Wednesday, April 7, 2010
Q and A with Connie May Fowler, author of How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly
Clarissa was birthed from various sources. I think the very first spark occurred when I was doing some leisurely reading about pre-Civil War Florida and came across information about the 1819 Florida Purchase Treaty. Florida was a Spanish colony and though Spain didn’t practice progressive policies throughout the New World, in Florida it did. For instance, women and black people could own land. Black men could sit on juries. It was, considering what was occurring in the United States, an imperfect Utopia. But the treaty called for Florida to be turned over to the U.S.—a place where slavery and the subjugation of women flourished—in 1821. Thanks to a real estate deal, the most basic of human rights were stripped from two groups: women and people of African descent. That haunted me. For about four years, I walked around with that in my head, creating characters that would have been directly, horrendously affected by the treaty. But I didn’t want it to be a historical novel in the traditional sense, so it also became a ghost story with Clarissa Burden being our current day heroine. Clarissa, too, has to find her path to freedom. I was interested in what happens to people who are trapped in cruel relationships (government or familial)—how that shapes them and affects other aspects of their lives. Clarissa’s challenges are many and most of them stem from the simple fact that she is mired in a horrible marriage. Her march toward freedom is tied to the past—she recognizes that—and this tension between past and present, the acceptance of cruelty or its outright rejection, forms the foundation of the novel.
Your novels often have supernatural elements. Where did your fascination with otherworldly matters come from?
I grew up around women who saw ghosts and interacted with them on a daily basis. It was like my own private Haiti—a place where the departed are integrally woven into the daily fabric of life. My mother and aunts were always receiving visitations from dead husbands, children, parents, brothers, and sisters. It was just the way things were in our family. And, occasionally, they would decide that a domicile had been infected with an evil spirit and then we would have to move, leaving behind all our belongings. It made for an interesting and sometimes terrifying childhood. But I think I’m addicted to the thrill. I watch bad TV like Ghost Hunters and then have to sleep with the light on.
Did you face any special challenges writing How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly?
I think novel writing is a very difficult art form. I have never had an “easy” experience. But How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly presented me with a few unique challenges. Clarissa’s husband is an Afrikaner; I’ve never been to South Africa so I had to do a lot of research: history, geography, etcetera. I had to know things that would never make their way onto the page. I wanted his speech—especially the Afrikan words he bandies about—to be authentic. I also had to allow the ghosts’ lives to arise from the page as organically and easily as Clarissa’s did. The ghost family’s backstory had to inform the present action without weighting it down. And finally, I wrote the entire book in fifty pages. And I kept rewriting those fifty pages until they were worn out. A friend of mine, the poet Rane Arroyo, finally pointed that out to me. So my main challenge was extrapolating those fifty ultra concentrated pages into a whole, fully realized novel.
Your setting—North Florida’s panhandle--really comes alive in the novel. I know you live in that area and have also written many columns about Florida. Can you share some of the things you especially love about your corner of Florida?
I live in one of the few relatively unsullied areas of the state. For instance, as I write this, the only sounds I hear are that of bird and surf song. Bears and coyotes make their home here. Sea turtles nest and dolphins hunt mullet. Rivers and seas commingle, creating dynamic ecosystems, and the forest extends to the edge of the bay. But we are, of course, experiencing tremendous pressures. I do not think that I will recognize this place in twenty years. Big Oil is trying to drill a mere three miles from the coast. They are telling any legislator dumb enough to listen that the rigs are invisible. If Big Oil and their lies win, we can kiss goodbye what’s left of this fragile paradise.
Your main character suffers from writers’ block. Has that ever happened to you and, if so, what did you do about it?
Actually, I’ve never experienced writers’ block because I fear if I give into it, I’ll never write another word. But I thought it would be a kick to have a protagonist who is afflicted with one of the most wicked cases of WB ever. And what I find funny about poor Clarissa’s predicament is that wonderful narratives are occurring all around her. People are serving up amazing stories like gifts from the Magi. But she is so damaged, thanks to her loveless marriage, she can’t allow herself to see the stories unfolding all around her.
How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly is your seventh book. Suppose you could go back in time to when you were writing your first novel and tell yourself three things. What would they be?
That is a really difficult question. In some ways, writing Sugar Cage (my first novel) was a great and heady experience because I had no idea what I was doing or if anyone would care. I just created by the seat of my pants. And I think, actually, that is what I have to relearn every time I begin a new project. I have to become childlike again and really let loose in that syntax-filled sandbox. I do a lot of research and I think a lot about my characters, but if I try too fully to impose the empirical world onto the hallucinatory landscape of the novel, everything falls apart.
What comes first for you when writing a novel? Theme, characters, plot? Tell us a little about your process.
I’m character crazy. I love my characters and admittedly probably find them more fascinating than anyone else. But that’s okay. Writers birth their characters into being and then we love them—even the scoundrels—as if they were family. Being plotless is the great curse of the literary writer. I have to ruminate on the pulse points, as I prefer to call plot, long and hard. The best writing occurs when the pulse points of my characters’ lives arise organically from the page. Books contain an internal logic and if you try to impose an exterior order on the novel, you end up with a melodramatic plot or—even worse—a mechanical one. And without a doubt, I am my own worst enemy. I will walk around for years with characters in my head, doing research into their issues and the times they lived, and I will try to force a plot upon them. I will grow ever more nervous and manic, and when finally I am at my wits end, I will sit down to write—utterly terrified—and if I have any brains at all on that particular day, I will remain silent and let the characters do the talking. They know the plot. My job is to listen.