Monday, October 18, 2010

Walking the Borderlands With Author Carole McDonnell

Johne here. I've been looking forward to this interview for a long time. I discovered Carole McDonnell through friends, through The Lost Genre Guild, and through Facebook. Her book, Wind Follower, isn't the kind of thing I'd normally go looking for, and yet so many people I respect raved about it that I finally tracked down a copy myself on Amazon. It is an amazing book.

If you haven't yet read Carole McDonnell, you will.

Key for this interview - AuthorCulture = AC: Carole McDonnell = CM

AC: I’ve gotten to know you from a variety of places. You have a unique perspective. From what I know of you, you don’t strike me as one who walks the beaten path. How would you say that you came to be the person you are? What would you consider the most important influences which have molded you?

CM: Like anyone else who walks the unbeaten path, I pretty much found myself there. I don't think I'm brave enough to have entered it willingly. I suppose being an immigrant influenced me. I arrived in the U.S. when I was eleven. That's the age kids start learning how to deal with the world outside the family. So, just when I was learning the rules of how to be a Jamaican, I suddenly had to learn how to be an American. And not only an American, but a little Black girl whose family had integrated a white Jewish building in Brooklyn. That was the home front. In school, I ended up in a white mini-school inside the larger school. I believe anyone who migrates as a kid gets interested in communication issues and in "belongingness" but somehow I ended up with a really bad case because alienation was thrown in — alienation from my own culture and from the culture I was now involved in. That gets extended to other areas and "cultures."

My friend, Nick Wood, a really great South African speculative Writer, says that I "walk the borderlands." Which is a nice way of saying it. I just tend to stand outside of all the groups I belong to. I'm Christian but am always disagreeing with Black and White Christianity. I'm Black but am generally not in the African-American or Jamaican camps when it comes to many issues. On the whole, the folks I get along with are religious oddballs. If someone really loves God, fights the oppressor, and is emotionally wounded, that person is going to become a close friend. And I like those people because they also have had to be brave as they go through the world, they understand the societal, emotional, and political alienation.

AC: What were your influences as a reader growing up? What are you reading right now?

CM: My mother was an Anglophile. Most educated Jamaicans her age worshiped everything English. She grew up poor in the country without money for books so she had to memorize them. Upshot, she was always repeating long passages from novels by Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens etc. She read only the great literary classics, and so did we. Even now, it takes a whole lot to make me read a contemporary fiction book. When Mama came to the US as a nurse, she went to college and so our house was filled with her studybooks, which my sister and I read because they were always in the house — as were we; Mama never let us out, because she was afraid we would end up coming home with "the belly" like all the other kids around us. She was into anthropology, Black history, medicine. So that's what we read. Plus we watched a whole lot of PBS and cartoons. On PBS, we watched the Janus film collection of great foreign films and documentaries about archeology, anthropology, history, and a ton of British period pieces.

What am I reading now: The Value of Nothing by Raj Patel; Hard as the Rock Itself: Place and Identity in the American Mining Town by David Robertson; The Bible.

AC: What is your pedigree as an author? How did you come to write novels?

CM: Pedigree? Oh my! Am not sure if I have a pedigree. I grew up reading a lot of short stories by great dead authors. I like short stories. But I am so in love with characterization and worldbuilding that my stories usually opened so many doors and brought up so many questions. It takes a great skill to write a good short story and my love of world-building and character development novels fights against my ability to write anything short. Actually, that love fights against me writing good novels as well. Honestly, I get so caught up in exploring the ramifications of a certain speculative world that if I'm not careful I would roam through the world utterly forgetting the plot. That is one of the flaws of Wind Follower. (It has quite a few flaws but I love that book dearly.) Its pacing is a bit off. If I understood my tendency to roam speculative worlds, and to be affected by the pacing of foreign art films, I probably would've written it differently. But as it is, I'm glad I didn't know all that about myself. Because as it is, it's a good little book. And I'm glad for that slow pacing and those exploratory scenes.

AC: Wind Follower is a unique novel that seems to defy easy genre identification or labeling. What was the inspiration for this story?

