Author Interview with Courtney Miller Santo

Elders often go unnoticed.  In your book, the elders of Kidron (and around the world if the clippings and news items within the novel come to mind) are central.  How did you come to write a story underlining people who are generally so unrecognized?  I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by elders for most of my life. One of the reasons I wrote this particular book is that none of the fiction families I read about had many of their grandparents, or great grandparents around and yet my experience growing up was one of being surrounded by people who not only had a few years on them, but were delightfully funny and interesting. Not that I’ve got anything against grandmothers who bake cookies or knit, but that wasn’t my experience.

 

Tell us about your research process, particularly how you developed multiple characters of varying ages.  Again, your characters weren’t exactly typical for contemporary fiction.  I was fortunate to have my own great-grandmother in my life until a few months after the book was published. She was 104 when she passed away and although in the book, Anna is a few years older, she is modeled very much on my own great-grandmother. The other women, who are older are also based on people in my family. If I needed to know what particular phrase an almost ninety year old woman would use, I just started a conversation with one of my relatives, or read their journals.

Courtney's Five Generations

The more difficult characters where those who were closer in age to my own mother. There’s always a barrier between mothers and daughters and the frankness that my grandmother’s talked to me isn’t the same. I also have an extraordinary group of women who I’ve come to know through my church community who were very valuable in that respect.  Are there elders, living or dead, who you believe we should remember?  Any notables for you?  I am fascinated by Jean Calment, who makes a brief appearance in the book and was in fact the oldest woman to have ever lived. But mostly when I visit with bookclubs and talk about this book, what I encourage people to do is to ask the elders in their lives to share their stories. Some people are lucky enough to still have grandparents and great grandparents living, but if that isn’t the case, look to your neighbors or your work community and start asking questions about their lives. I am particularly interested in stories beyond the typical where were you during a war, or a historical event. One question I find that always gets great (and sad stories) is who do you know who drowned. I believe that people live on through their stories. It is the way we echo through generations. Storytelling is vital to our identities.

 

You dealt with many things in your work, one of which was the way stories of our forebears are kept hidden, shared, remembered, rehearsed, or, in some cases, lost.  Choose one of the Keller women and give us a sense of something she’d want us to know.  What an amazing question! I always wanted Bets and her daughter Callie to have a conversation where they allowed themselves to be honest with each other. Bets in particular kept so much from her children—especially about their father and the type of relationship she had with him and that damaged Callie in ways I don’t think she understands. I always thought that those two in particular would have benefitted from an airing of grievances and secrets. I think that if Callie understood her parents and the secrets they had to keep that she’d have found love much sooner in her life and that might have changed what happened with Deb.

 

Courtney Miller SantoYou acknowledge the community of writers around you.  How did that community support you as you worked on your novel?  My writer’s group has to be some of the most insightful and encouraging people in the entire world. Throughout finishing this novel, we met monthly and each time I read a bit of the work, they found ways to push me to make it better. I also was lucky enough to have a fantastic mentor in Cary Holladay, whose own work I deeply admire. I always wanted to write so-called Southern fiction, which Cary does so well, but the rub of it is that because of my Western pedigree, all I could do was write bad imitations of southern stories. Cary helped me to find my own authentic voice. I also want to say that I have so many poets in my life who have helped me to learn the value of a single word among 100,000—in particular Heather Dobbins has been an incredible support to me.

 

What did you learn while writing?  What did you find out about families, aging, death, and life as you developed the book?  One of the biggest revelations that happened while I was writing this book is that I began to see my own mother as an individual. The more I spoke to my grandmother and great grandmother about their lives, the more I was able to see my mother as somebody other than my mother. I also have learned buckets about olive trees. They are incredible trees. I only wish I could figure out how to keep one alive. I’ve killed at least three. The other startling connection I made while researching this book is how many of mankind’s myths deal explicitly with aging and the idea of immortality. Every community has an idea of how to get past mortality—and yet scientifically we’ve sort of reached an end road of sorts.

