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7 Questions for Heidi Durrow

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LIT: As a writer, you possess the two vital traits for success: talent and perseverance. Can you tell us how your novel The Girl Who Fell from the Sky come to be?

Heidi Durrow: I started this novel in 1998 and it took me twelve years to write it and get it published.  The first six years I spent flailing around trying to find the story of my story and then its form—I don’t know if that was the talent or perseverance part.  It was certainly difficult.  The next six years I spent racking up dozens of rejection letters and then revising when I thought there was helpful information in the rejections.  And then it finally “came to be” because of the very amazing and wondrous writer Barbara Kingsolver.  I submitted the manuscript to the Bellwether Prize for Literature of Social Change on my own.  It felt like a last-ditch attempt.  No one else wanted it—not the small presses, not the big presses, nobody.  I got a call from Barbara in May of 2008 –she told me I won and that I would soon have the book contract in my hand.  The book came to be in an “instant”!  It proved that my agent’s advice was quite valid: It doesn’t matter how many rejections you get, you just need the ONE gatekeeper—the one person who can give the go ahead for your book.  Of course, the difficulty is in finding the gatekeeper.  But I was lucky I found mine in Barbara Kingsolver.

LIT: The novel is structured non-linearly, with the story told from multiple points-of-view. Are you a writer who plans everything out prior to writing the first word, or does the story develop and evolve through the writing process?

HD: I wish I were a planner.  I write in fits and starts. The novel’s structure came about quite organically.  I thought I was writing only from Rachel, the young protagonist’s perspective, but as I wrote the story I realized that she was unreliable and I needed to add at least one other voice to tell the story.  The non-linear structure was more deliberate.  In the first part of the novel, the reader meets Rachel some months after the accident, but meet the other characters immediately after it happens. I wanted to write a story about how a tragedy affects not just the person who is injured but all those around her too.  Her tragedy defined their days and so I slow down the narrative there.  In that first part, the time goes slowly and only a couple of weeks pass for those characters where as several years pass for Rachel.

LIT: It’s been noted that the life of Rachel, the novel’s protagonist, shares some similarities to yours. Would you say your own personal experiences were a launching point for the novel?

HD: The real beginning of this project was a newspaper story that I read many years ago about a family that died in a tragedy and the girl survived.  I became obsessed with the girl.  What would her survival look like?  And I set out to write a future for her.  But then I started to question myself about the reason I was obsessed with her and realized on some level that it was because in a way it seemed to have something to do with my own personal story of growing up half-black and half-white, half African-American and half-Danish and learning at age 11 that my identity was inexplicable to many.  Like the real girl who survived and would have to forge a new identity for herself in a new community without her family, I felt similarly like I had forge a new identity in my new community when people kept asking me “What are you?”

LIT: The novel won the prestigious 2008 Bellwether Prize for Fiction, whose mission is to “advocate serious literary fiction that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships.” What I find powerful about the work is that while the theme of loss and identity are showcased, the reader never feels they’re being force feed a message. What do you hope the reader comes away with from reading the novel?

HD: I am so proud that this is the award the book has received. Because what could be better than knowing that maybe something you write, could help shape, or change the conversation about important societal issues –even if it is that it only changes one person’s thinking.  But yes, ultimately, I hope that the reader enjoys the novel as a good story—that they walk away from reading the book feeling something—that they feel like they know new people/characters in their lives—that they have been on a journey with the characters themselves.

LIT: One of the striking aspects of the novel is the clarity of emotion that comes off the page. It’s always difficult to say things simply and clearly, which is what makes your work, and voice, so engaging. Did you have any particular writer or work in mind when you crafting the novel?

HD: I have so many favorite writers.  And because I had so many perspectives I was writing, I looked to all of my varied influences.  So yes, I looked to Sandra Cisneros and Jamaica Kincaid as great examples of writing that young voice.  I looked to John Edgar Wideman for the “Roger” chapters.  I looked to Toni Morrison and William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway as I wrote the Laronne and Jamie chapters.  Oh, there were many more in many other ways: Dorothy Allison, Hans Christian Andersen, Nella Larsen, Michael Cunningham, etc. etc.

LIT: Over the last year, you’ve put an extraordinary effort into promoting the novel by giving readings, lectures and attending conferences.  Any insights on what works and doesn’t work when promoting a book?

HD: What doesn’t work is “promoting a book.” I think as writers we are not wired to do that.  But we are wired to make connections. That’s how I think of it.  I’m always wondering how can I connect to new readers.  What excites them about not just the product, the book itself, but the journey. That’s what I’ve found: that people/readers/friends enjoy being part of the journey.  Also, thank you works very well.  I am so very grateful that the book that almost didn’t see the light of day is now finding a very wide audience.  I joke about this, but very seriously, it is strange and shocking to me that people I don’t know are reading this book! I try to make sure I say thank you to everyone: the booksellers who sell the book, the readers who write me, the people who retweet or weigh in on my facebook page and website.  I’m so very grateful for all of their support and for their evangelism of spreading the word about the book.

LIT: And of course, the question that always has to be asked: What are you working on now?

HD: I’m working on something that is very different.  It’s set in the late 1800s in Paris and London and is inspired by the life of a mulatta strongwoman who was also a very famous circus performer in the Victorian era.  She’s a footnote in history now, but I’m hoping that a novel about her life will make her famous again!