A CONVERSATION WITH RONLYN DOMINGUE
What sparked the idea for The Mercy of Thin Air? Did you always intend for Razi
to be the narrator?
A: Years ago, I had an idea for a novel about a poltergeist
who moves from house to house playing practical jokes. All I had was a series
of incidents, funny ones, but the character had no name, no gender. In 1999, I
imposed the short story form on this idea for a novel-which then forced me to
come up with a story in the first place. There's no question about who the narrator
was going to be once I decided to focus on this piece. I have a tendency to write
in my head as I drive, and one afternoon I was stopped at a light, and this, well,
voice in my head told me, "My name is Raziela." Okay, I thought, there
you are. From that point on, Razi took shape with great force.
novel takes place in Louisiana, much of it in New Orleans during the 1920s. Why
did you choose this as the setting?
A: In the beginning, I had no intention
of setting the story in Louisiana. I liked the idea of the namelessness, placelessness,
of Razi's existence. But what ultimately forced the decision was that I needed
to have Razi attend a college that admitted women in the 1920s. Originally, she
was supposed to be a Newcomb girl-Newcomb is a college within Tulane University-but
because of her area of study, she had to attend Tulane. Then as I started to work
on the short story, I realized how much attention Razi paid to her surroundings,
especially nature, and it made sense to ground her here. I was born and raised
in Louisiana, and I'll admit that I was resistant to writing about this place.
I didn't want to contribute to portraying the South as a cliché, so I was
hypervigilant about watching how Razi saw and experienced New Orleans and her
Q: How long did it take you to write The Mercy of Thin Air?
Four years. Ten years if you include the embryonic state of the idea itself.
Razi and Amy have much in common. But one interest they share is activism, particularly
in the realm of women's and reproductive rights. What inspired you to make this
an aspect of the novel? Is Mrs. Delacourt based on an actual historical figure?
When Razi first came to me, she was the daughter of a suffragette and already
an advocate for birth control. These were two nonnegotiable facts about her that
came just as clearly as I knew she had green eyes and blond hair. When Amy's character
started to develop, I knew that Razi had to have a reason to identify with her.
I borrowed from my own life here: I was active in the reproductive rights movement
in the early 1990s. That experience shaped me into seeing the world as a far more
complex place, even though I held my own opinions very firmly. Still do. I wanted
to include this political aspect to the novel to show that core issues don't change,
just the topics. Whether one talks about birth control, abortion, or, today, the
ethics of fertility treatments and options, we're still dealing with women's self-determination.
As for Mrs. Delacourt, no, she isn't based on anyone. I thought about the qualities
of historical figures such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Margaret Sanger, but
I didn't want to model the characters on specific personalities. I wanted each
character to evolve on his or her own.
Q: Discuss Razi as a character
who is way ahead of her time. What would she have been like if she had actually
lived in the 1920s? Do you think fiction allows her to be so headstrong and modern?
Or do you think she would have been able to overcome the limitations women endured
during the time she lived?
A: There's no doubt in my mind that if Razi
were a "real person," she would have been every bit as progressive and
strong-willed. She would have been one of those women people whisper about, would
have been appalled by, but then secretly admire. As for whether she could have
overcome limitations during that time period, of course she could. Not many women
became doctors, lawyers, advocates-what have you-back then, but such individuals
did exist. The reasons why they were so resilient and determined probably vary
widely. In Razi's case, she was raised by parents who adored her and encouraged
her intellectually. She was a nurtured child. She was fiercely curious about the
world and made no apologies for that.
Q: This novel isn't simply a love
story, but that quality comes out very strongly from beginning to end. How did
this aspect of the novel develop? Did it surprise you?
A: When I first
started to work on the novel, Andrew was a peripheral character, the sweetheart
Razi thought about with nostalgia. That seems hard to believe now. Somewhere during
the first draft, I realized there was a great deal of passion between them. It
took me years to sort this out, to understand the complexity of this relationship.
Their passion wasn't superficially romantic, and it wasn't just sexual. The intensity
of their love for each other was intellectual, psychological, and, in some context,
spiritual. The parallels and intersections between Razi and Andrew and Amy and
Scott evolved over time, too. I think Razi needed to witness Amy and Scott's love
and trouble in order to confront her thwarted relationship with Andrew. And no
one is more surprised than I am that I wrote this.
Q: Is the paranormal
something that interested you prior to writing The Mercy of Thin Air? Do
you believe that souls linger in a between realm?
A: When I was a kid,
I loved reading books about ghosts, monsters, fairies, and goblins. I'd read these
books in broad daylight with one eye closed. It was the visceral thrill of imagination-the
possibility that these things might really exist. But as much as the stories and
accounts scared me, I didn't actually believe in them. I was raised Catholic,
a religion replete with mystery and intervening entities, so one might think I'd
be more inclined to accept such ideas. I'm an open-minded skeptic. When I spent
all that time reading about quantum physics, the thrill came back, but without
the fear. Physics made ghosts-and a spirit realm-possible for me again. I'm grateful
for this. I'm willing to be convinced, either way, but for now, the wonder is
Q: Television shows about the supernatural are scoring high marks
with Americans today. Why do you think we find stories about the afterlife so
compelling right now?
A: I think it's a reaction to what it's like to live
at this point in time. First, we all live in the harshness of this world. Every
minute of the day, turn on a television and you're confronted with the worst of
our nature-war, violence, murder, deceit, greed. Some people have to deal with
that in their own homes, where they should be safe and loved. It's no surprise
to me that people want to believe in an afterlife where their loved ones are at
peace, waiting for them, at times intervening in their lives. We don't feel safe
in this world, and perhaps that won't be the case when we're dead. And then, second,
science and technology are ripping right into the essence of existence. The Human
Genome Project, stem cell research, cloning, advances in fertility treatments
. . . we're dealing not only with what makes a human being but also how it can
be manipulated. One has to wonder, where does your uniqueness come from-and where
does it go when you die?