 

Did you come across any notable remedies for aging?  There are more wives tales than remedies. Everybody ages, what you hope for is those genes that make you physically less old than your actual age. My great-grandmother could touch her toes until the day she died and yet for the last twenty years of her life, she had M&Ms and Mountain Dew for breakfast. That tells me it was mostly genetics that kept her flexible and the science backs that up. However there’s common sense nobody wants to hear it, but it’s true stuff that helps you if you don’t have extra long telomeres—basically keeping active and eating well.

 

What are you reading these days?  I’ve just started Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred Year House, which I adore and since I just wrapped up vacation, I recently finished Wolf Hall, a fabulous nonfiction book that tells the history of Paris through biographical vignettes, called The Parisians, and I devoured my daughter’s copy of Divergent on the plane ride home. I’ll be going to my twentieth high school reunion in a few weeks and have bought the Hurricane Sisters for the plane ride there.

 

How can readers support you and are you working on words you can tell us about briefly?  My second novel, THREE STORY HOUSE, comes out on August 19 and I’d love for anyone who enjoyed THE ROOTS OF THE OLIVE TREE to check it out (Anna makes a special cameo in the book). Set in Memphis, the book delves into the relationship between cousins who find their lives coming apart as they work to renovate a spite house. There’s going to be a fun contest starting August 28 where readers are invited to post their own versions of my cover on my facebook page at www.facebook.com/courtneymsanto There will be prizes! I’d love to hear reader’s stories of their local spite houses.Olive Tree for CM Interview

Interview with Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, Author of Pastors’ Wives

Lisa Takeuchi Cullen

Lisa Takeuchi Cullen

Before getting into things with your book, tell us who else you are.  A bit about you.  I used to be a journalist…now I make things up. I was a longtime staff writer at TIME magazine, where I wrote an article about pastors’ wives that led to this book (more on that below). I left TIME in 2009 to write fiction. “Pastors’ Wives” is my second book and first novel; my first book was called “Remember Me,” about the year I spent crashing weird and wonderful funerals (HarperCollins). To put food on my family’s table, I write TV pilots.

Your novel has an interesting origin.  How did Pastors’ Wives begin?  I was assigned to write a feature about pastors’ wives. Growing up Catholic, I knew nothing about the pastor’s wife, except that our pastor wasn’t allowed to have one. But whatever preconceptions I had about them were blown out of the water when I began meeting and interviewing these women. They were smart, funny, and not at all okay with being just the woman behind the man behind the pulpit. The article published in 2007, and the women somehow stayed in my mind. I first pitched it as a TV series, but when that ended in disaster my agent told me to just write it as a novel already.

You say that you prevailed upon many pastors’ wives in researching for this book.  What did you learn in your prevailing?  So much from each and every one. I learned what it’s like to be married to a man who’s already married to God. I learned about their faith and about my own. Something I learned from the lovely Becky Hunter of Northland Church in Florida became a mantra in my marriage: “Be nice to your husband on purpose.”

There is marriage and friendship and fear and a host of other relationship realities in your novel.  In what ways are the lives of pastors’ wives different from the wives of non-clergy?  The scrutiny they endure from the congregation, for one. Imagine your every choice picked apart by people who barely know you: your style of hair; your musical skills; your husband’s make of car. For another, these women have to accept—not always happily, mind you—that the church and God often come first for their husbands.

Pastors' Wives

Pastors’ Wives

You wrote about women married to clergy, women who had ministries of their own.  What does that mean for how you tell others about the book?  Do people assume it is Christian Fiction, which it isn’t?  Do they assume things about the story itself?  What should readers know going into their reading of Pastors’ Wives?  “Pastors’ Wives” is women’s commercial fiction—a page-turning story about marriage, faith, and what we do for love. Though it is set in a church and revolves around Christian characters, it is not strictly Christian fiction. Its publisher, Penguin/Plume, is secular, as am I. But I hope I told this story with the respect I felt so deeply for these women. I’m delighted to report that the vast majority of the many Christian reviews I received embraced the book. I’ve noticed that some Christian reviewers point out the use of some language, a bedroom scene (between a husband and wife), and the sordid history of one repentant character—so reader, beware!

