Thursday, December 22, 2011

An Interview with Delia Sherman

We are big fans of Delia Sherman here at Fantasy Matters.  Her wonderful works of short fiction are too numerous to list them all here.  Her novels, which include Changeling and The Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen (which Jen reviewed here), are beautifully written and magical in every sense of the word.  She is one of the founders of the Interstitial Arts Foundation and the current editor of Interfictions 0, an online anthology of criticism on interstitial texts.  Her most recent novel is The Freedom Maze, which she talks about in this interview with Megan Kurashige.

Megan Kurashige: What made you want to write this book in particular? What was the thing that pushed The Freedom Maze from potential idea to an actual story? I feel like there's often a point where a story tips over into something that must be finished, an inevitability, and I'm curious about what that point was for you and this book.

Delia Sherman: The most honest answer to this is: I don't know.  I started the book in 1987, which was a long time ago. But I do remember that it grew out of a dream. I dreamed I was sitting in the window seat of my house in Boston, reading a book that was writing itself as I read it. When it told me to look out the window, I did. And instead of the familiar patch of lawn surrounded by shrubs and trees and wildlflowers, with a sidewalk and a street beyond it, I saw a garden full of roses and a boxwood maze. The story I was reading became one about that maze. I remember the story was fascinating and exciting and I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough to get to the end. Of course, the story was unrecoverable when I woke up. So I decided to write one for myself.

The beginning went easily enough. But once I got Sophie into the past, I had difficulty figuring out what to do with her. I'd never written for younger readers before, so there was a learning curve there, having to do with questions of craft like pacing and resisting the temptation to let description stand in for action. Also, I needed to do a lot of research. There was one point where I imagined the cook Africa standing in an empty space with her hands on her hips, wanting to know where her kitchen was and who was sharing it with her. This was only one of the many moments when I could have stopped, might have stopped, temporarily did stop writing. But (like most writers, I think) I'm uncommonly stubborn. I'd started this book, and there were things in it I liked, and characters in it I loved. So I kept working at it, draft after draft, with long pauses between for short stories and 3 other books. After a while, stubbornness (what my mama called pure meanness) was basically what kept me going--that, and the fact that I discovered I had a lot more to say about race and history and memory and gender and family than I'd thought when I started out.

MK: You tackle some difficult subjects in the course of this story. Was it intimidating to write?

DS: Writing this book was a nerve picnic--at least once I realized what I'd actually gotten myself into. I am a white woman raised in New York City, whose personal knowledge of the South comes from family visits to Louisiana and Texas and South Carolina when I was about Sophie's age--oh, and having Southern parents, whose own views on race were, to say the least of it, complicated. And yet I had to write it, just this way, set just where and when it takes place. It took me 18 years and something like 25 drafts, and I'm not at all sure that I've got it right yet, but I certainly gave it my best shot. While I was writing it, I was mostly aware of how much more I'd bitten off than I could easily chew. Now that it's done, I realize that this book, at least in part, represents my trying to come to grips with the great tragedy of slavery that still casts its shadow on American culture. On personal relations, too, as I saw pretty dramatically a few years ago, when my corner of the internet exploded in a flame war over cultural appropriation and the portrayals of people of color in literature that strained and sometimes ended long-term friendships. I don’t know if the wounds slavery left on our society can be healed, but I feel very strongly that not engaging with them isn’t the answer. So I went ahead and engaged--with the help and encouragement of my POC friends, who were kind enough to vet my manuscript for white privilege and well-meaning doltishness. I'm sure there's some left, but it's not for want of expert advice.

MK: I really loved how you managed to combine magic and history and time travel and a story that was intensely, wonderfully readable. Did all the elements of the book grow out of each other, or did you have certain ideas that you consciously wanted to fit together?

DS: Thank you. I'm glad it all worked together. The danger with any historical fantasy is that the history will overwhelm the fantasy or that the fantasy will swallow up the history. I remember wanting to do something about a girl who wasn’t perky, who wasn’t resourceful, who wasn’t particularly adventurous, who was shy and reserved and not very worldly. I’d been a girl like that, and I couldn’t be the only one in the world. Surely the others would like to read a book where they got to have adventures, too. And I always liked books where the child got sent away from its parents to the country and had magical adventures. I think I wanted to write about how real adventures are not always as much fun to live through as to read about (in our family, we say "an adventure is something when you don't know it's going to turn out all right in the end"), but that could be revisionism. The actual story grew pretty organically. I'm more a discovering writer than a planning one--although certainly planning plays a part in my process, once the book is done and I know more what I want it to be. The process, especially with my historical fiction, is analogous to mixing and wedging a big tub of fictional clay that I can use to sculpt my story. Once I figure out what that is.

MK: What kind of research did you do? What was the most interesting thing that you experienced in the course of researching? Was there any material that you learned and loved, but were unable to work into the book?

DS: Slavery is not an easy topic to research. The basic texts on the subject were written by white historians (at least when I began the research back in the late 80’s), and much of the material they presented came from the cotton plantations of Virginia, Georgia, Mississippi, and the Carolinas rather than the sugar plantations of Louisiana. When I went down to Louisiana to research plantation life there, most of what was easily accessible concerned the people who were being cooked for, not the people who were doing the cooking. The guide at one plantation we visited, when I asked what people ate, went into glowing detail about the hams, the syllabubs, the white cakes and roasts. “The slaves,” I said.  “I want to know what the slaves ate.” She looked blank. “I don’t know.  Leftovers?”