CM: Oh wow, so many things went into that book! It started out as a YA book. It started out as a story about a Black slave girl who escaped to Comanche territory and fell in love with a warrior. I did a ton of research on Native American tribes and decided I loved the Comanche best because they reminded me of the Yanomamo (the Fierce People of the Amazon.) I've always liked fierceness. I'm always interested in what human nature us and how culture, folklore, and religion affect so-called human nature. What are people like without the restraint put on them by religion? How do people play with the religion and spirituality they inherit?

I also love fairy tales and the Childs Elizabethan and Scottish ballads. Many of my short stories and poems are based on fairy tales. My story, Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair was based on a ballad and had just been published. So I was walking downtown humming some of my favorite ballads and I started singing, "The Trees They Grow High" (also known as He's Young but He's Daily Growing) and I realized Wind Follower was about a woman who gets betrothed to a rich man's son in order to pay off a debt.

I have also thought that Christian writers have messed up creatively. There are so many genres we could have explored or even invented, but because of denominational issues (such as a distrust of imagination) or political issues (such as American Christian identification with the American country and government) or personal issues (such as racism, ethnocentricism, distrust of sexuality, priggishness) most Christians would never write. I said to God, "Give me the ideas and I will write them." So I consider myself a Christian who writes stories other Christians would never write. Something about being alienated makes one no longer care what people think. The next thing I knew, Wind Follower had appeared in its present guise. It took a lot of courage to write it because I still worry about what people think. But I've learned to work against the fear.

AC: I was introduced to Wind Follower by strong (and diverse) word-of-mouth raves from all sides, from people I know and respect, from total strangers, and from everyone else in between. From my limited vantage, it appears to be hit across a broad spectrum of readers. When you were writing the book, did you have any idea it would be as widely embraced despite the apparent barriers?

CM: It's widely embraced??? Neat! See, I didn't know that. Knowing this will knock a chip off my shoulder. Or maybe it'll make the chip a little smaller.

So I thought: White Christians will be offended at it because they believe the USA was given to them by God; Many Black Speculative Fiction writers will be offended because they dislike Christianity (the religion of the white oppressor etc) and would rather a book be about African Spirituality or totally atheistic or agnostic; Fantasy lovers are accustomed to Wicca, elves, Norse religion, etc but not Christianity; Christian fantasy lovers are used to apocalyptic stuff like Left Behind, Narnia, or Lord of the Rings. I was putting some new world before them that they would have to accept-- something they would probably be challenged by.

But I also felt that it wasn't typical and if people gave it a chance it would do well. Some White folks don't want to read Black Fantasy or Sword and Soul because the world is strange to them. They're used to vampires, shape-shifters, elves and the like. But they're also afraid they'll be stuck with accusatory or "meaningful" literature — a burden from college and high school when Black stories were read to enlighten the white student about oppression and not really for fun. And few secular fantasy readers won't pick up fantasy about Christ unless it's something like Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ. They're afraid of being preached at. But I thought. . . well, Wind Follower is a little different and one day Chupacabras from Mexican folklore, Asian spirits, and Arabian djinns will make fantasy more multicultural. And one day having a Christian worldview in a fantasy story (written by someone who actually believes in the Bible and Jesus) might be acceptable.

AC: Writing a daring novel is one thing. Selling it is another. Wind Follower strikes me as Fantasy but almost seems to be a genre unto itself. How did you find a home for Wind Follower?

CM: Total grace of God kinda thing. I network with a lot of people so I was told there was a new publisher — Juno Books — looking for manuscripts. Since it was a new publisher, Juno hadn't quite decided what kind of fantasy it would do. They've since decided to do urban fantasy so shape-shifters, demons, vampires now abound. I sent another WIP, The Daughters of Men, because I thought Wind Follower was too religious and they wouldn't accept it. The editor, Paula Guran, said it needed a lot of work. I had been working on Daughters of Men for ages and I hadn't touched it in two years or so. Then I said in passing, well I have this other WIP that I just started. It's called Wind Follower. She looked at it and immediately accepted it (much to my surprise). She later said she wouldn't have accepted it at another time, but it came in at the right time.

