What moment from “Saltwater Railroad” would you say is the pivotal moment — both the one you feel represents the theme, and/or the one that you feel started the story in your mind?
The opening of “Saltwater Railroad” is pivotal — a mysterious woman washes up on an Island of Maroons — African-Americans, Indians, renegades, runaways, and pirates. These dreamers and schemers have built their own world off the coast of Georgia and Florida, but Mainlanders could come and wreck their dream, their escapist haven, any day now. The Islanders are at a critical point. They can’t stay where they are, but they don’t know where to go. The stranger who washes up is a catalyst for change, for motion, for adventure, and also for difficult decisions. She is not sure of her possibilities either. I thought it would be exciting to write about that.
Which character did you most connect with when writing, and which scene do you feel may exemplify that?
Actually, I don’t bond with a single character. I’m like the theatre performer Anna D. Smith, who plays all the characters in her plays. I embody all the characters. Every character has to be at the center of what I am feeling/thinking. I perform the characters to write them. All of them. I like focusing on a community of characters who are trying to make a world of meaning that might be different than the status quo. But of course they can’t escape what formed them as they reach for a different future. So most of the scenes are about the drama of that struggle.
Where did you begin in creating the world for “Saltwater Railroad”?
I wanted to do a story about pirates, Maroons, and Seminoles. I had an image of these folks getting on a boat and making their way to freedom. So after I started putting down notes for the story, I did research and found that what I imagined, Seminoles in the early 1800s did. I also had the pleasure of talking with historian Nicole Ivy, who pointed me toward the Ethiopian Leg Myth: Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian took a dead Ethiopian’s leg and transplanted it onto a “white” person who had a diseased leg. There were many paintings of this miracle. I am fascinated by miracles and wanted to engage with the idea of the impossible in my story.
First I wrote a short story, then I wrote a film based on the short story, and now I have written a novelette based on the film and the short story. That’s a great way to build a world.
What do you most identify with in “Saltwater Railroad”?
I like thinking about cosmology, about various ways of knowing and ordering the world and creating reality. I write what I and my writer group (Pan Morigan, Ama Patterson, and Sheree R. Thomas) call Folk Weird. My work (our work) is about putting aliens and haints in the same story, or spirits and wormholes, supercomputers and the Baron of the boneyard. So characters who are trying to find what is love, truth, and possibility for them in a complex world — that’s what I identify with.
What might we be seeing from you in the near future?
I have a short story — “7th Generation Algorithm” — that is part of an online project that will go live soon: BotTimeStories produced by Ars Electronica. They paired writers with roboticists. We wrote stories and then got paired with an illustrator. My third novel, Will Do Magic For Small Change, will be out next year.
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