Friday, October 5, 2007

An Interview With Carole McDonnell

Carole was kind enough to answer some questions for Fantasy Debut. As you will surmise, Carole and I have been swapping lots of emails and it has been a lot of fun, at least for me and hopefully for her!

Please tell us what inspired you to write WIND FOLLOWER.

So many things. Books come from so many parts of a writer. The spiritual part, the social-racial part, the psycho-emotional part, the intellectual-creative part, etc. I can say that creatively I wanted to challenge myself to write a book which contained high fantasy, honored folklore, and primeval Christianity and that was a kind of emotionally-healing romance.

You call WIND FOLLOWER a Christian fantasy, yet the writer's guidelines at Juno Books specifies that they don't publish Christian fantasy. Was it difficult to find a home for WIND FOLLOWER?

The Christian publishing world is pretty rigid and I knew Wind Follower wouldn't fall easily into their world. I wanted to deal with sexuality, racial issues, interracial-intercultural romances, imperialism, and "pagan" cultures. And I knew they wouldn't want to touch any of those things because the CBA publishers didn't consider those issues "safe" for their audience. I got rejected by CBA gatekeepers with interesting lines like: "I like this book but I would be fired if I published it." Or "It was going along well but then you delved into certain areas..." Or "this is the best speculative christian book I have ever read but our readers would not like it."

On the other hand, I wanted the book to be Biblical in some places and I figured that would be a problem with secular publishers. It turned out not to be. Juno really doesn't publish Christian fantasy but my friend, Nick Woods, a white South African writer, says I "walk the borderlands." And that is true. I'm black and I can easily talk to white folks about race. I'm Christian and I have close friends who are non-religious or who belong to many different religions. I'm staunchly myself, yet I seem to have a kind of ambassadorial quality and ease with talking to folks who would not like any of my "labels." Black, Christian, whatever. In a conversation with a white gay writer friend the topic came up in which we wondered who our audiences would be. She figured her readers would probably be straight. Well, I tend to think my primary audience will be non-Christians. I'll have black readers and Christian fans, of course. So it wasn't hard for Juno to accept me. I'm not preachy, and the story's world is like any other fantasy world...except it comes from a Black American pentecostal worldview. But my readers will probably be pretty much anyone who likes speculative fiction.

During our correspondence, you specified that your novel should appear in the Fantasy section, not the African-American section. Recently, I featured David Anthony Durham's Acacia, and he had the same sort of battle. How difficult is it for a Black author to avoid being pigeonholed in the African-American sections of American bookstores?

I don't know much about the publishing world, really. I know that many Black folks have bookstore sections they tend to visit. But white folks also do that. My black online writing groups tend to question: "Do blacks read speculative fiction? How do we get more black folks to read black speculative fiction?" Honestly, I don't know the answer to those questions. Many of my black friends only go to the religious sections of bookstores. Many only go to the romance sections. Many read anything. One can't really judge what the black reading audience is going to do. The thing is to make the black and minority audience know that there are books out there that speak to their experience.

For instance, I really do not read much fantasy or science fiction. I don't read Christian novels. I don't read romances. Yet I love all these genres...and will waste a couple of hours watching genre movies. But films are different from books. A book is a large commitment of time and I groan whenever I have to deal with high fantasy, or Christian romance, or any kind of literature that doesn't connect to me. There's a high fantasy book I'm supposed to be reviewing. I still can't get past the first seven pages. As a black person who loves speculative literature, there are just so many high-born lords and ladies one can matter how magical the world. As a black Christian, one can endure just so many white pioneer or country types taming the frontier. For me, European-based high fantasy literature is often as offensive as Anglo-based Christian romance. I want to shout, "There are other ethnic groups in the world and why should I always have to be awashed with Euro-culture?" Christianity, for instance, is not a white religion. Most of the world's Christians are non-white. Yet, most of the world's Christian religious books are written by white people.

If a black person wants to read any kind of book -- religious, romance, speculative fiction -- he/she has to accept the fact that the white culture is the one he/she will be immersed in. Some black readers are tired of that and they know that if they go to the African-American section of the bookstore, they won't have to deal with the stories of the larger culture. The same can be said of the Christian population. Christians don't want to deal with books in which their faith is slammed, or which there is something they consider offensive or "unsafe." (Unfortunately, in this country, the definition of unsafe has gotten a bit out of I mentioned before.) But, clearly, the white culture doesn't have to deal with the minority cultures' stories. They have a choice. The non-religious segment of the population doesn't have to deal with the literature of the religious segment. They have a choice. The result is that there is all this segmentation and segregation. Unfortunately, I've never really been able to be solidly one thing or primarily one aspect of myself. There is no solid Christian minority culture in this country. The Christian culture in the United States is primarily a white one. I hope to be a multicultural Christian writer...and I hope to be "found" by those who would be interested in reading my books.

Did you have any historical sources for WIND FOLLOWER or did you make up this fantastically detailed world on your own?

