Interview: May 3, 2013
Deanna Raybourn takes a break from her Lady Julia Grey mysteries to pen her latest stand-alone novel, A SPEAR OF SUMMER GRASS. In this interview with Bookreporter.com's Alexis Burling, Raybourn talks about the most significant challenge she faced in describing her setting --- an East Africa fraught with political, economic and racial tensions --- and the extensive research she conducted (which included reading close to 100 books!). She also explains why she wrote FAR IN THE WILDS, a prequel novella available in eBook format that tells Ryder’s story before he is introduced to Delilah, and previews her upcoming writing schedule.
Bookreporter.com: A SPEAR OF SUMMER GRASS is set mostly in East Africa during a time of political, economic and racial tensions, not only between whites and Africans, but also between various African ethnic groups, and those who interfere with the government (including, in the end, Delilah). Did you face any challenges when describing this particular situation?
Deanna Raybourn: The biggest challenge was trying to break all of that down for readers in a way that was informative enough to give meaning to the story without boring them. When you’re researching, you absorb so much detail trying to get a feel for a place, but it’s easy to forget that the average reader doesn’t want quite that much intimacy with a setting! You’re having a love affair, but most readers want a quick flirtation, just enough to move the story forward. Anything that doesn’t help push the action along is veering dangerously close to self-indulgence for a writer. The parts I prune most ruthlessly are the descriptive passages about time period and setting, and I think the books are better for it.
BRC: Ryder describes a natural rhythm that exists among the land, animals and native African people. The whites, however, changed everything. This is part of a larger theme in your novel --- the whites’ entitled approach to ownership (of land, animals and people). Would you say this is accurate?
DR: If you’re talking about colonial governments, absolutely. I grew up in south Texas --- an area that was once colonial, and I live in another such area now, and I can see very clearly where the entitlement of European settlers centuries ago is still having an impact today. For the colonial powers, there was a sense that these new lands with all of their promising resources were there for the picking --- and they exploited that. Colonial governments brought good things with them like education, medicine and infrastructure, but they also had a painful tendency to ride roughshod over native populations, to treat them as “lesser.” In contrast, individual colonists often had a very different relationship with the land and the people. When you look past the official decisions being handed down from on high, you see much more cooperation and respect between the colonists and their native neighbors. In the prequel novella, FAR IN THE WILDS, and in the novel itself I describe incidents where colonists hunt and kill big cats that are preying on native villages. That willingness to offer protection to indigenous people was very common amongst settlers in Africa. They would mediate disputes, dole out medicine, supply food in times of privation. In return, the natives were often employed as guides and domestic staff and blacksmiths. In the memoirs and letters of the colonists, there are countless references to these close relationships.
BRC: You include a lot of details about various animals’ behavior in their African habitat. How did you find out about a lion’s hunting habits, or the way an elephant mourns the loss of a loved one?
DR: I read as much natural history as I could get my hands on! I watched documentaries; I interviewed zoologists, and on one memorable occasion, I was taken to meet a lion who was helpful enough to roar about eight feet away from me. When I describe in the book about that roar reverberating all the way down to your feet, it’s because I was lucky enough to feel it. I also have several friends who have been on safari and were kind enough to share their experiences. This book definitely took a village to write.
BRC: I read part of your blog and enjoyed it, especially the tips you give to aspiring writers. In one, you advise historical fiction writers to do a ton of research and then throw 70% of it out so as not to “bog down” the story with dry facts. In A SPEAR OF SUMMER GRASS, what research did you do, and how much of it did you ceremoniously throw out during the editing process?
DR: That piece of advice came courtesy of Persia Woolley’s book on writing historical fiction, and it remains one of the best I’ve ever come across. When I’m reading research materials, I’m always conscious of the fact that the vast majority of what I’m studying will never make it into the novel, but it completely informs my viewpoint when I’m writing. For A SPEAR OF SUMMER GRASS, I watched documentaries, interviewed people, emailed questions to willing folks, and read somewhere between 60-100 books. I actually read more than that, but that’s how many books I used in some fashion in the writing.
BRC: Delilah Drummond certainly has a way with men, but she’s also a strong feminist. Why did you include these two qualities in equal measure when creating her character?
DR: Because I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. In fact, I think men --- quality men --- are far more drawn to women who are strong, who have a sense of their own identity and don’t actually need them. Men are hardwired to enjoy the hunt; a woman you have to work for is a woman you prize because that relationship didn’t come easily. It’s a coup for a man to win the heart of an elusive woman. Besides, a woman like that will only be with a man because she wants him, not because she can’t be alone. That reflects his worth.
BRC: One of Mossy’s sayings is, “A man can fool you in public, showing whichever face he likes, but his home doesn’t lie. His home tells more truth than his tongue ever will.” That made me smile! Where did you come up with that phrase, and do you agree with it?
