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Author Talk: February 19, 2010


February 19, 2010

Heidi W. Durrow's debut work of fiction, THE GIRL WHO FELL FROM THE SKY, was inspired by a true story, one she had read about in a newspaper article years ago. In this interview, Durrow explains how she based her main character on her own life experiences --- despite having not endured what is chronicled in the narrative --- and discusses the novel's structure and its symbolism regarding the protagonist's complicated history, as well as her struggle to move forward. She also describes how she became interested in writing after switching careers several times, shares sound advice to aspiring writers, and names some authors who have acted as both personal and professional influences.

Question: Your first career was as a lawyer. How did you go from law to writing?

Heidi W. Durrow: Actually, my first "career" was as a journalist. And before that, I would have told you I was committed to being a Hallmark greeting card writer --- one of the best jobs I ever had. The only problem was it was located in Kansas City. A fantastic city, by the way, but at age 20 I wanted to go take on the challenge of New York City.

Q: You went to journalism school there?

HWD: Yes, and then after law school moved back to practice.

Q: How did you make the switch from being a high-powered attorney to being a writer?

HWD: I wasn't exactly high-powered though I worked at a top-notch firm. I had some great assignments but in the end I knew it wasn't going to be fulfilling for me. I had spent my whole life making sure that I had impeccable academic and professional credentials. In the end, my desire to communicate through art was more important. When I had the chance to do it full-time, I took it.

Q: Is THE GIRL WHO FELL FROM THE SKY autobiographical?

HWD: No. And yes. Let me first make sure you know that I, unlike my character, Rachel, have never been in an accident like the one that began on Rachel's rooftop.

Q: I'm glad you clarified that. (Laughter.)

HWD: You'd be surprised. I can often tell after readings that the audience wants to treat me very gently. They see that I obviously look something like the character Rachel and if they know anything about my bio they also know that things like Rachel's biracial and bicultural background are the same as mine. I can hear a collective sigh of relief when I say --- this isn't my actual story. I've just filled in some of my own characteristics.

Q: So whose story is it?

HWD: The story is inspired by something that happened in New York City almost exactly ten years ago. THE GIRL WHO FELL FROM THE SKY is the story of how I imagined the life of the little girl who survived. Somehow, it felt like her story had something to do with my own. I didn't know anything about the girl so I filled in what I knew --- so Rachel, like me, is half African-American and half Danish. And I have blue-green eyes. The story of THE GIRL WHO FELL FROM THE SKY is not my story, but I have borrowed from what I know --- my own life experiences --- to make the characters richer.

Q: What inspired you to write?

HWD: I have always wanted to write fiction. I loved writing stories and poems as a kid. It was my mother who inspired me. I remember the day she sold her first article to American Dane magazine. That was the kind of happiness I wanted and I have associated that joy with the joy of writing. I struggled for a long time trying to figure out how I was going to write about what I wanted to write about: biracial and bicultural identity; racial and class borders; and mothering and womanhood among other things. Years ago, I cut out a newspaper article about a young mother who took her children to the top of her building and threw them off one-by-one and then jumped. The little girl in that story survived. I was haunted by this story. What would her life look like? What do you do when you survive a horrific tragedy like that? I set out to write her story as I imagined it.

Q: The actual newspaper story about the accident also plays a large role for the characters in the novel manuscript. I don't want to spoil anything but it is, in part, the way that the character Jamie renames himself Brick. Why does the newspaper article have such an important role to the characters too?

HWD: I guess because it is what I was obsessed with also. I was interested in thinking about what stories people tell about tragedy. I felt like the newspaper article reported one version of the story and the characters all experience even that reportage differently.

Q: When you talk about what happens to Rachel that day on the roof you always refer to it as the "accident." Why?

HWD: In the first chapters it seems clear what happened that day on the roof. In fact, what I hope the reader realizes through the characters Laronne and Brick is that the Truth of what happened becomes more and more complicated. Each character has his or her own idea of who the Real Culprit is.

Q: In several sections, a first-person narrative is interrupted by an italicized third-person voice. It's as if the italicized sections serve as the voice of either memory or Truth with a capital T.

HWD: I like the way you put that. I hope that the reader hears the echoes between the two voices --- I want the reader to feel like she's discovering the connections between Rachel's past and her refusal to remember.

Q: How did you choose your character's names?

HWD: I picked names that were names of people I have known, people who I have a great deal of feeling for.

Q: And Nella? Is she named after Harlem Renaissance author Nella Larsen?

HWD: For the character of the mother, I wanted to pick a Danish name. Nella Larsen is incredibly important to me in that she was a half-black and half-Danish writer. I like the idea of making her my mother character --- because she was never a mother and also, in a creative sense, she has mothered me --- another half-black and half-Danish writer.

Q: I was struck by the fact that in Part I of the novel, time seems to move forward so quickly for Rachel. She's 11 at page 1 and almost 16 by the end of that section. Whereas, the Brick and Laronne chapters in Part I, are all set in the days and weeks after the accident. Why did you structure the novel this way?

HWD: Rachel is really forced to move on --- by her grandmother and aunt and by her own inability to process what happened on the roof. The accident fundamentally shakes up their lives and their own ideas about family and familial love.

Q: What is your writing process?

