Monday Original Content: Chesya Burke interviews Karen Lord
Interview and Discussion with author Karen Lord
By Chesya Burke
I’ve had the distinct pleasure of being asked to interview the fabulous author of Redemption of Indigo, Karen Lord. I spoke with her over the course of several weeks and got to know her as a writer. Karen’s a fascinating person and it was wonderful spending so much time picking her brain.
Chesya Burke: Instead of doing the standard introductions and wasting time, let’s get to what brought people here. Karen, can you tell us little about yourself and your inspirations? How did you come into writing?
Karen Lord: By reading non-stop! I’ve been reading constantly since as far back as I can remember, and my mother made sure I was well-supplied with books. (I dedicated Redemption in Indigo to her memory.) Writing is only a way to get control of the business of storytelling so I can have more stories that I like, or that interest me.
As for those who inspired me – that’s a long list. C. S. Lewis, for the richness of his stories and the way he got better as he grew older and wiser. I think Till We Have Faces is his best novel (he thought so too!) and it’s my favourite book. It has one of the best female protagonists written by a male author that I’ve read. Then there’s Ray Bradbury, whose stories are first and foremost about the human condition. ‘The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit’ is the one I like best. In it he uses magic, or the idea of magic, very subtly to tell us about people finding the power to become who they are.
A late discovery for me, but still notable, is Dorothy L. Sayers. I usually dislike novels that are secretly (or obviously) all about the author, but when I read Gaudy Night I found it had unexpected depths. It was much more than mere narcissism or wish-fulfillment. And finally, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark is another novel I look to when I’m pondering storycraft. Its structure is non-linear and so brilliantly done that you feel you’re working out a very satisfying puzzle.
As you can see, I love stories about different worlds: fantasy, future and past.
Chesya: Very impressive list of writers and stories, I agree. You said, “‘The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit’… uses magic, or the idea of magic, very subtly to tell us about people finding the power to become who they are.” I agree and find that Bradbury subtly uses his characters to tell very powerful stories. This is an impressive trait in a writer. That said, after reading Redemption in Indigo, I believe that you use this approach, as well as having your main character, Paama, using power to discover herself. Would you agree? Why is this so important to you?
Karen: I would agree, but only to a certain extent. Paama had power before she was given the Chaos Stick. If anything, using the Stick helped to show her that our choices are important whether we have limited power or allegedly unlimited power, and in either case we bear the consequences of both our choices and the choices of others. So I agree with you that she discovers herself through the use of power, but not merely the power bound up in a magical object.
It’s important to me because I don’t often see stories examining the use of power in a way that I can appreciate. I do tai chi and a bit of bagua, and if there’s one thing you learn from that kind of training it’s that power is as much about knowing when to yield as when to press forward. Perhaps I’m using the wrong word; perhaps it’s not so much power as efficiency – the judicious use of power to maximum effect. It may not look dramatic, but it will give you the results you want.
I don’t like stories that only focus on protagonists with a superpower, or a destiny, or beauty or wealth or fame. I love seeing that subverted, like Bradbury did in ‘The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit’.
Chesya: In your opinion, what makes a good story?
Karen: I don’t think there’s any way to quantify that. For myself, I need characters who strive, grow and find some degree of triumph, even if it’s bittersweet. I like a certain level of resolution in plots, but I don’t mind a rambling, random tale because life can be like that. I enjoy humour, a balance of virtue and vice, and well-drawn minor characters. But these are simply ingredients, and things can still go wrong when assembling the dish. The real way for me to know a good story is: did it make me forget where I was while I was reading it? Did it go with me when I closed the book? Will I remember it ten years from now? Did it show me the world in a new way, or give me a new world entirely?
I’ve been surprised more than once by a story that looks like it should be a mess when you list its constituent parts, but when the whole is considered, it’s a remarkably good tale. That’s why I say there’s no way to quantify it. It’s a sweet mystery.
