obviously, it worked out well for Latham. The strength of that spark propelled her directly past any semblance of planning, story maps or outlines, and into her first draft.
“I dove right in, figuring out Scarlett’s voice, trying to nail down the rhythms of hardboiled prose. But once I started really hammering out the plot, I did a lot of research on Islam and Arabic folklore.”
Latham took the seriousness and responsibilities of writing cross-culturally to heart. She read extensively, watched movies and documentaries, and asked as many respectful questions as she could.
“All of the research I did on Islam – especially how much it overlaps and is interwoven with Christianity and Judaism – was really fascinating. But if I had to choose one thing specifically, I’d say it’s the concept of qadar – the Islamic belief in predestination. It sounds so straightforward and simple at first, but it’s not. It is so not.”
Even with fully-bounded and accessible copies about to release into the world, Latham feels as though she is still learning about Scarlett and her heritage.
“…Talking with Muslim friends, attending lectures – it was a process that went on right up through Scarlett’s final edits. And I’m still learning, because I want to. And because Islam is such a complex, beautiful religion,” admitted Latham.
After all the time they’ve spent together, it shouldn’t be surprising that Scarlett is Latham’s favorite character creation.
But Scarlett isn’t Latham’s first creation. Latham has been writing for as long as she can remember, but she started taking her writing seriously in 2007 – mainly because she didn’t want to go back to work as a school psychologist. She works from her bed or from a converted garage behind her house that serves as her real escape.
“I have two unsold novels and maybe seven half-finished projects on my hard drive. If I had had any idea how much craft there is to writing when I started giving it a serious go, I would never have waded in so blithely,” said Latham. “What kept me going a lot of the time was pure cussedness. … And honestly, if I didn’t think my writing was still growing – and in a positive direction! – the whole process would feel pretty empty.”
It also helps Latham is so deeply entrenched in the YA category. Even though she admitted that YA as it is now wasn’t a “thing” when she was a teen, she is nonetheless enthusiastic about the community, the books and the potential.
“Reading is what got me through adolescence. I was an Army brat who never made friends easily, and books were my escape,” confessed Latham. “You name it, I’d read it. Because books were so important to me as a teen, I’ve never wanted to write anything but YA.”
Besides working at her craft, Latham also likes walking, gardening, knitting, cooking – and of course, eating. She also has a soft spot for pro soccer and the U.S. Women’s Team. It should be no surprise that she herself is a soccer mom, and admitted that her car does seem to have a permanent funk to it.
“I’m also part of a group that works with kids in struggling schools in Tulsa, volunteering one-on-one with the kids, providing books, family meals, school t-shirts and sweatshirts – basically, if they need it, we try to provide it,” added Latham.
She’s remained an avid reader, and a few of her favorite authors include Katherine Paterson, Madeleine L’Engle, Roald Dahl, Stephen King, and Flannery O’Connor, among others.
If readers are already curious to know what else they can expect from Latham, she does have another project in the works.
“I’m halfway finished with the manuscript for Dreamland Burning, which is a mystery centered around the Tulsa Race Riot/Massacre of 1921,” said Latham. “It will most likely be out in winter 2017. And I’m hoping, hoping, hoping that people will like Scarlett Undercover enough so that I get to tell at least one more of her stories.”
Writing cross-culturally is always a challenge, not the least because of the difficulties in writing respectfully and offering accurate representation for marginalized voices. Overall, Latham is satisfied with her efforts and hopes that they pay off in the end result.
“The most important thing readers should know about Scarlett is that she’s a sixteen-year-old detective. Scarlett Undercover isn’t a book about Islam, it’s a book about a girl and the case she cracks,” stressed Latham. “That said, I take the responsibility of writing cross-culturally very seriously, and have done my best to portray not just Islam, but Arabic culture and folklore, Judaism, and Christianity as accurately and respectfully as I can.”
And when it comes to Muslim readers in particular?
“Well… I hope they react to Scarlett the same way I want every reader to: I hope they like her.”