Totally made up. When I first thought of it, I wanted to create an alternate Africa that had been invaded by Native Americans or by folks from Asia. There would also be a sojourning peoples who would be a third tribe. But I knew zip about African history, nada about Asian history, zilch about Native American history. Not really zip, nada, or zilch, but you know what I mean. Not enough to actually create a full-fledged respectable alternate Africa. So I decided to just make it some unknown continent on some unspecifiec planet in some unnamed universe. Most reviewers have been assuming Wind Follower's setting is in Africa. It seems that my original thought -- and my lack of specific description regarding the setting-- worked its way into the zeitgeist of the novel anyway.

What is your favorite scene in WIND FOLLOWER?

As a writer, I'm pretty proud of the fall into Gebelda. I like descriptions of hell in novels. It's part of the oldest high fantasy tradition --Parzival, Gawain and the Green Knicht-- to have the hero get into a spiritual eye-opening experiences. Hell or some semblance of the dark place of the soul. And it's part of folklore to have some descent into hell. Plus hell is such an important part of Christian doctrine. Actually, most religions and folklore have some kind of hell, even Tibetan Buddhism...but Christianity focuses on it.

As a person of faith, I like the scene where Loic wakes from sleep and aims his shuwa into the sky....and later Satha's response to the shuwa. Faith is such an odd little thing. One does a thing because one feels it is the right thing to do, and one doesn't question an impression placed in one's soul by the Creator. The fact that Loic would wake from a dream and do something simply because in a dream he was told to do it! And to not question the Creator about the action he is called to do! That's an act of faith. And Satha's reaction to the shuwa is also an act of interpretation of that faith.

As a woman, I liked the scene when Loic first meets Satha. To have someone want me like that. I've been married for 23 years. My husband loves me dearly and I adore him. But we're laid-back folks. Even when we first met there wasn't that passionate overwhelming desire. We're not ultra-passionate folks. But hey, it's the stuff of romance...and I like romance.

I also like certain chapters where "scenes" per se don't happen but where Satha tells about her heart and the existential grief she endures. My soul is in those scenes. I wrote those sections from the depth of my heart.

What scene gave you the most trouble?

The rape scene. Technically it had to be done in such a way that Satha didn't seem stupid. It had to be foreshadowed to the cynical readers who know enough not to trust anyone. But it also had to come as a surprise to the innocent readers who believed in the goodness of people. So it had to be predictable to those who are thinkers and unpredictable to those readers who feel.

In addition, I had to figure out what kind of person the rapist was. This was one of the few times where Paula almost lost her patience with me. (Okay, she really did lose her patience!) She kept telling me: stop being in love with your villain. He's a villain for heaven's sake! So I had to really find evil in him...really really really stop excusing his behavior. That was hard 'cause I was kinda in love with him. I suspect that I will only see how evil he is in about twenty years when I re-read the book from a distance. Paula kept telling me that the character I thought I had written was not the one I had actually written. So I had to trust her on that.

Emotionally, it was a tough scene also because when I was in college about twenty seven years ago, a white guy -- a friend who was very troubled-- attacked me and beat me up because he wanted to sleep with me and I didn't want to sleep with him. He was very handsome, very troubled, and had issues up the wazoo. So it was hard to hate him although he had left me beaten up on the floor with a face and ribs that ached for a whole month. I tend to be one of those people who belittles her own pain because she understands those who are wounding her. Not a sane way to be in life. So it was hard to fully hate the villain.

Did you finish any other novels before you wrote WIND FOLLOWER, or is this your first novel? If so, can we expect to see them in print?

I finished Daughters of Men. That was the one I sent to Paula at fist, cause it was finished. She said, very kindly, "It needs a lot of work." It does. I'm revising it now. And I really mean revising. Not just rewriting. It was originally third person narration, now it's first person. I've also changed the main character. And, best thing of all, I've finally learned how to write a novel. So I am busily cutting off tentacles from this 20-legged octopi and cutting off episodic suction cups that threaten to suck me into some stupid sub-plot that doesn't matter to the greater, larger story.

Can you give us a teaser about your next novel?

I have yet to know if it'll be a religious novel. My faith is in everything I write but some stories aren't so blatantly about religion. It's been said (I forgot by who) that a novel is a conversation between the soul and the spirit. The question in Wind Follower was: Which would you choose faith or family? Faith-committment versus Race-commitment. The question in Daughters of Men is What would you do to become a queen? Friendship versus Personal Expedience.

