This week, She Writes members novelist Heidi Durrow and poet Tara Betts sit down to discuss Durrow's first novel The Girl Who Fell From The Sky, published this month by Algonquin:
1) How did you start writing and developing a community of writers to support you and your work? Who influenced you and helped guide you as a writer?
I don’t have an MFA or a degree in creative writing—my background is as a journalist and lawyer. So, I found fellowship with other writers at writers' conferences (Tin House and Bread Loaf), as well as artist colonies. One of the earliest champions of my writing was my friend, Honoree Jeffers—who encouraged me to write and believed in me without having ever seen my work! Over the years, I met other writers who have all been incredibly generous: Joan Silber, Hettie Jones, Susan Straight, Jay Parini, and George Hutchinson to name just a few. And, of course, Michael Pettit, who became my mentor when he took an interest in my work after I won a contest he judged. I also found great friendships with other writers who were struggling to publish. That was important too—we could commiserate or plan together what to do next after a rejection. It’s amazing how wonderfully generous other writers are—I think it’s because we are all in the struggle together. And it doesn’t hurt to be sure to say thank you!
2) In an interview with author Lori Tharps, you said that your mother wrote as well. I know my mother was an avid reader throughout my childhood, and it really sparked my love for words. How do you think mothers' lives impact daughters' desires to tell stories?
I think as daughters we are programmed to tell the stories of our mothers—especially if those stories have been silenced. My mother wrote for a publication for a time, but then life intervened and she didn’t have the time to write anymore, though she keeps a journal still. This story is for my mom—whom I adore—so that she knows how much I treasured her dream to write—so much so that I made it my own.
3) When I think of the stories, fiction and nonfiction, told by so many interracial writers, they all have details that make their stories different—the ethnic/cultural identities, where and how the family lives, the time period, the number and variety of family members. What are some of the things that your novel has in common with other books by mixed-race writers and what makes your story distinctly different from the others?
That’s a tough question, because though the book is clearly in the tradition of interracial literature, it’s also a break from it. My hope for the book was to explode the idea of the tragic mulatta. I wanted to say that yes, there is grief involved in growing up mixed-race in this society now, but it’s because of society’s ideas of race and culture—not an inherent flaw in the mixed-race person. And then also, I wanted to jettison the tragic part of the tragic mulatto’s description—the book does begin with tragedy, but it ends on a hopeful, maybe even triumphant note.
4) How did you arrive at breaking the book up into the point of view of Rachel and three other characters (the mother Nella, Jamie/Brick, and Nella's employer Laronne)?
I started the book with the voice of Rachel. I tried to write the whole book from her viewpoint—but it wasn’t working. She is often unreliable, and I felt like the reader needed to see the story from another angle. A tragedy needs a witness, I realized. That’s when I came up with the character Jamie/Brick. The Laronne character came about because I knew that I needed to have someone who could tell us about Nella—and of course, it felt only fair to let Nella speak for herself. She has much to explain about what happened that fateful day on the rooftop.
5) If you could give any advice to Rachel, the main character in The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, what would it be?
Remember that she is loveable, despite her flaws and despite her hurt. You can still have the hurt in you and come out whole. And then remember to love—it’s still worth it. No matter the hardship and pain.
Photos: Heidi Durrow, Age 5; Cover of The Girl Who Fell From the Sky