AC: You’ve said strange things happen if you’re a writer who happens to be cross-genre. I presume some of those things are negative or challenging, but have there also been unexpected or wonderful things as well?

CM: True. The first review was from a reviewer in Malaysia. She was a reviewer of romances and didn't usually review speculative fiction. She loved Wind Follower. I took that as a sign from God that the book would be loved in the rest of the world, possibly receiving more honor in other countries than in the US. I also got a great compliment from someone from Africa. And have gotten fans from The Philippines and Taiwan. The book speaks to people and Christians who understand the kind of folkloric spirituality that deals with demons, dreams, and the like. So it turns out all that anthropology reading has helped me write a book that really speaks to folks in Asia, Indonesia, India, Africa, and Latin America.

AC: I’ve enjoyed following you on Facebook where it appears that your day-to-day life is an adventure. How do you navigate a full personal life with the realities of life as an author?

CM: With God's help. I am not too happy about the adventure at times and I'm a bit of a whiner, as you know. On the practical level, I can navigate because I have a sweet husband who treats me like a queen. So I get away with a lot. And I have learned to take advantage of his sweetness. On a creative level, having a son labeled disabled and dealing with my own health issues affect my stories. I can't imagine what kinds of stories I would write if I were well with a well child. As it is, all my stories deal with illnesses, have disabled or ill characters (usually young boys), and have characters at war with the clans to which they belong.

AC: What are you working on currently? How are those projects going?

CM: I'm working on Constant Tower, a novel. This was hard going because I couldn't quite get the narrative voice right. I always have trouble with that. If I'm not careful, I end up with a kind of knee-jerk highfalutin' pseudo King James Version speak. I have to be careful of that. It's uneven right now. Some parts have a contemporary modern sound and some parts are high fantasy. So I have to work on that. In addition, my two beta readers told me they loved it more than Wind Follower and that it's better written but that it is too bleak. They especially objected to the killing off of a character. So I had to remove the last 100 or so pages and find a new ending. This revision put me off schedule but it feels as if I've found the right path. Although this one is not as religious as Wind Follower, there's a bit of courage involved in writing it as well. My young male warriors are so touchy-feely wounded types in a world of machismo that I'm afraid readers will want to slap some manhood into them. Takes a lot to write such easygoing almost feminine male heterosexual characters in fantasy. There's also the way marriage is done. Two men and a woman form a marriage bond. So that will bother a few folks.

There's also a YA novel called My Life as an Onion. Another novel where I have a voice issue and which is also religious. It's about a girl with the gifts of discerning of spirits. So yeah, she sees demons and generational curses on families. Plus she's in love with a rich guy and she's quite mercenary because this guy and his money is the key to her future happiness. Hard to write because I believe in her cause, and I know feminists will utterly want to slap her . . . and me. But it's a book I want to write. And I truly believe one should write for one's self.

Am also working on a Christian demonic succubus erotic story called The Night Wife. I always laugh whenever I see folks romanticize demons and demon lovers. I figured I'd write an urban fantasy story from a Christian viewpoint. Erotic and utterly religious in one book, something to make folks who think they know demons see the truth of the way-too-romanticized situation.

AC: What advice would you give to up-and-coming authors about making it as a novelist?

CM: I'd say to join one or two critique groups. They should also buy a lot of books about writing or study from the internet. So many new writers aren't humble and simply won't take advice. Humility brings you a long way. They should network and always be ready to learn. They should also choose if they want to write for fame and simply want to be published, or if they want to write the book they want to read.

Thanks so much for interviewing me.
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  1. Great interview! I'm intrigued and will hunt down a copy of Carole's book. :) Carole, I am curious how eroticism can fit into a Christian book--I was just having a conversation about it with another writer friend of mine (who is a Unitarian, and writes secular novels.) Until today, I wouldn't have thought there'd be an opening in the market for that combination!

    Best of luck with your next projects.

  2. What a fascinating interview--and what a compelling book cover! I'm anxious to read your novel.

    Thanks, Carole and Johne!

