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Author Archive: "Karen Lord"

Breathe In, Breathe Out

'Where do you get your stories?'

What a frightening question. A muse is a very unpredictable thing. You don't want to examine it too carefully in case it vanishes. I'll approach the question obliquely and hope my muse won't notice that it's being discussed.

Writing, whether in sublime inspiration or in dogged, deadline-driven desperation, is like holding a sword. If you grip it too tightly, you can't move fluidly and react quickly; if you hold it too loosely, it flies out of your grasp and beyond your control. I recently came across the terms 'planner' and 'pantser' to describe two types of writing: planning the story in advance or making it up as you go along (flying by the seat of your pants). I don't think any writer has to choose one way of writing or the other. In storycrafting, there's a time to plan and a time to fly.

The sword analogy works a bit better for me. Swordsmanship has its drills and set movements. You could choreograph a form that's very traditional, precise and beautiful. But the kind of movement you produce when you're responding to the challenges of an actual attack — that's something else altogether. It may be scrappy or rushed, but it has an energy and immediacy that's beautiful in its own right.

A Touch of Authenticity

I've been asked about Barbadian culture and how it relates to African, European, and American cultures. Redemption in Indigo was rejected by a publisher for not being 'Caribbean enough.' I discovered that a library in the US has chosen to catalogue Redemption in Indigo as African-American fiction.

Those three things are connected. Let me start with a story.

Once upon a time I was in Scotland — Glasgow, to be precise — attending a Celtic Connections workshop, learning to sing Gaelic songs (no previous knowledge of Gaelic required). Among the participants was a couple dressed in some neo-Romantic, eighteenth-century Scottish fashion. He — dark-haired, ruddy-cheeked, kilted; she — pre-Raphaelite, ethereal, lacy. I was sure I'd already seen them at a ceilidh, similarly attired and dancing with great competence and charm.

Deep in concentration as I sang the unfamiliar sounds, I began to lean towards them discreetly, hoping to overhear the correct pronunciation of the lyrics. A faint shadow fell over my songsheet. I glanced up to discover that the Authentic Scotsman was... leaning towards me discreetly, trying to hear my pronunciation. We caught each other at it and began to laugh.

'I thought you spoke Gaelic,' I admitted.

'No, we don't,' he replied, 'and we thought you knew the song.'

I've learned since then to always take 'authenticity' with a grain of salt.

Tastier than Fiction

Paama, the female protagonist of Redemption in Indigo, is not an author-insert. Case in point, I can't cook like her. I'm not bad at it, but I don't have that artist's touch. I'm more focused on the joy of eating than the joy of cooking. As a result, I went the easy route and invented some of the things Paama makes, like the lime-mint-and-ginger drink, the sugar spirals and the honey almond cake. Other dishes were based on actual recipes, like the hunter's stew with meats, spices and pepper, which I named after the real-life pepperpot.

There's one important thing that I didn't invent. Black cake is real. It's almost too good to be true, but it is real.

And forgive my tears, but I have just this moment recalled a certain jar that sits in her kitchen, filled with dried fruit steeping in spice spirit, red wine, cinnamon and nutmeg, patiently awaiting that day months or even years hence when it will be baked into a festival cake that will turn the head of the most seasoned toper.

That jar is real. That is the jar of my childhood, sitting on the kitchen counter throughout the year. It's the jar I packed into a suitcase and carried with me to various foreign lands when I felt unsure that I could find the precise ingredients that I needed or the food processor/blender/mincer to do the fruit just so. It's the jar I now buy from the supermarket (God bless the entrepreneur who filled that niche!) whenever I feel like. No more need to prepare months in advance!

The Making of the Book Trailer

I have friends who know about films. I learned from them that writing a script is not the same as writing a novel. A script leaves space for the interpretation of the director and the actors. The written word may provide the framework, but much of the story comes out in how it's presented onscreen.

I considered adapting part of Redemption in Indigo for stage or screen. It got as far as planning to film background scenes to accompany a traditional mouth-to-mic reading. By the time those plans fell through, I'd already met with a videographer, made lists, and written drafts. Rather than waste all that effort, I chose to indulge my curiosity, scale back the original project and film just enough material for a book trailer.

When designing the trailer, I had to keep in mind that a movie is not a book. A movie trailer should make the viewer want to see more, but a book trailer should keep the reader unspoiled, stimulating the visual imagination without dictating to it . It should provide a framework attractive enough to make the reader want to 'see' more but leave room for the creation of personal versions of the characters and milieux.

I decided to hint at the plot of the novel using brief, evocative glimpses of hands and feet. Instead of dialogue or narration, the script consisted of snippets of text from reviews and blurbs. Having no dialogue meant faster filming with fewer takes, making it easy for the volunteer actors, most of whom came straight from work. Filming in black and white lent a certain mood to the trailer and also simplified costuming. A friend loaned her house to host the adventure, and from its rooms, deck, yard and driveway, we fashioned scenes in a bar, bedroom, tent, kitchen, restaurant, backyard, village courtyard, field and prisoner-of-war camp. Only one scene was filmed elsewhere, at a south coast boardwalk.

An Oral/Aural Tradition

Before I was ever a writer, I was a reader, and long before that I was a listener.

At my secondary school, in second or third year English Literature, we read an autobiography titled This Time Next Week. The author related how, as a schoolboy, he was suddenly struck by the beauty of language when a teacher called on him to read aloud from The Song of Solomon.

For, lo, the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone;

At first he read the passage with a boy's haste, bored and careless like all his classmates, but then he read again, heard the poetry in the words, and was enthralled.

I identified strongly with that experience, although for me it has been a long seduction rather than a coup de foudre. It started, I believe, with books like Fox in Socks, the Dr. Seuss tongue-twister that begs to be read out loud at any age ( the depth of my knowledge about tweetle beetles is ridiculous ). It continued with folk tales — some sung as ballads, some related by storytellers, some read — which was how I ...

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