HWD: I am a binge writer. But, I do wake up and write every day first thing without fail. Drinking my very strong coffee through a bendy straw, with the candles burning, and NPR playing in the background, I wake up at about 5:30 am and write at least three pages long-hand and then a series of affirmations. Otherwise, I find I get the most work done at writers' colonies where I can focus and operate on my own time zone. I have been fortunate enough to have been a resident at a number of wonderful artists' colonies: Hedgebrook, Jentel, New York Mills Cultural Center, and Djerassi. I find that those times away --- usually two to four weeks in a row --- are incredibly productive for me.

Q: How do you write?

HWD: Do you mean: how do I get my ideas?

Q: I was really asking about the nitty gritty details. Do you use a computer or do you write it out by hand?

HWD: I write in long-hand and then I write on the computer. I like to write in long-hand with my oblique nib S.T. Dupont fountain pen --- usually with heidi blue ink --- in a large plain paper Moleskine. A friend of mine introduced me to Moleskine. Now I buy them in bulk. I transfer my long-hand notes to the computer and then work back and forth --- printing out my writing, then editing it with pen and so on and so on.

Q: Who are your favorite writers?

HWD: I have many favorites. Will you forgive me if I list them at length?

Q: No, please, go ahead.

HWD: I am a great fan of Toni Morrison (THE BLUEST EYE, SONG OF SOLOMON); John Edgar Wideman (BROTHER'S KEEPER, TWO CITIES, FATHERALONG); Jamaica Kincaid (ANNIE JOHN, AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MY MOTHER); Alice McDermott (BILLIE COLLINS, CHILD OF MY HEART); Michael Cunningham (THE HOURS), Keri Hulme (THE BONE PEOPLE); A.S. Byatt (POSSESSION); George Eliot; William Thackery; Alice Walker; James Baldwin (PRICE OF THE TICKET); Nella Larsen (PASSING and QUICKSAND); Zora Neale Hurston (I LOVE MYSELF WHEN I'M LAUGHING….); Gloria Naylor (MAMA DAY); and the poets: Mary Oliver; Carl Phillips; William Stafford; there are many more.

I love to read poetry. I wish I were a poet --- my writing tends toward the lyrical --- I'm very interested in writing beautiful sentences. And then there are newer books like Yann Martel's LIFE OF PI and Dan Chaon's YOU REMIND ME OF ME and Mark Haddon (THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME); omigosh and EVIDENCE OF THINGS UNSEEN by Marianne Wiggins, which will rock your world.

Q: What are you reading these days?

HWD: I think I'm finally going to tackle MOBY DICK.

Q: You've never read MOBY DICK?

HWD: It's terrible to admit as a lit major. But it's true.

Q: In all of your bios, it mentions that you are a consultant to the NBA and NFL. What's that all about?

HWD: It's been a great job. I worked for Zinc Sports Consulting for almost seven years. I did Life Skills workshops with professional athletes.

Q: What does that mean?

HWD: We would do decision-making and conflict-management workshops with the players. I'd do a scene with an actor that escalates into conflict. Then we would talk with the players about what they just saw. What they might do differently, what they might say differently. Then a player would come on stage with me and do an improv. Hopefully with a better result.

Q: Like a role-play?

HWD: Yeah. It's a lot of fun. I think some of the guys think I'm too mean. Every time we visit the Raiders there's some guy in the back who keeps whispering. Oh, no, not the one with those eyes.

Q: It could be a compliment.

HWD: Yeah, it's probably a compliment --- it's definitely funny.

Q: What would you say to a writer working on her first stories or a novel?

HWD: Have patience with yourself. If you really want to write, you will write. But I am not one to say write through writer's block. I think it was Toni Morrison who said writer's block probably means you're not ready to write about your subject. Now, for me, that doesn't mean, don't write. Write anything. Write notes to yourself. Write letters. Write long emails. Write a blog. Write in your journal. But don't put pressure on yourself to write the Great American Novel.

Q: Any other words of wisdom?

HWD: Yes, be careful. Don't show your writing to people too soon if you know it may shut you down. I am not a big fan of writing workshops --- or the workshop setting for any of the creative arts I'm familiar with. I think they breed a lot of aggressive energy. Folks try to impress the teacher. Impress each other. It can be like high school again, but with all the nerds. I was in an acting program in which the instructor thought it was okay for the other students to call me nigger in improvs because it was for pretend. I still don't think I've gotten over that.

Q: That sounds insane.

HWD: It was. And I finally admitted that to myself and left the school. He was a very poor teacher. And that was disappointing because I had admired him so much.

Q: I interrupted your answer about why workshops aren't necessarily good for a writer starting out.

HWD: I read an interview of some writer who said that the workshop is "inherently a fault-finding machine." I think that is a perfect description. The beginning writer doesn't need to have his or her faults displayed. I think the best criticism is: this part gave me this feeling. Or I didn't understand this. Or I would like to see more of such and such. Workshops --- though maybe it is an aspiration --- don't do this. They often slam people. I had a class totally tear apart a piece I wrote --- starting with the title. At the end, I had a chance to comment and explained that the piece had just been accepted to a major literary journal a week prior. Now, it wasn't entirely fair to them but I hadn't been able to present a different piece because the deadline for copying the work for the class had passed. They were pretty quiet. But it just goes to show that the workshop can be a dangerous place. New writers should create their own salons --- stocked with people they respect and who they know won't tear them down.

Q: Where can I read more of your writing?

HWD: Well, I’m working on the next projects. But you can also read my blog. I write about the biracial experience, and about all my other obsessions: Nella Larsen, books and travel. And I write about the creative life: a lot about discouragement and how I try to pick myself up again.

© Copyright 2010, Heidi W. Durrow. All rights reserved.

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