Can you talk about the uniqueness of your novel’s development from an article to a book?  What did the “revisioning” and “reviewing” of your earliest conceptions do to you as a writer?  This is my first novel, but I spent almost 20 years as a journalist, interviewing people both ordinary and famous. So I found I relied a lot on my reporting skills to come up with dialogue and story lines. It’s really hard to make stuff up!

The stories of characters in the novel were interrelated.  Talk about why or how you chose to write the book that way.  It added a richness and a social engagement that could have been absent had it been written differently.  Thank you so much. I started out with two voices in my head, that of Ruthie, the reluctant and doubting pastor’s wife, and Candace, the ruthless, brilliant senior pastor’s wife. Then I started to hear Ginger, a more typical PW…except, of course, for her secret past. I wanted to give them equal weight, but this turned out to be difficult. I hope I did them each justice, as I loved them equally.

If your characters gathered at your home for dinner, who would bring what and why?  Ha! That’s a great question. I’m sure Candace would bring something elegant and absolutely perfect, like a beautiful cake and gifts for my children. Ruthie would bring wine. Ginger would bring homemade cookies that are burned but still delicious.

What are you reading these days or what good books would you recommend to new friends?  I read a lot for my other work as a writer of TV pilots. I’m always on the hunt for books to adapt into a drama. So I’ll ask your readers instead: if you’ve read any books you think would make for a great TV drama, please post it on my Facebook page!

How can readers support your work?  Please “like” my Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/LisaTakeuchiCullen)! My website is www.lisacullen.com, where I blog about the daily indignities of writing TV pilots and novels. You can read there about my crazy experience filming my CBS pilot “The Ordained” with Sam Neill, Hope Davis and Audra McDonald, right down to its rejection for series in fall 2013. I am also working on a second novel, a legal thriller set in Okinawa, Japan. Thank you so much for your interest!

Interview with Dina Nayeri, Author of A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea

A Teaspoon of Earth and SeaWhat did it take from you to create A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea, and what are a couple things the creative process gave you?  In addition to an engaging book.  The process of writing this book gave me an entirely new perspective on my life and my purpose. I became a writer while creating this novel. I had other published projects before, but this was the first time I threw myself into a work completely, immersing myself in research, in my characters, and in the imagined world I wanted my readers to inhabit.  In some ways I lost myself in the process, spending days just listening to Iranian music, reading books on the region, watching videos.  I certainly let my personal life falter, and there were days when I barely did anything but work and drink espressos.  So this novel took a lot from me.  But it also made me who I am as a writer.  In addition, the process taught me to value rigor and brevity and detachment in my writing. It taught me to dig for the most important details and to present them concretely and imaginatively. These skills will always be valuable to me.

You describe yourself as an exile.  How has your exilic condition impacted your writing?  Mostly in the themes that capture my attention. I often write about home, about displacement, and fear. These are familiar topics for me because of my experiences as an exile. They are like obsessions. I can’t get away from them.

To quote Saba’s reflection, “This story is about fathers and daughters.”  As much as the novel is a large story between sisters and their mother, isn’t it as much about a father and daughter?  I think it’s even more about a father and daughter, because theirs is the only relationship that isn’t already dead. With the other members of her family, Saba has only memories and her imagination. She can turn those over in her mind, but she can’t have anything new.  With her father, she has a flesh and blood person who loves her and wants to be allowed into her world.

Part of my experience reading was in learning Saba’s opinions about the differences between American and Iranian men.  How might American fathers be different from Iranian fathers?  I think fathers are fathers. To love and protect your children are universal instincts. The cultural differences seem minor compared to that.

Talk about how Saba’s life became an echo of her twin sister’s.  Where did that come from in your writing process?  How did you connect with both Saba’s experience and Mahtab’s?  I consider their stories representations of the two ways that my own life might have gone.  I was raised in America and so the Mahtab stories mirror my own. But the Saba stories are the Iranian experiences I might have had, if I had stayed behind.  To parallel them seemed like a natural exercise, and something I took great pleasure in.

