by Karen Lord, July 2, 2010 10:43 AM
'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.
I have planned stories. I've planned how to tell them, what the characters should be like, where it should take place, what should happen, and how it should all end. Planning a story is a learned skill that requires you to understand the elements of story and how to manipulate them. It's good practice and it results in an excellent framework. It is, however, a mistake to hold onto the plan too tightly, because eventually there will come a point when the story will start to manipulate you.
Let it. Sometimes you can plan badly and not realise it until you begin the detailed work. Sometimes you plan quite well, but there's another movement — more efficient, more artistic — that will take the story where you want it to go. And sometimes there's an even better place to go that you can only see when you're in the middle of unfolding the plot.
There's a third 'P' to the formula. When you can't plan and the story won't fly, it might be best to pause.
Another name for a muse is flow, and flow can't be pinned down permanently or called up on demand. A nap, a moment's meditation, a prayer, a return to the rest position: these all serve to place the mind in a more flexible and receptive state. If the story is stuck, you need to find inspiration, and inspiration means that you take a moment to breathe in. Breathe out story, breathe in life, breathe out more story.
I know... very vague and mystical, but remember I can't be too direct lest my muse overhear and go wandering. I'll leave you with something more blunt and commonsensical, the best advice I know for swordfighting, writing, or living.
Don't undertrain, don't overthink, and don't forget to
by Karen Lord, July 1, 2010 10:14 AM
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.
Is Redemption in Indigo an authentic Caribbean story? Could be. I live here. I've filled it with what seems like everyday life to me. Still, it's not set in the Caribbean, nor anywhere on Earth, for that matter. Is it an authentic African story? Harder to say. Was Leo Frobenius, the German ethnologist who recorded the story in the 1920s, a reliable chronicler? I haven't done sufficient research to answer that one way or another. The story was filtered through him and his worldview, and now it is filtered through me and mine.
The African folktale is at the core and the Caribbean influence is widespread, but there's more. The majority of the novel is fantasy. That's the fun of writing speculative fiction. You get to create entire worlds. The Caribbean is a good base for that. Africa, the Americas, Asia and Europe meet and mingle here. You can 'borrow' something from the culture and traditions of a friend or relative: fashion, cuisine, mythology, language, or music. You can't help but reveal much of your own creolised, blended culture and traditions.
Travelling builds on that base. My Glasgow experience was doubly rich because the city is Scottish and international and not afraid to mix and match (haggis and pasta at an Italian restaurant, Latin dance classes at a downtown pub). Oxford is literary heaven, English and global. There I found Frobenius's works with the original folktale at Rhodes House Library (sorry, the Bodleian Library of Commonwealth and African Studies at Rhodes House). I went to the Eagle and Child and raised a glass to Lewis and Tolkien.
I'm neither a literary critic nor an anthropologist, so I can't tell you what culture is authentically represented by my novel. Redemption in Indigo is authentically me. It is where my ancestors came from (might be three continents there), where I am now, where I've been, who I've made friends with, and what I've read. Accept no
by Karen Lord, June 30, 2010 10:21 AM
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!
There's a great irony in this. Much of my lack of cooking skill comes from a failure to foretell my whims and prepare accordingly. I will crave vinaigrette when there is no olive oil in the house, falafel in the absence of chick peas, cou-cou when okras are scarce. And yet the one dish I can claim as my 'signature' is the one which requires the most advance thought. Of course, there's another way of looking at it. I can bake black cake and know that it will not spoil before I'm ready to eat it, for two reasons: one, it can last for years, preserved in sugar and alcohol; two, it tastes so good it won't last for a week.
The North American Christmas Fruitcake... I don't think I've ever had it, but I've heard about it via some sitcom or humorist's column, depicted as an inedible artefact of tradition, doomed to a neverending round of regifting. Regift black cake? I have used this cake (and even mere promises of this cake) to bribe, to repay debts, to win friends, and to influence people. It has indeed caused tears of joy, nostalgia, tipsiness, and pure sugar rush.
This is not a fantasy cake. This is real cake. Go find someone to bake it for
by Karen Lord, June 29, 2010 10:00 AM
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.
Filming went very smoothly. There was only one scene that worried me: the scene with the breaking mirror. (Real mirrors are dangerous. Don't try this at home!) We accidentally-on-purpose broke ours safely (hint — duct tape stops most of the shatter), but I don't recommend it. By 'accidentally-on-purpose' I mean that I researched how to break a mirror, decided I shouldn't risk it, cushioned the floor and the wall carefully, and then had the mirror strike at an unexpected angle and break anyway. If I had to do it again, I still wouldn't risk it, and I'd do a better job of padding the impact area. It did make a lovely sound, though.
I splurged in two areas: a good videographer and a good studio. I'm glad to say they were more than worth it. Best of all, we had fun, both pros and amateurs. Yes, it was a challenge, but there was a pleasant, positive vibe throughout.
Would I do it again? Of course, but next time with special effects!
by Karen Lord, June 28, 2010 10:47 AM
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 first encountered the West African tale that would shape my first novel.
When a teacher read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to our primary school class, and followed up with The Hobbit the next year, I was sucked into the Epic. The Hobbit led to The Lord of the Rings and its appendices, which led to Beowulf. I had to rely on the English translation for understanding, but sometimes I liked to voice the rhythms of the Saxon text without bothering too much about what it meant.
Dramatic poetry, poetic prose, and drama in rhyme and blank verse also drew me in. Robert Browning could be both conversational and clever in perfect metre, one moment reminiscing about his fanboyish awe of Shelley, the next muttering obscurely about Keats and porridge. Khalil Gibran (The Prophet) wrote prose that sounded as lyrical as a translation from an ancient, sacred text, and Edmond Rostand (Cyrano de Bergerac) raised the art of polyphonic banter to new heights. In my everyday life there were calypsonians invoking Gregorian chant in their rhythms and priests quoting dialect poetry from the pulpit. From all this I learned that music, poetry and prose are but stages on a continuum of communication, easily blurring their boundaries and stealing techniques from each other.
The spoken word endures. In the grand sweep of history, books are a newfangled technology. Before the bound tome, before the printed word, there was the speaker and the listener. I once read a favourite book to a friend whose first language was not English, not because he wasn't capable of reading it himself, but because it had been read to me and I wanted him to discover it the same way. Read a book to someone — child or adult. Read their faces, their silent response to the story. It's an old tradition, and a beautiful