  3. Hi Liberty: It'll be tough to actually succeed with the erotic novel, I think. I write to deal with my own issues but I don't want to sin by actually encouraging these issues in myself or in my readers. As a writer, one really h as to go very near the knife to get some stuff out. As a Christian, I believe in the incubus/succubus stuff so I know I can write believably about a woman who has a spirit who violates and "stimulates" her at nights. But at the same time, I'm not as in love with demon lovers as other writers are. So there'll be an examination of the good of fantasy and the evil, of grief and vain imagination. So far, I have some good open-minded Biblical Christians beta-reading it. They like it but they've fallen in love with my demon and are begging me to make him be a human...and to make the demon someone else. A real challenge now.

  4. Thanks, Linda. The cover is done by Tim Lantz. His website is:

  5. As a self-proclaimed cover art snob for RGR, I /love/ the cover by Tim Lantz. It captures the character, the vibe of the book - is defiant and beautiful and vibrant and daring. Has Tim written about how he came to create this cover in this way? I'd be interested in the story behind the piece.

  6. Hi Johne: Well, Tim had done another painting, in which the character looked very coy and sweet. But then the Borders book-buyer made a fuss and said the cover had to be changed to make her more aggressive. I got a bit peeved because I thought: "What the heck? Angry Black woman or something?" But after awhile the cover grew on me.

  7. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing with us today, Carole. Your thought-provoking answers to Johne's questions have definitely got me intrigued by your book!

  8. Coy and sweet strikes me as the 'before' picture, which is entirely acceptable, if entirely boring.

    I prefer the 'after' picture which depicts a strong woman who can't be stripped of her dignity by circumstance or tragedy or the mere machination of others. It shouts out with inner strength and determination, a bold declaration of sanctified defiance. The world may be out to crush us between its wheels (and will, indeed, eventually claim our bodies) but our spirit is not so malleable or so easily destroyed. This cover reinforces a central truth - we will not get out of this life alive, but our spirits can soar again, unfettered and free, if we know Christ on that last day.

    Of course, I may be reading a lot into a simple picture, heh, but isn't that the wonder of art? ;)

  9. Johne, I finally understood that about the picture as well...after making a big stink about the change. Now I really like what it implies.

  10. Carole, I remember you from the old LGG blog. Haven't heard much from or about you in a couple years...

    Some White folks don't want to read Black Fantasy or Sword and Soul because the world is strange to them. They're used to vampires, shape-shifters, elves and the like.

    Carole, this White Boy is sick of "Elves, Dwarves, etc". (And don't even think about Uber-Hawt Emo Vampires (sparkle sparkle)...) For 50+ years, fantasy has meant "Elves, Dwarves, etc". I'd read Sword and Soul just for something DIFFERENT.

    Last year at LosCon, I attended a panel on non-white, non-Anglo SF. Gave Wind Follower a shout-out. Especially to someone seeking recommends for a third party who'd "only read BLACK authors."

    Hi Liberty: It'll be tough to actually succeed with the erotic novel...

    Especially when Conventional Christian fiction completely tap-dances around anything remotely Sexual (TM), even in Romance. Add another group of Christians deliberately looking for anything Sexual (TM) just so they can get in a snit about it and you have one really hostile situation. As you said in one LGG blog comment/rant about reactions to Wind Follower, "All it does is make us look like sex-crazed ninnies with nothing else on our minds."

    But then the Borders book-buyer made a fuss and said the cover had to be changed to make her more aggressive. I got a bit peeved because I thought: "What the heck? Angry Black woman or something?"

    Don't know about you, but I've always fallen for the archetype of "The Cuddly Amazon", soft and nurturing but with a core of tungsten steel. And to this White Boy, that woman on the cover also looks exotic and "foreign". No Blonde Bimbo or Prairie Muffin there!

    "Headless Unicorn Guy"
    Ken Pick, LGG member

  11. Hi Headless Unicorn Guy! Thanks for giving Wind Follower a shout-out. Although you haven't heard much from me these past two years, I'm still around. Just writing short stories and trying to get at least one of these WIPs finished. Hope all is well. Yeah re: the American obsession with the sex thing: surely salvation and being spiritual is not only about sex. Happy creativity! -C (Carole McDonnell writing under her other google acct)

  12. Thanks, all, for interviewing me. Happy creativity, all!