Where would Saba call “home”?  Cheshmeh, Iran

Dina NayeriThe novel returned to themes of desire, hunger, memory, and love.  Did you learn particular things about such themes in writing or revising?  Did you develop a love or appreciation, for instance, of your own family history?  Absolutely. The research alone gave me a great appreciation for the richness of my own history and roots.  But, obviously, I also used many of my own emotions and experiences in writing Saba and Mahtab’s stories. In doing so, I deepened my understanding of the themes you mention.

What are you reading these days?  “The Woman Destroyed” by Simone De Beauvoir.

How can readers connect with you and support your work?  You can like my Facebook fan page:  http://www.facebook.com/dinanayeri

And you can visit my website: http://www.dinanayeri.com

Interview with Tara Conklin, Author of The House Girl

The House Girl Cover

The House Girl Book Cover

How did you come to this story?  Or how did it come to you?  The story definitely came to me.  About 7 years ago now, I was reading a biography of Virginia Woolf and came across the term “slave doctor”.  The words described one of Woolf’s long-gone relations and no further explanation or description of the man was given. I found myself wondering what kind of person would occupy what to me seemed an inherently conflicted role: to dedicate your life to healing and yet your patients were destined only for more and graver harm.  From that initial spark of curiosity I wrote the story of Caleb Harper, a doctor working for a slave catcher, and two women appeared in his story: Josephine Bell, an artist and enslaved woman living on a Virginia tobacco farm, and Dorothea Rounds, a young white woman active on the Underground Railroad. And I was off.

You draw from the perspectives of two very different women, but both Lina and Josephine were searching.  What connections do you see between these two women?  They are both very strong willed, smart and adept at hiding how they feel, both from others and from themselves.  Of course, the circumstances of their lives could not be more different; Lina enjoys all the privileges and freedoms that Josephine does not.  I see Lina and Josephine as vertically connected rather than horizontally, if that makes any sense.  Josephine is Lina’s predecessor, her mother, at least symbolically.  Dresser has a line about enslaved people “They were as much our founding mothers and fathers as the bewigged white man who lay a whip upon their backs.”  And that idea resonates with Lina, both historically and personally. She has very few memories of her own mother Grace and knows very little about her, but Josephine shares many of Grace’s characteristics: a talented artist, a disappearance, a lost child.  At the beginning of the novel, Lina is too afraid to really search for her own mother, and so she searches for Josephine instead.   Josephine gives Lina the inspiration that she needs to move forward with her life, the courage to confront her own past.  And of course in the process of finding Josephine, Lina finds herself.

Mansfield PlantationThe novel weaves compelling insights about slavery into Josephine’s personal decision to run.  What are some reasons slaves ran while others didn’t?  It’s more difficult, I think, to understand the decision not to run because most slave narratives were written by (or about) those who were able to escape.  But fear must have been a huge component – fear of capture and punishment. The cutting of the Achilles tendon (as happens to Nathan in the book) was commonly done to slaves who had tried to run and been recaptured. To escape also meant leaving family and friends behind, loved ones who in all likelihood you would never see again. At a time when families were routinely torn apart, to voluntarily leave one’s family must have been a very difficult decision to make.  Women ran much less frequently than men because they were more likely to be caring for young children, and fleeing with a child was much harder.  There were also the practical difficulties of not knowing where to go – certainly after the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, the northern US no longer offered any real prospect of ‘freedom’ and the road to Canada was very long.

You do a lot with images and art in the book.  I wonder how, with the hard work behind The House Girl, you see images of slavery, historical and modern-day.  It’s requires a kind of resilience and courage to know the things you likely learned in your work on the story and keep at it.  Yes, there was a point at which I had to stop researching.  It became very overwhelming – the scope of tragedy, the individual horrors.  Antebellum art generally tended to depict idealized visions of peaceful plantation life – the myth of the benign master, the happy Negro. Many are very pretty pictures, but I couldn’t help seeing them as quite sinister given what they omit. More realistic images were created for the abolitionist movement, and these are generally horrifying.  Their intent was to provoke outrage and increase support for the abolitionist cause, and I presume they were very effective.  More contemporary artists have grappled with slavery in a variety of ways.  I’ve personally been most effected by the work of Kara Walker who makes intricate cut-paper silhouettes of antebellum life – shocking scenes of violence and sexual exploitation, but rendered simply, starkly, with black cut-outs against a white background.  They are very powerful.

