Meg Medina’s YA novel Burn Baby Burn tells the story of Nora López, a Cuban-American 17-year-old living in Queens, New York, in 1977—a year that brought a brutally hot summer, a citywide blackout, and constant fear of the serial killer Son of Sam. In this environment, Nora and her single mother try their best to make the rent while her brother gets deeply involved with drugs and crime; at the same time, she finds a new romance with her co-worker at the local deli. Medina has written several other books for young readers, including Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, one of Kirkus’ Best Books of 2013. We asked her a few questions about her latest, which was published this past March.
Burn Baby Burn’s setting—New York City in 1977—has been featured in a few other recent, high-profile works, including Garth Risk Hallberg’s novel City on Fire, published late last year, and the Netflix TV series The Get Down. Why do you think this time and place is suddenly getting so much attention?
I’m so glad to see people release that decade from its polyester hall of shame. For one thing, whether you like club music, rap, classic rock, or punk—you’ll find your musical roots there.
But I also think there’s something familiar about the raw extremes of the 1970s that might be strangely appealing. You can’t help but see the parallels. Cities struggling with injustices of housing and economics. The threat of random and extreme violence. The distrust between police and the communities of color that they patrol. Drugs as part of glam culture and also part of the destruction of whole communities. It was all brewing in the 1970s and it’s essentially what we’re wrestling with now.
In the afterword, you briefly talk about your own upbringing in Queens in the 1970s. For example, you mention your awakening to feminism at that time, and Nora attends a Women’s Day march in the novel. How much of Burn Baby Burn is directly inspired by your own memories, or those of family and friends?
All of my books are based on my personal experience in some way, the good and the bad. For this novel, I got to recreate the Flushing, Queens, of my youth, which doesn’t really exist today.
The characters are all composites, of course. (I do not have a brother who was an arsonist, in other words.) But there are undeniable similarities. For example, the character of Mima, who feels so powerless and fearful, was based loosely on my own mother, who worked a minimum-wage job and was trying to raise daughters alone against a backdrop that terrified her. My sister discovered her passion for feminism at that time, and I certainly gave that to Kathleen and Nora. And, as in many families, there were challenges around emotional and mental health that went hidden and unaddressed. What I hope I did was draw the complexities of a family that’s truly struggling.
The book is packed with period-specific pop-culture details, with references to such things as the movies Carrie, Annie Hall, the punk band The Ramones, and disco songs (the book’s title is also a lyric from the Trammps’ 1970s hit “Disco Inferno”). But you also include more obscure details of day-to-day life, such as rent regulations and the cost of community college. Can you describe your research process?
I started with my own recollections and then layered in collective memories, culled from interviews, online forums of former disco queens, high school alumni pages, DJ sites, and nostalgic historical societies. It was fascinating to dig around inside people’s treasured memories of their lives. A girl’s favorite dress. The best place of pizza. The second floor of the Prospect Theater. The DJ who rocked it. The assistant principal who ruined their senior trip. Those are the details that make up daily life, so I tried to capture that for my characters.
I went to official sources, of course: newspapers and magazines. I relied on old issues of the New York Daily News to get the sense of the kind of information and the flavor that would have shaped Nora’s view of what was happening. That’s where the coverage of Son of Sam that I used [came from], as well as other grisly incidents of the day, like the explosion at the Chiclet factory in Queens.
But I also discovered that newspapers erase history as easily as they preserve it. For the information on the women’s movement, I am so grateful to [the] National Organization for Women who gave me access to their archives at New York University. So much of the information about the early movement was never reported in the New York Times, the Daily News, and other papers of record.
After that, I did the oddball searches as the need arose in the plot. When was the Black and Puerto Rican Studies department founded at Hunter [College]? What was tuition in 1977? Where would you have filed a tenant complaint? What do firefighters do when they first get to a burning building? A lot of that information is buried in academic papers, in fire safety training manuals, and in very boring government documents, etc. So, I just start reading and went from there.
But as an antidote, there was also just the sheer fun of wacky internet searches. I searched Google for images of old subway tokens, concert stubs from Madison Square Garden. I studied ads for hairdos and TV listings and watched a whole lot of Soul Train episodes. I even subjected myself to the J.C. Penney clothing catalog of that year. (My eyes are still bleeding.)
Collectively, it all gave me a rich mental shelf of details to grab from in order to immerse the reader in that time. And, of course, it made me fall in love with the 1970s all over again.
David Rapp is an Indie editor.