Q: Razi states, "I would give them the
speech about the common elements between our bodies and the air. I explained the
postulate that subatomic particles remained after our bodies failed and had not
dissipated in the atmosphere. The energy shared among the particles allowed us
to have our heightened senses and the power to manipulate matter. To me, that
reduction made sense." Are these details about the souls who are between
based on scientific theory? Tell us about the scientific research you did for
A: I have to thank my mentor James Wilcox for this. When we
met for lunch to discuss the first draft, he asked me, "What does Razi think
she is?" I had no clue. The conceit of the novel was all in place-she was
some entity that could see, hear, smell, and taste, one that had a flawless memory-but,
really, what was she? Or as Jim had so correctly put it, what did she think she
was? Science was not one of my favorite subjects in school. Physics and chemistry
were torture. No one is more surprised than I am that I ended up spending so many
hours reading and thinking about quantum physics, but I had to get into Razi's
head. She would not have turned to holy texts to figure out what she was. And
this wasn't easy. Most of what I read made no sense to me or contradicted what
I thought I understood. It wasn't until I read Gary Zukav's Dancing Wu Li Masters
that it all clicked into place in my head. In truth, what Razi says she is,
is an interpretation of the volumes I absorbed. However, I did read some texts
that basically claim the soul is energy. I think that's a beautiful concept.
One of the two epigraphs you include is from C.G. Jung's "On Synchronicity."
How closely did you draw on Jung's ideas for this book?
A: I've been interested
in Jung since I was a teenager. His thoughts about the collective unconscious
and synchronicity have always fascinated me. To research this novel, I reread
some of his work and, in the process, discovered some essays that included discussion
of the paranormal and physics. That's synchronicity in action right there-I knew
I was on the right track for this book. Frankly, Jungian theories informed my
writing, but I didn't actively try to integrate these ideas. I let the creative
process itself decide what was important.
Q: Most of the male characters
in this book come across as good, decent men-admirable in many respects. What
did you intend by portraying them this way, especially Andrew, Barrett, and Scott?
These men started off good at the core. It wasn't as if, midway through crafting
the novel, I realized they were oafish and needed to be civilized and sensitized.
The men in this novel don't have all of their flaws exposed. The focus, instead,
is on their strengths. Maybe that's tearing apart expectations about men. Personally,
I'm tired of the incompetent dad, moronic husband, drunken brute, and narcissist
boyfriend types that seem to be everywhere in our visual media. Versions of them
appear in our literature, too. These types are valuable to a degree. They're something
familiar, like a confirmation that people aren't alone in their experiences. I
imagine this helps some writers come to terms with their own lives. But these
types don't reflect my experience. I wrote about men I rarely get to read about
myself. I could have easily arranged it so that Razi was constantly at odds, explicitly
or implicitly, with men-her classmates, her professors-but that would have taken
the novel off course. The fact is, the love that Razi gets from Andrew and her
father-their examples of what it means to be admirable human beings-is far more
powerful than the derision she knows she faces every day she walks out into the
world. The same is true for Amy. Scott is an upstanding, caring man, and his decency
is essential to her.
Q: Throughout the novel, there is an undercurrent
of the gender role expectations that affect the relationships between Razi and
Andrew as well as Amy and Scott. What critique, if any, do you think was made
by comparing these two couples?
A: We all deal with gender issues, no matter
how much we think the world has changed in the last hundred years. Most people
now don't question whether women should be educated, or even that they should
have jobs, but our mass culture hasn't reconciled how to balance work and motherhood.
Men's roles are in flux as much as women's. In some ways, the roles in marriage/domestic
partnerships are more "companionate" than "traditional" these
days, but has that much changed? In the novel, both Razi and Amy have to consider
the implications of having children. Almost seventy-five years separate them,
but the expectation is still the same. Of course they will. Of course they want
to. Even in the way these two couples interact, there are subtle indicators that
"women typically do this," "men typically do that." Razi's
observation, I think, lends some degree of inquiry without making a statement.
It's up to the reader to question the dynamics of these characters, and I hope
the dynamics of their own lives.
Q: What were your favorite books growing
up? Who are your literary role models?
A: Until I was fourteen, my favorite
books were A Wrinkle in Time, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, A
String in the Harp, The Chocolate War, and To Kill a Mockingbird.
My high school years drew me into adult fiction, going from The Catcher in
the Rye and all things F. Scott to Sophie's Choice and The Fountainhead.
As for literary role models, I try to learn something from any writer I read.
The ones who've been on the list the longest include Margaret Atwood, F. Scott
Fitzgerald, John Irving, and Mark Helprin. Authors I like whom I've read most
recently include Marilynne Robinson, Laurie Lynn Drummond, Audrey Niffenegger,
Kathleen Cambor, Glen Duncan, Lisa Tucker, and Will Clarke.
Q: With the
publication of The Mercy of Thin Air, you've joined a rich tradition of
Southern writing. Why do you think Southerners have such a flair for storytelling?
Maybe because it's so hot here, we hallucinate and talk as it happens. Or perhaps
it's because people from the South tend to be rooted to their places and families
of origin and we have to make up stories to embellish these old connections. Or
could it be that we Southerners enjoy our own unique collective unconscious and
occasionally let the rest of the world in on our secrets.