Lina’s experience was peopled with men like her father, her legal mentor, and the potential lead plaintiff.  What characteristics equipped her to navigate such diverse relationships?  Lina is very independent and very driven.  She grew up in a single-parent, poor, urban household with a father who suffered from severe depression and has never been traditionally “responsible”.  As a result, she’s had to parent herself in many ways.  I think this self-sufficiency, learned at an early age, helps her to operate successfully in these diverse worlds – with her father and his artist friends, in the more conservative world of the law firm, and with Jasper Battle, a musician whom she finds both very foreign and also oddly familiar, given that his world is so similar to her father’s. The corporate law world and professional art world are very different of course, but they are both arenas traditionally dominated by white men, so I think growing up in one prepared Lina in unexpected ways to succeed in the other.

In a sentence, maybe two, imagine how Lina would explain her case to her mother, how Josephine would explain slavery to her son.  What a great (and really tough!) question.  First, Lina to her mother: “I’m working on a lawsuit that’s seeking to repair the damage done by slavery, at least in some symbolic way. And Mom, it’s more about memory than money.”  Josephine to Joseph: “We live in a world where some people own other people based on the color of their skin. But things won’t always be this way, and you don’t have to let it define you.”

Slave Quarters

Slave Quarters

Your book made me think of the many ways people experience loss—of a hope, a relationship, an ideal, a role.  On the other hand, the story is one of motivated, resourceful people moving forward.  Is that a fair reflection?  Yes, very fair, and thank you for it. For me, the characteristic that binds all the characters together is their willingness to face and ultimately overcome their fears.  For Josephine, the fear of running, of leaving everyone and everything she knows. For Lina, the fear of discovering the truth about her mother and, by necessity, the truth about her father as well.  For Caleb, his fear of caring, of investing himself in another person; and Dorothea, fear of rebelling against her father and of once again putting her faith in something large than herself.  So they are all moving forward, as you say, trying to push past these fears as best they can.

There are two very striking things I’d love you to say more about.  First, the musical list of names in Lina’s index.  Second, the notion of celebrating and honoring slaves who have died in slavery.  The list was particular, poignant, thorough, and considerate.  The comment, a summation of the novel.  Say more about how those emerged.  Thank you for them.  The list was culled from the more than 2,000 names of some of the last surviving slaves whose testimonies were taken in the 1930s under the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA).  The testimonies are available on the Library of Congress website; it’s an amazing resource that I would encourage readers to explore.  I included the names for a couple of reasons. First, Josephine’s story is very circumscribed – one day in the life of one woman on one small farm in Virginia.   Her position as a house slave and the close relationship she has with her mistress, Lu Ann Bell, makes Josephine’s experience somewhat uncharacteristic, I believe.  Given Josephine’s exceptionalism, I thought I would be remiss in not acknowledging, at least to some degree, the vast scope of slavery’s tragedy.  I wanted the reader to be hit with the physical presence of those names – a solid page of text – and feel, for a moment, disoriented and overwhelmed.  And second, before I started researching in earnest, I believed that there was a national monument or a national museum dedicated to memorializing enslaved Americans.  I don’t know where this belief came from – I just assumed that such a thing must exist, and I was surprised to learn that it doesn’t. There is no national memorial or museum (although the National Museum of African American History and Culture is slated to open in 2015).  I was thinking of the power of naming and how important that is in honoring the victims of a particular tragedy – for example, the inscriptions on the Vietnam War Memorial, or the reading of names after 9/11.  I wanted Lina’s chart to serve as something similar, although of course on a much reduced scale.

Tara Conklin What are you reading these days?  The pile beside my bed is groaning – I’ve got so many waiting in line. I just finished two wonderful novels: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra, which I loved and The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, which I also loved.  Now I’m just about to dive into Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – I’ve been waiting for this one for awhile.  I still remember scenes from her Half of a Yellow Sun, which I read a good number of years ago.

