Monday, October 29, 2007
Interview with Sarah Deming
What is the inspiration behind Iris, Messenger? Or how did this novel come to be…
It started when I was on a trip to Sayulita, Mexico. I was feeling very heartbroken and spending some time with the ocean to heal. I started to get the image of Poseidon as a sad old fisherman. At the same time, the question was bouncing around in my head, "What happens to gods after people stop worshipping them?" They can't die because they are immortal. Wouldn't it be sort of sad, to outlive your culture?
Have you always enjoyed reading mythology?
Oh yes, always. When I was a kid it was Greek/Roman and Norse myth, but as an adult I have also enjoyed exploring the Hindu Mahabharata and Ramayana, which are different in that the gods who appear in the stories, such as Krishna and Shiva, are still worshiped today. I also love the old Welsh tales and Arthurian legends. The Mabinogion is so beautiful.
What is it about mythology, in your opinion, that keeps people so spellbound, so enchanted?
Myth goes deep to the heart of life, to things like birth, death, love, dreams, and the struggle to survive -- things which are the core of everyone's experience. This is why the myths from various cultures have such surprising similarities. Myth deals in a symbolic language that we may not always understand consciously, but which works on our unconscious mind. There is nothing superficial or accidental in myth, which is why it survives. And it reminds us of the magic in life. We always need a break from the mundane, an invitation to the magical...
You've had many jobs along the way, but have you wanted to write all along?
I wrote a lot of papers in school but I never realized I was going to be a fiction writer until I wrote Iris, at age 27 or so. But looking back, it seems very natural for me to be a writer. My mom writes, my brother writes, and we are all big readers. I think it's good for a writer to do a lot of stuff first before she writes, to have some interesting experiences to draw on. Traveling is also great.
Who has been your biggest supporter or mentor along the way for you on your road to publication?
Well, my husband has been my biggest supporter. He's a successful jazz pianist and he knows a lot about how hard it is to be a working artist. He is very disciplined about practicing every morning, and he's gotten me into better habits about writing every morning. He also told me not to be so hard on myself when I wasn't making a lot of progress. I am also extremely lucky to have my agent, George Nicholson at Sterling Lord. He's such a pro, so calm and confident. It's good for a young author to have an agent who is as schooled in the business as George.
What are you working on now? Is there a second novel in the works?
Yes! My second novel is due soon to Harcourt. It is called "Monsters Anonymous" and it is about monsters in group therapy.
What do you love about writing? What do you find easiest? What do you find hardest?
I love when I am inspired and I write something -- usually an essay -- all in one sitting in a white heat, knowing it is good. This almost never happens. I also love having finished something, and reading it over and thinking, "Gosh, this is really good," and it's almost like it came from someone else or like I channeled it. Again, this hardly ever happens! The easiest thing for me is revision on the language level -- cutting out the bad stuff, weeding it down to a tight, finished piece. I don't have a problem with "killing my children" as they call it. I edit heavily, throwing out more than I end up keeping. The hardest thing is composing new scenes. Just sitting down and staring at the empty page and filling it: this is what is toughest.
Iris is a great little heroine. She is always full of observations—often sarcastic but true observations about school. Were you like Iris growing up? Were you full of dreams? Did you dislike middle school as much as Iris does?
Thank you! Yes, I was a lot like Iris, except more of a nerd and less of a dreamer. I liked things like math and science, but I went to a really terrible elementary school where the teachers were sadistic and crazy. My middle school was actually much better, but there were still some teachers who singled me out and were a little humiliating. I didn't fit in -- was chubby, had pimples and greasy hair. I had trouble making friends until I was in college. I guess I want to tell kids that being miserable during the middle school years is totally normal and that life gets way better. It did for me!
Iris received a copy of Bulfinch's mythology for her twelfth birthday…is this book one of your favorites from childhood? What books were your favorites at that age?
Yes, I loved Bulfinch and still do. I also loved the D'Aulaires' book of Greek Myths. I read a lot of fantasy novels as a kid. I loved the Susan Cooper "Dark is Rising" series, the Patricia McKillip "Riddle of Stars" trilogy, Katherine Kurtz's Deryni books. Around that age I also got hold of the amazing book The Egyptian by Mika Waltari. Roald Dahl and EB White were earlier favorites.
I loved the opening line for Iris, Messenger. "The main difference between school and prison is that prisons release you early for good behavior. School lasts about thirteen years no matter how good you are. Also prison has better food." Did this line come easily, or did it require a lot of time to make it 'just right.'
Thank you, Becky! First lines are so important, and you want one that grabs the reader's attention. I was working with a different first line for a long time, it was "On a Thursday night, over bean burritos, Iris asked her mother the question that started it all." But at a certain point I wrote that line about school being like prison and I thought: that's it, that's my lead!
One of the things I admire about your style in Iris, Messenger was the fact that you were able to capture so many different voices. Each character—each god and goddess—had a different voice, a different way of communicating their story. Can you take us behind-the-scenes in your writing process? Did you know which stories and styles went together from the very beginning?
The critic Bakhtin says that the novel is a polyphonic form, one with multiple voices. Letting each character speak for themselves is really important to me, and I think it's the key to a successful novel. I used people I knew as models for the gods and goddesses. Then for the myths, I just thought: what is this god's personal connection to the myth. Does the story make them feel sad? Like for Apollo, I knew it would be very painful to tell about Phaethon. So I thought, that would be a sad jazz ballad. And I wrote that whole poem longhand at the bar at Balthazar in NYC. It helped to have the noise of the bar around me. Other stories, like Persephone's, I thought would be more tender, nostalgic. The Theseus myth is more of a boy's story, and Theseus has always struck me as sort of a jerk, so I wanted someone to tell it who might not like Theseus too much. Dionysus was the natural choice, since he saved Theseus's jilted girlfriend.
If you had twenty-four hours, a time machine, and a limitless supply of money, what would you want to do?
I would begin the morning with a visit to Buddha to hear his famous Fire Sutra, then check in with Jesus at the Sermon on the Mount. Breakfast with Virginia Woolf. Lunch with Hafiz. Tea with Jane Austen. Then I'd check out Plato's Symposium, meet Sappho, then head to the Round Table for a dinner with the knights and King Arthur. Catch a performance of Bach in his own time, then head to Paris to see the infamous premier of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. Off to ringside seats at the Rumble in the Jungle, a late night jazz performance of the John Coltrane quartet, and then I'd finish it up with a bottle of champagne as I watched the end of the world.
Sarah Deming's Official Web Site
Sarah Deming's Blog The Spiral Staircase
Read the first two chapters online
My review of Iris, Messenger