Yesterday I reviewed the book Sandrine’s Letter for Tomorrow. Today I have a special interview with the author, Dedra Johnson. I love to find out how an author goes about constructing a story, especially when it’s a book I enjoyed as much as this one.
Now let’s see what Dedra had to say:
(e): Sandrine was such a well-planned and endearing character, one you no doubt grew attached to yourself. How do you as a writer handle placing your characters in harm’s way over and over? Does it affect you when you’re away from your writing as well?
DJ: Without dangers, obstacles and threats, characters never reveal themselves or grow. I don’t think about it one way or another–for example, I don’t fret about a character getting into more trouble than I’d like her to–and simply do it. With a child narrator, it’s a little easier–because Sandrine is a child, there are a lot of factors in her world that are in the control of adults who have their own motives and needs that usually conflict with Sandrine’s.
There’s a danger in being too attached to a character. In the earliest draft, Sandrine was too good, too much a victim, and lacked agency. I had to find or create “bad” things about her to round her out and keep me as the writer from being over-attached and unable to craft the story and characters as they needed to be.
In the heat of drafting, yes, the character’s ups and downs affect me temporarily, a heaviness to the day or a sense of relief that a particular scene is over or that a mystery is now clear. But after the drafting and revising, I feel “done” with the character, her obstacles, her needs, her pains and tend to look toward the next character, story, work, etc. One way to put it–Sandrine told me what of her story she wanted told and now has nothing more to say to me. As a writer, I did a good job–she lives on and on for readers but she and I have waved goodbye so I can move on.
And though Sandrine comes off as well-planned (thank you!), she wasn’t really. I was trying to write a totally different story, got stuck, started some description and scene sketches and gradually Sandrine evolved.
(e): Your characters are rich and full and the story line is so well developed. What did you grow first; the characters or the story line?
DJ: Character always comes first. I need to know who it is I’m writing and thinking about. In early drafting, before I really knew Sandrine and her wants and needs, I floundered and got nowhere. When her concerns and needs became clear to me–and not all in an intellectual way; some of this understanding has to be emotional and intuitive–I could then move her through her world.
I didn’t plot the novel, really. I knew there were points I wanted Sandrine to get to–her father’s house, back to New Orleans, through a year of school–and tried to stay open to possibilities, tangents and forks in the road, emerging characters, etc. As a matter of fact, until people started reading it and saying so, I didn’t think of it as having a developed plot at all. That comes, though, I think, from looking at it from the inside. I know what I didn’t plan. But the idea is to make it all look totally deliberate and planned. So I succeeded.
(e): I spent a lot of time carting this book around, not able to stop reading, even late into the night. What’s your secret to keeping the pages turning for your readers?
DJ: My secret? I wish I knew! Perhaps it’s because I like to read novels in which there is a lot of character development and things happening–conflicts, journeys of any type, changes, surprises. I firmly believe that it is the writer’s job to make the reader turn the pages and I’m just glad I succeeded.
(e): Are you working on something new? I’d love to hear about it.
DJ: I’m working on a couple of ideas now, both post-Katrina but only one set in New Orleans after the flooding. The one set in New Orleans is/was sparked by my shock over the most basic losses after Katrina–not lives or property but community and family ties. In New Orleans, it’s not uncommon to live within blocks of your mother, sister, cousins or grandmother’s high school sweetheart, and people, women especially, relied heavily on those ties. The poorer the person or the more demanding the job, the more those social and familial networks are relied upon–meals, child care, lodging, employment, entertainment, psychological support, transportation, guidance, tradition, all of it. In New Orleans, you always know that if something goes wrong, divorce, job loss, illness, you can move back in with your mama. And when people were shipped off and scattered across the country, the networks people relied on were gone. Many of the public institutions we relied on, like child care centers and schools, were closed or in flux. You can’t work if there’s no one to watch your kids and few jobs let you leave every day at 3 PM to go get your kids. So I’m trying to look at what happens when those support networks and systems are gone, especially for women with children. I can’t write about it as an intellectual exercise, though, and the challenge has been to develop the necessary characters and get to know who will be my narrator. It’ll fall into place. Just when it looks like I’ll have to toss an idea out, usually some breakthrough in understanding occurs. I may have had one already, can’t tell yet, too early in the game.
The other project is more about family and family conflict, who’s valued or devalued, who’s used and why, who knows what and who will never be told or who can’t even begin to tell the truth. Not as high-falutin’ sounding but a story I’ve wanted to get to for some time. I tend to hold my barely-formed ideas close to the chest. And who knows–my next novel may be neither of these ideas.
(e): Thanks, Dedra! I appreciate you taking the time to talk. Please let us know when your next work is out. Both projects you mention have my attention already, so I look forward to reading whatever you send our way.