How can readers follow you and support your work?  You can find me at www.taraconklin.com, on facebook and twitter @TEConklin.  I love to hear from readers and regularly participate in book club discussions via Skype or phone so feel free to get in touch.

Interview With Elaine Neil Orr, Author of A Different Sun

A Different SunThere was a good deal of work done in the novel—building, journeying, selling, making, cooking and so forth.  Is it fair to say that work was a central character, a natural character?  In what ways were some of the people deepened (or even made) by their work?

I love this question, in part because I did so much research about work and some did not make it into the novel!  I learned about shoeing a horse and had an entire chapter in which Henry and Jacob shoe Caesar (Henry’s horse) but I cut it—a digression.  People in the nineteenth century, especially an adventurer like Henry, enslaved people such as Uncle Eli and Mittie Ann, and even Emma, who was tutored in how to keep house—did a great deal of work, whether it was making a new dress or picking cotton or carving out a canoe or preparing for market, as the Iyalode (the female governor) does when Emma meets her in West Africa.  Not all of these forms of work were equally difficult or equally rewarded.  But there was a lot of what might be called “hand” work—not typing on keys as we do at computers, but making, growing, mending, clearing land, building houses, thatching roofs (in Africa).  There is so little for Emma and Henry to purchase.  Most of what they have they must manage to make.  Yoruba people (the clan in the area where my characters travel) were “makers” of cloth, art, metal works, jewelry, hair weaving!

Your insight is absolutely apropos.  Henry already is who he is (by the time he and Emma marry) because of what he has made, built, written, battled.  Enslaved Uncle Eli maintains his spirituality and some selfness because he can still create out of his own imagination.  Emma becomes who she is in her three African years because she learns African forms of work, including mixing mud for her house by kneading it with her feet.  In this way, Africa enters her and begins to reshape her imagination and her heart.

As a first-time novelist, I thought: these people have to DO something while I’m creating a scene.  And so they worked!Elaine at Home in Nigeria

The Bowmans were driven people.  The same can probably be said of many people in the novel.  For the couple, what pushed them?  What pulled them?

There are shorter and longer answers.  Henry is pushed by guilt and longing.  He feels guilty about his mother’s death (not because he caused it but because children internalize their parents’ pain).  He is guilty of killing Native Americans and Mexicans.  He was a womanizer as a young man.  He “wants to be shed of all that,” as a character in Huckleberry Finn might say.  He experiences a salvific moment on the road back to Georgia when a man brings him fish and water.  That scene was written so that the reader might imagine it as an angelic visitation.  Henry sees it that way.  He is “convicted,” in the language of Southern Baptists.  Going to Africa to “witness” about Jesus is his way of working through guilt.  It takes him a good while, as you know.

Emma is pulled and pushed by desire and by outrage.  Uncle Eli, the old African, plants a seed in her imagination from the time she is very young.  He “initiates” her into Yoruba numerology and Ifa divination in his use of the number 4.  He tells her stories that shape her mind and when she sees the globe on her father’s desk, she is drawn to Africa.  She doesn’t understand the connection, of course, but I hope readers begin to discern it.  Her African epiphany originates in Uncle Eli, who sends her on a mission that happens to be Christian (it is a mission of love) though his purposes are born out of his remembrance of African traditional religion.  She is pushed, of course, out of horror at what her father allows to happen to Uncle Eli.  She cannot stay in “bent” Georgia.  Its violence toward enslaved people is a fire she runs from.

Emma laments trading places with Uncle Eli.  How does her relationship with the elder slave tutor her in her life in Eli’s homeland?

As I’ve said, his influence is a driving force in her going to West Africa.  Once she arrives, and little by little, she opens herself to the mysteries and beauties of Yorubaland.  At first, of course, she is a bit horrified: by women whose clothing doesn’t cover their breasts, or men eating with their fingers.  But her mind is fertile.  She is curious.  I molded her as a girl to prefer the outdoors, to take risks (horseback riding, for example) and added to this her relation to the old man.  She wants to know things, in part because Uncle Eli was always doing things she wanted to understand.  He was her mystery and her guru.  So while she is not consciously aware of it, all through her African journeys, she is able to make the next leap (whether it’s eating fufu or wearing a more airy, African-like dress, or even entertaining the idea of an African diviner being of some use to her) because of her closeness to the old man.  She is multi-cultural before multi-cultural was in!  But this is American history.  Take Huckleberry Finn again as an example.  As much as Huck thinks he is superior to Jim, he is actually being tutored by Jim, in love especially, but in other practical matters of survival as well.  The way they eat and live on the raft and hide in the day and move at night, the stories Huck learns from Jim: all of that is Huck becoming “black”—or multi-cultural.Work In Progress