Chesya: I can’t express enough how much I agree with you. Especially this statement: “The real way for me to know a good story is: did it make me forget where I was while I was reading it? Did it go with me when I closed the book? Will I remember it ten years from now? Did it show me the world in a new way, or give me a new world entirely?” I notice lately, however, that more and more writers talk about simply wanting to tell a “good” story, which of course is hard enough, but the implication seems to be that these two things are mutually exclusive. As if somehow telling a good story is not also making reader think or “making them see the world in a new way.” Have you ever gotten this impression? What’s your opinion?
Karen: I’ve been that person, once upsetting a writer leading a workshop by declaring loudly and foolishly that I ‘just wanted to tell stories, not write literature’. So it would be hypocritical of me to complain when other people do it. I think my problem at the time was that I didn’t have a good understanding of what makes a story ‘literature’. Nor do I now –
Chesya: I’d love to hear your ideas, though.
Karen: I’m still working on it. But here goes.
Literature should tell more than one story . . . even use one story to tell another. There must be layers of meaning and interpretation. Although it is possible to tell a ‘good story’ using only one or two dimensions, the richness of literature comes from the myriad of stories it contains. Those are the books you must go back to because you’ll discover something new with every visit.
Having said that, this is where I can only return to ‘it’s a mystery’. You may think you know which elements in what configuration will produce that alchemy of ‘a good and multidimensional story’, but (and I speak only for myself) it’s a capricious muse at the best of times. I have read complex, well-crafted literature that was dull, navel-gazing and pretentious. I have read rollicking good adventure stories that were ultimately shallow and forgettable. There’s a sweet spot between those two that I love to read and want to write.
Chesya: Interesting. I found the more and more I began to write and read, the more the books I wanted to read and the books I liked to read began to blend together. As most writers, I read broadly and in every genre imaginable. Still, I found that scifi, fantasy, horror, mystery, ect. tended to explore that part of ourselves and cultures that is undefined. It allows for many broad possibilities. Do you find that these genres satisfy something in the human psyche that mainstream doesn’t? Vice versa?
Karen: That depends. Speculative fiction encompasses so many variations that I would hesitate to say it performs that role all the time and for everyone. I know some people who hate science fiction and fantasy. Sometimes when they say that they mean that they find the burden of made-up tech and made-up languages too heavy to bear, and I won’t argue with that. It’s not to everyone’s taste. What I think people do respond to (and what I believe you might be referring to) is a touch of myth – a certain kind of story that is constantly retold and becomes part of the cultural communication. That’s one of the reasons some people find it hard to appreciate speculative fiction from other countries. They simply haven’t been educated in the common myths that are part of that culture’s daily conversation. Mainstream novels can certainly have that quality of myth without having any speculative content, and thereby fulfil that same purpose (i.e. of satisfying something in the human psyche), but I do agree that speculative fiction gives us more ways (and more creative ways) to spin old tales.
But there’s so much overlap, so much fuzziness in genre-vs-mainstream questions. There are also different cultural expectations of what constitutes a fantasy or horror element. When is a ghost story horror and when is it mainstream? I’m less and less satisfied with the genre definitions I’ve been given. I find myself returning instead to myth, symbolism and layered communication of concepts, and how well any novel of any genre handles these things.
Chesya: Genre-vs-mainstream is a fuzzy subject, but what would an interview be without asking it?
Karen: Very true!
Chesya: I’m intrigued by your mention of cultural expectations and why some people find it hard to appreciate speculative fiction from other countries. It seems that many people don’t have an issue with some cultures such as Euro-centric inspired ones (Greek, Celtic and Norse Myth Cycles come to mind). However, other cultures, such as African and Middle Eastern seems to be ignored. And when it comes to Asia on the whole, it seems like many people think that those cultures begin and end with China and Japan. Do you find this to be the case? If so, want to discuss why?
