Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Spotlight Interview: Carole McDonnell, Author of Wind Follower

World building.

Not everyone can do it. Not everyone can do it well. Carole McDonnell does it well.

Admittedly, I don't like fantasy. Science fiction, on the other hand, I enjoy. I adore. I love. To me, fantasy is science fiction's unappealing kid brother. R. A. Salvatore, Robert Jordan--even Tolkien--sorry, you just have too many dark elves and shadowy women and long, epic treks over lands that have 49 different names for short grasses at the base of enormous trees with round doors for little people.

But then came along Carole McDonnell, her novel Wind Follower, and the wonderful world she builds within its pages. I admit, I was a bit skeptical after reading the back cover, even after seeing a fierce Satha on the front cover. It's fantasy. It's feminist fantasy. It's Christian feminist fantasy.

It's excellent, well-told Christian feminist fantasy.

Now, that doesn't mean I've fallen in love with fantasy and the genre has shed its status as science fiction's kid brother. I haven't and it hasn't. But Wind Follower has given life to my waning interest in fantasy. The world-building is phenomenal. Let me write that again: the world-building is phenomenal.

As I said earlier, not every writer can build believable, original worlds. Carole can. The cultural differences of the three tribes in the novel, their distinctive dress, even the indigenous languages--all allow for an enjoyable reading experience.

For a first novel, this is an astounding achievement for Carole. There are so many literary elements woven into this novel that make it work, including Loic and Satha's alternating first person narratives. I could go on and on about why this novel appeals to me more than most fantasy novels--but I won't.

Instead, here's my interview with Carole. If you haven't picked up Wind Follower yet, go out and get it. It's a great read. And if you have, read it again. I will. I'm sure it will be just as enjoyable the second time around.

sixblockseastofmars: Let's start out with a wider scope on Christian fiction. It seems to me that Christian works are flourishing now more than ever. Why is this the case? Do you think it has anything to do with the mainstream appeal of the Left Behind Series just over a decade ago?

Carole McDonnell: Perhaps Left Behind had a lot to do with it. But Left Behind is a deeply evangelical book. I tend to think the success of Left Behind had a lot to do with the coming of the year 2000. People had the apocalypse on their brain. But Left Behind did make many Christians realize that they needed to read books with a solid Christian base and which reflected their moral and spiritual views. It helped call a lot people back to the faith.

sbeom: This might seem like an obvious question, but what defines a Christian novel? Does it have to include Christian concepts? Does the author have to be Christian? Both of those elements and more?

CM: That question is always being discussed in Christian circles. Hey, I've heard stories about a Buddhist lady who is known as a famous fiction writer. So if one knows certain basics one can write "a Christian novel." Christian concepts are out there in the world, you know. Hey, some people think The Matrix is a Christian movie. I suppose a Christian novel is a novel which might preach Christ or might be rooted in the Christian worldview.

sbeom: Now let's talk about Wind Follower. I read an interview with you in Fantasy Magazine where you said Wind Follower wasn't marketed as a Christian fantasy novel. How was it marketed?

CM: I think they thought of it primarily as speculative fiction, and then secondarily as minority specfic, then thirdly as inspirational, then fourthly as a romance.

sbeom: I might have this wrong, especially since I can't seem to find the interview online, but didn't you say in another interview that one of the things you don't like about high fantasy is the language, where everyone walks around talking as if they are royalty?

CM: ::laughing:: Yes. And it's not as if I so much mind royalty. I mind Euro-royalty. Fantasy tends to have a lot of class issues in it, for some reasons. Maybe it's part of human nature to want to hear stories about kings and those in power. High fantasy is just too exclusive. Those who write it don't think it is because most of the western world shares European history. But once you think about it, you really do wonder why should so many of the stories of a particular culture be stuck in one culture. I'm not Irish. I'm not Anglo-Saxon or Celtic. Why should I care about Lord this or Lady that. Now, if you want to write a fantasy about a Native American chief or an East Indian raja or a Chinese Emperor, I'll read that.

sbeom: Often when it comes to novels whose characters have cultural and class differences, speech is used to distinguish those differences. There isn't a distinction between your characters Loic and Satha when it comes to how they speak (or most characters for that matter), but their cultural and class differences are more defined by skin color and tribe. When you first began building your world and developing your characters, was skin color always how you wanted to distinguish your characters?

CM: My main characters are all pretty much from the same class. Satha is poor but her parents were originally rich. That kind of Cinderella thing where Cinderella is recognized because her feet are so tiny and she's so dang decent. Cinderella was originally a Chinese story so there's still that idea of the bound feet and the class issue. Sorry about going off on the feet issue there.

Their culture defines their class. I think culture does define class and worldview sometimes. I like culture. Folks in the South have a different culture than folks in the East. Supposedly northern Yankees are reserved and southerners are more easygoing. Generally speaking. As for the characters, I truly don't know how that happened. All I saw was a young Asianish-Native Americanish young man falling suddenly in love with a dark woman from another tribe. And when I saw that his tribe didn't mind the marriage I realized that in the land of the three tribes, skin color didn't matter so much as tribal culture, and that intermarriages were common.