At any early point in the story the preacher tells his wife that she is a guest in Africa.  Does she believe him?  Does she begin to see things that way as she follows Eli’s counsel to “find a place”?  Does she see things differently as the story is told?

No and yes.  At first she cannot comprehend her own foreignness.  She thinks Africans are strange; they are the strangers.  She is “normal,” and her expectations are “normal.”  In her view, these folks should know better than to meddle with her laundry.  But she is, of course, meddling in their culture!  She is trying to change their religious views.  She is taking their handicrafts and decorating her house with them.  She is tutoring their children in English.  I do admire her (and her historical counter-part) for learning Yoruba and for recording the language.  Later missionaries did not always take such pains to learn the local language.  As we know, language is a primary way by which we learn to see the world.  The more she learns Yoruba, the more she comprehends what her neighbors know, what the Iyalode knows, for example.  So through this learning, she begins to comprehend differently.  There’s a scene with the Iya in which Emma thinks she is giving the woman a lesson in geography.  But as it turns out, the Iya is the one who understands Emma’s situation better than Emma does.  The Iyalode comprehends Emma’s pregnancy!  And Emma begins to see how she is seen.  This is a major moment in Emma’s development: beginning to see herself from an African’s point of view.  This seeing-herself-as-stranger culminates with Jacob.  She dallies a little with him and entertains romantic notions.  But she doesn’t really SEE him or herself-in-relation-to-him, from HIS point of view, until he rebuffs her.  Then she sees.  And then, of course, she sees her entire history, all the way back to Uncle Eli’s toes.

Your book is sweeping in its delivery of several characters whose pasts and lives are so different on the surface.  And they come together in the novel, often, to form or re-form one another’s faith.  Can you speak to that?

My vision is trans-Atlantic because I was born in Nigeria and grew up there, visiting the U.S. on occasion, until I came here to live permanently as a young adult.  Everything for me is about the cross-fertilization between the American South and West Africa.  This is the story I want to tell over and over, whether in a short memoir about hair (Nigerian girl’s hair, my hair) or crimes of history or personal redemption.  This novel is an orchestra composed out of the melodies and stories and tragedies of my life, my mother’s life, my people’s lives (whether those people are my Yoruba countrymen, my slave-owning ancestors, my missionary “family”).  The trans-Atlantic South is my homeland.Elaine's Family and Place

You have personal history so that your story and your life in Africa undoubtedly helped you frame some things.  Did your work on the novel enrich or change your views of missionary work?

Actually writing this novel constitutes “Stage 3” in my perspective on missionary life.  As a girl (Stage 1), I simply thought it was normal: all white people were missionaries and there were only a few of them and the world itself was black people.  I thought my parents were good people (they were good people; my mother an educator, my father a business man; my mother wrote a history of the Nigerian Baptist Convention—not the American Baptist Convention).  And yet as a graduate student and young professor studying post-colonialism and feminism, I became deeply skeptical about missions.  This was Stage 2.  I was embarrassed by my history.  Writing this novel, I came to see missionaries as human beings who struggle just as anyone struggles: with conscience, longing, desire, hope, guilt, despair.  Mission work in Africa is a mixed bag.  Perhaps it has been primarily negative.  I haven’t done enough research to be an authority on the entire continent.  But look here: Nelson Mandela is Methodist.  Am I going to tell him he has false consciousness because he doesn’t practice traditional African religion?  Perhaps he does in his own way.  All religions migrate just as cultures do.  There is good and bad in all of it.  The great crime of slavery was sometimes “covered” in the U.S. by appeal to the Bible!  My characters go to Africa trying to do something else.  They may be wrong-headed, but they are trying.  I think my mother and father did the same.  I won’t judge their lives.  How can I?