The main character is the Chimeran Queen. Her name is Medusa. She is a mutant...biologically created like all the human chimeras....worms coming from all her orifices and through her skin. She is a telepath and a mind-reader. She is being raised by an Overseer Prince. The Overseers are also biological creations but they are the height of perfection and beauty. They are also telepaths and mindreaders. She hasn't told them that she is a telepath, however. Instinctively, she knows not to do this. When the story begins she is living in a house on the prince's compound and she gets news of the outside world through conversations with the Overseers. She also sees what they aren't telling her. While they don't lie to her, they do avoid telling her a few important the fact that the other Chimeric people who have been exiled to the terraformed asteroid Otaura, don't want her to reign over them. She also sees their love troubles....specifically the triangle between the prince, a scarred woman whom the prince loves, and the prince's best friend a rebel who helps the standard-issue humans (although he, like all the other Overseers, doesn't really like human men.) She's in love with the prince but she has a special bond with the prince's best friend and so she helps to "cover his mind" and protect the guilty lovers in their love affair.... Well, until....
Right now it begins like this:

I don't quite remember when I fully understood that I could hide my mind from the probing of the Young Men. Nor do I remember when I first understood the extent of my loneliness. But these –memory, comprehension, the passing from youth to adulthood– are small matters and should not make you doubt my narrative. I am the Chimeran Queen, after all, your queen, one of the daughters of men...and I would not lie to you.

Many of my readers are writers. Do you have any advice for them?

Be honest. You never know who might accept your honesty. And what is the use of writing -- of getting published and expecting folks to spend their hard-earned $12.95 on your book-- if you aren't going to tell them about the world as you see it? Editors can be brave and accept some odd stuff. At least, in my case, I found an editor who didn't mind the religious stuff in Wind Follower. Write from your pain and write from your joy. Join critique circles. Learn to take criticism. Even if it's from someone who doesn't seem too bright or too kind. Don't be arrogant, but don't be too hard on yourself either. Try to write everyday. Keep healthy.

And finally, is there anything else you'd like to share?

Just how grateful and happy I am that you chose to read Wind Follower. And that I'm happy to be a published author. Just how happy I am to be loved by God and Jesus, my Lord and Savior. Hey, I had to put that in. I owe God more than I can ever say or describe.

Further email conversations led to another question: I understand that your husband is an artist. What's it like having an artist and writer together in the same house?

Yes, the beloved is an artist. Luke McDonnell He's a graphic artist, cartoonist, illustrator, and comic book artist. His paintings and drawings hang all over the house. He works for Yoe studios He also used to work for DC and Marvel. He did Iron Man, Spiderman, Suicide Squad, a whole bunch of stuff. If you do a google search for him, you'll see he's pretty respected. And it's quite good being married to an artist. Artists understand each other. He doesn't expect me to be a perfect housewife for instance. If I totally forget to cook dinner for a week or so because I'm in the throes of creativity, the world won't end. And if we starve for a couple of years, that's okay by me also. As I said, we understand each other. If I had married a regular person who expected a typical wife, I'd have been in super-trouble, i think. We've been pretty happy together. However, when we first married he was an atheist, a son of Irish Roman-Catholic atheists. It was tough being married to an "unbeliever" for fifteen years. But he finally came on over to the side of light.


Robert said...

Thanks for the interview Tia! Wasn't sure about this one, but I liked what the author had to say :)

Tia Nevitt said...

I did as well. Thank you for the interview, Carole!

Carole McDonnell said...

Thank you for asking, Tia. -C

Katie said...

Great intervew Tia and Carole.

David said...

Great interview. I met Carole on the Internet not long ago and have been impressed with her at every turn.

Since writers tend to write about what they know best, my main heroes are white. It's not a racial thing, but if I tried writing as an African American or an Asian or something I would get everything fouled up. I do, however include both in my novels. I pray that God gives her great success and that other authors like her would open the world of writing to all racial groups.

David Brollier

Carole McDonnell said...

Hi David:

Thanks for coming by and seeing the interview. It's funny, I think I've got to make it clear to my white Christian friends that I don't think white conservative Biblical Christians are racist or inconsiderate of minorities. I know many white Biblical christians across the internet and it never ceases to amaze me how wonderful and kind and open-minded and sweet Christians are. The problem, alas, is with the CBA who has a core audience that they don't wish to alienate. And as long as the CBA defines what a "true" Christian can read then we end up with some pretty narrow Christian literature. Which really shouldn't be.

Also...i have to say that i have yet to write a story with an African-American male as a main character. For various reasons. So, David, I'm kinda in the same boat with you on that one. -C

Anonymous said...

Great interview! And great point about Euro-centric fantasy. I think some publishers are coming to realize that there are a lot of other interesting cultures out there (at least I've seen that in the submission guidelines for several magazines recently).

Carole McDonnell said...

Hi Raven:

Very true. Right now I want to read anything with non-white characters in it. Doesn't mean I'm prejudiced or that I won't read a novel with white characters. I'll read any good book. I just want to see other kinds of people in the world. We've heard so much about the white world we forget that other peoples have stories also.

Carole McDonnell said...

I think one thing that I forgot to say is that I am a black woman writer who writes multicultural novles about people. I really don't like only writing about only women or only black folks. I love men, I love all people. I'm absolutely fascinated with different cultures...always loved anthropology and travel. So the world in Wind Follower is a multicultural one. And Satha's life represents my own in some ways. She is a Theseni in a Doreni culture in an Ibeni region. So the novel shows a lot about multiculturality and how the cultures and their religions affect each other. -C

Tia Nevitt said...

Hello, everyone! My internet has been dead all weekend, so I've been unable to participate in these great conversations!