Luckily, there is a Museum of Plantation Life in Baton Rouge, with an extensive library of documents and an entire rebuilt Quarter of shops and homes, furnished with period tools, looms, black moss stuffed pallets, home-made furniture, and kitchen implements. It was there, and in the research collection at Loyola University in New Orleans, that I found a lot of the information I was looking for about what Sophie’s daily life might have been like. The most surprising thing I found was an advertisement for a runaway slave that read more or less as follows:  “Wanted, [name], a woman of [however many] years. Blond and blue-eyed, could pass as white.” That was the most dramatic example, but once I’d seen it, I began to notice others, for “fair-skinned” or “red-haired” slaves escaping with darker companions as slave and master or mistress. It really made me think about how race was constructed in the ante-bellum South.

The other thing that was unexpectedly difficult was finding out how sugar was made in 1860. My research included an (in retrospect) hilarious phone call to the Louisiana Sugar Board, and a fascinating and useful afternoon in the Jeanerette Sugar Museum, which I borrowed, in its outward form at least, for my Oakwood Historical Museum. If I don't know all there is to know about multiple-effect vaccuum evaporators, it's not their fault.

Possibly the hardest thing to get even remotely right--certainly one of the hardest things to write about--was the part of the book that drew on Voudon. As a writer, I’m used to playing with fairy-tales and folk traditions, turning tropes on their heads and generally wreaking havoc with them for my own artistic purposes. But Voudon is a living religion, with powerful and chancy gods who I thoroughly respect. I read every book I could find on the subject, and in New Orleans, I interviewed a Voodooienne—to very little real effect. Luckily, one of my old Clarion students turns out to be a priest, and was kind enough to talk me through what would be proper and useful to say and what to leave alone. There are phrases and images in the book that I added at his insistence. He warned me right up front that inserting that tricksy keeper of doors and time, Papa Legba, into the book was a dangerous choice, but the logic of the book demanded it. And with this book, I needed to follow that logic, or there wouldn’t have been any point in writing it in the first place.

MK: Were there parts of the writing of this book that stand out to you as particularly wonderful or particularly difficult? Are there any vivid memories from the process that you might share with us?

DS: The research was particularly wonderful. I have more stories than I have room to tell about walking with my partner, Ellen Kushner, into places (on one occasion, a roadhouse bar) in rural Louisiana, looking very much Not From Around Here, announcing that I was researching a book, and having everybody gather around with advice and directions. And then there was the night we spent in a plantation museum that was also a B&B, during which we wandered around the house in our nighties, carrying candles (very carefully). And the night in the (extremely tarted-up) slave cottages, where we watched a total eclipse of the moon from the garden. And the time I wanted to find out what it was like to stand in the middle of a sugar cane field, and we got stuck in a ditch driving out of it and a whole flotilla of very nice local guys appeared as if by magic, hoiked us out again, and drove off, almost before we could thank them, and certainly before we could offer to pay them.

The difficult parts of writing this book included staring at pages covered with impossible sentences that didn't say at all what I wanted them to, but that is pretty much true of any book. The greatest difficulty I had with The Freedom Maze came from the fact that I'm a not particularly political person and I was writing an almost aggressively political book.  I grew up in the 50's and 60's, in New York. My family never talked about politics, and most especially never talked about civil rights, possibly because while both my parents were from the South, they held very different opinions about race. Papa was a considerable liberal. Mama thought everybody would be happier if they just knew their place and kept to it. I thought she was wrong, but never quite dared say so. There's a way in which this book is a long letter to the girl I was and the world that formed her. And that kind of letter is never easy to write.

MK: What is currently inspiring you? Are there any books or works of art that are thrilling you to the point of whole-hearted recommendation?

DS: I totally love Franny Billingsley's Chime, but then, what's not to love? It's got heart, it's got a great heroine, and it's got beautiful writing. I was also utterly charmed by Catherynne M. Valente's The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland--For A Little While, which I read on my iPhone. I love writers who take chances, who follow their own muses even when they march into untracked wildernesses. I know Dickens is a classic, taught and read and known by everyone who has ever taken an English Lit class. But when he wrote, he was that kind of writer, and I continue to love him unreservedly, even when he falls flat on his face. I just re-read A Tale of Two Cities, having not read it since I was a teenager, and found it quite remarkable in its even-handed representation of the French Revolution as at once inevitable and appalling, a story about individuals and not isms. Oh, and I'm re-reading The Wind in the Willows, too. Slowly. Because it's too delicious to gulp down.

MK: Can you tell us anything about what you're working on now?

DS: I've just finished the second draft of a MG fantasy about a boy who becomes the apprentice to an Evil Wizard--in a small town in Maine in the 1980's. It's called The Wizard's Apprentice (for me, titles are either inevitable or impossible), and it's based on the short story of the same title printed in Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow's anthology Troll's-Eye View. I've got a sequel in the mulling stages, which I intend to get to very, very soon. Right after I finish the short story I'm writing for the forthcoming Datlow/Windling anthology Queen Victoria's Book of Spells. Without Terri and Ellen, I'd have a lot less short fiction out there. Their anthology themes call stories out of me like spring rain calls plants out of the earth.

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