Can you comment on the connections between your life as a writer and as a teacher?  Do the two areas naturally feed one another?  Do you experience the roles in any particular way? 

I joke that teaching keeps me young.  I look out at the classroom and see myself in my students and think I’m still 23.  Ha!  But teaching does keep me young.  I try to stay abreast of what much younger folks are thinking about and talking about.  At least I get half way across the divide, which is farther than I would get if I weren’t teaching.  I keep being challenged and pushed when I teach, graduate students and undergraduates.  Teaching offers me an opportunity to pass-it-forward.  I can’t possibly repay all the teachers and mentors I have had in my life, including the Yoruba folks who took care of me when I was a girl.  Sometimes I would like to teach less (I carry a 2/2 load).  But N.C. State University offers great support for my writing.  Though I was hired to teach literature, I am given travel money and research support to go to Nigeria and spend a summer month at a writing residency and compose a novel over a six-year span.  University teaching is one of the greatest privileges a person can have in my view.

I wonder if you can talk a little about the writing box or about remembering.  There is a powerful thread in the story when the characters, particularly Emma Bowman, return to the question of what will be taken with them and what will be left behind.

It’s interesting to me that you link these two: remembering and the writing box.  I love the way a reader can show a writer what she did!  Of course, Uncle Eli’s gift of the letter opener (his effigy) is linked with his admonition “remember; you find a place.”  This admonition haunts Emma even as the letter opener comforts her.  I intended that the reader understand that even as Emma is doing just what Uncle Eli asked, she doesn’t fully understand HOW she is following his instruction until the end of the novel when she understands his remembrance.  He was remembering his homeland, teaching her about it; she travels to his homeland, unaware, and finally comes to see–“as if face to face”–that the old man was from this very place.  So Uncle Eli’s memory is a force in the novel.  I believe that memory is essential to practicing peace and justice.  If we do not remember the past and honor it, how can we begin to establish a more just society in the present?  We must remember slavery, Jim Crow, the genocide of Native Americans.  I hope readers find a poetic irony in Emma’s bearing this memory; she is a daughter of white privilege.  But when she steps outside of her known world and becomes the foreigner, she is able to see the light she thought she was bearing.  And she was bearing it; she just didn’t fully comprehend it.  The box is Emma’s heart, of course: the vault of memory and desire.Elaine's Bookshelf

What are you reading these days?

I just read White Dog Fell from the Sky by Eleanor Morse, a wonderful novel about apartheid South Africa, and next on my list is Wash by Margaret Wrinkle, a novel about an enslaved man in Tennessee in the early 1800s who survives through a spiritual connection to his shamanic mother.  Margaret and I are going to be on a panel together at the Atlanta Journal Constitution/Decatur Book Fair over Labor Day.  You can see what I’m in to.

How can readers stay in touch with you and support what you’re putting in your own “writing box”?

My website is elaineneilorr.net

I love for readers to “friend” me either on my personal Facebook page or my author page; I like to see what they are doing.  I’m happy to Skype in to book clubs.  My email is on my website; it’s elaine@ncsu.edu

LaValle on People We Idealize

Victor LaValle in an interview with Books and Culture, answering a question about how a meeting with Norman Mailer, how meeting other people whose wrote work people loved, changed the reading of them:

Everyone is going to disappoint you if you get to know them well enough. I don’t mean that in a dismissive way, but to say that it’s important to think about why we ask so much of the people we idolize. Why must they pass the test of perfection? Or even just amiability? This is certainly the case with artists, but it applies to my priest and my postman, too. I don’t know how I would’ve reacted if I’d known Mailer stabbed his wife before me and my friend showed up at his house. Would it have stopped us? I doubt it. Mailer sure wasn’t a wilting violet, but I’d hate to disqualify artists simply because their personalities were remarkable. Caravaggio was a scumbag and a street fighter, Flannery O’Connor a racist, and, from her letters, a bit of a pill. I love the work both produced though, without reservation. The saints weren’t even saints.

Read the full interview here.  It’s good.