Author Talk: March 29, 2012
Grace McCleen’s debut novel, THE LAND OF DECORATION, is the story of 10-year-old Judith McPherson, who is ostracized for her religious beliefs in school, but finds solace in a miniature model of the Promised Land that she calls “The Land of Decoration.” In this interview, McCleen points to parallels between her main character and herself, including the creation of miniature worlds. She also discusses the unique course of her writing career and gives her opinion about modern-day religion.
Question: As a debut novelist, what got you started and how hard was it to find a publisher?
Grace McCleen: I had a long illness and was not able to do much else but write. I'd always wanted to write, but I would never have gotten around to it had it not been for the illness.
I was lucky enough to find an agent who wanted to take the book on, and knew the right publisher for the book.
Q: How does it feel to know that your first novel is already set to be translated into 10 languages? Does it surprise you that it has travelled so far?
GM: It's now 16 languages! I think it's a fairly universal story. Child narrators cross more boundaries, perhaps, than adult narrators.
Q: Your writing is strikingly lyrical, with a distinctive rhythm. As a songwriter, which comes first --- the rhythm or the lyrics --- and how do they meet on the page?
GM: The rhythm comes first. In fact, when I am stuck I often write out the way I want the rhythm of the sentence to go, then fill in the words, so the sound of the sentence directs me. It's like dousing for water. Sound is as important as sense and all the best writing sounds good --- surface and depth are one. The rhythms of the Old Testament also cultivated my love of lyrical prose.
Q: Like Judith, you actually made incredibly, finely detailed little figures of people when you were younger. How did this passion start and, like Judith, were you writing their stories in your head even then?
GM: I have always loved tiny things. I think it is because they promise control, containment and a godlike power over a little universe. I made the Little People in a sort of frenzy that lasted six months. They don't have stories yet, but I did plan to make them houses.
Q: How did you arrive at Judith's voice, its combination of childish fears and wisdom beyond her years?
GM: When I began to write I wrote a long, unworkable novel. In this novel was the opening page of what became THE LAND OF DECORATION, word for word. I split the big novel into three and looked at the opening page and asked myself 'who would be saying these words?' and it seemed to be a child --- a child who had probably been steeped in some sort of religion. All of Judith's fears, all her hopes, all her eccentricities and 'wisdom' were contained in that opening passage and I simply had to expand it.
Q: As an outsider, Judith is bullied by a group of children led by a boy called Neil. You take pains to tell us Neil's back story and give us an insight into what drives him but it's quite a bleak picture. Can the cycle of bullying and fear of difference ever be broken?
GM: Not unless human beings realise we're all one interactive whole. The more we're in tune with other living creatures, the less need there is for fear and separation.
Q: The unnamed factory town of Judith's childhood is brilliantly evoked, with 'nothing where it should be': plastic bags in bushes, shopping trolleys in the river and pickets at the factory gates. The widely held view is that the quality of life in such places has deteriorated in the last 30 or 40 years, but would the scene really be as depressing if your book had been set in the present day?
GM: I haven't been back to the place where the book is set, so I don't know what it is like now.
Q: Even the somewhat cynical visiting preacher Brother Michaels says Jesus' talk of miracles was metaphorical. But Judith is a devout believer who has grown up on a diet of Faith. Is there a kind of inevitability about her conviction that she can perform miracles?
GM: It's not inevitable, but fear unbalances her. That's what happens that night in the bedroom when she 'makes' it snow.
Q: Do you think it's the insistence on preaching about Armaggedon that makes certain religious groups unpalatable to people? Would we be more inclined to listen to messages of hope --- or is there simply less and less room in today's world for religious messages of any kind?
GM: The religion I was writing about does try to stress the message of hope, but people latch on to the Armageddon message. In the Bible the two things go hand in hand; one can't happen without the other. There is less room in the world for messages from organised religion but not for a new spirituality, independent of creed and faith, which is seeping into many people's lives and unites rather than divides.
Q: Grace's teacher is depicted with great affection as the one person who really tries to understand and help her. You yourself were encouraged by a teacher to go to Oxford. Did that encouragement literally change your life?
GM: Yes, I think two teachers have substantially influenced the course of my life.
Q: How big a step was it going to university --- given that you grew up within a fundamentalist religion, with little contact with non-believers or the outside world?
GM: It was an enormous step and one I almost didn't take, and one I felt bad about taking for many years afterwards, until I realised I hadn't done anything wrong.
Q: You have three or more novels already written or in progress. Can you tell us anything about them?
GM: I have just finished writing my second novel. It is called THE PROFESSOR OF POETRY.