Karen: I think stories from cultures that are already prominent in the global media and entertainment industry are seen as more accessible, even when their audience has only experienced that culture secondhand or via a highly stylized depiction (like Austen’s England or High School America). As a result, some people find so many stories set within the bounds of their acceptance and understanding that they won’t make the effort to sample anything different. Note that I say some people. I believe the problem lies more with risk-averse producers and marketers than it does with ineducable consumers. You can’t acquire a taste for something if you’re never exposed to it.
Chesya: I know artists don’t like to toot their own horns, so you can fully blame me for this next question. Having been published for a relatively short time you’ve won some impressive awards and garnered much deserved attention. Can you tell us a little about the awards and accolades you’ve received?
Karen: Thanks for the opportunity.
I’m very grateful that Redemption in Indigo has received awards, particularly these ones! It gained its first award in early 2009. The Frank Collymore Literary Award is a Barbadian prize for unpublished work, and the committee includes academics, award-winning authors and poets, and cultural professionals. You may have first prize shared between two entries in one year or no first prize at all in another year. It’s purely about the quality of the work, and not about choosing an annual best. Kamau Brathwaite has won that award. I was in shock when my manuscript won. It made me think seriously about moving my writing from hobby to career.
After the book was published, it won the 2011 Crawford Award for best fantasy novel by a new writer. This award is judged by a committee of editors, reviewers, publishers, academics and writers and is connected to the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts. The list of past winners and nominees is impressive, filled with authors who went on to develop long and illustrious careers (no pressure!). I was particularly grateful for that award because it proved to me that the book was accessible to readers beyond the Caribbean, and could be considered genre as well as literary.
I want to mention an award I did not win: the 2011 Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, a new regional award for published work. Redemption in Indigo made the longlist with three other books of fiction, three non-fiction, and three poetry. It was very affirming to get recognition at the regional level, especially when I looked at the calibre of the other fiction nominees chosen by the committee. However, what really got my attention in poetry and non-fiction was the presence of two Nobel Prize winners – Derek Walcott and V. S. Naipaul – plus Kamau Brathwaite and Edwidge Danticat! Being on the same list as those names was a prize all by itself!
Most recently, Redemption in Indigo was awarded the 2011 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature. I’m very happy about this award! It’s the first award I’ve won where my work was in competition with books by long-established, award-winning novelists. It’s based on the spirit of the Inklings, a group which includes two of my favourite authors. Finally, it’s a juried award connected to the Mythopoeic Society, a group of academics with an interest in mythmaking – a subject which has been peripheral to my own academic studies as well as a personal fascination.
I had the additional pleasure of seeing Redemption in Indigo make the 2010 Locus Recommended Reading list (First Novels) and the 2010 Amazon’s Top Ten SF/F (Editor’s Picks). It also got starred reviews from Booklist and Publishers Weekly.
Now it’s just been nominated for a World Fantasy Award, which is absolutely amazing!
Chesya: Nice list of awards! Can you tell us about this move from writing for a hobby to it being a career?
Karen: I suppose I can thank the recession for that! I had just completed my PhD and it was a bad time for getting research work. I had time on my hands, and I felt a curious sense of obligation after winning the Colly – that I should prove I wasn’t a one-shot wonder. In addition to learning more about the writing process, I set myself to research as much as I could about the publishing industry. I’d done a little research previously, mostly on British publishers and agents, but I took it further: contracts, typical author career paths, frequency of novel output and whether to add short stories to that, key names and networks in the field . . . and so on.
Chesya: So with all you’ve learned and researched, do you have any advice for new writers?
Karen: Research aside, I’m pretty new at it myself, so I can’t offer anything that they haven’t heard already. In fact, with so much advice available, I’d tell them to research and ask and check for themselves, because although people mean well, some advice simply isn’t relevant to your particular situation and skills.
There are a few timeless staples, however. Write without fear, edit without mercy and don’t quit your day job yet.
Chesya: Great advice. Thanks so much for talking with me, Karen. It was a wonderful discussion.
Karen: My pleasure! I really enjoyed this.
Chesya Burke was called “a formidable new master of the macabre” by no less a person than Samuel Delany. She is the author of short story collection Let’s Play White.