DR: Sometimes things I haven’t planned just pop up on the page --- this was one of those lines. I always picture Mossy dispensing these little parcels of wisdom with a cocktail, cigarette and half-smile. She knows everything there is to know about men, and she’s happy to share! In this case, her observation tallies with my own: living spaces speak volumes. Show me an interior and I can tell you a lot about the person who lives there.
BRC: Early on, Ryder’s aunt Tusker tells Delilah not to “risk your happiness on a man with a stone for a heart,” referring to Ryder. But he recites Whitman by rote, and clearly he has a deep passion for Delilah, and for Africa. Indeed, Tusker does change her tune later on. Can you talk a little more about forming Ryder’s character?
DR: Ryder is a complex man. There is a natural nobility to him, but he’s been badly wounded, so badly that Tusker isn’t certain he can ever really love again. He’s covered up that wound with a certain remoteness; he’s pleasant to most, but when he seduces --- and he seduces a lot --- there’s nothing warmer than the biological need behind it. And he has a dark side, as evidenced by what he does to Anthony Wickenden the first time he meets Delilah. I wanted someone as unpredictable and as proud as Delilah, but with his own battles to fight. He’s larger than life but wholly down to earth, and I think that contrast makes him intriguing.
BRC: Gideon is a very spiritual character. When researching the spiritual practices and habits of various African ethnic groups for the book, did you find any spiritual beliefs or ways of thinking that you’d like to incorporate into your own life?
DR: I very much appreciate the rituals of marking the seasons, of respecting that everything has its time, and that everything is interwoven --- we are not islands, we don’t live apart from anything. Everything we do has an impact, a consequence. I actually do live my life that way, so reading about their practices made me feel connected.
BRC: If Delilah was to bring along her favorite guest to a party, whom might she choose: Scarlett O’Hara, Daisy Buchanan, or Bonnie Parker?
DR: None! Delilah doesn’t share the limelight. She would be more than pleased to invite Melanie Hamilton if Scarlett can spare her. She’d think it was funny to get her tipsy on Black Velvet cocktails.
BRC: FAR IN THE WILDSis a prequel novella (also published this April and available in eBook format) that tells Ryder’s story before he is introduced to Delilah. If readers haven’t read it yet, might you share a few juicy hints of what they might find there?
DR: The novella is a peek at Ryder before Delilah and how he came to be the man that he is. In the novel, Delilah wonders about Ryder’s past, but she only gets hints of what happened to him before she arrived. In FAR IN THE WILDS, the readers get to see the things that shape him as they actually happen.
BRC: What were your reasons for writing FAR IN THE WILDS?Did you work on itbefore or after you completed A SPEAR OF SUMMER GRASS?
DR: FAR IN THE WILDS was suggested to me by my publisher after I finished SPEAR. My editor was hugely enthusiastic about giving Ryder his own story, and I completely agreed. We were actually at a conference together and I had a few minutes to spare, so I sat down in the hotel lobby and thought about a pair of incidents that are briefly referred to in the novel --- incidents from Ryder’s past that are formative to who he is as a man. Within 10 minutes I had figured out how to connect them and sketched out the main points on a cocktail napkin. I pitched it to my editor while she waited for a taxi, and she approved it on the spot.
BRC: In both of your stand-alone novels and in your Lady Julia Grey series, the worlds you describe take place in different countries and in different eras. Do you have a particular place you favor above others? A particular time you find most interesting?
DR: My most abiding love is England. My grandmother is English, and I grew up reading English books, so for me it has always been a place of exotic comfort, just different enough to be interesting while just familiar enough to be comfortable! I have a few pet historical eras like 19th century --- Regency and Victorian --- and the 1920s, but there are a few time periods I simply can’t imagine writing. I don’t see myself encroaching on the folks who write medieval books anytime soon!
BRC: If you could travel anywhere in time and become any imaginary character, where would you travel and to what time period? (Of course, you can also travel as yourself!)
DR: This is one of those questions that feels so painfully unfair because as soon as I choose, I’ll want to change my mind! Today I would say I’d like to be Flora Poste from COLD COMFORT FARM because I want to know what nasty thing Aunt Ada Doom saw in the woodshed. (And if you ask me tomorrow, I’ll tell you I’d like to be the second Mrs. de Winter in REBECCA so I would know her first name. And the day after that, I think I’d like to go as myself to one of the last great balls at Versailles before the revolution…)
BRC: What’s next for you?
DR: Right now I am finishing up the next Lady Julia Grey novella, putting together a proposal for my next stand-alone novel, and preparing for a round of revisions on CITY OF JASMINE, my 2014 release set in Damascus in 1920. It’s never dull around here, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.