Clannishness is an interesting thing and we don't really like discussing it in real life, although it's always shown on television. The passionate loud Mediterranean or Black girl who marries into the cold Irish family. Or the passionate Irish gal that marries into the cold WASP family. Cultures tend to fall into comparative mode. But even within a specific culture people and race tend to get into comparative mode. People will say "Folks from that city are like such and such, but folks from our city are like such and such." Even though they are from the same tribe and race. It's human nature to compare. As long as we don't get too racist or politically correct about it, it's okay. Hey, people always think black women are funny, sexy, and good cooks. It's a stereotype. But there are bad stereotypes also.

sbeom: Speaking of different cultures, Loic pretty much falls in love with Satha at first sight. That's not so surprising, especially once I got to know Loic throughout the novel. But I did get the sense that Satha would never fall in love with a man at first sight. Is that about right, or am I off base with that theory?

CM: You're pretty much dead-on right. And I think you're the first person who has caught that. At the end, I'm not sure how much Satha is in love with him. Throughout the book she is in the act of falling in love with him, and at the end they've been through so much suffering that they are trying to build a marriage, but I don't know if she ever falls passionately in love with him. She's too guarded in the beginning and in the end, too wounded.

sbeom: Recently, a Wind Follower reviewer was offended by the sex scenes in your book. I thought you wrote those scenes tastefully, and I would not hesitate to refer your book to Christian friends based on those scenes. Perhaps this reviewer thinks there should be no sex at all in Christian fiction. What do you think?

CM: I think many Christians tend to be priggish. If you look at the sex scenes in Wind Follower, you'll see that none of those scenes could be tempting to anyone. In the first scene, a somewhat selfish and fearful kid wants to impregnate his betrothed so she won't leave him. In other scenes, we see rape, we see cultural takes on marriage that are still done all over the world, and we see two grief-struck people trying to build their life together again. I also added a sex scene which was a bit like Abraham and his second wife. I often think Christians read the Bible as if Abraham wasn't a horny old goat. He was.

I tend to think sex is such an important part of modern life. For good or bad. And if Christians don't give the world an answer to certain questions, the world will give them answers. I'm in a book that deals with sexual issues. The book is called Nobody Passes and it's by Matt Sycamore Bernstein. The funny thing is that I am the only straight born again married black woman in the book. I'm very proud of that. Sex is a complicated thing and being a human being is a complicated thing. Many Christians want to make sex black and white. It's not. I'm not condoning certain kinds of behavior, mind you. But I try to be present in the world. Which is what Jesus told us to do. There is nothing truly secular because God is in everything and is everywhere, even in a brothel.

sbeom: After reading Wind Follower, I originally thought Loic to be a Christ figure, but you term him a Christian figure. Explain the difference.

CM: A Christian figure is someone who knows that God loves him, and knows he is saved by God's love for him, not by any righteousness of his own. True, Loic does have some Christ figure symbolism. He has a kind of spiritual predecessor in Krika. He has the temptations. He even does miracles. But he is not perfect. And Jesus was perfect. That's the only difference between a Christian figure and a Christ figure.

sbeom: Now that I think more about it, Loic and Satha could be Abraham and Sarah figures (if there can be such a thing), especially with the way the book opens and closes--Satha speaking to (what seems to be) generations of offspring. Is this a notion you had at all?

CM: No, not Abraham and Sarah figures. They are symbols of the spiritual remnant. There will always be a remnant in the world who truly serve God, no matter how imperfect they are.

sbeom: So, I hear you're working on a new novel now. Tell me a little bit about it.

CM: It's called Inheritance. I originally started two other novels but this is the one that's really pulling me. It's psychological horror and I think it wants to become horror with demonic elements. I'll have to see what happens. It's about a young guy who was born as a product of rape. When he's about 27 his birth father, the rapist, wants to meet him. That's bad enough but the demonic succubus that has possessed his father now wants to claim him.

Now, I still have to decide if it's a true demonic element or if it's this guy's psychological issue. Depends, honestly, on how Christian I want to be. A part of me wants to pull out all stops and write a full blown exorcism story. But another part of me says maybe I should pull back and write a simple love story. Yep, it started out as a gentle interracial love story...but it's hard to be sane and in love when you don't think you should be on earth. And that's my main character's issue.

Carol McDonnell's web pages:


Gregory said...

Excellent interview! I'm in the process of reading the book now, and it's great to get insight into what the author sees in her own book. I see too often how people bring their own prejudices into judging a book, rather than trying to discover the author's actual intent instead.

digable said...

Thanks Greg. I think it's very hard to shake off some of our prejudices when reading certain books, but that doesn't mean the book should be put aside or thrown away. I can't believe how many Christian reviewers, readers and writers threatened not to continuing reading Wind Follower, because of the "sex scenes". It's not as if the overall message of the book is a bad one, or -gasp- anti-Christian.